© 1936 Klaus Mann
I was fortunate, in my time at the University, to have a class with my favorite professor every semester that I was there; he had an enormous command of late 19th century and early 20th century Europe, and knew how to skillfully incorporate novels into the teaching experience to give us a true taste of the culture and ideas being discussed. Such was how I encountered Mephisto, the story of a German actor who sold his soul to the Devil — in this case, the Nazi party — to realize his dreams of success upon the stage. It’s a chilling story of how low we can sink, how much we can bend our ideals, how easy it is to rationalize horrors away.
We are introduced to Hendrik Hoefgen as the apple of Hermann Goering’s eye. At the Fat Man’s birthday party, Hoefgen nearly rivals his patron for laud and attention. Newly made head of the State Theatre, Hoefgen has come a long way since his days as a struggling actor in Hamburg. Mann quickly takes us back to those days of the 1920s, when Hendrik had to fight to get his stage name rendered in the papers correctly, when he counted Communists as his dearest friends, fumed against the bourgeois and the bosses, and planned a Revolutionary Theatre. How much of what he talked about he really believed, who can say — but time and again Hendrik chose pragmatism before idealism. Better to have his career on a solid footing before he started tweaking the noses of his benefactors by preaching revolution! Hoefgen’s ascent into stardom begins when he marries the daughter of a prominent man whose connections allow Hoefgen to promote himself more easily; abandoning his friends in Hamburg for Berlin, Hoefgen so throws himself into his work that he misses entirely the fall of the nation to the Nazis. When he realizes the background of the theater has changed, the consumate actor Hoefgen merely shrugs and adapts himself to it. Pursuing the affection of one of Goering’s intimates, he uses her to affect a pardon for himself for his youthful silly ideas and, reprising the Mephisto role that earned him his initial fame, seals his place in the favor of the Nazi hierarchy. It’s only when one of his longtime friends is imprisoned and killed that Hoefgen sudden realizes he’s become the monster he once accused others of being.
Mephisto is not merely a warning about how quickly ambition can unseat the desire for virtue — not that Hoefgen ever had any genuine desire for the latter, as I strongly suspect that his political ideals were merely another expression of his vanity, but full of historical interest. Hoefgen’s life is so closely modeled on that of Gustaf Gründgens’ that it was banned in Germany for libel until 1981. When I first read Mephisto, I was altogether confused by the Nazis’ economics — like most, I had the made-for-tv notion that fascism was ‘right wing tyranny’, as opposed to communism’s ‘left wing tyranny’. It was their embrace of socialism (for the benefit of the Nation/Race rather than the Proletariat) that allowed Hoefgen and others to introduce a few subtle alterations into their pontificating and move seamlessly from Communists to Nazi — after all, they could still speak dismissively of the capitalists and liberals, they just needed to throw in a few jibes about the Jews and refrain from dismissing the Nazis as jumped-up thugs and all was right with the world. However illuminating Mephisto is for understanding the times, though, it’s far more important as a study in character…or the lack thereof. It is Hoefgen’s inconstancy that gives him material success and spiritual doom.
A similar modern story produced in cinematic form is the Viggo Mortenson and Jason Isaacs film Good about a man whose train of moral compromises takes him to a place darker than he could ever imagine.