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Mann, Erika (1905-1969)  

Writer, actress, and intellectual refugee from the Third Reich, Erika Mann was one of the twentieth century's most intriguing nonconformists. She is known for her work in German theater and cinema, anti-fascist cabaret satire, political and literary journalism, and children's books.

Though twice-married, both matches were with cultural celebrities known to be gay, and her affairs with both women and men were well-known in her lifetime. Her most profound intellectual and emotional attachments were with her brother Klaus and, toward the end of her life, her father, Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann.

Erika Julia Hedwig Mann was Thomas Mann's oldest child. Her childhood home in Munich was the center for her father's literary and artistic circle. Intellectually precocious, she started a children's theater in her early teens.

Attracted by Berlin's heady atmosphere of intellectual and social experimentation, she and younger brother Klaus went there in 1922 to pursue their interests in theater. Klaus's play Anja und Esther (about a futile lesbian relationship) gained distinction for both of them. Erika's other roles included that of the drama coach (uncredited) in the 1931 lesbian classic movie "Mädchen in Uniform," directed by Leontine Sagan. During this period she also began careers in journalism and children's book publishing.

Her 1926 marriage to actor Gustaf Gründgens (whose later collaboration with the Nazis inspired her brother's 1936 novel Mephisto) lasted until 1929. Her relationships with women were infused not only with sexual energy but also with the passion of creative collaboration. Pamela Wedekind was part of the quartet with whom she acted in Berlin. Therese Giehse was co-director of her political cabaret. Betty Knox was a fellow war reporter and "jeep mate" during World War II. From the 1930s on, Mann was also associated with the lesbian journalist and novelist Annemarie Schwarzenbach.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s Mann traveled around the world, often with her brother Klaus, with whom she wrote travel books such as Rundherum: Ein heiteres Reisebuch (All the Way Round: A Light-hearted Travel Book, 1929) and Buch von der Riviera: Was nicht im Baedeker steht (The Book of the Riviera: Things You Won't Find in Baedeker's, 1931). In photos of the period, she often appears in a man-tailored suit sporting a charismatically boyish grin.

Both Erika and Klaus Mann were outspoken opponents of the National Socialist movement. With Giehse, she founded a satirical cabaret, "Die Pfeffermühletheater" (The Peppermill Theater) in Berlin in 1932. The premiere of the first performances, which she directed, was a great success. However, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Pfeffermühle, along with the entire Mann family, went into exile in Switzerland.

"Die Pfeffermühle" continued in Zurich and toured to seven countries. It used fairy tales, parables, and metaphors to exhort opposition to the Nazi threat. This activity prompted the Nazis to revoke Mann's German citizenship. In need of a passport, she approached novelist Christopher Isherwood with the idea of marrying in order to obtain British citizenship; he demurred, but was able to persuade his friend W.H. Auden to do so instead. Married in 1938, the pair never lived together but maintained a lifelong friendship.

In 1936, Mann moved to New York, where she and Giehse continued producing The Peppermill. Her work on behalf of European cultural refugees came to the attention of American intellectuals such as Carson McCullers and May Sarton; the latter helped raise money for the group.

Mann wrote several books during this period on the Nazis and the crisis they posed for European civilization, including School for Barbarians (1938), The Lights Go Down (1940), Escape to Life (1939), and The Other Germany (1940), the latter two co-authored with Klaus Mann. During the war she returned to Europe as a war correspondent for the BBC and American media, and broke gender barriers by going to the front to interview soldiers, refugees, and high-ranking officers.

After the war, Mann was one of the few women journalists covering the Nuremberg trials who attained access to the defendants. Mann's experience with cabaret irony attuned her senses to the macabre spectacle of unrepentant Nazis treating their trials as a performance. She later commented, "no spookier adventure could be imagined."

Their politics and homosexuality resulted in FBI dossiers on both Klaus and Erika Mann, and stymied her efforts to gain U.S. citizenship during the McCarthy era.

In 1949, Klaus Mann, whose work did not gain recognition until after his death and who became disillusioned with post-war Germany, committed suicide. Only a year apart in age, Klaus and Erika Mann were extraordinarily close and often referred to themselves as twins. His loss was devastating to her. She commemorated him in Klaus Mann zum Gedächtnis (In Memory of Klaus Mann, 1949).

Emotionally devastated by her brother's death, and harassed by the McCarthyites, Erika returned to Europe in 1952, settling with her parents in Kilchberg on Lake Zurich. She devoted herself to publishing Klaus's work and to translating her father's lectures. After his death in 1955, she also became responsible for her father's papers, and published a memoir, The Last Year of Thomas Mann (1958).

