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Thomas Mann: Dirge for a homeland wasted by war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Thomas Mann: Selections on war

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Thomas Mann
Translated by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter

From Doctor Faustus (1948)

I saw him once more in 1939, after the conquest of Poland, a year before his death, which his mother, at eighty, still survived. She led me up the stair to his room, entering it with the encouraging words: “Just come in, he will not notice you!” while I stood profoundly moved at the door. At the back of the room, on a sofa the foot end of which was towards me, so that I could not look into his face, there lay under a light woollen coverlet he that was once Adrian Leverkühn, whose immortal part is now so called. The colorless hands, whose sensitive shape I had always loved, lay crossed on his breast, like a saint’s on a medieval tomb. The beard, grown greyer, still lengthened more the hollow face, so now it was strikingly like an El Greco nobleman’s. What a mocking game Nature here played, one might say: presenting a picture of the utmost spirituality, just there whence the spirit had fled! The eyes lay deep in their sockets, the brows were bushier; from under them the apparition directed upon me an unspeakable earnest look, so searching as to be almost threatening. It made me quail; but even in a second it had as it were collapsed, the eyeballs rolled upwards, half disappearing under the lids and ceaselessly moving from side to side. I refused the mother’s repeated invitation to come closer, and turned weeping away.

On the 25th of August 1940 the news reached me in Freising that that remnant of a life had been quenched: a life which had given to my own, in love and effort, pride and pain, its essential content. At the open grave in the little Oberweiler churchyard stood with me, besides the relatives, Jeanette Scheurl, Rüdiger Schildknapp, Kunigunde Rosenstiel, and Meta Nackedey; also a stranger, a veiled unknown, who disappeared as the first clods fell on the coffin.

Germany, the hectic on her cheek, was reeling then at the height of her dissolute triumph, about to gain the whole world by virtue of the one pact she was minded to keep, which she had signed with her blood. Today, clung round by demons, a hand over one eye, with the other staring into horrors, down she flings from despair to despair. When will she reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of uttermost hopelessness – a miracle beyond the power of belief – will the light of day dawn? A lonely man folds his hands and speaks: “God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend, my Fatherland!”

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From Voyage With Don Quixote (1934)

Whatever pessimistic historians may say, human beings have a conscience, if only an aesthetic one, a feeling for good taste. They bow, of course, before success, before the fait accompli of brute force, even of successful crime. But at bottom they do not lose sight of the humanly beautiful, the violently wrong and brutalizing, which has happened in their midst; and in the end without their sympathy might and brute force can reap no lasting success.

Agitated times like ours always tend to confound the merely epochal with the eternal – as for instance liberalism with freedom – and to throw out the baby with the bath. Thus each free and thoughtful person, each mind which does not flicker in the wind of time, is forced back upon the foundations; driven to become once more conscious of them and to base more solidly upon them.

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From Goethe And Tolstoy (1922)

Does not all our love of our kind rest on a brotherly, sympathetic recognition of the human being’s well-nigh hopelessly difficult situation? Yes, there is a patriotism of humanity, and it rests on this: we love human beings because they have such a hard time – and because we are one of them ourself!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Indian Jones
    September 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Slowly the crowd turned their backs on that old metastasis, success, in febrile pitch. But “could they forsake the preachers?”, he wailed in scorn.

    His bitter challenge gnawed at them when until they went to sleep. Then the torch carriers were sequestered and the callous plotted again.

    It is easy to see those who’ve succumbed to the vice of power. The crowd seduced to worship and not love were denied their inoculation.

    I prefer the company of those torch carrying human beings.

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