Cursed Legacy: The Tragic Life of Klaus Mann

Klaus Mann, the second of the six children of novelist Thomas Mann, was born in Munich in 1906. Thomas Mann came from a long line of Hanseatic merchants; Klaus’s mother was from a rich and cultured Jewish family in Munich who had become Protestant a generation earlier.
All of the Mann children had difficulty with their famous father, who was distant, severe and hard working. They seemed to radiate around him all of their lives, seeking his approval or waiting to see what further slights and insults he could offer them, which they could then note in their diaries or tell subsequent interviewers. Only on his father’s death, at the age of 80, in 1955, did Golo, the third child, feel that he himself could begin to write. By this time, Klaus was six years dead from an overdose of drugs.
For many German readers now, strangely enough, it is Klaus rather than his father or his uncle Heinrich (who wrote the novel which became the movie The Blue Angel) who has become a sort of hero. Klaus was openly homosexual from the start, whereas his father, who was gay too, remained in the closet. Klaus opposed Hitler from early on, whereas his father waited until 1936 to denounce Hitler fully, and only did so then at the insistence of his wife and his eldest daughter.
Klaus saw himself as a European rather than a German, and followed his uncle Heinrich in becoming a Francophile, while his father remained staunchly German.
Klaus’s life, too, seems more dramatic and interesting and tragic than that of his father, who simply devoted himself to the dull old business of writing novels and stories and essays.
Klaus Mann’s career also emphasises how little Germany after the war wanted to hear from those who had spent the Hitler years in exile. Klaus’s best novel, Mephisto, published in Amsterdam in 1936, concerned the actor Gustaf Grundgens, to whom Erika Mann, Klaus’s sister, had been briefly married, and with whom Klaus had performed on the stage at the peak of Klaus’s fame as a very young writer in Germany in 1925. Under Hitler, Grundgens became director of the Berlin State Theatre.
After the war, Grundgens was quickly reinstated. In 1946, Klaus was back in Germany to witness the actor being feted and applauded. In what Frederic Spotts, in this biography of Klaus, calls “the most disgraceful literary-legal scandal in postwar Germany”, Mephisto was published only after much difficulty.
In 1956, the novel was published in East Germany, but even after Grundgens’s death in 1963, it could not be published in West Germany.
As late as 1971 the German supreme court upheld the ban, declaring: “The general public is not interested in being given a false picture of the theatre world after 1933 from the point of view of an émigré.”
Mephisto did not come out in West Germany until 1981, and even then the ban remained in place – the publisher simply decided to defy the ban. The book became a bestseller. Many of Klaus Mann’s other books and works for the theatre and essays were by then also in print.
The problem is that Mephisto, despite its passion and its documentary value, does not match the narrative sweep or seriousness of Doctor Faustus, the magisterial novel that Thomas Mann produced in the last years of the war. Nor do any of Klaus Mann’s other works compare to his father’s.
This idea that he did not have his father’s talent produced a strange melancholy and a sort of restlessness in Klaus Mann. At an early age he wrote with ease and facility.
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