Thomas Mann was born in 1875 into a highly respected merchant family in the medieval town of Lübeck on the North Sea. He was the second of five children of Senator Thomas Heinrich Mann and his musically talented wife. It was through his mother and the many musicians frequenting their house that Mann was exposed to music, especially that of Richard Wagner, at an early age.
The cultured, conservative, and devoutly Protestant atmosphere of the Mann home became the subject of Buddenbrooks (1901), an epic of considerable complexity and clearly autobiographical elements. The book was Thomas Mann's first success and was hailed as a masterpiece. Illustrating the decline of a wealthy merchant family over several generations, Buddenbrooks employs the technique of portraying moral decay through physical deterioration. Essentially it is a defense of traditional values, but the novel already shows Mann's early tendency to view himself both as a representative and an unrelenting critic of the very environment that shaped him.
While finishing Buddenbrooks, Mann began to read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Under the influence of their estheticism, he began to lower the shield of protection which he had held around the traditional social and political order of his own upper middle-class milieu. Their writings enhanced his understanding of himself as a "lost bourgeois," and he became immediately fascinated by the polarity between artist and bourgeois, spirit and nature, death and life. From comments and complaints scribbled on manuscript margins, we know that under the spell of this dualism, Mann was subject to prolonged periods of doubt about his art. The two long short stories Tonio Kröger (1903) and Death in Venice (1913) are the most renowned treatments of this theme.
In 1905, Mann married Katja Pringsheim, the daughter of a mathematics professor at Munich. Katja was not only an excellent mother to their six children but also an indispensable help to her husband in dealing with his professional chores. This enabled Mann to fully devote himself to his work, much of which consisted of the time-consuming practice of gathering seemingly insignificant descriptions and minute observations of the world around him.
Quite in keeping with the psychologically mature realism of the Russian writer Tolstoy, whose works he had come to admire, Mann refused to follow what he considered the exaggerated pathos and flights of fancy of the expressionists of his day. Especially Mann's refusal to use his art as a medium for liberal political thought led to a growing alienation between him and his brother Heinrich, a well-known novelist himself. At the beginning of World War I, when Thomas Mann justified Germany's expanding militarism by referring to it as "the right of ascending power," the break between the brothers became complete. It was only after the war, when Thomas began to change his views, most comprehensively laid down in his autobiographical Reflections of a Non-Political Man (1918), that they became reconciled and remained full of respect for each other's work until Heinrich's death in 1950.
To try to minimize or ignore Thomas Mann's ultraconservatism of that period, as has repeatedly been done by critics, is a poor way of paying tribute to his genius, sincere though it may be. It leads to a serious misjudgment of Mann's struggle to extricate himself from the lures of Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's insistence on the dualism between art and politics. Under the impact of Germany's defeat, as well as the humanistic gospel of Goethe, Mann fought hard to transcend this dualism. And, by the time his first major attempt toward synthesis, The Magic Mountain (1924), was published, he could claim to have sided with those who believe in political thought and engagement as an integral aspect of the humanities. His lecture The German Republic (1922) and the essay Goethe and Tolstoy (1923) were the most significant milestones toward this accomplishment.
In the 1920s, Mann began to take very seriously his mission to concern himself with the issues of his time. He even went on political lecture tours, opposing the right-wing extremists already beginning to undermine the new, wobbly Weimar Republic. He pleaded for a democratic Germany's mediating role between East and West. Time and time again, he called upon the conservative and Socialist elements to settle their disputes and to unite against their common enemy, the rising tide of Nazism.
In 1929, Thomas Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Buddenbrooks. This drew the protest of many liberals who felt the committee in charge was politically insensitive and irresponsible or else it would have awarded the prize on the basis of The Magic Mountain, radiating Mann's emerging humanism more convincingly. A year later, Mario and the Magician was published, a fierce attack on fascism. In 1933, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Wagner's death, Mann gave a brilliant lecture on the agony and greatness of Wagner, magnificently uncovering Schopenhauer's metaphysics of deliverance in his compositions and describing him as an ingenious representative of the German cult of irrationalism.
If Mann had been repeatedly threatened for his "anti-nationalistic" attitudes so far, a campaign of slander set in on a national scale after this speech. A day after the fateful lecture and twelve days after Hitler's takeover, Mann crossed the border into Switzerland. The official Germany responded by depriving him of his citizenship and his honorary doctorate. He stayed in Switzerland until his emigration to the United States, where he eventually settled at Pacific Palisades, California, in 1938.
Throughout his exile, Mann thought of himself as the representative of the true German spirit, in whose name he directed bitter attacks on the Nazi regime. At the same time, he did not conceal his disgust with the Western democracies which had done so little to aid the young Weimar Republic while there was time to discourage Hitler. Mann had been afraid of appeasement, and the Munich Agreement of 1938 was to prove him right.
In Franklin D. Roosevelt's politics, Mann saw what he called the "social democracy which in the economic and political realms will have to replace the liberal kind." It supplied the spiritual basis for his anti-Nazism. Mutual appreciation tied the two men together, dating back to 1935, when, at Roosevelt's suggestion, Mann had been awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard. Mann publicly endorsed Roosevelt and went so far as to campaign for his fourth term. If, as has been pointed out, Mann retained certain reservations about some facets of traditional democracy, his anti-fascism was uncompromising. As his son Gob, a historian, put it years later, "His commitment was always half-hearted, weakened by self-criticism; his no, however, was clear and strong."
Joseph and His Brothers (1943), a tetralogy on the ascent of humanity from mythical beginnings to enlightened heights, was Mann's most famous creation during his exile. Doctor Faustus (1947), a semi-allegorical representation and attempted explanation of the German tragedy during Nazi rule, was highly acclaimed. Like all of his novels, Doctor Faustus contains strong autobiographical elements; beyond this, however, it stands, in the author's own words, as the confession of what he never ceased to regard as his gravest sin: his early part in condoning and even propagating the forces of political reaction.
After World War II, Mann was severely criticized in Germany because he had left his country in time of gravest need. If this sentiment is not justifiable, it certainly is understandable. More than anything else, his violent attacks on the Nazi regime — in the form of radio broadcasts from faraway America — created bad feelings. To this day, they have been used to prove Mann's essential "anti-German" attitude. On the occasion of a Goethe anniversary, he was even suspected of Communist sympathies because he had insisted on visiting both the Eastern and Western occupation zones. He never resettled in Germany.
Certainly this new disenchantment with Germany was hard to bear. What hurt the U.S. citizen (since 1944) Thomas Mann even more, however, was the rise to political power of Senator Joe McCarthy.
Mann, who for more than two decades now, had committed himself, ever more enthusiastically, to the ideals of American democracy, was forced by the senator's Committee on Un-American Activities to quit his position as Consultant in Germanic Literature at the Library of Congress. Mann was now a man of seventy-eight, and, disillusioned with America, he returned to Switzerland. As he put it, "America's liberty is suffering under its defense, and some fear it's about to fall apart." Two years later, in 1955, he died in Zürich.
Together with Franz Kafka, whose work he admired, Thomas Mann is considered the most influential novelist the German-speaking world brought forth in the twentieth century.