Mann, Erika (1905–1969)

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Mann, Erika (1905–1969)

German writer, journalist, and actress who was a lifelong critic of political tyranny and champion of human freedom . Born Erika Julia Hedwig Mann in Munich, Germany, on November 9, 1905; died in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 27, 1969; daughter of Thomas Mann (1875–1955, the novelist) and Katia or Katja (Pringsheim) Mann; sister of Elisabeth Mann and Monika Mann , Angelus Gottfried (known as Golo) Mann, Klaus Mann, and Michael Mann; married Gustaf Gründgens, in 1926 (divorced 1929); married W.H. Auden (1907–1973, the poet), in 1935.

Using biting satire to attack Nazism, Erika Mann was a thorn in the side of the Third Reich with her cabaret Die Pfeffermühle (The Pepper-mill) which toured Europe from 1933 through 1936. After coming to the United States in 1936, she was determined to alert Americans to the growing threat of fascism by lecturing and publishing several books. But in the postwar years, she found the Cold War hysteria which dominated American public life increasingly difficult to deal with, and in 1951 moved to Switzerland. There, she served as literary assistant to her famous father, Thomas Mann, during the last years of his life.

She was born on November 9, 1905, the first child and oldest daughter of Thomas and Katia Mann . Like all six children of the Nobel Prize-winning German novelist, Erika grew up in the shadow of her renowned father. She was particularly close to her brother Klaus (1906–1949), who would also embark on a literary career. Between 1906 and 1918, the growing Mann family spent their summers in near-idyllic surroundings at a spacious home in Bad Tölz, Upper Bavaria. Although they enjoyed many more privileges than most Germans, Erika and her siblings nevertheless could not help but be affected by the turmoil that assailed their country from the start of World War I in 1914. Imperial Germany's sudden and unexpected capitulation in November 1918, which was accompanied by the abdication and flight of Kaiser Wilhelm II, signaled the onset of a period characterized by a frenzy of artistic creativity. The Weimar Republic which succeeded the monarchical regime was often weak and unpopular with the German people, representing in their minds not a new democracy but chaos, starvation and moral anarchy. In these years, Erika Mann grew to maturity. Although she loved to read and had already begun to write, she was drawn most to the stage. In the early 1920s, she and her brother Klaus, with their mutual friend Richard ("Ricki") Hallgarten, formed an amateur theatrical group in Munich.

With their parents concerned about the negative environment of postwar Munich, Erika and Klaus were sent away in April 1922 to attend the Bergschule Hochwaldhausen in the Röhn mountains near the city of Fulda. The atmosphere there was oppressive, and after several months brother and sister left the school. Erika's formal schooling had effectively been ended, and she moved to Berlin to study acting with Max Reinhardt. Klaus also moved to Berlin and devoted himself to writing. Together they joined Pamela Wedekind and the talented actor Gustaf Gründgens to form a theater ensemble. On October 20, 1925, Erika Mann, Gründgens and Wedekind

appeared on stage in Hamburg for the successful premiere performance of Klaus Mann's first play, Anja und Esther.

Over the next several years, Erika concentrated on building a reputation for herself as an actress. She appeared in a number of plays, including her brother's second play, Revue zu Vieren (Four in a Revue), which premiered to less favorable reviews in Leipzig on April 21, 1927. In her private life, she married Gustaf Gründgens in 1926, but the marriage was highly unconventional from the start and was probably never consummated since both partners were more attracted to members of their own sex. Mann and Gründgens became increasingly estranged not only personally but politically, with Gründgens moving largely in Communist circles at the time (in the Third Reich, his career was to thrive as a result of his having made peace with Nazism).

