Heinrich Mann
Heinrich Mann; drawing by David Levine

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

This was the bugle call that heralded the struggle that took place between the two brothers during the First World War. Thomas’s reaction to the coming of that conflict was bemused, and he wrote to his brother in August 1914:

Shouldn’t we be grateful for the totally unexpected chance to experience such mighty things? My chief feeling is a tremendous curiosity—and, I admit it, the deepest sympathy for the execrated, indecipherable, fateful Germany which, if she has hitherto not unqualifiedly held “civilization” as the highest good, is at any rate preparing to smash the most despicable police state in the world [presumably Russia].

His first writings after 1914—“Thoughts in Wartime” and “Frederick and the Great Coalition”—were intended to encourage national solidarity. The first was a panegyric on the effects of war in cleansing and rehabilitating the spirit and overthrowing the corruption of peacetime. German militarism, he claimed, was an expression of German morality.

Germany is warlike out of morality—not out of vanity or glory-seeking or imperialism…. Germany’s whole virtue and beauty—we have now witnessed it—first flowers in war. Peace does not always suit it.2

This tone could not but have irritated Heinrich, although his first reaction to his brother’s surrender to the war fever was to say mockingly to Erich Mühsam, “My brother enjoys it, as he does everything, aesthetically.”3 His own reaction to the onset of hostilities was one of anger and disgust, which he made no attempt to hide, and when the wartime mood prevented the serialization of his great satire on Wilhelmine society, The Loyal Servant, he set about writing a long essay on Zola, in which the regime of Louis Napoleon stood for Wilhelmine Germany and he himself appeared in the mask of Zola, the Zola who had told himself in 1869,

For my work, if it is to be logical, I need the overthrow of these people [the ruling class]. Whenever I think the drama through to its conclusion, their downfall is always the end. As things stand in reality, it is not likely that it will come soon. But I need it.”4

Thomas Mann responded to this essay, which he regarded as a personal attack upon himself and later called a “brilliant piece of hackwork” animated by “truly French spitefulness, slanders, and slurs,” in his remarkable polemic The Reflections of an Unpolitical Man. Here he portrayed the war as a struggle between German Kultur, which he equated with music, intellectual depth, honor, integrity, and morality, and French Zivilisation, which he associated with politics, superficiality, skepticism, dissolution of values, and cultural decay. In a scarcely veiled attack, he made it clear that he regarded his brother as a Zivilisationsliterat and hence as an enemy of his own people.

The dispute rankled, and it was not until 1922 that a reconciliation was reached and then only with hesitation and reservations. Thomas wrote to his friend Ernst Bertram:

Joyful, in fact, wildly shaken with emotion though I am, I have no illusions about the fragility and difficulty of the revived relationship. A decently humane modus vivendi will be all that it can come to. Real friendship is scarcely conceivable. The monuments of our dispute still stand.

This proved to be true, even though the Weimar years brought a narrowing of the distance between their political positions.

During the Weimar Republic, the two brothers dominated German prose literature. Heinrich’s trilogy on the Wilhelmine Empire—The Loyal Subject (1918), The Poor (1925), and The Head (1925)—was enormously popular, and his novella “Kobes,” a slashing attack on the industrialist Stinnes and his machinations during the inflation of 1923, and his novel The Big Deal (1930) showed that his fertility was not impaired by his increasing commitment to democratic and socialist causes. In 1931 he was elected president of the literary section of the Prussian Academy. Meanwhile, Thomas had assured his status in German letters by the completion of his second great novel, The Magic Mountain (1924), and a brilliant novella of family life during the inflation years called “Disorder and Early Sorrow” (1926), and at the beginning of the 1930s he began work on the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers. At the same time, he began to revise the conservative political position that he had taken during the war and to move toward support of the Republic. In a speech in 1922, after the murder of the Weimar Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau by rightist thugs, he called upon his audience to accept a union of democracy and humanity. It was a curious speech, laden down by literary allusions and references to Novalis and Whitman,5 but it marked a turning in his political views, and this was more clearly stated in his “German Address: An Appeal to Reason” in 1930 in which, before a hall filled with obstreperous Nazis, he warned of the dangers of National Socialism and appealed for a union of conservatives and socialists to oppose them.

