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When Thomas Mann Invented Podcasting

For the Thomas Mann House Blog, 2022 Fellow Christoph Bieber explores the Mann family’s relationship to media and how they made use of modern technologies. He suggests Thomas Mann’s famous anti-fascist BBC radio speeches which he addressed to the German public during World War II can be seen as an early form of today’s podcast. Christoph Bieber, a research professor at the Center for Advanced Internet Studies (CAIS) in Bochum, where he directs the program “Digital Democratic Innovations”, has published widely on the effects of online communication for political actors and dedicates his time at the Thomas Mann House to doing research on moral questions related to digitalization of urban spaces or so-called “smart cities.”

The Twitter account @DailyMann is currently causing a stir in Germany. Felix Lindner, a germanist from Berlin, is publishing what seems like randomly selected excerpts from Mann’s diaries every day. “Coffee from new own-cup,” “Strong mucus secretion. Should probably not smoke” or “Perplexity and daily enervation after 3 hours of work” are typical tweets delivered to more than ten thousand followers. The number of retweets, mentions and replies is growing steadily. The success is certainly not entirely coincidental, because Lindner is a member of the DFG Research Training Group “Small Forms” and knows what he is doing. In his dissertation, he is researching, “The Preparation of the Work: Body Protocols and Writing Optimization Around 1900.” His collection of “diet plans, hygiene rules, constitution checks or endurance precautions” serves to develop a concept of literary efficiency — according to a central thesis of the research work. With this, Lindner quite obviously hits a nerve, because “self-improvement” is also a topic of our time.

Screenshot of of a post from the @DailyMann Twitter account reading: Habe wieder begonnen, morgens nackt ein wenig zu turnen.” (20.7.1934) English translation: “Started again to do a little gymnastics in the morning naked.”

Thomas Mann is not usually considered to be an expert of the “small form”, but this kind of access to his diaries shows that the Nobel laureate can be embedded in current research and media contexts in unexpected ways. Interestingly, this also applies to another type of media that has gained popularity in recent years: Mann can also be connected to podcasts — digital audio content that is usually conceived as a series and can be subscribed to via corresponding online services. With a more daring thesis, one could claim that Thomas Mann helped to develop and implement a very early precursor of this content — maybe he was podcasting “avant la lettre.”

This refers — of course — to the 55 radio speeches that Thomas Mann addressed to a German audience between 1940 and 1945. With the broadcasts titled Deutsche Hörer! (Listen Germany!), the exiled man of letters produced statements between five and eight minutes long, with which he tried to reach the German population during wartime. Unlike today, however, recording and distribution were much more complicated. At first, Mann merely wrote the texts at his desk in Pacific Palisades, sent them to London, and a “German-speaking employee of the BBC” read them out for broadcast. Transatlantic transmission at that time was still by telegram, and the first speech was “cabled” to London as a 500-word message. Originally, Erika Mann, the Nobel laureate’s daughter, who worked for the BBC as a war correspondent, had wanted to do the narration, but the broadcaster preferred the man of letters himself to provide the voice.

And so, from March 1941, Thomas Mann took over the recording himself. At the recording department of NBC on Vine Street in Hollywood, a record was produced as a buffer and sent to the East Coast. In New York, the soundtrack was transmitted by telephone to London, where it was pressed onto vinyl a second time. Only then were the messages broadcast via longwave so that the German “Volksempfänger” could be reached — with a shortwave transmission, BBC officials also feared hostile interference. Due to this pre-digital workaround, the quality of the transmisson suffered considerably. Yet, the preserved speeches make it clear that Mann was very aware of his effect — especially the sound of his own voice. The cadence is even and self-confident, the enunciations precise, the mockery and the many sarcastic remarks against Hitler and his henchmen hit exactly. And of course, the language is remarkable — anything else would be surprising for a Nobel Prize winner. Thomas Mann lived up to his reputation as an influencer of world-class format.

Historic postcard showing NBC studios on Vine Street in Hollywood, a modernist office building.

In his book Thomas Mann’s War, historian Tobias Boes devotes a long passage to the speeches — under the appropriately chosen title, The Voice of Germany. Right from the first sentence of the first speech in October 1940, Mann makes his point: “A German writer speaks to you, whose work and person are ostracized by your rulers and whose books, even if they deal with the most German of things, with Goethe, for example, can now only speak to foreign free peoples in their language, while they must remain mute and unknown to you.” Speaking in the third person may at first sound like restraint (and in fact the opening speech was not delivered by Mann himself, after all), but right after that it becomes clear: Here is a German author who is known to the world, whose works find a huge audience, and who takes on the Nazis. Even the reference to Goethe as the “other” great poet is by no means accidental — we might call this “Mannsplaining.“

Mann is also aware of the special nature of his words conveyed through the media. In his article on the Mann family’s broadcasting strategies, Robert Galitz quotes him: “Today, however, this audience to which I am speaking is not only spatially separated from me, but it is removed from me in time, and I am speaking to a future audience — into time. That’s the fantastic and eccentric almost, I want to say, that I feel in this situation.” Lecture tours with large audiences in his mother language had become impossible due to exile — this break with the German reading public should not be underestimated, especially in the early days of mass media. Although matured and definded by the written word and having achieved world fame, Mann recognizes very precisely the effects of his messages conveyed by speech: “The feeling I had then (at the first radio recording in 1929 on the occasion of a ceremonial speech for Gotthold Ephraim Lessing) is repeated today to an intensified degree. I experienced it then for the first time that the audience to whom I was speaking was not in sensual and social presence before me, not gathered together by the four walls of a hall, but that they were invisibly, inaudibly scattered far over the whole world listening to my words, which came to me from time to time as I spoke.” In this respect, Mann’s radio broadcasts also function directly as a counterpart to the Nazis’ radio strategy of using the Volksempfänger as a propaganda tool. The Nobel Prize winner confronts the Führer on the same media terrain.

