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Man of Straw by Heinrich Mann

“Only when he himself received punishment did he feel really big and sure of his position. He hardly ever resisted evil.”

For German Literature Month 2011, I meant to read Heinrich Mann’s wonderful novel Man of Straw (Der Untertan) along with some  other books , so now for the Second Annual German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, it was time to finish what I started–not just as a point of pride but also because I had throughly enjoyed Heinrich Mann’s The Blue Angel Plus I’d seen the fantastic film version Man of Straw, The Kaiser’s Lackey, so I more or less knew the plot. The biggest obstacle to the book was my lack of knowledge of the politics of the time; the names of various political parties are bandied around, so I needed a little background reading along the way to bolster my understanding. There are also a great number of characters in the small fictional town of Netzig, and as the names begin to appear, it’s a good idea to compile a who’s who list along with their relationships. This helps as the plot thickens.

Mann shows us a post-Bismarck Germany in a state of flux: Bismarck, as Chancellor of Germany, was responsible for the unification of Germany, and concerned about the growth of the Social Democratic Party instituted many social reforms–including the institution of health insurance and accident insurance, and an Old Age Pension Plan. In 1888 Emperor Wilhelm I was succeeded by his son Friedrich III. When Friedrich III died a few months later, Wilhelm II came to the throne, and this marked the waning of Bismarck’s power and influence in Germany.  Bismarck resigned in 1890 at Wilhelm II’s ‘request’ while predicting a dire future for the monarchy.

Published in 1918, Man of Straw is an indictment of the Wilhelmine regime, and it’s no mere coincidence that the book’s main character, Diederich Hessling, a weak, petty, small-minded tyrant who embodies the worst aspects of the society from which he springs, looks incredibly like Wilhelm II or that Diederich’s acts occasionally become mixed up with those of the Emperor. An ultra-patriotic, besotted admirer of the Emperor Wilhem II, Diederich is opposed to any social change and instead admires militaristic culture. In one sense, Diederich is small-town bourgeoise, so he only rates society on its benefits to his own comfort, but there’s another part of Diederich that worships order, repression, and ceremony. A flatterer, a sycophant, and ultimately a coward, Diederich has no principles beyond self-preservation and self-promotion, and yet in Wilhelmine Germany, this mediocre, talentless man of limited intelligence and no imagination rises to the top of the pond scum solely on his lack of merit gilded by his ability to accept political corruption. Through Diederich’s rise that we see a portent of Nazi Germany, and that makes Mann’s novel a chilling read.

Given the subject matter, Man of Straw could potentially be a dreadfully serious and dreary novel, but Heinrich Mann appears to have great fun with his creation of Diederich whose character weaknesses are revealed mainly through his relationships with others. Although Diederich is, at times, capable of the most appallingly bad behaviour, the author creates many comic scenes in which Diederich’s gloriously inflated image of himself is in wild contrast to the weasly, shallow, vain reality. Mann’s novel is incredibly subversive and so it should come as no shock that his books were consigned to Goebbels’ bonfire on May 10, 1933–after all, Diederich Hessling, who loves to blame bad events on jews or Social Democrats, would be a perfect fit for Nazi Germany.

The book charts Diederich’s life beginning with his childhood. The only son of a Netzig paper factory owner, Diederich’s flawed and oddly duplicitous character is already apparent in childhood:

Whenever he had pilfered, or told a lie, he would come cringing shyly like a dog to his father’s desk, until Herr Hessling noticed that something was wrong and took his stick from the wall. Diederich’s submissiveness and confidence were shaken by doubts when his misdeeds remained undiscovered. Once when his father, who had a stiff leg, fell downstairs, the boy clapped his hands madly–and then ran away.

The sympathies we may have had for the child dissipate rapidly with his sneaky behaviour, and by the time Diederich is an adult, his character flaws, while still evolving, are obvious. Mann describes the child, Diederich, as morally weak, and that weakness becomes a veritable abyss in adulthood–not that anyone notices, and this is, of course, another comment on the corrupt society in which Diederich thrives in spite of the fact that he’s a mediocre, inept and emotional twerp. Shipped off to study in Berlin, and initially lost in this more cosmopolitan society, Diederich becomes a Neo-Teuton–a brotherhood of men whose adulation of militarism and ultra patriotism allows them to lead lives of debauchery and faux heroism while violently acclaiming blind loyalty to the Emperor. The Neo-Teuton identity, along with the ends of the moustache turned up at right angles, is cherished, nursed and fetishized by Diederich throughout the novel, and when other men might find themselves questioning their conscience during a moral crisis, Diederich strokes himself with his Neo-Teuton, proto-fascist identity which largely becomes an excuse for his bad behaviour.

