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Why Thomas Mann's family had a Facebook mentality

Sarah Judith Hofmann / egOctober 14, 2015

Author Thomas Mann's family - Germany's Kennedys - fascinates to this day. Biographer Tilmann Lahme tells DW why they became beacons of the struggle against Hitler - and foreshadowed the selfie era.

Thomas Mann and family. Copyright: Ullstein Bild
Image: ullstein bild

DW: The Nobel Prize-winning author and father of a famous family of artists, Thomas Mann, died 60 years ago, in August 1955. Why are we still talking about him and his family today?

Tilmann Lahme: Thomas Mann is one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. Some even say he is the most important German novelist since Goethe. Unlike other impressive personalities, he was not alone: He had a very talented, yet unhappy family. This adds to the fascination.

Are the Manns Germany's royal family? Our Windsors or Kennedys?

We don't have an actual royal family in Germany, but we have this family, that's true. And we already know an unbelievable amount of things about them. Several diaries and letters were published - and I've had access to more family correspondence which hadn't been studied yet. It replaces tabloid journalism in a way: One could say there is a certain voyeuristic interest surrounding their story. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since the Manns are at least connected to a literary discussion.

Your biography begins in the 1920s during the Weimar Republic, when all six children of Thomas and Katia Mann had already been born, and ends in 2002 with the death of the last survivor, Elisabeth. Focusing on the children of the Mann family, did you find anything which unites them?

The fundamental characteristic of the children is that they had a hard time finding their autonomy. These six children all stayed in this house, all dependent on their father - financially, too. They seemed unwilling to stand on their own feet. Someone like Klaus Mann would have been perfectly able, with his talent, to go his own way. But he couldn't leave. They all revolved around their father; he connected them all. Only the youngest daughter, Elisabeth, built her own life outside of the family.

You describe Erika and Klaus in your book as "a brother and sister who made their way in the world through their wit, audacity and their father's name." Did the children of the Mann family shine because of their artistic talent or just because of their father's name?

That's the main problem when you're the child of such a great genius. When doors opened in Berlin for the Mann children, or when they later gained access to high society in New York or Los Angeles, no one could exactly tell. Was it because Klaus was such a charming young man, or was it just to be in contact with the son of Thomas Mann? Of course, it was always a mix of both. And the children knew that. They constantly had to work on being considered interesting as a person, while knowing how overwhelming their father's reputation was.

You describe how virtually all family members would make their private life public. Did that contribute to making them so relevant today?

It's a common thing to keep a diary - but the Manns would make everything public, even very private and intimate aspects. This can be transposed in some way to our present Instagram and Facebook mentality. That's how the magazine "Der Spiegel" portrayed them this week, surrounded by selfie sticks, just like we do nowadays - with the only difference that they made their artistic public appearances through literature.

Were the Manns ahead of their time with this self-promotion, but also with their way of dealing with homosexuality? There is also their emigrant destiny, which is currently a very present issue with the refugee crisis.

They were, for sure. This family was living with a liberality which nowadays might not appear that uncommon: Klaus Mann loved men and Golo Mann, too, and their sister Erika preferred women, but once in a while she would go for a man, too. One could now think, what's the big deal? But at the time this was huge. And that same liberalness would apply in their political views.

The whole Mann family recognized very early on, unlike many intellectuals of the Weimar Republic, how dangerous Hitler was. Why?

This is probably related to their way of life, perhaps even to their aesthetic sensitivity: It led them to focus more on individuality than on a national community. Klaus Mann was being attacked by the right-wing press before he became political because he wrote about drugs, homosexuality, decadence, depression, and loneliness in the world. Under the Weimar Republic, Thomas Mann was one of the few German intellectuals who had positioned himself against the Nazis, so by 1933 no other option was left for them: The family decided they could no longer stay in Germany.

Do we worship the Manns because of their opposition to the Nazis? Wouldn't we Germans all have preferred to have been as principled as the Mann family?

Everyone wishes to have such people as their own ancestors. Most of us just have Nazi followers in our families. This also contributes to making the Manns mythical because this is one of the few German families whose members were not only interesting, talented and wrote great books, but who picked the right side in this central question of the 20th century. This is the heroic story. What also interested me was how they contributed to creating this myth. How they all portrayed themselves as the "better Germans," as the flagship family in the fight against Hitler. And how they actually lied or hid stuff to support the myth - with Erika Mann taking over the public relations of the family.

They first went to Switzerland and to France and ended up in the United States. What did emigration mean for the family? They lived in a villa in Sanary-sur-Mer on the Cote d'Azur, and later in Princeton and California: They were well off.

And Erika would say: "We were dirt poor!" (laughs). Yes, they couldn't complain about their financial situation. When Thomas Mann wrote about his existential fears of no longer being able to write and ending his life in dire poverty, he was actually sitting in a luxury hotel room. So there was still something left to pay the Grand Hotel!

They brought half of the Nobel Prize money with them abroad, his books would still bring him revenues, the step-father in Munich would keep transferring money for a long time and there were other patrons who would support him as well. If you compare this to the miserable conditions of other emigrants, it was a very privileged exile. Yet the separation from the homeland, from the readership, from the place where Thomas Mann felt at home, this is what caused him such a shock. It also pulled the rug under the children's feet. What were they to do, all of a sudden, while emigrating?

So it was still a typical refugee experience, as it meant losing everything which made up their life until then.

Yes. Their exile begins with expectations: "We are fighting for the right ideals - when we'll come back soon, we will be rewarded for this." This "soon" turned into 12 years and no recognition came in 1945, but rather the accusation that they were traitors to the country.

This certainly leads to unhappiness and disruption. Klaus Mann was already addicted to drugs and depressed, but who knows how he would have developed if he had stayed in Germany. He might have thrived as a literary critic. At the same time, adversity bound them together. Exile welded the family together in a new way - and not just a positive one. All conflicts between family members were suddenly relevant again, because they could not avoid each other. It created a break in their lives, which strongly contributed to their unhappiness.

While in exile in the US, Thomas Mann said "Where I am, there is Germany." Is Thomas Mann still the strongest figure of German culture abroad?

If you reflect on the 20th century, he still represents something liberating in this central question of the "Third Reich." The literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki once said, "If Hitler was Germany's misfortune, Thomas Mann was Germany's fortune for this terrible period." That's how he is still perceived in many parts of the world today. Many still recognize their own family when they read his novel "Buddenbrooks." That can happen in New Zealand, too.

Tilmann Lahme's book is only available in German: "Die Manns. Geschichte einer Familie," S. Fischer Verlage, 2015.