In 1945, Klaus Harpprecht, then eighteen years old, was in an American prisoner-of-war camp, having spent the previous two years as a flak volunteer and artillery soldier and having been wounded during the German retreat. In the camp there were only four books, which belonged to a former schoolteacher: a Latin grammar, a Bible in the Luther translation, a collection of lyric poetry, and a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Buddenbrooks. Those who wanted to read these put their names on lists and were allowed twenty minutes per book per day. That was enough to carry them far away from their pent-up confinement with more than ten thousand other prisoners. The Latin grammar served as a kind of gymnastics for the mind; the other books as an assurance that whatever became of their country, the German language—the language of Martin Luther, of Gryphius, Goethe, and Mörike, and of The Buddenbrooks—would survive. About the author of the novel, Harpprecht knew only that he was now living in California, but by the time he was released, two months later, he was convinced that this man had written the century’s most beautiful work of German narrative prose.
There were lots of others who shared this admiration, not only for The Buddenbrooks, which had won the Nobel Prize for Mann in 1929, but for The Magic Mountain and for shorter works like Tonio Kröger and Death in Venice. Mann’s reputation was at its height at the end of the war and was to remain little diminished for some years to come. But, perhaps inevitably, voices were already suggesting that he may have been overpraised, that his prose was becoming increasingly leaden and the sententiousness that weighed it down increasingly empty. When the fourth volume of his Joseph saga, Joseph the Provider, appeared in 1944, Orville Prescott wrote in The New York Times of June 26 that it was
stiff, pompous and dull. That is the ultimate and most important fact about Joseph the Provider. It is aggressively dull, soporifically dull.
This opinion was seconded by Hamilton Basso in The New Yorker, who wrote that the man who had been regarded as one of the world’s greatest living writers was in danger of becoming “one of the greatest living bores.” Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend, was selected by the Book of the Month Club but attacked by some critics as being pedantic and indigestible. This was bad enough. Worse was the growing view that he was, of course, a monumental figure, but unfortunately oldfashioned and that he had nothing to say to the postwar generation. One indication of this view came when Harry Levin changed the title of his Harvard course on modern literature from “Proust, Joyce, and Mann” to “Proust, Joyce, and Kafka.”
By the time of his death in 1955, therefore, Mann seemed destined to end up as one of those writers who are remembered but are increasingly unread by the cultivated lay public. From this fate he was saved, however, by two things. In 1975, his diaries for the years 1918–1921 and 1933–1955 (he had destroyed all the others) became open to scholars, and in 1979 their publication in Germany began under the superb editorship first of Peter de Mendelssohn, in five thick volumes for the years down to 1943, and then of Inge Jens in five additional ones for the years 1944 to 1955, the last of which appeared last year. The diaries destroyed the persona that Mann had manufactured for himself, that of a modern Goethe in his late years, a remote, self-controlled genius, strictly meditating the, for him, by no means thankless muse. They revealed a man who was prone to all the doubts and frailties that others suffer from, as well as strong homoerotic tendencies that he sublimated in his work, forcing his passion, like Dostoevsky and Platen and Novalis before him, into the service of art. The diaries demythologized Thomas Mann, while at the same time offering new keys to the interpretation of his life and works, and as scholars began to look beneath the surface of his novels and stories and to suggest new readings, Thomas Mann’s reputation as a modernist enjoyed a vigorous revival.
Simultaneously, the progress and resolution of the cold war and the reunification of Germany aroused new interest in the public aspects of Mann’s career and invited a reassessment of his political views and writings. How, it began to be asked, was one to account for the contrast between the Thomas Mann who evolved from a conservative nationalist during the First World War to a defender of the Weimar Republic and an implacable foe of Adolf Hitler and the Thomas Mann who after 1945 became so pessimistic about the prospects of democracy and so critical of Western culture?
