The Unbearable Pathos of Thomas Mann

Britta Böhler has dramatized for us an important long weekend in Thomas Mann's life.

By Morten Høi JensenMarch 25, 2016

The Decision by Britta Böhler. Haus Publishing. 220 pages.

IN THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, Thomas Mann’s great novel of 1924, a young man travels to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps intending to visit his tubercular cousin for three weeks but ends up staying seven years. Among many other experiences “up there,” the young Hans Castorp becomes audience to several semesters-worth of impassioned philosophical discussions between the Enlightenment humanist Settembrini and the radical Jesuit Leo Naphta. This Naphta — whose communist zealotry and religious mysticism bring to mind the contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek — repeatedly knocks Settembrini’s humanism from its lofty democratic peg. It is naive, he claims, to think that people desire freedom instead of “discipline and sacrifice, renunciation of the ego and coercion of the personality.” No, their deepest desire is to obey: “The mystery and precept of our age is not liberation and development of the ego. What our age needs, what it demands, what it will create for itself, is — terror.”

Naphta is often compared to a character from Dostoevsky or Conrad, yet his grim prophecy stands out for being the work of a bourgeois German novelist writing at the same time Adolf Hitler sat dictating Mein Kampf in the Landsberg Prison — just an hour’s drive east of the Mann family home in Munich. During the First World War Thomas Mann had banged triumphantly on the drum of German nationalism; less than a decade later he’d written a novel in which all the death and disease festering in the wound of postwar Europe was laid bare. From declaring democracy to be “foreign and poisonous to the German character,” he emerged as an unlikely defender of the embattled Weimar Republic.

Mann’s embrace of liberalism in the 1920s owed something to his discovery of Walt Whitman. During his 1938 lecture tour of America, it was the famous German novelist who reminded his audiences of the importance of Whitman’s celebration of American pluralism. “The world has probably never produced a master of words who has known so well as Whitman how to elevate and translate a social principle such as democracy into intoxicating song,” he said, “or how to endow it with such powerful emotional content, representing a magnificent fusion of spirituality and sensuousness.”

Before encountering the epiphany that was Whitman, Mann had insisted that the spiritual life — the proper realm of the artist — existed separately from the brouhaha of politics. In his rambling, unwieldy Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), he’d criticized democratic and pacifistic writers like his brother, Heinrich, as Zivilisationsliteraten: progressive, civilized authors pedantically educating their readers in being progressive and civilized. Even worse, the Zivilisationsliterat was hostile to German culture, being allied instead to France and the spirit of the Enlightenment — “an astounding, remarkable example,” Mann wrote, “of how far, still today, in post-Bismarckian Germany, the German can succeed in self-disgust and alienation, in cosmopolitan devotion and self-renunciation.” Many years later, Mann came to see just how wrong he had been; he described a speech by Joseph Goebbels on the future of the German nation as “roughly how I was writing thirty years ago.”

Following the debacle of his support for Germany during the First World War, which suspended his relationship with his brother for almost a decade, Mann was reluctant to step back into the political fray. And though he married a Jewish woman and hated everything about the rise of National Socialism, he, like so many of his countrymen, was slow to take its threat seriously. Financially dependent on the German sales of his books, he remained supportive of his Jewish publisher Bermann Fischer’s cautious position toward the new German authorities — a stance deemed unconscionable by a number of émigré writers, including Mann’s own children, Klaus and Erika.

Shortly before Hitler consolidated his power as führer of Germany, Mann and his family moved to Switzerland, where they remained until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, when they immigrated to the United States. In those first years of exile Mann feared losing direct access to his German readership, without whom he could not imagine writing. (His first novel, Buddenbrooks, had sold almost six million copies.) He was a German author writing in the German language for German readers — or so he felt. In truth, of course, the Germany he knew and loved was being eroded from within by a termitary of men with somewhat different ideas of what constituted German Kultur.

Fear of losing his readers delayed Mann’s denouncement of the Third Reich. He wavered and tottered until January 1936, when the Swiss critic Eduard Korrodi, a Nazi sympathizer, published an attack on German exile literature, dismissing it as the work of inferior Jewish writers Germany was better off without. A week later Mann responded with an “Open Letter to Korrodi” in which he publicly denounced the Nazi regime and its virulent anti-Semitism, and also declared his sympathy with all German writers in exile. We know from Mann’s diaries that it was a decision he agonized over, and one that his children had long been impatient for him to make. Later his only regret was that it had taken him so long to make it.

