Thomas Mann’s American Religion. Ansprache in der First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, 10. August 2018

Although Thomas Mann’s relationship to religion has been thoroughly investigated, his late and lasting embrace of the Unitarian church in the United States has been ignored for a long time. This comes as a surprise considering how strongly Thomas Mann expressed this relationship, not only during his American exile, but also back in Europe. For years, he wrote in 1951, Unitarianism had been »close to my heart«; and »rarely, if ever,« had he »taken so lively and militant an interest in the activities of any religious group«. »In many ways,« he said, he felt connected to the Unitarians »personally and intellectually«. In 1950, he wrote: »My interest in and warm sympathy for Unitarianism are of long standing […] Moreover, the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles is particularly close to my heart and mind.« Only a few months before his death in Kilchberg, he wrote to the Unitarian minister in Los Angeles, whom he called a friend: »The spirit of your church […] – it is this spirit that I find attractive since I got to know it«. Thomas Mann did not speak of any other religious community in the same way. Seldom, if ever, did he feel closer to any confession than Unitarianism.
This partiality became apparent in private life and ritual. His youngest daughter and her husband were married in Princeton by a Unitarian minister; the Unitarian Service Committee helped his brother Heinrich and his son Golo Mann to escape from Europe during the war. All four grandchildren were baptized in the Unitarian Church, his brother Heinrich was buried there. Thomas Mann wrote for the parish newsletter and spoke in the pulpit during a service as a guest. And his friend, the minister Stephen Fritchman, continued to remember him as »one of our most cherished friends.« And there is little reason to doubt that Mann felt the same.
For a long time, all of this has not played any role in the ongoing German discussions about Thomas Mann and religion. This remarkable lack of interest might have to do with a transatlantic bias and lack of knowledge about specifically American traditions. Thomas Mann’s turn to the Unitarian church epitomizes his effort to combine the political, philosophical, and religious traditions of his background with those rooted in American culture which he tried to adopt as far as possible and make his new home.
This process had already begun long before his exile, starting with the famous speech, »On the German Republic«, delivered in 1922, that marked his turn toward democracy. While he was working on the text, he studied Walt Whitman’s poems and essay, which suddenly provided Mann with a new perspective on America. In an open letter to the translator, Thomas Mann called the German edition a »great, important, indeed sacred gift.« Notes and marks in Thomas Mann’s copy show why. Following his friend and teacher Emerson, Whitman discusses the democracy of young America as the model for a utopian union of humanity. And he notes, »I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms.« Immediately, this democratic universalism segues into something genuinely religious, as Thomas Mann underlines: »at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there.« In his speech, Mann quotes this phrase and makes it his own. His turn to democracy in 1922, inspired by Whitman and Emerson, already pointed towards Unitarianism. Only he did not know it yet.
Thus, at the beginning of his American exile, it was only a question of time before his personal convictions, which were already similar to contemporary American Unitarianism, should assume a tangible shape. The time came in 1940 with Golo and Heinrich Mann’s dangerous escape from Europe due to the help of the Unitarian Service Committee. In 1954, Thomas Mann wrote reflectively that »In many ways I feel connected to the Unitarians, personally and intellectually.« Then he adds: »In her, all my four grandchildren have been baptized, both boys and girls«. Whenever his relationship with the Unitarian church comes up, he never fails to mention this.
In 1942, he records in his diary that the ceremony had been conducted »by a sensible clergyman in a pleasant and unassuming way.« In his book »The Making of Doktor Faustus«, he writes: The children »have been anointed as Christians in the Unitarian Church with a minimum of religious pretensions in the most sensibly human ceremony.« So the ritual forms are »sensible,« because they are »human«, cutting back the »religious pretensions« of an institution, and the children are »anointed as Christians«: The sacrament is conceived as an initiation into a Christian, human life. This is why Thomas Mann remembers the ceremony as »the most gratifying experience in church I’ve ever had«.
