Thomas Mann has been called reactionary (because of his long hesitancy to embrace Western democracy as the panacea of Germany's problems prior to and immediately after World War I); he has been called chauvinistic (because he saw the historical role of Germany to be that of the great mediator between Russia and the western powers); and he has been called anti-German (because of his early condemnations of Nazi ideology and his later, extremely violent statements on the subject from his American exile).
Yet Thomas Mann was not a political writer in the conventional sense and least of all in The Magic Mountain. In this novel, Hans Castorp does not become involved in any one school of thought too deeply. In keeping with the ideal of self-education, however, Mann does demand that Castorp concern himself with the issues of his time. Hans Castorp's vision becomes increasingly broadened as he studies medicine, biology, and astronomy in an attempt to bridge the gap between the individual fields of knowledge; this is why he tells Joachim, "You say we did not come up here to get wiser, but healthier. But all this confusion must be reconciled. . . . Why are you dividing the world into two hostile camps, which, I may tell you, is a grievous error." Mann regarded as the duty of the modern writer to be creative in this sense. This is why he deliberately worked toward transcending the dangerous dichotomy between artistic and political life which has been particularly widespread in Germany.
As a place of intellectual, political, and moral decay, the Berghof is a miniature Europe. Its international character emphasizes the contagious nature of the disease which has crippled the entire continent. While it is certainly futile to try to attach special significance to each character's nationality in the novel, a few facts deserve attention.
The striking absence of any Swiss patient in a Swiss sanatorium is easily explained. As a time-honored democracy, Switzerland has managed to stay out of political trouble and can afford to be the host to the sick representatives from the rest of Europe.
It is also not by accident that Settembrini is an Italian, Clavdia Chauchat a Russian, and Mynheer Peeperkorn an Asian. The nationalities and ethnic backgrounds of these characters as well as many others in the novel fit into Mann's view of essential cultural differences between East and West. Rationality, objectivity, individual liberty, democracy, and progress are distinctly Western ideas; literature, the spoken word, is the most cherished form of art in the West. By contrast, feeling, irrationality, subjectivity, hierarchial order, and monarchy are Eastern traits and concepts; music and a highly mystical brand of religion are its forms of artistic expression.
Italy, the homeland of the Renaissance, stands for Western ideals. The Slavic world, as the vanguard of the East, and Asia itself, represent the East. Conditioned by its geographical location and historical role, Germany has been influenced by both East and West; this is why Mann envisages Germany as the ideal mediator between the two worlds.
Let us look at the major characters of the novel in terms of this pattern of Western and Eastern traits and ideas. As a fervent rationalist, man of letters, and fighter for true humanism, Settembrini is eminently Italian and Western. Clavdia Chauchat's slackness and submissiveness make her characteristically Eastern (she hails from the Caucasus); Naphta is of Polish descent, but his sympathy with terrorism is also the result of his Jesuit training.
Krokowski's Polish name is a pointer to his sensuality and addiction to magic; Mynheer Peeperkorn's messianic complex and tyrannical personality reflects his southeast Asian background. Several minor characters, like the Austro-Hungarian gentleman rider, the promiscuous Russian couple at the beginning of the novel, and the submissive Ferge later on, also correspond to Mann's scheme.
Castorp's attempt to find a balance between the total negation of an individual's responsibility to society in the East and annihilation of individuality through mass democracy in the West symbolizes Mann's attempt to entrust Germany with the role of mediator. Through Settembrini, he says: "There will be decisions to make, decisions of unspeakable importance for the happiness and the future of Europe; it will fall to your country to decide; in her soul the decision will be consummated. Placed as she is between East and West, she will have to choose between the two spheres."
The essential difference between Joachim and Hans is that Joachim is the German conformist whereas Hans is the nonconformist of Mann's projection. Although most characters in the novel fit into Mann's scheme, it would be wrong to try to force each one into rigid character molds. Since a clear-cut definition of ethnic and cultural characteristics does not exist, and since these characteristics do not logically and consistently apply to all members of a given ethnic group, any such attempt must remain unsatisfactory.