A Talk About Democracy

A Talk About Democracy
EDITOR’S NOTE: The 1930s saw an influx of German intellectuals to the City of Angels — refugees from Nazi Germany who populated the creative teams of the movie studios and the city’s musical and literary scenes. The beachside communities of Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades offered some special allure to these Exiles in Paradise: playwright Bertolt Brecht and authors Lion Feuchtwanger and Thomas Mann all relocated there. The home of Feuchtwanger, known as the Villa Aurora, has for years functioned as a center for artists and scholars thanks to funding from the German government. Now, under the wing of the same foundation created for Villa Aurora, Mann’s residence from 1942 to 1952 on San Remo Drive in the Santa Monica Canyon will likewise serve as a center for scholarship. This repurposing of Mann’s historic residence is thanks to the intervention of the German government, which bought the property in 2016 for $13 million to save it from the threat of the wrecking ball. Chief among the leaders in Germany fighting to prevent a teardown of the Mann House was Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then Germany’s foreign minister, and now its president. On June 19, at the Getty Center, following an emotional introduction by Mann House Founding Director Steven Lavine, President Steinmeier delivered an address to an audience of hundreds as part of a day-long program to launch the Mann House’s core mission of addressing critical contemporary issues with a special focus on the challenges facing democracies today. President Steinmeier’s “talk about democracy” and the arc of Thomas Mann’s political views proved to be insightful, erudite, and thought-provoking — attributes so seldom to be found in the language of the United States’s politicians. Below, in an approved English translation, is the text of his talk. — Don Franzen, Legal Affairs Editor



TODAY, I WOULD LIKE to talk about democracy. It is time to do so — also on an occasion like this. It is time to ask ourselves once again the fundamental question of what unites us at heart on both sides of the Atlantic.

In this quest, I would like to talk about a prominent German figure who stands for our democratic ties in a special and indeed ambivalent way.

Thomas Mann was one of the greatest writers in the German language. And yet he was not a born democrat. During his lifetime, he underwent more than one political change of heart. He sought, found, and lost certainties. Commenting in 1958 on Thomas Mann as a political writer, a mere three years after the author’s death, Kurt Sontheimer wrote: “Hardly any other German author was as paradoxical.”

Thomas Mann’s meandering and contradictory path to democracy is in some respects symbolic of our own path to democracy in Germany. “Where I am, there is Germany.” Without making Mann’s self-confident words of defiance from exile our own, we could nevertheless say that Germany ultimately arrived at the place he set out for.

Where did this meandering path start? During the late years of the German Empire, we encounter Thomas Mann as an enlightened monarchist with liberal left-wing leanings. He celebrated freedom of expression; he railed against censorship; he vehemently opposed the bans on performances of Wedekind’s plays; he defended the anarchist Erich Mühsam; he published works in Eduard Bernstein’s social-democratic anthologies; and in his often overlooked second novel, Royal Highness, he drafted a first vision of a welfare state, albeit a vision that was still monarchistic, romantic, and reminiscent of a fairy tale.

The year 1914 marked a watershed both in Europe and in Mann’s political views. The war broke out — and nationalist, authoritarian, and openly racist sentiments broke out in Thomas Mann. “Away, then, with the alien and repulsive slogan, ‘democratic’! Never will the mechanical-democratic state of the West be naturalized with us.” In later years, Thomas Mann would struggle publicly with these earlier views.

During the early years of the Weimar Republic, Thomas Mann awakened from his intoxication with nationalism. In The Magic Mountain, the enlightened, rational views of Settembrini engage in an imaginary clash with the nationalist, irrational views of Naphta over Hans Castorp’s “German soul.” But in the reality of the vulnerable Weimar Republic, Mann increasingly recognized the importance of political reason over the appeal of totalitarianism to Germans, who he said “maliciously idolize the irrational.” And it was this phase of his political path that led him to the United States. He researched the Founding Fathers; he read intellectual greats from Emerson to Whitman; and he increasingly recognized in the United States a new type of nation in which belonging is defined by commitment to a shared constitution rather than by ethnicity.

