Monday, November 14, 2016

Hans Miklas

Hans Miklas isn’t a real person. Well, I assume there are people past and present with that name, but this isn’t about any of them. It’s about a character in Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto. Miklas stood out because I was finishing the book in July when I read this article by David Frum paraphrasing and synthesizing the statements of some Trump supporters he talked to:
You people in the Acela corridor aren’t getting it. Again. You think Donald Trump is screwing up because he keeps saying things that you find offensive or off-the-wall. But he’s not talking to you. You’re not his audience, you never were, and you never will be.

…In our America, the gender gap closed a long time ago—and then went into reverse. Obama in the Oval Office was humiliating enough. But Hillary will be worse: We’re going to lose any idea at all that leadership is a man’s job.

…You tell us we’re a minority now? OK. We’re going to start acting like a minority. We’re going to vote like a bloc, and we’re going to vote for our bloc’s champion. So long as he keeps faith with us against you, we’ll keep faith with him against you.
TV Tropes’ surprisingly thorough description of Mephisto* considers the character of Miklas – “the Nazi-sympathizing actor who grows disillusioned once Hitler actually takes power” - an example of “Break the Haughty,” but this doesn’t seem to me accurate. In fact, he’s presented sympathetically by Mann. In contrast to the successful and self-serving Höfgen, Miklas is a sickly, struggling young man who wants to see the haughty cut down to size. He believes Hitler’s triumph will mean the fall of the rich and arrogant – the elites who lord their position over people like him, humiliate them from a position of unearned power, and stand in the way of their path to glory.

The main characters in the novel are stand-ins for real people: Hendrik Höfgen, the famous actor who enjoys continued success after he chooses to collaborate with the Nazis, is Gustaf Gründgens (you can read more about him here); his wife Barbara is the author’s sister, the writer and actress Erika Mann; her father, the privy councillor Bruckner, is their father, Thomas Mann. I don’t know whether Hans Miklas represents a real individual or a composite. In any case, he illustrates some of the motivations for support for authoritarian movements.

The two most noble major characters in the novel view the Nazi sympathizer with compassion and pity. Otto Ulrichs, the principled Communist, often defends him as a misguided youth whose legitimate grievances and defiance have been exploited to bad ends:
Hans is basically a good fellow, I know he is, because I have often talked with him. With anyone so young you have to work hard and patiently. There is a chance he can still be won over to the right side. I don’t believe he’s already lost to us. His rebelliousness, his utter dissatisfaction have taken the wrong direction – you know what I mean? (28)
Miklas’ personal and economic struggles, despite his talent, hard work, and efforts to get ahead, have led him to rage and blame:
Ninety-five marks a month…. With that kind of money it’s hard to stay a decent human being. (29)

Naturally, he feels he’s being slighted and gets bad parts. He blames his lack of success on us – he believes we’re in league against him because of his political leanings. (29)
Central to Miklas’ character is that he’s driven by resentment and grievance, which Nazism both nurses and folds into its political philosophy. He’s told that the management of the theater where he works, whom he perceives as mistreating him, is “‘Jew-dominated’ and ‘Marxist-oriented’” (29), giving a racial and political cast to his personal animus and rage.

He particularly delights in the struggles and failures of Hendrik Höfgen and the Jewish actress Dora Martin, who “both belonged, in his view, to the same privileged, un-German, reprehensible clique” (31). He dreams of seeing them brought low:
‘That Martin woman’, he went on, his malicious, sickly young face sunk in his thin, not too clean hands, ‘they say she is always mouthing these salon-Communist phrases – her and her thousand marks every night. But there’s going to be a clean sweep of that crowd – even Höfgen will have to face up to that before long. (31)
For Miklas,
the beautiful day was when the Führer would at last come to power and his enemies would all be destroyed. And destruction would certainly descend on the most pernicious and fearful enemy of all – Höfgen. The overthrow of the object of his hatred, whose career Miklas followed from afar with impotent wrath, would be the most enjoyable event of the Great Day. (151)
The book’s heroine, Barbara, respects and pities the genuinely suffering and angry Miklas, while abhorring his social and political views. She believes he’s treated badly by the more powerful people in the theater and “is looking for something to cling to which can raise him up” (118). She sometimes takes him to lunch and listens to his complaints and wishes:
Never before had she sat at the same table with a man who voiced the kind of opinions that this boy put forward with such fanaticism. It became clear to her that he detested or despised everything that was dear and indispensable to herself, her father and her friends. What was he getting at when he violently attacked ‘corrupt liberalism’ or jeered at ‘certain Jewish and Jew-loving circles’ which according to him were sending German culture to the dogs? Yes, thought Barbara, he means everything I have ever loved or believed. When he says ‘Jewish rabble’, he means spiritual values and liberty. And deep down she felt afraid. (116)

