The Pen Confronts the Sword

Exiled German Scholars Challenge Nazism

By Avihu Zakai

Subjects: History, Intellectual History, Holocaust Studies, German Studies, European History
Hardcover : 9781438471631, 374 pages, September 2018
Paperback : 9781438471648, 374 pages, July 2019

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Table of contents


Introduction: The Age of Catastrophe: Exile and the Struggle for the Humanist Soul of Europe

Part I. Apocalypse and Eschatology in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The “Secret Union of the German Spirit with the Demonic”
Part II. Ernst Cassirer and The Myth of the State: Portrait of the Disillusioned Philosopher
Part III. Erich Auerbach’s Book of Books and the Rational Representation of Reality in Western Literature with David Weinstein
Part IV. Enlightenment and Its Enemies: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and the Dialectic of Dialectic of Enlightenment

Conclusion: Exile, Trauma, and Interpretation

Demonstrates how four books by dissident German intellectuals served as a rebuke to the Nazi regime.


During 1942, the decisive battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein raged and the Nazi genocide was at its lethal peak. The Pen Confronts the Sword examines the shared motives behind four remarkable texts German exiles began writing that year: Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947); Ernst Cassirer's The Myth of the State (1946); Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946); and Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Each identified a specific danger in Nazi ideology and mustered new theories, approaches, and sources to combat it. The books aimed to expose the encompassing catastrophes of German culture (Mann), politics (Cassirer), philology (Auerbach), and philosophy and sociology (Horkheimer and Adorno). Their scope, mastery, and sense of urgency constitute a comprehensive Kulturkampf (culture war) against Nazi barbarism. Avihu Zakai cogently analyzes each work, explains the context of its creation, and draws connections between these four landmark books in Western intellectual history.

Avihu Zakai is Professor Emeritus of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel and the author of Erich Auerbach and the Crisis of German Phililogy: The Humanist Tradition in Peril.


"…Zakai's approach yields some insights into the remarkable intellectual history of the era." — CHOICE

"This book provides a remarkable synopsis of four well-known, but disparate, responses to Nazism and links them as part of a humanist cultural war with dictatorship. By combining the readings of Mann, Cassirer, Auerbach, and Adorno/Horkheimer, we gain a comprehensive view of an ideal of Western culture composed from very different directions. This approach unlocks a reading of these classics of modern scholarship that is usually lost either in their specific reception by subdisciplines or in their isolated reading as brilliant works." — Gregory B. Moynahan, author of Ernst Cassirer and the Critical Science of Germany: 1899–1919