The Brothers Mann

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In this, Nigel Hamilton’s first major work, we have for the first time a biography of two writers, each celebrated in his own right, but all the more interesting because they happen to be brothers. What is more, they lived through an extraordinary period of their country’s history, from the imperial state of the Kaisers through World War I and the Weimar Republic. Both were forced into exile in World War II, living in Southern California, where Heinrich Mann died in 1950, while his younger brother Thomas returned to Europe and died in Zurich in 1955.

The joint biography is of further interest because the relationship of the two brothers was itself important for their work and provides a key to understanding some of their themes. The two were rivals in their early years, when, for a time, Heinrich was the more famous; and they passed through a period of conflict over their opposing political views in World War I, in which Thomas was a spokesman for the conservative, patriotic German position, while Heinrich was pro-French, internationalist, and pacifist. The two eventually reconciled and were united in their opposition to Hitler’s regime, as they were united in exile. Finally, during the war years and the postwar period, Thomas’ fame grew steadily, as he became accepted as one of the great writers of the twentieth century, while Heinrich’s reputation dwindled to the point that he is known outside of Germany, if at all, only as the author of the story of “The Blue Angel,” the film made famous by Marlene Dietrich. In spite of these unequal reputations—and surely few critics would claim for Heinrich a status anywhere near equal to that of his more celebrated brother—as a pair, the two men do constitute what is probably the most distinguished literary brotherhood in modern literary history; this book is therefore of great value to anyone interested in German literature or in the cultural development of modern Germany. Indeed, Hamilton is by profession a historian, and his book is perhaps weakest in its literary criticism, although his wife, who died shortly after its completion, was German and a literary specialist, and contributed her expertise to the work.

Since Thomas Mann based so much of his early work on his own family, the background of the brothers is familiar to anyone acquainted with the novel Buddenbrooks. The Mann family was a member of the patrician class of the North German city of Lübeck and had grown prosperous as merchants; one of its members achieved the rank of Senator, and the family occupied one of the most impressive homes in the city. The business acumen of the family was waning, however, and it is significant that neither Heinrich nor Thomas had the slightest intention of entering the family business. Both were supported by their mother, who was more sympathetic to the arts than their father, who in his testament left instruction that both boys should be discouraged from a literary career. Upon his death, however, the firm was dissolved, and the mother moved to Munich, an artistic and literary center that figures frequently in the works of Thomas as the symbolic opposite pole to Lübeck—the two cities representing the two sides of his own personality.

The polarity that lies at the heart of so much of Thomas’ work is evident in the relationship between the two brothers. Heinrich, the elder, was the iconoclast, the rebel, the one who had to be the first to defy his father, and whose works reflect this opposition to the social structure. Thomas, younger, was less aggressive and more conventional both in the social and the literary world. Heinrich’s first works are satirical, grotesque, and at times shocking, while Thomas’ first great novel, Buddenbrooks, is virtually old-fashioned—slow-moving, descriptive, expansive in the style of the nineteenth century, and exhibiting the irony that was to become one of Thomas’ defining characteristics. This dichotomy characterized them throughout their lives. Thomas would marry well, have a large family, and grow wealthy and famous, while Heinrich remained isolated, marrying twice but both times unsuccessfully, and at the end living off a subsidy from his younger brother.

This basic split in personalities and values lies at the heart of their famous quarrel, which placed them on opposite sides of public opinion in Germany during World War I. Heinrich, a liberal, opposed the war...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)