Long Forgotten, Thomas Mann's So. Calif. Residence Once Again Invites Intellectual Debate

June 14, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

More than a towering literary figure, Thomas Mann railed against authoritarianism and championed the virtues of democracy, however messy. His message still resonates today.

A fierce, outspoken critic of the National Socialism that had consumed his native Germany by the 1940s, the seminal novelist Thomas Mann spent most of the turbulent decade in Southern California. He wasn’t alone. Bertolt Brecht, Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang, Arnold Schönberg, and other leading European literati and artists joined him there in exile.

Some seventy years later, the Pacific Palisades house he built, and that served as a hub for this influential set, is being restored and will soon open its doors to visiting scholars. Its goal: to explore the major issues of our day by fostering U.S.-German intellectual and cultural exchange.

Visualization of the restored Thomas Mann House due to open later this year (© rebuild.ing GmbH/H2S Architekten)

It’s not a moment too soon for Thomas Mann House Founding Director Steven D. Lavine. “Europe is full of anti-immigrant sentiments, and coming out of Washington we’ve got a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, too,” he said. “When you look at what the German émigrés brought to American culture, it’s profound. It’s a reminder that the history of America is immigrants enriching the culture of the U.S.”

While living in the International style residence from 1942 to 1952, Mann wrote Doctor Faustus and The Holy Sinner. Though the renovations are not yet finished, the TMH is moving forward with a daylong inaugural symposium at The Getty Center. “The Struggle for Democracy” will open with remarks by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, followed by several provocative panel discussions with influential German and American thinkers and activists.

Lavine, who also serves as President Emeritus of California Institute of the Arts, spoke with PoliticsMoneyCulture.com about the conference, what the THC hopes to accomplish, and the current state of world affairs:

POLITICSMONEYCULTURE: Your background materials state that want to reach beyond the privileged intellectual enclave in Los Angeles and New York and make an impact on the American heartland? How did that come about as one of your goals?

STEVEN LAVINE: I think it’s pretty clear to Europeans that America is a very divided population, that the connections to Europe are understood by and large on the East Coast and on the West Coast, and that a lot of the sentiment that says that we shouldn’t be internationally oriented comes from other parts of the country… In terms of just understanding that Germans make a contribution to the world and have a long history of exchange with the U.S., we would like that knowledge to reach beyond people like you and me.

Thomas Mann in 1941 at the house designed for him by J.R. Davidson

PMC: What is the role exactly of the German government? The TMH is funded by Germany but not controlled by it. It has an independent board of directors. Is that correct?

SL: [During the ’30s and ’40s] National Socialism in Germany was in part driven by a huge propaganda apparatus that took over the entire cultural establishment. Germany post WWII realized that they needed to never let that happen again, that to be credible in the world they had to make a wall between government and this kind of cultural exchange. Their way of doing it – the Goethe Institutes are the most profound example – was to set up [organizations that] are wholly funded by the German government but that have their own separate existence. They don’t look to the German government to set their policies. That’s the same structure for Thomas Mann House. Much more than any country I know, they have really worked hard to not let their cultural exchange turn into propaganda.

PMC: Tell me about “The Struggle for Democracy” conference on June 19. That’s a formidable subject.

SL: We’re doing this inaugural conference as a way of signaling what it is we intend to be doing, the kind of issues we intend to be taking up in the future. We hoped the house would be done by now. Meanwhile, the president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was the foreign secretary and the person behind saving the house, planned to come to Los Angeles for the inauguration. Having set that in motion, we’re going forward with it.

PMC: The first panel is called “Diversity and the Search for Common Ground.” In Germany does diversity mean the same thing as here in the U.S.?

SL: Historically it was quite different. It was Catholics and Protestants. Diversity wasn’t a powerful concept. Because of the Syrian immigration and Angela Merkel’s [welcoming them] into Germany, it has become a hot issue – whether there’s a way to absorb in a meaningful way an Islamic population… [In the cities where Muslim immigrants have settled] things are going pretty well. But the places where the Syrians aren’t, like Saxony, are very anti-immigration. It hurt the vote of the Christian Democratic party and it hurt the Social Democrats that they were associated with in the last coalition. It’s become an issue when it wasn’t before.

[Here in the U.S.] we’re unique in being a country that was defined by a creed about the Constitution, not defined by a particular racial or ethnic or national population. It’s been continually redefined by waves of immigrants over the years. That’s not the experience of Germany until now. Looking at it, I think there are things for both countries to learn from one another in terms of how do you help immigrants become part of society as a whole, as opposed to building walls to keep them out?

