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European Intellectuals at the Intersection of War, Memory and Social Responsibility: Gaetano Salvemini, Thomas Mann and the Interpretation of the Two World Wars

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Scholars have written extensively about the efforts of intellectuals to shape the collective memory of the two World Wars in Europe. The Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini and the German novelist Thomas Mann were central to those efforts. Their theoretical and practical responses to the Great War caused them to become leading opponents of fascism, first in Europe and then in the United States. The resulting exile experience allowed them to offer some of the earliest, and most poignant post-war reflections on the second great European cataclysm. This essay examines their contributions to the scholarly and literary interpretation of the wars within a transnational and comparative perspective. It also places their work within the larger debate about the social responsibilities of intellectuals.

In the last twenty five years, historians have found fertile ground in the multifaceted attempts by European societies to memorialize the two World Wars. Indeed, there is a large and growing historical literature on memory, history, and identity. Almost as important has been the discussion about the role intellectuals played in interpreting those catastrophes, which is a subset of an ongoing debate about intellectual leadership in general. The cluster of issues that informs this debate, as well the criteria on which historians commonly judge intellectuals, emerged from the questions and responses of the generation to which the German novelist Thomas Mann and Italian historian and political journalist Gaetano Salvemini belonged. (Wohl 1979, 165, 167; Winter 2005, 21, 25) These men played a central role in shaping the memory not only of World War I but also of World War II. As they responded to and interpreted their own experience of World War I – and that of their countrymen – they also offered significant social leadership, first in Europe and then in the United States. Using a transnational and comparative approach, this essay examines the ways in which they helped to shape memories of both wars in their theoretical works and in their more practical leadership efforts on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was during the interwar period that intellectuals in Germany, Italy, and Europe more broadly, not only discussed the proper role for intellectuals but also sought to offer significant societal leadership. Perhaps the most famous statement by a European writer was that of Julien Benda in Treason of the Intellectuals (1928). Benda argued that intellectuals should not engage directly in politics or pursue material advantage, but rather should stand above the fray, searching for the truths and values through which humanity operated. Sometimes it was necessary to engage in public debate, but such engagement should always be the result of independent, rather than partisan, thought and should be based upon universal principles. Once they had proffered their ideas, intellectuals should return to their ivory towers, shaking the dust off of their sandals and leaving society to struggle as best it could with truth. To do otherwise was to commit intellectual treason – a crime of which many European intellectuals were guilty during and after World War I. According to Benda, writers such as Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, and virtually the entire German cultural elite, had become political partisans and nationalists and had fanned the flames of irrationalism. Benda, like so many others in the post-war period, was thus trying to explain and give meaning to the war and its attendant atrocities (Benda 1928).

Thomas Mann and Gaetano Salvemini had been partisans for their own countries during the war, and their experience of the war shaped their interpretation of the overall catastrophe in the aftermath. It also informed and reoriented their actions as public intellectuals. These two key figures became more explicitly political in defending democratic reform against attacks both from the traditional right and, subsequently, from the new violent, totalitarian political movements of fascism and Nazism. Even at great personal risk, they joined the effort to create and legitimize new understandings of the national community. Their opposition to Mussolini and Hitler, respectively, led to their exile from Italy and Germany to the United States, where they became the leading anti-fascist voices of the European émigrés. The exile experience, in turn, provided them with fresh insights and a new perspective as they sought to shape the memory of the Second World War after 1945, even as their earlier interpretations of World War I continued to inform their thinking in significant ways.

Salvemini was the oldest son of poor land holders in Apulia, and this modest background shaped his political and cultural values. Despite becoming an academic historian at the University of Florence and a leading political journalist, he was, according to his most recent biographer, “an intellectual never completely at ease among intellectuals.” (Killinger 2002, 5–6, 100) Early in his career, Salvemini also exhibited an intense political engagement, writing short articles and polemical pieces in left-leaning journals such as Critica Sociale, Avanti!, and La Voce, the leading avant-garde modernist journal in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. He criticized the longstanding political process of transformismo, the Italian liberal system under Giovanni Giolitti, and even the weakness of the Italian Socialist party. In 1911, he formed his own cultural/political journal, L’Unità, which became the mouthpiece of young intellectuals seeking a third way between Marxist socialism and traditional liberalism.

