Mann, Thomas: God Help our Darkened and Desecrated Country

[A LETTER TO THE DEAN OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL FACULTY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF BONN]

AT THE beginning of 1937, when Thomas Mann, then living in temporary exile in Zurich, received a letter from the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of the Frederick-William University at Bonn stating:

TO HERR THOMAS MANN, WRITER: By the request of the Rector of the University of Bonn, I must inform you that as a consequence of your loss of citizenship the Philosophical Faculty finds itself obliged to strike your name off its roll of honorary doctors. Your right to use this title is cancelled in accordance with Article VIII of the regulations concerning the conferring degrees.

To this curt note, Thomas Mann replied, addressing not only the Dean but the German people, in the letter that follows:

TO THE Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Bonn.

I have received the melancholy communication which you addressed to me on the nineteenth of December. Permit me to reply to it as follows:

The German Universities share a heavy responsibility for all the present distresses which they called down upon their heads when they tragically misunderstood their historic hour and allowed their soil to nourish the ruthless forces which have devastated Germany morally, politically, and economically.

This responsibility of theirs long ago destroyed my pleasure in my academic honour and prevented me from making any use of it whatever. Moreover, I hold today an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters conferred upon me more recently by Harvard University. I cannot refrain from explaining to you the grounds upon which it was conferred. My diploma contains a sentence which, translated from the Latin, runs as follows: “…we the President and Fellows with the approval of the honourable Board of Overseers of the University in solemn session have designated and appointed as honorary Doctor of Letters Thomas Mann, famous author, who has interpreted life to many of our fellow-citizens and together with a very few contemporaries sustains the high dignity of German culture; and we have granted to him all the rights and privileges appertaining to this degree.”

In such terms, so curiously contradictory to the current German view, do free and enlightened men across the ocean think of me -and, I may add, not only there. It would never have occurred to me to boast of the words I have quoted; but here and today I may, nay, I must repeat them.

If you, Herr Dean (I am ignored of the procedure involved), have posted a copy of your communication to me on the bulletin board of your university, it would gratify me to have this reply of mine receive the same honour. Perhaps some member of the university, some student or professor, may be visited by a sudden fear, a swiftly suppressed and dismaying presentiment, on reading a document which gives him in his disgracefully enforced isolation and ignorance a brief revealing glimpse of the free world of the intellect that still exists outside.

Here I might close. And yet at this moment certain further explanations seem to me desirable or at least permissible. I made no statement when my loss of civil rights was announced, though I was more than once asked to do so. But I regard the academic divestment as a suitable occasion for a brief personal declaration. I would beg you, Herr Dean (I have not even the honour of knowing your name), to regard yourself as merely the chance recipient of a communication not designed for you in a personal sense.

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