It isn’t every year that a nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of its most famous writers. Yet unless he knew about it in advance, any visitor walking this past summer through the streets of Lübeck, the ancient Hanseatic city on the Baltic coast of Germany, could hardly have guessed that precisely such an event was being celebrated there. The rare posters on walls and in shop windows calling attention to it were lost among other signs announcing “butter cruises” to Denmark, the races of the Kieler Woche, and the latest X-rated movies at the local cinemas. On June 6, only a few hundred Lübeckers and tourists had gathered in front of the theater where the main ceremony was to take place, primarily to catch a glimpse of Walter Scheel, the President of the Federal Republic, who personally had come from Bonn to demonstrate the government’s concern for culture and tradition. A few blocks away, the crowd of busy shoppers and the bare-chested young men in blue jeans trying to sell their exotic wares could have cared less. It was evident to the observer that Lübeck was not about to be diverted from its usual pursuits by the mere fact that one hundred years ago Thomas Mann, Germany’s greatest novelist of this century, was born in their city.

This indifference on the part of those who should have taken a special interest in a unique local affair of this kind may be astonishing, but it is not surprising. It certainly has nothing to do with any left-over resentments from the time when the city’s haughty bourgeoisie snubbed the budding young writer because he had dared to depict its stuffy mores in his first novel, Buddenbrooks. No, it isn’t that; it is simply that twenty years after his death, the name of Thomas Mann no longer has the ring it used to have among his German compatriots. This is not to say that the author of The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus is today almost forgotten in his own country. The truth is that he, like his admired predecessors, Goethe and Schiller, whose anniversaries he himself helped to celebrate in 1949 and 1955, has already become a literary legend harking back to a time in history most contemporary Germans would rather forget than commemorate.

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