When World War I began, Salvemini lobbied for his own country’s entry, but on the side of the more “egalitarian” Entente rather than the Triple Alliance. Even during immediate prewar years, he had campaigned against the Triplice not just because he opposed Germanic autocracy and militarism, but also because he wanted to keep the Austrians from expanding into the Balkans and further consolidating their control over ethnic Italians there. In fighting for democracy abroad, he believed, Italy would rediscover its own democratic roots. Salvemini thus “provided intellectual direction to the democratic forces who called for Italy to join the war in support of democratic principles.” (Killinger 2002, 89; Wohl 1979, 168) As a result, he came into conflict not only with the Italian Nationalist Party, which had much more far-reaching territorial aims, but also with the pacifists and the Socialists, who abjured any capitalist war fought for nationalist aims. Salvemini was already exhibiting the independent, critical voice that would characterize his public pronouncements throughout his long career.

Salvemini himself saw military action between 1915 and 1916 and then, in the last years of the conflict, he began to assess the war and its importance for Italy. There was no point in mythologizing the war; rather, Salvemini believed it was crucial to offer clear, critical historical analysis. Italy’s lack of democracy and economic reform, he argued, combined with the ineptitude of its statesmen, had led it into catastrophe. The short-sighted foreign policy followed first by the Marquis di San Guiliano and, after his death in 1914, by the intensely anti-democratic Sydney Sonnino, led to Italy’s disastrous war experience. Sonnino, in particular, wanted to use the war to realize the territorial aims of the Italian nationalists: the Trentino, Upper Adige, Venezia Giulia, the coast of Damatia, and Trieste. He played a double game with the Entente and the Central Powers, always seeking Italy’s advantage. Salvemini recognized that the more far-reaching territorial aims had been dangerously unrealistic from the outset, and he pointed out that “not one of [Sonnino’s] hopes was ever realized.” (Salvemini 1926, 302) It was no surprise to Salvemini that the British and French did not feel compelled at the end of the war to grant Italy all of its territorial demands. According to Salvemini, “Sonnino had bled his country to help win the victory, and he had freed his allies from any duties as regards the settlements of peace.” (Salvemini 1926, 307)

The greatest harm created by the policies of Sonnino and the nationalists, according to Salvemini, was a moral one: “they brought the Italian people away from the Peace Conference despised by others and dissatisfied with itself.” The Italian people thus came to believe they had been “robbed of the fruits of victory.” If intellectual and political disorder had been rampant in the post-war period, “the tactics of the Nationalists have been in large part responsible.” It could hardly be surprising, then, that “a people peacefully inclined,” but “forced into a grueling war” and then sent home “with the conviction that all its effort has been in vain... kicks over the traces and begins to rear around” (Salvemini 1926, 310). If it did not fit well either within the orthodox Socialist view or the fascist glorification of the conflict, this interpretation of Italy’s war experience nonetheless found wide resonance over time. There is little doubt that Italy, despite having been on the “winning” side of the conflict, came to consider itself a loser. The almost total lack of confidence in liberal institutions, statesmen, and politicians fostered an atmosphere in which a more radical solution was the likely outcome. Salvemini was seeking, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to offer an interpretation of the war that would lead to a new understanding of the national community.

For Salvemini, historical interpretation of the war and its origins was a crucial task, but no more so than his practical leadership efforts. At war’s end, he did his part to overcome the disorder – and bring about full democratization – by becoming still more overtly and formally political: he stood for and won election to the Italian parliament. Although he lost in the following election, he had in the meantime established himself as a great defender of the under classes by demanding housing, education, and infrastructure on their behalf (Rossi 1957, 27). After only a short term in parliament, Salvemini withdrew from direct political participation, though he can hardly be said to have repaired to his ivory tower. Indeed, he continued to engage in the public, political debate in Italy, and then abroad.

