Books: Cultural Amnesia — Heinrich Mann |
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Heinrich Mann (1871–1950), four years older than Thomas Mann but doomed never to catch up, won few of the literary rewards that came the way of his world-famous younger brother. Heinrich’s voluminous fictional writings earned him a reputation as the German Zola but were rarely taken seriously as works of art. Though he was never less than a celebrity, he had to watch the laurels he would have liked for himself go to his less prolific but better organized sibling. He did, however, achieve one thing uniquely his: he gave the world a universally appreciable mythical figure. His novel Professor Unrat (1904) featured a respectable schoolmaster who was lured to destruction by a seductive female creature of the demi-monde. Filmed in 1930 as The Blue Angel, the story made Marlene Dietrich a star and, through her, gave Heinrich Mann a purchase on the international popular psyche that Thomas Mann would never equal: Aschenbach, in Death in Venice, is for an intellectual audience, whereas Dietrich’s soubrette fatale works her destructive magic in all men’s minds to this very day. Critics who dismiss Heinrich as glibly prolific should be reminded that Thomas, though Heinrich’s slapdash facility dismayed him, was always generous enough to praise his brother’s talent when he saw signs of its coming into focus. Thomas’s main trouble with Heinrich was Heinrich’s erratic behaviour, which was only intermittently embarrassing when they were both still in Germany, but became a real problem when they were both in exile. Heinrich did not take easily to being a displaced person. In Europe he had enjoyed less prestige than Thomas but at least he was well-known. In America he was a nonentity. Whereas Thomas’s books became more famous than ever in translation, Heinrich’s got nowhere. He ran easily through the money that he borrowed from Thomas, drank heavily, and his unwise choice of mistress led to the kind of social awkwardness that Thomas—always conscious of his exalted position in the glittering refugee society of wartime Los Angeles—found threatening. Just because Thomas was snobbish, however, is no reason to suppose that Heinrich was some kind of wonderful free spirit. He was the kind of knockabout bore who makes things worse by apologizing for it. But perhaps his erratic sensibility gave him insight. At any rate, it was Heinrich, and not Thomas, who guessed as early as 1936 that the Nazis had an atrocity in mind beyond all reasonable imagining.

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The German Jews will be systematically annihilated, of that there can be no more doubt.

AS ALWAYS IN any German writings of the modern period, everything depends on the year. In 1936 there were very few intelligent people who wanted to believe that Heinrich Mann’s prediction was anything except an hysterical exaggeration. And indeed it was a guess; but what he guessed was the truth. He was able to do so by taking a general view of how the repressive laws had been applied with increasing severity. He deduced the destination from the momentum. Among the people who were already suffering so severely from those restrictions, there were not yet many who were ready to draw the same conclusion. Victor Klemperer’s diary from the same year provides an instructive comparison. Klemperer could guess things would get worse, but he didn’t yet see that the progressive turning of the screws could end only in death. There were Nazis who didn’t see it. The idea of resettling the remaining Jews on Madagascar or some similarly outlandish destination had not yet been abandoned. Historians who, for various reasons, would like to believe that the idea of extermination was hatched much later would never countenance 1936 as a year in which the threat could be realistically conceived of. In Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler, the Holocaust is not precisely a side issue, but it would be fair to say that it is not presented as Hitler’s main initial aim. Once in London I met Fest at a launch party and mentioned this essay by Heinrich Mann. Fest said that he had never heard of it, and that he found it hard to believe it had been published in 1936.

Looking back on Fest’s books, it might seem strange to suggest that he soft-pedalled the Holocaust. Fest’s picture of Heydrich in Das Gesicht des dritten Reiches (The Face of the Third Reich) remains the most penetrating we have, and in his study of the July 1944 plot against Hitler’s life, Staatstreich (Coup d’état), he pays proper tribute to the twenty or so conspirators who told the Gestapo that revulsion against the treatment of the Jews was their main reason for getting into it. Nevertheless, over the broad span of his writings, Fest’s concern with the Nazis’ most defining crime has an oddly soft focus. In the case of his Hitler biography, the soft focus can only be called damaging, and it is hard to see how his hefty book, apart from its chronological completeness, is much superior, for its psychological insight, to Konrad Heiden’s pioneering work (Hitler: Das Leben eines Diktators) published in the same year as Heinrich Mann’s essay, 1936. Hugh Trevor-Roper, among post-war historians the first in the field with his The Last Days of Hitler, was necessarily unarmed with the subsequent scholarship but still got closer to the nub of the matter. (In 2002 Fest reprised Trevor-Roper’s crepuscular theme with his short book Untergang, which had some nice maps of the bunker: but I saw no reason to think that Trevor-Roper’s pioneering study of the man cowering inside it had been replaced.) Coming after Trevor-Roper, Alan Bullock did the first full-length biography that mattered, and it continues to matter most. Bullock reprised his theme with the relevant portions of his stereoscopic Hitler and Stalin, but students should not excuse themselves from reading his first monograph: one of the essential books of the modern world. J. P. Stern’s short book of 1975 (Hitler: The Führer and the People) offers useful sidelines, but he stands on Bullock’s shoulders. Ian Kershaw’s recent two-volume effort has not really replaced Bullock, who packed longer judgement into a shorter distance. Though simplicity of heart must always present the danger of obfuscation, there is an even greater danger in too much finesse. While their foul subject was fresh, the first post-war English historians, in early before the smoke had cleared, smelt the Devil. They were right. The lasting merit of Heinrich Mann’s prescient statement is that it disarms the defence mechanism by which—even today, and looking back—we would rather classify murderously threatening language as mere rhetoric. As the historians’ picture of Hitler becomes more and more elaborate, there is a greater and greater tendency to suppose that his lethality grew upon him in the course of events. But it caused the events.