The “Other White House” of the USA

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has officially opened the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles. With the support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, this venue for encounters and dialog between the USA and Germany will once again be filled with life: German Fellows are about to move in, providing impetus to the debate on current topics, such as democracy and freedom, migration and exile.

Kerstin Zilm | June 2018
View of the Thomas Mann House

 The first Fellows have already arrived at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles: actor and author Burghart Klaußner, social scientist Jutta Allmendinger, Thomas Mann expert Heinrich Detering, and Yiannos Manoli, professor of microelectronics.

“We spent every night here sitting on the couch by the record cabinet. There was also a grand piano on which my grandfather sometimes played a few Wagner tunes.” In the living room of the recently remodeled Thomas Mann House, Frido Mann points from the fireplace to the veranda doors that look out over a backyard filled with palm and eucalyptus trees. Back in the day, it also featured a lemon grove. Fleeing Nazi Germany, the Mann family spent ten of their years in exile, from 1942 through 1952, in this Californian home. At the time, Frido Mann was only a small child, but he still remembers the years filled with political, artistic, and intellectual activity: “This room was the place to discuss and party. I recited my poems here, and when it was a sunny day, we would sit outside on the deck.”

This evening, the house on 1550 San Remo Drive in Pacific Palisades is once again full of guests: among them professors, politicians, journalists, students, local celebrities such as best-selling author Cornelia Funke and former model Uschi Obermaier, and neighbors. “This is a wonderful moment to celebrate the friendship between Germany and the US in truly chaotic times,” President Steinmeier comments in his brief speech. As then-Secretary of State, he played a key role in purchasing the property on behalf of the German government in 2016, most likely saving it from being torn down. He encourages the Fellows who will spend the next few months here with the support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung to fill “the ‘other White House,’ the former Oval Office of the exile community and resistance against Hitler” with the spirit of democracy and transatlantic dialog.

“I want to go outside and get my hands dirty”

The first Fellows have already arrived: actor and author Burghart Klaußner, social scientist Jutta Allmendinger, Thomas Mann expert Heinrich Detering, and Yiannos Manoli, professor of microelectronics.

Mr. Klaußner crossed the Atlantic by ship. “It was an interesting experience trying to put yourself into the mindset of immigrants,” he recalls. “Having said your goodbyes, with Europe behind you and the vast emptiness of the ocean ahead.” As the house is not quite ready for people to move in yet, he will be spending only ten days in Los Angeles. The first person to stay for a longer period is Jutta Allmendinger. From August through November, the President of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center is planning to investigate the effects of segregation and technological progress on democracy. “I don’t want to sit at my desk and write a book I could also write back home in Berlin,” she says. “I want to go outside and get my hands dirty.” This is exactly the intention behind the new venue: The Fellows are encouraged to initiate discussions about democracy and freedom, migration and exile in Los Angeles as well as other places, both in the heartland and on the coasts.

“The Struggle for Democracy”

From the neighborhood with its Italian street names like Capri, Riviera, and Amalfi to the Thomas Mann House’s first public event: The next morning, at a public conference, “The Struggle for Democracy”, at the Getty Center, President Steinmeier states that the current disruptions of the transatlantic relationship may be more severe and have more long-term implications than previous disputes; the relationship may even be beyond repair. “Throughout the world it has become precarious to take democracy for granted,” he quotes Thomas Mann’s observations from 80 years ago.

But President Steinmeier still sees the fundamental connecting element in transatlantic relations, namely the pursuit of democracy. To great applause from the audience, he calls on everybody to get involved in the dialog about their future. “It is up to us to make sure it won’t be more comfortable once again to disparage democracy than to stand up for it.”