55 Voices for Democracy – The Podcast

The series 55 Voices for Democracy is modeled after the BBC radio speeches, through which Thomas Mann, from his home in California, turned to listeners in Germany, Switzerland and occupied Netherlands and Czechia during the war. From 1940 until 1945, Thomas Mann pleaded to thousands of listeners to resist the Nazi regime and thus became the most important German voice in exile. His conviction that the “social renewal of democracy” is condition and warrant for its victory seems more relevant than ever. In this podcast series, intellectuals, artists, and activists will engage in conversations about how to renew democracy today.


Tom Zoellner (host) is a journalist and author. He is New York Times bestselling author of eight nonfiction books, including Uranium Train, and The Heartless Stone. He teaches at Chapman University and Dartmouth College. A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, he is the politics editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Aida Baghernejad (co-host) is a journalist based in Berlin. Her work appears in international media outlets, among them the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the San Francisco Chronicle, Intro Magazine, Spex and Deutschlandfunk Kultur. She has previously taught at King’s College London and the Humboldt University Berlin.


27. Tobias Boes on Thomas Mann's War
How did Thomas Mann use the then still young medium of radio for his fight against fascism? How did he channel repressed energies into political activism? Literary scholar Tobias Boes, author of the book Thomas Mann’s War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters (Cornell University Press, 2019), discusses Thomas Mann’s role as a political figure in the United States and how he addressed political issues through the eyes of a novelist. In this episode, we learn more about Mann’s speeches, how he used radio as a political medium and what we can learn from Thomas Mann’s political engagement today. Tobias Boes is a Professor and department chair in German and Russian Languages and Literature at the University of Notre Dame.
26. Anniversary Episode: One Year of 55 Voices for Democracy Podcast
The podcast celebrates it's first birthday this month! Time to look back on the first 25 episodes and reflect on what happened so far: Hosts Tom Zoellner and Aida Baghernejad discuss the highlights and their favorite moments of the podcast against the backdrop of their own biographies. How do their individual political and professional backgrounds shape the way they approach the podcast and interview the guests? What can we learn from having a German and a U.S. standpoint on the podcast, and how can these different political systems be helpful to get a deeper understanding of democracy? In this episode, we learn more about the hosts of 55 Voices.
25. Emilia Roig on Intersectionality
"We have to think of the entire fabric of our society and we have to be courageous!“ French political scientist Emilia Roig talks about the intersection and simultaneity of different categories of discrimination against certain minorities. Underlying societal hierarchies play an important role in maintaining these injustices. How can institutions like universities or even marriage become complicit in perpetuating them? Roig is a political scientist and founder of the Center for Intersectional Justice, a Berlin-based organization combatting intersecting forms of inequality in Europe. In 2021, she published the best selling book Why We Matter - The End of Oppression (Aufbau Verlag).
24. Timothy Snyder on Resisting Authoritarianism
"The problem is ourselves." Timothy Snyder describes why the challenges of our democracies are not so much political figures like Trump, but ourselves as citizens. Snyder says it's about breaking down social barriers while addressing structural political problems like voter suppression and the manipulation of the electoral college. "A failed coup attempt is a rehearsal for a later coup." Timothy Snyder teaches history at Yale University. His book, On Tyranny, has been translated into more than 40 languages and sold nearly half a million copies in the U.S. alone. It was published in 2021 by Ten Speed Press in an edition illustrated by Nora Krug.
23. Samuel Moyn on the Idea of 'Humane Wars'

Weeks after Western forces withdrew from Afghanistan, legal historian Samuel Moyn critically reflects on the pursuit of 'humane wars.' "We fight war crimes, but we have forgotten the crime of war," Moyn says. Thus, he says, the wars of recent decades have led to a fixation on the means of war, rather than a discussion of how to end them sustainably. Samuel Moyn is professor of law at Yale Law School and professor of history at Yale University. He is the author of books such as Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World and Humane. How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.