All four of the books reviewed here have been influenced by these new considerations. Ronald Hayman, who has written well-received biographies of Proust, Nietzsche, Kafka, and Sartre, gives us here a straightforward and readable account of Mann’s literary and public life, but his main interest, as he makes clear from the outset, is the influence of Mann’s homoeroticism upon his works. In the center of his book stands the Thomas Mann who, at the age of twenty-one, wrote to a friend, “What am I suffering from? From sexuality….is it therefore going to destroy me?—How I hate it!” and a year later suggested that he had found a solution: “I am now finding novelistic forms and masks which can be displayed in public as a means of relaying my love, my hatred, my sympathy, my contempt, my pride, my scorn and accusations I want to make.” With the aid of the diaries, Hayman seeks to look beneath the masks. Anthony Heilbut, in a book written with great energy and verve, does much the same, but with less restraint than Hayman, for he appears at times to regard Mann as the voice of sexual revolution, arguing that his “entire career consisted of yoking Eros and the word” and going on to elaborate this in a series of interesting readings of the novels and stories.
On the other hand, Donald Prater has little interest in Mann’s homoeroticism and, in sharp contrast to his own method in his excellent life of Rilke,1 disclaims any intention of dealing with Mann’s literary works. His view is that, whatever the fate of his literary reputation, “the historical figure of Thomas Mann will remain of absorbing interest, above all for his personal perception of the ‘German problem’ and the painful road to its solution,” and he describes the evolution of Mann’s political ideas in great detail and with objectivity and detachment.
These last qualities cannot be attributed to Klaus Harpprecht’s long and fascinating volume, which throws new light not only on every aspect of Mann’s life and work but gives us intriguing and revealing information about his colleagues and friends in Europe and the United States during the Hitler years, about his tortured relationship with his brother Heinrich and the tragic and unfulfilled careers of his children Klaus and Erik, about the feuds within the exile community, about his problems during the McCarthy years and his retreat to Switzerland, and a good deal more. A person of strong liberal convictions who has written a distinguished life of the German naturalist and revolutionary Georg Forster and who was a speechwriter for Willy Brandt, Harpprecht is deeply engaged in the story he tells, and he makes no attempt to hide his opinions. Like Prater, he is primarily interested in Mann’s politics, and in his introduction he explains why, writing about his own feelings when he was released from the prisoner-of-war camp.
In those first postwar years, we wished that we had a Dichter, a writer, a philosopher who would take up arms for the second—the Federal—Republic in the way that Thomas Mann had pitched in for the state of Weimar in the years from 1921 onward. [Karl] Jaspers made a start. But almost two decades passed in the country before Günter Grass remembered Thomas Mann’s example of the American poet Walt Whitman and began to sing the prize song of democracy.
Harpprecht implies that Mann’s great failure as a politician was to remain aloof from the West German scene after 1949, when his voice and authority would have given crucial aid to the new democracy.
In the first poem of his fourth book of odes, Horace ends a plea to the goddess Venus to refrain from submitting him to temptations unbefitting his age by crying:
My Ligurinus, why
Should the reluctant-flowing tears surprise these dry Cheeks, and my fluent tongue
Stumble in unbecoming silences among Syllables? In dreams at night
I hold you in my arms, or toil behind your flight Across the Martian Field,
Or chase through yielding waves the boy who will not yield.2
The mood was well known to Thomas Mann. His Ligurini were his Lübeck schoolmates Armin Martens and Willri Timpe, the art student Paul Ehrenberg, with whom he became a close friend in 1899, during his first years in Munich, and, later in life, the seventeen-year-old Klaus Heuser, whom he met while vacationing on the island of Sylt in 1927, when he was fifty-two, and Franzl Westermeier, a waiter in the Grand Hotel Dolder near Zürich, with whom he became infatuated while staying there in 1950. In each case, the passion with which he was affected was powerful, brought him moments of exaltation and despair, and, in the case of Ehrenberg at least, to open declarations of love. But in no case, as far as we can tell from the written record, was his love reciprocated, let alone consummated; and in all but one of these cases there is good reason to believe that Mann, who was always more interested in his own emotions than in those of others, never meant the pursuit to end with the loved one’s yielding. In the case of the long friendship with Paul Ehrenberg, which came to an end when, in 1905, Mann married the well-to-do Katia Pringsheim, some doubts remain, and in 1934, after reading the notes he had made during the Munich years, Mann wrote of “the central emotional experience of my first twenty-five years,” of having “been able really to take into my arms what I yearned for,” adding that this was “humanly normal, and thanks to this normality I can feel that my life is more a part of the canonical order than it is through wife and children.”