The very title of his 1922 lecture “The German Republic” was an affront to his former followers. The nationalist conservative journal Das Gewissen (The Conscience) commented with the resigned headline, “Mann Overboard.” The German right had lost its spokesperson. Thomas Mann became an admirer of the master saddler and German President Friedrich Ebert — a thorn in the flesh of those who viewed democracy with contempt. Looking back, Kurt Sontheimer wrote: “[In the early 1920s,] the German Weimar Republic was a very fragile state. It was much easier and more convenient to criticize than to defend it.” Ladies and gentlemen, in light of current events, I want to say that it is now up to us to make sure it does not become easier once again to defame democracy than to defend it!

But while Mann firmly placed himself on the side of democracy, Germany’s road to disaster took its course. “O Germany, thou art undone! And I am mindful of thy hopes.” This is how he brought the epic Doctor Faustus to a close, writing under the Californian sun. Extensive research has been conducted and much has been written about the seizure of power, Mann’s despair at Germans’ susceptibility to fascism, his fury at the Nazis, his hatred of Hitler, and his own and his family’s suffering along the road leading to exile, first to Switzerland and eventually to the United States. Many people in this room could lecture on these topics with much more authority than I can.

However, I would like to draw attention to one point. It seems to have been only in the United States that Thomas Mann changed from a democrat-by-reason into a democrat-in-heart. And all his enthusiasm was focused on a single person: Franklin Roosevelt. Frido Mann, you gave us such a wonderfully vivid description of some of your childhood memories — how, at the breakfast table in San Remo Drive, your grandfather spoke with flashing eyes and great, dramatic gestures of the charismatic yet physically depleted president. Thomas Mann, for whom “real democracy […] can never dispense with aristocratic attributes,” found in FDR the embodiment of democratic authority. He even paid him a literary tribute in the political wit and social reformism shown by Joseph the Provider. These sentiments were not lost on The New York Times, which entitled its review of this work “A New Deal Man in Egypt.”

With Roosevelt and for Roosevelt, Thomas Mann devoted himself to the war effort. He gave impassioned speeches denouncing Hitler’s Germany and advocating a vigilant democracy. During lecture tours across the country, he attempted to shake Americans out of their isolationism. He also broadcast a total of 55 now-famous radio addresses from San Remo Drive across the airwaves to his homeland. While Hitler’s war was still raging at its fiercest, he said: “The longer the war lasts, the more desperately the people become enmeshed in a web of guilt.” And yet at the same time, he hoped Germans would enjoy freedom in the future.

To sum up, here in the United States, Thomas Mann experienced the strength and mobilizing force of democracy. However, here he also confronted democracy’s threats and vulnerabilities.

And this occurred within a short period of time in a way that is perhaps not entirely unfamiliar to us today. Only a few years lay between Roosevelt’s shining example and the descent into a toxic political climate of intolerance and polarization, prejudices and conspiracy theories, and the state-led erosion of fundamental rights and an independent judiciary. While the Marshall Plan was enabling the ruined Germany to start afresh, economically and morally, in California Thomas Mann found his friends, exiles, artists, intellectuals, his own children Erika, Klaus, and Golo, and eventually himself the target of McCarthy’s zealous communist hunters. Under the heading “Dupes and Fellow Travelers,” Life Magazine counted him among the illustrious ranks of suspects ranging from Charlie Chaplin and Leonard Bernstein to Arthur Miller and Albert Einstein. Reporting from Washington, the Daily News described Mann as a “literary giant,” but also an unwavering Stalinist whose loyalty had to be called into question. This pressure drove the Mann family to go into exile in Switzerland for a second time. In early 1953, he noted in his diary: “What is happening is not exactly the Machtergreifung, but something very similar.” We know how wrong he was in that respect, but it shows the depth of his bitterness and of his fears for the United States.