This »sensible clergyman« wasn’t just anybody. Back in 1933, Rev. Ernest Caldecott had been one of the forty-three signatories of the controversial »Humanist Manifesto«, endorsing political humanism as a form of religion, alongside such intellectuals as the philosopher John Dewey. Thomas Mann and the radical minister got along well, as Caldecott’s letter to Mann on his seventieth birthday in 1945 illustrates: »My dear Dr. Mann: Word has come to me that you have just passed your seventieth birthday. I could hardly believe it because on several occasions when I had the opportunity of meeting you, it would seem to me you were scarcely sixty … I should like to express the hope that you will live as long as you desire to do so, but not a day longer … Cordially yours, Ernest Caldecott.«
The choice of this minister to perform the baptisms of his four grandchildren was Thomas Mann’s alone. A letter of April 1942 shows that just before the ceremony, even Elisabeth Mann didn’t know into which church her children would be baptized. She later recounted that they could only tell the minister just before the ceremony that: »‘You see, we are the children’s parents.’ The minister almost fainted«.
Although Thomas Mann’s insistence on Unitarian baptism was actually an act of heresy – the Protestant churches of the United States recognized neither the Unitarian Church nor its non-sacramental ceremonies as Christian – he continually insisted on the Christian origin and character of Unitarianism. At the crossroads of the Christian and non-theistic alignment, which the Unitarian Church faces today, Thomas Mann plainly advocates a liberal Christian orientation. In a great speech at the Library of Congress in 1942, on his novel »Joseph and His Brothers«, Thomas Mann considered this literary and religious main work of his life in the light of his religious experience and translated the concept of religion as »attentiveness and obedience: attentiveness to the inner changes of the world, the mutation in the aspects of truth and right … To live in sin is to live against the spirit, to cling to the antiquated, obsolete, and to continue to live in it, due to inattentiveness and disobedience.«
These passages are also worth quoting because Thomas Mann published an abridged version in a much less prominent place: a »Christmas Message,« as he called it, published in Caldecott’s parish newsletter – in his own words, a summary of »what I personally mean by religion«. He only seriously professed it here – ‘in statu confessionis’, in the state of a personal confession.
This is the background for his meeting with the man who would take Caldecott’s place. And that, of course, was Stephen H. Fritchman. Intellectually acute, relentlessly engaging in political questions, he had become chief editor of the most important Unitarian periodical in 1942. Five years later, he lost this influential post after a sensational controversy, drawn out over a year and a half, in which he was denounced as a »communist« because of his openly socialist leaning. The »Fritchman crisis« garnered nationwide public attention. In the wake of the scandal, Fritchman became a popular minister with the Los Angeles congregation. In his sermons, books, and radio shows, he advocated African-American equality, social and political freedom, and spoke out against civil-rights abuses during the anti-communist hysteria.
As early as 1938, Fritchman’s name had been at the top of the list of speakers at a rally in Boston, held under the motto, »A Call to the People of Boston: Protest Nazi Terror Against Jews and Catholics.« The aims of his work as minister in Los Angeles included reconciliation between Protestants, Catholics, Jews, theists, and atheists – because »communication with any person« is part of the »practice of our religion.« Fritchman kept on defending diversity and individuality, a solidary community of free individuals. And he always insisted that the true nature of religion unfolds in these maxims.
Only a few months after the »Fritchman crisis,« he met Thomas Mann. In him, the beleaguered Fritchman immediately found a supporter and, in the course of their six-year acquaintance, a friend. Thomas Mann especially came to appreciate Fritchman as a fellow opponent of what he feared was the looming return of fascism in American disguise. Only four months after they had met for the first time, on June 18, 1948, he wrote, with Erika Mann’s help, his first text backing Fritchman.