There is a curious abstractness about the language here that makes it impossible to tell exactly what took place between Mann and Ehrenberg. Hayman, in any case, believes that “without ever taking the step from homoeroticism into homosexuality, [Mann] let himself be diverted into respectability, marriage, and family life.” That this was not an easy decision, he writes, was clear.
The ambition to marry Katia Pringsheim derived partly from the books of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer that had most influenced the young Thomas Mann [those that argued the necessity of self-discipline in the interest of art.] Magnetized by the regal glamour of the family’s lifestyle, he was simultaneously indulging his lust to ravish himself secretly, to perpetrate artistic cruelty, to impose form on himself by embracing a will, a criticism, a contradiction, a contempt, a negation. He was volunteering to divide his soul, and if a bad conscience was the true womb of all ideal and imaginative experiences, he would conscientiously cultivate one. He might have to inflict suffering on Katia, but at least he’d already inflicted some on himself by giving up the relationship that had mattered more than any previous one.
There is doubtless some truth in this, and there is no doubt that Mann went through a major emotional crisis in these years. But it is also true that part of his mind was concerned with more mundane considerations. When he met Katia, it had become clear that his book The Buddenbrooks was headed for extraordinary success, and its author, who had liked to pretend as a child that he was a prince, could now see the real possibility of becoming a prince of literature, a Dichter. He needed a wife and a family to give this exalted position a firm foundation in the bourgeois world. The intensity with which he wooed Katia Pringsheim, in a series of letters written with considerable diplomatic adroitness, probably left him little time to think of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.
There is no doubt that Mann’s homoerotic affairs, which he periodically recollected in his diaries, had a significant effect upon his life and writings. His marriage with Katia was an apparently happy one which lasted for fifty years, but it was only intermittently passionate and, for most of that time, they were comrades rather than lovers. In one of his shrewd asides, Heilbut writes:
Mann’s career may be read as a tale of profound erotic disappointment, and its diversion into and projection onto the widest range of disparate subjects. The loss informed his lifetime melancholy. But, conversely, it also kept him young, alert to each promesse de bonheur, a term he was still using in his seventies.
His self-centeredness, upon which all of his biographers comment, was also undoubtedly connected with this sense of unfulfillment. As Donald Prater writes, he became increasingly obsessed with the drama of his own life and progress and regarded others, “whether family, friends, or more distant strangers as mere appendages to his own life and work, to be handled from his Olympian height—in complaisant and conciliatory fashion certainly—only in order to exploit them for his own personal convenience (and occasionally…turn them into characters for his narratives).”
A key work in this respect is The Loved Ones (Die Geliebten), an unfinished story, begun in 1901, of the obsessional love of Adelaide, a married woman, for a young violinist named Rudolf, whose ardor does not match her own, and whom she finally kills in a fit of jealousy. Rudolf is clearly based on Paul Ehrenberg, and Adelaide suffers from all of the torments that affected Mann during his love for him—“the suffering on days when she doesn’t see him. Not to be near, with, or in him. To know that the other lives, smiles, speaks, busies himself—without her participation.” The pattern recurs in other novels, particularly in Joseph in Egypt (the passion of Potiphar’s wife for Joseph) and in Doctor Faustus (the relationship between Adrian and Rudi Schwertfeger, also significantly a violinist, as Rudolf and Paul Ehrenberg were). Heilbut writes, “Mann kept returning to Die Geliebten for almost fifty years,” a fact that established a remarkable continuity in his writing, linking the late works with the earlier ones. Mann’s astounding ability to recall and revive early emotional states and to exploit them in new forms is perhaps best illustrated by The Reflections of Felix Krull. The first version of the novel was written in 1911 and was charged with all of the sexual tensions of that early time. Without any sign of stylistic interruption, he resumed work on it in 1951 and turned it into a superb comic work in which he draws with characteristic irony on the experience of his own infatuation with Franzl Westermeier. The new version was published in 1954.
