Hermann Hesse's Political Map

By Paul Noack


The history of the reception of Hermann Hesse is an outstanding example of the shifting understanding of his readership - an understanding, incidentally, that relates not only to the individual reader but also to entire collectives, currents, and emotional states. In the course of his life, Hesse stood - firstly - for the prototype of a youth suffering under the educational yoke of the Kaiserreich. At the time of his Steppenwolf (1927), Hesse was - secondly - an early proponent of today's critique of civilization. As early as 1922, which saw the publication of Siddhartha, and then ten years later, when Morgenlandfahrt appeared, he was - thirdly - considered a man crossing the borders to the world of eastern wisdoms. He appeared - fourthly - in his 1943 work, Das Glasperlenspiel, to be pointing the way out of the self-destructive European vita activa, which had culminated in two world wars. It was thus that he - fifthly - became a guiding light for the flower children and hippies of the 1960s. In each case, it would appear today, the image of the individual human existence seeking the road to perfection through an inward journey of discovery was always at the centre of interest - a road, in other words, that took little or no account of the realities of his social and political surroundings.

It is this image that Hesse has to thank for the reception he has been given. Yet he is, whenever exclusively interpreted in such fashion, the subject of a misconception. Naturally, this man Hesse does exist. Yet there is also, over a period of several decades, the political animal Hesse. There is also the Hesse who not only took a keen interest in the political currents and movements of his day but also in the states and nations in which politics was embodied and articulated itself. There is thus a need to once again bring this to the fore, chiefly due to the fact that - notwithstanding the untiring and commendable efforts on the part of Hesse's editor, Volker Michels - a form of reception had, up until a few years ago, begun to spread that saw him as a contemptible regional poet, intense but limited, a representative of that type of German inwardness ("Innerlichkeit") which, as the sociology of literature began to gain greater influence, increasingly came to be seen as a precursor of National Socialism. In a certain way, Hesse really is very German, yet in the sense given to the term by Volker Michels, who put it this way: "Ultimately, it was no doubt the political sensibility and incorruptibility that Thomas Mann meant when he wrote about Hesse: 'There is nothing more German than this writer and his lifework - nothing that could be more German in the old, blithe, free and intellectual sense to which the German name owes its greatest renown, to which it owes its human appeal.'" As such, it is not only unjust - something that is par for the course in the fierce world of literary competition, and a sentence that would thus, on these terms, have to be accepted - but quite simply wrong for Gottfried Benn to write in 1946: "Hesse. Little man. A German inwardness that considers it to be truly colossal when someone somewhere is the victim or perpetrator of adultery. During youth, a few plain, pretty little verses. A buddy of Thomas Mann. Hence the Nobel Prize, very apt and fitting within this muddy Europe."

In an earlier article of mine, I thus sought to identify Hermann Hesse's political constants. In a way, the present article is a continuation of, and elaboration on, the theme: Hesse's political constants, as exemplified by the political environment in which he lives, one which troubles and distresses him. His reactions can be used to demonstrate how, in his person and work, political history, intellectual history, and also cultural criticism, come together to form an amalgam, which it is impossible to break down within the confines of a limited space in each individual case - yet which should nonetheless always be borne in mind.
There is boundless evidence to prove this. To keep things as tightly structured as possible, I shall, however, confine myself in the following to the evidence provided by his letters. Letters are generally an unfiltered expression of what a person thinks.