It was the Nazi threat that finally brought the brothers together again. During the Weimar years, they had lived on cordial but cool terms, and Thomas’s reviews of Heinrich’s books had been complimentary but without warmth. The shift in his own political position seems to have changed this, and in November 1932, after receiving Thomas’s review of his novel An Earnest Life, Heinrich wrote:

Your letter will remain the most beautiful and best that I shall get to read about my book. I thank you. In every moment in my life you were the one closest to me, and you are that once again here.

Within three months, circumstances would make the filial bond even stronger, because both were driven into exile. Heinrich’s expulsion—or rather his flight to escape something worse—came as a result of an appeal to the Socialist Party that he had signed with the artist Käthe Kollwitz urging it to collaborate with the Communists in the approaching Reichstag elections. This openly anti-Nazi gesture prompted a public agitation for their resignation from the Prussian Academy and, to avoid embarrassment to their colleagues, they both complied. But the Nazis had other scores to settle with Heinrich, who had long been a fearless and effective anti-Nazi publicist, and the Völkischer Beobachter was now making open threats of violence against him. Alerted by a warning from the French ambassador, he crossed the border into France at the end of February 1933. Here he continued his anti-Nazi writing, while settling down also to the writing of his two-volume novel about Henri of Navarre, which embodies all of his love and gratitude to France, the only one of the great nations, he wrote to his brother in November 1933, whose “ideas about Germany are precise and well-grounded.”

The years in France were, despite the deterioration of the international system after 1938, happy ones for Heinrich Mann, but they ended in 1940 with another hairbreadth escape from the Nazis, this time over the Pyrenees to Lisbon and by a Greek ship to the United States. After that, life seeped away in a series of disappointments and tragedies. Thomas Mann, who had moved with his family to the United States in 1938, where his literary reputation reached its peak, had found an apartment for Heinrich and his wife Nelly close to his own home in Pacific Heights and had secured a contract for him at Warner Brothers. It was soon clear, however, that no one in Hollywood had a clear idea about who Heinrich was except that he had had something to do with Marlene Dietrich’s film The Blue Angel, and the contract was soon terminated, leaving him in severe financial difficulties. These were alleviated by his brother, but at the cost of some mutual irritation, because Thomas and his wife were not fond of Nelly, who drank too much, had a history of infidelity, and behaved in other ways that outraged them, and, for his part, Heinrich was mortified by his dependency on his brother.

Nelly’s suicide in December 1944 increased his sense of isolation, for he had deeply loved his wife, and his health deteriorated rapidly. He continued to write and cherished the hope that after the end of the war he would become the first president of the newly founded Academy of Arts of the German Democratic Republic, an appointment that Thomas Mann did his best to promote during his visit to the GDR in 1949. He died, however, of a brain hemorrhage in March 1950 and was buried in Santa Monica.


It is fair to say that Heinrich Mann inherited a literary tradition that discouraged works of social realism. Perhaps because the country was for so long politically fragmented and without either a strong middle class or a common cultural center, there were no writers comparable to Thackeray or Stendhal or Flaubert or Dickens among the prose writers in the decades before unification. Even after the founding of the new Reich in 1871 and the resultant economic upswing had supplied writers with themes denied them earlier—urbanization, the proletarianization of the lower classes, and the disintegration of inherited social categories and values—they seemed reluctant to deal with them, sensing that their readers would not approve if they did. This was a sound enough calculation. The educated middle class of the Bismarckian and Wilhelmine period was excessively preoccupied with its own social status and prestige, which were its substitutes for the political power it did not possess. Increasingly more conservative as the period advanced, this Bildungsbürgertum expected from its authors entertainment and moral elevation. It did not want to be told that there were things in its world that ought to be put right and that it was responsible for correcting them, and it had the power to make its disapproval felt. It took a determined writer to disregard this.

