In 1945, shortly after the war had ended, the novelist Frank Thiess accused Thomas Mann of cowardice for spending the war years in comfortable American exile instead of sharing the terrible German Fate (deutsches Schicksal) with the nation (see Thiess: Abschied von Thomas Mann). Thiess's broadside ignited a controversy concerning the relative merits of inner vs. external emigration which continued for several years. But looking back, when it really mattered - when there was still time to stop the Nazi seizure of power - Thomas Mann spoke out, while Frank Thiess, along with many other writers and intellectuals, remained silent.
In the election of September 14, 1930, the NSDAP emerged as the second largest party in Germany, garnering over 18% of the votes and increasing its seats in the Reichstag from 12 to 108. Thomas Mann was alarmed by the growing support for Hitler and Nazis and accepted an invitation to speak at at the Beethoven-Saal in Berlin. Deutsche Ansprache, as the speech was later titled, belongs, along with Betrachtungen eins Unpolitischen(1918) and Bruder Hilter (1939), to Thomas Mann's most important political statements.. The Nazi's caught wind of the event and Goebbels sent 20 SA thugs dressed in suits to disrupt the gathering. Thomas Mann was repeatedly interrupted by catcalls - led by the Nazi writer Arnolt Bronnen. The novelist Ernst Jünger was also present.
At the outset of his speech, Mann makes clear that the dangerous times call for the artist/writer to abandon his craft and address the current situation:
„Es gibt Stunden, Augenblicke … in denen der Künstler … nicht weiter kann, weil … eine krisenhafte Bedrängnis der Allgemeinheit auch ihn auf eine Weise erschüttert, daß die spielend leidenschaftliche Vertiefung ins Ewig-Menschliche, die man Kunst nennt, zur seelischen Unmöglichkeit wird.“
(And yet there are hours, moments of our common life when art fails to justify itself in practice, when the inner urency of the artist failst him; when the more immediate necessity of our existence choke back thought, when the general distress and crisis shake him too, in such a way that what we call art, the happy and impassioned preoccupation with eternally human values, comes to seem idle, ephemeral, a superfluous thing, and mental impossibility.")
In Deutsche Ansprache, Thomas Mann doesn't just condemn National Socialism, he looks at the underlying causes. In particular, he points to the Treaty of Versailles as having a crippling effect on Germany's economy, which 12 years after the end of the Great War was still in shambles. Still, the fact that the Communists were still in a minority pointed to something other than economic misery for the growing popularity of fascism. Rather there was some deeper cause for the German affinity for the irrational and racist-völkisch mindset. Here Mann sees the influence of the academic elite for propagating a "Germanisten-Romantik" and "Nordgläubigkeit" - specifically Germanic mysticism mindset which has had devastating unintended consequences.
Der exzentrischen Seelenlage einer der Idee entlaufenen Menschheit entspricht eine Politik im Groteskstil mit Heilsarmee-Allüren, Massenkrampf, Budengeläut, Halleluja und derwischmäßigem Wiederholen monotoner Schlagworte, bis alles Schaum vor dem Munde hat. Fanatismus wird Heilsprinzip, Begeisterung epileptische Ekstase, Politik wird zum Massenopiat des Dritten Reiches oder einer proletarischen Eschatologie, und die Vernunft verhüllt ihr Antlitz.
(This fantastic state of mind, of a humanity that has outrun its ideas, is matched by a political scene in the grotesque style, with Salvation Army methods, hallelujahs and bell-ringing and dervishlike repetition of monotonous catchwords, until everybody foams at the mouth. Fanaticism turns into a means of salvation, enthusiasm into epileptic ecstasy, politics becomes an opiate for the masses, a proletarian eschatology; and reason veils her face.)
The audience applauded loudly, drowning out the catcalls of the Nazis. But the words of the great Venunftrepublikaner failed to resonate beyond the Beethoven-Saal.
Shortly after Mann delivered his speech, Erich Kästner published his novel Fabian - Die Geschichte eines Moralisten. Towards the end of the book, Fabian - the novel's central character - observes:
"Vernunft kann man nur einer beschränkten Zahl von Menschen beibringen, und die sind schon vernünftig."
Update: See my review of Thomas Mann's great anti-fascist novella Mario und der Zauberer.