Unleashed as a student in Berlin, and bolstered by his proto-fascist ideals, Diederich eventually gathers the courage and moral despicableness to seduce and abandon the daughter of a family friend. Returning to Netzig to oversee the family business upon the death of his father, Diederich aligns himself with those who have the power. In this nasty little small town, a hot bed of gossip and intrigue, a number of significant events take place including Diederich’s courtship of a local heiress whose bovine qualities he finds attractive, and a case of alleged lèse majesté against his almighty royalness the Emperor. These incidents show the town’s citizens at their worst. Herr Buck, a significant figure from Diedrich’s youth, and a hero of ’48 who’s initiated social reform in his factory represents the fading power of Bismarck, and so it becomes the unspoken goal of the petty-minded gossip-ridden community to ruin Buck’s family. Some of the book’s nastiest scenes are built around the legal case for lèse majesté against Buck’s son-in-law– a case in which Diederich plays a significant role. There’s also a sensationalistic play, The Secret Countess, written by the wife of an influential citizen that appears to be a massive derisive joke against the once-respected Buck family.

Since readers are not required to live under Diederich’s tyrannical thumb, we can enjoy his silliness and immaturity from a distance. He talks a great deal about his ‘sacred manly honour,’ but of course honour is a meaningless word that can be flipped around to suit the circumstances. At one point Diederich orders a new machine for his factory against the advice of his long-time experienced workers. Then when faced with the payments, he presses a thoroughly corrupt worker to sabotage the machine in order to get out of paying for it. In another episode, he fobs off one of his sisters on a visiting  lust-ridden paper cutting machine executive, and it’s all very funny. Here’s a scene from his family life–it’s Xmas Day and Diederich is feeling melancholy against the backdrop of his squabbling sisters.

Outside Emma and Magda were quarrelling about a pair of gloves , and their mother did not dare to decide to whom they had been sent. Diederich sobbed. Everything had gone wrong, in politics, business, and love. ‘What is left to me?’ He opened the piano. He shivered, he felt so uncannily alone that he was afraid to make a noise. The sounds came out of their own accord, his hands were unconscious of them. Folk songs, Beethoven and drinking songs rang out in the twilight, which was thereby cosily warmed so that a comfortable drowsiness filled his brain. At one moment it seemed to him that a hand was stroking his head. Was it only a dream? No, for suddenly a glass full of beer stood on the piano. His good mother! Schubert, what loyal integrity, the soul of the mother country … All was silent, and he did not notice it, until the clock struck: an hour had passed. ‘That was my Christmas,’ said Diederich, and he went out to join the others. He felt consoled and strengthened. As the girls were still quarrelling about the gloves, he declared that they had no sense of the fitness of things, and placed the gloves in his pocket, to have them changed for a pair for himself.

I’m not an expert on German Literature, but it seems a no-brainer to state that Man of Straw is a significant German novel–not just for its prescient themes but also for its incredible ability to create a unique time and place and the unforgettable character of Diederich Hessling. While he’s a shallow character, there are times when he appears to know better, but thanks to the society from which he springs, Diederich, once faced with a moral choice, will always chose the easy (and bad) option.

Finally, here’s Diederich on his honeymoon–a trip that’s diverted from Zurich when he hears that the Emperor is visiting Rome:

For a long time he could not sleep for excitement. Guste snored peaceably on his shoulder, while Diederich, as the train roared through the night, remembered how at that very moment, on another line, the Emperor himself was being carried by a train, which roared similarly, towards the same goal. The Emperor and Diederich were having a race! And, as Diederich had more than once been privileged to utter thoughts which in some mystic way seemed to coincide with those of the All-Highest, perhaps at this hour His Majesty knew of Diederich, knew that his loyal servant was crossing the Alps by his side, in order to show these degenerate Latins what loyalty to the Emperor and country means. He glared at the sleepers on the opposite seat, small, dark people, whose faces seemed haggard in their sleep. They would see what Germanic valour was!

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Filed under Fiction, Mann Heinrich