Closer than ever to her brother, in October 1927 Erika posed jokingly with Klaus before reporters as "the literary Mann twins," and they embarked on a trip around the globe. In the United States, they lectured at Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton universities. They also met such American literary luminaries as H.L. Mencken and Upton Sinclair, while enjoying reunions with old European friends, including Max Reinhardt and Hollywood celebrities such as Greta Garbo , Emil Jannings, and Ernst Lubitsch. Continuing on their leisurely way, they visited the Hawaiian Islands, Japan, Korea, and the Soviet Union. Upon their return to Germany in July 1928, Erika and Klaus coauthored a travel book, Rundherum (Round About), which was published in the fateful year of 1929. Few of her friends were surprised when Erika obtained a divorce from Gründgens that year. In October, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed, marking the onset of a devastating worldwide economic depression.

By the time Mann and her brother published a second travel account, Das Buch von der Riviera (The Riviera Book), in 1931, the situation in Germany and the world in general had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. While Mann continued to act, making appearances in such films as Christa Winsloe 's Mädchen in Uniform, she also wrote and organized songs and skits for a cabaret revue. Her Pfeffermühle (Peppermill) cabaret opened in Munich on January 1, 1933, at the "Bonbonniere" next to the world-famous Hofbräuhaus, and it was an immediate hit with local audiences. In the years immediately after World War I, Munich had been the birthplace of National Socialism, and Hitler praised the city as "die Hauptstadt der Bewegung" (the capital of the movement). Although Nazi brownshirts were to be seen everywhere in Munich, a significant number of the city's inhabitants remained anti-Nazi; many of them, however, were becoming demoralized. In songs and sketches performed by Erika Mann, Therese Giehse, Lotte Goslar, Sybille Schloss , and Magnus Henning, the Nazis were brilliantly satirized and demolished, while the morale of Munich's anti-Nazis was considerably improved. Writing in her 1939 book Escape to Life about her last days in pre-Nazi Germany, Mann noted:

Our attack was masked; we told fairy stories and fables, but anyone listening knew what we meant. It was a boisterous festival. The devil-may-care mood of dying carneval could not entirely account for a gaiety so complete and so hectic. The farewell we were celebrating with such grim gaiety was not farewell to carneval, but to life in a free Germany, the farewell to all that had been dear to us. We did not know it then, but we must have had our forebodings.

The success of the Pfeffermühle would prove brief. Hitler was appointed chancellor of the German Reich on January 30, 1933, the result of a backroom deal by conservatives who naively believed they could manipulate the Nazi Führer into doing their bidding. Within weeks, the Nazis had established a blood-drenched dictatorship, using a bogus "Communist revolutionary plot" as a pretext for tearing up civil liberties. The last, short phase of German cultural freedom ended on February 27, 1933. The Reichstag building went up in flames, the fire likely having been set by the Nazis to provide an excuse for their seizure of power. In Munich, the Nazi dictatorship clamped down quickly on all signs of opposition, including the Pfeffermühle, which was banned. In the Munich suburbs, the Dachau concentration camp was in operation by the end of March 1933, and many hundreds of anti-Nazis found themselves prisoners of Nazi sadists.

Erika and Klaus fled Germany in mid-March 1933, having been for some time among the most hated anti-Nazis in Munich. As far back as early 1932, the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter had predicted a "war of liquidation" directed against the entire Mann family; Erika was targeted because she had advocated peace and disarmament at a women's rally. Realizing her life was at risk, she headed for Switzerland. Here, quickly assembling a brilliant cast of anti-Nazi exiles, Mann revived her Pfeffermühle as an exile ensemble, the first such free German group to appear after the creation of the Nazi dictatorship. Soon after its premiere performance on October 1, 1933, the cabaret was drawing capacity audiences in Zurich. The Pfeffermühle quickly became recognized as the most political of all the exile cabarets which appeared in the nations bordering Nazi Germany that had given refuge to individuals fleeing the Third Reich. But Mann's group was careful to avoid needlessly provoking the governments of nations increasingly fearful of the Reich's growing power. Nazi Germany was never explicitly named in any of the songs or sketches, although all of these were clearly intended as parables commenting on the contemporary situation in the Nazi dictatorship. Despite this precaution, it was universally obvious that the Pfeffermühle was an effective anti-Nazi statement as well as a good evening's entertainment. The German ambassador to Switzerland quickly lodged a formal complaint concerning its "provocative" nature. Soon, various Swiss pro-Nazi groups demonstrated against the cabaret, gas canisters were released during performances, and numerous death threats were made against Erika Mann and Therese Giehse. The actors in the Pfeffermühle, however, refused to be cowed and continued to delight audiences, which included German tourists vacationing in Switzerland.