What is the difference between a political and a physical map? It is the sharpness of the contours, it is the clearly distinct colours in which the political entities one calls states are divided not by high and low, fertile and infertile, good and bad, capitalist or communist, but simply according to geographic size. The borders are formed by the patterns, not the hatching, not the shading - not the nuances, in other words, but the contrast.
Is that also what distinguishes Hermann Hesse's political map from his poetic map - not the nuances, in other words, but the contrast? Yes and no. A political judgment, i.e. the judgment over a collective, a people, a nation - the Japanese are… Great Britain is …. - naturally also contains a generalization. The individual (elsewhere the elementary unit in Hesse's thinking) tends to slip through the net, losing all that is special about it.
Could it therefore be that a generalizing political approach to the subject of academic curiosity called Hermann Hesse is unable to do justice to its object? Naturally not, for the subject is an eminently political being, and the fact that he has hitherto not been appreciated as such (despite the fact that, in Joseph Mileck's biography, for example, each period of Hesse's life is also examined within a political context) is chiefly due to the fact that the writer's often repeated claim to the effect that he was a thoroughly unpolitical animal was taken at face value without being contradicted or examined in greater detail. Hesse is the perfect illustration of the fact that a writer's self-interpretation should be treated with caution. His own assessment of himself was based on a very special misunderstanding that could be described as follows: To be an unpolitical being, it is sufficient not to like politics. Yet that is precisely what makes this so inadequate an definition. To be a political animal, there is a quite particular need - sympathy or no sympathy, antipathy or no antipathy - to systematically concern oneself with the thrusting political and social issues of the day. Anyone doing so simply cannot avoid making statements and taking sides. There are no two ways about it. In this sense, Hesse was - as already indicated - an eminently political being.

Yet the political structures in which Hesse thought cannot be investigated from their political and ideological context only. They are also rooted in the geopolitical context. I would therefore like to document the way in which individuals and states are reflected in statements made by Hesse, and would like to examine the extent to which he repeats common prejudices, the extent to which he is original or inventive, the extent to which he understands - and that is important in this connection - how to distinguish intellectual and mental (what one could call placeless) sensations from observations (let us call them empirical) in space and time. I would, in other words, like to trace Hesse's intellectual map at the points where it intersects with the political map. In my particular context, there is thus no great need to talk too much of the familiar fact that Hesse's work is, in myriad ways, shot through with Chinese and Indian influences. Of definite interest is, however - a first example of what I mean - a sentence such as that written in 1911 in which he cultivates his genuinely political view of things: "The [ ] Indians are [ ] weak and without future. The only ones to create an impression of unconditional strength and future are the Chinese and the English." In the same breath, I would like to draw attention to two blank spots on my political map. The reason they have remained blank is because they would, on the one hand, go beyond the scope of this talk and, on the other, because they have already been adequately documented. This applies in the case of Hesse's relationship to Germany and the Germans, and also that of his relationship to France.

The statement on the subject of India and China as quoted above is the first indication as to how clearly Hesse was able to distinguish between the cultural and civilizational achievements of a people or state and their political manifestations. This is an observation one is able to make over a period of several decades. If we begin by remaining with Asia's "Big Three," the Chinese, the Indians and the Japanese, it is astounding how consistently the writer and poet is able to able to distinguish between intellectual inclination and observation on the one hand, and between intellectual proximity and political judgement on the other. While in 1911 it is still the Malayan and Indian world (Ein Maskenball) that serve as foil against which to develop his admiration of China: "The Chinese world afforded me a marvellous impression of race and culture," he is - right in keeping with realities - able to display the following insight just four years later in 1915: "The only people in the world whose goal is clear to them, and who pursue it without sentimentality, are the Japanese." Yet what he was then hoping for was the following: that the Chinese would, in the same way as the Greeks over the Romans, one day rise above the Japanese in intellectual terms. This assessment of Japan as the less original but more assertive culture is one, as confirmed by actual facts, that Hesse holds over a period of several decades, yet frequently with a negative accent. Finally, he notes in 1962: "Japan devours my stuff most avidly, the culture there is in a process of disintegration." He had used almost the same expressions 15 years earlier, in 1947, to describe conditions in China. When writing of China, he had also described the country as being "in a complete state of disintegration," before going on to add: "They will soon all be in a position to express their flattened-down feelings and thoughts in equally flattened-down international relations." And, just a short time later, he wrote: "Since communism, nationalism and militarism became bedfellows, the east has temporarily lost its charm." And this might well be called his final word on the contact between east and west. On the whole, the effects of the western influences are interpreted as a bulldozing of the east, as a westernization lacking all motivation, which has its origins in shifts in power politics, the ground for this having been prepared by the interwar years of 1919 and 1939, and the process having been sealed by the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Staying with China for a while, it becomes apparent, for the first but not the only time, how intensely Hesse gets to grips with the international scene and, and in the course of his observation, also revises his judgement. While he in 1911 wrote, "One can speak only highly of the Chinese […] a magnificent people," this praise is softened somewhat in 1925 because, as he puts it, for the "unsocial being, their splendid moral order remains, however admirable, alien." And a sentence written in 1955 is like a swansong to past fascination: "The Chinese, once the most peaceful of peoples, and one richest in antimilitarist avowals, have today become the most feared and ruthless nation. The sacred state of Tibet [..] was barbarically attacked and overrun by the Chinese, and they are constantly threatening Tibet and every other neighbouring state."

