Mann’s Reflects European Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The debate concerning the condition of the European soul in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain reflected the sense of crisis that prevailed in Europe between World Wars I and II.

Summary of Event

As with any literary text, the significance of Thomas Mann’s most powerful novel, Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), should first be understood in the context of the author’s life and creative output. Mann was born June 6, 1875, in the city of Lübeck, Germany, to a wealthy merchant family. After the death of his father, the family business was closed, and Mann’s mother moved to Munich. Mann worked for a brief time with an insurance company but embarked on a full-time writing career after publishing a short story in a prestigious literary magazine. During this period, he became immersed in the writings of the philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer Schopenhauer, Arthur and Friedrich Nietzsche Nietzsche, Friedrich as well as in the music of composer Richard Wagner. Wagner, Richard In 1905, Mann married Katja Pringsheim, the daughter of a wealthy Munich family, and they had a total of six children over the ensuing years. Magic Mountain, The (Mann, T.) [kw]Mann’s The Magic Mountain Reflects European Crisis (1924)[Manns The Magic Mountain Reflects European Crisis (1924)] [kw]Magic Mountain Reflects European Crisis, Mann’s The (1924) [kw]Mann’s The Magic Mountain Reflects European Crisis (1924)[Manns The Magic Mountain Reflects European Crisis (1924)] Magic Mountain, The (Mann, T.) [g]Germany;1924: Mann’s The Magic Mountain Reflects European Crisis[05930] [c]Literature;1924: Mann’s The Magic Mountain Reflects European Crisis[05930] Mann, Thomas

Mann’s first literary success was the huge novel Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie (1901; English translation, 1924), Buddenbrooks (Mann, T.) the story of four generations of a Lübeck merchant family. The novel begins in 1835 with the founding of the family firm by the hardy Johann Buddenbrooks and ends with the premature death of Johann’s great-grandson, the young and frail Hanno. In this first novel, Mann established one of his most prominent themes: that spirit, or self-consciousness, is essentially a disease and is inimical to the vitality of existence. In this view, strongly influenced by the ideas of Schopenhauer, the artistic or reflective temperament appears as a perennial outsider, a kind of parasite that sucks the very blood of life. Each succeeding generation of the family becomes more introspective and consequently physically weaker. Mann developed similar themes in his well-known novella Tonio Kröger (1903; English translation, 1914). Tonio Kröger (Mann, T.)

Thomas Mann.

(The Nobel Foundation)

In Buddenbrooks, Mann also employed the technique of the leitmotif, which he adapted from the music of Wagner. In this technique, a certain phrase or image is associated with a theme or character and is later repeated, with slight variations, to evoke that particular figure or idea.

Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925) Death in Venice (Mann, T.) is Mann’s most famous novella. It is the story of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach, a rigid and highly disciplined man who travels to the decaying city of Venice. On the beach there, he sees a handsome young Polish boy, Tadzio, and gradually becomes erotically obsessed with him. Thus begins Aschenbach’s slow decline, both physical and moral, and he finally dies of the plague when his obsession prohibits him from leaving the city. Mann sounds here again his theme of the artist and intellectual as an outsider, a decadent and diseased individual.

The outbreak of World War I saw Mann as a conservative champion of traditional German values. This led him into a bitter conflict with his brother Heinrich, a prominent liberal and democratic author. During the postwar Weimar period, however, Mann became a staunch defender of democracy. His well-known 1929 short story “Mario und der Zauberer” (“Mario and the Magician”), which was written as a result of his experiences in Benito Mussolini’s Italy, is a veiled condemnation of fascism; ironically, the story predicted what would later happen in Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

In 1926, Mann began work on an enormous tetralogy of novels devoted to the Joseph story of the Old Testament. He finally completed it in 1943 while in exile. He had left Germany in 1933 for a lecture tour, but his reputation with the Nazi Party was so bad that his children warned him not to return. He stayed for a while in France and Switzerland and then moved to the United States in 1938. He worked on his writing and taught for a time at Princeton University and finally moved to Southern California, home to many prominent German exiles, in 1940. He became an American citizen in 1944.

During this time, Mann wrote one of his most ambitious novels, Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (1947; Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, 1948), Doctor Faustus (Mann, T.) the story of the tragic fate of a composer as narrated by the bourgeois intellectual Serenus Zeitblom. The novel is a parable of the succumbing of middle-class Germany, with its long tradition of humanism and spiritual values, to the demoniac forces of Hitler’s racist ideology. As the title suggests, Leverkühn is a Faustian individual who sells his soul to the devil in order to produce a new kind of music. Here, Mann was influenced by the work of Arnold Schoenberg, Schoenberg, Arnold the modernist composer who also was residing in exile in California. Mann suggested that the romantic German spirit, in its quest for ever-new experiences and its exploration of self-consciousness, had flirted with an abyss of subjectivity and irrationalism that had dangerous consequences. Elements of Nietzsche’s biography also figure in the Leverkühn character.

In 1952, Mann moved to Switzerland, where he remained until his death on August 12, 1955. His last novel, Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: Der Memoiren erster Teil (1954; Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, 1955), Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (Mann, T.) again dealt with the theme of the artist, here a con artist who fools himself and the public through a series of poses. Throughout his writings, Mann maintained a sense of ambivalence toward his art, a feeling that he often mediated through a subtle sense of irony.

The plot of The Magic Mountain begins in 1907, when the young Hans Castorp from northern Germany goes to the elegant and international tuberculosis sanatorium Berghof in Davos, Switzerland, to visit his ailing cousin. Although he participates in the daily routine of the patients, which involves long periods of rest in the thin Alpine air as well as opulent meals, Castorp is not really ill, and at first he remains merely an observer. He stays, however, for a period of seven years, even after the death of his cousin. His own condition worsens and then improves.

His stay becomes a period of education for Castorp, as he is exposed to a variety of experiences, both sensual and intellectual. Indeed, Mann imitates and parodies the nineteenth century genre of the Bildungsroman, or novel of education. Castorp falls in love with an elegant and beautiful Russian woman, Clawdia Chauchat, and has a passionate, and at times rather morbid, affair. He reads numerous books on topics ranging from the medical and natural sciences to Freudian psychology and the occult. He goes skiing and almost dies in a snowstorm, during which he has a frightening vision. Most important, he meets two older intellectuals who become his mentors. The first is Settembrini, an Italian humanist who upholds the values of European liberalism and rationalism. The other is Naphta, a dogmatic, formerly Jewish, and charismatic Jesuit priest who speaks for a blind and irrational faith. These two ideologues engage in a battle of minds for the prize of Castorp’s intellectual spirit. The contest climaxes in a pistol duel in which the enraged Naphta commits suicide when Settembrini refuses to fire at him.

When Clawdia Chauchat leaves Berghof after their brief affair, Castorp pines for her. He is both disappointed and impressed when she returns accompanied by her lover, the robust and completely unintellectual businessman Mynheer Peeperkorn, whose unbridled vitality serves as a counterpoint to the sterile intellectuality of Settembrini and Naphta. Here Mann’s view of the artist and intellectual as fundamentally alienated from the vital forces of life is again apparent. Castorp leaves the sanatorium after his seven-year stay, presumably to join the army at the outbreak of the war.


Mann himself regarded The Magic Mountain as a statement about the constitution of the European soul and the intellectual and spiritual impasse it confronted during the first part of the twentieth century. Hans Castorp is to be understood as a kind of Everyman, the average bourgeois European. The Berghof sanatorium, with its international clientele, becomes a microcosm of European society, and with its high altitude, thin air, and febrile atmosphere, it produces a hermetic intensification of all aspects of the individual’s sensual and intellectual life.

The dilemma of European intellectuals as posited in Mann’s novel can be approached first through an examination of the horrible vision that Castorp sees during the snowstorm. Initially, he perceives an idyllic landscape, sunny and populated by a seemingly healthy and happy people. In the dark interior of a temple, however, he comes upon a group of ugly and frightening old women who are dismembering a child. Here Mann echoes some of the ideas of Nietzsche concerning the origins of Greek tragic art and culture. Given that the Greco-Roman tradition is central to Western culture, he is suggesting that at the heart of the European spirit there is a conflict of light and dark, of an enlightened, civilized, Apollonian world and a Dionysian one of utter barbarism and cruelty.

