Thomas and Katia Mann had six children. It was clear from early on that Katia most loved the second child, Klaus, who was born in 1906, and that Thomas loved Erika, the eldest, born in 1905, and also Elisabeth, born in 1918. The other three – the barely tolerated ones – were Golo, born in 1909, Monika, born in 1910, and Michael, born in 1919. Erika remembered a time during the shortages of the First World War when food had to be divided but there was one fig left over. ‘What did my father do? He gave this fig just to me alone . . . the other three children stared in horror, and my father said sententiously with emphasis: “One should get the children used to injustice early.”’
Some things ran in the family. Homosexuality, for instance. Thomas himself was gay most of the time, as his diaries make clear. So were three of his children: Erika (also just most of the time; she made an exception for Bruno Walter, among others), Klaus and Golo. Suicide was a family theme too. Both of Thomas Mann’s sisters committed suicide, as did his sons Klaus and Michael, as did the second wife of his brother Heinrich. Also, gerontophilia. Bruno Walter was almost as old as Erika’s father; and in 1939 Elisabeth married the literary critic Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, who was 36 years her senior.
And then there is the small matter of incest. Much interest in this was fuelled by incidents in Thomas Mann’s own work. In her useful and sympathetic book about the Mann family, In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain, Andrea Weiss writes: ‘Just how much Katia and Klaus Pringsheim loved each other was the subject of public gossip and private distress, especially when Thomas Mann, married to Katia for only a few months, used his wife’s relationship with her brother as the basis for one of his novellas.’ The novella, Blood of the Walsungs, dealt with the incestuous relationship between a twin brother and sister; Katia’s father attempted to have the story suppressed.
Such rumours also existed about Erika and Klaus, much encouraged by Klaus’s play on the subject, The Siblings, and made their way into Gestapo reports when the siblings went into exile and FBI reports about them once they arrived in America. (In the mid-1920s Klaus helped to keep things in the family by having an affair with Erika’s first husband, Gustaf Gründgens.) In his novel The Volcano, Klaus allowed the character based on his sister to marry the character based on his father. In Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner, the hero, Pope Gregorius, marries his mother – who is also his father’s sister.
In his diaries Thomas Mann made clear his own sexual interest in Klaus: ‘Am enraptured with Eissi,’ he wrote in 1920, when Klaus was 14 (Eissi was his nickname), ‘terribly handsome in his swimming trunks. Find it quite natural that I should fall in love with my son . . . It seems I am once and for all done with women? . . . Eissi was lying tanned and shirtless on his bed, reading; I was disconcerted.’ Later that year he ‘came upon Eissi totally nude and up to some nonsense by Golo’s bed’ and was ‘deeply struck by his radiant adolescent body; overwhelming’. He used some of this same language to describe Jacob’s interest in the young Joseph in Joseph and His Brothers, and in the novella Disorder and Early Sorrow, written when Elisabeth was seven, the relationship between the bookish father and his young daughter, clearly based on Mann’s relationship with Elisabeth, is heated and fervid enough to make any reader marvel at what a wonderfully daring imagination the old magician was in possession of.
By the time Hitler came to power in 1933 Thomas Mann, at 59, was in possession not only of this daring imagination but of the Nobel Prize, which he had received in 1929. He lived in a large and beautiful house in Munich and owned an idyllic summer house on the Baltic which he had built three years earlier – a house subsequently requisitioned by Göring. Mann had a reputation as the most serious-minded and respectable German alive. He enjoyed his fame and his family, his bourgeois comforts and his mornings alone in his study writing essays and fiction. The Manns lived well, their son Golo later wrote,
thanks to the Nobel Prize and the tremendous earnings of The Magic Mountain. They took trips, they ate and drank well, and two large cars stood in the garage: an open American car and a German limousine. When they went to the theatre, the chauffeur waited in the lobby with their fur coats at the end of the performance. This style of life, which they went to no trouble to conceal, made their growing number of political enemies hate them all the more.
Thomas Mann was unprepared for exile. In a letter, he wrote: ‘I am too good a German, too closely involved with the cultural traditions and language of my country for the prospect of a year-long or perhaps life-long exile not to have a hard, ominous meaning for me.’ He was so unprepared that, on leaving the country less than a month after Hitler became chancellor, he failed to take his diaries and the pages of the novel he was working on. Publication of the diaries would have considerably dampened the warm welcome he was to receive in America.
By 1933, Erika and Klaus Mann were famous too. Thomas Mann had not encouraged Klaus to become a writer, noting in his diary that his 14-year-old son’s intention to send stories to magazines was ‘a folly from which he must be dissuaded’. As adolescents, Erika and Klaus wrote plays and stories. While still teenagers, they made their way to Berlin, where Erika was determined to become a famous actress and Klaus a famous writer. As soon as he began to publish essays and stories, Klaus traded on his father’s fame with a mixture of brazenness and unease. A cartoon appeared in a satirical magazine showing him in short pants next to his father. The caption read: ‘I am told, Papa, that the son of a genius is never a genius himself. Therefore, you can’t be a genius!’ Bertolt Brecht wrote: ‘The whole world knows Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann. By the way, who is Thomas Mann?’ When The Magic Mountain appeared in 1924, Thomas Mann wrote in his son’s copy: ‘To my respected colleague – his promising father.’ Klaus was foolish enough to show it to a friend and it was quoted regularly in the press. Klaus, as he entered his twenties, was both a wunderkind and a joke.
