The Mann family romance is among the tragic real-life soap operas of the century, a large-cast drama of genius, talent, fame and infamy, fraternal hatred, rocky and rock-hard marriages, open and covert sexual deviancy, secrets and suicides. It provided material for Thomas, Heinrich, Erika and Klaus Mann’s novels and plays, and for plenty of biographies and psycho-literary studies besides. Golo Mann is the third of Thomas and Katja Mann’s six children. He was born in 1909 and must have been the model for the little boy nicknamed Beisser (Biter) in his father’s comical and touching novella Unordnung und Frühes Leid (‘Early Sorrow’) – which, he says, ‘others greatly admired but I found embarrassing’. Graceless, bumbling Beisser is outshone by his flower-like sister Lorchen, who has stolen their father’s heart with her pretty ways. Beisser suffers from terrible rages and is made to stand in a corner where he screams and screams until he turns blue. The nanny thinks he is having a fit, but it’s only the blue nursery distemper coming off on his wet cheeks. Golo Mann quotes his mother’s diary on the subject of himself as a small child:
with his anxious and timid disposition, he goes completely rigid from anxiety at any unfamiliar sight or sound ... He does everything in a strangely clumsy, grotesque way... For the most part Golo is quite well behaved, gentle, and accommodating. He likes to give away all his things. ... One time, when Erika burst into tears about something during lunch, Golo wordlessly offered her a spoonful of his soup to comfort her ... But once he begins to misbehave, he is terrible. He then moans and groans about everything, gradually works himself into dreadful bawling, cannot be calmed either with kindness or with strictness, just goes on screaming for half an hour at a stretch, stubbornly, hopelessly, and looking so repulsive that you can’t help hating him.
The little boy also ‘loves to talk about illness and death’ – a trait he must have inherited, or subconsciously copied, from his father.
There is certainly a streak of valetudinarianism in the self-portrait that emerges almost reluctantly from these generally buttoned-up but sometimes, by contrast, disquietingly confidential pages. It is hard to believe that this is the younger brother of Klaus and Erika Mann, the most way-out of Germany’s iconoclastic bright young things in the Twenties and early Thirties. Golo Mann describes himself as a natural conservative, tender towards the past and respectful of authority. He comes across as a Victorian bachelor professor (and has been a professor of history at American, Swiss and German universities), right down to the habit of what the translator calls ‘hikes’ undertaken ‘for the sake of health and friendship’. Clumsy, anxious, shy, old-fashioned and formal, he hardly needs to declare how vulnerable and lonely he is under his stiff dinosaur skin of upper-bourgeois good form. We see the Beisser prototype growing into a staid and conscientious professor. He himself recognises the pathos of this continuity, and the sense of it helps to get one through some of the drier stretches of the book. They have, after all, a right to be there, for Reminiscences and Reflections is not an autobiography: ‘it is intended to be just what the title suggests. Though of course what author can say anything for certain about a book before it is finished?’ Still, Mann himself admits that early memories are the most vivid, and so are the parts of his book that correspond to its subtitle, ‘Growing up in Germany’.
Golo Mann’s childhood was not particularly happy, and the reason for that was Thomas Mann. The novelist who wrote with such insight, compassion and amusement about relations between father and children was a terrible parent: a capricious domestic tyrant, his near-hysterical demands for silence, agreement, and a routine adapted to his needs alone, weighed on the house like a granite architrave. English readers are already familiar with Thomas the Bad from Nigel Hamilton’s The Brothers Mann. With an ironic mock-generosity worthy of Thomas himself, Golo Mann attributes his father’s awfulness to the struggle of conscience he went through in writing his later bitterly-regretted affirmation of German nationalism in the First World War:
We had once loved our father almost as tenderly as our mother. He could project an aura of kindness, but for the most part we experienced only silence, sternness, nervousness [‘irritability’ would give a better sense of Nervosität], or anger. I can remember all too well certain scenes at mealtimes, outbreaks of rage and brutality that were directed at my brother Klaus but brought tears to my own eyes. If a person cannot always be very nice to those around him when he is devoting himself exclusively to his creative work, must it not be that much more difficult when he is struggling day after day with the Reflections of a Non-Political Man, in which the sinking of the British ship Lusitania with twelve hundred civilian passengers on board is actually hailed, to name just one of the book’s grimmest features?
