Thomas Herbert Mandl was a Holocaust survivor, Iron Curtain refugee, concert violinist, philosopher, psychologist, author, playwright and tireless lecturer on the Holocaust, Nazism, communism, music during the Holocaust, and many other subjects. When he died in Meerbusch, Germany in 2007, newspaper obituaries fittingly referred to him as Menschenfreund, best translated as “a friend to humankind.”
He was also my lifelong friend and mentor. In 2004, during one of his annual visits to the USA, I took down his answers to some questions that seemed to me to be of great import. They still are.
An Interview With Tommy Mandl, 03/21/04
Tom, I have wanted to do a formal interview with you for a long time, for a variety of reasons.
- First, you’ve been around for almost 78 years. You have experienced a lot of very unusual things and faced death many times without becoming totally unhinged.
- Second, you have spent your life studying people and communicating with them through therapy, music, philosophy, the spoken language, prose, and plays. You have worked in radio and television, and have given many live presentations on many different topics.
- Third, you have extensive first-hand experience with the two great evils of the twentieth century – Nazism and Communism.
- Fourth, you seem to have made yourself into a walking encyclopedia on human greatness and human folly.
- And finally, despite it all, you have still retained optimism, a sense of humor and a great capacity for love, and you don’t seem to have given up on humanity.
For all the above reasons, I would like your input on topics of both current and universal interest. By way of method, I’d like to move gradually from general topics to specific ones.
Some general questions
1. First of all, are you still an optimist about our – i.e. humanity’s – chances?
Look, it’s not that simple. A great evil was defeated in Nazism. And equally terrifying menace, communism, seemed to be victorious over half a century. And now, the third great menace is expansive Islamism. I don’t pretend to know what “the essence of Islam is.” I’m talking about the manifestations of it. And in the middle ages, someone might have asked, what is the essence of Christianity: the honest answer would have been I don’t know, but the most beloved instrument of Christianity seemed to be the torture chamber. There have always been people who defended communism by saying that the Soviets have achieved many good things but the terror itself is unMarxist. I must admit that I am not interested. The manifestation is the only thing that counts. And the essence of how Islam manifests itself now seems to be the axiom “murder is always good” and “to kill a Jewish subhuman is an act of heroism even if it’s a toddler or a grandmother, that will transport you to paradise immediately, where you will be given as chance to inseminate 72 virgins 24 hours a day. And, these female victims will regress into virginity after having been deflowered. So, as I said, murdering a Jew or a Christian, an American, is always a good deed. If an Islamic person murders another Islamic person, it’s lovable folklore. Up to the present day, up to 150,000 Islamic people in Algeria were killed by other Moslems, and no one seems to give a damn. Only if the Israelis retaliate do the United Nations become interested. The greatest war crimes seem to be the killing of a Moslem by a non–Moslem, even in self-defense. So, that seems to be the greatest political menace right now.
There are many other things that threaten the human race: among other things, overpopulation, the explosive and irretrievable loss of material goods like oil, coal, metal, etc., but here we should mention that losses of this kind are usually compensated for by man’s ability to invent new technical procedures and materials. Other things should be taken into consideration too, for instance demographic changes, more and more old people have to be supported by the dwindling numbers of people capable of work functioning in the process of production.
2. What do you see on the horizon for humanity? What are the greatest challenges, and what do you see as our greatest strengths that will keep us safe – mainly from ourselves, of course?
The greatest strength seems to be the spread of democracy. No one should underestimate the problems the countries that had been communist are facing these days and in most of these countries, sound impulses seem to prevail, though with difficulties. The heritage of communism, like corruption or nepotism, is slowly, very slowly being replaced by democratic attitudes. The Moslems vilify democracy as the devilish invention of the Jews, to be used as a tool to enslave Islamic nations. According to Islamism, the Jews have invented democracy, capitalism, socialism, and human rights. On the other hand, the great advances of modern technology, like computers, e-mail radio, television, are exerting pressure on Islamic societies, and are the reason why Islamism so deeply hates America is very simple: most people in the East and the West, I should say most young people, are attracted by “the American way of life,” including the “most superficial” and the really valuable qualities such as democracy. And especially the ruling classes in the Islamic countries seem to feel threatened by this attractiveness of the American way of life.
3. What are the key lessons of the twentieth century that each one of us must bear in mind at all times? Any recommendations as to how to apply them to life today, both in general and in our individual lives?
Never trust a person who promises you the solution to all problems. Be skeptical all the time. Promises are very fine, but look at the people who make them and how they have performed in the past. And even after short-term victories, these people are far from being infallible.
A useful lesson might be the role President Roosevelt played in WWII – he accurately judged the potential of National Socialism in Germany, and the counterpart in Japan. But he implicitly trusted Joseph Stalin. This prepared the way for selling half of Europe to the Soviets. So even a positive character like Roosevelt should be watched with skepticism.
4. What is the future of your two great loves – music and philosophy?
(smile) With music, it’s a great problem. In my novel, The Philosopher’s Wager, I tried to construct a method that would enable composers to take advantage of the laws of tonality without relapsing into false conformism with tonality. In philosophy, I guess the basically new approach will include the knowledge that philosophy cannot develop in a meaningful way if she does not consult and include science. Philosophy that does not use the methods of science will become a perhaps interesting but meaningless verbal accompaniment of human life.