“When you look at what the German émigrés brought to American culture, it’s profound. It’s a reminder that the history of America is immigrants enriching the culture of the U.S.”

PMC: The second panel is about “Status Panic.” What is that?

SL: It’s a translation of a German term. It has to do with – [and] again it applies to the American situation – this sort of fear that you will lose your place in the world. You were solidly middle class and suddenly the jobs in your town disappeared through some mechanism that you don’t understand. And so you’re a day laborer rather than a unionized full-time employee. There is a sense of loss of one’s place. Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book, Strangers in Their Own Land, about Louisianans, tries to understand why are they so against anything that helps African-Americans or any minority group, when in fact most of them were immigrants two or three generations back.

What they’re imagining is that the American dream is just on the other side of the hill, that we’re all in line, and that the Democrats want to help minorities get ahead of them in line and take their place. I’ve heard in Berlin resentments that Syrians get more guidance in how to access the healthcare system than longtime German residents. Of course, it’s because they need more help. It’s all new to them.

There’s this kind of resentment and fear that you’re losing your place in the world… It’s one of those things that populist politicians feed on. [They] exacerbate fears and end up having people make decisions that have nothing to do with their own self-interest.

PMC: Tell me about the third panel, “Expulsions – Shifting Borders of Democracy.”

SL: There was a book a few years ago called Expulsions by Saskia Sassen about Myanmar [where] they’re trying to drive the Muslim population out of the country all together. There’s [this] kind of literal expulsion going on, but separately there are these populations who live now in refugee camps for their whole lives – people forced out of their own countries and not accepted anyplace [who] are living in no man’s land.

Then you have the phenomenon, especially in China now but also in Russia and the U.S., of buying up pieces of foreign countries, especially Africa. China, knowing that it has to face its agricultural future, is buying huge plots of land in various countries around the world. They then become the private property of another country. The population there is pushed off the land, expelled by a foreign power.

I think you can see [something like this] in Downtown Los Angeles. We’ve got this permanent homeless population. You sort of accept that they’re not going to be part of anything, that they’re going to be a tolerated [group] that we talk about doing something [about]. It’s this idea that in advanced Capitalism more and more of the world is being written off as unnecessary. You only have to go to Mexico City or Rio to see that this is a worldwide phenomenon.

That’s the heart of this last session. It’s easy enough to describe what the problem is. But what are we going to do about it?

"Maybe we can have some small influence along the way toward better thinking about the future."

PMC: What other kinds of programs are you planning at the Thomas Mann House?

SL: Germany is quite interested in the role that mayors, sometimes governors, have taken as the forces for continuing international exchange and of democratic participation. I think there are people from Germany who would like to come learn about that process. In many ways all around the world it’s at the city level that successful interventions are taking place. I think that’s probably true in Germany itself in terms of integration of Syrian refugees. And they look at the U.S. and they see California setting itself up in opposition to the federal government. That’s an object of great fascination. So, that is one kind of subject.

Another kind is in terms of the power of Facebook and fake social media. Europe has been more aggressive in trying to intervene and protect privacy than the U.S. has. Here in L.A. we’ve got the Annenberg School, one of the great communications research centers. I think it would be really interesting to get the policy makers in Europe together here with the people there studying media and see if there’s something to be learned from one another about how we cope with the bad effects of what should be a neutral media.

PMC: A large portion of Americans doesn’t believe anything in the news media. Is that happening in Germany to any appreciable degree?

SL: My impression is that there’s still much more confidence in the traditional media… I was reading a book by a French intellectual who tries to understand how his parents who were life-long Communists could suddenly be on the far right… First he said that if you were a Communist you knew you were never going to actually get your people into power, at least in modern times. The first round of the election you could vote Communist. And then they’d get down to the final run off and it would be between the more mainstream parties.

But it did give them a sense of the pride of being workers, a kind of social identity and standing for something. None of the major political parties were talking about workers any longer. To find an identity now, what they’re offered by the far right is, “You’re France. And people coming here from the Maghreb shouldn’t be here. They’re not French.” So basically, you have status again as the true populace because your status as a worker was taken away from you. I thought that was an interesting formulation.

PMC: It explains something but it doesn’t tell us what to do about it.

SL: We’ve got so much to learn.

Thomas Mann in the library of his Southern California home

PMC: You mentioned Mexico and Rio. Your background materials say that the THC intends to incorporate issues pertaining to Latin America and the Pacific Region. What is your intent there specifically?

