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Lotte in Weimar – Thomas Mann’s Hope for a Humanist Culture against Barbarism

Written by Vanessa Pupavac.

Just a few steps farther, Frau Councillor! Down this corridor, no distance at all from the stairs. We have had to renovate very thoroughly, since the visit of the Don Cossacks, at the end of 1813: stairs, chambers, passages, salons, and all. Maybe the renovation was long overdue; anyhow, it was forced upon us by the violent, world-shaking course of events. They taught us, perhaps, that it is precisely violence that is needed to produce all memorable and historic moments. Yet I should not give the Cossacks all the credit for all our improvements. We had Prussian and Hungarian hussars in the house as well – to say nothing of the French who came before them! (Mann, 1968, [1939], pp. 17-18)

It is October 1816 at an inn in Weimar. Mager, the head waiter, is showing a group of guests to their rooms: an unremarkable-looking woman in her sixties with her daughter and maid servant. ‘But my God, why do I talk of history’ (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 17). For he is ‘a man of sentiment’, and the guest he beholds is Werther’s Lotte, or rather her inspiration, Charlotte Kestner, now a widow with grandchildren (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 17).

The novel Lotte inspired, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was written over forty years earlier by the twenty-four year old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1774. The novel concerns the torments of a young man in love with a girl betrothed to a fellow student. The story is based on Goethe’s love for Charlotte, who married his university friend Christian Kestner, together with the tragic suicide of their friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, soon after Goethe had been rejected by Charlotte (Boyle, 1991, pp. 131-137). The Sorrows of Werther was a sensation across Europe in its expression of passionate emotion and unrequited love. In the words of Mann’s Goethe, Werther represented ‘Such tempests of yearning and revolt against the limitations of the individual, the prison wall of the human soul’ (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 236). This confessional novel captures how the age of enlightenment was very much the age of sentiment.

Nevertheless Goethe’s portrait of a man of feeling was also heady social critique:

Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it. What a thing our human destiny is! (Goethe, 1989, [1774], p. 29)

Werther deplores the social stratifications of his day:

What provokes me worst of all are our fateful bourgeois distinctions of rank. Of course I know as anyone that differences of class are necessary, and that they work greatly to my own advantage (Goethe, 1989, [1774], p. 76)

Werther resents his humiliating exclusion from aristocratic society, and the strictures against him treating a servant as a fellow human being of equal consideration. By what right were people treated as an inferior by the type of a personage having:

no presentable fortune or wits, no source of strength other than her pedigree, no protection but that sense of class in which she has barricaded herself, and no pleasure apart from looking down on middle-class citizens from the heights of an upper-storey window. (Goethe, 1989, [1774], p. 76)

Werther denounces the philistine aristocratic elite, and its stunting of culture and personality. Instead Werther counterposes a naturally cultivated individual, encompassing Homer, conversation with a humble swineherder and the beauty of the sunset.

His independent spirt demands the realisation of our whole personality and its potentialities. Echoing Hamlet, Werther declares:

What a thing is Man, this lauded demi-god! Does he not lack the very powers he has most need of? And if he should soar in joy, or sink in sorrow, is he not halted and returned to his cold, dull consciousness at the very moment he was longing to be lost in the vastness of infinity? (Goethe, 1989, [1774], p. 105)

Werther is unprepared to surrender his principles or feelings to hollow social convention. His uncompromising personality is too pure for a corrupt moribund society.

The Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukacs in his study Goethe and His Age (1968, pp. 35-49) sees the novel as expressing a revolutionary humanism, and Werther as prefiguring the uncompromising idealistic revolutionary character who was to form the French Revolution. Werther directly identifies his own fate with rebelling against tyranny:

If a nation is groaning under the unendurable yoke of a tyrant, is it a weakness to rebel at last and shatter the chains? (Goethe, 1989, [1774], p. 62)

Unsurprisingly opinion among the reading public was polarised over the novel. Sermons denounced its influence on impressionable minds and called for its censorship in order to discourage morbid sentiments and mental disturbance. Alarmed reports circulated of an epidemic of suicides. Evidence for a Werther effect of copycat suicides was speculative but persisted in medical annals for decades as the sociologist Frank Furedi’s The Power of Reading explores (Furedi, 2015, pp. 103-130). Such notoriety only enhanced the Werther myth. Werther tourism sprang up making the pilgrimage to the town of Wetzlar. Fans would recite poetry at Jerusalem’s grave (Hulse, 1989, p. 11-12). Werther fever created artistic and cultural spins off, from Werther poetry to a Werther fashion style. The Werther craze was even exploited the other side of the world by a resourceful Chinese painter who produced Werther paintings for export to the European market (Hulse, 1989, p. 14). Goethe’s novel challenged French cultural hegemony and put German culture at the heart of Europe. Napoleon was a fan of Werther and had taken Werther on his 1798 campaign, though tellingly the imperial Napoleon told Goethe he didn’t like the social conflict aspect (Hulse, 1989, p. 16; Lukacs, 1968, p. 46). Meanwhile the Werther legend lived on and clung to the figure of Lotte, making her private visit to Goethe’s Weimar four decades later a cultural event.

