Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900-1949
The Loyal Subject
After the end of World War II, Thomas Mann wrote of his brother Heinrich,
On his way home with his niece Erika, my oldest daughter, he once said, “Politically, I really do get along quite well with your father now. He is just a little more radical than I.” It sounded terribly funny, but what he meant was our relationship to Germany, still cherished, toward which he was less angry than I, for the simple reason that he knew the score earlier and suffered no disillusionment.
Read in context, this referred to the fact that Heinrich had recognized the threat of National Socialism sooner than his brother, but it could also be taken to recall that earlier difference of opinion about Germany and German culture that had divided the brothers during the First World War and prevented intimacy between them for years thereafter. Contention was indeed the salient characteristic of their relationship through most of their lives, as they quarreled over literary aesthetics, the nature of the creative task, the social responsibility of the intellectual, and their country’s role in modern history. In Anthony Heilbut’s words, theirs was truly “a sibling rivalry of mythic proportions.” This often threatened to cause an irreparable breach between them. That it never quite did so was largely because they never forgot that they were brothers and because they felt bound together, as Thomas Mann said once in a speech on Heinrich’s sixtieth birthday, by the memory of the “irrealistic [sic] lightheartedness” of their youth, which helped them to find their way out of their individual existences and back together again.
The substantial correspondence edited by Hans Wysling records the intermittent Bruderzwist in all of its shadings from deep affection to astringent criticism and wounded amour-propre and is incidentally the most revealing mirror of Thomas Mann’s thoughts and opinions of anything he ever wrote except his diaries. It is supplemented by Wysling’s excellent analytical introduction and hundreds of informative notes, as well as by a selection of occasional papers, including an article by Heinrich Mann on “Death in Venice,” one by Thomas Mann on his brother’s novel The Head, and a number of fraternal birthday addresses from their later years.
Heinrich and Thomas were born in Lübeck, the sons of a prosperous grain dealer and member of the Lübeck Senate. Heinrich, the elder, was apprenticed to the book trade in Dresden, but following his father’s death in 1891, went to Munich with his mother and then, after a brief period, to Italy, where for the next two decades he spent more time than in his own country. Wysling describes his life as one of “Zarathustran wandering.” Whatever that means, it included a remarkable amount of writing—eight short stories and novellas in 1894 alone and the editing of a polemical, anti-monarchist, anti-militaristic, anti-Semitic journal to which he contributed articles on all subjects.
Thomas showed no more taste for an ordinary occupation than his brother and, after being successively …