Apparently, this paper directly referred to a sermon Fritchman had agreed to send him beforehand. In October 1948, Thomas Mann recorded in his diary that the sermon’s topic was a protest »against increasing breaches of the [C]onstitution, [such as] imprisoning witnesses at will who refuse to inform on their friends«. Already since the year before, he had felt »Horribly affected by the ever diminishing sense of justice in this country, by the dominance of fascist violence.» (Diary, October 1947) As you know, the »Hollywood Ten,« whom the »House Committee on Un-American Activities« suspected of being Communists, refused to testify and were sentenced to prison. On the same night, Fritchman and his wife were invited to Pacific Palisades to coordinate their joint response, and Thomas Mann wrote a »letter as a supplement to his sermon against the ongoing erosion of Constitution[al] and Americ[an] freedom«. Fritchman read out that letter in the pulpit, and the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles later published it – singularly naming both men as co-authors.
Although the printed leaflet looks rather humble, it had decisive consequences for both Fritchman and Thomas Mann. On April 4, 1949, »Life« Magazine carried a sensational article, initiated by the FBI. The article depicts fifty mug shots with captions that give only names and occupations, resembling a huge »wanted« poster and running under the headline: »Dupes and Fellow Travelers Dress Up Communist Fronts.« The list reads like a Who’s Who of liberal America. Apart from Norman Mailer, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Arthur Miller, it also includes »Thomas Mann, novelist« and »Stephen H. Fritchman, Unitarian clergyman.« But – »to be a ‘dupe’ with them,« Fritchman commented later, »is the greatest honor I have yet had in my forty-six years.«
The extent to which these events intensified the personal relationship between the two men can be seen eleven months later in a separate personal, even intimate, moment. On March 11, 1950, Heinrich Mann died. And, as if self-evidently, Thomas Mann wanted to put the funeral ceremony in the hands of his Unitarian friend.
In their fight to preserve civil rights and resist the threats of the McCarthy era, Stephen Fritchman and Thomas Mann remained allies. In January 1951, when Fritchman was again a guest in Pacific Palisades, Thomas Mann commented on the visit on the following day: »Fritschman yesterday: being American at its best« [»bestes Amerikanertum«].
The year 1951 marks the highpoint in the alliance between Thomas Mann and the Unitarian minister. In September, Fritchman was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. While Thomas Mann was, in the end, spared interrogation, congressman Donald Jackson denounced him publicly as »one of the world’s foremost apologists for Stalin and company».In June 1951, at the height of public hostility, he received a letter from Fritchman. In his diary he recorded it gratefully and in an intimate tone: »Good letter from Fritsch regarding ‘persecutions’ [orig. engl.]«. Fritchman had written: »Just a word of understanding and strong support as you receive this criminally irresponsible criticism in the newspapers … Your dignity and impressive achievements make their efforts fruitless to destroy either your character or your work, but it seems more than flesh and blood should have to bear … Your loyalty to your friends and your public, whatever their politics, is continuing inspiration to all of us.«
In the biblical phrase – »it seems more than flesh and blood should have to bear« – doubly-persecuted Thomas Mann edged close to the apostles. Quite deliberately it evoked the sentence from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, »For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers.« Indeed, this is a good letter from Fritsch regarding the persecutions.
And Thomas Mann answers immediately. Beside their common cause, what seems conspicuous is his tone and the way he emphasizes his personal connection both with Fritchman and with his church. He not only thanks him for »your kind letter,« but also politely mentions the church’s annual report enclosed with the letter, »which, like everything coming from your sphere, I have read with interest. Your words gave me much comfort. Men like you are needed in this country today in greater numbers and they apparently are to be found.« After some remarks on the political situation, he concluded the letter with much more warmth than convention would demand: »With repeated thanks, kindest greetings and my best wishes for your work, I am / Very sincerely yours / [Thomas Mann].«
Their friendship continued in the same vein. In his memoires published in 1977 and characteristically titled »Heretic«, Fritchman himself describes this friendship in detail. He rememberes Thomas Mann of those years, Lion and Martha Feuchtwanger as ‘members’ of his parish. Two hitherto unknown letters from 1950 highlight how much Thomas Mann, at that time, actually identified with Unitarianism in general, and with the California congregation in particular.
