“Hell reigns”‘ he (Joseph Roth) writes to (Stefan) Zweig. He also says there can be no compromises with the enemy. Anyone who continues to have business with Germany, anyone who so much as maintains a connection to Germany, is a monster.
They resent Thomas Mann for taking so long to make himself one of the exiles, for trying not to wreck things with the regime in Germany, for not wanting to lose the German market.
(Extracts from SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK, Volker Weidermann)
Earlier this year I read Volker Weidermann’s retelling of the summer of 1936, when the exiled literati of Nazi Germany (Zweig, Roth, Keun etc.) congregated in Ostend to console and encourage each other. I haven’t stopped thinking of it since and a fascination with the 1930’s is developing. Reading the views of the exiles about Thomas Mann quoted above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was colluding with the Nazi state for the sake of his book sales.
“Fair criticism or not? I have been wondering, and so I decided to kick off my #dutchlitautumn with Britta Böhler’s retelling of a pivotal three days in 1936 during which Thomas Mann deliberated whether to publish an open letter denouncing the Nazi regime.
Böhler’s fictionalisation cleverly writes into a historical gap. While Mann wrote copious diaries, there is very little covering these particular three days. As Mann’s deliberations are not on record, Böhler can set out his thoughts and concerns without without fear of contradiction. I have no doubts that these are based in the realities of Mann’s mindset at that particular time: not just those of the public persona, but of the family man and the private individual. I separate those two facets deliberately, because there were secrets that Mann kept from his wife that were written in diaries hidden in his beloved Munich home, and that had been confiscated by the Nazis. His fear of the Nazis discovering these and the resulting damage to his reputation is very palpable.
The timeframe of the novel is extended backwards in time through Mann’s thoughts which cover his marriage to a rich Jewish heiress, the raising of his children and his early criticism of the Nazi regime. His exile in Switzerland from 1933 was in some ways self-imposed. Warned by friends not to return, as arrest was imminent, he took their advice, and brought his half-Jewish children out of Germany before the Nazis got hold of them. But the Nazis wouldn’t leave him in peace. Fined for his abandonment (!), his property confiscated, they continued to persecute him from afar. And yet, as he was not Jewish, his books were not banned. A full denunciation of the regime would result in his books being burned with unfavourable attention being directed to his Jewish publisher. Would it also constitute abandonment of his loyal German readers? How would he feed his family when his Nobel prize money (which he had judiciously banked abroad) ran out?
Böhler succeeds in putting Mann in the moment, on the cusp of a momentous decision, which would result in the permanent loss of not just his income and his home, but his homeland. The result is a human portrait of a man deliberating the pros and the cons until the deciding factor tips the balance; it is a picture enabling a more reasoned and charitable assessment than that of the exiles in Ostend.