Literature portrait – Heinrich Mann: Citoyen and dreamers


He was, although the older one, always the more light-footed of the two writing brothers. Light-footed, but not frivolous. On the contrary: Heinrich Mann was not spared from being spoiled by his success lifelong less than his brother Thomas, who was already established as the author of “Buddenbrooks” at the age of 26. The older one, on the other hand, had to fight hard for long stretches of recognition as an author.

They had childhood and youth together. Heinrich also grew up in the upper middle class in Lübeck. And he, too, experienced the descent from the after the death of his father Beletage of life, moved with mother and siblings to Munich into a considerably more restricted social milieu.

The competition between the brothers remained a lifelong constant, for both of them. As a writer, Heinrich Mann lived again and again in the shadow of his younger brother, who was honored in many places. And this despite the fact that in the middle of their two lives – during and after the First World War – in his moral assessment of the political circumstances and their social consequences he had expressed a far more realistic understanding of the German situation than Thomas Mann.

Heinrich Mann’s literary beginnings were bumpy and immature. His early work, filled with over-refined beauty cult and juvenile pomp, believes that, from a backward-looking point of view, he can only discover decadence everywhere in society. The novel “The Goddesses” (1902) in the wake of Gabriele D ?? Annunzios is indulgent End of century-Cult painted a brightly colored pseudo-Renaissance painting.

Clarity and conscience

The brothers Heinrich (standing) and Thomas Mann, circa 1902. – © Atelier Elvira, Munich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After the turn of the century, however, a new wave of satirical clarity gripped Mann’s literature. “With Flaubert his turning away from aestheticism began, with Zola his turning to the political”, writes his youngest biographer Günther Rüther aptly.

Mann’s rejection of the aestheticism of youth, which was inspired by reading Nietzsche, was now clearly formulated: “Literature is never just art; there is no such thing as a timeless poetry when it comes into being. It cannot be loved as childlike as music. Because it is over Consciences highlighted in the world and placed before it. It always works and acts. “

The author no longer reached out to social criticism, but proceeded from it. With the novel “Professor Unrat” in 1905 he provided the blatant image of an autocratic Wilhelminian disciplinarian who lets morals dripping down on his pupils from his chair, but in the evening falls under the spell of a lascivious variety singer and ends up in jail without honor . Captured on celluloid by Josef von Sternberg based on the screenplay by Carl Zuckmayer with Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, the story was one of the first sound films to achieve worldwide cinematic success in 1930 under the title “The Blue Angel”.

The sharpest quarrel with his brother Thomas was sparked by his bellicose German-national writings right at the beginning of the war in 1914. In his “Considerations of an Unpolitical”, the “Buddenbrook” author later saw the war as a struggle between (German) “culture” and (British- French) “civilization”, in which he and his brother gave the antipodes. Accordingly, he scolded his brother Heinrich a “civilization writer” for his commitment to western democracy, which was expressed in the much-noticed essay on Zola (1915). The reconciliation did not come about until 1923, after Thomas Mann’s democratic-liberal “conversion”.

Heinrich Mann achieved his greatest book success with the novel “Der Untertan”, which was completed in 1914 and was only published shortly after the war due to censorship. As one critic put it, the “structural hostility to democracy” in the authoritarian state of Wilhelm II is castigated in a great satirical view of life. Mann’s protagonist Diederich Heßling appears as the prototype of the authoritarian character who owes his rise to the most powerful man in the fictional small town of Netzing to the double standards of command and submission typical of the time.

“Diederich Heßling was a soft child who loved to dream, above all was afraid and suffered a lot from his ears.” With this sentence the author opened his portrait of this equally adaptable and publicly dangerous exponent of highly armed Wilhelminism. In the course of the development from the “wimp” to the brutal factory owner, the repeated encounter with the militant Prussian ruler Wilhelm II became the climax of his submissive life as a subject for Hessling.

In the volume of essays “Macht und Mensch” (Power and Man) in 1919 the reckoning followed: “The upper bourgeois age of Germany only had to shrug the shoulders for the moral obligations in the life of a people. (…) The highest task and duty was: to become richer, to become tougher, to be world power. ” At the same time, the replacement of the old type of subject by a middle-class “citizen” is demanded and clairvoyantly warned of the danger of totalitarianism, which threatens right-wing agitators as well as left-wing agitators: “Language and method are the same here as there.”