Never again would Thomas Mann see San Remo Drive, “that home which I have come to love.” But even in Switzerland he followed the Congressional elections, which overturned the Republican majority in November 1954. He witnessed the beginning of the end of the hated witch-hunt committee, as he called it, and saw McCarthy’s star wane. As federal president, I am not inclined to speculate. But from what you write in your memoirs, Frido Mann, it is not unrealistic to assume that after all the turbulence in his America, Thomas Mann would undoubtedly have been delighted by the young, electrifying renewal of US democracy that was soon to follow — the election of the 35th president, John F. Kennedy.

He did not live to see it. Thomas Mann died in 1955. Just a few weeks ago I was privileged to visit his grave in Kilchberg with the Swiss federal president.

When I pay tribute to Thomas Mann today in my role as president of the Federal Republic of Germany, what I primarily learn from his experiences with democracy is humility. I said at the start of my speech that Germany ultimately arrived at the place Thomas Mann set out for. I would add the following. He owed that, and we owe that, to this country, the United States, more than to any other!

We Germans did not inherit democracy. After Germany allowed its first democracy to fail, with such fatal consequences, we relearned it from and with the United States. The Americans were the first to entrust us with democracy again after 1945. We Germans should be the last to give them lessons in democracy today.

I would like to remind all those in Germany who are currently shaking their heads in disgust every day over the end of US democracy, and even doing so with a certain cultural arrogance, of Thomas Mann’s crystal-clear words: “No, America needs no instruction in the things that concern democracy.”

No other democracy in the world has proved to be as resilient and renewable as that of the United States. And that has been the case for 240 years. The democratic turbulence experienced by Thomas Mann was followed by new highs and lows. The proclamation of “the end of history” as the final victory of democracy was just as premature as the swan songs to democracy we are hearing today.

No, I am less concerned about the future of American democracy than I am about the future of our transatlantic partnership.

We have not always seen eye to eye. We are not the same and we have different interests. But the damage caused by the current upheavals could be deeper seated and longer lasting — and most importantly, it could be irreparable. The forces driving us apart do not only have to do with President Trump. They existed before the current US administration and they will continue to exist after it.

  • First of all, Europe, unlike in Mann’s day, is no longer the central geopolitical actor. The shift in focus toward Asia, and China in particular, is especially tangible here in California.

  • Demographic changes also play a role. The percentage of Americans who greet us Germans with shining eyes and say, “My great-grandparents came from Palatinate, East Frisia, or the Lower Rhine,” will decline.

  • The dynamics of the global economy are also shifting the economic focus from Europe to other world regions.

  • Isolationism is experiencing a renaissance in the United States — Andrew Jackson’s portrait is hanging in the Oval Office. And the European Union is still mainly preoccupied with itself as a result of its many internal crises.

In Thomas Mann’s day, the transatlantic relationship was, so to speak, predestined. But many people no longer see it that way.

At this point, in most every speech by an incumbent of high office in Germany, a commitment to transatlantic relations should be made. Despite all the differences of opinion and against all the trends, “we have to revitalize our friendship...”

Yes, we do. But I am afraid that this commitment to transatlantic relations is no longer quite so straightforward. It would fall on deaf ears. The transatlantic reflex does not work anymore — incidentally, not just in the White House, or because of the shift in US interests, but also among many Germans.

Our debate on how to proceed is marked by a wide range of opinions. There are those who say: “Europe must finally stand on its own two feet. America doesn’t want to protect us anymore and it cannot protect us any longer for the foreseeable future.” Others say: “Let’s look for new partners. We can protect free trade and the environment better with China than we can with the US administration.” And then there are those who say: “Germany needs to reach out to Russia again.”

Dyed-in-the-wool transatlanticists will argue vehemently against all these views. And they may have good reasons. However, their good reasons cannot disguise the fact that this relationship, a constant in the past, cannot be taken for granted in the future, even if we will continue to need it, not least for our security.

