Thomas Mann: Diaries 1918-1939
From the time he was a schoolboy in Lübeck until his death in Zurich in 1955, Thomas Mann kept a diary. Its purpose in the early years seems to have been to serve as a repository for stylistic exercises, drafts of stories, and copies of letters, but we have no exact knowledge of its contents because he burned all of the early volumes in 1896. He wrote to a friend,
They were a burden to me; in terms of space and in other ways as well…. It became awkward and uncomfortable for me to have such a mass of secret—very secret—writings lying around. All your letters and some ancient stories of questionable nature..sent their chemical components up the chimney. I suggest a similar cleaning to you. One truly gets rid of the past and can live cheerfully in the present and face the future without qualms.
This purge may have served the purpose of getting rid of a lot of prose whose awkwardness now embarrassed the young writer, but it did not persuade him to change his habits. He went on with the diary. Its nature, to be sure, now changed, and it became much less of an exercise book and much more of a record of its author’s daily life and work. But there is no question of its importance to him. In February 1934, he wrote:
These diary notes, resumed in Arosa during days of illness brought on by inner turmoil and the loss of our accustomed structured life, have been a comfort and support up to now, and I will surely continue with them. I love this process by which each passing day is captured, not only its impressions, but also, at least by suggestion, its intellectual direction and content as well, less for the purpose of rereading and remembering than for taking stock, reviewing, maintaining awareness, achieving perspective….
With painful regularity, Mann sat down before going to bed and recorded what he had seen and heard and felt during the day, who his visitors had been and what had been talked about, whether he had taken a walk and what the weather was like, what the current state of his relations was with his wife and brother and children, where he had his hair cut or his teeth cleaned, what he was writing or planning to write and how his works were being received, what he felt about the latest political developments, what he had for tea and what brand of cigarettes he was smoking, and, more and more, in the later volumes, what he thought of his country and its future.
There is no doubt that Mann often questioned the usefulness of this enterprise. “Why do I write all this?” he wrote on August 25, 1950. “Only so that I can destroy it in time before I die? Or is it that I desire that the world know all about me? I believe it knows more in any case—at least, its more perceptive people do—than it lets on to me.” Perhaps because he never answered these questions to his satisfaction, he resorted to the torch once more and burned all of the pre-1933 diaries, with the exception of those from September 1918 to December 1921, in the incinerator of his house in Pacific Glades, California, in May 1945. The 1918-1921 volumes survived because Mann, who was at work on Doctor Faustus at the time, had been re-reading them in order to recall the atmosphere of Munich during the revolution of 1918, which serves as the background to Chapter 34 of the novel. Why he decided not to burn the post-1933 diaries is not clear; but they and—apparently by inadvertence—the 1918-1921 ones were bundled together and deposited after his death in the Thomas Mann Archives in Zurich, with instructions that no one was to open them for twenty years.
The diaries are now being published in their entirety in Frankfurt am Main under the editorship of Peter de Mendelssohn, and four volumes have already appeared, each in excess of 500 pages, exclusive of notes and index. For the English-speaking reader who does not wish to be burdened with the staggering detail and the inevitable repetitions of the original text, Hermann Kesten has prepared this one-volume version of the diaries for 1918-1921 and 1933-1939 in a faithful and highly readable translation by Richard and Clara Winston. It is clear that a good deal must be lost in so radical a reduction; but Mr. Kesten’s selection has been skillfully done, and the result is a remarkably satisfactory representation of the whole that succeeds in its avowed purpose, which, in Mr. Kesten’s words, is “to preserve the curious character of these diaries, that is, to present the omnium-gatherum of a writer who held his own genius in no higher esteem than the supreme banality of human existence.” The editor presents the entries that he has chosen for inclusion without any abbreviation or omission and he has been guided in his selection by his awareness that the striking feature of the diaries as a whole is their presentation of “physical and psychological details and everyday happenings against a background of historical upheaval, throughout a life that was, after all, an adventurous one.”