Under these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that Thomas Mann himself should finally climb Fritchman’s pulpit here in the First Unitarian Church in March 1951. The talk he gave constitutes his most extensive and explicit commentary on Unitarianism and warrants closer scrutiny. In his diary, on Sunday, March 4, 1951, he writes, »[t]he room was crowded … nice choir with solo and organ, polyglot, Russian, Chinese. … Delivered my speech well. There almost was applause«.
Which is understandable. The speech leaves no doubt about the speaker’s serious commitment to the place and occasion. His reminiscences on both his intellectual and personal connection with the church soon give way to passages characterised by a surprisingly confessional vehemence: »By no means is it a matter of mere politeness or conventional courtesy, when I state that I am happy to be with you today. For many years past, Unitarianism has been close to my heart, and I have, more particularly, been rather intimately connected with the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. Last March, its Minister, the Reverend Stephen H. Fritchman, most movingly conducted the funeral rites for my dear brother Heinrich. My four grandchildren, native Americans all, were received into the Unitarian Church by baptism. And rarely, if ever, have I taken so lively and militant an interest in the activities of any religious group as I keep taking in the Unitarians’ manifold efforts and doings. Why should this be so? I am a Lutheran, and owe a great deal to the German Protestant tradition into which I was born, as it were, and which contributed substantially to my spiritual and cultural make-up. Even so, and for my own person, I always inclined to see in religion something rather broader, more generally moral and ethical than that which could, as a rule, be expected to manifest itself within the confines of any one dogma.«
Unitarianism here does not emerge as another denomination but as the recognition of a human – interdenominational »unity of the human spirit« – which, as such, became the precondition for exemplary moral actions. Thomas Mann continued: »Today, more urgently, perhaps, than ever before, what is needed is applied religion, applied Christianity – or, if you prefer, a new, religiously-tainted humanism, aggressively bent on bettering man’s status and condition on earth, while at the same time honoring, and bowing in reverence to, the secret which lies at the bottom of all human existence and which must and will never be lifted for it is holy. If Unitarianism as such fairly approximates this sort of rejuvenated, religiously tainted humanism, the ›Unitarian Service Committee‹ would seem most peculiarly and most directly to obey what might be called ›the order of the day.‹«
And this, »The Order of the Day«, was of course the very title of his collection of political essays published in the United States in 1942. When Thomas Mann describes the profoundest religious mystery, he leaves in abeyance how far this should be understood in theological or anthropological terms: »[i]t must and will never be lifted, – for it is holy« – indicating that the genuinely religious confession does not coincide with humanism but precedes it. Thomas Mann: »The term ›Unitarianism‹ – widely unknown until then – became tantamount to the terms of ›help‹, ›escape‹, ›safety‹. Soon, and in many additional parts of the world, including, of course, the United States, it also came to mean ›readjustment‹, ›restoration‹, ›medical assistance‹, ›child care‹, ›housing‹, or, in short, applied Christianity.«
In this spirit, Thomas Mann explicitly drew on Fritchman’s writing and on Theodore Parker. Consequently, the last sentences resume the American and biblical resonances: »My friends, I know full well that it is far later than some of us might think, and that the efforts of any one small group among us, however brave and admirable, are not in actual fact likely to prove capable of stemming a tide the devilishness and deadliness of which we are not foolish enough to underestimate. Nevertheless, and although it is virtually against hope that we keep hoping, the good fight put up by America’s Unitarians and their ›Service Committee‹ constitutes one of the most encouraging, strengthening and nerving demonstrations staged against the powers of darkness, at this, our time, in this, our country.«
Hope against all hope, the good fight against devilish and deadly powers of darkness, political engagement as applied Christianity: Thomas Mann’s democratic rhetoric is surprisingly well-versed in the Bible. And he talks about all of this on his own accord. An advertisement in the Church section of the »Los Angeles Times« on Saturday, March 3, 1951, announced the event in the First Unitarian Church for the following Sunday. The title of the speech, however, was originally much narrower, conceived as: »The Unfinished Task. The Work of the Unitarian Service Committee.«
In his memoirs, Fritchman notes: »The most impressive pulpit editorial of my Los Angeles ministry was given in March of 1951, when Thomas Mann spoke to a filled auditorium of well over eight hundred… It still gives me joy just to recall some of those words«. The most impressive »pulpit editorial« in the twenty-two years of his ministry – Fritchman’s emphatic judgment is not only due to, as one would think, the mere popularity of the speaker; Nobel prize winners Linus Pauling or Lion Feuchtwanger would be candidates too. Fritchman had a different reason to ascribe this singular importance to Thomas Mann’s speech. »Dr. Mann’s brief editorial«, he adds, »helped to define the concept of religion we were attempting to circulate in those days.« Thus, in the middle of the cold war, Thomas Mann helped to redefine the understanding of religion among the California Unitarians.
