Der Untertan; The Loyal Subject

Der Untertan; The Loyal Subject; The Patrioteer; The Man of Straw (first serialised 1914; first published in book form 1918)

Heinrich Mann’s masterpiece, Der Untertan (The Loyal Subject), was written between 1910 and 1913, and first serialised in the weekly magazine Die Zeit im Bild from January 1914 onwards. Publication ceased in August 1914 with the outbreak of war, and the concluding section of the novel remained unpublished until 1918, when the novel finally appeared in book form.

Except for some early scenes in Berlin, the novel in set in the fictional town of ‘Netzig’ in the years 1890-1897.

The original subtitle of the novel (later dropped) was ‘Geschichte der öffentlichen Seele unter Wilhelm II’; ‘History of the Public Soul under Wilhelm II’.

The novel depicts the career of a successful businessman, a paper manufacturer called Diederich Heßling. Heßling is a German nationalist who crushes his liberal opponents. Heßling’s authoritarian upbringing and experiences in a student fraternity in Berlin turn him into a vicious, cowardly bully. He idolises Kaiser Wilhelm II – modelling his appearance, behaviour and speech on the Kaiser. The novel is in fact a montage novel: much of the dialogue is taken from speeches given by the Kaiser himself.

This novel is the first in Heinrich Mann’s Kaiserreich trilogy, his trilogy of Imperial Germany. The subsequent novels are Die Armen; The Poor (1917), and Der Kopf; The Chief (1925).

At the centre of the book is the trial of a factory-owner, Lauer, for the crime of Majestätsbeleidigung (lèse-majesté). The law was used widely in Imperial Germany in order to prosecute journalists and restrict the freedom of speech.

Ironically, this same law was used in 2016 against the German TV presenter Jan Böhmermann, for a satirical poem about the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thomas Oppermann (SPD) commented on this case: ‘Prosecuting satire on the basis of a lese-majeste law is not appropriate to the modern age.’ (Source: The Guardian, Saturday 16 April 2016, p. 20).

Der Untertan tends to divide readers along political lines. Some literary critics have agreed with Thomas Mann, who dismissed the novel as crude satire. Klaus Schröter has argued that calling the novel ‘satirical’ is a strategy used to dismiss the novel by conservative critics who disagree with its political analysis (see reading list below, Schröter, pp. 9-16). Kurt Tucholsky, himself a famous satirist, refused to call Der Untertan a satire, describing it as a ‘modest photograph’ of Wilhelmine Germany (see reading list below, Tucholsky, p. 113). Other authors, such as Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass admired it. Leading historians such as Sebastian Haffner, Gordon A. Craig and Hans-Ulrich Wehler have paid tribute to its historical accuracy.

Der Untertan has sometimes been compared to Kafka’s The Trial because one one level it is a psychological study of the workings of power (see reading list below, Hawes and Lämmert).

The film version of 1951, produced in the GDR, was directed by Wolfgang Staudte and starred Werner Peters.

With nationalism and populism on the rise in many countries, Der Untertan is as relevant as ever. It delivers a brilliant analysis of the vain, nationalist posturing of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his admirers.

Readers may be struck by the resemblance between Kaiser Wilhelm II (as portrayed in the novel) and US president Donald J. Trump; both are well known for their ‘rednerische Entgleisungen’ (oratorical derailments) (on this point, see Schonfield, Business Rhetoric, p. 49). For a detailed comparison of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Donald Trump, see this article in the New Yorker by Miranda Carter.

Chapter One begins with Diederich’s childhood, and his beatings at the hands of his authoritarian father. Diederich bullies a Jew at school, and enjoys the applause. He grows up and goes to Berlin to study chemistry, and joins a student fraternity, the Neuteutonen. His father dies. Diederich begins his military service but succeeds in getting himself registered sick, and is dismissed from the army. In February 1892 there are demonstrations of unemployed workers in Berlin; Diederich sees the Kaiser himself on horseback.