SL: We are interdependently tied to Mexico in just a host of political, social and economic ways. And Mexico is also facing issues of democracy, as is all of Latin America. [They’re] electing authoritarians. I think we could have a more powerful discussion [about this]. The center of it will be the U.S. and Germany, but you can’t talk about Germany without talking about Europe and I don’t think you can talk about the U.S. without at least talking about Mexico and South America.

PMC: Understood. We’re all very interconnected whether we want to be or not. The émigrés who came here in the 1930s, were they engaged in any way with Mexico or Latin America?

SL: Initially not so much. There were a certain number of émigrés who ended up in Mexico. In the McCarthy era a lot people on the left ended up in Mexico for safety. But it was not a main [thing for them]... America was strange enough. Part of what makes Thomas Mann so interesting as a base for this is that when you take someone like Brecht, he’s just totally repelled by what he sees in the U.S. A significant proportion [of émigrés] looked at the U.S. as vulgar beyond belief. We’ve got to stay here because it’s safe, but it’s not a very wholesome place.

Thomas Mann was the one who thought his way into the power of democracy, that this was the only thing that could save the world, as he saw it… He writes essays like “The Coming Victory of Democracy” in which he argues that fascism is really attractive. At first it seems youthful and energetic and through authoritarian government a lot of progress is made very quickly. Eventually [that] it’s made at the cost of anyone having private rights catches up with you. That’s where you realize that democracy is the only system that, [however] inconsistently, respected the right of individuals.

PMC: It’s still very vulnerable and fragile.

SL: Absolutely. In a way it’s always been an aspirational light. But at least it’s had the aspiration – until recently. There’s interesting literature on how often it has seemed as if democracy has failed, that it could not keep up with what authoritarian governments could do. One of the books I’ve been reading about this, called The Confidence Trap, argues that the flaw in authoritarian governments is that they can’t change direction, that there’s no one to make criticism [against them] and so they do what they do whether it works or not. Democracy has the continuing power to haphazardly, and not even for the right reason, recover itself and figure out how to go forward. That’s something Thomas Mann was very alert to.

"The U.S.was defined by a creed about the Constitution, not defined by a particular racial or ethnic or national population. It’s been continually redefined by waves of immigrants over the years."

PMC: When do you think that this recovery is going to begin? That’s a rhetorical question!

SL: I’ve been reading a lot about what it took to restore Germany after all of its institutions had been corrupted. We’re going to have a long time fixing the damage [in the U.S.] Assuming that Trump does not get reelected and that the majority puts someone rational in power, there’s still going to be the damage to our court system by his appointments, the damage done in local politics everywhere, false ideas of what the real problems are that have been embedded in the population. I’m assuming I’ll be spending the rest of my life trying to find our way back toward something more rational.

Our founders had very limited faith also. That’s why they divided the power up. But it’s not working! Again in this book Strangers in Their Own Land, something like 50% of the budget of Louisiana is federal money and yet nobody believes that government can do anything, even while it’s paying their healthcare, building their roads and levies. Even though they’re benefitting every day, they don’t believe it does anything. I think we’ve got an educational project ahead of [us] helping people understand what government does bring into their lives. It’s so easy to find the boondoggles, mismanagement, and racism. I am at the age where I’m on Social Security. It’s a great system.

PMC: Last question. What do you think Thomas Mann would make of all of this? What would he be thinking, doing, and saying today if he were around?

SL: I know when he left in 1952 it was because of the rise of McCarthy and he thought he was seeing [the U.S.] moving toward an authoritarian government. He was afraid of it. He’d seen where it ended in Germany. He left the U.S. and moved to Switzerland. Never did return to Germany to live. (Mann died in Switzerland in 1955.)

I think he would have lectured a lot about why we have to defend real democracy… It’s much more than voting. I think he’d be out there on the stump trying to help people to understand that we had forgotten what democracy is. The awful truth is that Hitler was elected and Mussolini was invited into the government. The most common way that an authoritarian government is put in place is that a failing conservative party thinks it can draft populist energies and control them. I think that he’d be really trying to parse these issues and also tempted to flee.

PMC: Anything else you would like to add about the Thomas Mann House?

SL: The wonderful thing is that it’s a free space. It doesn’t have to accomplish anything, which means that it can try to think fresh thoughts. It has a secure ongoing support from the German government but not German government intervention. We really can bring people together to try to imagine what else is possible still… Maybe we can have some small influence along the way toward better thinking about the future.