What brought joy to such a mysterious creature as Hans Miklas? What ideas and ideals fired his aggressive enthusiasm? He dreamed of a German culture cleansed of ‘Jewishness’. Barbara could only shake her head in astonishment. When her strange companion contended that ‘the shameful Versailles treaty’ should be torn up and the German nation must again be ‘ready for battle’, his eyes lit up and even his forehead appeared to shine. ‘Our Führer will restore the German people’s honor!’ he cried. ‘We will no longer tolerate the shame of the republic, which is despised by foreigners. We want our honor back again – every decent German demands that. And there are decent Germans everywhere, even in this Bolshevik theater. They should hear how Herr Knurr speaks when he isn’t afraid he is being overheard. He lost three sons in the war. but he says that wouldn’t have been so bad if Germany hadn’t lost its honor. And it is the Führer – and only the Führer – who can restore our honor. (116-17)
When Barbara warily tells Miklas that “If one day Germany really becomes what you and your friends want it to be, than I would rather have nothing more to do with it. I would leave the country,” Miklas, eyes gleaming, responds
I can believe it. A whole mob of gentlemen and ladies are going to make a run for it – that is, if we let them go and don’t put them behind bars. For it will be our turn! Then at last the Germans will once again have their say in Germany. (117)
Barbara, a well-meaning liberal, tries to understand Miklas’ perspective, but is unable to fathom the depth of his resentments, and his choices and perceptions strike her as irrational. “Why does he get so worked up about German honor?” she wonders.
What mental picture does he have of this vague concept? Is it so enormously important for him that Germany should once again have tanks and submarines? Surely he should first see that he get rid of his dreadful cough and have a success in a good part and earn more money so that he can eat his fill every day. (117)
When she asks why, given his hatred of elites and the establishment, he doesn’t join the Communists, he responds that the Communists “have no patriotism for the fatherland, but are supranational and dependent on Russian Jews. And the Communists don’t know anything about idealism… We want our own revolution. Not one that will be directed by Freemasons and the Elders of Zion.” (118) Miklas insists that Nazism will explode the system:
When our day arrives and our Führer takes over supreme power, then that’s the end of capitalism and the economy of the big bosses. The servitude of usury will be abolished. Big banks and stock exchanges that bleed our national economy white can close their doors, and no one will mourn them. (117)
When Barbara points out, accurately, that “the Führer who wanted to dismantle capitalism was in fact receiving a good deal of money from heavy industry and large landed proprietors,” Miklas “furiously repulsed the assertion as ‘typical Jewish calumnies’” (118).

Following an altercation, Höfgen has Miklas fired from the theater. Miklas, whose rage has grown, is reinvigorated through his work as a leader of the Nazi Youth movement. He’s jubilant when Hitler comes to power:
In the first weeks after the government takeover by the National Socialists and their Führer, Miklas had felt he was in heaven. The great and beautiful day, the day of fulfillment, awaited so patiently and with so great a longing, had at last arrived. It was an explosion of joy. Young Miklas had sobbed and danced with happiness. In those days his face had shone with wild enthusiasm and his eyes had glowed.

During the torchlight procession in honor of the Reichskanzler, the Führer, the Savior, how he had roared in the in the streets and moved his limbs like a man possessed, swept along by the frenzy which seized not only a city but also a whole nation. Now all promises would become facts. Without any doubt a golden age was about to dawn. Germany had its honor restored, and soon its society would be transformed and wonderfully renewed in the form of a real people’s community. For so the Führer had promised one hundred times, and the martyrs of the National Socialist movement had sealed this promise with their blood. (174)