The next capricious tyrant on Golo Mann’s path was the educationalist Kurt Hahn, best known in England as the founder of Gordonstoun. In 1919 Hahn started his first school near Lake Constance in the castle of Salem which belonged to ‘his benefactor, Prince Max von Baden’. Katja Mann journeyed there with her eldest son Klaus in 1921. Hahn turned him down as a pupil: rightly so, in Golo Mann’s view, he would not have fitted in. The following year Frau Mann returned with Golo, who ‘needed to get out of the house for a while; I was not a positive presence there, and also did not feel happy.’ They changed trains at Ulm, again at Friedrichshafen, and got out at Mimmenhausen. After that, they had to tramp through the snow. They happened to run into Hahn going in the opposite direction: he recognised Frau Mann, although by now it was dark, but was too busy, he said, to see her either then or the following day, which she spent holed up with Golo at the local inn. It was not until the evening of the third day that the 36-year-old schoolmaster could find a slot for the wife of Germany’s most famous writer; and even then he refused to make a decision about her second son, leaving them to return to Munich and wait out the winter before he condescended to accept the boy.
Hahn had a strong sense of drama, not to say melodrama, although this was a quality he disapproved of in others. Everything was a very big deal, usually a matter of honour: even at Gordonstoun, where the principles which Hahn mistakenly took to be the principles of English education had mercifully been watered down a bit by English indifference and realism, children were on their honour to brush their teeth: if they didn’t, the stain was on their honour, not their incisors. Hahn simply had no sense of relative values: years after Mann had left school
a pupil recently expelled from Salem committed suicide. Hahn commented to me: ‘And he gave me his word of honour that he wouldn’t do it.’ Need I say that suicide is much too sorrowful and desperate a matter for a person’s will, in this case represented by a word of honour, to have any power against it? When a person breaks with everyone and everything because he feels compelled to – what good will a mere promise do?
Mann knew what he was talking about, not only from his family experience, but from another victim of the Salem system: this was a boy who suffered from kleptomania. Hahn imposed on him ‘the worst punishment one could have at a school: total boycott. For an entire day, from 6.30 in the morning until 9.30 at night, no one was permitted to speak to the culprit, who was expected to appear for meals and classes. How could Hahn believe that such harshness could have a good effect?’ Later at the University of Hamburg Mann shared student lodgings with this boy and was called in to identify the body when he threw himself from a train.
Still, Mann was happy at Salem, and
Kurt Hahn remains the person who influenced me in my early youth more decisively and more lastingly than anyone else ... And he has my vote. That is what counts. Radical rejection may be forceful, but it is not interesting. Criticism proves worthwhile only when brought to bear against a group, a doctrine, a personality that one basically affirms, against mistakes that can be corrected – as later happened in the schools founded by Hahn, without the salient features of the tradition he had established being betrayed.
Mann went on seeing his mentor until the old man died, and went on agreeing and disagreeing with him even after that. Reminiscences and Reflections is a continuous argument with Hahn about his principles and methods, and so it should be particularly interesting for Gordonstoun old boys to read. According to Mann, Salem was founded in order to educate a German élite who would not lead their country into war, as their fathers had done. The emphasis was on leadership, which is why (though Hahn doesn’t say so) the best products of the system – i.e. the most successful in terms of Hahn’s ideas – often turned out to be self-conscious prigs; not that that is at all the worst thing to be. There was an element of snobbishness and deference: Mann gives a funny description of Hahn and Prince Max pacing up and down the terrace in conversation, with Hahn skipping round to the prince’s left every time they got to the end of a lap. The young prince was a pupil, and always addressed as Sie by the staff, whereas the other boys were Du; he wasn’t allowed to wear gloves in the cold, though, hardiness being a Salem fetish. Hardiness and comradeship were promoted by ‘hikes’ and more ambitious expeditions, and those were fun – Mann took part in a boating trip on the Finnish lakes. There was much pomp, circumstance and ritual, which suited Hahn’s dramatic instincts: duels by boxing – a form of punishment – were carried out before the school ‘in an air of almost religious solemnity’.