22. Stephanie Kelton on Democracy and the Deficit Myth
Stephanie Kelton explains how deficits can strengthen economies and be healthy for democracies. She argues that there are no budgetary constraints on government spending and makes the case for challenging our view of public debt. Stephanie Kelton is a professor of economics and public policy at Stony Brook University and a former Chief Economist on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. She was named by POLITICO as one of the 50 people most influencing the policy debate in America. Stephanie Kelton advises policymakers and consults with investment banks, and portfolio managers across the globe. She is a regular commentator on national radio and broadcast television. Her highly-anticipated book, The Deficit Myth, became an instant New York Times bestseller.
21. Susan Bernofsky on Translation and the Plurality of Language
Susan Bernofsky's new translation of Thomas Mann's novel "The Magic Mountain" is eagerly awaited. Bernofsky talks about Thomas Mann's multiculturalism and the challenges of translating between languages and cultures. In this episode, the renowned translator also shares her experiences as a Jewish American in Europe and talks about the rise of the global, plural English language. Susan Bernofsky is the prizewinning translator of seven works of fiction by the great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, as well as novels and poetry by Yoko Tawada, Jenny Erpenbeck, Uljana Wolf, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, and others. Her biography of Walser, "Clairvoyant of the Small", appeared in 2021. A Guggenheim, Cullman, and Berlin Prize fellow, she teaches literary translation at Columbia University.
20. Mithu Sanyal on 'Transracialism' and Identity
While gender fluidity has become more normalized and accepted in the U.S. and Germany in recent years, questions of transgressing categories of race are still raising many questions in contemporary discourses on identity. Most prominently in the case of Rachel Dolezal, a former college professor and activist who ‘identified’ as black despite being born to two white parents. Inspired by Dolezal’s story, Mithu Sanyal’s most recent book Identitti (Hanser Verlag, 2021) showcases the powerful role of internet culture in discourses on sexuality and queerness in a multicultural context. In today’s episode, the German cultural studies scholar, journalist and author discusses current political debates about race and identity. Sanyal is one of the most prolific voices on feminism and postcolonial theory in Germany today.
19. David Himbara on Threatening Developments in Rwanda
While his government has long been a promise for reconciliation and development, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame is facing increasing international criticism. Human Rights Watch and other institutions accuse his government of mistreating opposition members or making them disappear. At the center of the criticism is, among other things, the kidnapping of Paul Rusesabagina, a central figure in the film Hotel Rwanda and recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rwandan political scientist and economist David Himbara talks about the threatening developments in Rwanda and the human rights situation in his country.

18. Colm Toíbín on Thomas Mann & Democracy

Irish novelist, journalist and scholar Colm Toíbín talks about Thomas Mann’s formation as a democrat and the historic circumstances that formed his political thinking. Toíbín’s highly anticipated upcoming novel The Magician tells the life of Thomas Mann, an epic family saga set across a half-century. With our hosts, he discusses Mann’s relationship to the United States, his admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt and how Mann turned from a "nonpolitical man" into an important advocate of social democracy. Tóibín is currently professor of the humanities at Columbia University, professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester and chancellor of the University of Liverpool.

17. Joyce Marie Mushaben on a post-Merkel Germany
What is a post-Merkel Germany going to look like? How did Germany change in the 16 years of Merkel’s administration and should Germans be afraid of a political backlash after more progressive developments in recent years? Political scientist Joyce Marie Mushaben discusses ongoing disparities between former East and West Germany, issues of gender equality and the rise of a new right in Germany. Mushaben is an Affiliated Faculty member in the BMW Center for German & European Studies at Georgetown University and works with the European feminist think-tank Gender5 Plus. Her research focuses on new social movements, German national identity and generational change.

16. Max Czollek on Diversity and the New German Nationalist Culture

Poet and writer Max Czollek talks about why German remembrance culture often seems, to him, staged and what a radically diverse democratic society might look like. Czollek's recent books Gegenwartsbewältigung ("coping with the present") and Desintegriert Euch! ("de-integrate yourselves“) have been widely discussed in German media, with Czollek becoming one of the most important voices on issues such as contemporary Jewish identity in Germany, racism and integration. His daily tweets address problematic aspects of German culture and, on Twitter alone, reach more than 46,000 subscribers.