When the transatlantic reflex no longer works, then reflex responses no longer suffice. We have to find a new basis — one that holds on both sides. Neither economic interests nor political necessity nor demographic links alone will hold us together in the future. So what will?

Let’s forget for one minute everything that has traditionally connected us, everything that welds us together in social or economic terms. Even if we were not linked by necessity we, Germans and Americans, would still be democrats. That is what connects us, undoubtedly more than with any other region in the world, certainly more than with Russia or China, and that is what gives us more of a joint mission than we believed in the last few years.

After all, “throughout the world it has become precarious to take democracy for granted.” This statement by — yes, you’ve guessed it — Thomas Mann is topical again today, 80 years later. It means two things for us in the West. While in the last few years we were overly self-confident in our belief that we had achieved liberal democracy in our own societies once and for all and that this model would gain ground in the rest of the world, we see today that even in our own countries this liberal democracy does not go unchallenged and, in the rest of the world, it's certainly not the only game in town.

The future of democracy starts with renewing it in our own countries, not with our explaining it to others.

Three years ago, while serving as German foreign minister, I had the privilege of visiting Martin Luther King’s grave in Atlanta with the great John Lewis. We spoke there about King’s unfinished work, and I asked John where he found the strength to continue it and how he reconciled his dissatisfaction, indeed his anger, with the persistent injustices in US society with his unshakable belief in the goodness of the country, in its people and future. John Lewis replied that the constitutional mandate “to form a more perfect union” contains the admission that this democracy is always imperfect. It will always have shortcomings. What matters is momentum, not nostalgia. As Thomas Mann wrote in 1938, the crisis in liberal democracy is thus an opportunity for it to “put aside the habit of taking itself for granted, of self-forgetfulness. It should use [...] the fact that it has again become problematical to renew and rejuvenate itself by again becoming aware of itself.”

I believe this awareness also means we should define democracy broadly and widen our outlook beyond the day-to-day spectacle of the capitals and the newsfeed stories and news agency reports flooding in every minute. We Germans in particular take an oversimplified view of transatlantic relations when our irritation with tweets from the White House leads us to ignore the deeper social divisions that also exist in our own country — the conflicts around immigration, the downsides of globalization, the divide between town and country, and the gap between rich and poor. When we look at that, then we see that the current administration is not only a root cause, but also a symptom of centrifugal forces in society. And such forces are at play on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, when we widen our view of society, we do not only see irritating things — we also perceive the forces of renewal. And they are found in many parts of this country — the students no longer prepared to accept rampant gun violence, the dedicated people breathing new life into Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, the countless women standing for political office around the country in greater numbers than ever before. These forces of renewal are the transatlantic future — not mutual outrage.

That is what my visit is about — renewal, not nostalgia. The future of democracy cannot be won without an idea about the democracy of the future. This applies in particular to the technological developments we will be discussing in Silicon Valley. Technological developments test not only the regulatory power of the state, but also human thinking and action. In the age of robots, algorithms, and artificial intelligence, questions about human autonomy, and thus the foundation of democracy, are raised in a completely new way. To very loosely paraphrase a Kant’s maxim of Enlightenment, technological progress should make it easier for humankind to escape from its self-imposed nonage and not to enter freely into a new nonage. However, new technology can do both — enable and incapacitate. That is why I would like to talk in Silicon Valley about the ethics of digitization. These ethics are not primarily about the future of technology, but rather about our own future!

All of these issues affecting our future are taking us into uncharted territory and the great unknown. However, I believe there is an irreplaceable human quality that must be preserved, namely reason. Without reason, democracy will not be possible in the future.

“It is a terrible spectacle when irrationalism becomes popular,” Thomas Mann stated in the Library of Congress in 1943. I fear that we are currently witnessing new episodes of this spectacle in the political debate on both sides, in the United States and Europe.

