What They Wrote About the War

April 21, 2021   •   By Robert Minto

ON AUGUST 1, 1914, Thomas Mann was summering in a villa outside the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz. His children were down the street rehearsing a play with their cousins when they heard that Germany had declared war on Russia. They ran home to tell their papa. He could scarcely believe it. His first reaction was to say, darkly, that this would never have happened if Tolstoy were still alive. But in the next few days he discovered in himself a surprising enthusiasm. He began to write an essay. He would call it “Thoughts in Wartime.”

Two days later, George Bernard Shaw was traveling from London to Vienna when he learned that Germany had now declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The news brought his journey to a stop at a hotel in Torquay, on the southern coast of England. There he remained for weeks, neglecting other duties to pore over newspapers and government dossiers and to plot a statement. He, too, began to write an essay. He would call it “Common Sense About the War.”

The essays by the two future Nobel laureates were published three months into the war. Each provoked a response that so troubled its author, in different ways, that it led to a self-justifying book: Mann’s Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918) and Shaw’s What I Really Wrote About the War (1931).


The 58-year-old Shaw had been polemicizing for a long time when he sat down to write “Common Sense About the War.” He had pursued at least three parallel careers: as an all-purpose critic of the arts, a speaker and pamphleteer for the socialist Fabian Society, and a playwright. But he was also a tireless newspaper debater. He sent op-eds and letters-to-the-editor to any newspaper that would have him. He did this for the first time at age 18, with a critique of evangelical revivalism in Dublin, and he did it for the last time at age 94, shortly before he died, with a defense of atomic power plants. In the 76 intervening years, he addressed such topics as eviction (against) and Henrik Ibsen (for), vaccination (against) and bicycles (for), flogging (against) and vegetarianism (for), the sacredness of Westminster Abbey (against) and the standardization of BBC pronunciation (for). He sparred with everyone, from the religious apologist G. K. Chesterton, to his fellow socialist H. G. Wells, to the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. At one point, he reckoned that his hobby of newspaper polemic amounted to a full three years of his working life.

The war put this hobby center stage. Decades of controversy in an entertaining, humorous style had given his name tremendous publicity power. A lengthy article or editorial by Shaw could bump a newspaper’s circulation by thousands. He saw in World War I a crisis grave enough to cash in on all that notoriety. He put other literary work on hold. As he explained later to a friend, “I did not dare to write red hot. I had to slave for months getting the evidence; and I had to revise and revise, and give the stuff to people to read, and ask them whether it was unfair, was I hitting below the belt, was I off the evidence and so forth.” The result was a 35,000-word essay, an op-ed more along the lines of a short book.

Shaw had some difficulty getting it published. The Manchester Guardian rejected it. The editor wrote back to Shaw admonishing him that “one’s duty now is to encourage and unite people and not to exercise and divide.” Then Shaw turned to The New Statesman, the much lower-circulation newspaper of his own Fabian Society. He was one of its financial backers. Even that fallback presented some difficulties. The newspaper’s editor, Clifford Sharp, was so appalled by the prospect of publishing the piece that he begged Shaw’s friends and Fabian colleagues to intervene. He worried that the paper might be sued for libel. But Shaw was adamant. In November 1914, armies dug trenches along the Western Front, the war metastasized as the Ottoman Empire formally entered the fray, and The New Statesman published Shaw’s essay as a “war supplement.”

“The time has come,” he wrote, “to pluck up courage and begin to talk and write soberly about the war.” Shaw claimed he could muster clear thoughts about England’s role because he was Irish. He was unmoved by imperialist sentiments and patriotic lies. The government had cited Germany’s invasion of Belgium as its cause for war, but he thought this was false and hypocritical. If not Belgium, some other excuse would have been found, as a close examination of the actions and secret agreements of the Foreign Secretary made clear. Britain was the world’s most aggressive imperial power, occupying numerous countries around the globe with no less callousness and no more legitimacy than Germany in Belgium. Britain had no right to object to the imperialism of others while blithely practicing an imperialism of its own. The English press critiqued German Junkerism, but England was led by its own imperious oligarchs and aristocrats, a class analogous to the Junkers and just as bad, just as belligerent, just as unaccountable. Only through the democratization of foreign policy, the socialization of landed wealth, and a postbellum rejection of imperial militarism on all sides — including that of France and England — could the war be made to serve just ends. Demonizing the German enemy was a base and baseless act of propaganda. If Germany was defeated, it should not be humiliated or loaded down with an impossible war debt, otherwise the cycle of inter-imperial wars would continue.

