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The Brothers Mann

ISSUE:  Spring 1999

Letters of Heinrich And Thomas Mann, 1900—1949. Edited and with an Introduction by Hans Wysling. Foreword by Anthony Heilbut. Translated by Don Reneau. With additional translations by Richard and Clara Winston. University of California. $50.00.


“The Germans should be lucky to have such two boys.” (Goethe, in response to those who put him up against Schiller.)

These letters, now in English translation, provide a treasure trove to the Thomas Mann scholar as well as the general reader interested in the development of Germany’s greatest authors of the 19th-20th century. The translation which surpasses anything H.T. Lowe-Porter might have done is at times mistaken and confusing but overall adequate. These letters from 1900 to 1949 (the year of Heinrich’s death) carry the reader through a period of profound change in Germany, Europe, and the world; from 29 years after the tumultuous time of the unification of Germany to, through and beyond the Great War, the failed Weimar Republic, the development and destruction of the Nazi Reich, and World War II followed by the attempts at reconstruction. One hundred eighty four of the 272 letters in this most extensive collection to date are by Thomas Mann, 85 by Heinrich Mann and three by Katia Mann. The capturing of these letters reads like a treasure hunt; a hunt which has extended over the years since the respective deaths of the brothers. As recently as 1973, 1974, and 1985 discoveries were made in private collections or unexpectedly turning up in posthumous papers such as those of Lion Feuchtwanger. In addition there are significant documents which are referred to in the letters—Heinrich’s review of Thomas’, Der Tod in Venedig, Thomas’ review of Heinrich’s, Die Grosze Sach, and birthday speeches by Thomas and Heinrich honoring each other. These documents contribute to the flavor of the brothers’ relationship. Likewise there are extensive notes which clarify and enrich the understanding of comments and references made in the letters. Finally there is an index and a bibliography which is larger and more current than that in the German edition. The introduction by Hans Wysling the former director of the Thomas Mann Archive in Zurich, written six years before the opening of Mann’s diaries in 1975, provides the best and most complete account of the brothers’ relationship beyond any of the current biographies. Their intimate connection as expressed in their almost parallel writings is amply demonstrated. “Thomas Mann’s works in particular teem from early on with open and secret borrowings, with memories, allusions, and veiled revelations. Cockaigne (H. Mann’s. Berlin: The Land of Cockaigne;) a novel of “the fashionable set” for example stimulated him in a hundred different ways.” Wysling presents connections such as Heinrich’s character Mrs. Türkeiner “resurrected” as MMe Houpflé in Thomas’ Felix Krull. Likewise. Heinrich’s “fortune’s child” Andreas Zumsee finds a successor in the character Felix Krull. Both brothers used history, biography, characters, and scenes from the novels of others to create a sort of “collage” in their works. Heinrich borrowed from Thomas’ satirical school chapter in Buddenbrooks to construct Professor Unrat (later the movie The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich). However not all was beer and skittles between the brothers. The early seeds of the Bruderzwist (the split between them in 1916 which lasted for six years) were sown in childhood and fertilized in a 1906 review by Thomas with his remarks on, “. . .the bellows-poetry that has been arriving here for some years from the beautiful land of Italy,” a clear reference to Heinrich’s novel, Die Göttinnen. Through the exchange of letters it is possible to trace the development of this split as well as their intimacy; also, Heinrich’s move toward the French and democracy and Thomas’ strong conservative nationalism. With the deep similarities between them there were also deep differences; Heinrich was the “. . .jester, libertine and bohemian,” whereas Thomas, “. . .always adopted the position of the moralist and bourgeois”. Perhaps this was a cover for his homosexuality combined with his identity as a prince in disguise which he had adopted at age 14. Overall Thomas considered Heinrich his big brother, indeed, his father surrogate, who supported him emotionally and respected his outstanding creativity. Thomas Mann’s basic bourgeois anti-Semitism with which he struggled life-long is expressed in his letter to Heinrich after his introduction to the Pringsheim salon and a visit from the twin brother of his future wife Katia. “I had already met him fleetingly at the ball: an extremely pleasing young man, soigné, educated, charming, with North German features (that is not “Jewish,” but those of Thomas’ Baltic Coast origins). One has no thought of Jewishness in regard to these people; one senses only culture.” (Feb. 27, 1904).

Over the course of their lives Heinrich and Thomas moved away from gross anti-Semitism, yet throughout his writings, including his last novel, Dr. Faustus, Thomas depicts his Jewish characters as rather unsavory creatures. His solution of “The Jewish problem” was, as accomplished by the Pringsheim family—assimilation. This would mean the destruction of Judaism and a conversion to German Protestantism. Not a far cry from the Crusades! In his cogent and well-documented development of the divergence of political outlook between Heinrich and Thomas, Wysling does not consider the influence of Professor Ernst Bertram in the shaping of Thomas’ political view. It is remarkable that there is but one letter to Heinrich in which Ernst Bertram is mentioned. Ernst Bertram was a brilliant young Germanist who wrote a favorable review of Thomas’, Königliche Hoheit at a time when reviewers in general were disappointed by this second novel of the author of Buddenbrooks— more had been expected of him. Thomas Mann’s response to Bertram’s review in 1910 began a friendship which continued until his death in 1955. This was a friendship which was the closest Thomas ever had, even beyond the relationship with Heinrich. In the Register of Thomas Mann’s Letters the greatest number are to Ernst Bertram, but that is another story. Anthony Heilbut’s Foreword provides additional biographical details of Thomas’ life and pulls together aspects of Heinrich’s life thereby presenting a mini-biography of the neglected brother.


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