One of the lesser things the Nazis have to answer for is the elevation of the culture of the Weimar Republic to a quite undeserved status of excellence. It is one thing to feel sorry for all the sexual deviants, Communists, moral delinquents and junkies who were run out of town when Hitler came to power; it is another to imagine that the art they created was especially good. Its self-regarding, self-indulgent, trivial quality is never clearer than in the opening chapters of Andrea Weiss’s book, where she describes the place in Weimar accorded to the pair of rich kids who were the eldest children of Thomas Mann. Weiss herself seems to be at a loss to understand how Mann could have such disdain for his eldest son Klaus and, occasionally, for his daughter Erika. Klaus fancied himself as a writer and Erika was a ‘performance artist’. They saw themselves as the inheritors of a great culture that had harboured Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven; but it is hard to imagine any of those giving these two the time of day.
Yet, in the end, under the trials of exile and war, the pair of them came good: and it is this fact that makes this book compelling. The entire Mann family were put on one of Dr Goebbels’s lists, and had their citizenship removed. They were the lucky ones, forced