One modern commentator calls this essay, “perhaps the finest journalism ever composed.” Certainly, it was brave, compelling, and closely argued. Shaw’s comments about the dangers of a self-righteously punitive peace proved correct a few years later.

The essay burst like a bombshell, not so much above his enemies as in Shaw’s own life. Good friends broke with him; allies publicly condemned him; he was pushed out of professional societies; bookstores and libraries removed his work from their shelves. When he wanted to publish a follow-up, The New Statesman refused.


Thomas Mann, by contrast, was not a regular pundit when he began to write “Thoughts in Wartime.” For him, the essay marked a departure from a prior indifference to politics. High culture without political engagement — a “burgherly” existence, as he put it — had hitherto been his life. He was 39 and already famous for his first novel, Buddenbrooks (1901). Yet the war had activated something within him, some latent avidity for nation, history, and event. To his brother Heinrich he wrote, “Shouldn’t we be grateful for the totally unexpected chance to experience such mighty things?”

Mann had chosen the wrong audience for this idea. His brother — also a novelist — was horrified by the war. It offended Heinrich as a cosmopolitan belletrist and a lover of France, and he believed that it would end in German defeat and that German defeat would lead to the fall of the monarchy. He considered this basically a good thing and hoped that a republic might rise in the ruins of his homeland. Thomas, meanwhile, became more and more convinced that the war was a liberation of the essence of Germany and that Germany would win. He wrote “Thoughts in Wartime” to work out this conviction in words.

“So often in today’s press,” begins the essay, “the words ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ are used inaccurately and arbitrarily.” He thus introduced the method by which he would think about the war — he would construct abstract dichotomies, lining them up like troops across a battlefield. Germany was culture; France was civilization: “Culture represents unity, style, form, bearing, taste. […] Civilization, on the other hand, involves reason, enlightenment, moderation, moral education, skepticism.” With culture Mann associated art, religion, sex — and war. And thus, all talk of “German militarism” — a favorite phrase in the French and English press at the time — was in fact a synecdoche for the more essential German property of culture. “[T]he slogan ‘civilization against militarism’ actually contains a deeper truth,” wrote Mann. “It expresses the distinctiveness and strangeness of the German soul compared with that of other nations.” As a result, the justifications for war proclaimed by Germany’s enemies — that they were fighting militarism — showed this war to be a war against the essence of Germany, a war of forced homogenization. Germany might have been the first to declare war, but in another, deeper sense, it was only defending itself, Mann believed.

Mann’s list of critics of his nation in the essay included George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s controversial opinions had resounded even unto Bad Tölz. Mann cited Shaw as a proponent of the argument that the war was justified as an assault on militarism — neglecting to note Shaw’s further contention that this militarism belonged to all sides and was not a unique property of Germany. Shaw took as much delight in destroying simplistic and ideologically useful dichotomies as Mann did in building them. If Shaw’s response to war propaganda was to say that all the major belligerents were equally culpable and basically alike, then Mann’s response was to say that the belligerents were exactly as different as the propagandists said, but that these differences made Germany better. Mann’s view attracted international criticism. The French novelist and anti-war campaigner Romain Rolland likened his rhetorical strategy to “a furious bull charging head down […] into the matador’s sword.”

But the essay was a great success in Germany. Mann’s biographer Ronald Hayman reports that Mann “received letters from officers and men all over the front, thanking him for giving them strength and encouragement.” Energized by the unexpected adulation of common soldiers, he spent three months writing a further war essay, a longer one expanding on a reference he had made to Frederick the Great. He saw Frederick as an avatar for Germany’s essence, and he claimed that the present war was an extension of those fought by the Prussian king. This essay was published first in a magazine and then, together with the earlier essay, in a slim book to be distributed to the army. It was so popular that a second edition had to be printed that same year. At this point, Mann tried to return to his artistic projects. But he was too fully invested in the war and the spiritual interpretation that he had invented for it. In August 1915, one year after his children first brought him the shocking news, he again put aside his novels and stories to embark upon his longest meditation on war yet, a book he called Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man.