As I am excluding France and Germany, a few words here on Hesse's views of the British and Great Britain. They are, albeit in a contrary sense, subject to differing assessments. On the whole, he admires them, especially before the first world war. Yet with the emergence of the Hitler regime a shift occurs. In 1938, he exhorts England, following the rise of the "Third Reich," to finally wise up to the true global geopolitical situation. In the wake of the Munich Agreement and the British politics of appeasement, his chosen epithet for the then British prime minister Chamberlain is that of an "old jackass and pest," yet this verdict was quite in keeping with the situation then prevailing. Later, however, the English are the only nation that, in 1946, he excludes from the accusation that the victors were treating Europe "inaptly and lovelessly." And, in the same year, he affirms: "For quite some time now, the English are the only people from which one has been hearing anything humanly noble and commendable." As one sees, there is, over time, a delicate balance between his disliking for British moralizing and his admiration for a humanly coloured European pragmatism.

The picture is a rather different one with regard to the Americans and the US - disliking and rejection are evident in virtually all of the statements Hesse made on the subject of America as a nation, the Americans as a people, the American way of life, or American political psychology. Without wishing to do him an injustice, one is entitled to note that this rejection of America and the Americans is a cipher of cultural critique, an abbreviation of general civilizational affects. What, in brief, Hesse sees in America is, after all, nothing but a magnified form of aberrant "European" behaviour in the first instance which, secondly, could prove to be a danger for Europe if the latter is to avoid losing its identity. "The" American enters the horizon of "European" Hesse only hesitantly, any mentions of the US therefore also occurring only hesitantly. Yet from the time when it does first occur, the term attracts only negative associations. On the other hand, Hesse made statements before the first world war in which he draws a sharp distinction between what he rejects and what he sees American subversiveness as representing for Europe: "The Americans are a people we are later destined to be gobbled up by." Naïveté and a lack of intellectual and spiritual faculties ("Ungeistigkeit") are the attributes that then recur from the 1920s on. (It should, however be pointed out that, in no less a work than Steppenwolf, Hesse invests ingredients of American civilization - jazz, the movies - with attributes that are ambivalent to say the very least.)

