in Author Thomas Mann’s Life
A survey of the locations and houses closely related to Thomas Mann and the Mann family shows a constantly expanding horizon, the evolution of the Manns into a world family, their work as globally committed writers and witnesses of the 20th century. Their path is distinguished by three phases: a German, a European, and a non-European.
The formative years began in Lübeck, where Thomas Mann was raised in a merchant’s home that belonged to the town’s patriciate.
In his debut novel, Buddenbrooks, the 25-year-old fashioned a portrait of Lübeck that gained renown far beyond Germany’s borders and was translated into 40 languages. By that time he had already left his hometown, yet Lübeck continued to play a crucial role in his life. In 1905, Thomas Mann accurately wrote: “[...] I have directed the eyes of a hundred thousand people to the old gabled house on the Mengstraße.” He was referring to the Buddenbrook-House in Lübeck, where his grandparents had lived and which was the setting of his debut work. The novel Buddenbrooks brought its author world renown and even the Nobel Prize in 1929.
With the First World War and ensuing Weimar Republic their worldview grew from a national to a European one. Thomas Mann and his family stood at the center of conflicting ideological, political and artistic beliefs, whereby their differing opinions became quite apparent. His brother Heinrich Mann, for example, had opposed the war from the start. Early on, he had advocated for a European perspective, which culminated in his active role in Franco-German reconciliation. In the 1920s, Thomas Mann’s eldest children, Klaus and Erika, sided with their uncle’s point of view. For Thomas Mann the matter was more complex. During World War I, he had embraced German nationalist and conservative views. After realizing his error, he became a fervent champion of democracy during the Weimar Republic. At the same time, he also focused on the problems of Europe as a whole. His novel The Magic Mountain, which he set in a posh sanatorium in Davos, portrays a panorama of European society of the time, while representing his artistic view of the issues discussed in it. In the 1920s, Thomas Mann held numerous lectures and readings within Europe and abroad. In 1930, the Mann family acquired a summer home on the Curonian Spit in Nida with a view of the lagoon, where they spent three wonderful summer vacations. Today it is home to the Thomas Mann Cultural Center.
In 1933, he lost his homeland and was forced into exile. While in Arosa, Switzerland, the National Socialist’s seizure of power caught the couple by surprise and they did not return to Munich. After residing in Sanary-sur-Mer in Southern France for several months, they reunited with their family. Thomas and Katia and their younger children then moved to Küsnacht, near Zurich, and remained there from Autumn 1933 through the end of 1938. During this period, Thomas Mann grew very fond of the “dear city of Zurich” and Switzerland.
Heinrich Mann, who barely escaped occupied Europe, lived a short distance away. Apart from completing the final volumes of Joseph and Doctor Faustus in the USA, Thomas Mann relentlessly continued to engage in political activities. On lecture tours throughout the USA, he tirelessly campaigned against Hitler; the BBC broadcast 55 anti-Nazi speeches addressed to German listeners! Meanwhile, Thomas Mann had become an American citizen.
Given the political climate after President Roosevelt’s death in 1945, and the hysterical anti-communist purge of the McCarthy era, the Mann couple fled the USA in 1952 and returned to Europe. They deliberately chose Switzerland rather than one of the divided German countries. Thomas Mann and his family, once again outside the gates of Zurich found a final home, settling this time in Erlenbach and Kilchberg. After his death, Katia Mann remained in Kilchberg until her death in 1980; her son Golo lived there until 1994. Thomas Mann’s literary estate is located in the Thomas Mann Archives at the ETH Zurich.
A glance at the cemetery in Kilchberg, where Thomas, Katia, and all the children were buried, except for Klaus, who died in 1949, shows a family that not only is emblematic for Germany worldwide, but for an international family. The gravestones include American, British, Canadian and Swiss citizens, who have been buried there. Mann’s exile lasted until his death in 1955 and even beyond, if one considers the descendants scattered around the world. The countries of residence and citizenship alone are evidence of his turn to the international. At the same time, the Manns were always a “German” family. Especially Thomas Mann, given the tide of events that had forced him to relinquish his citizenship, had never been anything other than a German writer. The famous words he uttered upon arriving in New York in 1938: “Where I am is German culture,” are emblematic of this sentiment. He decoupled his concept of German from nation and based it instead on its cultural imprint.
It is precisely the interplay of his lifelong affiliation with, and troubled relationship to Germany, on the one hand, and a commitment to cosmopolitanism on the other, which makes the history of Thomas Mann and his family so fascinating and, in part, so abysmal. In his memoirs, written in the USA, Mann’s brother Heinrich states: “When my brother moved to the United States, he simply and correctly declared: ‘Where I am is German culture.’ Only here can we truly grasp the words fully: ‘Whatever you have inherited from your fathers, you must first attain, in order to own it! [...] Our culture - and every culture - has the nation of our birth as its starting point and as its justification, so that we can become full-fledged Europeans. Without a birthplace there can be no cosmopolitanism. No penetration of other languages, or even literatures, without simultaneously having our innate idiom, in speech and in writing, experienced by us to the point of despair, to the point of bliss.”