 Against the rise of the Nazis, Thomas Mann took up the story of Lotte’s meeting with Goethe forty-four years later. His 1939 novel Lotte in Weimar seeks to preserve the memory of a humane German and European culture amid the ensuing barbarism. Through Lotte’s visit to Weimar and the people she meets, Mann explores the meaning of culture and the relation of genius to humanity, and sacrifices to art, and the dangers of xenophobia and militarism.

Mann’s novel Lotte in Weimar, written on the eve of world war, sees hope in the possibilities of culture saving our humanity. Lukacs describes Mann seeing Goethe as an Archimedean point for our humanity, whose work and life would help orientate a renewed humanism (Lukacs, 1964, pp. 92-94). Pointedly Mann counterposes ‘a world-receiving, world-giving’ national culture against ‘nationalist narcissism’ seeking to dominate other countries (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 250). His Goethe, outlining the historical persecution of Jews, fears:

lest one day the concentrated world hatred against the other salt of the earth, the German stock, would be released in a historic uprising of which that medieval night of butchery was but a rehearsal in miniature… (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 306)

Through Goethe, Mann also anticipates the necessity of atonement and reconciliation after war, a necessity following his own embrace of nationalist militarism in the First World War. Indeed his fictional Goethe was quoted at the Nuremberg trial (Shawcross, 1946; Tusa and Tusa, 1984, p. 424).

Mann’s Goethe is a universalist, acknowledging nature and spirit, culture and life, the sacred and the profane, the individual and society, poetry and science, contemplation and activity. Yet Mann warns against the dangers of appreciation of genius becoming a tyranny over humanity rather than its friend. Instead of Werther’s nihilistic genius, Mann’s older Goethe identifies with the admonishments of Werther’s rival Albert and Lotte’s husband, rejecting tragic revolt and seeking practical accommodation ‘All the heroism lies in enduring, in willing to live on and not die’ (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 218). Is Mann here making the author of Werther safe for democracy or authoritarian rule? Mann fears the endorsement of nihilistic genius and noble sacrifice serving nationalist militarism. Accordingly we are given an account of Goethe’s efforts to ensure his son did not serve on the frontline, and his ambivalence towards military values and German nationalism.

Crucially Lotte’s generous spirit is the moral heart of the novel and she offers an attractive ideal of endurance coupled still with something of the Werther spirit. The aging Lotte has maintained her youthful folly, prepared to risk being foolish in the name of human feeling.

growing old is but a physical, outward phenomenon and naught can avail to alter that innermost, foolish self of ours … herein lies the blithe and shamefaced secret of our dignified old age. This was an old woman, so called and daily mocking herself as such, and journeying with a daughter of nine-and-twenty, the ninth child she had borne to her husband. Yet here she lay, and her heart throbbed like that of a schoolgirl caught in some mad prank (Mann, 1968, [1939), p. 29)

For meeting Goethe, she cannot resist dressing as Werther’s beloved, wearing a white dress trimmed with youthful pink ribbons. And mischievously one pink ribbon is symbolically missing from her attire, as a reminder of the ribbon she gave Goethe, and Lotte gave Werther (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 32). Her daughter is mortified, but Lotte’s generosity towards others’ human failings allows her an independence of spirit to play act and risk social ridicule.

 A rich culture has a popular aspect, in the sense of speaking to the human condition as it is experienced by the age. Werther was a book that spoke to a wide audience. As Mager, the waiter, voices to Lotte:

 if she realized what fervent echoes this very work, The Sorrow of Werther, awoke in my heart… But I say no more. It is not for me to speak – though well I know that a masterpiece of feeling like the work in question belongs to high and low and to humanity as a whole, animating it with most fervid emotions; whereas probably only the upper classes can aspire to such productions as Iphigenia or The Natural Daughter. When I recall how oft Madame Mager and I have sat beside our evening taper and our souls have melted as we bent together over those celestial pages… (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 20)

Moreover the sensitive Werther as a sensitive reader invites Werther’s readers to identify themselves as book readers. Lotte, as considerate to the waiter as to her distinguished visitors, affirms the legitimacy of his literary interests and literary knowledge.

Mann offers Lotte as a guardian of a humane life enhancing culture, one in which culture is for the sake of people, not people for the sake of culture. Lotte symbolically fears the fictional heroine could extinguish her real life and individuality as meaningless. Lotte treasures Goethe’s work and appreciates the sacrifices people are prepared to make for the sake of his genius, just as she appreciates the sacrifices that people are prepared to make in their duties to care for others. But she warns against human sacrifice or the consumption of our humanity in the pursuit of cultural goals (Mann, 1968, [1939], pp. 329-330). A humane art cannot demand human sacrifice.