Heilbut believes that throughout his life there were times when Mann seemed on the verge of a confession, but always retreated behind his customary cloak of decorum, although leaving clues behind. He suggests that the year 1911 was such a time, the year in which Mann invented Felix Krull and Tadzio of Death in Venice and wrote “The Fight between Jappe and Do Escobar,” a story in which upper-class boys on the beach of Travemünde work out their tensions in physical combat and in which the effeminate Herr Knaak, the ballet master in Tonio Kröger, makes a new appearance as their arbiter. Heilbut argues that the story, which examines the narcissistic display and eroticism of adolescent games, is Mann’s “tribal signal,” and that Herr Knaak “struts into literature” ahead of Proust’s Jupien. Felix Krull possesses all of the physical and hedonistic qualities which, as we now know, attracted Mann to such young men as Armin Martens and Franzl Westermeier. We see him first posing in the nude for his godfather, who pretends to be a painter.
When I did this my godfather was not chary of his praise; and indeed I was a little like a young god, slender, graceful, yet powerful in build, with a golden skin and proportions that lacked little of perfection. If there was a fault it lay in that my legs were a little too short; but my godfather consoled me for this defect by saying that Goethe, that prince of the intellect, had been short-legged too and certainly had not been hampered thereby. The hours devoted to these sittings form an especial chapter in my memory.3
He enjoys even more dressing up for his godfather, whether as a Roman flute-player or an English page or a Spanish bullfighter, and he is always depressed when he has to return to his normal clothes. He is an epicure of pleasure, with a love for fine foods and opulent surroundings and the company of people of superior rank. Reflection in private upon these pleasures he calls the Great Joy. Self-obsessed, in a world in which everything has been sexualized, he is a master of seduction, and is obviously deeply attractive to his creator.
Death in Venice, written in the same year as the first version of Felix Krull, is, one would think, even more remarkable in its confessional quality. The progressive, and, in the end, willing surrender of the austere historical novelist Aschenbach to his desire for Tadzio could hardly be more explicit, rising to its climax in the great dream scene which leaves “his whole being, the culture of a lifetime, devastated and destroyed,” while “his very soul savored the lascivious delirium of annihilation.”4 What was happening here was probably abundantly clear to many readers, but Heilbut points out that the story, which proved to be the most popular of Mann’s writings after The Buddenbrooks, “rapidly acquired an intellectual patina that overwhelmed the affair that comprises its very heart,” and the story was treated “as purest symbol,” as if its true subject was unimportant. It is now much harder to support such a reading than it once was, and Heilbut writes:
Whether Apollonian fable or Dionysian song, Death in Venice comprised a revolutionary break-through in the expression of gay desire. Mann was seldom convincing in his depiction of hetero-sexual love. But his own passions were not etiolated. Indeed, Death in Venice does more than evoke a pederastic episode; it constitutes a virtual Baedeker’s guide to homosexual love.
In his exuberance of expression and opinion, Heilbut is not always clear and persuasive. What, for example, is the precise meaning of his statement that Mann “viewed German culture as a long history of episodes, each of them homoerotic”? Or of his view that “the Great Joy of Felix Krull turned masturbation into a kind of seminar involving high and low culture”? In his long discussion of The Magic Mountain, he is insistent, without much supporting evidence, that the homme moyen sensuel Hans Castorp has homoerotic inclinations and is in love with his cousin Joachim. He does not make this any the more persuasive by writing, “Joachim evokes an era of teary-eyed Oliver Norths, killing machines awash in sentiment. That Mann and Castorp adore him is clear.” He can also sound reductive, as when he writes: “Had Paul Ehrenberg returned his love, Mann might never have spent seven years on the mountain, or fifteen years in Egypt.”