In the Bismarck period, the most distinguished of those who had that determination was Theodor Fontane. Fascinated by the militarization of society after the victory over France, Fontane wrote a series of strikingly realistic novels—The Adulteress (1882), Schach von Wuthenow (1883), Cécile (1887), Trials and Tribulations (1888), Effi Briest (1895)—in which he dealt with the ways in which emulation of the military had tended to spread formalistic and artificial ethical concepts and taboos that had deleterious social effects, the military code of honor, for example, being translated, in civilian life, into a cruel and unnatural code of etiquette that imprisoned the upper classes in a moral straitjacket. Fontane was convinced that the Prussian aristocracy was losing its spontaneity and moral energy and ceasing to be a vital force in German life, and that meanwhile it had corrupted other sections of society, the educational establishment and the clergy, which sanctified its outmoded views, and the once self-reliant middle class. The portraits of the propertied middle class that Fontane gave his readers in novels like Frau Jenny Treibel (1892) and Der Stechlin (1898) were increasingly unflattering. Finally, in an age in which women had virtually no civil rights, Fontane’s treatment of the problem in novels like Effi Briest and the unfinished Mathilde Möhring challenged all the assumptions of his time.

Heinrich Mann read Fontane at an early age and in 1890 described him as “my favorite among the moderns…a brilliant critic without prejudices… and…a novelist of pace and skill.” It may very well have been Fontane’s influence, combined with that of Stendhal, that led him at the age of twenty-five to decide that he wanted to write novels about contemporary life in Germany, because, as he remembered later, he felt that German society no longer knew itself and was dissolving into fragments. He once wrote:

Do you think that democracy can grow [in Germany] without portrayal of society? In terms of the future it is the only thing that has any significance or meaning: not “timelessness” which is still today the highest aim [of literature].

Stendhal’s novels, he added, were not “timeless” in the German sense of the word; “they portrayed their time with such absolute critical sensitivity.” When Mann wrote his first novel in 1900, In the Land of Cockaigne, the influence of Stendhal’s Lucien Leuwen was apparent, as was that of Maupassant’s Bel Ami, and to an even greater extent this first experiment could be described as a direct descendent of Fontane’s Frau Jenny Treibel.6 Like that novel, it described the social and political ambitions of a family of parvenus, although its tone was sharper and its attacks upon its protagonists more savage than in Fontane’s novel, where the author regarded the machinations of Jenny Treibel with a degree of ironic affection. In contrast, Heinrich Mann saw his Turkheimer family as representing new forms of greed and power-brokering that threatened to destroy the moral and social order.

This was a theme that recurred regularly in his later novels, the most successful of which were Professor Unrat (The Blue Angel) and The Loyal Subject. In both of these Mann was in a sense commenting on Nietzsche’s statement in The Twilight of the I dols that obsession with power deprives society of the vital energies that it needs to sustain civilization. In the first, the schoolmaster Rath (or as he is called by his students, Unrat or garbage) tyrannizes over his charges and is possessed by the idea of the power that his position gives him over them. When an excess of disciplinarian zeal leads him to the nightclub where the singer Rosa Fröhlich performs, he becomes infatuated with her and is dismissed from his post as a threat to the morals of his charges and of all right-thinking people. Excited by the thought that he has such powers, he proceeds, with the assistance of his paramour’s attractions, to debauch the town by running a combination of gambling hell and bordello for the people who condemned him. In the course of doing so, he discovers, or convinces himself, that what is ordinarily called morality is merely a form of stupidity or philistinism used by the powerful and cynical to maintain their control over those who think they cannot do without it. It is a veneer that can be stripped away by anyone who knows how to arouse and mobilize the baser impulses for his own purposes.7