Salvemini was generally an astute observer of political dangers, but he was uncharacteristically slow to understand the threat posed by fascism. Like many in Italy, he initially saw Mussolini as the best person to translate the war experience into political renewal. As late as April 1922, he could write: “better Mussolini than Bonomi, Facta, Orlando, Salandra, Turati, Baldesi, D’Aragona, Nitti... Mussolini serves the useful function of crushing the old oligarchies” (Salvemini 1972, 163). Moreover, he tended to see fascism as little more than a reactionary movement, one that relied on traditional sources of support such as nationalists and industrialists, and thus unlikely to survive long as an independent force. After the murder of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, however, Salvemini became the most vocal leader of the anti-fascist opposition in Florence, a position to which he brought his full intellectual talents and, according to Eugenio Garin an “almost religious sense of a teacher’s mission [...] He considered the social duty of an intellectual [...] to show, at the risk of being always against everyone, what is fair [...] to exercise the right of criticism without which a man ceases to be human” (Garin 1959, 209).

Salvemini left Florence in June 1925 for Rome, where he was arrested for having collaborated in the anti-fascist paper Non Mollare (Don’t Give In). He was tried and, though not acquitted, granted “provisional liberty” (Origo 1984, 153). In August 1925, he escaped from his state-assigned guards and made his way through northern Italy into France; by December, he was in England, at which time the Italian government formally stripped him both of his academic post and his Italian citizenship. Ernesto Rossi, a student and friend, considered this “one of Mussolini’s gravest errors: he let slip through his hands his most decisive and intelligent adversary” (Salvemini 1925, 106; Rossi 1957, 2).

Salvemini responded by planning how best to reach a wide audience with his anti-fascist message. He began to warn that ousting Mussolini would not suffice. Those complicit with fascism – including the king and leading industrialists – would have to be removed as well. Although he continued to refine his historical interpretation of World War I throughout the interwar period, Salvemini largely abandoned his own professional writing in order to focus on his anti-fascist activities. He later told Iris Origo that he “would be ashamed to steal a single hour from his political activities, while in Italy his friends were fighting for the same cause at the risk of their lives” (Origo 1984, 159).

Oddly, exile offered Salvemini a “sense of freedom, of spiritual independence.” Rather than “exile” or “refugee,” he preferred the term fuoruscito, “a man who has chosen to leave his country to continue a resistance which had become impossible at home” (Salvemini 1960, 89–90). He and other fuorusciti began to arrive in the United States in the 1920s, bringing with them a clear anti-fascist agenda. Even those who were not political activists generally agreed in their opposition to the fascist regime. As such, the fuorusciti were almost all vocal opponents of Mussolini and fascism more generally. While a number of German émigrés, such as Mann, were staunch anti-fascists as well, many more fled primarily because of racial persecution. It was their intense commitment to anti-fascist activism that set the Italians apart from the larger group of European émigrés. They remained committed to the restoration of freedom in Italy, and this laser-sharp focus gave them a sense of purpose in the face of a prolonged exile.

In 1927, Salvemini embarked upon a lecture tour in the United States which, he hoped, would convince Italian-Americans to join the cause of anti-fascism. Fascism, Salvemini believed, could only be toppled by external force; Italy was not ready for the kind of revolution demanded by an internal conquest of fascism. America, he believed, was the best hope. In speeches, articles, and pamphlets, Salvemini thus played his part in an international campaign for anti-fascism by trying to win Italian-Americans, especially among the working class, to the cause. He did his best to demythologize Mussolini’s rise to power and to show clearly the demise of democracy in Italy in his speeches and his written work (Salvemini 1960, 234; Salvemini 1927).

In 1929, Salvemini, along with his former students Carlo and Nello Rosselli and Emilio Lussu, established a new anti-Fascist organization, Giustizia e Libertà (GL), focused in France. Its members rejected Marxism-Leninism as well as the liberal state, and pursued, instead, a free, democratic republic based on social justice (Salvemini 1960, 119–121). According to one of its members, Aldo Garosci, it was to be “a democratic, active, militant, aggressive movement, of the sort that existed in the first half of the nineteenth century, when political liberty was won by revolutionary methods.” GL included members of the pre-Fascist parties, which it rejected in favor of a “supraparty” movement of individuals (Garosci 1973, 170). Salvemini wrote that GL was “an anti-fascist organization in Italy which brings together... men from all left-wing parties, and those who do not belong to any party, on the sole condition that their ideas are democratic and republican.” The émigrés “should do abroad what could not be done by anti-fascists who were still in Italy: that is, help them to keep the democratic tradition alive, thus preventing the victory of dictatorship from becoming total and final.” Instead of trying “to organize revolutionary expeditions to Italy from abroad,” Giustizia e Libertà “summoned men in Italy [...] to active resistance against the dictatorship” (Salvemini 1960, 124).

After Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Salvemini helped to create still another anti-fascist organization named after Giuseppe Mazzini. He and the other leaders launched a campaign to mobilize the American public and government against totalitarianism, monarchism, and clericalism, with a particular eye toward the postwar reconstruction of Italy. They correctly anticipated a strong U. S. role in determining the future of Italy and, fearing that Washington would tolerate Mussolini or an Italian kingdom governed by his fascist collaborators, wanted to convince the Allied forces to adopt their republican, secular Italian program. During the war years alone, Salvemini produced a stream of over 500 articles, or an average of two per week, on Italian politics for The New Republic, The Nation, and Italian language papers. The Italian historian thus became ever more the political crusader.

Mann’s activities in Germany and the US were much less explicitly political than Salvemini’s. A Bildungsbürger, he possessed the traditional attitudes of that class, including an aversion to “politics.” Mann believed it was his responsibility to promote and protect culture, to educate and guide the cultured middle classes. The true Bildungsbürger considered even politics from a “higher” standpoint. Unlike Salvemini, Mann thus never aspired to or held any political office, but he did gradually become more embroiled in public, and often explicitly political, debates. He understood that as a cultural leader in the mold of Goethe, a Dichter, a certain amount of political leadership was expected of him as well.

Mann’s first political statements came during World War I, when he took a conventionally patriotic, and, in contrast to Salvemini, conservative line by defending the war, the German cultural tradition, and even the monarchy. Although he never saw military action, he wanted to help “[spell] out, [ennoble], and [give] meaning to events” (Mann 1970, 69). He made his full-length statement on the War, politics, and German culture in Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, an essay about the conflict between “culture” and “civilization,” Germany and the West. Mann argued for a new Europe, reorganized around German culture. The idea of “world liberation” and progress through Western ideas was mere “superstition.” Instead, “progress, revolution, modernity, youth, and originality are all with Germany.” In contradistinction to Salvemini, Mann railed against “democratic doctrinaires and tyrannical schoolmasters of revolution” within Germany itself, especially “the literati, the ‘intellectuals’ par excellence, who claim ‘the spirit,’ while it is really lonely the literary spirit of bourgeois revolution that they mean and know” (Mann 1983, 78).

For Mann, politics was conterminous with democracy and ideology, and he believed that there was a “non-relationship” between the German citizen and political democracy. German high culture, in particular, “thoroughly resists being politicized. Indeed, the political element is lacking in the German concept of culture.” Mann derided “politics” and “democracy” which brought chaos, destroyed traditional values and threatened “complete leveling” and “vulgarization.” He wanted nothing to do “with the parliamentary and party economic system that causes the pollution of all national life with politics... I do not want politics.” He defended monarchy “because it alone guarantees political freedom, both in the intellectual and economic spheres” (Mann 1983, 187–88, 201, 189).

With Reflections, composed mostly during the war, Mann interpreted World War I in a somewhat idiosyncratically aesthetic way, but one that found many supporters among the conservatives and nationalists. Germany, even more than Italy, was struggling to create a new postwar identity in the wake of a humiliating defeat and peace treaty, and Mann was seeking to reaffirm and strengthen traditional German identity and political arrangements. The backward-looking Reflections were thus very attractive to conservative opponents of the new socialist regime. These same supporters, however, quickly became bitter opponents between 1919 and 1925 when Mann gradually moved to support the Weimar Republic.

By 1925, Mann came to believe that culture needed a democratic political framework for protection because the Bismarckian compromise between the middle classes and the aristocracy had failed. If World War I had brought an end to certain traditions, and the monarchy, it had also opened the way for democracy, which Mann now found to be the form of the body politic most suitable for the contemporary German nation and for the future of humanity. He thus sought to legitimize the new Weimar Republic and offer a different understanding of the national community, even in the face of significant opposition from the right.

