In Frankfurt, about half-way between Konstablerwache and Eschenheimer Anlage you’ll find a small square, peaceful, a bit nondescript. Box hedges encircle four plain white stone benches which also form a circle. In the centre of that circle stands an angel statue – the Frankfurt Angel, a memorial to the crimes committed against homosexuals in the Nazi years. It is a place of quiescence, of remembrance, and it is the only street or square in Frankfurt named after an outed homosexual: Klaus Mann. The square was named Klaus-Mann-Platz in 1995 and because of this late name-giving, none of the adjoining houses has “Klaus-Mann-Platz” as a postal address. As in life, Klaus Mann wasn’t given quite the full deal.
Most of his wonderful novels are hardly known, his elegant flowing prose not often acknowledged. His topics were as varied as his life, including homosexuality in Der fromme Tanz, biographies of Alexander the Great and Tchaikovsky, the artful capturing of life in Germany in the early 1930s in Treffpunkt im Unendlichen as well as the emigrant life in Flucht in den Norden and Der Vulkan. His autobiographical writings (The Turning Point or Escape to Life) are available in both German and English.
When Klaus Mann was born on November 18, 1906 in Munich, his father Thomas Mann already was famous as the author of the Buddenbrooks, the saga of a Lübeck patrician family. All his life, Klaus Mann would struggle with his father’s overwhelming position. The German literature critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki once said that Klaus Mann had to carry three burdens: “He was homosexual. He was an addict. He was the son of Thomas Mann. (…) He was a Sonntagskind (born under a lucky star). But the most miserable one there ever was. He loved life (…). And yet he was a suicide candidate right from the beginning.”
Klaus Mann and his five siblings grew up in comfortable surroundings in a spacious Munich villa and the equally elegant summer house in Bad Tölz. All through his life he was closest to his elder sister Erika and also had a good relationship with his mother. Relations with his father, though, were difficult. Thomas Mann, not cordial by nature, wasn’t a warm-hearted father – all of his children, apart from Elisabeth, the youngest, attest to his distance. Klaus Mann had the added problem of wanting to succeed as a writer without constantly being compared to his father. He started writing at an early age, constantly, almost compulsively – plays, short stories, poems. His school time was problematic, he didn’t adjust well and eventually finished his schooling at home. When his sister Erika got an engagement as an actress in Berlin, 18-year-old Klaus followed her. The siblings soaked up the liberal and joyful atmosphere of the 1920s. In 1925 one of his plays was shown in Hamburg. He and his sister Erika had two of the main parts, their childhood friend Pamela Wedekind – later to be shortly engaged to Klaus – another, and young actor Gustaf Gründgens the fourth. Gründgens would later marry Erika and eventually become the main character in Klaus Mann’s most famous novel. Through the next years, Klaus Mann published more books, plays and articles, and travelled the world with Erika. His open admittance of his homosexuality made his father – who had homosexual feelings himself, but always suppressed them – highly uncomfortable. He never gave his son the approval he craved, on the contrary.
In 1933, when the Nazis grabbed power in Germany, Klaus Mann emigrated, like most of his family. From then on, he was dedicated to fighting the Nazis. His life became even more restless than before; like many emigrants he roamed from city to city, living in hotels, never quite at home, always short of money. He tried to found literary magazines, first in the Netherlands, then in the US. It was especially painful that his father refused to contribute, afraid that it would damage his standing in Germany. While Thomas Mann was shunned by the Nazis, his books were still published and bought in Germany and he didn’t want to lose that income. Only years later did he finally take a stand against the Nazis.
With disgust Klaus Mann watched how his former brother-in-law Gustaf Gründgens rose to fame in Nazi Germany by skilfully arranging himself with the leaders. It was the inspiration for his novel Mephisto about a ruthless opportunist. The book was forbidden in West Germany for several years (until 1981), due to a verdict obtained by Gründgens’ son.
In spite of the many professional obstacles Klaus Mann faced, in spite of having to undergo several morphine withdrawal treatments and in spite of his unfulfilling relationships, he continued to write. Shaving with one hand, typing with the other – that’s how he was frequently seen. As the war commenced, Mann, by now a naturalized US citizen, joined the US Army, doing propaganda work in Europe, hoping to conquer his growing depression. He enjoyed being useful, but then the war ended.
Klaus Mann never lived in Germany again. He was repulsed by the fact that people who built their career in Nazi Germany returned to popularity. Once more he roamed the world, from hotel room to hotel room, plagued by depression and financial struggles. It shocked him when he was told that Mephisto couldn’t be published due to Gründgens’ influence, and for the first time in his life, he felt unable to write. His diary for 1949 starts with the words “I am not going to continue these notes. I do not wish to survive this year.“
All through his life, Klaus Mann had yearned for death, had frequently tried to commit suicide. On May 21, 1949, he succeeded, and died alone in a Cannes hotel room of a sleeping pill overdose. The only family member to attend his funeral was his brother Michael. His parents were on a lecture tour in Europe, but decided not to interrupt it.
After his death, he finally got some praise from his father, but even then it was conditional: “In spite of the impulsiveness and lightnesses that harmed his work, I do seriously believe that he belonged to the most talented of his generation, maybe even was the most talented of them all.”