Be that as it may, Hesse in 1929 finds the modern German, in his lack of spiritual and intellectual faculties, to be "even more insufferable than the American," due to the fact that the German also tends to brag about his traditions." In 1930, the then prevalent phenomenon of purportedly American-inspired "chain letters" prompts him to engage in a surprising reflection "on the unimaginably naïve and childishly raw mind and emotions of the American, who is highly sophisticated in matters of finance and technology but is like a three-year-old child when it comes to religion, morals, and matters of the spirit and mind. This outburst - undifferentiated since based merely on prejudices - has definite political consequences. Only thus is it possible to account for the fact that, after 1945, Hesse has so little trust in the world power America when it comes to the restructuring of Europe. His prejudice now manifests itself in the assertion that the Americans probably know neither what they are doing nor what they ought to be doing. Before the end of the war, during the 1945 conference in Yalta, he writes: "When I read about the way the Americans want to manage the Europe of the future, I am put in mind of that thing an old Chinese sage said about Confucius along the lines of: 'Isn't he the one who knows it won't work but does it all the same?' The only difference being that the American is not even aware of the fact that he is about to try to do something that 'won't work.'" These two quotations are not the only evidence of a predisposition towards a communism of anarchic leaning. From this one must infer the rejection of a capitalist system dominated by the big banks, for which - as I pointed out above - the USA act as a mere cipher. This, in particular, makes it easy to understand why the USA was at no time considered to be deserving of any words of commendation. For Hesse, America is and remains the land of an over-optimistic largely unreflected way of life which - as exemplified by the "chain letters" - has already pervaded every nook and cranny of everyday life, and with which it also dominates politics. This applies, for example, when he writes (in 1948) of the "inane worshipping of youth and youthfulness such as that flourishing in America." In January 1946, this is assessed as being the "well orchestrated assault of barbarism on our dying western world" and, in a critical work on Thomas Wolfe, is embellished with a comment to the effect that the latter is "drunk on his own world and dynamism, in far too American and far too youthful a manner." As he grew older. what had previously been judgements coloured by a critique of the age and of contemporary culture mutate into direct political statements. These are nourished chiefly by the fear of a future nuclear war and the anti-Soviet McCarthyism then so prevalent. "In America," he writes in a letter in 1955, "the people speaking out in favour of peace and reason are treated as pariahs in the same way they are in your own country." Unfortunately, his disliking is strengthened still further by the fact that, in the mid-1940s, he got involved in a bitter dispute with the writer Hans Habe, who then held the position of American press officer. This provides new fodder to fan the flames of his underlying anti-American attitude still further. The best he was able to bring himself to say in subsequent years was in 1961, i.e. shortly before his death, when he made the following remark: "Fortunately, the America of today does, in addition to all the others, also have some redeeming features."

While Hesse's anticapitalist view of the world tends to shape his view of the USA as a political quantity in highly direct fashion, the question which, in an age used to thinking in antagonistic terms, automatically poses itself is: How did Hesse view that other world power, the Soviet Union? While his critical attitude was, on the one hand, fuelled by a generally anticapitalist affect, it was, on the other, also directed against any form of state power - "An indecent abundance of power corrupts, undeniably." With regard to the first aspect at least, the Soviet Union was thus likely to fare better with him than the USA. Yet this is not to say that he took a more uncritical view of the USSR as a state than he did of the USA. One of the few political resolutions he supported was, for example, a decision in 1956 to condemn the Russian invasion of Hungary, yet not without having given expression to his critical assessment of the relationship between intellect and power: "As a rule, I carefully seek to avoid participating in such actions since the eternally repeated political appeals and protests of irresponsible hacks serve only to make the powerlessness of reason even more apparent and, due to their frequency, to make the value of such petitions even more questionable." The second charge - that of an indecent abundance of power - is one that the Soviet Union had to shoulder jointly with the USA. The attention of those who consider Hesse's antipathy towards America to be undifferentiated (the USA as byword for, and cipher of, capitalism) should also be drawn to the fact that he, who had always felt a close bond to the ideal of socialism with a human face, had never subscribed to an unconditional adulation of the state socialism of the USSR, as was the case with many other intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s. He undoubtedly did not feel at home in his world, and this is something he blamed on the actual circumstances in which he lived. One example of this alienation is a 1922 letter, in which he writes to a friend in Switzerland: "For me, the reality of the Zug milieu and bourgeoisie in which you live is, at the very least, as fantastic, alien and incomprehensible as Soviet Russia." As such, however, Soviet Russia is itself also personified as being an extreme of what he considers alien.