Historic photo from October 1938 showing Gau Propaganda Leader Wächter distributing Volksempfängers to the German public.

Tobias Boes is also convinced that the special mix of content, presentation and technical distribution increases the impact of the speeches, “Overlain with static, Mann´s disembodied voice, which he exploited to such great rhetorical effect in his messianic diction, was a direct outcome of the transnational and transmedial processes by which military matériel was shuttled from one end of the world to the other during the early 1940s.”

In stark contrast to the “messianic” elements of his speeches and the tone, which at times shifts into preaching, are the striking insults for Hitler and his “quislings” from the leadership: the “Austrian smear comedian,” the “hollow zero” is a “badly turned out individual” with a “misshapen brain.” Of course, Mann brings bitterness about his own life situation into play here; he holds Hitler directly responsible for the situation as a writer silenced in exile and deprived of his reading audience.

The speeches also feature other recurring components. For example, Mann comments on current war events, denounces Nazi atrocities, or laments the victims among resistance groups. He refers to speeches by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is introduced as a counter-figure and democratic hero. In general, the U.S. (and Great Britain) are seen by Mann as prime examples of democracy, thus reflecting Germany’s current role as a stronghold of evil in the world. In the process, Thomas Mann also attempts to shed light on Nazi propaganda and describes the reality behind glossed-over or exuberant messages about the course of the war to his radio audience. Mann exposes the misinformation and disinformation policies of the Nazi regime.

Photo shows President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill sitting and talking at a conference table with coffee cups in front of them at the Yalta Conference 1945.

It is also interesting to note that Mann’s reflection on radio takes place just as Bertolt Brecht publishes several texts dealing with “radio as an apparatus of communication.” Indeed, Brecht’s reflections from around 1930 show a certain proximity to current media constellations with a more active audience, while Mann’s perspective emphasizes the speech act (and its author, of course). In the historical run-up to today’s media configurations, Brecht is definitely following the right track — however, his reflections are largely denied a practical influence at the time, which would certainly have pleased Thomas Mann.

Yet, can the series of Listen, Germany! really be called a forerunner of today’s podcasts? If you take the digitally automated subscription structure as a yardstick, then certainly not. However, the differentiation between content, production and distribution that can be seen in the historical example can also be found in a similar form in the emergence of modern podcast formats in the early 2000s. There also was an interplay of provided audio content and a new type of technical distribution system that led to an auditive innovation. The starting point were journalist Christopher Lydon’s interviews with blogger and software developer Dave Winer, writes Katharina Lührmann in her study on Podcasts as a Space for Political Media Communication. But it was the connection with another step of automation by MTV host and broadcaster Adam Curry that laid the foundation for the podcast boom. Curry developed software that searches for audio files, downloads them from the web, and transfers them to a music management system. This process heavily relied on products from a company now headquartered just a few hundred miles north of Mann’s home is another story. There is a key difference here in the technical setting — while modern podcasts are subscribed to from the receiving end, this was not yet possible in terms of transmission technology in the 1940s. The Mann-NBC-BBC production network remained a mass media unit limited to the transmission of audio signals — and yet here we can already find some components of a globally successful variant of the production of publicity today.

The media history of political crisis and war communication still continues to be written. Since February, the format of the mediated speech has been frighteningly up-to-date even in today’s wartime, and it has long since ceased to be confined to the soundtrack. It is probably worthwhile to understand the video messages of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Selenskyj as a similar source, even if the author is not a Nobel laureate in literature, but argues as the President of Ukraine. For the most part, Selenskyj has been addressing other heads of state and government leaders of important allies since the beginning of the war. Nonetheless, there are also speeches addressed directly to the Russian people, and these are also about the correction of propaganda and disinformation, describing atrocities in Putin’s name, and developing a narrative that seeks to drive a rift between the Russian people and the Kremlin. Unlike Mann, Selenskyj does not have to overcome complicated media disruptions, but can draw on a digital infrastructure that functions even in times of war. It would be exciting to see what use Thomas Mann would have made of today’s media environments to mark his position in public discourse. Print, radio, and television would probably have been crucial elements in a comprehensive platform strategy of a highly visible media family.

Literature mentioned:

Boes, Tobias (2019): Thomas Mann´s War. Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.

Brecht, Bertolt (2002): Radiotheorie: Dialektik von Produktivkraftentwicklung und Produktionsverhältnissen. In: Helmes, G./Köster, W. (Hg.): Texte zur Medientheorie. Stuttgart: Reclam. S. 148–154.

Galitz, Robert (2018): A Family against a dictatorship. Die Rundfunkstrategien der Familie Mann, in: Raulff, U./Strittmatter, E. (Hg.): Thomas Mann in Amerika. Marbach, 2018. S. 40–60, hier S. 42f.

Lührmann, Katharina (2019): Podcasts als Raum politisch-medialer Kommunikation. Essen: Tectum.

Mann, Thomas (1987): Deutsche Hörer! Radiosendungen nach Deutschland aus den Jahren 1940 bis 1945. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

Christoph Bieber, born 1970 in Laubach/Hesse is Professor of Political Science at the NRW School of Governance, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. The position is funded by the Johann-Wilhelm-Welker-Stiftung. His main area of research is ethics in political management and society. Christoph Bieber has published widely on the effects of online communication for political actors, a special focus is addressing the effects of digitalization for the US political system. Since 2018 he has been delegated to the Center for Advanced Internet Studies (CAIS) in Bochum, where as a research professor he currently directs the program “Digital Democratic Innovations“ that runs from 2021 until 2026. On Twitter he is known as @drbieber.

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