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 apprenticed to a bank and a fire insurance company, abandoned these for some courses in the Technical University in Munich, joined the Academic Drama Group, and, like his brother, began to write stories, one of which, “Gefallen” (“Fallen”), elicited a letter of praise from the celebrated poet Richard Dehmel. In 1895 he visited his brother in Palestrina in the Sabine Hills, and two years later he and Heinrich spent the whole summer together, writing, criticizing each other’s work, discussing future plans, and arguing about the nature of their calling.
It was a time of great happiness for the brothers, often recalled later when they were divided, but it was also one of dedication, for they regarded themselves as exceptional and destined for literary greatness. Thomas wrote later, “The successes that gradually came my way rejoiced me but did not surprise. My attitude toward life was a compact of indolence, bad civic conscience, and the sure and certain feeling of latent powers”; and Heinrich wrote in his memoirs, “I see him by my side, both of us young…with no ties—one would have said, not knowing how much pitiless obligation one destined to produce literature his whole life long bears with him as a young man wherever he goes.”
When they were young, the brothers had many tastes in common, although temperamentally they were far apart, Thomas always being reserved and conventional in manner, whereas Heinrich tended toward the bohemian and libertine. This came in part from their interest in Nietzsche, who affected them differently, drawing Thomas toward an ironic detachment from emotional involvements (which was belied by his inner feelings and his homoerotic tendencies) and encouraging in Heinrich both experimentation and commitment. Both admired Heine and E.T.A. Hoffmann and Wagner, who influenced their early stories and, particularly in the case of Wagner, all of Thomas’s work from Buddenbrooks to Felix Krull. But whereas Heine drew Heinrich toward Bourget and Stendhal and eventually to Flaubert and Zola, making his perspective considerably more international and democratic than it had been originally, the younger brother’s taste ran toward the Scandinavians and the Russians, neither of whom had any effect upon his Germanness or his conservatism.
That their differences far exceeded their similarities became clear when they published their first novels, Heinrich’s In the Land of Cockaigne in 1900, and Thomas’s Buddenbrooks in 1901. The latter told the story of the degeneration of a prominent Lübeck family and was preoccupied by ruminations on decadence, disease, and death derived in large part from Schopenhauer. In sharp contrast to this contemplative and inward-looking work, In the Land of Cockaigne was a satirical novel of society, which attacked the predatory capitalism that played so prominent a role in the structure and politics of the reign of Wilhelm II. It marked the beginning of Heinrich Mann’s preoccupation with the problem of power and the forms it assumed in twentieth-century German society.
In the Land of Cockaigne was not without influence on the younger brother—characters from it, somewhat transformed, appear in “Tonio Kröger” and Felix Krull—but the novel was not to his taste, social problems never, as he once admitted, being his strong suit. As Heinrich continued in this vein, with a sultry trilogy about Renaissance society, The Goddesses, a novel about la dolce vita in contemporary Munich called The Pursuit of Love, and a study of a small-town tyrant set in Lübeck, Professor Unrat (later, in 1930, turned into a film called The Blue Angel, starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich), Thomas’s displeasure became more outspoken. He had praised the first novel, while noting caustically that “among your readers there are, of course, curious schoolboys and shop clerks” and intimating that “the purely artistic efforts” would be diminished by the erotic emphasis. Now, after the Munich novel, he attacked the
strained jokes, these vulgar, shrill, hectic, unnatural calumnies of the truth and humanity, these disgraceful grimaces and somersaults, the desperate attacks on the reader’s interest!… Everything is distorted, screaming, exaggerated, “bellows,” “buffo,” romantic in the bad sense; the false gestures of the representative of Christendom from the Göttinnen are there again and the overdone sensationalist psychology that goes along with them….
The book should, he added, have been called The Pursuit of Effect.
Heinrich seems to have responded to this diatribe by turning the other cheek. On the back of his brother’s letter he scribbled some notes for an answer, which included the broken sentences:
There are differences of degree between us. I have so much
And I’m so much sicker.
more of gypsy artistry that I can’t resist. I’m more Roman, stranger and less stable.
I’m so much more in need of calm, of time to consider.
I’m afraid: if I stop, it’s over with me. Then money. I am thinking, when I talk about effect, exclusively about money….
But there is no evidence that such a letter was ever sent, and it is likely that Heinrich was merely depressed by the financial difficulties that were not infrequent in his life. He had too much pride and too much confidence in his own work to take his brother’s criticisms any more seriously than he did when they were together in Palestrina.
It is clear enough that, in Thomas’s strictures, both envy and prudery had a part to play. When Professor Unrat appeared in 1905, he wrote in his notebook, “I consider it immoral to avoid the discomforts of indolence by writing one bad book after another,” but he could not prevent himself from adding, “It is the most amusing and frivolous stuff that has been written in German for a long time.” Whether a real writer should have condescended to write it was another thing. Thomas came to believe that his brother was demeaning their common calling by his very facility, that, in his behavior (all of his female friends seemed to come from the theater or the demi-monde) and his themes, he was becoming a mere artist rather than the Dichter that Thomas regarded himself as being. It was all the more galling, therefore, that Heinrich seemed to be as highly esteemed as he was himself, and by 1909 he had written ten novels and a multitude of stories in comparison with Thomas’s two novels and two small collections of shorter pieces. “Good God,” the younger brother wrote in 1907, “you’ve finished something else already, and I’m not even finished with your last one!”
It was over the question of the role of the intellectual in society that their greatest differences were to arise. As early as February 1904, writing about something that Heinrich had said about liberalism and freedom, Thomas wrote:
I don’t have much understanding of “freedom.” It is for me a purely moral, theoretical concept, equivalent to “honesty.” (Some critics refer to that in me as “coldheartedness.”) But I have no interest whatever in political freedom. Was the prodigious literature of Russia not created under enormous pressure?… Which at least proves that the struggle for “freedom” is better than freedom itself. What is “freedom” anyway? Just because so much blood has been shed for the concept, it has something uncannily unfree about it for me, something directly medieval… But I really have no business talking about this at all.
Heinrich must have regarded this as obtuse. His Francophile sympathies had grown with the years and, ruminating on the differences between his own country and its western neighbor, he had come to the conclusion that the French had a natural instinct for freedom which since Rousseau’s time had been encouraged by its intellectuals. In Germany, the reverse was the case. In an article entitled “Spirit and Deed,” written in 1910, Heinrich Mann wrote that in Germany thinking was always preferred to action, because the widespread lack of popular self-confidence encouraged fear of the consequences of the latter. This situation encouraged the abuses of power that were apparent in German society, for which the intellectuals must bear much of the responsibility, since for years they had been betraying their proper function either by silence or by unabashed “justification of the unspiritual and by sophistical exculpation of the unjust,…[their] enemy to the death, Power.”1
Heinrich Mann, Essays (Hamburg: Claasen Verlag, 1960), pp. 7-14.↩
Heinrich Mann, Essays (Hamburg: Claasen Verlag, 1960), pp. 7-14.↩