From Rage to Civilization

10/21/2010 05:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the nice things about blogging on Huff Post is not only can you expound on your chosen subject in more than a soundbite, but you may find yourself linking even with people who disagree with you, and in charming ways. Their responses, however irate, can prompt new thoughts and new connections.

For example, there was a reader in a huff with me for my judgment on the twelfth of my twelve American presidents featured in my new book, American Caesars, namely George W. Bush, and his nefarious deputy, Dick Cheney. The reader was scathing - and claimed I was a "one-book" man.

That book, interestingly, was my very first major biography, published more than thirty years ago, and long out of print: The Brothers Mann. It recounts the lives of two of Germany's greatest twentieth century novelists, Heinrich Mann (The Blue Angel), and his younger sibling Thomas (Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, Doktor Faustus, etc).

I confess I was hurt to be thought to have produced nothing of value in the subsequent three decades, despite a number of awards. Nonetheless I was delighted the reader knew my Brothers Mann work. Turns out he is a Thomas Mann aficionado, and has visited several hundred Mann locations across America and Europe. We've forgotten about GWB, and have been corresponding in almost filial harmony. So my rage and his counter-rage have led to a very civilized conclusion!

I was fascinated by the Manns, I should explain, for a number of reasons. First off, I'm one of four brothers - all of us pretty competitive, just as Heinrich and Thomas were. Secondly, as a biographer rather than as a historian, I was interested in the development of their characters - by which I mean their moral growth as human beings, over the course of a lifetime.

You don't hear much these days about moral growth - certainly not in our frenetic, pre-election fever of accusation and counterblast. The notion of a human being evolving morally seems to have gone out the window, as some of the most egregious Machievellians of a Bush administration, less than two years supposedly dead and buried underground, are resurfacing - like ghouls at Halloween!

What intrigued me in charting the life stories of the Mann brothers, by contrast, was the way Heinrich began his professional life as an anti-imperialist and socialist: a writer who denounced the Kaiser's war - World War I - at the risk of being denounced himself as an anti-patriot. In fact his younger brother Thomas was so disgusted by Heinrich's stand in 1915, he broke off all contact with his older brother for more than six years, even though they both lived in the same town, Munich!

Thomas supported the Kaiser - loudly and loyally. He considered that Germany had a special, Wagnerian destiny, best expressed as Kultur versus Civilisation (French). The Great War, Thomas believed, would cleanse the German soul, and make the country morally stronger.

Instead, the war drained the blood of millions of German young and even young middle-aged men - and seeded, among the survivors, the Nazi party.

Thomas refused to back down on his views, even after Germany's defeat and the expulsion of the Kaiser. But on what appeared to be Heinrich's deathbed - suffering peritonitis following a burst appendix - the Mann brothers were reconciled. Thomas finally became a democrat - while Heinrich, who participated briefly in the Communist experimental republic in 1919, became a conservative!

Both had learned from their earlier extremism: right and left. The two brothers became prominent anti-Fascists - in fact were among the first Germans to leave Germany after the accession of Hitler to the Chancellorship in February 1933, before Hitler even took dictatorial powers as Fuehrer.

It was just as well they did. Heinrich would have been arrested (his books were burned), and have been murdered in a concentration camp like his colleague Carl von Ossietsky, the Nobel prizewinner. The same fate would have befallen Thomas, too, as his wife was half-Jewish (Pringsheim). Instead, Thomas moved into exile in Switzerland, Heinrich to France; both then came to the U.S., as Europe fell under the Nazi yoke.

Sadly, Thomas was more-or-less hounded out of America after World War II, like Bertold Brecht and others, for being sympathetic to left-wing writers, musicians and artists in the U.S. during the McCarthy-Nixon pogroms. "I can never endorse the totalitarian state," Thomas wrote one colleague in 1950, a few weeks after Heinrich's death in California. "But a good many people are on their way to becoming martyrs.... Doesn't it all strike you as dreadfully familiar, dreadfully like Germany [in the 1930s]? If the Mundt-Nixon Bill should be passed, I shall flee - head over heels, together with my seven honorary doctorates." (The Brothers Mann, p360)

The bill, as the McCarran Act, with a detention or "concentration camp" clause, did pass later that year - and the greatest living novelist in America, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, fled, in the summer of 1952, to Switzerland, where he died in 1955.

So, dear reader: I and my Huff Post aficionado of Thomas Mann have much to share. I must hope that other altercations in this time will end as happily!