15. Andreas Reckwitz on the Covid-19 Pandemic and it’s Effect on Late Modern Societies

How can societies and states reinvent themselves after the pandemic? Andreas Reckwitz, sociologist, cultural theorist and one of Germany’s most eminent contemporary scholars, talks about what the Covid-19 pandemic means for late modern society from a sociological point of view. While the pandemic highlighted structural problems such as inequality, can it also bear hope for societal transformation? With our hosts he discusses the emergence of a new middle class and the meaning of the terms "left" and "right" today. Reckwitz is the author of Society of Singularities (2017) and will be a fellow at the Thomas Mann House in 2022.

14. Nora Krug on Notions of Belonging and Historical Memory
National identity, notions of belonging and the rise of the new right on both sides of the Atlantic: Nora Krug talks about the revival of the conflicted term Heimat and the political dangers that can emerge from a misguided sense of national nostalgia. She reflects on issues of historical memory and how they can be tackled in the form of a comic book. Nora Krug is the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home for which she won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. In the book, Krug creatively investigates her family's World War II history after she married into a Jewish family in the U.S.

13. Keisha N. Blain on African American History and Selective Memory

Historian Keisha N. Blain, Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and President of the African American Intellectual History Society, recently published the acclaimed book Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019 with her colleague Ibram X. Kendi. In this episode, Blain talks about how to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the pivotal moment in 1619, when the first group of twenty African captives arrived in Jamestown, Virginia and reflects on the history of Black America, issues of racism, voting rights and social justice today.

12. Luisa Neubauer on Dreaming as a Tool for Change

German climate activist Luisa Neubauer is one of the main organizers of the Fridays for Future movement in Germany, an international movement of students demanding action from political leaders against climate change. In this episode, she talks about her involvement and the momentum of the movement, climate awareness in the U.S. and Germany and dreaming as a tool for change: "On the one side, we have to accept the catastrophes that are going to unravel. But on the other, we need to allow ourselves to dream big." Neubauer is the co-author of the book On the End of the Climate Crisis - A History of Our Future.

11. Deborah Feldman on Religion, Integration and Political Participation

In this episode, U.S.-German writer Deborah Feldman engages in a conversation with hosts Tom Zoellner and Aida Baghernejad about contemporary Jewish culture in Berlin, political participation by religious communities and the meaning of trust in democracies: “We need to establish the kind of personal trust we have as individuals with each other in the public sphere.” Feldman is the author of Unorthodox (2012), in which she tells the story of her escape from an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, New York. The book was the basis of the 2020 Netflix miniseries Unorthodox (2020).

10. Brad Smith on the Role of Digital Technology in the World of Politics

“We have to step up and accept our responsibility for all of the implications that technology has created.” Brad Smith, President of Microsoft and author of the book Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age (2019), makes a strong argument for the political and moral accountability of big tech companies. Smith discusses “the role of digital technology in the world of politics” and draws attention to how and why “technology inequality” has become a source of social injustice.

Photo © Web Summit

9. Igor Levit on the Persistence of the Arts

Pianist Igor Levit talks with our hosts about the persistence of the arts in the face of political threats and why Europeans should work against their feelings of cultural superiority. While Igor Levit’s music focuses on the works of Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, he is also known for being a politically engaged artist: he has publicly spoken out several times against issues such antisemitism and racism. In this conversation, Levit appeals to music’s ability to make us remember and understand. He is Professor at the Hanover University of Music, Drama & Media. His book Hauskonzert will be published by Hanser Verlag in April.

Photo © Felix Broede


8. Chantal Mouffe on Conflict as a Political Good

In this episode, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe reflects on the question of why democracy has to be turbulent and how to foster a democratic ethos of equality and social justice. In her conversation with Tom Zoellner and Aida Baghernejad, she discovers surprising potentials, especially in artistic practices. Chantal Mouffe is best known for her books For a Left Populism (2018), Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (2013) and The Democratic Paradox (2000). She holds a professorship at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster.