But he is never trivial and he does more than other biographers to suggest the emotional atmosphere in which Mann sat down every morning at his desk and wrote about the mystery of human sexuality and the forms it took, including the ill-fated passion of Hans Castorp for Clavdia Chauchat, and of Jakob and Benjamin and Potiphar’s wife for Joseph. He has much to say about the erotic excitement that Felix Krull aroused in Madame Houpflé and in Professor Kuckuk’s wife, Maria, and his daughter, Zouzou, and in the melancholy Lord Kilmarnock. Felix Krull in Heilbut’s view was Mann’s abiding subject. It was appropriate, therefore, that he should give his own features to the badly smitten Scots laird.
There will be readers who wonder whether Heilbut’s revelations are irritating distractions that get between them and the story they hope to enjoy. The same question arises about Hayman’s suggestion that a chance meeting between Mann and the aging Klaus Heuser, of whom he had been enamored less than a decade before, provided some of the impetus for The Beloved Returns, Mann’s novel about Goethe’s encounter late in his life with Charlotte Kästner, who had inspired him to write The Sorrows of Young Werther in his youth. Others may prefer a critical interpretation of the political and cultural implications of Doctor Faustus to an attempt to turn the book into an erotic roman à clef. But it is hard to deny that biographical information of the kind Heilbut and Hayman supply helps us to see the work in a different perspective, without in any way diminishing the importance of Mann’s other preoccupations, such as the relation between politics and culture and the ability, which he came to doubt, of democracies to tolerate and foster cultural vitality.
With respect to politics, Mann began by professing to have none and by claiming that the Germans had no need of it. “German humanity,” he wrote in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man in 1918, “basically resists politicization. And, in fact, the political element is missing in the German concept of Bildung [education or personal development].”5 He implied that this was a good thing, since politics embodied revolt and disorder, destroyed traditional values, and contained the danger of a “complete leveling, a journalistic-rhetorical stultification and vulgarization,”6 such as existed in France and the West.
I don’t want the parliamentary and party horsetrading that poisons the whole of national life with politics…. I don’t want politics. I want objectivity, order and decency. If that is philistine, then I want to be a philistine. If that is German, then I want in God’s name to be called a German….7
When he wrote this, Mann, who had been an ardent patriot in World War I, was in his early forties, and his thinking reflected all of the values and prejudices of the German upper-middle class from which he came: social conservatism, nationalistic pride in the Bismarck Reich, belief in authority, the romantic Sehnsucht (a yearning that existed more for its own sake than for its never clearly defined object), love of music, which he believed distinguished German culture from others, idealization of work, and casual anti-Semitism. His progress toward democracy was always hampered by his inherited values. He never, for instance, entirely freed himself from the unthinking anti-Semitism of his early years, even though his wife Katia was the daughter of converted Jews, and Harpprecht writes that in 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Jews were being transported to the extermination camps, he could write in his novel Doctor Faustus about the Jewish society in the Wilhelmine period “with an uninhibited sarcasm, as if the calendar still read 1905,” the year in which he wrote the painfully anti-Semitic story “The Blood of the Walsungs.”
Nevertheless, he took an early stand in defense of the Weimar Republic, for which German conservatives never forgave him, and he was later a stead-fast opponent of National Socialism. In 1922, as the murder of the Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau by rightist thugs climaxed a series of attacks on democratic leaders, Mann took the occasion of the celebration of Gerhard Hauptmann’s sixtieth birthday in October 1922 to speak out in protest. His speech in the Beethovensaal in Berlin was a curious performance, invoking the Romantic writer Novalis and what he called the “social erotic” of Walt Whitman to urge his audience to accept a union of democracy and humanity.8
Mann’s daughter Erika wrote later that her father “still did not comprehend the defiant malice that could find nothing plausible in good will and reason and in addition knew no more about German Romanticism than it did about humanity, a concept whose very sound it loathed.”9 Donald Prater adds that even well-disposed listeners found the speech hard to follow, weighed down as it was “by a mass of literary allusion and lengthy, often far-fetched quotations.” But, given the times, it was courageous, and it heartened a lot of people; this was true also, after Germany had slid into the Great Depression and the Nazis had begun their march to power, of his “German Address: A Call to Reason,”10 a speech warning of the dangers of National Socialism and appealing for a union of conservatives and socialists to oppose it. He delivered the speech in October 1930 in a hall packed with Nazis who tried to drown out what he had to say.