On the four sealed packages that were delivered to the archives in Zurich in 1955 were written the English words “Daily notes from 1933-51. Without any literary value….” Mann can hardly have believed that this was a true description, and no admirer of his works will be inclined to do so either. As Peter de Mendelssohn has written, the diaries are the most accurate and detailed account that we possess of the relationship between his writing and his life during his last twenty-two years and of the way in which the former responded to the threats posed by the circumstances of his time. As I have already noted, moreover, the diaries were a resource to which the writer turned when in search of mood or verisimilitude; and it is in them that one finds the dawning of new ideas and literary decisions, like his comment in 1920, after listening to the gramophone in the home of Munich art dealer Georg Martin Richter, “A new theme for The Magic Mountain, a rich find both for its intellectual possibilities and its narrative value,” or the entry in March 1935, “In the evening got back to my Goethe-Lotte Kestner project, and after some peripheral reading came across the story in Felix Theilhaber’s book of their slightly grotesque encounter late in life in Weimar. Stirred.”
Perhaps most of all, the literary importance of the diaries lies in the evidence they provide of the dedication and unfailing energy that Mann brought to his work. In February 1934 we find him, exiled from his country, horrified by the daily news of Nazi outrages and the loss of friends, suffering from headaches and insomnia, but nevertheless recording that he had been reading about Goethe and Hamann and Moritz after dinner and, before going to bed, had come upon “some new material for Joseph: some things on gardening, the care of palm trees, and the mystical connection between Ishtar and Ischallanu. The crucial conversation between Joseph and Potiphar became clearer to me.”
This and similar passages remind one of something that Mann wrote during the First World War, after reading an essay on Theodor Storm by Georg Lukács, in which the Hungarian critic spoke of the combination of Aesthetismus and Bürgerlichkeit in Storm’s writing and its high ethical content. Mann seized upon this comment and wrote that it applied equally to himself. For him, he wrote, what he was writing was not as important as the effect of the process of writing upon his life. “Life is not the means for the achievement of an aesthetic ideal of perfection, but work is an ethical symbol of life. The goal is not some kind of objective perfection, but the subjective awareness that I couldn’t have done it any better [than I have].” This Germanic, or perhaps Lutheran, respect for the work that was his calling is perhaps the best explanation for Mann’s diligence, his attention to detail, and his steady, relentless production. In April 1921, suffering from a head cold and unhappy about his recent progress, he could nevertheless write confidently, “The Magic Mountain and The Confidence Man will be historical long before they are finished. But ultimately it will simply be a matter of picking up again and producing my daily quota.”
There is a great deal about politics in the diaries and about Mann’s slow progress from the attitudes of “the unpolitical man” to those of the supporter of the Weimar Republic and, in the end, the bitter and eloquent opponent of National Socialism. De Mendelssohn has justly pointed out that the 1918-1921 diaries are in a sense a continuation of the ruminations begun in Mann’s work of 1918, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, the most German of Mann’s books and, from a political point of view, the most interesting, because of its insistence that there was an unbridgeable gap between Germany and the West, a fundamental incompatibility between a Kultur based upon music, upon ideals that did not have to be put into words, and upon a recognition that life was more important than politics and a Western Zivilisation devoted to literature and logic-chopping which eagerly subordinated everything worth living for to political requirements.
The diaries for 1918 and 1919 were written when Western ideals appeared to have triumphed, and they are marked, not unnaturally, by anger and scorn for the “virtue mongers of democracy,” “the utter comedy of the fact that an American professor, of all people, had to come along with his Fourteen Points to set the world right,” the enormity of the peace terms, and the role of the League of Nations as “the capitalists’ Holy Alliance.” The short-lived revolution in Munich elicits some caustic remarks about “Jewish scribblers,” and the entries for the months that follow are sprinkled with derisory comments about Heinrich Mann, the Zivilisations-literat of the Betrachtungen, whom his brother regarded as pro-French and a traitor to German ideals. But there is no consistency about the political views expressed in these pages and, when the author calls in March 1919 for a “revolt against these bourgeois windbags” and writes, “I can see myself running out into the street and shouting, ‘Down with lying western democracy! Hurrah for Germany and Russia! Hurrah for communism!”‘ It is impossible to take this seriously.
Indeed, as one goes on with the diaries for 1920 and 1921, the anti-Western, anti-democratic tone disappears, as if the author had finally freed himself from the dogmatic positions that he had assumed during the war and had expressed in such extreme form in the Betrachtungen. Politics becomes less obtrusive and, when it appears, the tone is more reasonable, and it is possible to detect here and there an indication of the change that was to bring the reconciliation with his brother in January 1922, which Nigel Hamilton has described in his fine double biography of Thomas and Heinrich Mann,* and—a few months later, after the murder of Walther Rathenau by rightist thugs—Thomas Mann’s declaration of support of democratic principles in his great speech “On the German Republic.”
