What with the ruminating about whether we find ourselves in a Weimar moment, here are five summer reads, all German fiction from the day. None of them is light fare (surprise!), but each one is a jewel or outright masterpiece.
Let’s start with a novel that features one character pleading for reason, science, and education pitted against another who, rolling his eyes, decries self-serving, condescending windbag elites. The eye-roller is Leo Naphta, a Spanish-schooled Jesuit and a convert to Catholicism from Judaism. Naphta is a zealot, armed with dazzling rhetorical skill and brimming with authoritarian enthusiasm. His nemesis is the Italian humanist Settembrini, who is the tireless defender of Enlightenment values in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.
The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)—720 pages in English, 1001 pages in German—was published in 1924. That was the year when a U.S. plan alleviated a European crisis by helping to resolve the issue of reparations that Germany was still paying from World War I. In that same year, France agreed to end its occupation of the Ruhr region; and Adolf Hitler, who stood trial after the Beer Hall Putsch, was sentenced to five years in prison for treason. Things were looking up for Weimar’s young German democracy, or so one might have thought.
Mann began writing Magic Mountain in 1912. It’s the story of young Hamburg engineer Hans Castorp, who goes to visit his tuberculosis-afflicted cousin Joachim Ziemssen at a clinic in Davos. So taken is Hans—mesmerized and intoxicated, really—by the stimulating conversation, intriguing characters, delicious food, and perfectly pure Swiss air that he ends up overstaying his vacation, by seven years. He embarks on an intellectual and spiritual journey, a respite from what he calls the “Flatlands;” and it’s only the 1914 outbreak of world war that jars him back to life’s realities.
By this time, Hans has experienced illness of body and mind. He has faced love, sexuality, and the great political debates of the era. The intellectual duels between Naphta and Settembrini have become a contest for young Hans’ soul.
Between the book’s early drafts and its publication, Mann undertook his own journey, from anti-republican to champion of Weimar democracy. Magic Mountain is a Bildungsroman, a novel of formation—or, literally, education.
Buddenbrooks, published in 1901, is another Bildungsroman by Mann. It chronicles the decline of a wealthy northern German family. Mann drew on his own life and experience growing up in Lübeck, on the Baltic coast. Some readers struggle with Magic Mountain, which I find gripping and—dare I say?—even fun. I love the book. There’s lightness, and there are humorous touches. But when I read Buddenbrooks for the first time, as a student, I struggled with it.
The Buddenbrooks family are grain merchants whose company dates back to 1768. Things go well enough until the eldest son, Thomas, inherits the business. Thomas appears outwardly successful, but he’s fragile. More, he marries the neurotic Gerda, who gives birth to their musical son Hanno.
Mann was attached to music. The main character in his novel Dr. Faustus (1947) is a composer, Adrian Leverkühn, who makes a deal with the then-reigning devil, Nazism. (Arnold Schönberg was furious at the idea that Leverkühn should be portrayed as a devotee of Schönberg’s own twelve tones, but that’s another story.) Plenty of passages in Buddenbrooks involve music: leitmotifs in prose, for instance, adapted from the musical technique of Richard Wagner. More centrally, the figure of Hanno draws a path from stability to experiment to decadence and, finally, to madness.
Mann is always exploring balance and the boundaries between constructive norms and stifling ones. Hanno and his friend Kai suffer at school because their classmates suspect them of being gay. In the musical realm, Wagner was the final test of convention, stretching the bounds of tonality up to the break represented by Schönberg’s brazen and stark reaction. Toward the end of Buddenbrooks, Hanno improvises at the piano, sinking into dissonance—and into the illness that will come to rule his life.
In 1929 Thomas Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature primarily for Buddenbrooks. That was the year of the stock market crash. The resulting depression was especially severe in Germany. We know what followed.
The third book on this list was published in that same momentous year: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, the great novel of the doomed Weimar Republic. The book begins with the release of Franz Biberkopf from prison—where he has served time, the narrator tells us, for having done “some stupid stuff.” Franz is determined to get himself onto the straight and narrow.
Franz has a grim and grimy life. He is a veteran, emotionally scarred. He was crippled by a car accident and has been betrayed by friends. He gets himself stuck in an underworld. If you like the Netflix series “Babylon Berlin,” try Döblin’s book.
While Mann spins tales of yearning for space and release from the constraints of convention, Döblin writes about the opposite dynamic: Franz gets his physical freedom but is thrust into a disorienting world of nonexistent rules, eroding trust, and vanishing social norms. To make a buck, Franz sells the Nazi paper Völkischer Beobachter; but he swears he’s not antisemitic: it’s just that he loathes the pathetic feebleness of Weimar’s democracy. Franz, in other words, is just your simple, traditional, nationalist kind of guy.
Döblin, for his part, was a novelist, essayist, and medical doctor whose work focused on neurology and psychiatry. His doctoral dissertation was titled, “Disturbances of Memory in Korsakoff’s Psychosis.” The “stupid stuff” Franz did, the stuff that got him locked up, was that he bludgeoned his girlfriend to death with an egg whisk, which takes a fair amount of loathing and determination.
My penultimate pick for summer reading is Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada, published in 1932 and recounting a story that takes place between 1930 and 1932.
Fallada grew up with music and books—Shakespeare and Schiller, Dostoyevsky and Dickens. His father was a Supreme Court judge. In 1909, when Hans was sixteen, he was hit in the head by a horse-drawn carriage; the next year he contracted typhoid. He became depressed and developed a lifelong addiction to pain-killing medication.
In 1911 Fallada made a suicide pact with a friend: They would kill each other in a duel. The plan didn’t work out. Hans killed his friend—but survived. To remedy the mess, Hans shot himself in the chest. Once again, he survived. And we haven’t even gotten to the fiction part.
Fallada’s novel— in German, Kleiner Mann, was nun?—is a tale of exploitative businesses, individuals pitted against one another, firings in the worst of times. Some critics describe it as tender. A young couple moves to Berlin, where the husband, Johannes Pinneberg, finds work in a department store. But the sales quotas are unrealistic, the job is insecure, and he has a wife to support and child on the way. “It’s all the same to them whether I live or die,” says Pinneberg; “they couldn’t care less whether I can afford to go to the cinema or not, whether Lämmchen can get proper food,” whether “the Shrimp is happy or miserable. Nobody gives a damn.” The family of three is fighting to stay afloat amid a national nightmare.
National socialism and communism were fighting with one another, each promising to rescue Germany from humiliation and decline. By 1933, 40 percent of the German population was unemployed. In January of that year, the Frankfurter Zeitung mocked Germans who feared dictatorship on the horizon. Hitler was appointed chancellor at the end of that month. Then came the Reichstag fire and suddenly, by spring, the suspension of all those parliamentary niceties. It doesn’t take long.
The story does not end well; neither did Fallada’s life. His time in a mental asylum took its toll, and alcoholism and morphine addiction eventually led to cardiac arrest in February of 1947. Fallada died at the age of 53.
The last summer read on this list is The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) by Robert Musil. The Austrian novelist was born in Klagenfurt in 1880. He was in Berlin in 1932 and 1933, then returned to Vienna, where he lived until the 1938 Nazi Anschluss. At that point he fled to Switzerland, where he died in 1942. Musil was a mechanical engineer who would later take up doctoral studies in psychology and philosophy. He started work on his series of novels in 1921. The Man Without Qualities was the first volume, published in 1930. A second volume appeared in 1933; the rest of the series was published posthumously, in 1943.
It’s hard to summarize a book that runs to nearly 2,000 pages—today we say “thought-provoking” and mean 140 characters!—but one of its themes is the value of truth in society. Just as Buddenbrooks details the decline of bourgeois values, Musil draws sketches of a decaying, dissolving Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In 1913 the protagonist, a single, thirty-two-year-old mathematician named Ulrich, is on a journey to discover meaning. The trouble is that he is essentially hollow—and, therefore, is shaped by the forces that surround him.
In 1953 Heinz Politzer reviewed the novel for Commentary. Politzer was a scholar of German literature who fled the Nazis for a teaching career in America (he was a close colleague of Kafka’s protégé, Max Brod), and here is his evaluation of Ulrich:
Ulrich (he has no last name) does not live but exposes himself systematically to occurrences. His Weltanschauung is no philosophy but an infinite repartee forced upon him by an unreal environment. He is attracted by high society and by crime, though he loathes both. Physical assault fascinates him no less than sexual adventure.… [He has] a deep-seated nihilism under all his protestations of loyalty to traditional mores.
I read these novels from my time as a master’s student in German literature through my Ph.D. in German area studies. It all comes back to me now.
In case you haven’t read it, I won’t say how Magic Mountain ends. But I will note that Settembrini and the high-strung reactionary Leo Naphta end up in a duel. The Italian humanist just can’t pull the trigger. “You coward,” cries Naphta, who then puts the pistol to his own temple and fires.
When Robert Musil died at his home in Geneva, his wife Martha found him expired from his daily morning gymnastics, with a look on his face that she would later describe as “mild astonishment.” He was finishing a chapter called, “Breaths of a Summer Day.”
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
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