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Erika Mann: a life combating injustice

She was an actress and a writer, but more importantly Erika Mann spent her life witnessing and fighting injustice

Erika Mann behind the wheel, with codriver Ricki Hallgarten, after finishing a 1,000km race in Rome, in 1931. Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Erika Mann would often recall a childhood occasion in Munich during the First World War when, during food shortages, there was one fig left over after the family’s provisions had been divided equally for their evening meal.

Without hesitation, her father, the novelist Thomas Mann, picked up the fig and placed it on Erika’s plate. “The other three children stared in horror,” she said, “and my father said sententiously with emphasis: ‘One should get the children used to injustice early’.”

Unconventional parenting it might have been, but the incident helped forge an unconventional life spent attempting to combat injustice wherever she found it.

Mann’s first direct experience came in January 1932 when, having forged a reputation as an actor and writer that extended beyond German borders, she was invited by a Munich women’s group to read a poem by Victor Hugo at an anti-war meeting.

She had barely begun when a group of men at the back of the hall began shouting her down. “You are a criminal!” they screamed. “Jewish traitor! International agitator!”

The men proved to be SAs, stormtroopers, members of the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.

“In the hall everything became a mad scramble,” she wrote later. “The stormtroopers attacked the audience with chairs, shouting themselves into paroxysms of anger and fury.”

When the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter reported on the incident and called Mann a “flatfooted peace hyena” who “possessed no human physiognomy” she sued – and won.

“I realised that my experience had nothing to do with politics, this was more than politics,” she wrote. “It touched at the very foundation of my, of our, of the existence of all.”

A year later she opened a satirical cabaret. It seems almost wincingly naïve now that Mann believed satire and the courts were an effective way to repel the growing tide of fascism.

Yet these were still relatively early days and the Nazis, for all the abhorrence of their rhetoric and violence of their actions, were regarded in some quarters as a minority force wearing ridiculous uniforms unlikely to get anywhere near significant power.

While Mann was concerned by the growing danger of the Nazi cause she had right on her side. For all their anti-Semitism and bullying, had she not defeated their warped ideology in court? Germany, she felt, was still a democracy where words held power over actions. And words were her trade.

On New Year’s Day 1933, Mann opened a cabaret in Munich called Die Pfeffermühle, ‘The Pepper Mill’, which lampooned the Nazis in a series of revue skits and songs in a venue next door to the Party headquarters.

For two months Nazi staffers heard laughter and applause at their expense coming through the wall. Despite Hitler being sworn in as chancellor four weeks into the run, the show was so successful it outgrew its premises, earning a transfer to a larger venue.

Then on February 27, the Reichstag burned down and everything changed overnight.

Erika and her brother Klaus, siblings born a year apart with a relationship so close many assumed they were twins, were on a family holiday in Switzerland while the new theatre was being prepared and hurried back to Munich.

When they reached their home, the family chauffeur, a Nazi Party member himself, warned them that as Jews they were now in grave danger.

The siblings rushed back to their parents in Switzerland and prepared them for the worst: the loss of their home, their assets, even their father’s manuscripts – including that of his new and as yet unpublished novel Joseph and his Brothers.

Erika’s relationship with her famous father was always a work in progress. She was the eldest child and both parents had been disappointed she was not a boy.

“It turned out to be a girl, Erika,” her mother wrote in a letter to her sister announcing the birth. “I was very annoyed.”

Thomas Mann wrote to his brother Heinrich, “I find a son more full of poetry, more a continuation and new beginning of myself under new circumstances.”

As she grew older, however, Erika’s intellect, creativity and personality turned her into her father’s favourite.

“Little Erika must salt the soup,” became a family saying and in that role she took it upon herself to drive all the way back to Munich to salvage the most important items from the house.

It was a courageous act: her revues and the victorious court case on top of her Jewishness had made her a target. The chauffeur had warned her the house was being watched but she was a good actor and a good driver – she’d won her Ford car by coming first in a ten-day, 6,000-mile trans-European rally.

In disguise, she somehow managed to sneak into the house, grab what she could and spirit herself away to Zurich with the Joseph and his Brothers manuscript hidden in the car’s toolbox.

Injustice continued to follow injustice but she battled on relentlessly. By 1935, when it was clear she was beyond their clutches in neutral Switzerland, the German Reich responded by stripping Mann of her citizenship.

In response, she married the poet W.H. Auden, obtained a British passport as a result and two years later cut her teeth as a war correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War.

After D-Day she was embedded with British forces reporting on the Allied advances and in between spent time in London where she made regular broadcasts for the BBC, sticking it out through the Blitz and the Battle of Britain.

After reporting on the Nuremberg Trials she settled in New York, writing and protesting at what she saw as the failure of the Allies to enforce Nazi atonement for their crimes.

She was appalled that Hermann Göring was able to escape justice by committing suicide, for example, and aghast that cultural figures who had worked for the regime, like conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, seemed able to continue their careers without censure.

Both she and Klaus struggled with what should have been a new dawn of justice and atonement but felt like something very different.

Klaus killed himself in 1949 shortly after it emerged the siblings had been under investigation by the FBI, their ‘premature anti-fascism’ sailing a little too close to communism for the Bureau’s liking.

It prompted a return to Switzerland, where Mann spent the rest of her days assisting her father and, after his death, ensuring the legacy of his and Klaus’s literary works.

Posterity for those, at least, would remain free of injustice.

See inside the August 25: How to fight fascism edition

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