Thomas Mann, unlike his son, was an immensely complex figure, deeply conservative in his manners and ambiguous in his politics and, for many years, in his German nationalism. He could have been a senator and businessman like his father had it not been for something rich and almost hidden in his nature which set him apart. It was not merely a hidden sexuality, or something inherited from his slightly daft mother, but an imaginative energy and dark daring which, combined with an astonishing steely ambition and solidity, enabled him to produce Buddenbrooks when he was 25.
Klaus was always easier to read. He was fluid and generous and flighty. He kept nothing in reserve, and this, despite his obvious literary talent, or maybe because of it, made him melancholy. His father’s deep, almost obsessive interest in death was entertained and kept at bay because Thomas Mann placed it at the service of his work; a sense of doom and disease filled the pages and the spirit of the characters in Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus and many of Mann’s best stories. Mann comes to us a writer of many layers and guises. Much can be read into his work, and it is easy to understand the interest of scholars in finding a key to his peculiar imaginative energies and to hidden aspects of his life. He had to be careful, once he arrived in the United States, about his sexuality and his shifting relationship with aspects of Germany which, after 1933, had become deeply unsavoury and shameful. In Bluebeard’s Chamber: Guilt and Confession in Thomas Mann (2003), Michael Maar argued, however, that Mann was, for much of his life, especially with his family, his friends, and in his work, unusually open about his sexuality.
Instead, searching for secret elements in his fiction, Maar insisted that one theme impelled and nourished Mann’s imagination more than any other. He found image after image from the beginning to the end of his work of murder, blood, knives and sexual pleasure. He suggested that this was the key to Mann’s work and perhaps to his life. ‘We can venture,’ he wrote, ‘the thought experiment that if Thomas Mann had committed an actual crime and sought to give an account of it in his work, the work would not have taken a different form than it actually has.’ He suggests – almost convincingly – that in Naples, in the mid-1890s, when he was a very young man, Thomas Mann did something, or witnessed something, or was closely implicated in something that involved sex and murder. And that what he did, or what he witnessed, both maimed and energised him and made its way into the work of sixty years. It hardly matters whether Maar’s hypotheses are true or not. What is more interesting is the way Mann’s work continues to be examined and reread, as though the key to it remains in some furtive, cloaked part of his dark and exotic psychosexual being. ‘It is as well,’ Mann wrote in Death in Venice, ‘that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not its origins.’
Klaus, on the other hand, had no secret crimes, real or imaginary, on his conscience; instead of writing about death as his father did obsessively, he allowed the aura of death to enter his own spirit. As early as 1932 he wrote in his diary that he had thought about suicide. In February 1933 he wrote: ‘In the mornings, nothing but the wish to die. When I calculate what I have to lose, it seems negligible. No chance of a really happy relationship. Probably no chance of literary fame in the near future . . . Death can only be regarded as deliverance.’ What makes Klaus a subject of great fascination in Germany now, however, is not his dance with death but rather that he saw the rise of Fascism more clearly and presciently than his father did and bravely set about opposing it in every way he could while also managing to take vast quantities of drugs and have a great deal of sex. As the prevaricating father struggled with ambiguities, both political and sexual, he made masterpieces from the fight. The son was a simpler soul, more open about his sexuality, more certain of his beliefs. Out of that he made a few almost interesting books.
At the end of 1924, Klaus Mann wrote Anja and Esther, a play about ‘a neurotic quartet of four boys and girls’ who ‘were madly in love with each other’. The following year he was approached by the actor Gustaf Gründgens, who wanted to direct the play with himself in one of the male roles, Klaus in the other; Erika Mann and Pamela Wedekind, the daughter of the playwright Frank Wedekind, would be the two young women. The ambitious Gründgens, who was born in 1899, had a reputation in Hamburg but not in Berlin. At one point, as they worked on the play, Klaus planned to marry Pamela, with whom Erika fell in love, while Erika arranged to marry Gustaf, with whom Klaus began an affair. At Erika and Gustaf’s wedding reception, Erika noted that her mother’s brother was, as she wrote to Pamela, ‘flirting with Gustaf’. The honeymoon was spent in a hotel where Erika and Pamela had stayed not long before as man and wife (Pamela had checked in dressed as a man).
Anja and Esther, which opened in Hamburg in October 1925, attracted vast amounts of publicity, partly because of its scandalous content and partly because it starred three children of two famous writers. One magazine put them on the cover, cropping out Gründgens’s face, making a point of his status as outsider amid all this fame. His marriage to Erika ended soon after it began. ‘A cynical explanation,’ Weiss writes, ‘would point out that Erika’s theatrical career had flourished to the point where she no longer needed Gustaf as stepping-stone; that Gustaf had finally realised his marriage to Erika would not bestow on him her father’s impeccable social credentials.’
Pamela Wedekind married a man old enough to be her father, and the foursome returned to being the twosome of Erika and Klaus Mann. Although Erika played the part of Queen Elisabeth in Schiller’s Don Carlos at the State Theatre in Munich, she longed for greater excitement. And since Klaus was bored and his next play a flop, they decided to go to America, where they were ready to have their genius fully recognised. To amuse themselves, they told the US press that they were twins and thus began the American myth of ‘The Literary Mann Twins’. They went on a tour of the country. ‘Whenever they were stuck for funds,’ Weiss writes, ‘Klaus would write articles and Erika would write letters to organisations, seeking lecture engagements. They often arrived in town with no change in their pockets.’ Soon, they decided to tour the world. They stayed at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo for more than six weeks – ‘kept in that luxurious prison by the evil spell of our unpaid bill’ – and, on being rescued by their father’s publisher, agreed to write a book about their travels as a way of paying him back.