Unlike Salvemini, Mann remained ambivalent about egalitarianism. He understood Democracy

[...] not so much as a demand for equality from below, but as goodness, justice and empathy from above. I do not consider it democratic when Mr. Smith or Little Mr. Johnson taps Beethoven on his shoulder and cries out: “How are you old man!” That is not democracy, but tactlessness and a lack of sense of distance. But when Beethoven sings: “Be embraced, millions, this kiss is for the whole world!,” that is democracy. For he could have said, “I am a great genius and something special, while people are a mob; I am much too delicate to embrace them.” Instead, he calls them all his brothers and the children of a father in the heavens whose son he is as well. That is democracy in its highest form. (Mann 1960, 933)

If he was not as fully egalitarian as Salvemini, Mann still could not stand silently by while the Republic foundered. Winning over the German educated middle classes, who always made up the core of his audience, was his greatest task, and this meant defending democracy and confronting various rightwing elements, including the Nazis. In his most important post-Reflections statement, “German Address: An Appeal to Reason,” (1930) he pinpointed National Socialism, rather than western democracy, as the greatest danger to German culture. He attacked Nazism as antithetical to everything that was innately German. It was hatred “not of the foreigner but of all Germans who do not believe in its methods, and whom it promise[s] to destroy” (Mann 1994, 150, 153, 157, 159). Mann was also sharply critical of the general development of fascism in works such as Mario and the Magician. Here he warned against human degradation and the willing submission to the power of dictators who had been proliferating in Europe during the 1920s. Mario was, he wrote, his “first act of war” against fascism (Mann 1969, 233).

Yet Mann’s decisive break with Germany did not come until 1933, after his speech “Leiden und Grösse Richard Wagners.” Here he pointed to Wagner’s unparalleled greatness as a synthesizer of musical styles and genres, but his criticisms of Wagner resulted in a signed letter of protest by the Munich cultural establishment. This “betrayal,” as he called it, was the beginning of Mann’s “national excommunication” (Mann 1933, 1). Mann’s former conservative supporters saw his reversal as political and intellectual treason, and they never forgave him for it.

By 1933, Mann had left Germany, initially for a lecture tour, and then, though he could not have known it, permanently. Mann at first was uncertain how to proceed, and he was unprepared to make a clean break. In 1936, however, he published an open letter attacking the Nazi regime as “directed against Europe and against loftier Germanism; [and] against the Christian and classical foundations of Western morality. It is the attempt to shake off the ties of civilization... [and] threatens to bring about a terrible alienation... between the land of Goethe and the rest of the world.” Convinced that nothing good could possibly come from the present German regime, he was compelled to shun the country in whose spiritual traditions he was deeply rooted (Mann 1970, 209).

Mann’s public attack on the Nazi regime also cost him his citizenship and most of his assets, but his open letter turned out to be an important step for him and the exiles. It reaffirmed the decision of many to fight Hitler and the Nazis from abroad. Moreover, it established Mann as the most recognizable leader of the emigration. Working first from Princeton, New Jersey and then from Pacific Palisades, California, Mann was able to maintain contact with Bruno Frank, Alfred Neumann, and Bruno Walter, all long-time companions from his Munich years, as well as with Franz Werfel, Wilhelm Dieterle, and Lion Feuchtwanger, the last of whom served as a reliable go-between with left-wing colleagues such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Bertolt Brecht (Frey 1976, 85). This collection of friends did not have the same cohesive political direction as the Italians surrounding Salvemini, but they were very influential in certain circles in the United States. Just as importantly, many would resume influential positions within divided Germany in the post-war years.

A vocal opponent of appeasement and isolationism, Mann agreed with Salvemini that outside force – American force – would be required for the defeat of world fascism, though he insisted that Germans must be part of the effort. Although his anti-fascist activities were not as far-reaching or as systematic as Salvemini’s, Mann often served as a spokesman and advocate for all anti-fascist refugees in the United States. His plea before the “Tolan Committee on Internal Migration” in March 1942 was one primary example (Prater 1995, 339). Mann also briefly participated in the “Free Germany Movement,” a group that had been meeting in New York since 1940 to plan for the new Germany. Yet Mann quickly distanced himself from such efforts, refusing to associate too closely with communists such as Brecht or to endanger his candidacy for American citizenship. He believed it was neither his responsibility nor his right as an exile to give America advice on its approach to Germany. Thus he first signed and then withdrew his endorsement of an August 1943 manifesto insisting that a clear distinction be made between Nazis and the German people (Prater 1995, 358). It was impossible in any case, he felt, to distinguish between “the Germans,” by which usually meant the Bildungsbürgertum, and their Nazi leaders. Indeed, Mann argued that the cultural elite had become complicit with Nazism, a theme he would pursue in both “Germany and the Germans” and Doctor Faustus.