Meanwhile, Erika Mann made a secret trip back to Germany to rescue the manuscript of her father's novel Joseph and His Brothers, which he had left behind upon fleeing the country to escape the Nazis. Erika was able to enter the family's house, which was under constant surveillance, disguised in a peasant costume. She spent several hours in total darkness inside her former home before stealing out again, carrying the precious manuscript under her arm. She drove off in the direction of the German-Swiss border with the manuscript under the seat of her car in a toolbox.

In 1935—caving in to pressure from both Nazi Germany and local Nazis, and uncertain of being able to guarantee performances free of violence—the Zurich cantonal government banned further Pfeffermühle appearances. Unfazed, Mann and her troupe took their show on tours of other Swiss cantons, as well as to Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands. While the possibility of violence by Nazis and their sympathizers against Erika Mann and other members of her ensemble was always real, none of the group let this danger inhibit the enthusiasm of their performances. But Nazi pressure eroded the ensemble's ability to survive financially, as when the municipality of the Swiss town of Davos bowed in the spring of 1935 to local fascist groups, withdrawing their permit to perform.

The last public performances of the Pfeffermühle took place in Luxemburg on May 7–9,1936. A private performance of the cabaret was given at Schloss Leopoldskron near Salzburg, and present among the elite audience on what must have been a bittersweet occasion were Max Reinhardt and Marlene Dietrich . Although the Pfeffermühle had performed without incident before appreciative Dutch audiences in 1934 and 1935, in October 1936 Dutch Nazis, who were joined by local entertainers fearful of economic competition, were able to create a storm of controversy that was reported in newspapers and even became part of parliamentary debates. Under pressure, the Dutch authorities withdrew the group's performance permit. When the end came, the Pfeffermühle had presented 1,043 performances.

Mann, who had been a resident of Czechoslovakia since 1933, and her brother Klaus returned to the United States in the fall of 1936. She now believed that Nazi Germany could no longer be stopped by European nations alone. She knew that sooner or later the United States would have to enter the struggle against Hitler's regime, and she wanted to alert as many Americans as possible to the danger. Much had changed since their previous visit: Germany had become an aggressive dictatorship, the world had plunged into the worst economic depression in history, and far too many people remained complacent about the threat posed by Hitler and his followers to Western civilization. Over a period of four months, Erika and Klaus traveled from coast to coast, warning the American public of the need to prepare for a confrontation with a Nazi Germany which increased in power with each passing day. The siblings were encouraged by the fact that both of their parents had left Switzerland for the United States and that, after several years of public silence on political issues, Thomas Mann had finally made a definitive break with the Nazi regime, speaking out against it both forcefully and eloquently. Thomas Mann's breach with the Nazis was philosophical, but there was also a more personal factor involved. His wife Katia was Jewish, and thus his entire family was now regarded as being "non-Aryan" under the legal definitions of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws.

Although Erika would return to Europe after the end of her lecture tour, she may well have already decided by early 1937 to make the United States her future home. In January of that year, the cabaret phase of her life drew to a close when her English-language version of the Pfeffermühle in New York drew little public support. The show closed after a run of only a few weeks, and henceforth Mann would now fight Hitlerism through books, articles, and lectures. With her return to the U.S. in September 1937, she again hit the grueling lecture circuit. She became a successful lecturer almost immediately and would in fact be one of the best-known lecturers on the national circuit for the next decade or more.

