Morten Høi Jensen recounts Thomas Mann’s journey of becoming an American.
On May 19, 1934, Thomas Mann and his wife Katia boarded the RMS Volendam in Boulogne, France, and began their first trip across the Atlantic Ocean. They’d been invited to New York by Mann’s American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, who would soon publish the first volume of Mann’s as-yet-unfinished novel, Joseph and His Brothers, in a translation by Helen T. Lowe-Porter. The visit of the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, then living in exile in Switzerland, was something of an occasion, and Mann was duly greeted at the harbor by a throng of journalists and reporters. During his ten-day visit, he dined with the editors of The Nation and The New York Times; gave lectures at Yale University and the New York PEN Club; and was treated to a lavish reception at the Plaza Hotel, attended by H. L. Mencken, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and Mayor La Guardia. The day after Mann’s return to Switzerland, an article in The New York Times reported that Germany’s most famous living writer was full of praise for the American spirit.
Just ten years later, in January 1944, Thomas and Katia Mann sat their citizenship interviews at the Immigration Bureau in Los Angeles. Serving as witness on their behalf was the sociologist Max Horkheimer, who, upon being asked whether he swore Thomas Mann would be a desirable citizen of the United States, responded: “You bet.” A few months later, on June 24, 1944, a headline in the Los Angeles Times declared: “Thomas Mann and Wife Given U. S. Citizenship.”
The Manns had formally emigrated from Switzerland in 1939, settling first in Princeton before moving out west to the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles. Elizabeth Hardwick once called it “a tragic jest of history” that Thomas Mann ended up in California, but it seemed like paradise to him. From his study on the second floor of the oblong house they built on San Remo Drive, he could see as far out as Catalina Island and smell the warm ocean breeze blowing in from the Pacific, with its notes of cedar and eucalyptus. “I find people here good-natured to the point of generosity in comparison with Europeans, and feel pleasantly sheltered in their midst,” he wrote in a letter to a friend.
But there is something a little incongruous about this bourgeois novelist from the old Hanseatic seaport of Lübeck, the problem child of a vanished German empire, driving down the palm-screened boulevards of Hollywood or Santa Monica. Mann himself admitted as much: “In my youth [I] could never have dreamed that I would spend my latter days as an American citizen on this palm-grown coast.” Yet he was happier in California than he’d been in years, and generally found America greatly to his liking. He developed a taste for pancakes and maple syrup, listened for hours at a time to the Jack Benny Show, and enjoyed American films by the Marx Brothers. He corresponded with American writers like Charles Jackson and Upton Sinclair, and formed a close friendship with the journalist Agnes E. Meyer, wife of the publisher of the Washington Post, Eugene Meyer. In 1941, he appeared on the short-lived radio show I’m an American, an admirable creation of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), speaking graciously of the hospitality and consideration of the American people.
Mann regarded America as a refuge, a place where what still remained of German and European culture might be allowed to flourish again. On the old continent it was no longer possible. The European democracies had been complicit in the rise of fascism. Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria, the invasion of Czechoslovakia — no one had done anything to prevent them. Mann, who had generously received Czech citizenship when the Nazis expatriated him in 1936, was especially stung by the betrayal of the Czechs. “It is one of the foulest pages in history, this story of the betrayal of the Czechoslovak Republic by European democracy,” he wrote in This Peace (1938).
There was nowhere to go but west. “Here it will be possible,” Mann said in his lecture on The Coming Victory of Democracy (1938), “here it must be possible, to carry out those reforms of which I have spoken; to carry them out by peaceful labor, without crime or bloodshed.” So long as Europe continued on its crooked path of militancy and complacency, the future of the continent lay across the ocean.
It helped, of course, that the American reading public was surprisingly receptive to Mann’s writing, that he was treated everywhere like royalty, and that President Roosevelt personally invited him to the White House on several occasions. In 1935, Mann was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, and in 1937 The New School for Social Research in New York invited him to give the keynote address at a banquet celebrating the fourth anniversary of the University in Exile, an institution created as a refuge for scholars who had been dismissed from their teaching positions in fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. In his speech, Mann paid tribute to The New School’s director, Alvin Johnson, for his decision to help “preserve the institution of the German University” at a time when those same institutions walked willingly into the Nazi abyss. As an example, he pointed to the University of Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest, where an inscription that once read “To The Living Spirit” had recently been altered by the Ministry of Propaganda to read “To the German Spirit.” “There is — for the time being — no home for the living spirit in Germany’s universities,” Mann said, before turning to address Johnson directly: “I suggest that your faculty take these words and make them your motto, to indicate that the living spirit, driven from Germany, has found a home in this country.”
It was a symbolic moment. Six months earlier, in December 1936, Mann had received a small sage-green envelope from the Philosophical Faculty at the University of Bonn, stamped with four swastikas, containing a terse communiqué informing him that his name would be stricken from its list of honorary doctors. The note, along with Mann’s response, was printed in newspapers the world over and soon published in both English and German as a pamphlet titled An Exchange of Letters. In it, Mann defiantly quoted from the honorary degree bestowed on him by Harvard University: “Thomas Mann […] has interpreted life to many of our fellow-citizens and together with a very few contemporaries sustains the high dignity of German culture.” The message was clear, and it came with the support of one of America’s most respected educational institutions: Where I am, there is Germany.