In view of his self-centeredness, it is perhaps not surprising that, when the Nazis took power, Mann’s initial reaction was a kind of puzzled resentment that this should affect him. He wrote in his diary in April 1933:
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.11
That the German people should actually regard the Nazi triumph as a cultural revolution was bitterly, indeed personally, offensive to him, and in a diary entry that represented a first step toward his slow repudiation of German Romanticism, he wrote in July 1934, “The entire National Socialist ‘movement,’ including its instigator, is a prime example of the German spirit’s wallowing in the manure of myth.”12
He was traveling outside Germany when the Nazis installed themselves in power, and he did not return until after World War II. He was, however, very slow to make a complete break with Germany, largely, it is clear, because he hoped to protect his property from seizure by the state and to assure the continued publication of his books in Germany. As Nazi actions became more outrageous, he found this position hard to justify either to himself or others, although he tried to distance himself from events by concentrating on the task of finishing Joseph in Egypt. Perhaps it was that very preoccupation that made the passage in Germany in 1935 of the so-called Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor—the Nuremberg laws that forbade marriage or sexual relations between Jews and Aryans and closed public employment to Jews—particularly shattering. “Schauderhaft, wirklich schauderhaft!” he wrote in his diary. “Despair on the part of the better people of Germany, not only the Jews.”
In the months that followed, the pressure of the exile community for a declaration of solidarity and an angry letter from his daughter Erika complaining about his blowing hot and cold made him resolve to take the decisive step. In January 1936, settled in Switzerland, he wrote in a letter to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that the campaign against the Jews was really an attack upon Europe and the Christian and classical foundations of Western culture and expressed his conviction that nothing good, either for Germany or the world, could possibly come from the Nazi government. Prater points out that he then made clear that the rupture was complete and final, by quoting from a favorite poet, August von Platen:
But he whose inmost heart despises evil
Must one day face an exile from his home
When evil’s honored there by a folk of slaves.
Better by far to quit one’s land for ever
Than under sway of breed so infantine
To tolerate the yoke of blind mob hate.
For Thomas Mann, exile was never as onerous as it was for most of those who fled from Hitler’s Germany. In the United States, for example, where he lived after 1938, he was honored as the greatest living German writer, given a salaried professorship at Princeton with none of the normal academic chores, made a Fellow of the Library of Congress with stipend, awarded dozens of honorary degrees, received by the President, and asked to lecture wherever he went. He was never, like many of his fellow refugees, forced to interrupt his writing in order to earn his living, and he was astonishingly productive, finishing the Joseph novels in January 1943 and Doctor Faustus four years later. Whatever may be said of Mann’s anti-Semitism, the Joseph tetralogy, despite the longueurs of Joseph the Provider, is a magnificent testimonial to the history and culture of the Jews, as well as a reflective and often richly comic study of the origins of human behavior. (Mann’s comic irony, which pervades all of his novels, suffers badly in English translation.)
It is hard to be so positive about the story of Adrian Leverkühn, the syphilitic, destructive modern composer who is visited by the Devil during an attack of migraine and sells his soul to him. Harpprecht argues persuasively that instead of telling us anything about the origins of National Socialism, which appeared to be its subject, the book seemed to suggest a retreat to the German Romanticism that Mann had once forsworn, making the Devil the real author of Germany’s crimes and letting the Germans off the hook.
