Try the other wrist

Lara Feigel

  • The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s by Werner Sollors
    Harvard, 390 pp, £25.95, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 05243 7

In the spring of 1949 Klaus Mann moved from hotel room to hotel room in Amsterdam and Cannes, contemplating suicide. He was isolated and depressed and sure that the situation in postwar Germany was to blame. He was working on a novel which he intended to call The Last Day. He had already made a botched suicide attempt in Los Angeles, described in almost humorous detail by the hero of his novel, Julian: ‘Trying the other wrist. Another blade. Getting angry. Butchering … Couldn’t he find that artery? Or had he found it, after all?’ Julian proposes a Suicide Club, a League of the Desperate Ones for world-weary intellectuals to register their protest by taking their own lives. He knows he may be turning a personal crisis into a political challenge, but in a world where the personal and the political are becoming hard to separate, he thinks his death can serve as ‘a signal, a challenge, an appeal’.

During the war Mann had attempted to dream a new world into existence, first as a writer in exile in America and then as a soldier in the US army, reporting from Italy for the military press. This world would, he hoped, have its apotheosis in a liberated Germany, where anti-Nazi intellectuals like Mann himself would be empowered by the Allies to lay the cultural foundations of an enduring pan-European peace. Visiting Munich at the end of the war – still in uniform – he discovered that many of the artists he admired had compromised with the Reich. The Americans and British, he realised, were too busy trying to feed a starving population and rebuild their ruined homes to worry too much about the intellectual future of the country. The Manns’ family home had been bombed by the allies after the Nazis used it as a Lebensborn, a eugenicist brothel where Aryans were brought together to procreate. By 1947, Mann was no longer welcome either in Germany or in the US. According to his FBI file, he had been a ‘premature’ anti-fascist and was now under suspicion as a fellow-traveller, yet he was too melancholy for cold warriors in either country to take seriously. Regular calls from self-satisfied German intellectuals for his father’s return turned the ambivalence Klaus had always felt towards Thomas Mann into alienation.

When Klaus committed suicide in Cannes in May 1949, it was left to his sister Erika to spell out the meaning of the Suicide Club described in his unfinished novel. She told American audiences that the deaths of Virginia Woolf, Stefan Zweig and her brother were a kind of statement. They had died, she claimed, ‘not because they had failed in their own private or public lives’ but because the world – ‘this particular star’ – had become uninhabitable. ‘“Look out!” these dead ones keep calling to us, “Danger! You’re on the wrong road, the road to barbarism and disaster!”’

Werner Sollors was born into this world. As a baby he was carried by his mother across Germany on a five-month trek from Silesia to Thuringia. They were among the millions of Germans turned into Displaced Persons (DPs) under the terms of the Potsdam Agreement of August 1945, which redrew the boundaries of their country. Weak with hunger, they slept on straw on the floors of schools or in open-air camps. Sollors’s mother avoided being raped by Russian soldiers by keeping her small son on top of her at night. Her own mother had died after falling from an open freight train outside Dresden; on the road she learned of the death of her daughter, whom the authorities had forced her to abandon in a hospital along the way. Suicide rates were high in Germany in the years immediately after the war but most of those giving up on life were too hungry and weak to make a gesture of their deaths along the lines of the Suicide Club.

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