In 1935, Mann married the British poet W.H. Auden in a marriage of convenience that gave her citizenship of a nation which could provide her with more security than her temporary Czechoslovak home. Since both Auden and Mann were homosexuals, the issues of a conventional marriage never arose; their union would endure until Mann's death in 1969. Erika's emotional life was strongly linked to her brother Klaus, a writer of considerable talent who like his sister lived with the burden of being a child of Thomas Mann, an author seen by many critics and readers as an Olympian figure comparable to Goethe. Fully in agreement on politics, Erika and Klaus continued the collaboration they had begun in the late 1920s. They spoke not only for themselves but also as representatives of the entire Mann family (one of Klaus' most successful lectures was entitled "A Family against a Dictatorship"). Sister and brother traveled to Spain, and in June and July 1938 they reported on the civil war then raging there in a series of articles that appeared in the leading newspaper of German emigrés in France, the Pariser Tageszeitung.

By the fall of 1938, Mann and her brother had settled permanently in the United States. They collaborated on a book entitled Escape to Life (1939), a collection of sketches depicting refugees from Nazi tyranny who, like themselves, were determined to continue the struggle against Hitler and make lasting contributions to their new homeland. The individuals portrayed in this volume included Albert Einstein, Max Reinhardt, and the musicians Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. Klaus Mann also published a novel that year, Der Vulkan: Roman unter Emigranten (The Volcano: A Novel among Emigrants), in which he presented a panoramic view of the lives led by anti-Nazi German emigrés during the years 1933–38. His central female character, Marion von Kammer, is unambiguously modeled after Erika. Arguably the most inspiring personality presented in the book, Marion reveals great strength of character as well as the ability to adjust herself to new and difficult environments, both physical and psychological.

The year 1939 also brought British, Dutch, and Swedish editions of a work Erika had published in 1938 as part of her campaign to warn the American public of the evils of Nazism. Entitled School for Barbarians: Education under the Nazis, this short volume provided one of the first documentations of the massive perversions introduced by the Nazi regime into the German educational system. Any semblance of free inquiry had been abolished by the educational dictatorship set up in 1933. The goal of the system was now to crush the individual consciences of youths so as to transform them into automatons ready to serve the amoral military machine which the Reich had so quickly become. Mann provided her readers with both quotations from documents and anecdotes to illustrate the deformation of traditional culture carried out by the Nazis. Meant as a warning, School for Barbarians unfortunately turned out to be an objective documentation of the collapse of civilization in a nation once proud of its unparalleled cultural achievements.

Mann published another book documenting the threat of Nazism, The Lights Go Down, in 1940. Based on documentation which she included in an appendix, this volume presents what is claimed to be a typical Bavarian town. In ten stories of life in the Third Reich, the book chronicles the ways in which some of its citizens, which include a doctor, priest, small businessman, lawyer, farmer, and innkeeper, all try—mostly with little success—to halt the corrosive effects of Nazism in both their public and personal lives. Although some reviewers were positive in their evaluations, others were less than enthusiastic. The reviewer for Commonweal called Mann "altogether unequal to the great task of portraying the death of freedom in Germany," and a reviewer in The Nation wondered if "her oversimplified approach to the problem of Nazism is not ultimately dangerous to the very cause she serves."

Published in January 1940, The Other Germany proved to be the final book she would write in collaboration with Klaus. In it, Mann asked for sympathy on the part of Americans for the "civilized Germany" which she was convinced still existed despite seven years of the Nazi dictatorship. Reviews were mixed. While a review in The New York Times commented that the Manns had "evidently forgotten that a book is not a lecture hall," a reviewer for The New Yorker was impressed by the book's "brilliant exploratory operation on the German psyche," and called it, "almost painfully fair-minded."

