Precarious Advocacy: Thomas Mann and Zionism

Literary scholar Kai Sina examines Thomas Mann’s relationship with Judaism and the state of Israel.

Thomas Mann House
May 24 · 7 min read

When it comes to Thomas Mann’s highly complex relationship to Judaism, any accusation, any judgment, regardless how sweeping, seems justified today. This was proven in a recent online debate initiated by the Thomas Mann House which focused on Mann’s renowned speech of 1945: “Germany and the Germans,” wherein he attempted to explain the emergence of National Socialism within the context of German inwardness. Some critics wondered, aggrieved, why he had not explicitly addressed the persecution and murder of European Jews in his speech.

David Ben-Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism.

The implication here is that Thomas Mann had wanted to sweep the Holocaust under the carpet — he, of all people, who in his radio speeches was one of the first intellectuals to expose the atrocities of the concentration camps to the Germans and to the world, and who had already denounced the “maniacal resolution of the total extermination of the European Jewry” in a speech before 10,000 listeners in San Francisco in 1943. One surely need not agree with all aspects of Thomas Mann’s speech, indeed much criticism has been justly leveled towards his often clichéd, negative-stereotyped Jewish characters found in several of his literary works, a critique perhaps most poignantly voiced by Ruth Klüger. Yet to allege, even if only between the lines, an implicit tendency towards marginalization in his assessment of National Socialist crimes against the Jews, is both a distortion and quite simply unjust.

Program of the 1943 San Francisco “Mass Meeting Against the Nazi Extermination of the Jews.”

This is particularly evident against a background, which even in Mann scholarship is seldom taken into account, although the sources have long since been meticulously researched, namely in an illuminating essay by the American literary scholar Mark H. Gelber from 1984. The discussion focuses on Mann’s resolute support of Zionism, which after 1933 — and this, too, should be borne in mind by today’s critics — had put him in a precarious position himself: one of the reasons listed in the Bavarian State Ministry of the Interior’s petition from January 18, 1934 to revoke Mann’s German citizenship was his membership in the “German Committee Pro Palestine” (“Deutsches Komitee Pro Palästina”) and his public advocacy of its main goal, to sponsor the settlement of Jews in Palestine. This aspect of the decades long debate about Thomas Mann and Judaism deserves more attention.

This Controversial Matter

Thomas Mann’s “The Solution of the Jewish Question,” published in 1907, remains controversial to this day. In the essay, he expressed his skepticism towards “Zionists of strict observance,” since a complete exodus of the Jews meant losing an “indispensable […] cultural stimulus” for Europe, especially for Germany. Looking at the essay in its entirety, this statement is embedded within the ambivalent context of a “loudly proclaimed Philo-Semitism,” and, “in the same breath, advances an entire catalogue of anti-Semitic stereotypes,” as Heinrich Detering concludes, beginning already with the title that asserts there would be something like a Jewish “question” that now required a “solution.”

Thomas Mann fundamentally reconsidered this view in the decades that followed. Crucial to this was the beginning of his work on the Joseph novel in the 1920s, which brought him together with the Munich lawyer and Zionist Elias Straus. It was presumably him, who was able to win Mann for the Palestine Committee. At its official foundation in December 1926, Chairman Kurt Blumenfeld read a telegram in which Mann — in wording already suggestive of the humanism and universalism of Joseph and His Brothers — professed his support for the association and its goals:

“I can only say that one need not be a Zionist nor even a Jew to find the idea of awakening the land from its barren state, where such a tremendous evolution in the history of mankind has taken place from the days of the exiled people, who immigrated there from the Babylonian city of the moon, to the death of the Nazarene on the cross, I say: to find this plan great and beautiful and touching and worthy of support. So much the less, I should think, would German Jews, in whose blood the memory of this original homeland is alive, need fear they would be doubted in their Germanness, if they were to support the plan.”

