Books: Cultural Amnesia — Golo Mann |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


Golo Mann (1909–1994), modern Germany’s greatest historian, was the third child of its greatest modern novelist, Thomas Mann. After making a shaky start as the unbeloved son outshone by his brilliant siblings Klaus and Erika, the awkward Golo rose gradually to his later status as the family’s scholastically most distinguished representative. Some of his historical works were written in the American exile that began in 1940, but by 1952 he was back in Germany for a succession of professorships and for the composition of his major books. Wallenstein, widely proclaimed as his masterpiece, is a hard read in the original and not much easier in English, but his monumental (a thousand pages plus) Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts has the pace of a thriller and is easily seen to be the finest history of modern Germany. A separately published extract from it, Deutsche Geschichte 1919–1945, is probably the best single introduction to Germany’s twentieth century tragedy, and an ideal book from which to start learning to read German. His memoir Erinnerungen und Gedanken (Memories and Thoughts) has the story of his youth and mental development under the Weimar Republic. As so often with the great historians, Golo Mann is perhaps best approached through his ancillary writings, where his opinions are highlighted. The volumes of essays Geschichte und Geschichten and Wir alle sind, was wir gelesen (We Are All What We Read) show his capacity to get a book’s worth of reflections into an article. His detailed trouncing of A. J. P. Taylor’s chic views about the purportedly inevitable nature of Nazi foreign policy is a valuable instance of a serious political engagement knocking the stuffing out of a fad. If one writer could represent the recovery of liberal thought in Germany after World War II, it would be Golo Mann.

* * *

To attribute foreseeable necessity to the catastrophe of Germany and the European Jews would be to give it a meaning that it didn’t have. There is an unseemly optimism in such an assumption. In the history of mankind there is more that is spontaneous, wilful, unreasonable and senseless than our conceit allows.


THROUGHOUT HIS distinguished career as an historian, Golo Mann tried to warn us against the consequences of attributing inevitability to what happened in Germany when he was growing up. This paragraph is one among many statements of that theme. What makes it especially notable is the way it traces a bad intellectual habit to a psychological propensity. Optimism, cocksureness, Professor Hindsight, call it what you like: there is a disposition of personality that likes to impose itself on the past and turn it into a self-serving cartoon. One becomes a seer in the safest possible way: retroactively. One predicts the past as a dead certainty. Golo Mann, who had been there when it happened, always remembered the uncertainty. According to him, the Weimar Republic didn’t have to collapse: after it did, to say that it had to was yet another way of undermining it—sabotage after the fact. Similarly, the Jews didn’t have to die, or even have to be classified as Jews. The classification was Hitler’s idea, as was the massacre: the second thing following with awful logic from the first. But the first could have stayed in his sick mind, and he could have stayed out of power. If even one of the main factors had been subtracted from the Weimar equation—the inflation, the Depression, the unemployment—then out of power he would have stayed, to haunt the back alleys of lunatic fringe politics where he belonged. Facing the possibilities that were real even though they did not happen, Golo Mann found the most resonant and lasting application of his principle that the surest way to deprive an historical event of its significance is to abdicate from the task of tracing it back to its origins, which will be the more distant the more the event seems like ineluctable fate. And in that long chain of circumstances, anything could have been different.

Golo Mann’s first book, published in 1947, was a treatise on the diplomat Friedrich von Gentz, the man whose claim to fame was that he was not as famous as Metternich. An historian’s first book is characteristically rich in themes that will occupy him for the rest of his career, but part of the richness usually comes from their entanglement: he knows what he thinks, but tries to say it all at once. Golo Mann’s book on Gentz is unusual for what can only be called a precocious maturity. To some extent this was imposed on him: because of the political disruptions in his early life, he was already in his late thirties when he began to publish. Undoubtedly his limpid view came from what he had experienced in the time of the Weimar Republic, and not from what he had read about the time of Metternich. He called the pre-revolutionary period before 1848 a hopeful time. People were full of ideas about how life could be more free and more just. Aber diese Ideen hatten zu ihrer Verwirklichung durchaus nicht der Revolution bedurft. But these ideas didn’t need a revolution to make them real. This is still a key sentence; and was, at the time he first wrote it, a marker put down for the view of history he would unfold throughout his books, culminating in his masterpiece—which, in my view, is not his Wallenstein (1971) but his Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (1958). Without question Wallenstein is a mighty book. Its true worth is hard to assess in English because Golo Mann’s prose style, when he wrote the book, was at its most dense and therefore at its least susceptible to being translated with decent respect for its unfaltering rhythm. Like his father Thomas, Golo Mann was accustomed to writing a sentence at the full length allowable by German grammar. Like any other language with arbitrary genders, German permits far longer flights of unambiguous coherence than English. The translator of Wallenstein fatally attempted to translate block-long sentences without breaking them up. The result is a meal of nougat, with molasses to wash it down.