7. Daniel Kehlmann on Populism, Power and Literature

The German-Austrian novelist and playwright Daniel Kehlmann talks with host Tom Zoellner and co-host Aida Baghernejad about the reasons for the rise of populist politicians and "literature as the ultimate school of empathy." What perspective do contemporary German literary authors have on the rise of populism around the world? His book Measuring the World (2006) is one of the world's best-selling German-language books of the 21st century. Tyll, the latest novel of Kehlmann, who currently lives in New York City and Berlin, was published in the U.S. this year, three years after it became a bestseller in Germany.

6. Wolfgang Ischinger on a European Future of Peace and Stability

The former German Ambassador to the U.S. and Chairman of the Munich Security Conference speaks about Europe's position in international politics. In the interview with host Tom Zoellner and co-host Aida Baghernejad, the author of World in Danger: Germany and Europe in an Uncertain Time explains how shared values such as "truth, trust and transparency" can be strengthened again and what it means to revitalize transatlantic relations in turbulent times.

Photo: MSC/Kuhlmann

5. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya & Franak Viačorka on the Crisis in Belarus

The guests in this episode are the Belarusian opposition politicians Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Franak Viačorka. Tsikhanouskaya, who ran for president in the 2020 elections, is currently in exile in Lithuania. She is considered to be one the most important voices of the democratic opposition in Belarus. Viačorka is journalist, blogger and an activist in the Belarusian struggle for democracy and personal freedom. The two talk to host Tom Zoellner and co-host Aida Baghernejad about the situation in Belarus and their experiences in the election year.

4. Dipayan Ghosh on Digital Democracy

How should democracies deal with the increasing power of tech companies? This episode features Dipayan Ghosh, a former technology and economic policy advisor in the Obama White House. Ghosh conducts research on digital piracy, artificial intelligence and civil rights at the Harvard Kennedy School. His recently published and critically acclaimed report "Utilities for Democracy – Why and How the Algorithmic Infrastructure of Facebook and Google must be regulated“ serves as a starting point for a conversation with host Tom Zoellner.

3. Conny McCormack on Election Mechanics

Conny McCormack has served as an international observer of fair elections in Albania, Ecuador, Finland, Panama, Zambia and other countries. She had been the Registrar-Recorder and County Clerk for Los Angeles County from 1995 to 2008 and was in similar positions in San Diego and Dallas counties. In this episode she talks to host Tom Zoellner about what she calls "the frontline of democracy:" the day-to-day work of making an election happen, the inevitability of human error in the process and the well-established lack of fraud in American elections over the last century.

2. David Shimer on the Vulnerability of the Electoral Process

David Shimer is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an Associate Fellow at Yale University. His reporting and analysis have appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Washington Post. He is pursuing a doctorate in international relations at the University of Oxford. In this episode he discusses his book Rigged: America, Russia, and 100 Years of Electoral Interference with Tom Zoellner and talks about what foreign meddling means for the future of democracy in the digital age.

1. Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Politically Dark Times

Polymath author of twenty books, writer, historian, essayist, urban geographer and activist Rebecca Solnit is our inaugural guest on 55 Voices for Democracy. The author of, among other books, Men Explain Things to Me, Savage Dreams, Infinite City, A Paradise Built in Hell, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Hope in the Dark, Recollections of My Nonexistence, and her recent The Mother of All Questions, she is a thinker dedicated to furthering radical equality and economic justice, for whom “a commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”  She is interviewed by Tom Zoellner and co-host Amal Khaled (Project Director of Wunderbar Together).

In collaboration with Los Angeles Review of Books, Goethe-Institut Boston, Goethe Pop Ups in Seattle, Houston, and Kansas City and Wunderbar Together. With friendly support of Dublab. Recorded and engineered by independent radio producer, translator, and media educator Lisa Bartfai.


Villa Aurora & Thomas Mann House e. V. is supported by the German Federal Foreign Office and Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.