After the publication of The Other Germany, Mann chose to direct her time and energy to journalism. In 1940, she was in London reporting on the Blitz. Over the next several years, she would report the war from the battlefields of North Africa, France, and eventually Germany itself. Her articles appeared in a wide variety of newspapers and periodicals, including London's Evening Standard, the Toronto Star Weekly, the New York Herald Tribune, the Chicago Daily News, Vogue, and New York City's Aufbau, a weekly newspaper published by German-Jewish refugees. Although Mann characterized herself during these years as "a militant liberal with a social conscience," her journalism betrays no rigid ideological position. Most of her reportage was in fact highly personal rather than theoretical in nature. By the end of the war, her fiercely independent spirit had served to alienate and antagonize both left and right sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives often regarded her as a dupe of the Communists, while those identified with the socialist left were increasingly annoyed by her hard-line attitude toward the treatment that should be meted out to defeated Germany. Convinced that the great majority of Germans, young and old, had become morally polluted by 12 years of Nazi rule, Mann believed that only a systematic reeducation program led by the victorious Allies (with but few exceptions, American, British and Allied teachers should staff German schools and universities) could restore Germany to the community of civilized nations. These and similar opinions made Mann a highly controversial and unpopular person in German emigré circles during and immediately after the war.

By 1945, Mann felt the emotional strain and psychological stress her years of exile had caused. The onset of the Cold War prompted her increased disillusionment with the foreign policy of her adopted homeland: American willingness, indeed eagerness, to embrace former Nazi and fascist enemies as new allies in the struggle against Communism appalled the woman who had volunteered during the war to assist the FBI in its battle against Nazis, as it did her brother Klaus, their father Thomas and uncle Heinrich. The year 1949 was a tragic one for the entire Mann family. No longer able to envision a way out of his despair, in May Klaus committed suicide in Cannes, France, by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Thomas Mann's decision to visit both East and West Germany to commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Goethe was interpreted by the American media as a sign of his—and his family's—"softness" on Communism. By 1950, Erika Mann shared many of the feelings that her brother suffered just before his suicide, namely those of being estranged from both one's native and adopted countries. In the newly created West German Federal Republic, writers and intellectuals who had prospered under the Nazi regime once again enjoyed public favor and professional success, while exiled intellectuals like the entire Mann family found themselves to be distinctly personae non gratae, reviled and unwelcome.

From Erika's perspective, it was a tragedy of modern times that both of her homelands, Germany and the United States, had become distorted societies because of their paranoid fear of Communism, a phenomenon that was often much too broadly defined. With "multiple deracination" having taken a considerable toll of her energies, she uprooted herself from a country she had once loved and accompanied her aging father to Switzerland. There, she helped him to organize his vast personal archives and assisted in the preparation of his literary legacy for posterity. She would later note in a 1965 interview, "As of 1950 I was … finished, exhausted. … To begin over for a fourth time, with the probability that this too would soon be terminated, was a choice that I simply couldn't make, and that is the sad truth."

After her father's death in 1955, Mann wrote a book about his final years which received excellent reviews from most quarters. She also edited a collection of his letters which continues to be of value to both scholars and general readers. Erika Mann lived long enough to witness the onset of a new and intellectually more self-critical spirit in what had been a morally complacent West Germany. With the end of the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer in 1963, a new generation began to enter the country's public life. The suicide of her ex-husband Gustaf Gründgens in October 1963 raised once again the issue of his—and many others'—collaboration with the Nazi regime, a human failing which had been brilliantly probed decades earlier in Klaus Mann's novel Mephisto, the protagonist of which is a thinly disguised Gründgens. Erika Mann did not live to see the vibrant and morally engaged West Germany that emerged in the early 1970s. She died, still an exile, in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 27, 1969.


Der deutsche PEN-Club im Exil 1933–1948: Eine Ausstellung der Deutschen Bibliothek Frankfurt am Main. Frankfurt am Main: Buchhändler-Vereinigung GmbH, 1980.

Frisch, Shelley. "'Alien Homeland': Erika Mann and the Adenauer Era," in The Germanic Review. Vol. 63, no. 4. Fall 1988, pp. 172–182.

——. "'Die Pfeffermühle': Political Dimensions of a Literary Cabaret," in Alexander Stephan, ed., Exil-Literatur und Künste nach 1933. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1990, pp. 141–153.

Hildebrandt, Irma. Die Frauenzimmer kommen: 16 Zürcher Portraits. 2nd rev. ed. Munich: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1997.

Jelavich, Peter. Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Keiser-Hayne, Helga. Erika Mann und ihr politisches Kabarett die "Pfeffermühle," 1933–1937: Texte, Bilder, Hintergründe. Rev. ed. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1995.