They returned to Germany in 1928 and over the next five years wrote articles and books and made outrageous statements; they travelled, they had many lovers. Erika worked in the theatre and appeared in films, Klaus wrote more plays. In other words, they took full advantage of the freedoms offered by the Weimar Republic. For many in the Nazi Party, they were the epitome of all that was wrong with Germany. And their mother’s Jewish background didn’t endear them to the National Socialists either. Despite the fact that they often seemed in these years to be the silliest pair of people alive, they came nonchalantly and almost naturally to believe that their right to freedom and fun and half-baked opinions was something worth preserving. It was their silliness that made them serious. Once the right to go on being silly was threatened, they would respond with considerable urgency and earnestness.
Erika took almost no direct interest in politics until, in January 1932, she was asked to read a poem by Victor Hugo to a women’s pacifist group. As she stood on the stage she was shouted down, one young Brownshirt screaming: ‘You are a criminal . . . Jewish traitress! International agitator!’ She later wrote: ‘In the hall, everything became a mad scramble. The Stormtroopers attacked the audience with their chairs, shouting themselves into paroxysms of anger and fury.’ The Nazi newspaper later called her ‘a flatfooted peace hyena’ with ‘no human physiognomy’; she didn’t increase her popularity with the party by suing for damages and winning. ‘I realised,’ she later wrote, ‘that my experience had nothing to do with politics – it was more than politics. It touched at the very foundation of my – of our – of the existence of all.’
That winter, Erika, now out of work and living in her parents’ house, conceived the idea of starting a cabaret in Munich. Her father came up with the title. The Peppermill opened on New Year’s Day 1933. It ran for two months next door to the local Nazi headquarters, and, since it was so successful, was preparing to move to a larger theatre when the Reichstag went up in flames. Erika and Klaus were on a skiing holiday while the new theatre was being decorated and arrived back in Munich to be warned by the family chauffeur, himself a party member, that they were in danger. Later, Klaus wrote that the chauffeur ‘had been a Nazi spy throughout the four or five years he lived with us . . . But this time he had failed in his duty, out of sympathy, I suppose. For he knew what would happen to us if he informed his Nazi employers of our arrival in town.’
Erika and Klaus made contact with their parents, who were in Switzerland, and warned them not to return to Munich. As soon as she could, Erika drove over the border to Switzerland, where she began to prepare her parents for the idea that they were going to lose everything that they owned in Germany, including not only their houses and cars, but the manuscripts of Thomas Mann’s books and such invaluable sources as Katia’s letters to her husband from the sanatorium in Davos.
Klaus didn’t travel with his sister. Instead, he took the night train to Paris. The day he arrived, he wrote in his diary: ‘Feeling of loneliness always, whenever SHE isn’t there.’ The ‘she’ was Erika. And Erika, it seemed, was now ready to transfer her loyalty from her brother to her father. She began by returning to Munich, putting herself in considerable danger, once she discovered that a section of Mann’s novel-in-progress, Joseph and His Brothers, had been left behind. She sneaked back into the family home and, without turning on the lights, found the handwritten manuscript on her father’s desk and hid it among the tools under the seat of her car. Then she made her way once more across the border. (It isn’t clear why Mann didn’t ask his daughter to take his diaries too. Eventually, he sent Golo a key to the safe where they were, imploring him not to read them. ‘My fears,’ he wrote in his diary when their arrival was delayed, ‘revolve first and foremost almost exclusively around this threat to my life’s secrets. They are deeply serious. The consequences could be terrible, even fatal.’)
Erika had a strength of will that Klaus lacked, an urge to look after others, a need, which was often irritating, to put her considerable physical and emotional energies to use. Weiss charts the shifting nature of their relationship with considerable care. Until this point, the siblings had been inseparable, Klaus constantly falling in love with Erika’s friends. With the shock of exile, Erika for much of the time left Klaus unprotected. Her attention was now directed at political action, at her own survival and at ensuring the happiness and comfort of her father. Her bossiness and her ability to organise things meant that she thrived in exile. Klaus, on the other hand, drifted. In July 1933 he wrote in his diary: ‘Thought about how sad I am to be alone . . . Erika has Theres [the actress Therese Giehse, who worked with Erika on The Peppermill] . . . By the rules of our bond, I too should be permitted to seek relationships elsewhere. I reflect on all the failed or half-failed attempts.’ He was living on money sent to him by his mother. In October he wrote: ‘Hope to receive November money regularly – I am not, like my sister, able to manage without it, on the contrary – alas.’
It was clear that Klaus couldn’t go back to Germany. He thus had nothing to lose by denouncing the Nazi regime and saw it as the duty of all writers to do what they could to undermine Hitler. ‘Neither pleasure nor pain,’ he wrote, ‘ever makes me forget the inexorable gravity of the situation and the weight of my responsibility. Every anti-Fascist German writer must exert his whole strength today to the very utmost, and I know that, for particular reasons, I am under an especially great obligation.’ He decided to publish, from Amsterdam, a monthly literary journal, Die Sammlung, and began to ask the main German writers for contributions. He knew what he wanted to achieve. The problem was that his father, now in the South of France, was considerably more ambivalent about his duties.