In other words, Thomas Mann did not go to America simply to escape Germany. He went there to continue to struggle on Germany’s — and Europe’s — behalf. Incredibly, while finishing his work on the Joseph tetralogy, and writing shorter novels like Lotte in Weimar and The Transposed Heads, Mann, aged sixty-four in 1939, embarked on an impassioned campaign to rouse America from its non-interventionist slumber, speaking and lecturing in every nook and cranny of the country — Tulsa, Greensboro, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Lois, Fort Worth, Boston, Detroit, New Orleans, Indianapolis. He was often joined on these trips by his more radical daughter, Erika, who routinely went on lecture tours of her own and later carried out anti-Nazi propaganda work for the Ministry of Information in London. Golo and Klaus, Mann’s eldest sons, both went on to serve in the American Army. Additionally, Thomas and Katia went to great lengths to aid refugees in Europe, writing letters and raising funds, pressuring the American authorities to help expedite visa applications. “Our house has become a rescue bureau for people in danger, people crying for help, people going under,” Mann wrote.
Given his material wealth and privileged status in America, Mann was in a unique position to help others, yet his life in exile was not simply one of princely comfort. He endured months of uncertainty over the fate of his son, Golo, and his older brother, Heinrich, who were both detained in French internment camps following the Nazi invasion of France and the armistice of 1940. (They eventually escaped together across the border to Spain, and later Portugal, along with Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler). His daughter, Monika, survived the sinking of the British evacuation ship SS City of Benares by a German U-boat on September 18, 1940, by clinging to a piece of wood for almost twenty-four hours after having witnessed her husband drown. Then, too, there were the many friends and colleagues whose deaths or suicides reached Mann, often belatedly: Ernst Toller, Egon Friedell, Ernst Weiss, Menmo ter Braak, Stefan Zweig, and others. “It is no exaggeration to state that we have lost more than half of our finest people within the past seven years,” Mann wrote in June, 1940.
After the war, despite growing pressure for Mann to return to Europe and help Germany rebuild, he continued to maintain his loyalty to his adopted country, where, after all, several of his children and his American grandchildren now lived. He prospered in California, which sometimes reminded him of Tuscany, producing several important works, including Joseph and His Brothers (1944), Doctor Faustus (1947), and The Holy Sinner (1951), in addition to several volumes of essays and lectures. The openness and generosity of the American people continue to appeal to Mann. When he returned from a trip abroad in 1947, he was greeted by a passport official in New York: “Are you THE Thomas Mann? Welcome home!”
But the country was changing. As the hot war burned out, the Cold War began its ideological freeze. “At one time my faith in America’s humanitarian mission was very strong,” Mann wrote in a letter in 1947. “In the last few years it has been exposed to slight strains.” He went on:
We can already see the first signs of terrorism, talebearing, political inquisition, and suspension of law, all of which are excused by an alleged state of emergency. As a German I can only say: That is the way it began among us, too. But I express this warning only in a low voice, as incidentally and unpretentiously as I am doing it here, and would not express it at all if I did not believe in my heart that this great country deserves our love, our concern, and our confidence.
Mann had always known that America was not immune to the fascist temptation. This was the country not just of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but of Senator McCarthy and Joseph Kennedy too. American immigration laws were enormously complex and draconian. According to Jean-Michel Palmier, author of the magisterial Weimar in Exile: The Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America (1987), the rate of immigration in America reached its lowest figure at the exact moment when requests for US visas were at their highest. Between 1931 and 1944, quotas would have allowed for over two million immigrants, yet only 377, 597 were admitted. During the same period, the number of emigrants from America exceeded that of immigrants.
In many cases, America’s treatment of its most prestigious immigrants bordered on outright harassment. The FBI dossier on Albert Einstein’s alleged “subversive” political activities contained more than 1,500 pages of material. Lion Feuchtwanger, a neighbor of Thomas Mann’s in Pacific Palisades, was under suspicion by Senator McCarthy for his left-wing views. Berthold Brecht and Hanss Eisler both appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and eventually left the country. Even Erika Mann, who had worked as an informant for the FBI and done more than most to spread awareness of the Nazi menace, was unable to obtain US citizenship after four years of being subjected to exhaustive and invasive scrutiny. In 1950 she finally gave up and withdrew her application in protest.
Mann gradually came to suspect that he and his family had long been under FBI surveillance. In the dossier the authorities compiled on him, he was occasionally referred to as “a warm defender of Moscow” and suspected of being “strongly radical and particularly strongly pro-USSR.” Though Mann had, like many Western intellectuals, spoken in naïve good faith of the Soviet experiment, he never travelled there and repeatedly rejected the notion that he, the conservative author of Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, was a communist.
But in the hostile and xenophobic atmosphere of the 1950s, Mann’s “premature antifascism” (that absurd and pejorative label) made him an object of suspicion. Even American magazines and newspapers changed their tone. The journalist Eugene Tillinger launched an obsessive campaign against Mann in various periodicals, calling him “America’s fellow traveler №1”, and denouncing him for his political views. (Tillinger forwarded these articles to J. Edgar Hoover personally). In 1950, despite having served for years as its Consultant in Germanic Literature, Mann was prevented from speaking at the Library of Congress due to his decision to visit Weimar in East Germany to celebrate the 200th birthday of Goethe the previous year.
By April 1951, Mann felt compelled to publically defend himself. “I am not a communist and have never been one,” he wrote in an open letter to the New York Aufbau. “I felt it an honor and a joy to become a citizen of this country. But hysterical, irrational, and blind hatred of communism represents a danger to America far more terrible than native communism.” His warnings fell on deaf ears. McCarthyism had, for the time being, come to stay. It meant there was nowhere for Thomas Mann to go but Switzerland, the country he had been exiled to in the earliest years of the Third Reich. It is one of the sad and tragic jests of American history that this country forced citizen Mann to go back where he came from.
Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, he lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is writing a book about The Magic Mountain.