Kieser, Rolf. "Die Legende von der Pfeffermühle," in Helmut F. Pfanner, ed., Der Zweite Weltkrieg und die Exilanten: Eine literarische Antwort/World War II and the Allies: A Literary Response. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1991, pp. 23–36.

Kolbe, Jürgen, and Karl Heinz Bittel. Heller Zauber: Thomas Mann in München 1894–1933. 2nd ed. Berlin: Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag GmbH, 1987.

Lenschen-Ramos, Claudia. "'Aus der Fremde die Heimat beschreiben': Erika Mann und Vicki Baum im amerikanischen Exil," in Ernest W. W. Hess-Luttich, Christoph Siegrist and Stefan Bodo Wurffel, eds., Fremdverstehen in Sprache, Literatur und Medien. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 1996, pp. 209–223.

Lühe, Irmela von der. Erika Mann: Eine Biographie. Rev. ed. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997.

——. "Erika Mann (1905–1969)," in John M. Spalek, Konrad Feilchenfeldt and Sandra H. Hawrylchak, eds., Deutschsprachige Exilliteratur seit 1933, Band 4: Bibliographien–Schriftsteller, Publizisten und Literaturwissenschaftler in den USA. 2 vols., Bern: K.G. Saur Verlag, 1994, Vol. 2, pp. 1191–1199.

Mann, Erika. Briefe und Antworten. Edited by Anna Zanco Prestel. 2 vols. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988.

——. "Don't Make the Same Mistakes," in Stephen Vincent Benet et al., Zero Hour: A Summons to the Free. NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1940, pp. 11–76.

——. The Lights Go Down. Translated by Maurice Samuel. NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1940.

——. Mein Vater, der Zauberer. Edited by Irmela von der Lühe and Uwe Naumann. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1996.

——. School for Barbarians: Education under the Nazis. NY: Modern Age Books, 1938.

——. "Who Has the Youth Has the Future," in Proceedings of the 46th Annual Meeting of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. Washington, DC: National Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1942, pp. 56–64.

—— and Klaus Mann. Das Buch von der Riviera. Leipzig: Connewitzer Verlag, 1997.

—— and Klaus Mann. Escape to Life. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1939.

—— and Klaus Mann. The Other Germany. Translated by Heinz Norden. NY: Modern Age Books, 1940.

—— and Klaus Mann. Rundherum: Abenteuer einer Weltreise. Nachwort von Uwe Naumann. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999.

Mann, Klaus. Der Vulkan: Roman unter Emigraten. Amsterdam: Querido Verlag, 1939.

Porterfield, Allen W. "Thomas Mann's Son and Daughter Write About the German Exiles," in New York Sun. April 20, 1939, p. 11.

Prater, Donald. Thomas Mann: A Life. NY: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Stephan, Alexander. "Die Akte Erika Mann: '… a liaison which might be of possible value'," in Neue Deutsche Literatur: Zeitschrift für deutschsprachige Literatur und Kritik. Vol. 41, no. 487. July 1993, pp. 124–142.

——. Im Visier des FBI: Deutsche Exilschriftsteller in den Akten amerikanischer Geheimdienste. Stuttgart: Metzler Verlag, 1995.

——. "Überwacht und ausgebürgert: Klaus Mann und Erika Mann in den Akten des Dritten Reiches," in German Life and Letters. Vol. 551, no. 2. April 1998, pp. 185–203.

Wysling, Hans. "… eine fast tötliche Bereitschaft," in Schweizer Monatshefte. Vol. 63, no. 7–8, 1983, pp. 615–631.

—— and Yvonne Schmidlin, eds. Thomas Mann: Ein Leben in Bildern. Zurich: Artemis & Winkler Verlag, 1994.


Erika Mann Archives, Handschriftenabteilung der Stadtbibliothek München, Munich, Germany.

related media:

"I Bear the Scars of Our Time: Erika Mann, A Portrait" (video), Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1984.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia