Thomas Mann. (Thomas Mann Archive/ETH Zurich)
Thomas Mann. (Thomas Mann Archive/ETH Zurich)

During his later years, the acclaimed German author and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann would tell a story about riding a train across the United States during a lecture tour to rally support for the effort to defeat the Nazis during World War II.

“He was sitting there, then another man came and asked if he could take the seat next to him,” said the author’s grandson, Frido Mann, who was himself engaged on a goodwill tour across the United States to foster closer U.S.-German relations and promote democracy back in October.

I’m Tom. I write books.

“Once the man took his seat, he said: ‘Hi, I’m John,’” related the grandson, who first heard the story when he was 13 or 14 years old. “Oh, I’m Tom,” the famous writer replied. Frido Mann chuckled at the thought.

He went on to say that “John” told “Tom” he was a retired businessman, and that Thomas Mann replied, “I’m writing books.”

The two men went on to look at John's family photos and carry on a personal conversation that “would have been impossible” in Germany in those days.  Mann said the incident left his grandfather with a deep appreciation for the ease and warmth of Americans and of a country that had, for a while, become his adopted home.

A photo of young Frido Mann, left, with his grandparents Katia and Thomas Mann and his younger brother in the 1940s in California is featured in Frido Mann’s book The White House of Exile. (Natalie Liu/VOA)

Thomas Mann, the recipient of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature, penned a series of novels which generated the wrath of the Nazi government and were banned in Germany, but became best-sellers in his home country after the war.

So it was a coup for the German Embassy in Washington to recruit the writer’s grandson to promote German-American understanding with a tour of the United States in a bilateral friendship year officially billed as “Wunderbar [Wonderful] Together.”

Sitting in a coffee house in Washington during a stop on that tour on an autumn day, Frido Mann said he shares his grandfather’s feelings for America.

Frido Mann spoke with VOA in Washington in October 2019 while on a lecture tour in America. (Natalie Liu/VOA)

‘Like a printing on my soul’

While born in the United States and remaining an American citizen, Frido Mann has spent most of his life in Europe. But, he said, his emotional bond to the United States has never weakened. America remains “the magnet that pulls me back somehow to the land where I was born … it’s like a printing in my soul.”

Mann, who is an author in his own right, said the idea of German citizenship did not always appeal to him.

“Twenty years ago I gave a lecture somewhere in northern Germany,” he said, and his hosts asked whether he was interested in becoming a German citizen.  “I said ‘No, I don’t think I’m a German.’ They were so offended that they stopped communication with me!” Mann recalled.

That changed eight years ago when he moved to Munich, a one-time home to his grandparents, his father’s birthplace and a city where he had spent some college years and met his future wife.

Where Germany is, I also am

During his time in exile, Thomas Mann proudly  — and defiantly — proclaimed that “Wo ich bin, ist Deutschland,” that is, “where I am, [there] is Germany,” in an op-ed published in The New York Times in February 1938. Seven decades later, his grandson, after years of keeping the old country at arm’s length, decided that it was time he took on the privilege, and duty, of citizenship.

“Now I am German, I’m not a guest [in Germany] any more.”

Explaining his decision, Frido Mann said he had become impressed with the German nation’s commitment to building a democratic society upon the ashes of its “horrible history” engendered by and during Nazi rule, and he said he wanted to contribute to that building effort. His decision was facilitated by an Article in the post-World War Two German Basic Law which grants and restores citizenship to those who left the country during the war years on political, racial or religious grounds.

Upon receiving his German passport, Frido Mann said he was struck by its design.

“For me, it was a very important moment when I got the passport, the dark pink passport; now the color may have changed. It was first written ‘European Union [on top] and then [on the lower half of the cover] Germany. And I said to myself: ah, many things have changed in Germany.”

Transatlantic identity

Nevertheless, Mann continues to travel with his American passport, for emotional as well as practical reasons. Clad in blue jeans, a short sleeved blue button-down shirt and comfortable walking shoes – or sneakers, as they’re called in America-- Mann looks every bit the American.

His attachment to America is “almost irrational,” he said, describing a “deep, almost biological feeling [of] belonging to a country where I recognize people, how they look, how they talk, how they eat, how they act.”

“When I’m in Europe, even [for] decades, I forget this, and I get used to life in Europe, and I like it [there], too; but as soon as I come back, I feel as if this is still, still my country; even now, in my old days, happens every time.”

Twice an exile

His grandfather would understand that attraction, Mann said. After fleeing Germany, Thomas Mann settled near Los Angeles, after a stint in Princeton where he counted among his neighbors Albert Einstein, another noted German who renounced Nazi ideology and chose to become a U.S. citizen.

The cover of Frido Mann’s book in memory of his grandparents and German intellectuals who fled the Nazis and took up residency in the U.S. during World War II; some would go on to become U.S. citizens, as did Thomas Mann. (Natalie Liu/VOA)

 Mann went on to become a leading figure in a community of German writers and artists in exile living in a community known as the Pacific Palisades. However, his alleged association with left-wing causes made him a target of the 1950s “Red Scare,” prompting Mann to move again, this time to Switzerland.

Frido Mann recalled that his grandfather was initially distraught over the move, describing him as being “homesick” and greatly missing his California house. Today, that house has been purchased and rebuilt by the German government.

But it happened

Asked what Thomas Mann would have made of the transformations Germany has gone through since the Second World War, Frido Mann said: “That’s the question I ask myself, too. In 1945, if someone had said to him ‘in 70 years, a new German government will buy this house and turn it into an encounter place for Germans and Americans,’ he would say ‘you’re crazy!’” Pointing to his temple, Frido Mann laughed as his thoughts traveled in time. “But it happened.”

Frido Mann, from left, with German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife, Elke Büdenbender, at the opening ceremony of the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles, California, June 2018. (Courtesy Photo)

A democratic future

Turning to current European politics, Frido Mann said the rise of ultra-nationalist groups in several countries is a concern, but he takes some comfort in having seen those groups lose ground in a wave of recent elections across Europe, while calling the political scene in Great Britain a case that merits separate analysis.

“I’m not too optimistic yet, I might just wait a bit, and see how things develop” before letting down his guard, he said. 

“I believe the future norm of humanity is democracy,” he continued. Democracy, he said, is a “vision” which he identifies as still “very new, still developing.” He said his goodwill U.S. tour on behalf of the German government goes along with his commitment to advance that vision and continue the legacy his grandfather had left behind.