Yes, we can complain about the brutalization of language, especially on the internet and in social media; we can complain about the longing for absolutes, the temptation of enemy stereotypes and scapegoats, the contempt for objective facts, even for scientific expertise. Such laments were not unknown to Thomas Mann.

But the question is what conclusions we should draw from them. I personally believe that the battle cry against “the Establishment” is the most dangerous enticement of populism. It is a battle cry that can be used against anyone at will — apart from the self-appointed opponents of the so-called “elites,” of course. It is thus all the more important that those who shoulder responsibility in society, the media, academia, and the cultural sphere — all of those who are vilified as “the Establishment” — stand their ground. The response of intellectuals and cultural professionals to irrationalism must not be a retreat from politics, and certainly not contempt. What Mann wrote about this during the Weimar Republic is of extraordinary relevance today: “Refusal on the part of the intellect to engage with politics is an error and a self-deception. One does not get clear of politics in that way. One only ends up on the wrong side. A-political simply means anti-democratic!”

This is all the more reason why the house on San Remo Drive should not be a place of retreat. When it was still a place of exile, it was home to thinking, writing, and discussion that would point the way forward when it came to developing our societies in Germany and the United States. I would ask the Thomas Mann Fellows to foster an intellectual climate in which democracy can thrive once more. You can work on this intellectual change, regardless of how great the political differences may be between the administrations. May this house, the new fellows, the Deutschlandjahr USA, and the many good transatlantic initiatives constantly — and on both sides — find the will and the willingness to invest in this partnership! I for one will continue to do so.

In 1921, long before Pacific Palisades, Thomas Mann read Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. He enthusiastically underlined the following sentence twice: “I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms.” America and democracy are synonyms. Thus, when Thomas Mann became an American citizen in 1944, he never saw it as incompatible with being German. Rather, he simply regarded it as the culmination of being a democrat.

What his closest friends would not have believed possible is that even in the bitterness of his second exile, amid his fear for the demise of American democracy, Thomas Mann never renounced his citizenship. He remained an American for the rest of his life.

America and democracy as synonyms — it was not only Thomas Mann and other exiles who felt that way, but also generations from around the world who yearn for democracy. Just a few weeks ago, in a speech at Harvard University, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described how she felt as a young woman in Nigeria: “America always felt aspirational.”

In the current crisis of the West, should we not look at this aspiration the other way around? Not only will democrats around the world always look to America — but America can also look at democrats around the world as partners!

I believe that the United States needs partners. And it needs these partners. However, America can only recognize such a partnership if it regards the “West” as more than a geographical term — and the world as more than a boxing ring in which everyone fights against everyone else.

The “great task” to which Abraham Lincoln committed his nation in the hour of its deepest division is one that goes far beyond the frontiers of this country: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

No, not just “from this country” — but “from the earth.” That is indeed a “great task” — a task for which one needs partners.


Frank-Walter Steinmeier is a German politician serving as president of Germany since March 19, 2017.

Don Franzen is an entertainment lawyer based in Beverly Hills. He is also an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music teaching on the law and the music industry and the Legal Affairs editor for LARB.

LARB Contributors

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is a German politician serving as president of Germany since March 19, 2017. He previously was minister for Foreign Affairs from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 to 2017, and as vice-chancellor of Germany from 2007 to 2009.

Don Franzen is a lawyer in Beverly Hills specializing in entertainment and business law. He has lectured on entertainment law at the Eastman School of Music, Santa Monica College’s Academy of Entertainment and Technology, the Berklee School of Music in Valencia, Spain, and lectures at UCLA’s Herb Albert School of Music, where he teaches two courses on the law and the music industry. He has published articles on legal issues in newspapers, magazines, and law journals. He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Opera and counts among his clients leading performers in opera, orchestral music, film, and the recording industries. He is the legal affairs editor for Los Angeles Review of Books.


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