This book was intended to expand upon and contextualize what he had written in his earlier war essays, affiliating his ideas with literary and artistic predecessors such as Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, and responding to critics like Rolland. But something happened as Mann began to write, something that raised the book’s stakes in his life and turned it into a different and far stranger text than he initially intended.

Heinrich Mann had been watching his brother’s successive publications with increasing dismay. In 1915, as Thomas embarked on his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, Heinrich too published something — an essay in Die Weißen Blätter. It was simply entitled “Zola.” In this essay, he contended that Germany’s writers and intellectuals were failing their society. Overly abstract and absorbed in hero-worship, they refused to criticize German authoritarianism and backwardness, and they offered no support to political progress. He thought they should be more like Émile Zola, the French novelist whose polemical writing climaxed in a dangerous act of political dissent, the famous “J’accuse…!” letter about the Dreyfus Affair. Instead of following this illustrious example, Heinrich said, some contemporary German writers were more interested in their personal ambition to be national spokespeople. They had sold out principle for popularity.

It seemed clear to Thomas that Heinrich was talking about his own war essays, accusing him of selling out. Incensed, he cut off communication with his brother. Their relationship would not heal for six years, during which time they lived very near but refused to meet, speak, or even acknowledge each other on the street. In the meantime, Thomas channeled his anger and sense of betrayal into Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. Far from achieving the high-minded and dignified tone he had intended, the book became bitter, frantic, and defensive.


In 1931, over a decade after the armistice, Shaw brought together his war journalism in a book entitled What I Really Wrote About the War, as volume XXI of his collected works. He had by then regained, even redoubled, his reputation. The many plays he had written, some of them fully embodying the views that had earned him infamy, were immensely popular. His dissent about the war had come to seem less objectionable, though it hadn’t made much of a difference in the end. His warnings against piling an impossible war debt on Germany had been ignored; social and political elements were already fermenting that humiliation into the reactionary brew that would intoxicate a nation when Hitler rose to power.

What I Really Wrote About the War contains Shaw’s “Common Sense About the War” and the polemics it inspired, but also the semi-comic memoir “Joyriding at the Front,” in which he describes a weeklong visit to the trenches in Flanders at the behest of a general. That very invitation showed the degree to which Shaw’s dissent had begun to be digested and reevaluated, even before World War I ended. Somehow Shaw had become institutionalized within the society he wished to revolutionize. As William Irvine puts it, Shaw “had become the official gadfly of the British state.”

But the period that one biographer calls Shaw’s “crucible years” still rankled. The personal insults he had received didn’t bother him (Henry Arthur Jones had written in an open letter that Shaw was “a freakish homunculus, germinated outside of lawful procreation,” while H. G. Wells called him “an idiot child screaming in a hospital”), but he hated the misrepresentations of his position. Lies had gathered around him: many people thought he had been pro-German — there was even a rumor that the German government had distributed “Common Sense” as propaganda to the capitals of neutral nations (though in fact, as we have seen in Mann’s comments about Shaw, he was perceived as an enemy in Germany too) — and others believed he was a pacifist like Bertrand Russell. Shaw felt the need to set the record straight by gathering his actual words in one place, when another person might have accepted with gratitude the mere reversal of a storm of condemnation.


As for Thomas Mann, his personal war had the opposite trajectory. Writing Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man consumed him for the duration of the conflict. It was a book he had started to write while flush with the adulation of his popular essays, certain Germany would prevail, but when he finished writing it, his nation’s defeat appeared inevitable and doubts had infected his certainties. The book is a torturous and disorganized document. It’s less a manifesto or coherent argument than an oblique narrative of inner turmoil. Mark Lilla, in his introduction to the forthcoming reissue of the book by NYRB Classics (in a translation by Walter D. Morris), aptly describes the experience of reading it: “At times one feels like an analyst listening to a highly associative monologue that revolves around a still-undiscovered center. At others, like a witness to an exorcism.”