One of the examples might be my study on free will, which was awarded a philosophy prize at the University of Olomouc in the Czech Republic. The very formulation “free will” is misleading. “Will,” in this connection, means only decision making, and there are only two mechanisms visible here. An individual seems to try to either achieve or avoid something. This seems to be only a verbal subtlety but, psychologically, the processes of trying to achieve or avoid something are different. To speak of the freedom of the will is as senseless as speaking of free emotions or a free intellect. Intellect has to obey the laws of thinking, which is another word for how the human mind works. And thinking seems to be both adequate the functions of the brain and to the nature of things. But to say that thinking is free is a meaningless statement. The problem of free will can be characterized as a wrongly formulated question. The final answer seems to be that a person’s act or acts – which are always the result of applying one’s will – depend on the whole personality. The will can be compared to the engine of a car. The engine does not make decisions. The engine is a source of kinetic energy, which is a lot, but not the whole thing. Intellect plus emotions seems to play the role of the person sitting behind the steering wheel. So, a problem that is more than 2-1/2 millennia old can be finally put to rest.
5. As you know, many people have claimed, and still claim, that the only difference between a democracy like the USA and a totalitarian regime like the former USSR is one of degree. Do you agree? How would you characterize the key differences?
It’s like saying that death is different form of life merely in degree. To paraphrase Clausewitz, who said that war is the continuation of a political process by other means, you could say that divorce is the continuation of marriage by different means. And, in a similar way, you can compare democracy and totalitarianism.
The key difference is between freedom and slavery. In a free country, only the existing law can limit your actions. You can say, believe, read, travel according to your preferences. In tyrannical societies, you have to do 24 hours a day all the things you consider as useful to your career; what I mean is saying, proclaiming, and defending things that the dictator propagates. In communist societies, for instance, loving Debussy was a kind of sin, meticulously registered by state secret security. In America, nobody gives a damn whether you like the Art of the Fugue by J. S. Bach or the songs of the group The Puking Syphilitics, as long as you do not violate existing laws. In a democracy you may sue the state: in a totalitarian system, you wouldn’t even find a lawyer who would be willing to represent you, because he knows what’s good for him.
So people claiming that America is turning fascist under Bush have no basis for their claim?
You may like or dislike him, but to claim that one person and his advisors can change the face of the world’s greatest democracy is very far from being realistic.
Some slightly more specific questions
6. As you know, Europe and the USA have diverged sharply over the handling of the Iraq crisis. What are the chances or an American-European rapprochement any time soon? What are the obstacles? Is Iraq only a pretext for many Europeans to express their general loathing of the USA?
There is no real rift between the European democracies and the USA. The motivation of people like Chirac or Schroeder for propagating ideas that seem to antagonize American interests have very different motivations. Chirac still pretends that France is a superpower. Schroeder did what he did to win the elections. This is easy to understand because in Germany the influence of pacifism is still very strong after the experiences of WWII.
7. Do you have any advice for the Americans and the Europeans in this?
My advice would be: listen to reason. Destroying Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror is objectively of great value regardless of the original motivation. And, the claim that weapons of mass destruction have not been found in Iraq does not make much sense, because you should take into account a number of facts. The Iraqi Army did use WMDs both against the Kurds and the Iranians. That they cannot be found now does not mean that they have never existed, because their existence has been proven by the facts of Saddam Hussein’s actions in these two instances. It would not be a great miracle to transport these WMDs, for instance, to Syria. And against Israel, Saddam Hussein has used rockets which now cannot be found either. It’s like saying that the killer is innocent because he managed to throw away his pistol or revolver while fleeing from the place of the murder.
I would have one piece of advice for America: the American politicians seem to be lousy propagandists. In interviews, no one mentions the fact that one of the reasons why American troops were sent to former Yugoslavia was to save thousands of Moslems threatened by the rule of Milosevic. If I were in charge, I would constantly repeat this fact.
Getting even more specific…
8. What is the main lesson of your somewhat complicated life?
Never let go of your rationality. It’s the only means of understanding what we call reality, and the only thing that enables us to overcome difficulties that seem insurmountable. And the lesson would be: be pigheaded. Don’t let go, even under the most adverse conditions, of your aims. Stick to them almost at any cost.
9. What has helped you survive all the murderous situations you had encountered over the years – first under the Nazis, then the Communists, then during your adventurous escape? Is there a formula for survival, or was each situation so different that you had to find a new solution each time?
Yes, I already said it: never cease being rational, even in situations that seem to provoke panic and hysteria. This is the true formula for survival.
10. How do you feel about “the great forgetting” of the lessons of Nazism and Communism? How serious is it? I know that people have more or less addressed the questions of Nazi evil, but is anyone making a serious attempt to come to terms with Communist evil?
It’s very serious. You can see in all parts of the world where people are able to successfully make propaganda for ideas that have been defeated by history. The American and European and Asian neo-Nazis and neo-Communists make good use of the inability of people to remember lessons, especially historical ones.
Only individuals are making attempts to come to terms with Communist evil. The reasons are obvious: in 1945, the refugees from Germany, who returned to their country of origin, were always confronted with the statement: not everything was bad under Hitler. People worked conscientiously, there was not too much crime, streets were safe. And the analogy is obvious: people who served Communism will now tell you the same things. Not everything was bad, there was no drug problem, streets were comparatively safe, everyone worked, there was no unemployment (which is a lie, but that’s what they say). But slowly, literature that describes Communism truthfully is beginning to emerge, both in the former USSR and in the former Warsaw Pact countries. And communism ended only a few “historical seconds” ago, so artistic descriptions of it take their time.
11. What remains to be done – for you, I mean?
That’s a tough question. If you mean purely personal matters, I mean to write a text describing the miraculous transformation of a former communist psychology expert into a therapist. What else? To stay healthy, to avoid senility (chuckle), and to spend half of every year in the United States.