The Enduring Power of the Charlatan

February 11, 2022   •   By Claus Leggewie

ON OCTOBER 16, 1937, a certain Grete de Francesco of Milan sent a 12-page, handwritten letter to the “esteemed Mr. Thomas Mann,” along with a copy of her recently published book Die Macht des Charlatans (The Power of the Charlatan). Though unknown to the world-famous author, de Francesco insisted that Mann was the “intellectual patron saint” behind her own work: “This book would never have been written,” she explained, “were it not for the wake-up call” provided in 1930 by his novella Mario and the Magician.

As his various underlinings show, Mann read the letter carefully, and he even complied with de Francesco’s request to recommend her study for review in a prominent journal. The book turned out to be even more successful in the United States when it was released by Yale University Press in 1939 (in a translation by Miriam Beard), and it eventually became well known among exiled writers and also in Hitler’s Germany, where officials recognized its explosive potential and promptly pulped as many copies as they could get hold of. Since then, de Francesco’s study was largely forgotten — until a brilliantly annotated reprint appeared from German publisher Die Andere Bibliothek in 2021.

In this essay, I reflect on the timeliness of this republication. But first, some basic facts about the book’s author. Margarethe Weissenstein was born in Vienna in 1893; studied art history in Munich; and married an engineer, Giulio de Francesco, with whom she lived in Milan and, later, Berlin. In 1931, de Francesco became the first woman ever to graduate from the progressive German Academy for Politics, with a thesis entitled “The Face of Italian Fascism.” Working as an author and journalist, she fled persecution by moving constantly: from Vienna to Prague, Paris, Basel, Zurich, and Milan. The latter city was occupied by the Germans in 1943, and de Francesco was arrested there by the SS in October 1944. Two months later, she was transported to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück where she was presumably killed shortly thereafter, falling victim to the biggest charlatan of them all, Adolf Hitler.

De Francesco’s book is a fascinating historical examination of the charlatan figure that remains valid. Drawing on a variety of historical sources, de Francesco traces this path through early modern Europe, dwelling on alchemists, worm doctors, magnetizers, prestidigitators, and mountebanks. Individuals making an appearance include long-forgotten gold-makers like Leopold Thurneißer and Marco Bragadino, purported revenants like the Count of St. Germain, self-styled healers like Doctor Eisenbarth and James Graham, magicians like Jacob Philadelphia, and occultists like the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. De Francesco, who sometimes comes across like a phenomenological sociologist in the tradition of Walter Benjamin or Siegfried Kracauer rather than an art historian, manages to distill the traits and behaviors of all these historical figures to an archetype. [1]

As mentioned above, Mann’s novella has been interpreted very differently — by its readers, by professional philologists, and even by Mann himself. For instance, does the figure of the “magician” in the story represent a direct allusion to the fascist demagogues of the time, to Mussolini and Hitler, or are we dealing with yet another Künstlerroman, such as Tonio Kröger (1903)? Or does the story mount an excursion into the realms of the occult, which much fascinated Mann during the 1920s? Is he grappling with his closeted homosexuality? Or did he simply wish to delight his readers by depicting a German family’s “tragic travel experience,” as the novella’s original subtitle suggests? The beginning of the narrative makes it seem that way, but only if one ignores the first paragraph’s foreshadowing of a “horrible end.” Yet the signs of creeping fascism were unmistakable:

There were quarrels over flags, disputes about authority and precedence. Grownups joined in, not so much to pacify as to render judgment and enunciate principles. Phrases were dropped about the greatness and dignity of Italy, solemn phrases that spoilt the fun. We saw our two little ones retreat, puzzled and hurt, and were put to it to explain the situation. These people, we told them, were just passing through a certain stage, something rather like an illness, perhaps; not very pleasant, but probably unavoidable.

The anecdotes keep coming until, some 10 pages into the novella, the titular magician finally makes his entrance. Cavaliere Cipolla (in English: onion) — an entertainer, “forzatore, illusionista, prestidigitatore,” as he calls himself — is a repulsive figure with a deformed body who transfixes his audience, puts them into a trance, tricks and humiliates them. “You are sure to ask,” the narrator addresses the reader, “why we did not choose this moment to go away — and I must continue to owe you an answer. I do not know why. I cannot defend myself.”

It is in this mood of collective passivity that Mario — a café waiter well known to the narrator’s family, who has followed the proceedings “with his arms folded, or else with his hands thrust into his jacket pockets” — is summoned to the stage: “‘Kiss me!’ said the hunchback. ‘Trust me, I love thee. Kiss me here.’ And with the tip of his index finger, hand, arm, and little finger outspread, he pointed to his cheek, near the mouth. And Mario bent and kissed him.”

Alas, this time the magician has gone too far: the humiliated Mario shoots Cipolla and, in the “indescribable commotion” that ensues, the German tourists hurriedly leave the crime scene, with the children inquiring whether this was the end of the magic performance. “Yes, we assured them, that was the end,” the narrator says. “An end of horror, a fatal end. And yet a liberation — for I could not, and I cannot, but find it so!” Murder as deus ex machina, as catalyst of a turn for the better?

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In her study of the charlatan figure, de Francesco carefully avoided drawing conclusions for her own time. And yet her observations on the nature and mechanisms of charlatanry are valuable not just for the era of fascism but for the early 21st century as well.