»It was a day of sorrow for Frances and me,« Fritchman remembered, »when Dr. Mann … returned to Europe … We would miss those visits to the house in Pacific Palisades.« Thomas Mann’s »lively and militant […] interest« in Unitarianism survived the struggles of exile and his return to Europe. Anyway, Mann and Fritchman did not lose contact. As late as December 1954 Thomas Mann records in his diary, among notes on world affairs, »Wrote message to Fritchman, Unitarian Church. Give money.« This last message, written in Kilchberg eight months before his death, is Thomas Mann’s last word to Fritchman. Again he remembered the familial relationship to the Unitarian church and, quite solemnly, the private letter changes into the »message«: »Leaving this aside, the spirit of your church, Christian humanism, which she advocates and which you humbly and bravely proclaim, – it is this spirit that attracts me since I learned about it and which I admire in true sympathy. Today, everyone speaks about the necessity to defend speech, freedom, and human dignity against totalitarian tyranny and coercion to conform, alien to western civilisation. … Without fail and at a sacrifice, the Unitarian church represents these western and Christian ideals in all their purity.«
Purity and sacrifice: again these are terms from Martyriology, which are here applied to the actions and sufferings of the politically vulnerable Unitarian church. The letter closes with a candid declaration of solidarity: »These sacrifices have to and will be repaid. All those for whom your church is a source of spiritual inspiration will rally to provide compensation. From abroad, I will contribute to this effort with the means of an author who does not write for a mass audience. And I ask you, dear minister Fritchman, to give my kindest wishes for Christmas and the new year to your congregation. They are wishes of peace and they are for a humankind united in their progress towards what is good. / Your friend Thomas Mann.«
Yet, no other document illustrates the spiritual affinity between the two men more clearly than a portrait photograph which Thomas Mann sent to Fritchman in March 1951, with the handwritten the dedication: »To Stephen H. Fritchman. Defender of American evangelic freedom. Thomas Mann.« He does not say »protestant« but »evangelic« – meaning that he appreciates Fritchman’s actions as according to a Gospel, the freedom of which is democratic and, in this sense, an »American Freedom.«
The »true sympathy« lasted even after death. For a long time, Fritchman would cite Thomas Mann as a friend and as a teacher. When Mann died in 1955, Fritchman gave a moving memorial speech in his congregation. Addressing attempts to play off Thomas Mann, the apostle of democracy, against the renowned poet, Fritchman praises Mann’s selfless courage in the face of derisive attacks – a courage which puts him in line with saints and prophets. »Dr. Mann was dedicated with the dedication of a Saint to the task of holding unreason in check. […] Like an Old Testament prophet, an Ezekiel or a Jeremiah, he delivered himself at times of a magnificent, though to some people absurd confidence in the resources of mankind.«
Thus Fritchman says that from his pulpit of Mann, standing in the same place where Mann had stood to address his congregation. »Some of you, I am sure, heard him […] in pulpits including this one…» He then speaks of the continuing and discreet financial contributions, which Thomas Mann made even from Europe, »to resist«, as he puts it, »the encroachment of the state upon the freedom of the church. He gave us all strength and courage, joy and pride in our limited personal human resources.« Referring to this work, Fritchman adds: »His work will survive for years to come.«