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Klaus Mann, Mephisto (Penguin Random House, 1995), first published 1956, pp. 210.

Mephisto is an eviscerating account of Germany in the 1930s, and the compromises people make with power. The book is largely a character study of one man and the calculated attempts he makes to become famous at the expense of everything else: family, relationships, beliefs and even others' lives.  

Written by Klaus Mann, son of the noble-prize winning Thomas, is based partially on Mann's homosexual experiences with an actor in 1930s Germany. The parallels with Mann's experiences were such that the family of the man he was in a relationship with was able to get the book banned in West Germany in 1968, with the novel only finally being published there in 1981. 


The central character, Hendrik Höfgen, is a respected, albeit grandiose and temperamental actor in a theatre in Hamburg. Höfgen dreams of fame and fortune of Berlin, but seems held back both by his lack of social connections and the lack acting opportunities presented to him in Hamburg. The initial chapters of the novel, set in late 1920s, paint a less than flattering portrait of the provincial theatre scene in Germany, with competing egos, jealousies, and some of the debauchery (but little of the colour) of Berlin as one might read in an Isherwood novel. Few of the characters who are introduced in the opening chapters are rounded out, with many of the female characters serving more  as a conduit for the author to demonstrate the scale of Höfgen's ego rather than add to the plot in a meaningful sense.


The first half of the novel has Höfgen regularly claiming to be Communist, although even early in the novel it is clear these beliefs are superficial. Höfgen keeps promising his comrades to help set up a revolutionary theatre though this never materialises, with Höfgen too focussed on himself to dedicate any attention to it. Indeed, Höfgen seems to be using the promise of helping with the theatre as an insurance policy in case the Communists should come to power. Höfgen instead remains focussed on his career and mistress, a black woman who teaches him tap-dance in between sessions of sado-machoisim.


While Höfgen's predilection for this sexual fetish was a substitution in the novel for Mann's real-life homosexual actor/lover, it can also be understood as a metaphor for the the German population's relationship with the Nazis. Höfgen knows his actions in other parts of his life are harming others, and so seeks redemption through beatings dealt out to him by his lover. This private quest for forgiveness and redemption through sex, whilst in public remaining aloof, confident and determined hints at a familiar tension in liberal society between the public and private life and the insincerity of life we lead as a result of this division. In Mephisto, however, the consequences of leading a double life has terrible consequences.

As the novel progresses, Höfgen weaves a path to dramatic success, in spite of the polarisation of German politics. First, he cynically marries the daughter of a respected German Social Democrat politician, and then, through currying favour with the great and not-so-good of the theatre world, is offered a role in a Berlin theatre. After several years of taking on increasingly demanding roles, Höfgen is given the chance to play 'Mephisto' in an adaptation of Goethe's Faust, a role which goes on to become career-defining, and helping him to make his name as a film star.


In January 1933, as Höfgen is in Spain on a film location, Hitler is appointed Chancellor and the Nazis come to power. Fearing his career will be over because of his 'suspect' political beliefs, Höfgen flees to France to think through his next steps. This moment of doubt is but a short moment in the novel, as Höfgen quickly is able to pivot to the new regime with the help of an old Hamburg friend, Angela Siebert. Through her, he is then able to befriend Lotte Lindenthal, wife of a high-ranking Nazi (not-so-subtly understood to be Herman Göring).


Höfgen reprises his role of Mephisto, and alongside his worming his way into the inner circles of the Nazi leadership, helps him become the Head of the Berlin National Theatre. During this time, Höfgen finds the artistic compromises even greater than in Weimar Germany. In assuming the role of Hamlet -- one of the most coveted roles in acting -- Höfgen hopes his performance will establish him as one of Germany's great actors. Despite the Nazi press lauding his Germanic qualities of "courage", and "strength", Höfgen realises he will never be able to match his performance as 'Mephisto', lacking as he does the self-doubt and introspection that the  role of Hamlet demands.

Despite Höfgen's career seemingly not matching his ability, he continues to profit from his status as a central figure in the regime. His house is a stately home seized from a Jewish family, and increasingly he adopts the "bourgeois" sensibilities he had previously mocked.  Even when reaching these new, Höfgen's conscious is rarely troubled, only to the extent that his narcissistic tendencies make him question what might come next for him should the Nazi regime collapse. 

One central theme in the novel that Mann captures is the illusions different characters hold about the world around them, and what it takes for these to be shattered. The two characters who are ideologically-committed Nazis early on in the novel later become deeply disillusioned by the direction the party takes once it comes to power. One character is shot (presumably during the 'Night of the Long Knives'), with the other remaining in a lowly job as a gatekeeper at the theatre, having failed to rise up the party ranks while Höfgen, who was known to be a Communist, ends up benefitting from the regime.

In playing 'Mephisto', Höfgen also is able to use his own narcissistic qualities to great acclaim. Rather than being the devil himself (Hitler), Höfgen is Mephistopheles, the devil's right-hand man. Mann seems to be warning the reader that it is not (just) the devil we need to be careful of, but also those who carry his message. Indeed, through Höfgen's performances, it's clear that his work has a stupefying effect upon the population. The compromises Höfgen makes with the regime in the end result in helping defend a regime of evil. 

The novel is lesson in the lure of power, fame and fortune, and the compromises many find themselves making in order to advance their own interests. Written in 1936, it devastatingly sets out the catastrophe that Nazism brings to Europe only a few years later. Descriptions of the persecution faced by Jewish characters and communists are short but vivid enough to give the reader of the fear, chaos and criminality even at the early stages of the Nazi regime.


For readers who have been in left-wing movements or parties, the novel has much to say about the careerist machinations of those who find themselves in positions of power (or who are attempting to get there). How do we deal with people who join political movements with intentions that seem less than virtuous? There seems to be few easy answers, and certainly none are given in Mephisto -- indeed, the end of the novel, and what we know about the postwar settlement in Germany after 1945 demonstrates that although regimes may not endure, careerism does. These are sobering ideas for anyone attempting to build a leftwing movement that aims to be inclusive and democratic.

David Green

September 2023

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