In Chapter Two Diederich has sex with Agnes Göppel, the daughter of his father’s business colleague. He gets a visit from his school friend Wolfgang Buck, who is now studying law. Diederich completes his PhD. He and Agnes go on a weekend trip to the country, which ends in him rejecting her. He tells Agnes’s father, Herr Göppel, that he will not marry Agnes.

In Chapter Three Diederich returns to Netzig and takes charge of the family firm. He meets Guste Daimchen and discovers that she has inherited a fortune and that she is engaged to Wolfgang Buck. Diederich has an argument with Napoleon Fischer, his foreman, who is a Social Democrat, and fires two workers, a young couple, for caressing each other when they should be working. He visits Old Buck, who represents the liberal spirit of 1848, and Mayor Scheffelweis. A soldier shoots dead the man that Diederich fired earlier in the day. In the beer cellar, Diederich provokes Lauer into insulting the royal family. Assessor Jadassohn plans to prosecute Lauer. The men send a telegram to the Kaiser. Diederich invents a telegram from the Kaiser to the local commander praising the shooting, and leaks it to Nothgroschen, the newspaper editor.

In Chapter Four the authorities confirm the telegram that Diederich invented. Diederich cannot afford to pay for the new machine he has ordered. When Kienast, the firm’s representative arrives, he becomes engaged to Diederich’s sister Magda, and the two men strike a deal. Diederich has a conversation with Wolfgang Buck. Lauer is tried for lèse-majesté (Majestätsbeleidigung), with Diederich as chief witness for the prosecution, and Wolfgang as defence lawyer. Lauer is sentenced to six months imprisonment and Diederich is admitted to the Veterans’ Association.

In Chapter Five Diederich gives Guste a tour of the factory and ends up rolling in the sacks with her. He discovers Käthchen Zillich at a rendez-vous with Jadassohn. Diederich spreads the rumour that Old Buck had an affair with Guste’s mother – so Wolfgang could be engaged to his own half-sister. At the Harmony Ball there is a performance of Die heimliche Gräfin, written by Frau von Wulckow. Diederich seizes the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Wulckows. Diederich tries to seduce Käthchen but the pair are surprised by Guste. Diederich tells Guste the rumour that Wolfgang is her half-brother; Guste is devastated. Wolfgang leaves Guste and Diederich becomes engaged to her. Diederich makes secret deals with Napoleon Fischer and Herr von Wulckow, the Chair of the Regional Council. Diederich and Fischer become city councillors, and Diederich sells his property to Wulckow’s friend Quitzin in return for a medal and a share in Klüsing’s rival paper factory in Gausenfeld. The property deal is signed off on the morning of Diederich’s wedding to Guste. Diederich is given the medal.

In Chapter Six Diederich and Guste go on their honeymoon, to Zurich and then to Rome. In Rome, Diederich follows the Kaiser everywhere and stops a demonstrator armed with tooth powder. Back in Netzig, Diederich persuades Major Kunze to stand as a candidate for the Reichstag, but actually Diederich wants Kunze to lose (this is part of his deal with Fischer). Diederich’s sister Emmi is dumped by Lieutenant von Brietzen, and now Diederich has to act the role of Herr Göppel: he goes to see Brietzen and is thrown out. Klüsing sends Diederich a letter promising him Gausenfeld and exposing the property speculation of the liberals. At a political meeting Diederich accuses Old Buck of property speculation (which is precisely what Diederich, Wulckow and Quitzin are involved in, too). Luckily for Diederich, Kühlemann, the only person who could clear Old Buck’s name, dies suddenly. Old Buck is forced to resign from the city council and loses his fortune when his shares in Gausenfeld plummet. When the shares hit rock bottom, Kienast buys them up in secret for Diederich. Diederich is confirmed as the new director of Gausenfeld, and merges the two factories. Fischer is elected to the Reichstag and a monument to the Kaiser is approved. Poison pen letters are sent and Gottlieb Hornung is blamed. Guste starts to imitate the Empress, just as Diederich imitates the Kaiser. Diederich has an affair with Käthchen. At the inaugural ceremony for the monument to the Kaiser, Diederich gives a militaristic, demagogic speech, which is interrupted by a thunderstorm.