The unconditional rejection of the USA is founded on the fact that everything coming from there impacted, however circuitously, on the broader framework of his own life, whereas Soviet reality was distant - little short of exotic, even. And he remained extremely sceptical about the Soviet commitment to peace. When, after the second war world, efforts were made to involve him in communist peace offensives, he thus regularly declined to take part. And his argumentation remained the same in each case: "I am no friend of America and no friend of war, but I am also not a friend of lies and the use of improper means in political struggles" (1951). Similarly - as he wrote in 1950 - he would "fight neither for Truman nor Stalin," but perish with the millions of people who are no longer accorded the right to live or air to breathe. He even opposes interpretations of contemporary affairs that praised America for the fact that it had "disposed of Hitler. The fact that, in doing so, it at the same time armed Russia, and ushered in the age of world communism is something they fail to mention" (1951). When making this statement, he is ultimately also thinking of the fate of Romania, the home country of his wife Ninon; yet similarly ambivalent assessments of Soviet reality recur often in his writings. To recap once again: Hesse's animosity to the USA - one both visible and readable - has its roots in the fact that he sees in the country the rise of a new power in life that is dominated exclusively by technology which, being a spirit born of the spirit of Europe, has a far greater force and impact than the USSR in terms of its ability to jeopardize ancient European traditions. For all his reservations, however, the writer sees the country as representing the great open spaces and enjoyment of life. This means that his more instinctive rejection of America, and the fear of the jeopardization and annihilation of Europe, are two sides of one and the same coin.

This brings me to the final chapter: Hesse's attitude to Europe, to - if I may put it this way - the European opportunity. (I must, however, point here to the detailed manner in which, most notably during the first world war and after the second world war, he attributed the decline of Europe to the failings of the old continent.) Hesse's position as a mediator between western Enlightenment and its affirmation of an extreme individualism, and an oriental relativization of the individual based on meditation - "China is superior in all beautiful, still, passive virtues" (1917) - is clearly evident in the judgement of his continent and its people. On the one hand, he launches attacks on Europe's inability to come to terms with itself. In 1917, in the middle of the world war, he writes to "European" Romain Rolland: "For me, 'Europe' is not an ideal either - for as long as people continue to kill one another, under the leadership of Europe, I remain suspicious of any attempt to divide or classify people." On the other hand, however, he had been gripped by an apocalyptic mood at a fairly early age. And, when already old, he again writes: "I sensed the mood of decline in our western world very early on," Yet this is said not with the satisfaction of the prophet but the nostalgia of he who came later. When, in 1956, he writes, "We are sitting on the beautiful ruins of our western culture, probably one of the final generations to do so," this is not his final word, for he has an extremely ambivalent relationship to this culture, one no doubt ultimately also influenced by Oswald Spengler. It is a relationship oscillating between an awareness of what is claimed to be necessary in historical terms, and the wish to rise up and resist this fate. For him, the decline of Europe was, on the one hand, part of the need to "Die and become" of peoples illustrated in exemplary fashion in a letter written in 1920: The decline of Europe is "naturally not a matter of earthquakes or cannons or revolutions but, for each individual, the moment of saying yes to a demise of old and the rise of new emphases and ideals." Within the structure thus described, he had, since the first world war, lost the "belief in a better future," the history of the world appearing to him as the "gradual decay of an order that was once divine," and he having written that "the history of the world is like a wild wench." Yet all of this does not prevent Europe - which, Hesse felt, could not be an ideal for "as long as people continue to kill each other, under the leadership of Europe" (1917) - from being rediscovered by him, especially towards the end of his life, both for himself and the ideals that he stood for. The precise source of this European re-conversion is not easy to make out. Most probably, it was due to the real military menace to Europe, and the associated threat this posed to a way of life to which the poet and writer felt a closer bond than he had previously assumed down through the decades. This threat had the effect of making its possible loss, which now seemed to be impending, to be felt as a greater loss than had previously been the case. An imagined possibility had become a political possibility - and this caused the identity between him and Europe to grow back once again. It may well be that, in the final decades of his life, Hesse realized that even intellectual and spiritual forms of life require a real political setting that allows them to thrive. In 1917, he had cherished the hope of a renewal of the spirit coming from the east ("ex oriente lux"), having written: "On this pile of cultural rubble on which we are today sitting, religion and art are seeking to grow. These admonishing voices point us back to the east, to Lao Tsu and Christ." Following two world wars and the accompanying shifts in the geopolitical situation, this hope was, however, largely devoid of reality.

