Nobel Prize winner and writer of the century

Paul Thomas Mann was born in Lübeck on 6 June 1875. His father Thomas Johann Heinrich was a merchant and became senator of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. His mother Julia da Silva-Bruhns was the daughter of a farmer who had emigrated to Brazil and a Brazilian woman. From her, Thomas inherited the talent for telling stories and the love of music. He grew up with his brothers Heinrich and Viktor and sisters Julia and Carla.

Already as a schoolboy he wrote stories and essays for the artistic magazine “Der Frühlingssturm”. He was bored by school and had to repeat grades several times; his intermediary school-leaving certificate from the Gymnasium in Lübeck in 1894 had quite undistinguished grades. He then relocated to his mother and sisters in Munich.

After his father’s death in 1891, the family moved into an apartment in Schwabing at Rambergstraße 2. At first, at the behest of his guardian, he worked as an unpaid trainee at a fire insurance company, but he soon decided to become a journalist.

Brief “guest appearance” at the TH Munich

Thomas Mann enrolled as a student at the Technische Hochschule München in the winter semester 1894-95 and the summer semester 1895. To do so, he did not require qualification for university entrance, only the minimum age of 17 and proof of his good conduct. He attended lectures on the principles of aesthetics, general art history, German literary history, Shakespeare’s tragedies, German history and political economy. He conscientiously made transcripts in a small notebook that has been preserved and was published in 2001.

He was particularly interested in the lectures on Middle High German literary history held by Professor Wilhelm Hertz – the TH Munich also offered such general content. He considered the series of lectures on political economy held by Professor Max Haushofer valuable. Franz von Reber’s architectural history lectures, by contrast, he criticized in his notebook as “extraordinarily boring.”1 After two semesters he no longer wanted to continue attending university, and he followed his brother Heinrich to Italy. His brother Viktor later became a regular student of the TH Munich, where he studied agronomy from 1911–14.

Traces of the lectures in his works

Looking back, Thomas Mann wrote: “I was a student without really being one.”2 Nevertheless, he was able to utilize some of what he had learned later, such as his economic knowledge in the novel “Royal Highness” (1909). There are also multiple instances of engineers in his works, for instance the engineering student Max Hergesell in his novella “Disorder and Early Sorrow” (1925). The model for this character was a doctoral student at TH Munich by the name of Fritz Riemerschmid, who was awarded a doctorate in 1932 for his dissertation on the “Influence of the viscosity of water on the hydraulic properties of a small Francis turbine,” and who invented a track vehicle similar to a motorcycle. In his Bildungsroman “The Magic Mountain” (1924) Hans Castorp is also an engineer, albeit a shipbuilding engineer, a course of studies not offered at the TH Munich.

The area around the TH Munich in the Maxvorstadt district shaped Thomas Mann’s life. In 1898, the writer lived for a few months with his brother Heinrich Mann at Theresienstrasse 82/ground floor, then alone at Barerstrasse 69/first floor, before moving back to Schwabing in November of that year, and finally to his newly built villa at Poschingerstrasse 1 near Herzogpark from 1914 to 1933. From his neighbor there, zoology professor Karl Gruber of the TH Munich, Thomas Mann learned interesting information about his field that he included in his short story “A Man and His Dog. An Idyll” (1918). He dedicated a copy of the book to Gruber.

Encounter with Katia Pringsheim on the tram

Thomas Mann’s military service, which was terminated prematurely due to medical unfitness, lasted from October to December 1900 and was with the Royal Bavarian Infantry Regiment in the Türkenkaserne. In 1903 or 1904, “at a certain spot, at the corner of Schelling-/Türkenstrasse”3 on streetcar line 2 (he presumably meant the intersection Theresien-/Türkenstraße), he first noticed his later wife Katia Pringsheim as she briskly and peremptorily argued with the conductor about not having her ticket. In 1905, he married the Ludwig Maximilian University student, who attended lectures on mathematics and physics, as well as philosophy, painting, and art history. They had six children together. The villa of his father-in-law Dr. Alfred Pringsheim, professor of mathematics at the Ludwig Maximilian University, was not far from the university at Arcisstrasse 12.

Aschenbach had once given direct expression—though in an unobtrusive place—to the idea that almost everything conspicuously great is great in despite […]4

Thomas Mann was able to live as an independent writer from 1896 onwards thanks to interest income on his father’s assets. From 1898–1900 he worked as editor and proofreader at the satirical magazine “Simplicissimus,” and during this time he attracted attention with his stories and novellas. He became famous with the novel “Buddenbrooks” (1901), for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. Other important novels included “Royal Highness” (1909), “The Magic Mountain” (1924), “Joseph and His Brothers” (1933 to 1943), “Lotte in Weimar” (1939), “Doctor Faustus” (1947) and the “Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man” (fragment; 1954). His diaries are also vital literary documents; they have been preserved for the time periods September 1918 to December 1921 and March 1933 to July 1955.

The dispute with his brother Heinrich

Politically, Thomas Mann positioned himself as a national conservative, supporting the German war efforts in the First World War. In response to his brother Heinrich’s anti-monarchy and anti-war essay “Zola” (1915), he wrote his “Reflections of an Unpolitical Man” (1918); in it, he contrasts a superior German “culture, soul, freedom, art” to Western European “civilization, society, voting rights, and literature.”5 He considered this contrast the actual cause of the world war.

The political apologia led to a temporary rift between the two dissimilar brothers. Soon, however, Thomas Mann would describe himself as a “republican by reason” and profess his commitment to the Weimar Republic in his speech “The German Republic” (1922). “Man[n] overboard” his enemies on the right scoffed. Thomas Mann developed into one of the sharpest critics of National Socialism, which he characterized in 1930 as part of a “gigantic wave of eccentric barbarism and primitive, populist fairground barking.”6

The NSDAP came to power in January 1933, and the Mann family did not return from a trip abroad in the spring, choosing Küsnacht near Zürich as their exile. After publicly condemning National Socialist Germany in 1936, Mann’s German citizenship and honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn were revoked. His Munich villa, including its furnishings, was confiscated by the state for alleged “tax liabilities”. Besides political injustice, Thomas Mann repeatedly had to suffer heavy blows of family fate. Both his sisters and his son Klaus committed suicide.

Exile in the USA

After the annexation of Austria by the German Reich, Mann emigrated in February 1938 to the US, accepting a guest professorship at Princeton University. Starting in 1937, he also published the exile magazine “Maß und Wert.” He supported emigrants and addressed the Germans with BBC radio talks during the Second World War. In 1941, he moved the family to Pacific Palisades, California, and three years later became a US citizen.

He ruled out a return to Germany after the end of the war, since he assumed a collective guilt of the Germans and deemed a long period of atonement necessary. He returned only in 1949 for visits to his home country and his former residence of Munich.

When, in the early McCarthy era, attacks against him intensified due to his alleged sympathies for Soviet Communism, he decided to return to Europe. The Mann family left the US in June 1952 and settled again in the Zurich area. From there he undertook several trips to the Federal Republic and the GDR. On 12 August 1955, Thomas Mann died in Zurich at the age of 80.

Awards and distinctions

He is buried in the Kilchberg Cemetery at Lake Zurich. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he received a number of other awards and distinctions: honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn (1919, revoked 1936, conferred again 1947), honorary doctorate from Columbia University, New York (1938), acceptance in the American Academy of Arts (1949), honorary doctorates from Oxford and Lund Universities (1949), Goethe Prize of the city of Frankfurt am Main (1949), honorary doctorate from Cambridge University (1953), honorary doctorate from Friedrich Schiller University Jena (1955), honorary citizenship of the city of Lübeck (1955), the Ordre Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaft und Kunst (1955), honorary membership in the German Akademie der Künste (1955).

In 1975 the Hanseatic city of Lübeck endowed a literature prize for Thomas Mann’s 100th birthday. Its successor, a Thomas Mann Prize, is offered by Lübeck and the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, and was granted for the first time in 2010.

The Technical University of Munich honored its former student in March 2013 with the interdisciplinary symposium “Thomas Mann in München – ein schwieriger Weg in die Moderne” [Thomas Mann in Munich – A difficult path to modernity].

1. Quoted in Peter J. Brenner (ed.): Thomas Mann in München – Ein schwieriger Weg in die Moderne. Symposium at the Technical University Munich, Thalhofen 2013, p. 35.

2. Quoted in Wolfgang A. Herrmann: Vorwort [Foreword], in: Brenner (like Note 1), p. 7.

3. Quoted in Brenner (like Note 1), p. 104.

4. Thomas Mann: Der Tod in Venedig. In: Thomas Mann: Sämtliche Erzählungen, Frankfurt a. M. 1963, p. 360. [Death in Venice, as translated by H. Lowe-Porter (1930), pp. 10-11]

5. Thomas Mann: Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen. Berlin, erste Neuauflage 1920, S. XXXIII.

6. Zit. nach Holger Pils: Aufrufe zum Widerstand? Thomas Mann um 1930, in: Erich-Mühsam-Gesellschaft (Hg.): Sich fügen heißt lügen? Leben zwischen Gewalt und Widerstand (= Schriften der Erich-Mühsam-Gesellschaft, Heft 36), Lübeck 2011, S. 91.

Foto: German Federal Archive Koblenz,photo 183-R15883 / photographer: unknown / licence CC-BY-SA 3.0