Thomas Mann Und das Judentum

By Bridges, George | Shofar, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Thomas Mann Und das Judentum


Bridges, George, Shofar


Thomas Mann und das Judentum, edited by Manfred Dierks and Ruprecht Wimmer. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klosterman, 2004. 221 pp. euro39.00.

This book, the 30th volume to appear in the series Thomas-Mann-Studien, published by the Thomas-Mann-Archiv in Zurich, is a collection of papers presented at a symposium in Berlin on Thomas Mann and Jews.

The first paper, "Jews, Women, Writers: Stigma and Stigma Processing in Thomas Mann's Early Essays (1893-1914)," by Heinrich Detering, makes the key point that if Mann showed himself at various times to be both antisemitic and "philosemitic," it was because he identified with Jews to such an extent chat when he talked about them he was essentially talking about himself. Like himself, Jews were outsiders. As an excluded minority, they too, figuratively speaking, were "women"-a term Mann used to talk about his homosexuality. And, finally, like himself, Jews were writers: not being fully accepted into society, they too had to construct their own identity through a creative process. If Mann occasionally made remarks that can be construed as antisemitic, it was because he, as a fellow Jew, in spirit if not in fact, could allow himself that liberty.

The next paper, by Hans Rudolf Vaget, examines Wälsungenblut (1905), a short story by Mann that has been seen by many as clearly antisemitic. Vaget, however, sees the story as about "outsider-ism" and the pressure Jews felt at that time to assimilate. The incest scene at the end, as well as the arrogance and elitism with which the two protagonists (brother and sister, twins, Jewish) treat others, is in Vaget's opinion essentially a protest against that pressure. Mann used Wagner's mythical world of the Walsungs-that mythic, heroic, God-elect Germanic race (Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre) whose task was to give the world its sublime heroes-as a subtext to subvert the negative Jewish stereotypes of the story's manifest content.

To what extent Mann identified his own life and career with that of Jews is also the message of the third paper in this collection: "Judentum and (Hand)writing in Thomas Mann," by Yahya Elsaghe. Elsaghe looks at "Tristan," another early short story by Mann (and another example of how Mann used Wagner for his own purposes) about Detlev Spinell, a tuberculosis patient in a sanatorium, a would-be writer, and one of Mann's not-quite-fit-for-normal-life artist figures. Spinell is not explicitly identified by the author as Jewish, but a close reading of what the author says about his protagonists handwriting allows Elsaghe to draw this conclusion. If Spinell had been explicitly identified as a Jew, the story would surely have been seen as antisemitic. But Spinell's Jewishness is not immediately apparent, and the fact that we see him not as a Jew but as a writer is what makes Elsaghe's paper an interesting variation on the theme of Mann's need to create his own identity, to come to terms with and accept his own Alterität (otherness) as an artist.

The next contribution to this volume is by Stefan Breuer and deals with the two Mann brothers' work on an antisemitic nationalist journal, Das Zwanzigste Jahrhundert (The Twentieth Century), from 1895 to 1896. Of the two, Heinrich Mann's involvement was the greater. He served first as editor of the journal, then as executive manager, and his commitment was of an ideological character: at that time he accepted the antisemitic program that the journal promoted as necessary to halt Germany's growing social and cultural dissolution. (Later, at the turn of the century, Heinrich turned away from his nationalist views and renounced his former antisemitism.) By comparison, Thomas Mann was never ideologically or politically wedded to the publication, Breuer maintains, and therefore had less to "work through" in later years. Still, it is surprising that Thomas never explicitly disassociated himself from his brother's early racist position and even continued to create negative Jewish stereotypes in his fiction after 1900, i. …

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