In the early part of the twentieth century, up to and including the First World War, the limits of culture - language, form, style - were being explored, and criticized, as seen in the essay by Georg Simmel. This exploration also occurred, for example, in music by Schoenberg, in painting by Klimt, in architecture by Loos, and in philosophy by Wittgenstein. In the area of literature, the novel moved away from the story and the sense of immediate totality and closure in the direction of essayism and interpretation which emphasized ironic reflection and fragmentation. This attitude and essayistic style typifies the work of Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, and during this period, Thomas Mann.

In 'Civilization's Literary Man' - the essay published from Reflections of a Non-political Man - Thomas Mann married this essayism to a short-lived and Nietzschean-inspired hatred of democracy which became the basis for a reflection on German identity. Mann favoured the greatness of Kultur against politics of the Zivilisation. In Mann's essay, neither culture nor civilization can be separated from the issue of national identity. Civilization, for Mann, like Nietzsche, refers to the shallow society of progress and democracy (France), whilst culture refers to the fraught intellectual soul of Germany. The phrase 'civilization's literary man' is a rhetorical device with which Thomas Mann rebukes those Germans (particularly his brother Heinrich who wrote an essay in reply) who criticized the German militaristic stance from the vantage point of 'literary humanism', that is, from the vantage point of 'French' civilization. The irony for Thomas Mann, however, was that literature belonged to civilization, and he himself was a littérateur. This essay is a fine example of the divisions and confusions between civilization and culture when these terms are deployed as criteria of national identity.