Some of this arose from Mann’s fears of losing his readers in Germany and having his assets confiscated. But it also had to do with an old argument about Germany which Mann had had with his brother Heinrich. In August 1914, Mann was enthusiastic about the war. He wrote to a friend: ‘One feels that everything will have to be new after this profound, violent anguish and that the German soul will emerge stronger, prouder, freer, happier from it. So be it.’ Heinrich believed from the beginning that Germany would lose. In an essay written in 1915, ostensibly about Zola, he launched an attack on his brother:
The whole nationalistic catechism, filled with madness and crime – and those who preach it, is it out of eagerness or, even worse, vanity . . . Because you’re eager to please you become poet laureate for half a lifetime, if you don’t run out of breath beforehand, desperate to run with the crowd, always cheering it on, high on emotion, with no sense of responsibility for – and no awareness of – the impending catastrophe like a loser! . . . It does not matter now that you take an elegant stance against truth and justice; you oppose it and belong to the base and fleeting. You’ve chosen between the moment and history and concede that in spite of all your talents you are just an amusing parasite.
By that time Mann had ceased work on The Magic Mountain and begun writing a reply to his brother, called Reflections of a Non-Political Man. It was six hundred pages long. His son Golo remembered him writing it:
We had once loved our father almost as tenderly as our mother, but that changed during the war. He could still project an aura of kindness, but for the most part we experienced only silence, sternness, nervousness 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 much more difficult when he is struggling day after day with 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 . . . This work, coming into being only for itself, or for its author, was a castle laid out like a labyrinth, meant to be torn down no sooner than it was built.
Even as late as March 1920, Mann was unrepentant. ‘Heinrich’s position,’ he wrote, ‘no matter how splendid it appears at the moment, is basically already undermined by events and experiences. His orientation towards the West, his worship of the French, his Wilsonism etc are antiquated and withered.’
In his biography of Mann, published in 1999, Hermann Kurzke traces the ironies, the contradictions and changes of opinion in Mann’s politics between 1918 and 1922, when, in a speech called ‘The German Republic’, he seemed to recant. Kurzke writes that Mann, in these years, developed friendships, some of them close, with figures such as Ernst Bertram, Elisabeth Mann’s godfather, who later became supporters of the Nazis or fellow-travellers with the regime. Kurzke is cautious, however, about making too much of this:
Does that make Thomas Mann a precursor of Fascism? He certainly made an effort to stay out of the way of the resurgent right-wing movement of the time. Very early on in the summer of 1921, he took note of the rising Nazi movement and dismissed it as ‘swastika nonsense’. As early as 1925 when Hitler was still imprisoned in Landsberg, he rejected the cultural barbarity of German Fascism with an extensive, decisive and clearly visible gesture.
In May 1933, when ‘un-German’ books were being burned, Heinrich Mann’s were on the bonfire. Thomas Mann’s were not. He was still being protected by Bertram, among others. But his main protection was his own silence. In September the first issue of Die Sammlung appeared, with a provocative essay by Heinrich Mann and an editorial by Klaus: ‘The true, valid German literature . . . cannot remain silent before the degradation of its people and the outrage it perpetrates on itself . . . A literary periodical is not a political periodical . . . Nevertheless, today it will have a political mission. Its position must be unequivocal.’
Goebbels, in retaliation, stripped Heinrich of his citizenship, and the following year Klaus, too, was declared stateless. In 1935, five days after her marriage to W.H. Auden, her second husband, Erika was also stripped of her citizenship. (Auden seemed to get infinite amusement from his relationship with the Manns. ‘What else are buggers for?’ he replied when asked why he had married the soon-to-be stateless Erika. ‘I didn’t see her till the ceremony and perhaps I shall never see her again,’ he wrote to Stephen Spender. ‘Who’s the most boring German writer? My father-in-law.’ He said about Klaus: ‘For an author, sons are an embarrassment, as if characters in his novel had come to life.’)
Thomas Mann confined his views on what was happening in Germany to his diary. On 10 April 1933 he wrote:
But for all that, might not something deeply significant and revolutionary be taking place in Germany? The Jews: it is no calamity after all . . . that the domination of the legal system by the Jews has been ended. Secret, disquieting, persistent musings . . . I am beginning to suspect that in spite of everything this process is one of those that has two sides to them.
On 20 April he wrote:
I could have a certain 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.
While it is important to read these musings as musings, they were of a type that Heinrich Mann never went in for, nor did Erika nor did Klaus; they were certainly not shared with Thomas Mann’s wife and were never aired in public; they were countered by such remarks as: ‘Anti-semitism is the disgrace of any educated and culturally engaged person.’
When Mann found that his name was first on the list of future contributors to Die Sammlung, he wrote in his diary that ‘Klaus has played a trick on us by including Heinrich’s article in the first issue.’ When a German trade magazine reprinted an official warning to booksellers not to stock books by anyone associated with Die Sammlung, Mann sent them a telegram that was widely reproduced in Germany: ‘Can only confirm that the character of the first issue of Die Sammlung does not correspond to its original programme.’ He had openly repudiated his son’s magazine. The following month Mann moved to a large three-storey villa in Switzerland and Erika opened The Peppermill in Zurich. Klaus was on his own in Amsterdam. ‘Long letter from the Magician’ – his father – ‘the most humiliating sensation . . . Sorrow and confusion,’ he wrote in his diary. He was taking a great deal of heroin and morphine and wrote in his diary about longing for death.