Prior to World War I, Europeans had regarded themselves as a highly cultured and refined people who had produced the likes of William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Leo Tolstoy, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The years 1914 to 1918, however, saw the advent of modern warfare and terrible and unprecedented human destruction. Among European intellectuals, there was a profound sense of shock at the depths to which European culture had sunk. Culture had revealed itself to be nothing more than a thin veneer that masked a mindless, raging beast. A feeling of crisis gradually emerged in which the powers of the critical intellect and reason were devalued.

Mann gives more in-depth explanation of the dialectical forces that seemed to tear at the European spirit in the long conversations between Castorp and his two ideological mentors that take up much of the latter half of the novel. Indeed, much of the novel is taken up by conversation; it includes little overt action. Settembrini, the ailing but elegant man from the land in which the Renaissance began, is presented as the champion of the eighteenth century Enlightenment spirit, the dualistic belief that the use of reason can bring about progress and lead humanity out of its spiritual darkness into a more humane world. He stands in the European tradition of rationalistic philosophers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, Denis Diderot, and Voltaire. During the course of the Weimar era in the 1920’s, Germany became more and more polarized between conflicting political and social ideologies. Settembrini is the spokesman for a liberal democracy in which the educated masses can be trusted to exercise their critical judgment and elect the most suitable representatives. His character echoes the political stance of Mann’s brother, the liberal democrat Heinrich.

If Settembrini represents one cultural and ideological pole of the European scene, then the volatile and cynical Jesuit priest Naphta (whose character Mann modeled, in part, on the Marxist literary critic György Lukács) speaks for its opposite. Whereas Settembrini lauds the rationality of the eighteenth century, Naphta praises the Middle Ages, the era of blind (or irrational) faith in forces that are far more powerful than the mere intellect of humankind. Where the former speaks of the free exercise of the critical intellect, the latter advocates nonrational belief and a fanatical discipline of the body. Naphta eschews the critical debate of the liberal democrats and urges the extremist rhetoric of the demagogues. His political views touch on those of the radical socialist who sees only violent political change in the terrorist mass movements of ideological zealots.

The Magic Mountain captured the spirit of Mann’s age: the dialectical forces of rationalism and irrationalism, intellect and emotion, that seemed to tear at the fabric of the European soul in the years following World War I. In the figures of Settembrini and Naphta, this conflict is presented in the form of ideological debate. It is the great irony of the novel that although Naphta dies, his ideological position lived on in the fanatical yet mesmerizing ravings of Adolf Hitler and in the racist and fascist programs of the Nazis. Magic Mountain, The (Mann, T.)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuerlicht, Ignace. Thomas Mann. 1968. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1983. A thorough critical introduction to the author’s life and writings. Recommended for beginning students. Includes notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatfield, Henry, ed. Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. A fine collection of academic essays on Mann’s work by leading American and European scholars, some of which have been translated from the German. Includes notes and chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heller, Erich. The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958. An early but still important study of Mann’s major texts and themes by a leading American scholar. Includes notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kurzke, Hermann. Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art. Translated by Leslie Willson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. In-depth biography of Mann translated from the German examines Mann’s works to show how his art and his life influenced each other. Includes forty photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prater, Donald. Thomas Mann: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. One of few full-scale biographies of Mann available in English. Focuses on the events of his life rather than on his writings, drawing on diaries, correspondence, and other documents to place Mann in the context of his times. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stern, J. P. Thomas Mann. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967. A brief but first-rate introduction to Mann’s life and major writings. Includes a selected bibliography of Mann’s works as well as of important critical texts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winston, Richard. Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. An excellent biography that focuses on Mann’s formative years. Includes notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ziolkowski, Theodore. “Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain.” In Dimensions of the Modern Novel: German Texts and European Contexts. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Stimulating essay situates Mann’s novel within the thematic contexts of European fiction. Includes notes.

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