In these two works, Mann offered his most definitive statement about the cultural crisis, Nazism, and World War II. He also directly connected previous German history, including World War I – and his own interpretation of it – to the second great conflict. Mann pointed out that other countries in Western Europe had experienced a cultural and political crisis that had led to World War I, the rise of fascism and World War II. However, Germany under Hitler and the National Socialists bore the primary responsibility for the overall catastrophe. The Nazis, he believed, had tapped into deep currents of German history including nationalism, anti-Semitism, and authoritarianism. He was particularly critical of the German conception of liberty, which “was always directed outward; it meant the right to be German, only German and nothing beyond that.” And this German conception of political liberty, which was both racial and anti-European, “behaved internally with an astonishing lack of freedom, of immaturity, of dull servility.” The German understanding of liberty was tantamount to inner enslavement because Germany had never experienced a revolution and had “never learned to combine the concept of the nation with the concept of liberty” (Mann 1973, 39).

At bottom, National Socialism had to do with cultural foundations as they emerged through German history, and the cultural elite, of which Mann had been so important a part, had played a leading role. The central idea of the Doctor Faustus, he wrote, was “the flight from the difficulties of the cultural crisis into the pact with the devil, the craving of a proud mind, threatened by sterility, from an unblocking of inhibitions at any cost, and the parallel between pernicious euphoria ending in collapse with the nationalist frenzy of Fascism” (Mann 1961, 40).

More specifically, Doctor Faustus was a criticism of the German intellectual elite and its political irresponsibility. This elite had attributed the highest social value to artistic and philosophical endeavors and thereby missed is mission of societal leadership. Mann insisted that “Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche contributed to the shaping of the German mind.” To deny the guilt of intellectual leaders would belittle “them, and we Germans today have every reason to be concerned with the ambiguous role of German thought and the German great man, and to ponder it.” (Mann 1970, 377) Because Mann himself had been an apolitical artist, had posited that Germany was unpolitical, and had been an enthusiastic nationalist during World War I, the novel was also a recognition of the part he himself had played in the catastrophe.

In short, Mann confronted Germans with the truth that National Socialism was not “without roots in our nature as a people,” and that it was not brought about by a small elite but rather by “hundreds of thousands of Germans.... [G]ood and evil, the beautiful and the ominous, are mixed in the most peculiar manner” (Mann 1960, 924–26). Germany’s sins had to be punished, because the nation as a whole was guilty. Perhaps the most painful truth Mann articulated was that the “ignominy” of the crimes committed would affect the perception of “all that is German – even German intellect, German thought, the German word. Whatever lived as German stands now as... the epitome of evil” (Mann 1997, 505–506).

Neither the full text of “Germany and the Germans” nor Doctor Faustus was available in Germany immediately after their publication, but in other speeches and interviews Mann continued to emphasize collective German responsibility for Nazism and its crimes against humanity. If there was “a general culpability” in the West for the catastrophe, Mann insisted that “the Germans have played a special, terribly authentic role in the drama” (Mann 1970, 350). He expected Germans to accept responsibility, and when they did not, he responded angrily. In one interview with Die Welt, he said that the Germans lacked “the insight that all the sorrows and misery are the final and necessary consequences of a collapse... and they themselves are responsible for their own misery and not some democracy or occupation troops.” Thus, they needed to understand and admit that they had “squandered their national power, the German intelligence, their spirit of inventiveness, courage and efficiency in the service of a mad regime” (Mann 1983, 33).

Such comments left a bitter taste and invited bitter recrimination, especially when taken in conjunction with Doctor Faustus. One interviewer noted in 1947 that it was easy to understand why Mann had so many enemies in Germany: “Mann has not yet forgiven and forgotten, and has, at the same time, rejected the position of intellectual in the old tone.” He had thus become “the chief of enemies in a land where the national socialistic resentment continues apace, almost unconsciously” (Mann 1947, 284).

