Translated from German by Ernest Boyd / Daniel Theissen
Heinrich Mann’s The Loyal Subject (variously translated as Man of Straw or The Patrioteer) was dismissed by his brother Thomas as “heinous aestheticism”, so I’m in good company. Not that I’m commenting on aestheticism, just on what a slog these 320 pages were. I was so disappointed because I quite enjoyed the first two chapters which described Diederich Hessling’s childhood and student days as a Neo-Teuton in the Germany of the late 1800s. They establish him as a hypocritical opportunistic nationalistic coward (a harsh but fair assessment). Thereafter, he returns back to the fictional small town of Netzig and takes over the running of the family paper factory, gets involved in local politics, strikes up a two-faced pact with the social democrats, and somehow (i.e more by good fortune than by business acumen or political astuteness) manages to destroy all competitors to emerge as the most influential man in town.
Hessling proves to be the nemesis of old Herr Buck, a hero of 1848 and representative of the liberal classes. These are the days of a young Kaiser Wilhelm II – to whom Hessling bears an uncanny ressemblance – in which nationalistic fervour and anti-semitism are in the ascendant. As the Kaiser becomes dictatorial – to the point of dismissing Bismarck in 1890 – Hessling’s boorish voice gets louder and louder providing chilling foregleams of attitudes that would lead to the rise of Nazism. Not that Mann could have foreseen this in 1914 when he wrote the novel. But we can with hindsight.
For all his success, Hessling is an utterly ridiculous character. His name is a play on the German word hässlich (ugly) which leaves us in no doubt how to view him. His obsession with the Kaiser is manic. (Fancy leaving your bride on her own during the honeymoon to chase around the town guarding the Kaiser, when you are not even part of his retinue.) How and why no-one calls him out as a fake in Netzig is frustrating, but that is exactly Mann’s point. It was because little despots like Hessling were allowed to thrive, and the Kaiser remained unchallenged, that Europe found herself on the cusp of war in 1914. (Mann finished his novel just one month before WWI began.)
This disastrous outcome is signalled in the novel’s climax. The opening ceremony of the town’s monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I and German nationalism is interrupted by an apocalyptic thunderstorm. We all understand the significance of that in literary symbolism, don’t we?
I’ll refer you to the more detailed and more appreciative review that Guy Savage wrote during GLM II in 2012. To put it frankly, having read a satire that does not make me laugh, I’m just happy to have turned the final page, though I suspect that this important political allegory would be more rewarding on a second reading with these reader’s questions in mind. (Not that I’m going to reread until I’ve seen at least one film adaptation.) The five days it took me to read this weren’t wasted – if nothing else, I’ve ticked off another title from Deutsche Welle’s 100 German novels You Must Read. (37 read, 20 TBR)