Germany’s crash

Heinrich Mann looked into the abyss of German society and yet, despite intense journalistic commitment, was unable to stop its deep plunge. In a letter to Reich Chancellor Gustav Stresemann in 1923 he had warned against the large-scale industrial “expropriators of national property”: They “had organized chaos in parliament, the next time they will do it on the street. The rich rebels pay gangs and subsidiary Reichswehr, they have most of the newspapers … What are National Socialists? People who have to go easy on their financiers, otherwise they would not only be against Jewish exploitation. “

In 1931 Heinrich Mann was elected President of the Poetry Section of the Prussian Academy of the Arts, an office which he had to resign two years later under pressure from the National Socialists. His works were the first to be thrown into the fire by the Nazis in 1933 amid roaring and roaring. His name was found on the very first expatriation list of the Hitler regime under the always cheap verdict of “traitor to the people”. By then the author had already escaped quickly to France. The country in which he had already been for a long time at the turn of the century had become his spiritual home, “the second country of birth of the European”.

May 11, 1933: Students burn so-called "un-German writings and books" on the Opernplatz in Berlin.  - © Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE,, via Wikimedia Commons

May 11, 1933: Students burn so-called “un-German writings and books” on Opernplatz in Berlin. – © Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE,, via Wikimedia Commons

From Nice, Mann developed a variety of journalistic initiatives to support anti-Nazi resistance abroad. A controversial humanism from the left was the watchword. This also included the attempt to establish a German Popular Front movement from Paris in 1936, which failed because of the disagreement between the left groups, especially the Kremlin envoy Walter Ulbricht.

After the Germans invaded France in September 1940, escape was once again the top priority. Under the escort of the US escape helper Varian Fry, the married couples Heinrich and Nelly Mann, Franz and Alma Werfel and Mann’s nephew Golo took an arduous walk across the Pyrenees to Spain. From there it went on to Lisbon. On October 13, 1940, the group finally reached New York on the Greek steamer “Nea Hellas”. There, on the quay in Hoboken, Thomas Mann was waiting for his brother.

For Heinrich Mann, the years in California up to his death in Santa Monica in 1950 were marked by loneliness, poverty and bitterness. His wife Nelly was divorced in 1944. In his increasingly smaller apartments, the aging man was dependent on donations from Thomas and Katia Mann.

The strongest disgrace in relation to the always well-off brother was his worldwide reputation. While Thomas, as a representative of exiled Germany, was passed around and received by President Roosevelt in the White House, Heinrich and his left-wing comrades-in-arms Brecht, Feuchtwanger, Alfred Kantorowicz and others relied on Soviet Russia and its tyrant Stalin. As far as his terror regime was concerned, Mann was not deterred by facts and reports (such as the alarming travel impressions of André Gide in 1937 or Arthur Koestler’s “Solar Eclipse” in 1940). He stuck to Moscow, from where he also received royalties for his work for a while.

Posthumously captured

The most violent advances came after the end of the war from East Germany, where his books were published again. However, he persistently refused to accept the invitation to move to East Berlin: he knew Comrade Ulbricht’s lies and knew how to evade it to the last. Posthumous evidence was provided by the relocation of the urn to the Dorotheenstädter Friedhof in Berlin in 1961. “Heinrich Mann is ours,” Ulbricht called out without further ado. “With these words he did him damage from which the author of all Germans and German Europeans has not been able to recover to this day,” summarizes Rüther.

The two volumes of the "Henri Quatre", Original publisher covers of the first prints.  - © Photo H.-P.Haack (H.-P.Haack), CC BY 3.0,, via Wikimedia Commons

The two volumes of the “Henri Quatre”, original publisher covers of the first prints. – © Photo H.-P.Haack (H.-P.Haack), CC BY 3.0,, via Wikimedia Commons

Much of the work of the prolific writer Heinrich Mann, which is rich in titles, is difficult to read today. The later masterpiece “The Youth and Perfection of King Henri Quatre”, which he wrote in exile in Nice between 1934 and 1938, inspired by his gratitude for France, shines all the brighter. In two volumes, Mann develops the novel biography of the daring and clever King Henry IV of Navarre, who, as the “good King of France”, was able to end the bloody religious war in his country with the Edict of Nantes in 1598 with bewitching, epic warmheartedness and stylistic precision, in two volumes .

Goodness and severity are married here in a portrait of a ruler, which introduces the first “envoy of reason and human happiness” who, as an early democrat and people’s king, is supposed to provide a historical contrast to the author’s dark political present. “A piece of Heinrich Mann’s dream world”, judged the critic Willy Haas, “a work of very extreme vision”, succeeded “perhaps only because Heinrich Mann was such a great designer and narrator, such a great poet at this hour of his life.”

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Literature portrait Heinrich Mann Citoyen dreamers


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