The Loyal Subject, now published in translation for the first time in its complete form, was the first volume of a trilogy that was intended to deal with the whole complicated web of relationships between the activities of government, political parties, big business, and ordinary people during the Wilhelmine period and to show why the débâcle of 1914 was inevitable. Finished in 1914 but not published until four years later, it is the story of the defeat in a small town of what was left of the tradition of 1848 by special interests and political jobbery in the form of an alliance between a new “Kaiser’s Party” and an unprincipled Social Democratic organization. Within this frame, Mann set the young careerist Diederich Hessling, who, by modeling himself in speech and manner, and as far as possible in appearance, upon the young emperor, Wilhelm II, by making undeviating loyalty to him a personal attribute and a weapon against his rivals and enemies, and by disregarding considerations of professional integrity and human decency, tramples his way to eminence in his community.

The novel had undeniable satirical power, and the passages dealing with Diederich’s university career, his membership in the Neo-Teuton fraternity, his interruption of his honeymoon to follow the emperor to Rome, his discovery of Wagner’s Lohengrin, and his ability to win followers by the floods of rhetoric to which he is prone were rich in comic invention. All in all, it was a powerful indictment of a society that seemed increasingly to be composed of the tyrannical and the servile, a system that rested upon brutality and Byzantinism and seemed to be inspired by a secret death wish, which is hinted at in the paean to power that comes to Diederich’s mind as he sees the emperor riding through the Brandenburg Gate.

There on the horse rode Power, through the gateway of triumphal entries, with dazzling features, but graven as in stone. The Power which transcends us and whose hooves we kiss, the Power which is beyond the reach of hunger, spite and mockery! Against which we are impotent, for we all love it! Which we have in our blood, for in our blood is submission. We are an atom of that Power, a minuscule molecule of something it has spit out. Each of us is nothing, but massed in ranks as Neo-Teutons, soldiers, bureaucrats, priests and scientists, as economic organizations and conglomerations of power, we taper up like a pyramid to the point at the top where Power itself stands, with features of stone and glaring eyes! In it we live and have our being, merciless towards those who are remote beneath us, and triumphing even when we ourselves are crushed, for thus does power justify our love for it!

One hundred thousand copies of The Loyal Subject were sold within a month of its publication; it continued to sell briskly during the life of the Weimar Republic and had a brief revival of popularity after 1945, especially in the German Democratic Republic, where Wolfgang Staudte made a distinguished film of it called The Man of Straw in 1951. But although it escaped the verdict of quick extinction delivered against all of his later works except the two volumes on Henri of Navarre, it can no longer be said that it enjoys much esteem among critics or is much read, in contrast to the work of Mann’s models Stendhal and Fontane.

The reason for this is partly that despite the commendability of his political and social argument, Heinrich Mann was a careless writer, whose striving for satirical effect often defeated his purpose and whose lack of economy wore out his readers. It is easy to see why the makers of the film The Blue Angel concentrated upon the affair between the professor and the nightclub singer and deleted Mann’s account of how the pair subsequently went about debauching the community as being boring and unconvincing. In addition, as Thomas Mann pointed out in 1925, The Loyal Subject was “a work mad with caricatures.” Because of this, it lacked the realism that great social novels possess and that convinces us, when we read Trollope’s The Way We Live Now or Fontane’s Trials and Tribulations, that the society we are reading about really existed. The Loyal Subject attracts by its sensationalism and outrageousness, but it lacks verisimilitude. The leading citizens in Diederich Hessling’s Netzig are so one-dimensional that they are unbelievable, and Diederich himself is a grotesque.

To say this is not to deny the great services that Heinrich Mann performed for the German novel by rejecting its inherited conventions, by showing fellow writers that is was necessary to break out of the provincialism that had for so long denied them a hearing outside their own country, and by convincing them that, particularly because they were Germans, their attention to political and social themes was legitimate and necessary. But it is a pity that he did not listen with at least half an ear when has younger brother lectured to him about style.

This Issue

April 9, 1998