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A life of triumph and tragedy

Julia Mann. The mother of Heinrich and Thomas Mann
Forfatter: Dagmar von Gerstorff
Forlag: Insel Verlag (Tyskland)

AUTHOR MOTHER: Talented Julia Mann defended the children against an irreconcilable father and husband and supported the sons Thomas and Heinrich all their lives. Her daughters, on the other hand, committed suicide.

Julia Mann was the origin of Germany's most famous authorial dynasty. When her son Thomas received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, he described his mother's significance: “My mother, the daughter of a German plantation owner and a Portuguese-Creole Brazilian, saw the light of day in Rio de Janeiro. When I look for the hereditary origins of my abilities, I must [….] state that while my father instilled in me the seriousness of life, I have a happy nature, an artistic-sensory disposition, […] the desire to create – to thank my mother for." In the obituary "Mrs. Senator Mann" was hailed as Lübeck's most beautiful woman.

Dagmar von Gersdorff's biography Julia Mann presents us with an easily recognizable female destiny: in a squeeze between personal preconditions and society's social straitjacket.

Defended the children

Julia became a motherless child, and her father saw no other option but to transport her across the world's oceans, from "monkeys and parrots" in the jungles of Brazil to his family in Germany's Hanseatic city of Lübeck, while he himself remained in Rio.

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In reality orphaned, unfamiliar with the language and a German bourgeoisie the girl had difficulty adapting.

Thanks to her exotic charm, she soon had an appropriate suitor, and before long she was settling down as Mrs. Consul – later Senator – Heinrich Mann. She fulfilled her expected role, gave birth to five children, acquired the (rich man's) culture, developed a talent as a musician, arranged house concerts, sang German Lieder and played Chopin's E minor concerto like a professional.

The husband considered all this "pleasant, but useless." When the children Heinrich and Thomas showed a greater interest in art, literature and their mother's imaginative stories than in diligent schoolwork, a necessity for future businessmen, mother Julia had to defend them – and herself – against an irreconcilable father and husband.

Prevented from managing the inheritance

Then something happened that again threw Julia Mann into the unknown. Senator Mann contracted bladder cancer and died at the age of fifty. His distrust of the spouse was put down in the will: The forty-year-old widow was not allowed to manage the inheritance herself. The task was entrusted to a financial guardian. Julia and the children's needs were assessed by a stranger, her entire life.

The humiliation was not lessened by the fact that the senator had given strict orders on how Julia had to raise the children. To the guardian he wrote: "You must do your best to counteract my eldest son's tendencies towards so-called literary activity."

She took with her three sons, two daughters and her Bechstein grand piano and left Lübeck. The rootlessness she knew so well from her youth haunted her for the rest of her life. She regularly switched between the apartment in Munich and the country house, and the economy deteriorated.

She continued to emphasize a societal life. There is plenty of material for those who want to know how a typical patrician home should be decorated around the turn of the century 1900 (do not forget the stuffed Russian bear). But above all, the children's success was a priority: it was primarily about the two gifted sons, who began to attract attention with their respective writings.


Both Heinrich and Thomas uninhibitedly used their own family in their books. Thomas' first great success, Buddenbrock, was an undisguised description of the Mann family, and Julia was willingly providing information she thought could fit the stories. On the whole, the time seemed to accept "key novels" (easily identified with real persons and situations) to a degree we tend to dismiss to-day. If anyone felt scandalized, they could easily protest, albeit without much consequence.

The two Mann authors' devotion to their mother was undoubtedly rooted in her contribution to their literary achievements. Without an income of her own, she also contributed financially long after the adult sons had become renowned writers.

What about the other kids? The youngest son Victor played a relatively modest role in the family web. Not so with the two daughters, Lula and Carla, both beauties as their mother. Lula chose a husband she did not love, but who guaranteed her a life in luxury. She ended up hanging herself.

Forever a foreigner

Carla tried her hand at acting, without much success. Later, when she was rejected by a suitor due to a night of "infidelity", she took cyancalium. Both daughters ended their lives at a young age.

It is logical that we know more about Julia Mann's relationship with the famous sons than with the daughters, considering the rich archival material about Heinrich and Thomas Mann, including the jealousy and the feuds between them.

As an upper class wife, Lula was caught in a net like her mother's. Carla, on the other hand, explored the limits of a woman's artistic freedom a hundred years ago, something Julia herself might have wanted to do. There is a lot of untouched, explosive mother-daughter stuff here.

Julia Mann lived in an era before globalization, before the fusion of cultures. She always felt like a strange bird. Her human and artistic potential remained untapped, realized only through her sons – and shattered through her daughters. Mrs. Senator Mann, once Lübeck's most beautiful woman, ended her life seventy years old – poor, sick, and lonely.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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