However happy he may have been about the work he produced in the United States, it is clear enough that Mann never accommodated himself to life in America. He accepted the honors awarded him as his due but, if there were duties connected with them, as was true in the case of the Princeton and Library of Congress appointments, he soon found these irksome. The story of his relations with Agnes Meyer, which Harpprecht tells in rich and sometimes comic detail, is a case in point. The wife of the publisher of The Washington Post, Mrs. Meyer was a benefactress of remarkable generosity. An admirer of his work and a promoter of it in the press, she did much to prepare the ground for Mann’s Princeton and Washington appointments and was always helpful when he needed money to enlarge his house in Pacific Palisades, California, or when members of his family were in difficulties. When he received one of her frequent presents, Mann was apt to address her as “Dear Princess and Friend” or to say that she was his Diotima, the “wise woman” of Plato’s Symposium, but her letters and advice increasingly bored him, and his diary refers to her on occasion as a tedious Geistpupe (intellectual goose) and accuses her of “grotesque stupidities.” He rarely appreciated the qualities of the distinguished people she introduced to him or paid much attention to her often shrewd political advice. In what Prater has called his “blinkered application to his work,” he remained as ill-informed about American politics as he was condescending to American culture.
His views on the former were naturally strongly influenced by his thinking about Germany’s future, which was stern and unforgiving. During the war, the BBC was forced to ask him to modify the tone of his propaganda broadcasts to Germany because he was apt to tell his German listeners that the wrath of the whole world would be visited upon them when the war was over. Reinhold Niebuhr claimed that he had no feeling for the tragic dimension of the German problem. Certainly, he seemed to make no distinction between Nazi supporters and opponents, and when the anti-Hitler conspirators of July 20 were executed he was little moved, writing, “Qui mange du Pape en meurt,” as if to say, “Who dines with the Devil needs a long spoon.” In 1947, he wrote scornfully about “the calamitous corporation that calls itself the Inner Emigration and which I call the Dummköpfe who stayed put, squatters by the stove about whose ears the stove has now fallen, and who reckon this misfortune as their highest honor and as loyalty to Germany.” He was appalled by American support of the very people that he considered unregenerate and wrote with bitter irony in 1947,
German nationalism will, in all probability, be fully satisfied. It springs to the eye that “sympathy” with Germany is completely political. They will raise it up and give it arms, and in just fifty years…it will, in spite of everything, have all of non-Russian Europe in its pocket, as Hitler also could have had everything if he had not been so impossible. About the power-political future of Germany we need have no concern, if that is our concern.
This, Harpprecht writes, is “a prophecy that one reads half a century later with a kind of shiver.”
His fears grew as anti-Communism began to assume hysterical forms in the United States. Possessing no confidence in the power of constitutional government to resist populist pressures, he became increasingly fearful that American fascism was on the march, and the outbreak of the Korean War and the beginning of West German rearmament strengthened this opinion. He began to be criticized for arguing in public statements that communist views must be considered in the resolution of European tensions, and for his insistence, when making his first visit to the Federal Republic in 1949, upon visiting the DDR as well and for accepting a prize from its government. He and his left-leaning daughter Erika were soon being described as dangerously naive and as fellow travelers.
We can see now that things were not as simple as all that. There were many advocates of German democracy in 1950 who feared the consequences of German rearmament; and, for the rest, was it not possible that Mann’s views were simply a bit before their time—that in German affairs he was a kind of Ostpolitiker before Willy Brandt became one and that he suspected, sooner than most, that a victory of capitalism in the cold war would not necessarily bring great benefits to culture and humanity? But as McCarthyism began to rise there was little tolerance for those who insisted on standing between the opposed camps.
In January 1950, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel refused to house a dinner of the local chapter of the Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions “if a Communist like Dr. Mann” was to speak, although it was quickly forced to back down; there was talk of calling Thomas Mann to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee; and the Library of Congress felt compelled, in view of the political climate and the controversy over his relations with East Germany, to ask him to give up his annual lecture in 1950. It became harder and harder for him to put up with what he called, in a letter to Erich Kahler, “the barbaric infantilism of America,” and in 1952 he decided to give it up and return to Switzerland to live out his days.
Later he sometimes regretted the move. Switzerland was cold and rainy, and, as he often complained to his diary, the house he rented in Erlenbach near Zurich left much to be desired. The architect had failed to measure the bookcases properly, so that they didn’t fit, and his study was too small and lacked the “sofa corner” where he had done some of his best writing in California. “Ever again longing for the house in P.P. [Pacific Palisades] and the dry air of California,” he wrote on June 30, 1953. “Said to K. [Katia] if in three years [Adlai] Stevenson became President we would return and go back into the so long rented house. My 80th birthday would come beforehand. Question whether I would live to see it or survive it.”