Now, with the publication of her novel The Decision (Haus Publishing, 2015), Britta Böhler has dramatized for us the long weekend that elapsed between Mann’s submission of the Korrodi letter to his editor and its subsequent publication on February 3, 1936 — days in which, in Böhler’s telling, Mann walked mental circles around the letter, rewriting and regretting and resenting it, but in the end resolving to publish it. It is an intriguing and admirable attempt to map the mental and intellectual journey that brought Mann from thinking he could not write outside of Germany to realizing, as he famously and defiantly put it, “Wo ich bin, ist Deutschland.”

At first glance the German-born Böhler may seem an unlikely author of a short novel about Thomas Mann’s public condemnation of Nazism. She served in the Dutch senate as a member of the GroenLinks (GreenLeft) party from 2007 to 2011, and is an international human rights lawyer by trade — with an eyebrow-raising list of former clients: the writer and dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and the convicted murderer Volkert van der Graaf, who assassinated the Dutch populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Additionally, Böhler and the travel writer Rodney Bolt have co-authored a number of Ian Rankin–style crime novels set in Amsterdam (they write jointly under the name Britta Bolt).

As her client list suggests, Böhler has long been interested in the relationship between high-profile individuals and the state. “There was often a political side to these cases, where politicians tried to interfere or influence the result,” she recently told a New York Times interviewer. “I was always interested in how you, as an individual, can fight legally the abuse of power by a government.”

Mann had scant legal resources at his disposal in his quarrel with the German government. In the early days of the Third Reich he was astutely identified as a public enemy by Reinhard Heydrich, whom Hitler once described as “the man with the iron heart.” In the spring of 1933 Heydrich arranged for a search of the Manns’ house on Poschingerstrasse and the confiscation of their cars. Away on vacation with his family in the South of France, Mann realized it would be safer to remain abroad for the time being. The reality was much worse: Heydrich had in fact signed an arrest order for Mann to be deported to the Dachau concentration camp, which had opened in March of that year.

Böhler’s novel picks up three years later, on Friday, January 31, 1936, just as Thomas Mann is leaving the offices of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, having submitted his long-awaited denouncement of the Third Reich and sworn allegiance with Jewish and German émigré authors:

Finally! After hesitating for three years he has done what had to be done. He hooks his cane over his arm and walks slowly down the wide staircase. On Monday the letter will appear in the newspaper, a public repudiation of the regime and also of Germany. Erika will be proud of him, proud that the magician has admirably discharged his duty. He has listened to his conscience and his conviction, his profound conviction as it says in the letter, that nothing good can come from the present-day German regime, not for Germany and certainly not for the world.

The grandeur of the moment is at once deflated by the workaday indifference of the newspaper office: two editors “almost rush into him as they run up the stairs,” and the blond receptionist in the lobby is “leafing through a magazine and doesn’t notice him.” No one even bothers to offer him a cup of coffee. Instead, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist emerges into the mild Zurich weather unseen, unacknowledged.

A few pages later ambivalence has already set in: “He had expected to be relieved and in a good mood after delivering the letter, but he can’t dismiss his doubts. Did he do the right thing? Did he perhaps act too rashly?” Mann spends the remainder of the weekend — and the rest of the novel — trying to settle these questions for himself.

Rather than represent Mann’s three years of political and moral contemplation as some sprawling, pan-European torment, Böhler has constructed an intimate narrative that spans roughly two days and takes up a mere 167 pages. The most outwardly dramatic thing that happens is that Mann falls and sprains his wrist while walking the dog. Otherwise he sits (or naps) in his study, ponders his search for an adequate cigar brand, and broods over whether or not to retract his letter.

The result of all this condensation is an implausibly neat story, a sort of biographical connect-the-dots. The Decision occasionally feels like a document that has been inspected by a crack unit of expert fact-checkers, with hardly a superfluous word or sentence allowed to languish anywhere in its pages. Every thought or action of Mann’s seems freighted with significance, condemned to beget the next logical thought or action. In this sense Böhler’s novel is too superficial; it never dares lift its heavy anchor of historical fact. Rather than engage in the proper business of fiction writing, it remains tethered to a rock of plausibility and biography, all of which might be better explored in a different genre of writing (Mann’s diaries, for instance).