Thomas Mann continued to be published in Germany until 1936. When Bermann Fischer, his German publisher, was denounced by exiles as a Jewish protégé of Goebbels, the fervent public defence of him that Mann wrote was too much for Erika. She wrote to her father:
You are stabbing in the back the entire émigré movement – I can put it no other way. Probably you will be very angry at me because of this letter. I am prepared for that, and I know what I’m doing. This friendly time is predestined to separate people – in how many cases has it happened already. Your relation to Dr Bermann and his publishing house is indestructible – you seem to be ready to sacrifice everything for it. In that case it is a sacrifice for you that I, slowly but surely, will be lost for you – then just never mind. For me it is sad, and terrible. I am your child, E.
More than sixty years later Elisabeth remembered the confrontation: Erika, she said,
threatened never to want to see him again, I mean she went as far as that in her letter. She was full of real and deep political passion, Erika was. And quite, quite uncompromising. Klaus didn’t ever have the same kind of intellectual violence. He also had strong convictions, he also felt betrayed when he did not get the support for his journal that he hoped he would get. That was a bitter disappointment for him, but he never had the aggressiveness that Erika had, never.
Klaus sent his father a telegram beseeching him to make a statement in solidarity with the émigré writers. Katia, in the meantime, tried to dissuade Erika from breaking with her father, telling him that, aside from Elisabeth and Katia herself, she was ‘the only person on whom Z.’s heart really hangs, and your letter hurt deeply and made him ill.’ Z. is der Zauberer, ‘the magician’.
Thomas Mann replied to Erika asking for time to consider what she had said. This caused Erika to become even angrier. She blamed her father for doing more harm to Klaus in the row over Die Sammlung than the Nazis had ever done. Her mother had had enough and began a draft of an open letter under the name of Thomas Mann. While mild in its tone, it was his first public statement from exile against the Nazis. Once he had released it, he wrote to a friend: ‘I am finally saving my soul.’ He was immediately notified that his honorary doctorate from Bonn University had been rescinded. He, his wife and their four younger children lost their German citizenship.
While all this was going on, Klaus was working on the novel for which he is best known, Mephisto, which was published in Amsterdam in 1936. It deals, in a way that is almost open, with Klaus’s former lover and brother-in-law, Gustaf Gründgens, and his rise to power as an actor in Nazi Germany. Although it has its dramatic moments, some of it is very badly written. The narrative regularly gets carried away in its efforts to portray the Nazis as pure evil and the actor Hendrik Höfgen as ambitious, flawed, sexually perverse, a man ready to sell his soul while tempting others to do the same.
Some of the writing, in its flatness and exaggeration, would have made Thomas Mann wince. But one section of the book must have hurt him more than any number of threatening letters from Erika. Klaus managed to include parts of his father in the character of Höfgen. This is something that Mann in his diaries and his letters, as published in English, makes no mention of, and I can find no reference to it in the many biographies of Mann. Nonetheless, it seems clear that Klaus used a small part of his father in his attempt to dramatise political treachery for the sake of artistic success.
In Mephisto, Hendrik marries Barbara Bruckner, a version of Erika, whose father is also a version of Thomas Mann. Hendrik’s new father-in-law was ‘a scholar and thinker who was not only one of the most eminent and talked about figures on the European literary scene but also one of the most influential in political circles’. The actor’s father-in-law is referred to throughout as ‘the privy councillor’, or the ‘Geheimrat’, a term used in the Mann family to describe not Thomas Mann, but Mann’s own father-in-law, Alfred Pringsheim.
When Thomas Mann, an unknown, poor and ambitious young man from the Baltic, married Katia Pringsheim, he was no less intimidated by the cultural sophistication and general social confidence of Katia’s family than Hendrik Höfgen was by the family of Barbara Bruckner in Mephisto. (Golo remembers his father saying of Katia’s family: ‘They have never liked me, nor I them.’) In some passages, the novel seems to be merging the relationship between the provincial actor Gründgens and the Manns with the relationship between Thomas Mann and the Pringsheims. In that sense Thomas Mann appears hidden in the character of Gründgens, both of them marrying above their station, both later selling their soul, or refusing to speak out, for the sake of continued or greater fame as artists. Klaus, who wasn’t generally given to subtlety, is subtle about this particular trick, but it wouldn’t have escaped the attention of the old magician that his son, by using the word ‘Geheimrat’ so often to describe Höfgen’s father-in-law, was comparing his father to an artist who had famously sold his soul. Seven years later, Mann would begin his own book on the same subject, the magisterial Doctor Faustus.
In September 1936, Erika and Klaus moved from Europe to the United States, where Erika began an affair with a German doctor who was staying at her hotel. According to Sybille Bedford, she ‘went off women, she really became interested in men, she went off with people’s husbands even.’ Klaus had an affair with an American dancer. The Peppermill was to be performed in New York with its European cast. Although the lyrics had been translated into English, some by Auden, the show was a disaster and soon taken off.
Very quickly Erika learned enough English to begin giving lectures all over the US. When Klaus’s visa ran out he returned to Europe, staying with his parents in Switzerland, amazed to find that, without consulting him, his father had founded his own bimonthly journal for German émigrés and appointed an editor. Klaus wrote in his diary: ‘I perceive, again, very strongly and not without bitterness, Z.’s complete coldness to me . . . His universal lack of interest in people is here especially intensified.’ It’s clear from Erika’s letters that Klaus was taking a great deal of heroin.
In March 1937, the entire Mann family, including Heinrich, was granted Czechoslovak citizenship. Klaus could now travel to Budapest to seek a cure for his heroin addiction. Six months later he returned to the US and to Erika, who took him with her on what became joint lecture tours. Their titles included ‘What Price Peace?’, ‘What Does the Youth of Europe Believe in Today?’ and ‘Our Father and His Work’. They wrote two books together.
