German History Lessons
REMINISCENCES AND REFLECTIONS: A YOUTH IN GERMANY by Golo Mann Translated by Krishna Winston New York & London: W.W. Norton 416 pp., $25 GOLO MANN, a son of the great German novelist Thomas Mann, grew up at a time when his native country was undergoing a series of events that would radically alter the course of his own life and catastrophically change the fate of millions of other lives. The period covered in this autobiography - from Golo's birth in 1909 to the Mann family's flight from Germany in 1933 - takes in the nationalist fervor of World War I, the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, the cultural excitement and political confusion of the Weimar Republic, the economic hardships of wartime food shortages, postwar inflation, and massive unemployment, and the horrific phenomenon of Adolf Hitler's rise to power.
The third of Thomas and Katja Mann's six children, Golo (christened Angelus Gottfried, but known thereafter by his childhood nickname) grew up to be a distinguished historian. His memoir of ``A Youth in Germany'' offers an unusual and engrossing blend of private and public history. It is, by turns, a story of its author's intellectual development, a portrait gallery of many of the influential figures of the age, and a thoughtful attempt to understand what happened in those years by searching for the fine line where the microcosm of an individual life and the macrocosm of world history intersect.
Writing about himself when young, Mann provides a vivid, almost Wordsworthian account of the powerful emotions of youth recollected, if not with Wordsworthian tranquility, then in a measured manner incorporating the long perspective of a man now in his ninth decade. He recalls the strong effects of his early reading and his propensity to identify with historical figures like Napoleon, Louis XVI, and Wallenstein, hero of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), whose biography he later wrote.
Whether he is reliving his youthful anxieties about the menace of technology, giving due praise to the benefits of the progressive education he received at the famous Salem School, or reflecting on the vital difference between a child who is crying as a means of getting attention and one who is weeping helplessly to himself, Mann's insights are touching, truthful, well-considered and well worth considering. Although he is certainly not provocative in the style of his contemporary, the late Hannah Arendt, whose reflections on ``the banality of evil'' in her book ``Eichmann in Jerusalem'' provoked him to write a scathing riposte, Mann tackles difficult and controversial issues with the kind of seriousness and directness that command the reader's attention.
Mann's portraits of prominent figures, both his elders and his contemporaries, are distinguished by his ability to examine their attitudes and actions in the context of history, while including deft little touches that provide a sense of the individual personalities, from members of the Mann family like Erika and Klaus, Golo's more famous older siblings, and Thomas Mann himself to the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who was mentor to Golo and to Hannah Arendt. Novelists, playwrights, journalists, educators, historians, and politicians were part and parcel of Golo's youth, and in remembering them, he offers some memorable evaluations of what they contributed.
Situated as he was in Munich (his birthplace and Hitler's early stronghold), and later, in the university town of Heidelberg, young Golo Mann had ample opportunity to observe the way that the F"uhrer's powerful personality and rhetoric worked like black magic on so many of his fellow students. The account he gives of this phenomenon is no less chilling for its familiarity.
Supplementing his memories with fascinating excerpts from the journals he kept at the time, Mann evokes the atmosphere of Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s: the overwhelming nationalism that permeated almost all parts of the political spectrum, the growing fear that the nation, as constituted, was ungovernable, the pervasive sense of inertia, and the longing for decisive, ``cleansing'' action of any kind. His account of the inefficacy of his own attempts to oppose these tendencies makes for poignant reading.
More maddening is his account of how the universities bowed shamelessly to pressure from a few Nazi students, even before Hitler came to power, by refusing to defend the academic freedom of professors who had expressed pacifist sentiments. It makes whatever pandering to student protest that was done by university administrators in this country in the 1960s pale by comparison.
Mann's perception of the centrality of anti-Semitism in Nazi ideology would seem to bear out Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz's conclusion that from the very beginning, blatant anti-Semitism was not a mere side effect, but the very core, perhaps even the raison d'^etre, of Hitler's cause. A debate held at the Salem School in the wake of the failed Hitler putsch in 1923 focused less on the issues of reawakened German self-respect, militarism, and economic restructuring than on the single issue of anti-Semitism.
In looking back on his own development and in reflecting on the historical events of this crucial time in history, Mann ponders the question of whether or not what happened was inevitable. His tentative conclusion is that although conditions were ripe for dictatorship and the tragedy that ensued, the absence of someone with the political cunning and magnetism of a Hitler and the presence of strong, more intelligent leadership in the German Republic might have made all the difference.
At a time when attention is being focused on the future of a reunited Germany, the pertinence of Mann's reflections is obvious enough. Yet reading about the combination of political infighting, economic folly, self-fulfilling prophecies of the doom of democracy that characterized this period, one cannot help thinking that some of the lessons to be learned from German history can also be applied closer to home.