Böhler’s Mann, meanwhile, is a flimsy construction. He is massively literal, and seems to think only in rhetorical questions: “His own story, how would it end? Will he have to justify himself? Because he is not in Germany, because he waited?” Wrapped in the unruffled procession of Böhler’s prose (“He snaps shut the diary and places it back in the drawer. He lights a small cigar, walks from the desk to the window and back to the desk.”), Mann is reduced to a frame of biographical reference points. The Decision, in other words, is too obviously rhetorical: a thinking through Thomas Mann rather than a thinking into him.

And yet it doesn’t entirely fail to live. When Böhler does allow the narrative to take a wayward glance from its theme we begin to find something moving, even touching, in her portrait. Mann suddenly bulges with life. There he is, the thin-skinned high priest of German Kultur, with his strict daily schedule that borders on the ceremonial, forced to live the peripatetic life of an émigré. A scene in which Mann imagines his homoerotic diaries falling into the hands of Nazis and being exposed before the public is especially moving:

After the house search he was sick with worry. The brownshirts would most likely come back, and the second time they’d search more thoroughly. They would find the notebooks and send them to Berlin. And that wasn’t all, after that they would certainly publish them. His most secret feelings and thoughts would be in the spotlight. With malicious pleasure these miserable dogs would be rubbing their hands at the scandal of his confessions! His name, his reputation besmirched and defiled, his life ruined forever. For the first time since leaving Germany he was truly afraid.

Here, with the chaos of sex and desire churning beneath the formal, bourgeois facade, we can briefly glimpse the enormous vulnerability of the famous egotist and the unbearable pathos of his fate. One of Böhler’s achievements in this novel is to show that Mann did not arrive at his decision the way most people would have liked him to (or imagine that they themselves would): by breezy moral reasoning without stooping to consider his own safety and well-being. Instead, Mann arrived at his decision the way most of us probably would: messily, humanly. He is racked with ambiguity, fear, frustration, and repeatedly tempted by disengagement. “Abwenden, abwenden!” he later wrote in his diary — Turn away, turn away!

Yet the notion that he could turn away, or that he had refused to face the music until January 1936, is misleading, and perhaps Böhler both inflates the importance of the Korrodi letter and makes too much of Mann’s alleged naïveté. The political and cultural deliberations in Mann’s voluminous diaries are, in Böhler’s rendering, often reduced to simplistic platitudes that contain little nuance:

How on earth will it end? This nightmare has been going on for three years, and who knows how long it will last. The barbarous and reactionary forces have made a pact with everything that is the enemy of intellect and culture, a diabolical pact of fear and bitterness. Erudition and thinking are obviously unwelcome, and the savage, sadistic propaganda spreads a political view that is hostile toward the future and lacks any vision or ideas. Nowhere can one descry anything grand or noble.

Leaving aside Heydrich’s 1933 arrest warrant, Mann had run into trouble with the National Socialist movement before Hitler rose to power. In a celebrated speech at Berlin’s Beethoven Hall on October 17, 1930, Mann warned his fellow Germans against the rising influence of the National Socialists. According to biographers, the Austrian playwright Arnolt Bronnen (who later swore a “vow of most faithful allegiance” to Adolf Hitler) led a mob of Nazi sympathizers into the hall and accused Mann of being an enemy of the people. They instigated a brawl that forced Mann to cut his speech short. He was smuggled out by his friend and neighbor, the German-Jewish conductor Bruno Walter.

Later still, Mann wrote a long and formidable essay on Richard Wagner on the 50th anniversary of the great composer’s death. As Alex Ross once put it in The New Yorker, it was an essay that “dared to present Hitler’s favorite composer as, variously, a decadent, a dilettante, and a Kulturbolschewist.” Mann was swiftly denounced by German cultural elites. An editorial titled “Protest of the Richard Wagner City of Munich” appeared in a local newspaper, signed by many of Mann’s friends and acquaintances, including the composer Richard Strauss. In a letter written the following year to his brother Heinrich, Mann approvingly quoted Alexander von Villers: “I am so sick of this singing, phrase-mongering people that I have involuntarily broken all of the thousand ties that bind me to Germany.”