In Reflections, Mann began by pushing his dichotomy-based account of Germany’s uniqueness as far as it could go, not marshaling empirical data and historical fact but quoting and interpreting literary and philosophical predecessors. But as he was composing the book, his brother’s essay appeared. This moment is clear in the text, in the shift of its tone and focus, and in the appearance of a ghostly opponent whom he does not name but frequently quotes and rails against. He becomes more interested in defending himself, especially the consistency of his pre-war and wartime writings, than in defending Germany. He tries to assert that the national and personal are identical causes: “I know that my disgust and protest is not something insignificantly personal and temporary, but that here the national character itself is speaking through me.”

The book is a defense of the “nonpolitical” only in the sense that it argues for a specific form of politics that will leave citizens free to pursue private lives of culture. That form of politics, anti-democratic and authoritarian, Mann considers the sole guarantor of a burgherly way of life such as he had enjoyed before the war. How could a literary genius survive in a democracy, where everyone was obliged to deal with the defiling trivialities of social organization and administration? But this performative contradiction — a political defense of the nonpolitical — was untenable. In the end, Mann realized that he had written a document that said more about himself than about its subject. He admitted in his preface that the book was “the detailed product of an ambivalence, the presentation of an inner-personal discord and conflict.”

The book did have one important benefit. Mann had put down the story he was working on to write Reflections, afraid that otherwise he would end up shoveling all his thoughts about the war into fiction. And thus, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man represents the excision from what would become The Magic Mountain (1924) of a heap of agitated exposition that might have spoiled the novel.

Yet despite Mann’s own dissatisfactions and doubts about Reflections, the book came to define him. It earned him unwanted friends on the ethnic nationalist right. After the war, his brother Heinrich’s predictions proved correct. The Weimar Republic rose from the ashes of the Wilhelmine Empire. In 1922, the brothers reconciled and began to reconverge politically. Thomas excised certain passages from Reflections when it was republished, including lines that were especially harsh toward his brother. In that same year, the foreign minister of the new Republic, Walther Rathenau, was assassinated by right-wing extremists. This new event galvanized Mann, not unlike the news of war in 1914. He gave a speech in Berlin in support of the Republic — a sharp break with the anti-democratic polemics of Reflections. This speech inaugurated a new trajectory for the author, alienated the ethnic nationalists who had thought of him as their man, and ultimately led him to the political positions for which he is better known today, defending the Weimar Republic against its reactionary detractors and eventually becoming, in exile, one of the most prominent German voices opposed to the Nazi regime.

Even after his new politics became clear, however, Mann’s wartime book continued to haunt him. In 1944, an article he wrote for The Atlantic elicited a letter to the editor inquiring how and why he had converted “from his former pan-Germanist and pro-Nazi views.” This accusation was anachronistic (he had never been pro-Nazi — in fact, when he wrote Reflections the Nazis were not yet a political faction), but it shows how the book dogged his heels.


In 1950, George Bernard Shaw died, and Thomas Mann wrote an obituary. By then they both belonged to the small club of Nobel Prize winners. In the obituary, Mann mentions that Shaw expressed a desire to learn German but never quite managed it. He adds that, although he himself spoke English well enough to have gone and visited the older man, he never did “because I was and am convinced that he had never read a line from me.” Nonetheless, he speculates, perhaps they would have had something to talk about, because Shaw enjoyed German music.

A note on sources.

The historical details assembled in this essay are drawn from the biographies of George Bernard Shaw by Michael Holroyd, A. M. Gibbs, and Stanley Weintraub; the biography of Thomas Mann by Ronald Hayman; and articles, annotations, and commentaries by Lagretta Tallent Lenker, Joshua Reeves, Hinrich Siefken, Walter D. Morris, Mark Lilla, Eva Wessell, William Irvine, and Charles A. Carpenter. Thomas Mann’s obituary of George Bernard Shaw is not available — to my knowledge — in English translation, but it can be found in the German original, in the first volume of Mann’s Ausgewählte Aufsätze in drei Bänden.


Robert Minto is an essayist and storyteller. His complete bibliography and his monthly newsletter about reading can both be found at robertminto.com.