Like many others during World War II, novelist Thomas Mann fled Germany, from France to Zurich and eventually to the United States, where he settled in a house built for him by midcentury modernist and fellow emigré J.R. Davidson, in Pacific Palisades.
“This house was not only a family home, not only a center of thinking and writing, a hub of Weimar on the Pacific, a hub of literature, music, film and art. This was a White House and Thomas Mann's study was, in many ways, the Oval Office of the emigré opposition to Hitler’s reign of terror,” German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier told guests at the house’s reopening earlier this month.
The German government bought the house for more than $13 million in late 2016, when its listing for sale triggered fears it would be demolished, and spent an undisclosed amount on its renovation.
From 1942 to 1952, the house became a beacon to German expatriates including filmmaker Fritz Lang, theater director Max Reinhardt, composer Arnold Schoenberg and philosopher Theodor Adorno, who often gathered to ruminate on the future of their home country under Nazi rule.
Most famous for A Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain, commonly considered the most influential novel in German literature, Mann scoffed at democratic ideals as a young intellectual in Weimar, Germany, but eventually came to passionately embrace such notions embodied by the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“He felt democracy — that America had more or less invented it,” Steven Lavine, former president of CalArts and now founding director of the Thomas Mann House, told L.A. Weekly. “At one point he said democracy and America are synonymous. To him, that was irreplaceable.” That is why Lavine has made challenges facing democracy a theme for the intellectuals who have been invited to stay at the house.
Psychologist Frido Mann, the author’s 77-year-old grandson, will explore the reasoning behind evangelicals embracing Trump. Literary scholar Heinrich Detering will write about Mann’s relationship to the Unitarian Church, which influenced the author's evolution toward embracing democratic principles.
“It’s really important to make diplomacy here for the transatlantic relationship, which is a nice task to do, especially these days,” said actor Burghart Klaussner (White Ribbon, Bridge of Spies). “The concern about the rising right in the world, not only America, in Germany, is something that us, as artists, really moves us. We can do something against it. We can do something for humanity and tell stories about how things can go in a different way.”
The morning after the house’s inauguration, the fellows participated in a conference, The Struggle for Democracy, at the nearby Getty Museum. Sociologist Jutta Allmendinger discussed issues surrounding diversity with Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Informational Studies. A discussion called “Status Panic — Fear and the Decline of Democracy” was led by author Heinz Bude and UC Irvine sociology professor Claire Jean Kim.
“The really hard issue, which we ducked entirely, is contemporary capitalism and the destruction of democracy,” confessed Lavine, citing sociologist Wolfgang Streeck’s collections of essays, How Will Capitalism End? “It’s much easier to imagine the end of democracy than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
At present, Chancellor Angela Merkel is holding together a three-part coalition with her CDU Party squeaking along in national polls at 31 percent, after a recent drop of two points. Last week, President Trump, in an effort to inflict further harm in a country where he enjoys a mere 11 percent approval rating, lied in a tweet about rising crime rates in Germany due to Merkel’s immigration policies.
In Mann’s era, German emigrés looked to the United States for democratic leadership in a turbulent time. Today, many believe it’s the other way around. “Germany has a better-functioning democracy than we do. And we need Germany at this point,” Lavine says.
Fellows at the Thomas Mann House are chosen through a system of panels that tend to attract “bright people who have interesting ideas,” according to Lavine. Standing on the patio where German intellectuals once nervously dwelled on the future, President Steinmeier toasted their intellectual progeny, telling the fellows and guests, “You’re going on this transatlantic journey at a time of political turbulence,” then adding with a nod, “Your work here will be important work.”