[This page by Karina von Lindeiner-Stráský]

Mephisto. Roman einer Karriere; Mephisto. Novel of a Career (1936)

The second of Mann’s political exile novels is by far the best known of his works. It is typical for the exiles’ attempts to understand the genesis of the Hitler regime, to describe (cultural) life in the ‘Third Reich’, and to deal with cultural apostates who had stayed in Germany and cooperated with the regime.

The novel is famous not only because of its uncompromising, satirical and highly emotional narration, but also because Mann modelled his protagonist, the actor and Nazi fellow-traveller Hendrik Höfgen, after his former friend and brother-in-law, the famous German actor Gustaf Gründgens. The actor had cooperated with Mann on two theatre productions in the 1920s and was briefly married to Erika Mann. He was a leading actor of the Weimar Republic, of the ‘Third Reich’ (during which he also was a protégé of Herman Göring and a close friend of Göring’s wife), and also was the leading theatre actor and director of the Federal Republic of Germany until his death in 1963.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first five chapters tell the story the rise of the overambitious, vain and ruthless actor Höfgen who becomes the leading actor of the Weimar Republic. The second five chapters deal with Höfgen’s decision to remain in Germany after the Nazis took over and his ‘Pakt mit dem Teufel’; ‘pact with the devil’, which allows him to advance to the position of leading theatre personality of the ‘Third Reich’ and turns him into an ‘Affe der Macht’; ‘a monkey of power’. On the way to fame, Höfgen loses his artistic power and descends from Schauspieler (actor) to Komödiant (comedian). This symbolizes the underlying theme of the novel: the relationship between politics and the arts. According to Mann’s viewpoint in his exile period, true art can only exist if it takes (political) responsibility. He also depicts this new idea of his role as a writer in the minor character Sebastian, a writer whose task in exile is ‘nicht (...) Schönes zu formen, sondern zu wirken.’; ‘not to create objects of beauty, but to have an effect’.’ The novel ends with Höfgen’s nervous breakdown when he realises that he has lost his artistic potential and is caught in the political system. At the same time, a communist activist approaches him in a deus-ex-machina-like fashion and predicts that the actor will not be forgiven for his willing cooperation once the Nazi regime has fallen.

Like in Flucht in den Norden, Mann groups minor characters around his protagonist to tell variations of the themes addressed in the novel. Two opposing groups, the (artistic) fellow-travellers of National Socialism on the one side and the artists, intellectuals and members of the enlightened bourgeoisie who go into exile and oppose the Nazis on the other show the wrong and the right way to act in the political climate of the 1930s. The Nazi leaders (especially Göring, but also Goebbels and Hitler) are present in the novel, but they remain apparitional shadows and are depicted as grotesque, unreal daemons. The real interest (and the real abomination) of the narrator lies not with convinced Nazis, but with those who had a choice and a conscience and still decided to cooperate with the regime.

Stylistically, Mann recognised that his novel is ‘ein kaltes und böses Buch’; ‘a cold and wicked book’ which reflects ‘den harten Glanz des Hasses’; ‘the hard gleam of hatred’. He uses metaphors from the domain of the theatre to show the artificiality, un-respectability, and shallowness of the political Nazi spectacle. He also depicts Höfgen as a member of the petty bourgeoisie, driven by his inferiority complex and his sexual abnormality (he is sado-masochistic), which can be read as an attempt to provide an explanation for the success of National Socialism.

The novel has been highly controversial because it has been read as a roman à clef that was said to denounce Gustaf Gründgens and to function as an act of personal revenge by the author. In fact, nearly all of the important characters are modelled after well-known figures of the theatre and the political scene of the Weimar Republic and the ‘Third Reich’, including Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Max Reinhardt, Hanns Johst and Gottfried Benn (to name but a few). Therefore in 1966, Gründgens’ heir went to court against the plan to publish the novel in the Federal Republic of Germany. After several years of legal debate and trials, the Bundesverfassungsgericht (the highest German court) decided to forbid the publication in 1971. However, the novel was published by Rowohlt publishing house in the form of a pirate copy in 1981 and can since be bought in any bookshop, although strictly speaking it is still a banned book.

The eponymous cinematic adaptation of the novel by Hungarian director István Szabó won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1981.

English Translation

Mephisto, trans. by Robin Smyth (London: Penguin, 1995)

Further Reading in English

Martin Halliwell, ‘Myths of the Magician: Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann and Nazi Germany’, in Martin Halliwell, Transatlantic Modernism: Moral Dilemmas in Modernist Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), pp. 179-95

Further Reading in German

Karina von Lindeiner, ‘Sammlung zur heiligsten Aufgabe’. Politische Künstler und Intellektuelle in Klaus Manns Exilwerk (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007)

Carlotta von Maltzan, Masochismus und Macht. Eine kritische Untersuchung am Beispiel von Klaus Manns Mephisto. Roman einer Karriere (Stuttgart: Hans-Dieter Heinz, 2001).

Eberhard Spangenberg, Karriere eines Romans. Mephisto, Klaus Mann und Gustaf Gründgens (München: Ellermann, 1982)