Soon, Thomas and Katia Mann arrived in America as well, and, with their 14 suitcases in tow, began to tour the country too. When Klaus published a new novel his father wrote to say that he’d admired it, adding that when he first saw it he ‘secretly had the wicked intention’ of not reading it through but ‘just looking into’ it. Of the letters he received from his father about his work, Klaus noted in his diary: ‘He writes to complete strangers just as pleasantly. A mixture of highest intelligence, almost charitable courtesy – and ice coldness. This is especially accentuated when it concerns me.’ Around the same time, Mann published Lotte in Weimar, in which Goethe’s son is introduced as follows: ‘August is his son; and to the father’s mind the boy’s existence exhausted itself in that fact.’ He added: ‘To be the son of a great man is a high fortune, a considerable advantage. But it is likewise an oppressive burden, a permanent derogation of one’s ego.’ The great man settled in Princeton, where he had Bruno Walter and Einstein for neighbours.
In 1938, Klaus and Erika reported on the Spanish Civil War. Erika wrote School for Barbarians, a book on the Nazi education system; it sold forty thousand copies in the US in the first three months after publication. Erika slowly became one of the most successful and highly paid women lecturers in the country. Both she and Klaus believed passionately that America should straightaway enter the war and were appalled by the attitude of Auden and Isherwood, whom they were the first to greet when they arrived in New York. In his diary, Klaus recognised in Auden ‘the cold charms’ of Gustaf Gründgens, but he refused to be seduced by them. When he saw the ménage that Auden had established in Brooklyn with Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Chester Kallman, Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles, among others, he wrote in his diary: ‘What an epic one could write about this!’ Soon Golo too moved in, having escaped from the Nazis by walking over the Pyrenees with his uncle Heinrich, Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel.
Isherwood, who was in the habit of thinking well of people, thought Klaus ‘without vanity or self-consciousness’; ‘his great charm,’ Isherwood said, ‘lay in this openness, this eager, unaffected approach.’ Others didn’t share his view. Glenway Wescott called Klaus a ‘tragic twerp’; Janet Flanner thought he was pathetically dominated by Erika, who flew to Europe in 1940 to work as a war correspondent for the BBC, leaving Klaus in New York, feeling ‘envy and anxiety’ and resenting the fact that his sister had once again left him behind. He would continue to be supported financially by his parents. When a New York editor informed Auden and Kallman that he would soon be publishing Klaus’s autobiography, they fell around laughing and said: ‘What will you call it? The Invisible Man? The Subordinate Klaus?’
Klaus’s autobiography was called The Turning Point. It was an exercise in tact. He couldn’t attack his father openly, since he was living off him financially and operating in the US in his father’s shadow, a shadow that was both protective and damaging. In his autobiography he took every opportunity to single out and praise his uncle Heinrich rather than his father, but was careful not to write about his father in the same wounded tone he used in his diaries. The account in the book of his father hollering from the window on seeing his son leaving home – ‘Good luck, my son! And come home when you are wretched and forlorn’ – reads like pure mythology, or a sad joke. When he wrote to Klaus about the book, Mann told him he had absolutely no memory of ever saying that.
In Klaus’s version of the early years in exile when his father would not denounce the regime, he exalted Heinrich for being ‘the first to receive the enviable distinction’ of getting on Goebbels’s blacklist. His uncle, he wrote, ‘had left Berlin soon after the Reichstag Fire and, once in France, lost no time in raising his voice to arraign and ridicule the brown canaille . . . Heinrich Mann – a man in his early sixties at the beginning of his exile – experienced something like a second youth.’ He himself, he wrote, was on Goebbels’s second list and Erika on the third. When he came to write about Die Sammlung, he mentioned that it was produced under the sponsorship of ‘André Gide, Heinrich Mann and Aldous Huxley’. There was no mention of his father.
‘As for our father,’ he finally wrote, the Nazis, ‘still afraid of public opinion abroad’, were more ‘reluctant’ to place him on a blacklist: ‘At this point his works were not officially banned; although as far back as 1933, to ask openly for a book by Thomas Mann in a German bookstore was a risky thing to do. For his feelings towards Nazism were generally known, and were emphasised, furthermore, by his refusal to return to Munich.’ When Klaus mentioned ‘the inevitable clash’ between his father and the Nazis, he neglected to say that it didn’t take place until 1936. He described the immense comfort and ease of his father’s early exile in Switzerland without any appearance of irony. His father would have read about himself in The Turning Point with a mixture of irritation and relief. By the time the book appeared, Thomas Mann had reinvented himself as the most vocal and serious opponent of the Nazis among the German exiles in the United States. It must have pleased him that Klaus had done nothing to damage his new position. He had Klaus where he wanted him. He wrote him a bland and affectionate letter: ‘It is an unusually charming, kind, sensitive, clever and honestly personal book.’ The poet Muriel Rukeyser remembered Klaus frantically waiting for this letter, tearing it open when it came and reading it ‘in a moving, suspended moment of all the mixed feeling that can be found in the autobiography itself’.