But even after this conversion, Mann’s attention to politics was intermittent and subordinate to his work, and the latter in turn rarely reflected political commitment or concern on his part. When one reads The Magic Mountain, which appeared in 1924, it is possible, although only at the risk of over-simplification, to read into the debates between Settembrini and Naphta some authorial reference to the gathering conflict between liberal democracy and fascism, but it is surely not insignificant that Mann does not take sides in these dialogues. There is nothing in the diaries to indicate that he ever changed his basic view, expressed in the entry of April 10, 1919, that the story was to be presented as “a tale from long ago,” with “ample satire of the preceding epoch.”
It is striking, moreover, that although Mann, in a famous “Appeal to Reason” in 1930, attacked the tendency toward radical nationalism in Germany and called for support of the Social Democratic Party, his initial reaction to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 was a kind of puzzled resentment that it should affect him. “Great revolutions, with their excess of terror and passion,” he wrote on April 2, 1933,
generally inspire sympathy, compassion, and awe in the rest of the world. That was and is the case with the Russian Revolution, just as it was with the French Revolution, before which no living soul in the world could remain unmoved. What is wrong with this “German” one, which has isolated the country, bringing down upon it nothing but derision and loathing? Which has caused not only the Kerrs and Tucholskys [Alfred Kerr, the critic, and the satirist Kurt Tucholsky, both German Jews] to flee the country, but also people of my own stature?
And, two weeks later,
I could have a certain amount of understanding for the rebellion against the Jewish element, were it not that the Jewish spirit exercises a necessary control over the German element, the withdrawal of which is dangerous: left to themselves, the Germans are so stupid as to lump people of my type in the same category and drive me out with the rest.
As time passed and the enormity of the Nazi regime was revealed, he was appalled, but less, one feels, because of the human suffering caused by Germany’s new rulers than because Hitler’s revolution pretended to be a cultural renascence and was accepted as such by the German people. In an interesting foreshadowing of his essay “Brother Hitler,” Mann wrote in his diary on September 8, 1933, that the totalitarian state had
at least one philosopher, a simple laborer whose head has been set spinning by the times, and who has been brought to power by the calamitous disorder of the day, a man who confounds his hysteria with artistic sensibility, his inner confusion with deep thinking, and without the least doubt or compunction undertakes to impose upon a people with an intellectual tradition as great as Germany’s his own thickheaded opinions.
But the German people, with evident rapture, had taken those opinions to their hearts and, that being so, what fate did they deserve? In July and August 1934, in passages that showed how far he had come from the views expressed in the Betrachtungen during the First World War and that pointed toward the final condemnation of German Romanticism which was to mark the essay “Germany and the Germans” in 1945 and the last great novel, Doctor Faustus, in 1947, he wrote, “The entire National Socialist ‘movement,’ including its instigator, is a prime example of the German spirit’s wallowing in the manure of myth.” The Germans had rejected the Weimar Republic because its ideology, “involving integration into civilization,” seemed “too watered down for [their] taste” and had turned, in their desire for eternal racial uniqueness, to a brutal and barbaric regime that had denatured and dishonored German culture and was doomed to utter bankruptcy. And then? “Perhaps history has in fact intended for [the Germans] the role of the Jews, one which even Goethe though befitted them: to be one day scattered throughout the world and to view their existence with an intellectually proud self-irony.”
Meanwhile, what he called “the gruesomeness of German history” had to play itself out and, as it did, the exile, moving from Switzerland to Princeton to California, went methodically about his work. “Detachment, detachment!” he wrote at the height of the Sudeten crisis. “One must restrict oneself to his own immediate concerns and the life of the mind. I require serenity and the consciousness of my favored existence. Impotent hatred must not consume me.” And on September 19, 1939, two weeks after the outbreak of Hitler’s war, he wrote, “I suffered a great deal, but with good meals and sleep aided by pills I maintained my composure and trust in my own destiny—with the growing perception that the end of this process cannot be foreseen….”
The Brothers Mann: The Lives of Heinrich and Thomas Mann (Yale University Press, 1979). ↩