The Korrodi letter was published three years later. It was the final straw for the Nazis: within a few months the entire Mann family was stripped of their German citizenship. Painful as this final separation was, it also liberated Mann, and possibly the increased distance from Germany broadened his understanding of his homeland. For although he knew the Nazis did not represent the Germany he knew or came from — the Germany of Goethe, Schiller, and Heine — they were not exactly strangers either. In an extraordinary 1938 essay, titled “Hitler Is my Brother” (when it was published in Esquire the original German title was changed to “That Man Is My Brother”), Mann wrote, “Here is a man possessed of a bottomless resentment and a festering desire for revenge, a man ten times a failure, extremely lazy, incapable of steady work; a man who has spent long periods in institutions; a disappointed bohemian artist; a total good-for-nothing.” But an artist nevertheless, and therefore, however much it pained Mann to admit it, a kind of brother — “a rather unpleasant and mortifying brother.”

Mann’s self-identification with Hitler, written on the eve of the Second World War, is a salvo of novelistic genius. It allowed Mann to be both novelist and engage writer at the same time; by no means an easy balancing act. Mann’s novelistic imagination, his fictional sympathy, allowed him to understand and get close to Hitler in a way he never could, or would want to, in life. But simply hating Hitler was not sufficient either. “Happier and worthier are those other hours when my hatred is overcome by my need for freedom, for objective contemplation — in a word, for the irony which I have long since recognized as the native element of all creative art.”

This irony is essentially novelistic, and it allowed Mann to recognize the things he and Hitler had in common: “The lazy, vegetating existence in the depths of a moral and mental bohemia; the fundamental arrogance which thinks itself too good for any sensible and honorable activity, on the ground of its vague intuition that it is reserved for something else.” Mann might as well be describing Tonio Kröger, or Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, or any number of decadent young fictional characters of the early 20th century. He knew, and admitted, that there was an intersection of German culture and experience in which he and Hitler both traveled.

What is so thoroughly moving about this essay is that it is filled with self-reproach — a “moral self-flagellation,” as Mann puts it. His prosecution of German history was equally a prosecution of himself. He never stopped atoning for his political errors during the First World War, and, apparently, for waiting so long to become the international face of German opposition to Nazism in the late 1930s and ’40s.

While living in exile in California, with Heinrich close by, Mann put his enormous reputation at the service of the Allies, broadcasting to the German people via the BBC and helping fellow exiles settle in California. While Heinrich had guessed what the Nüremberg laws would lead to as early as 1936 (“The German Jews will be systematically annihilated, of that there can be no more doubt,” he wrote in the essay “Die Deutschen und ihre Juden”), Mann himself told German listeners about the Holocaust as it was unfolding. This fact bears repeating: in 1942 a Nobel Prize–winning German novelist in exile in California pieced together the existence of an event most people in Germany would deny having known about three years later (and which the Allies were only just beginning to fathom).

In fact, Mann had already spoken of “the treatment of the Jews in Germany, the concentration camps and the things which took place and are still taking place in them,” during his American lecture tour in 1938. And as it did with many other Americans who were involved in anti-Nazi rhetoric at this time, the US authorities — including the FBI and the State Department — would later suspect the Mann family of “premature anti-fascism” — McCarthyist code for communism. In April 1951 Mann’s name was included on a list published by the House Un-American Activities Committee; a year later he moved his family back to Switzerland. Oh, how far from Whitman’s vision democracy in America was turning out to be!

In a way, the temptation to trace Thomas Mann’s political development and follow him from Germany to Switzerland to the United States and back again is to be distracted by exactly the sort of thing Mann was afraid of being distracted by. “There is so much in a life that is not lived,” Mann thinks to himself in The Decision, yet Böhler declines to press the matter. One sympathizes, of course. To read a single biography of Mann, or spend an evening with his diaries, is to encounter a figure of towering, forbidding complexity. Perhaps having been accused of being both reactionary and communist is less incompatible than it seems. Mann was full of a novelist’s sympathy for positions that were not his own. How did Whitman put it — I am large, I contain multitudes? I prefer Mann’s version: “Man is the master of contradictions.”


Morten Høi Jensen is a Danish writer and translator living in New York. He is writing a biography of the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen.

LARB Contributor

Morten Høi Jensen is a writer and critic from Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). Photo by Niels Hougaard / Kristeligt Dagblad.


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