In the final years of her life, Erika Mann remained involved in German cinema and worked on film adaptations of several of her father's novels and stories.

She died in Switzerland in 1969 of a brain tumor.

Many of the songs and graphic designs used in "Die Pfeffermühle" are collected in Keiser-Hayne's study, Beteiligt euch, es geht um eure Erde: Erika Mann und ihr politisches Kabarett die "Pfeffermühle" 1933-1937 (Participate! It's about Your World: Erika Mann and Her Political Cabaret, "The Peppermill" 1933-1937, 1990). Andrea Weiss's and Wieland Speck's film Escape to Life (2000) is part documentary, part dramatization, focusing on the bond between Erika and Klaus Mann.

Ruth M. Pettis


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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Cabarets and Revues

Historically, cabarets and revues have been much more likely to mention or imply same-sex desire than the "legitimate" theater; and same-sex desire has been less frequently condemned in cabarets and revues than in mainstream plays.

social sciences >> Overview:  Germany

While Germany, until recently, never officially accepted or welcomed members of the glbtq community, German culture and homosexuality have a long and significant history.

social sciences >> Overview:  McCarthyism

McCarthyism, which attempted in the late 1940s and early 1950s to expunge Communists and fellow travelers from American public life, made homosexuals the chief scapegoats of the Cold War.

social sciences >> Overview:  Nazism and the Holocaust

As part of its agenda to preserve an "Aryan master race," Nazism persecuted homosexuals as "asocial parasites"; more than 100,000 men were arrested on homosexual charges during the Nazi years, with 5,000-15,000 gay men incarcerated in concentration camps.

social sciences >> Overview:  Switzerland

Switzerland is a very cosmopolitan nation with a vibrant glbtq community, but it has lagged behind much of Europe, particularly the Nordic countries, when it comes to assuring equal rights.

literature >> Auden, W. H.

One of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden found that his gayness led him to new insights into the universal impulse to love and enlarged his understanding of all kinds of relationships.

literature >> Isherwood, Christopher

A major Anglo-American novelist and a pioneer in the gay liberation movement, Christopher Isherwood created gay characters whose homosexuality is a simple given, an integral part of the wholeness of personality and an emblem of their common humanity.

literature >> Mann, Klaus

Klaus Mann's vision of homosexuality is marked by loneliness and alienation, and his fiction is characterized by melancholic hopelessness.

literature >> Mann, Thomas

One of Germany's greatest twentieth-century authors, Thomas Mann encoded his own homosexuality in his novels but thought that homosexuality led to the destruction of social institutions and the death of the individual homosexual.

literature >> McCullers, Carson

The fiction of the sexually ambiguous Carson McCullers offers uncomfortable resistance to the social ideal of neat heterosexuality.

literature >> Sarton, May

May Sarton, who gradually revealed her lesbianism in her writing, worked successfully in poetry, the novel, essays, and the journal.

arts >> Schwarzenbach, Annemarie

Swiss writer and photojournalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach documented social conditions from Afghanistan to Alabama; her fiction reflected the tormented attachments and recurring loneliness that plagued her short lifetime.

arts >> Weiss, Andrea

Award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker Andrea Weiss has produced innovative work that embodies her commitment both to art and to political action.


Colvin, Sarah. "Mann, Erika." Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, eds. London: Routledge, 2001. 292-93.

Frisch, Shelly. "'Alien Homeland'-- Erika Mann and the Adenauer Era."The Germanic Review 63:4 (Fall 1988): 172-82.

Keiser-Hayne, Helga. Beteiligt euch, es geht um eure Erde: Erika Mann und ihr politisches Kabarett die "Pfeffermühle" 1933-1937. München: Spangenberg, 1990.

Lühe, Irmela von der. Erika Mann: Eine Biographie. Frankfurt am Main; New York: Campus, 1993.

Mann, Erika, and Klaus Mann. Escape to Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939.

Tippins, Sherill. February House. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Weiss, Andrea. "Communism, Perversion, and Other Crimes against the State: The FBI Files of Klaus and Erika Mann." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7.3 (2001): 459-81.

_____, and Wieland Speck, dirs. Escape to Life: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story. Videocassette, 85 min. New York: Cinema Guild, 2000.


    Citation Information
    Author: Pettis, Ruth M.  
    Entry Title: Mann, Erika  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated July 9, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  


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