In the last volume of his diaries, Thomas Mann showed no slackening in the determination to record the minutiae of his daily life that had marked the earlier ones. It is all here: when he arose in the morning and whether he shaved before or after breakfast, where he had his hair cut or his teeth cleaned, who came to see him and what they talked about, his visits to the cinema in Zürich and his reaction to the films, what he was reading (a lot of Balzac, especially Illusions perdues, in 1953), and what music he played on the gramophone in the evening (a great deal of Wagner). It is an astonishing and fascinating record, filled with sarcastic political asides (“The unparalleled sacrifice of America to make other peoples happy. One is not allowed to spurn this love!” or “Dulles flies around soliciting clients for American irresponsibility”) and not exactly grandfatherly comments on his children’s children (“Breakfast with [Medi] and the children. The older an unappetizing child. The little one very droll”).
There is much evidence of his continued competitiveness, and his desire to be considered up to date is as strong as ever. Reading Beckett’s Molloy in Merkur, he writes: “Music after my time. A kind of Joyce discipleship,” but adds hastily that the comic element he finds in Beckett is not absent from his own work, as one can see in Felix Krull. He thinks often of Goethe, with whom he has long identified himself, and notes after being received by the Pope in April 1953, “Through the standing audience [I was] reminded of Napoleon with Goethe in Erfurt.” His jealousy with respect to honors is unappeased, and in May 1955 he is fretting because the West German Order Pour le Mérite, which he has been told will be offered him and “which lesser men have long worn,” may not arrive before his eightieth birthday.
Inevitably he worried about the slackening of his productive powers, writing in August 1953:
Took a pill and found peace for the night which has become the best part of the day. That’s the way it is when one survives oneself. When he was almost 70, Wagner wrote his concluding work, Parsifal, and died not long afterwards. At about the same age, I wrote my last work of consequence, the Faust, a concluding work in every sense of the word, but went on living. Der Erwählte (The Holy Sinner), still charming, and Die Betrogene (The Black Swan) are excess appendages…. What I’m leading now is an afterlife, which struggles in vain for productive supports. To regard the Krull as a Faust worth bringing to a conclusion, is hardly possible. [He did finish it, however, and 80,000 copies of it were sold before his death.] To go on living is a mistake, especially since I live mistakenly. Eating is a burden and a plague. My only comfort is smoking and drinking coffee, both bad for me.
He was not always so gloomy, and he was too busy to think much about death, and when the thought came his reaction was, on the whole, positive. In October 1954, he wrote: “Thinking about the erection of my bust in stone in a city square in Germany. Duration in sun, rain and snow. Peculiarly reassuring about death and fortifying existence. Death, where is thy sting.” In June 1955, after his eightieth birthday and six weeks before his death, it was life and his own fame that preoccupied him.
The word goes around that seldom or never has a person been so celebrated. Curious, curious. A remarkable thing this life.
February 29, 1996
Donald Prater, A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1986, 1994). ↩
The Odes of Horace, translated by James Michie with complete Latin text (Washington Square Press, 1965), p. 209. (“Intermissa, Venus, diu/rursus bella moves? Parce precor, precor.”) ↩
Thomas Mann, Stories of Three Decades, Translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter (Knopf, 1945), p. 353. ↩
Death in Venice and Other Stories, translated by David Luke (Bantam, 1988), pp. 256–257. ↩
Thomas Mann, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1956), p. 103. ↩
Mann, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, p. 251. ↩
Mann, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, p. 253. ↩
Thomas Mann, Reden und Aufsätze, II (Oldenburg: Fischer, 1965), pp. 9–52. ↩
Mann, Betrachtungen, introduction, p. XIX. ↩
Mann, Reden und Aufsätze, II, pp. 61–82. ↩
See my article “Mein liebes Tagebuch,” in The New York Review, December 2, 1982, p. 33. ↩
Craig, “Mein liebes Tagebuch,” p. 33. ↩