The charlatan — or fake, as we would perhaps say — is shrewd rather than intelligent, a sciolist. He does not imitate; he distorts, not least reality, by means of his falsehoods. He relies on science as mirror and antagonist, perverting all empirical evidence and theoretical sophistication, and lampooning it through his use of poorly understood terminology. Charlatans form no unified profession: you will find them in all classes and lines of work; what matters is the orientation toward their own gain. Where the pedant seriously considers every detail, the charlatan is well aware of the triviality of what he advertises; the former deceives himself, the latter others. Thus, the charlatan is nothing without a following, a group of believers mainly made up of weak and disappointed individuals whom he despises and looks down upon — they want to be deceived, after all, especially in times of crisis and turmoil.

The charlatan is related to the impostor, the alchemist, the seer, and the magician; however, while these engage in the business of transformation, the art of charlatanry is confined to giving promises that are impossible to keep. No scientific falsification, no political decrees, will stop the charlatan or deter the wide-eyed crowd. His only real opponent is the individual skeptic, or what de Francesco calls “the small minority of incorruptible men and women who lived, unknown and even avoided, as though they were the carriers of infection, among the herd of ‘believers.’” When she concluded her study by asserting that “it was these solitary individuals” who were at all times “called on to lead the fight against the power of the charlatan,” she no doubt thought of Hitler.

At the time of Mario and the Magician’s publication, Mann had ruled out any strictly political interpretation of his allegory, even though the narrative very clearly takes place in Mussolini’s Italy, with large parts of the population full of nationalist enthusiasm. But after Hitler was made chancellor, and especially in light of his bellicism, Mann came to see his novella differently, noting in his 1940 lecture “On Myself”: “The political-moral allusion, never directly stated, was quite well understood then in Germany long before 1933: understood with sympathy or annoyance! — the warning about dictatorial violation, overcome and annihilated in the liberating human catastrophe of the conclusion.” One year later, he wrote to the radio pioneer Hans Flesch: “I can only say that it goes way too far to simply see in Cipolla a masking of Mussolini. Then again, of course the novella has a clear moral-political meaning.” [2]

The “warning about dictatorial violation” is as timely now as it was in 1930 — and we should not wait for another “1940” before taking it seriously. Minor charlatans abound today, as recently became evident, for instance, in the quackpots promoting fake COVID-19 cures in opposition to vaccination. In many countries, such self-styled mavericks (or Querdenker) have surfaced, working themselves up into a frenzy due to their conviction that they are the victims of a great conspiracy instigated by the government, global capitalism, or the Jews (or all of them combined). Much like their historical forebears, so vividly described by de Francesco, charlatans of the Cipolla type nowadays employ pseudoscientific arguments to mobilize a huge number of followers, generating a destructiveness comparable to that of the fascists in the 1920s and ’30s.

In 1949, sociologist Leo Löwenthal and psychologist Norbert Guterman — members, like Mann, of the California expat community in the United States — published a study entitled Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator. Löwenthal and Guterman’s book deals with figures like the homegrown fascist William Dudley Pelley or the right-wing activists Elizabeth Dilling and Joseph P. Kamp, all of whom were fervent antisemites, anticommunists, and vocal opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal. From Huey Long to George Wallace to Donald Trump, we can trace a long line in the genealogy of the American charlatan.

Prophets of Deceit is concerned with the lure of midcentury authoritarianism, the willingness of mass audiences to subordinate themselves to a leader figure, to believe in conspiracy theories, and to hold in contempt liberal elites and intellectuals. The adherent, they write, “remains a frustrated underdog, and all the agitator does is to mobilize his aggressive impulses against the enemy. […] The image of the adherent thus serves indirectly to condition the audience to authoritarian discipline.” For the agitator, the adherent would jump off Trump Tower, or at the very least forgive their hero for shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue.

Today, the crucial issue is how civil society deals with past and future fascism, which distance it will be able to keep — ethically and strategically — from, say, white supremacism and antisemitism. Let us remember Mann’s narrator and his question: “Why we did not choose this moment to go away?” In other words, why did we not muster the same spirit of resistance as Mario or, preferably, come up with a more civil kind of opposition? The analogies with today’s situation — the emergence of new autocracies, the omnipresence of conspiracy theories, the widespread suspiciousness of governments and elites — cannot be stressed enough.

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All translations are by the author unless otherwise noted.

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Claus Leggewie is a political scientist whoholds the Ludwig Boerne Chair at the University of Giessen (Germany). In 2021, he was Honorary Fellow at the Thomas Mann House in Pacific Palisades. He taught European Studies at New York University and was awarded the Sander Prize for outstanding contributions to the academic relationship between the German-speaking world and the United States. He is particularly interested in how to stop the democratic regression of liberal societies.

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[1] Etymologically, ciarlatano is derived from ciarlare (“to chatter”). In medieval Italy, the village of Cerreto di Spoleto in Umbria was reputed to have spawned an especially high number of these quacks. Merriam-Webster defines the charlatan as “one making usually showy pretenses to knowledge or ability” and lists these terms as synonyms: “fake, faker, fakir, fraud, hoaxer, humbug, impostor […], mountebank, phony […], pretender, quack, quacksalver, ringer, sham.”

[2] See Nicholas Martin, “Thomas Mann’s Mario und der Zauberer: ‘Simply a Story of Human Affairs,’” in The Text and Its Context, ed. Nigel Harris and Joanne Sayer (Frankfurt: Lang, 2008), 168.