In these years Klaus, without Erika, grew increasingly unhappy and went on taking drugs and falling unsuitably in love. The FBI was on his case, having been told that he was a Communist, and that Erika was one too. ‘When Fascism spread across Europe,’ Weiss writes, ‘the FBI expended considerable time and resources harassing two of the strongest and most dedicated advocates for liberal democracy, both of whom had great respect for the government of the United States.’ Erika and Klaus were guilty, it seemed, not only of ‘premature’ anti-Fascism but of ‘having affairs together’. It was reported that ‘many queer-looking people’ could be seen going into Klaus’s hotel room in New York, as indeed they could. Klaus remarked in his diary that he liked ‘porters, waiters, liftboys and so on, white or black. Almost all are agreeable to me. I could sleep with all of them.’ Sybille Bedford recalled that what attracted Klaus ‘were the professional louts’.
During this period, Erika grew closer to her father but, as Weiss writes, ‘Klaus’s estrangement from the Magician did not ameliorate with the reconciliation of their political differences; it was always about something deeper. The sacred bond the siblings shared since childhood, forged in resistance to Thomas Mann and all he represented, no longer could sustain itself with the same passionate intensity.’
After Pearl Harbor, Klaus decided to join the US Army. The FBI reported that his first physical examination revealed a ‘syphilitic condition’ and ‘13 arsenical and 39 heavy metal injections’. He was rejected a number of times, partly because of his homosexuality, and then finally accepted in December 1942. When he was posted to the Mediterranean, Erika remarked that for the first time since their childhood he was almost happy. His parents came to see him off. He wrote in his diary: ‘At our farewell, Z. embraced me, something that had never happened before.’
Klaus arrived in Germany the day after the surrender. He had believed that ‘when the Dictator has vanished – and only then, will it again be possible . . . to live in Germany, without fear and without shame.’ He now knew that wasn’t true. On 16 May 1945, he wrote to his father:
It would be a very grave mistake on your part to return to this country and play any kind of political role here. Not that I believe you were harbouring any projects or aspirations of this kind. But just in case any tempting proposition should ever be made to you . . . Conditions here are too sad. All your efforts to improve them would be hopelessly wasted. In the end you would be blamed for the country’s well-deserved, inevitable misery. More likely than not, you would be assassinated.
When he revisited the shell of the family home in Munich, Klaus discovered that it had been used as a Lebensborn during the war, an Aryan knocking-shop, ‘a place where racially qualified young men and equally well-bred young women collaborated in the interest of the German nation . . . Many fine babies were begotten and born in this house.’ He interviewed Richard Strauss for the army magazine Stars and Stripes and listened to him praising Hans Frank, who ran Auschwitz, since Frank, unlike Hitler, ‘really appreciated my music’. He met Heinrich’s first wife, who had been released from Terezín, and her daughter, who had also been imprisoned. He didn’t believe that ordinary Germans were ignorant of what happened in the concentration camps. He wrote that he felt ‘a stranger in my former fatherland’.
Erika arrived in Germany four months after Klaus. She wrote: ‘The Germans, as you know, are hopeless. In their hearts, self-deception and dishonesty, arrogance and docility, shrewdness and stupidity are repulsively mingled and combined.’ Sybille Bedford said of her: ‘Erika could hate, and she hated the Germans. You see, Erika was a fairly violent character. At one point during the war, she propagated that every German should be castrated. And vengeance – Klaus wasn’t like that at all. Erika was very unforgiving.’
On her arrival in Munich, she registered a claim on the old family house, something which poor impractical Klaus had neglected to do. Her other task was to report on the Nuremberg Trials. She was the only one of the journalists allowed into the hotel where the Nazi leaders were being held. She let them know who she was. ‘To think that that woman has been in my room,’ Julius Streicher remarked. Göring had something more interesting to say. He explained that ‘had he been in charge of the “Mann case”, he would have handled it differently . . . Surely a German of the stature of Thomas Mann could have been adapted to the Third Reich.’ Erika reported that ‘when a slight thunderstorm had frightened Göring into an equally slight heart attack, the creator of the Blitz was given a mattress for his cot, and breakfast in bed.’ When she visited Hans Frank and Ribbentrop, ‘the Butcher of Poland was reading the Bible to the ex-champagne salesman.’
Erika and Klaus were increasingly at sea in the new Germany. Klaus began to work in films, collaborating briefly and painfully with Roberto Rossellini. Someone who worked with him in these years said: ‘He was a restless man. He had so many ideas and so much energy . . . I don’t think he could sit still for two minutes. He had a cigarette perpetually in his mouth and was in constant movement. You could feel the vibrations of his energy.’
It should have been possible for Klaus’s books, especially Mephisto and The Turning Point, which had been published during his exile, to begin appearing in the new Germany. But the new Germany was strange. Gustaf Gründgens was back on the stage, as popular and successful as he had been when he had Göring to protect him. Weiss reports that having with difficulty secured a ticket for a sold-out performance, Klaus ‘was speechless to discover that Gründgens, stepping onto the stage during the first act, received a show-stopping standing ovation.’
In response he wrote an article suggesting that Emmy Sonnemann, the actress who married Göring, should also have her career revived. ‘Perhaps someone gassed at Auschwitz,’ he wrote, ‘left behind some stage piece in which the esteemed woman could make her second debut. The good woman surely knew nothing about Auschwitz – and besides, what does art have to do with politics?’ When the German edition of The Turning Point appeared in 1952, Gründgens demanded that sections of the book which damaged his reputation be removed. They were. Mephisto appeared in German in 1956 but only in the GDR: no West German publisher would touch it, even after Gründgens’s suicide in 1963. Erika brought the case to the West German Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of suppressing the book, preserving Gründgens’s posthumous reputation. After a long wait, a paperback version finally appeared in West Germany in 1981, as well as a film adaptation.
