Reconstruction of a decisive moment in the life of Thomas Mann
Switzerland, Friday 31 January 1936. The world-famous German author Thomas Mann faces a dilemma. At the urging of his daughter Erika he has written an open letter in which he makes a public stand against the Nazi regime. On Monday it will be published in the Neue Zrcher Zeitung and all his connections with his fatherland will be severed.
Immediately after Hitler came to power in 1933, Mann left his country. After warnings from his daughter, he didn’t dare to go back and felt forced to abandon his beloved house in Munich and a substantial chunk of his property. His holiday home in Lithuania became inaccessible. After travelling around for a while, he and his wife Katja rented a house in Ksnacht near Zurich, where he carried on writing his Joseph trilogy.
The story begins just after Mann has delivered the letter to the editorial office. He walks along the shore of the lake, contemplating his fate. He knows his letter will make him enemies, that the loss of his possessions will now be final and that he is putting his Jewish publisher in a difficult position. Worse, he will be alienated from his fatherland and possibly even from his readers. Should he withdraw the letter? How indignant would his children and his wife be if he did? What will the courage to speak out cost him?We feel for the prominent writer in the days he spends wavering between withdrawal and publication. Britta Böhler skilfully makes his dilemma tangible: Mann was a born doubter who needed continual reassurance from others. The decision to sever ties with Germany raises questions about the significance of nationality. ‘The breach will be permanent; his country will be lost to him forever, he will have no fatherland. A German master without a country. He won’t even have a German passport any longer. What does it matter? Nationality is an outdated notion, after all.’
By creating this intimate, personal portrait, Böhler unlocks a crucial moment in Mann’s life, a small but significant watershed in German and European cultural history.