But even in the original, where the style is merely condensed, Wallenstein suffers from its inclusiveness: the points are buried in documentary detail, and in the effort to isolate and remember them you feel that your enemy is the book itself. Deutsche Geschichte isn’t like that. Memorable from paragraph to paragraph, the book sends you back to itself before you have finished it, just for the enjoyment of seeing complexity put so clearly. Deutsche Geschichte was one of the books from which I taught myself German, and we always have an immoderate affection for the books that brought us into another language. But since I first read it right through with dictionary to hand, I have re-read it twice from cover to cover, and am always using various bits of it as starting points for opening up a specific topic. At its height, Golo Mann’s prose approaches the ideal of the continuous aphorism: you find yourself learning it like poetry. In the fascicle marked Deutsche Geschichte 1919–1945 his analysis of the Weimar Republic’s permanent crisis centres on a single formulation. He says that the split between capital and labour was at the centre of politics—the centre from which “the public was indeed governed, but always in a divisive manner.” That was the fissure Hitler got in through, like a plague rat through a crack. Not that Golo Mann found the collapse of the Weimar Republic inevitable. There were many times it could have consolidated itself, if circumstances had not conspired against it. In an essay collected in Gecshichte und Geschichten (1963), he excoriated A. J. P. Taylor for Taylor’s pernicious certitude on the subject. Taylor said that from the viewpoint of foreign policy the advent of the Nazis meant a return to political realism from the previous liberal dreamland. Golo Mann knew that the liberal dreamland had contained all the real hopes, and that Hitler’s political realities were lethal fantasies.

In his Zeiten und Figuren (Times and Figures) (1979), Golo Mann expounded his key concept of Offenheit nach der Zukunft hin—openness to the future. He didn’t just mean it as a desirable trait of personality but as a necessary qualification for the historian. By an effort of the imagination, the historian must put himself back into a present where the future has not yet happened, even though he is looking back at it through the past. If a narrator knows the future of his hero, he, the narrator, “is bound to tinge even the simplest narrative with irony.” Succumbing too easily to the ironic mode is a cheap way of being Tacitus. The true high worth of Tacitus depended on his being always aware that tragic events had been the result of accidents and bad decisions, and the depth of the tragedy lay in the fact that the accidents need not have happened and the decisions might have been good. In a predetermined world there would be no tragedy, only fate. With his revered Tacitus as an example, Golo Mann was able to form the view that fatalism and frivolity were closely allied: to be serious about history, you had seriously to believe that things might have been otherwise.

Golo Mann could have his weak moments. Too quick to understand Ernst Jünger’s flirtation with the idea of a powerfully rearmed Germany, he allowed the possibility of Jünger’s genuine detachment from the awfulness of Nazi reality, as if Jünger’s aesthetic refinement had been a part excuse for his political indifference. But the part excuse was wholly a defence mechanism. Jünger’s Tagebücher should have revealed to Golo Mann—otherwise the most acute of stylistic analysts, on top of his other virtues—that Jünger took refuge in the exquisite as a way of not thinking about the obvious. One is reminded of the indulgence Gitta Sereny extended to Albert Speer: she convicted him only of not wanting to know. But he did know. He always knew. To be civilized is not a hindrance to recognizing the barbaric. The hindrance is the barbaric within oneself. Jünger was wedded to the idea of a strong, militaristic Germany. The wedding made him slow to see what the Nazis were actually doing. Why Golo Mann should have been slow to see what Ernst Jünger was doing is another question. The answer might have had something to do with Golo Mann’s long passion for putting a liberal German intellectual tradition back together. He didn’t want to throw away an attractive fragment.

It could have been that he just didn’t like the idea of denouncing a misfit bookworm. He had been one of those himself. The Manns were not a dysfunctional family, but they were a family of dysfunctional people, and the young Golo had been an oddball even among the Manns. There is a desperately touching passage in his memoirs Erinnerungen und Gedanken (1986) when he recollects, as if it were yesterday (and obviously he always felt as if it were), how he was shut out from some yodelling youth movement. He had an urge to fit in. When he volunteered for the crucial job of going back to Munich to save Thomas Mann’s compromising private diaries from the Nazis, he became indispensable at last. But his homosexuality always troubled him more than the same condition troubled his elder siblings, Klaus and Erika. Fractured character is probably what made him an artist among historians. Artists complete themselves in their works. Golo Mann’s works are not so much the expression of a complete personality as of a personality completing itself as it writes: he is working himself out before your eyes, the way artists do. With an internal scope to energize his view of the external world, he set the measure for all the liberal German historians to come. E. H. Gombrich’s irascible but useful complaint that his generation of assimilated Jews did not regard themselves as Jewish was already there in Golo’s writings, enshrined as a principle. (It should be noted that Golo and his siblings were only quarter Jews, which might have got them by; but their mother was a half Jew, which would surely have meant trouble; so he had reasons near home for pondering the matter as the Nazis came closer to assuming power.)