It is the disenchantment with the other, the non-European side, with both the Soviets and the Americans, that in 1946 prompts him to write: "What remains of Europe has since been bulldozed flat by the USA and the Russians. I hope to die without having made the slightest concessions to these powers" (1945). And this he did not do. The writer who was once tired of Europe and sought to flee the continent finally becomes a man who once again addresses the issue of a possible European mission, who articulates this and, in so doing, does still see a future task for the "Old World" to perform. The most beautiful testimony to this is to be found in a letter written to Thomas Mann in 1945: "The Europe I mean will not become a shrine to memory but an idea, a symbol, a spiritual centre of power, in the same way that, for me, the ideas of China, Buddha, K'ung Fu Tsu are not pretty memories but the most real, the most concentrated, and the most substantive thing one can possibly imagine." Europe is thus once again assigned a task for it to perform. What here appears to be the coexistence of equal partners is, a month after the war ends, expressed in yet more accentuated terms. He now voices the fear that the loss of Europe as a force in its own right could mean more than the replacement of one power centre by another. "If Europe should really be lost and become nothing but a memory," he wrote at the time, "this would mark the end of humanism. Yet I am basically unable to believe that." In 1945, this also prompts him to write: "For the first time in decades, I am rediscovering stirrings of nationalism in my chest, though this is not a German but a European nationalism." It is to this that I was referring earlier on when I spoke of the ambivalence of a European will to surrender and a will to rise up, just five, six years after he had pronounced a verdict that could not have been more fatalistic in nature. "I see the decay of state morality and a policy of violation and desecration as unstoppable, and do not believe that any nation or constitution in the world is safe from collapsing or being violated" (1940). History had taught Hesse - who was here speaking of the Nazi era - otherwise.

For one who, in his younger and middle years, had felt the need to gain extra-European experiences because he feared that he would otherwise be suffocated by what surrounded him, belief in the European option, the European opportunity, the European task, ultimately remained his final word. In later years - as previously noted in this article - the old man was wiser, i.e. disenchanted, by the experience of China; similarly, the example of India is unlikely to have offered much in the way of consolation either. Of continuing amazement is the fact that he did not, even at an advanced age, close himself off to his political experience - nor to the realization as to just how far the intellect and the politics of a people and state can drift apart. Nor did he close his mind to the fact that the real world is able to put the ideal world to death - and how, then more than at any other time, the European heritage has to assert its right of primogeniture. Yet he nonetheless remains convinced of the necessity of reconciliation between east and west. And for him, one of the first of the species that we today call ecologists, the looming devastation of our planet is a repeatedly recurring nightmare. Yet that would be the subject of another article.

In summary, I have two main conclusions, the first being as follows: As in the case of observations of, and judgements on, political currents and ideologies, it is once again revealed that, over a period of several decades (with, perhaps, the exception of his earliest and formative phase), Hesse was an observer not only of the national but also the international scene, and of international relations. While he may not have been a professional observer, he was certainly a very lively one. Only rarely - if one disregards the USA - does prejudice obscure the sense of reality he had gained from either firsthand or indirect experience. My second conclusion is that his judgements of states and nations were clearly adapted to changing times, as it was from these very changing times that they were first derived. The only exception, as already mentioned, is the USA. In this one case, he sensed the menace posed by what he saw as - let us say - the perversions of one's own kith and kin, while many other states and peoples were understood and appreciated precisely on account of their polarized intellectual structures. More than anything else, therefore, an examination of Hesse's political map leads to the ineluctable conclusion that a view of this writer and poet as an unpolitical being is founded on a misconception, and that his map boasts a genuinely political component.

Copyright Paul Noack