De Gruyter Advent Calendar | Door 21
Writers in exile write not only for their host countries, but also for those they have left behind, and for themselves. Seneca was not the first writer for whom this held true, and Thomas Mann was certainly not the last. It is Thomas Mann, however, whom we find behind today's door: because he had a particular role as the voice of German exiles during the Second World War, and because he was able to make his mark, despite the difficult times, by both political activism and literary effort.
Together with Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann was probably the most famous German immigrant in the USA of his time. He was also fortunate in being received very warmly and supported financially by his host country. Considering the circumstances, his exile was a comfortable one. His response to a reporter's question upon his arrival in New York in 1938 is well known. When asked how he envisaged his new life outside Germany, he replied:
It is hard to bear. But what makes it easier is the realization of the poisoned atmosphere in Germany. That makes it easier because it's actually no loss. Where I am, there is Germany. I carry my German culture in me. I have contact with the world and I do not consider myself fallen.
In contrast to his novels, Mann used clear political rhetoric to draw attention to the inhumanity of the Nazi regime, to appeal to the integrity of Germany's citizens, and time after time, to thank his hosts.
At the same time, he worked during the 1930s and 1940s on his masterpieces: The Beloved Returns, Doctor Faustus, and the Joseph tetralogy. The Second World War does not feature in these works. On the contrary: his novels could not be more distant from his political speeches.
Private life in diary form
Only in his diary entries is it clear how much Thomas Mann suffered as a result of his exile. For example, he expresses his dissatisfaction with his language ability, and complains of depression and psychosomatic symptoms.
None of this was common knowledge; in fact, Mann took care not to reveal his personal feelings to the public. Other exiles, after all, were substantially worse off than he was.
Voyage with Don Quixote
An exception to this strict separation of political activism, literary effort and personal life is his Voyage with Don Quixote. In this essay, Mann describes his first journey to the USA in 1934. In the first-class accommodation of an ocean liner, he spends the ten-day journey across the Atlantic reading Cervantes' classic novel and watching the goings-on on board. The thoughts expressed in the essay concern Europe's roots in Greece and the Christian religion, the changeableness of the seas, and the ship's passengers from all over the world.
The essay anticipates what lies ahead of Mann: the uncertain journey to a new, unknown country, and the attachment to a European tradition that the terror of the Nazis has in fact already destroyed.
Many other German intellectuals of his time however also put their thoughts on the major topics of exile to paper. Some of these stories can be found in the volume entitled Escape to Life, a copy of which we are giving away in today's prize draw.
To take part in the draw, simply send us an e-mail at socialmedia [ at ] degruyter.com with the number of the calendar door in the subject line. We will inform the lucky winner until January 10, 2015.