English Translations

Heinrich Mann, The Loyal Subject, ed. by Helmut Peitsch, trans. by Ernest Boyd and Daniel Theisen (New York: Continuum, 2006)

Heinrich Mann, The Man of Straw, trans. by Ernest Boyd (London: Penguin, 1984)

Heinrich Mann, The Patrioteer, trans. by Ernest Boyd (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1921)

Further Reading in English

Alan Bance, ‘The Novel in Wilhelmine Germany: From Realism to Satire’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Modern German Novel, ed. by Graham Bartram (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 31-45

Frederick Betz, ‘“A German Main Street and More”: Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan (1918) and Sinclair Lewis’s Satirical Novels of the 1920s’, Midamerica: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature 27 (2000), 66-77

Lorely French, ‘“Das Theater ist auch eine meiner Waffen”: Theater and Satire in Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan’, New German Review 2 (1986), 1-13

Alex Hall, ‘The Kaiser, the Wilhelmine State and Lèse-majesté’, German Life and Letters 27:2 (1974), 101-15

James Hawes, ‘Revanche and Radicalism: The Psychology of Power in Der Prozess and Der Untertan’, Oxford German Studies 18-19 (1989-1990), 119-31

Teague Mims, ‘Revisiting Social and Racist Prejudice in Imperial Germany after the Goldhagen Controversy: Anti-Emancipatory Tendencies in Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan’, Focus on German Studies 8 (2001), 65-84

Mark W. Roche, ‘The Self-Cancellation of Injustice in Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan’, Oxford German Studies 17 (1988), 72-89

Jeffrey Schneider, ‘“The Pleasure of the Uniform”: Masculinity, Transvestism, and Militarism in Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan and Magnus Hirschfeld’s Die Transvestiten’, Germanic Review 72:3 (1997), 183-200

Ernest Schonfield, Business Rhetoric in German Novels: From Buddenbrooks to the Global Corporation (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018), Chapter 2, pp. 40-56: ‘Oratory and Publicity in Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan, 1914/18’

Marc Silberman, ‘“Semper Fidelis”: Staudte’s The Subject (1951)’, in German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations, ed. by Eric Rentschler (New York: Methuen, 1986), pp. 146-60

Web Link in English

Miranda Carter, ‘What Happens When a Bad-Tempered, Distractible Doofus Runs an Empire?’, New Yorker, 6 June 2018

Further Reading in German

Reinhard Alter, Die bereinigte Moderne. Heinrich Manns ‘Untertan’ und politische Publizistik in der Kontinuität der deutschen Geschichte zwischen Kaiserreich und Drittem Reich (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1995)

Hartmut Eggert, ‘Das persönliche Regiment. Zur Quellen- und Entstehungsgeschichte von Heinrich Manns “Untertan”’, Neophilologus 55:1 (1971), 298-316

Wolfgang Emmerich, Heinrich Mann: Der Untertan (Munich: Fink, 1980)

Eberhard Lämmert, ‘Der Bürger und seine höheren Instanzen. Heinrich Mann, Der Untertan, und Franz Kafka, Der Proceß’, in Wer sind wir? Europäische Phänotypen im Roman des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, ed. by Eberhard Lämmert and Barbara Naumann (Munich: Fink, 1996), pp. 41-59

Wilhelm Schröder, Das persönliche Regiment. Reden und sonstige öffentliche Äusserungen Wilhelms II (Munich: G. Birk, 1907)

Klaus Schröter, Heinrich Mann: “Untertan” – “Zeitalter” – Wirkung. Drei Aufsätze (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1971)

Kurt Tucholsky, ‘Der Untertan’, in Die Weltbühne 13 (1919); reproduced in Heinrich Mann. Texte zu seiner Wirkungsgeschichte in Deutschland, ed. by Renate Werner (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1977), pp. 108-13