The reactions to this and comparable statements of the same period were at times extremely critical. In a letter to Martin Buber, for example, Mann reported of attacks against his person, and precisely from the Jews themselves, who were deeply divided on the question of Zionism. This was the reason he had decided to continue his membership in the “Pro Palestine Committee,” but no longer supported “this controversial matter” publicly.

In Breach of Good Faith

This remained the case for at least the next two years. Thomas Mann’s journey to Palestine in 1930, essentially for research purposes, was accompanied by a series of interviews, wherein he expressed his approval of the Zionists’ reconstruction efforts, for example, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, or the young city of Tel Aviv. As before, however, he was less concerned with a political than a spiritual Zionism: Jews had not come to the country “to conquer,” he emphasized in one interview, but “to fulfill themselves, to liberate themselves spiritually.” This view was inspired by Judah L. Magnes, then President of Hebrew University, who Mann had met on his journey and highly esteemed.

An important influence on Thomas Mann’s view of Zionism: Judah L. Magnes.

Throughout the thirties and forties, indeed even during the early years of World War II, Mann expressed reticence, and at times explicit opposition, to the idea of a Jewish nation-state. “The Jews are a cosmopolitan people,” he wrote in a letter to the Jewish philanthropist Jacob Billikopf in 1942, “the foundation of a national state is below the real task of Jewry.” Mann’s aversion to political Zionism stemmed from his hope that the Jews contribute a new, social, and just world community, which would be built after the war and the looming decline of nation states. The threads of his argument lead directly from these thoughts to the humanistic ethos of the Joseph novels.

Mann changed this position strikingly, once the horrors and extent of the Shoah could no longer be doubted. This is documented in his essay “An Enduring People,” written in 1944 for a commemorative publication dedicated to Zionist leader and later Israeli president Chaim Weizmann. There he states that the idea of Zionism, now understood as the “national concentration of the Jews in a place other than that of the Dispersion,” as being “no longer controversial […] today.” Four years later, Thomas Mann proved again that this statement was more than mere eloquent benevolence, i.e. in 1948, when the United States surprisingly declared that it no longer wanted to support the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, despite having been decided upon by the United Nations the year before, and instead pursued the goal of a trusteeship over all of Palestine. On March 26, 1948, Thomas Mann’s protest appeared in the New York Aufbau along with several other statements, including one by Leo Baeck. It is marked by great indignation and profound disappointment, and draws upon a dramatic historical comparison: “It is difficult for a recently naturalized American citizen to say that this decision […] is the most humiliating and outrageous political occurrence, since the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by democracy in 1938. It is an act of disdainful and base ‘expediency,’ a murder of good faith, and makes one realize with horror how much the ideals of democracy, truth, freedom, justice have become empty words.”

Assuming that the American government’s swift return to its original position on the Palestine issue was, at least partially, due to Zionist outrage over the declaration, whereupon David Ben Gurion was able to proclaim the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, then Thomas Mann contributed what he could to this process.

For Better or Worse

Considering the above arguments as a whole, it becomes apparent that the question of Thomas Mann’s relationship to Judaism prohibits any sweeping judgments of any kind. Indeed, what emerges as a constant, also in his statements about Zionism, is a staunch adherence to an exceptionality and alterity distinctive of the Jews, which in the aforementioned sources is mostly positive, for example, in his description of the Jews as a “European cultural stimulus.” Elsewhere in his work, however, depictions of Jews are indeed negative, and at times even anti-Semitic. Guy Stern has described this basic ambivalence prudently and clearly: Mann shapes the “Jewish world” in his novels, stories, and essays starting from the premise that Jews have a “special position,” whether “for better or worse.”

This mindset makes Thomas Mann’s advocacy for the Jews and Zionism undoubtedly precarious. But the fact that it did not prevent him from recognizing injustice as injustice, naming it for all the world to see, and drawing the political conclusions from it is equally undeniable. For a measured, appropriate critique in this matter, we must take both sides into account.

Kai Sina is Professor of Modern German and Comparative Literature at the University of Münster. His work is primarily devoted to Transatlantic Literary History, including Thomas Mann.

Translated by Zaia Alexander.

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