In 1946, as his ex-lover and current nemesis was being applauded on the stage, Klaus decided to return to America for an extended visit. Since he had nowhere else to go, he planned to make his way to Los Angeles, where his parents were installed in a large and splendid house in Pacific Palisades; but his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was being operated on in Chicago. Erika flew from Nuremberg to be with her father. She never again left his side. For the next nine years she was Mann’s secretary and chief confidante. Just as she and Klaus had once been inseparable, now she and her father were never apart. Years later, Elisabeth Mann remembered:
She returned home, because she had exhausted her career, and so devoted herself to the work of her father . . . Erika was a very powerful personality, a very dominant, domineering personality, and I must say that this role that she played in the latter part of her life as manager of my father was not always very easy to take for my mother, because she had been used to doing all of that.
Among other tasks, Erika set about cutting the final manuscript of Doctor Faustus by forty pages; her father believed she had improved the book.
Klaus wrote to his mother suggesting that a cottage be found for him near his parents’ home and since he could not drive, he would also need ‘an old Ford and a young driver . . . The driver must also be able to cook a bit and have a pleasant appearance.’ His mother replied immediately. ‘A house to rent and a car and a driver who can cook, who also was attractive! With a lot of luck, one can get a room from upwards of one hundred dollars . . . This is democracy!’ Klaus arrived in Los Angeles at the end of July but was back in New York by the early autumn. He was once more in exile, this time from his family as well as his country. He had lost his sister to his father and had used up his mother’s patience. In 1948 he said: ‘It is only the parts of my life in which she [Erika] shares that have substance and reality for me.’
Klaus now moved between New York, Paris, Zurich, Vienna and Amsterdam. When he returned once more to Los Angeles, his parents asked him to leave after a month as other siblings and cousins were coming to stay. Klaus, with Erika’s help, found a place nearby. Six days after moving in, he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, taking pills and turning on the gas. He was hospitalised and the incident was reported in the press. His father didn’t visit. Mann wrote to a friend: ‘My two sisters committed suicide, and Klaus has much of the elder sister in him. The impulse is present in him, and all the circumstances favour it – the one exception being that he has a parental home on which he can always rely.’ His mother, when she heard the news, is reported (by Elisabeth) to have snapped: ‘If he wanted to kill himself, why didn’t he do it properly?’ Erika wrote to a friend: ‘As you may have read, Klaus – my closest brother – tried to do away with himself which was not only a nasty shock but also involved a great deal of time-devouring trouble.’ On 1 January 1949 Klaus wrote in his diary: ‘I do not wish to survive this year.’ In April, in Cannes, he received a letter from a West German publisher to say that Mephisto couldn’t appear ‘because Mr Gründgens plays a very important role here’. The following month he succeeded in killing himself. He was 42.
Mann was in Stockholm with Katia and Erika when he heard the news. ‘My inward sympathy,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘with the mother’s heart and with E. He should not have done this to them . . . The hurtful, ugly, cruel inconsideration and irresponsibility.’ He wrote to Heinrich: ‘His case is so very strange and painful, such skill, charm, cosmopolitanism, and in his heart a deathwish.’ He wrote to Hermann Hesse: ‘This interrupted life lies heavily on my mind and grieves me. My relationship to him was difficult and not free of guilt. My life put his in a shadow right from the beginning.’ He decided not to attend his son’s funeral or interrupt his lecture tour. Of all the family, only Michael, the youngest sibling, on tour with the San Francisco Symphony, attended the funeral; he played a largo on his viola as the coffin was lowered into the ground.
Later, Elisabeth would say of Erika: ‘When Klaus died, she was totally, totally heartbroken – I mean that was unbearable for her, that loss. That hit her harder than anything else in her life.’ Erika returned with her parents to the US and sought citizenship only to find that she was once more under investigation by the FBI. By 1950, there was even a move to deport her for being a Communist. Before it went any further, she decided to leave, taking her parents with her. They had become close enough for her father to write in his diary about his concern for Erika: ‘she could so easily follow her brother. Certainly she does not want to live any longer than us.’ They sold the house in Pacific Palisades in June 1952 and moved to Switzerland. Thomas Mann died three years later at the age of 80.
Erika fought with her other siblings; she and Elisabeth didn’t speak for a decade. In 1961 her mother wrote to her brother: ‘What is ruining . . . my old age, is the more than unfriendly relationship of all my children towards the good, fat, eldest.’ Erika was busy editing a three-volume edition of her father’s letters, fighting the case for Klaus’s book in the West German courts, and battling with her first husband after all these years. When two German newspapers insinuated that she had had an incestuous relationship with Klaus, she sued and won. She died in 1969 at the age of 63, leaving some of her assets to Auden, whom she had not seen for years.
Her mother lived until 1980. Monika, whose husband drowned in front of her when their ship crossing the Atlantic was torpedoed in 1940, moved to Capri in 1953 and died in 1992. Golo, who returned to Germany in the late 1950s and became a historian, died in 1994. Michael committed suicide in 1977. This left Elisabeth, who lived until 2002. She devoted most of her life to the study and protection of the ocean. In her later years, she made herself available to interviewers and biographers. In a series of television drama-documentaries made for German television about the family, she appeared as a figure of calm and melancholy wisdom. (‘When you get past the age of 30,’ she had told Golo, ‘you should stop blaming your parents for what you are.’) There was a strange, dry, serene resignation about her appearance as she returned to the places where the Manns had lived, commenting to the camera on the damage that had been done with a sort of acceptance and a sense that nothing had escaped her.
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