Mann bravely goes further in his criticism of Hahn than perhaps he need have: ‘Here a difficult and embarrassing matter rears its ugly head. A comparison between Kurt Hahn’ – a Jew – ‘and Adolf Hitler thrusts itself upon one.’ Both, says Mann, were governed in their thinking by their experience of the war and a determination to prevent anything like it happening again; both believed in and had a talent for propaganda; both liked ‘aesthetic spectacle’ – parades and performances in uniform; both ‘believed in the will, and in the possibility and desirability of strengthening the will, through education’. Their aims, of course, were different: Hahn’s ‘to educate free, courageous citizens, Christian gentlemen ... Democracy would prevail, though with élitist trappings... A.H. wanted all the power in one hand, his own, to silence any freedom of expression or criticism, and raise a horde of killers.’ Still, the comparison leaves one somewhat stunned.
The educational problem Hahn found it hardest to confront was sex. At one point he confessed to his chief collaborator that he had hoped
he could get the children to ‘skip puberty’... He had practically no notion of sexuality and sex education. This had to do with the fact that he had moral compunctions about his own homoerotic inclinations and had stifled them in himself by an incredible effort of the will. As a result, he suspected and feared everywhere that which he had suppressed in himself, and he employed truly inquisitorial methods against it, much as had been done in Jesuit schools in earlier times.
To stave off homosexuality, Salem was co-educational: but the girls’ role ‘was not a happy one so long as Hahn headed the school; it was the role of the minority.’ No wonder Klaus Mann thought ‘that Kurt Hahn had done me great harm with his principles. That I do not believe. I think it was the milder cases who suffered preventable damage from Hahn’s sex education.’ This is Mann’s quietly dignified coming-out. On the other hand, he produces a new piece of evidence about his father’s furtive homosexuality in connection with his own school friend Polo: ‘TM had noticed him at Salem and asked for photos, which were then made without telling Polo. TM needed them for his portrait of the young Joseph.’ Perhaps there is even something a bit furtive about the unattributive passive tense ‘which were then made’; and perhaps Klaus had a point.
Before Hamburg, Mann went first to the University of Berlin and then to Heidelberg to study under Karl Jaspers, another dramatic tyrant who bullied as a matter, he said, of ‘pedagogical principle’. Mann’s account of Heidelberg in the early Thirties is very nearly as interesting as the account of his schooldays. The political atmosphere and the success of Nazi ideology among the students drove him to join a socialist group: ‘The Group planned all sorts of excursions, and someone always brought a guitar. I still have a group photograph from one of these excursions; I am standing at the very end, in collar and tie, while the others are dressed in the casual style of the German youth movement.’
During the years 1930-1933, Mann’s political mentor was ‘a liberal conservative’ journalist called Leopold Schwarzschild who edited the weekly Das Tage-Buch. Mann devotes a chapter to Schwarzschild’s reaction – first positive, then negative – to Brüning’s economic policies, and asks how he himself could reconcile being a member of a socialist group and a disciple of Schwarzschild’s.
The answer is simple. I belonged ‘officially’ to the group ... whereas my reading of Das Tage-Buch was private. In private I could allow myself any contradiction. One has to make political choices only when one acts, not when one merely thinks. I was unsuited to action, partly because of my youth, partly for other reasons.
The reasons must have been related to the ones that made him renounce the ambition to be a leader once his longing to be elected a ‘colour-wearer’ at Salem (a cross between a school prefect and a member of Pop at Eton) had been fulfilled. In later years ‘when I found myself in modest “leadership” positions, I did little with them and did not feel at all self-important; I gave advice, sometimes had to criticise, whenever possible softening the criticism with humour; I would never have issued orders. If I had any ambition, it went into my teaching, and then into my writing; in those areas I wanted to do the best of which I was capable.’ Unfortunately there are no photographs in Reminiscences and Reflections. It would be nice to know what the young Joseph looked like, nicer still to see the author dressed in his collar, tie and engaging self-irony among the socialist youths.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.