By imposing a racial definition, Hitler did not reveal a reality: he created one, out of his own poisonous obsessions. Similarly, the pundits on the revisionist side of the Historikerstreit in the 1980s had already been discredited by what Golo Mann had written before they were ever heard from. Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber wanted to call Hitler’s wars of extermination inevitable because Hitler was only reacting to what the Soviet Union had already done. Golo Mann had established in advance that there was no such historical tendency except in retrospect. In retrospect, the reader of history is apt to wish that less history had been written, but we are unlikely to feel that when reading Golo Mann. Second only to Thomas in the Mann clan, Golo wrote even finer expository prose than his father. It is sad that Thomas Mann did not live long enough to see the full glory of his most loyal son, but perhaps he guessed that it would come. We are all allowed to predict the future: it is one of the imagination’s privileges. But predicting the past is a mischievous habit, and Golo Mann was the first to spot just how pervasive it was becoming, as historians presumed to impose upon events a baleful shape that had stolen into their minds: a shape that was a self-protective reaction to the events themselves—one more version of the small man’s revenge for helplessness.

It was no belief: it was a crime committed because of bad literature.

Golo Mann is the greatest German historian of the twentieth century by a long mile, but when he said this he gave a hostage to fortune. He was trying to say that the Holocaust didn’t have to happen. He was certainly right about the bad literature. Anti-Semitism was the claim to profundity of almost every literary halfwit in Germany during the years when Hitler, posing dramatically in front of a cheap mirror, was rehearsing his role as the man with the magnetic eyes.

Unfortunately Golo Mann’s idea about the bad literature gave precursorial support to Daniel Goldhagen’s suggestion, forty years later, that a whole culture, saturated with what he called “eliminationist” anti-Semitism, had necessarily been bent on the annihilation of a race. Both opinions, Golo Mann’s and Goldhagen’s, need to be discounted; and Mann’s, unexpectedly enough, is more insidious than Goldhagen’s, which has the sole merit of refuting itself. Mann’s doesn’t. Some of the top Nazis can indeed be portrayed as opportunists who did not really believe their own doctrine. By the end, Himmler and Goering were both ready to do a deal to get out; Goebbels, though a dedicated fanatic at the last day, was merely hopping a bandwagon on the way in; and there is even a possibility that Heydrich’s hidden motive might have been to offset the rumours about own Jewish background by building up a sufficiently impressive record of eliminating everyone else with the same drawback. (A rumour was all it was, but he might have been able to imagine circumstances in which a rumour would have been all it needed to do him damage.) One question remains, however, and it is about Hitler. If Hitler’s anti-Semitism wasn’t a belief, what was it?

The less attention we pay to Hitler’s mysticism, the more we must pay to his practicality. In the days of the ugly birth of the SS, Hitler just wanted the new elite corps to be a bodyguard. It was Himmler who wanted the SS to be a new order of Germanic knights. At Wewelsburg, his castle in Westphalia, Himmler played King Arthur. Each of his twelve companions at the round table had a suite decorated differently: thoughts arise of Las Vegas and the Playboy Mansion West. Hitler thought all the mystical stuff was nonsense. His fanaticism was entirely on the practical level: what one might call, must call, a true belief. Unencumbered by any metaphysical junk apart from his deluded root perception into the Jewish origins of Bolshevism, Hitler’s convictions were unshakeable. Himmler’s, on the other hand, were flexible. The same man who talked sinister tripe about a Nordic peasant aristocracy in the east was ready to listen when the Sicherheitsdienst, after two years of intense research into the blindingly obvious, concluded that the extermination policies in Poland and Russia had defeated the political purpose. No doubt with a sinking feeling, Himmler saw the point. But there is no reason to suppose that Hitler didn’t see the point as well. He just didn’t let it impress him. For him, the exterminations were the political purpose. Self-defeating or not, mass murder was his belief. And he didn’t get it from bad literature. Most of the bad literature he read was by Karl May, inventor of a Western hero called Old Shatterhand, who was deadly in pursuit of Indians and rattlesnakes, but not of Jews—a species thin on the ground among the cactus and the sagebrush. Any other literature, no matter how bad, Hitler only pretended to read. He probably didn’t even read the anti-Semitic pamphlets. What he did do was listen to their authors shouting racist filth. They shouted it because they believed it, and he got the idea immediately because it is not an idea. It’s a belief, and precedes its attendant ideas as the stomach ache precedes the vomit.