The fourteen years of shame were over. Everything up to now had been only struggle and preparation; now life began in earnest. Now at last men could work together for the construction of a healthy and powerful fatherland. (175)
A Nazi official arranges a job for Miklas at the state theater, and when it appears that Höfgen and his other antagonists have been humiliated and vanquished, he’s ecstatic – “The magic of this situation was so potent that it enabled the young man to overlook many things he might otherwise have found disappointing” (175). But gradually he begins to see the truth:
Was it really a new, a better world in which he now moved? Had it not many of the old world’s shortcomings that he had so bitterly hated – and even some new faults unknown till then? Hans Miklas did not yet dare admit such things to himself. But from time to time his young face assumed the clenched, sorrowful expression of defiance that it had worn in the Hamburg days. (175)
It appeared to Miklas that (alongside the persecution of thousands of political opponents and racial targets of the Nazis, be they members of the “establishment” or not) the old elites had at last received their comeuppance, but new elites quickly took their place, and people were servile and deferential toward these new establishment figures:
Germany had its honor restored, for Communists and pacifists sat in concentration camps and some of them had already been executed; and the world became really frightened of a nation that acclaimed such a Führer. But the renewal of social life had not yet begun: of socialism there was still no sign. (175)

The state of affairs that Nationalist agitators used to term the ‘boss economy’ had not disappeared…but had taken even worse and more extravagant forms. And among actors there were still ‘celebrities’ who looked down on the smaller fry, drove to the stage door in sleek limousines, and wore fabulous fur coats. (175)
But Miklas, “who had believed with too much fervor to succumb so soon to disenchantment,” clung to his belief: “Everything can’t be achieved instantly… Not even my Führer can manage to do that. We must have patience. First Germany must recover from the long years of humiliation” (175-6).

But having believed the social order would be upended and a new world begun, Miklas finds his faith destroyed when he learned that Höfgen – his nemesis and a former Communist and proclaimed Nazi-hater – was not only starring in the production in which Miklas had a minor part but had connections to the upper echelons of Nazi society. Witnessing Höfgen’s growing success and political protection is the final straw for Miklas, who now can’t hide from himself that Nazism wasn’t what he had believed it to be:
In the past he still had hopes and a great faith to sustain him. Now he had nothing left. He went around saying, ‘It’s all shit. We’ve been betrayed. The Führer wanted power and nothing else. What has improved in Germany since he took over? The rich have only become worse. Now they talk patriotic bilge while they make their deals – that’s the only difference. The intriguers are still on top. (198)

How can the Führer stand by and let all this happen – so many dreadful injustices? The rest of us were fighting for the movement when it hardly existed, and now they want to push us aside. (198)
Miklas meets his sad end when other young Nazis come to arrest him, drive him out to the forest, and murder him. His colleagues at the theater are told he was killed in a car accident, and don’t see fit to question it.

As Mann knew (the novel opens with an extravagant gala hosted by the Nazis and brimming with German and foreign elites), the desperate Miklas wasn’t representative of Nazi followers, and he isn’t of Trump’s followers, either – Trump lost among the lower-income groups and won among the higher ones. But both movements certainly include cadres of struggling people propelled by grievance, resentment, a sense of entitlement to power, and a hatred of elites. Many of them rely on government programs to survive.

The signs were there all along that Trump would betray them, and now it’s probably just beginning to sink in:

“If you voted for Trump because he’s ‘anti-establishment,’ guess what: You got conned”

“How Trump Conned America”

“Trump Campaigned Against Lobbyists. Now They’re on His Transition Team”

“With Trump’s Election, a Bonanza for Washington Lobbyists”

“Donald Trump’s administration is going to be a bonanza for bankers”

“Trump's victory sparks bankers' hopes for new deal”

Trump wants Dodd-Frank repealed.

“Paul Ryan Says Medicare Privatization Is On”

“Ryan Plans to Phase Out Medicare in 2017”

“Comparing the Clinton and Trump Tax Plans”

“Who Benefits From Donald Trump's Tax Plan?”

“While You Weren’t Looking, Donald Trump Released a Plan to Privatize America’s Roads and Bridges”

It’ll be a long and ugly road from a golden age about to dawn to “everything can’t be achieved instantly” to “It’s all shit. We’ve been betrayed.” Many won’t be able to take that road – having followed the Right down their destructive path for so long, blaming the Democrats and the vague “establishment” for their problems, they will continue to have faith in Trump and his party and to blame the Left for sabotaging their great plans. But some will recognize the bitter taste of betrayal.

* The novel. I haven’t seen the movie. I would love to see the movie, but it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. It’s bizarre, given that it won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1981. Why isn’t it a Criterion Classic?

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