Further complicating the reception of Mann’s post-war pronouncements was his refusal to return to Germany. Mann rejected repeated requests from the so-called “inner emigrants” to “come like a good physician” to “heal his land.” When he finally did visit Germany again in 1949 for the Goethejahr, he visited both the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic. In a speech presented both in Frankfurt and Weimar, he argued that it would have been “disloyal” not to have visited both zones. Goethe, after all, belonged to all of Germany and he, along with Mann himself, offered something that could unite the two zones. Beyond the ideological, political, and economic differences, Eastern and Western Germany “have found each other on cultural grounds, and have awarded [...] their Goethe prizes to one and the same literary personality. [...] Who should stand for and represent this unity today if not an independent writer whose home, untouched by zonal divisions, is the German language” (Mann 1949, 20).

Mann’s efforts to bridge the cultural/political divide by pointing to his own cultural centrality did little to heal the wounds between him and his homeland(s). Mann exacerbated the problem upon his return to the United States: he publicly stated that the picture in the Germanys was very bleak. He noted the ineffectiveness of denazification and saw a resurgent nationalism. Furthermore, because of the Cold War realities, “East Germany is totalitarian; West Germany is reactionary and fascist. [...] One does not see how both parts can come together again” (Mann 1950). Although he continued to speak and write about Germany until his death in 1955, Mann’s reputation in West Germany – and especially his interpretation of the German catastrophe in Doctor Faustus – remained low until the 1960s when a new generation began to reflect critically upon the Nazi past.

Salvemini’s historical interpretation of the fascist era also met with significant resistance in Italy, even though he refused to indict his nation in the way that Mann had indicted Germany. The Italian historian was much less interested in long-term cultural trends than Mann, and he had little use for arguments based upon a supposed national character, or Volksgeist, or the irrationality of the epoch. Although he admitted that “at given moments each group of mankind presents given features of its own, not only physical but also psychological,” he did dispute that an historical development can be explained by “instinct or ‘Volksgeist’ of ‘national character’.” It was thus necessary to ascertain “why and how the Fascist movement arose in a given country, what social groups contributed to it, why and how the struggle between Fascists and anti-Fascists developed, and why and how the Fascists overcame their foes” (Salvemini 1942, 68).

Salvemini found the bacillus of fascism in Liberal Italy and the First World War, but also in the interwar period. In the fifty years after unification, Italians had made some progress toward democracy. Because “the lower classes had gradually raised themselves to a higher economic, intellectual, and moral level [...] they demanded and got an ever-increasing share of economic and political influence.” For all its strengths, however, the Italian parliamentary regime suffered from a serious disease: “the falsification that the government made of the will of the electorate every time there was need” (Salvemini 1942, 68, 73, 59, 85). Echoing themes he had developed in his interpretation of World War I, Salvemini argued that the Italian political system and the people it represented were particularly vulnerable to the radical challenge of fascism.

If Benito Mussolini bore the greatest responsibility for fascist Ventennio, however, there was culpability in all sectors of Italian life: the intelligentsia, the middle classes, the conservatives, and even the working classes (Salvemini 1942, 121, 127–8). Italians had proven too politically immature to resist fascism and its nationalist appeal. Ultimately, Mussolini’s doctrine of fascism was nothing more than the doctrine of the nationalists: “the Fascists took over wholesale the Nationalist doctrine” (Salvemini 1942, 74). In short, Salvemini’s interpretation of the advent of fascism emerged from his interpretation of the problems that had led Italy into World War I. To be sure, the fascist regime developed differently because it emerged from the botched peace and a political crisis, but its origins were to be found in the pre-1914 period. Salvemini’s solutions were not significantly different from those he proposed, and worked toward, in 1919: the restoration of individual freedoms, decentralization of power, provision of land, housing, and justice for peasants, and an end to the governmental role of the Monarchy and the Vatican (Salvemini 1942, 38–40, 88–90). These demands were based upon the belief, strengthened by Salvemini’s experience, that the major problems that had plagued Italy for its entire existence had helped lead it into fascism.

If Salvemini argued that Italy needed more democracy, however, his visit to his homeland in 1947 also convinced him that Italy first needed “a period of democratic pedagogy, based on theories of democratic elitism and democratic empiricism” (Tintori 2011, 140). Unlike Mann, he was guardedly optimistic about the future. The history of post-war Italy had not yet been written. Because “the malady” had been long, “the convalescence cannot be brief.” At least ten years would be needed to strengthen the new Republic and guard against a return of old conservative forces (Salvemini 1980, 747–762). In this way, Salvemini modified his earlier demands for immediate and full democracy. Combined with his conception of democratic competition and political participation, this made him an outsider in post-war Italy, polarized as it was into two competing ideological camps: the Communists and the Christian Democrats.

Like Mann, Salvemini refused at first to return permanently to his home country despite pleas from his friends and former colleagues. Of course, Salvemini had been absent almost ten years longer than Mann and had been at odds with the Italian government even before Mussolini. But he had been much less inclined to indict the entire Italian people and much more willing to point toward positive future development. For example, he believed that the Action Party, coming out of Giustizia e Libertà, could provide a Socialist- Republican coalition, which would be able to unite reformists and genuine democrats. During his trip, he met with many younger activists and became confident that they could be educated to adhere to such a third way.

The Cold War context closed off the possibility of Salvemini’s third way, and soon he found himself alienated even from many of his earlier anti-fascist colleagues and friends who adjusted themselves to the new reality. As Luca La Rovere has recently pointed out, even independent socialists and liberals – former associates of Salvemini – accepted the need to look beyond the brown past, including the long-hoped for third way, and move forward toward a new party democracy, even if, on some level, they were aware that old patterns of thinking remained unchanged (La Rovere 2008, 39–41). So, too, in Germany a confluence of events conspired to create a “conspiracy of silence,” and Mann’s interpretation of World War II was shunted to the side for a generation (Clark 2006, 119–124).

If the career trajectories and life experiences of Mann and Salvemini differed dramatically in many ways, they converged around a sustained anti-fascism during the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s and the attempt to interpret the entire fascist epoch for contemporaries. Their former position as insiders, combined with their exile perspective, allowed them to offer some of the first significant theoretical reflections on fascism and World War II as well. As we have seen, these reflections were refracted through the lenses of their earlier interpretations of the First World War. Mann and Salvemini were among the first to articulate the meaning of both wars for their contemporaries and thus helped establish and define this role for intellectuals.

Neither Mann nor Salvemini ever managed to disengage from the mundane world of politics to lead from above the fray, though Mann came closer. Both sought, in some measure, to appeal to individuals and prescribed groups in their fights against fascism – the exile Salvemini turned to individuals rather than parties, while Mann, though disillusioned, retained some faith in the role of the non-political cultured citizen. For both, there was something inherent in each nation that permitted the success of fascism. From abroad, Salvemini looked to the working class to rise up against Italian fascism while Mann looked less to Germans within Germany than to a larger international audience. Both, however, were explicit in assigning blame for the success of fascism to the wider populace of their respective nations. Predictably, Mann took the more self-flagellatory role in accepting responsibility with the publication of Doctor Faustus; Salvemini recommended instruction –education – in democracy for Italy as a precursor to its embarking upon a republican path. While Salvemini tended to look to political history to explain the rise of Italian fascism, Mann, rather more tragically, placed responsibility for Nazism in the very German culture which lay at its heart.

To be sure, their practical and theoretical efforts were not altogether successful, especially in the post-1945 period, but there were always limits to what could be accomplished in this context. For reasons too complex to take up in this essay, there was a long period of silence about the fascist past in both countries until the 1960s, when the work of Mann and Salvemini again became important. Yet they had put forward new interpretive frameworks and articulated key issues for their home countries. Their work thus provided an important frame of reference for determining the meaning of catastrophic events, and for formulating responses to them in the generations to come.


Mark Clark. Kenneth Asbury Professor of History at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. A European intellectual historian, Clark has published widely on German and Italian culture in the twentieth century. Clark’s most significant publications include a book on German cultural reconstruction after World War II – Beyond Catastrophe – as well as journal articles on various German and Italian intellectuals including Bertolt Brecht, Benedetto Croce, Karl Jaspers, Guido de Ruggiero, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Meinecke, and Gaetano Salvemini. His current major research project is a transnational and comparative study of German and Italian culture after World War II.

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