Lotte’s mind converges with Goethe in openness to the world and choosing an active life rather than morbid languishing. The author of Werther is depicted as ever curious and animated by art and science, but rather distant from the common people that his tragic hero had identified with, disparaging the masses and those who dare to criticise his work. Sensing a danger of Goethe and his art succumbing to his flatterers, Lotte dares to judge the great man and speak truth to genius. Here she takes on the role of his moral guardian and trusted old friend, and addresses his conscience stripped on the social titles and pretensions that now bind him. Lotte appeals to Goethe the man rather than Goethe the famed author and honoured statesman. Indicatively as she does so she drops addressing him as ‘His Excellency’ and reverts to the familiar form of you (Mann, 1968, [1939], pp. 325-326). Under the pressure of her reproaches, Goethe reaffirms his Wertherian ideal of feeling being all. Yet his elaborate, abstract profession of the mystery of life and metamorphosis remains emotionally remote. Instead Lotte’s simple final whisper, wishing Goethe peace in his old age, carries greater emotional weight for the reader (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 331).

Thus Mann’s Lotte in Weimar affirms cultural humanism against nationalist militarism. His subsequent novel Dr Faustus, also inspired by Goethe, depicting the corruption and complicity of high culture under the Nazis, is less sanguine about culture’s resistance to barbarism. Such questions haunt Europe and western culture to this day. As the scholar George Steiner has pointedly observes ‘Europe is the place where Goethe’s garden almost borders on Buchenwald’ (Steiner, 2004). What match was literature against totalitarian terror systematically breaking individuals and seeking to merge them into a mass? What of the complicity of aesthetics in legitimising the inhuman? Goethe’s literature failed to prevent Nazi totalitarian rule. Literature though such as Hans Fallada’s crime novel Alone in Berlin has given us the most perceptive insights into the experience of totalitarian for individuals as analysed by the political theorist Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In key respects, postwar Europe, devastated and divided as it was, was more hopeful for the future of humanity and cultural rejuvenation than we have become in recent decades. Indeed the Cold War competition for the hearts and minds of Europeans animated rival visions of the future. In the West, the ideals of social democracy attributed the barbarity of two world wars to undemocratic inequitable prewar governments. Critically too there were hopes for a new humanism to flourish with decolonisation in the newly independent states. Their ideals for a new just and peaceful international order were proclaimed in the Bandung spirit and the non-aligned movement, which sought to live beyond the terms of the Cold War. So if the west had failed humanity, renewed hope could be drawn from the non-western world, as anticipated by Goethe’s poetry finding inspiration in the work of the fourteen century Persian poet Hafiz.

Much commentary has raised fears that we are entering an era akin to the crisis of the interwar Weimar Republic. Yet we perhaps are closer to the breakdown of the post-Napoleonic European order established by the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna that is the political context of Lotte’s Weimar. Mann’s Goethe declares on Napoleon’s imprisonment on St Helena and the peace in Europe:

They have shut up that rebellious, intractable spirit in that impregnable wastes of oceans, so that we hear can have peace and cultivate our gardens… Quite right too. The age of arms and epopees is past, the king takes flight, the burgher is on top. We are in for a  practical era, you will see: money, brains, business, trade, prosperity – we may come to hope and believe that even Nature herself has turned sweet reason, renounced for ever all her fevers and fulminations, and perpetual peace is on the cards at last. Quite a refreshing idea – nothing whatever against it, But when you think how an elemental force like that must feel, with its powers all choked among watery wastes, a giant paralysed, chained to a rock, an Aetna smothered with ashes, boiling and seething down below with no outlet for its fires – and you’ve got to remember that if lava destroys, it fertilizes too… (Mann, 1968, [1939], pp. 246-247)

The Congress system became associated with political reaction and the denial of political representation (Ghervas, 2014). Napoleon had been effectively defeated. Nevertheless the peoples of Europe had been mobilised by the Napoleonic wars and their outlook raised beyond their customary station. Coordination between the rulers of Europe to suppress domestic dissent could not contain political opposition indefinitely, culminating in the 1848 revolutions. But as early as 1817 there were student riots in German states against the repressions of the post-Napoleonic order (Ghervas, 2014). Goethe himself was seen by younger intellectuals as too conservative. ‘We are independent progressive minds, with the courage of the new times and new tastes’, declares the fictional Adele Schopenhauer, sister to the philosopher August Schopenhauer, to Lotte. Her generation’s preferred cultural figures have:

things to tell us that are closer to our hearts than we can get from a commanding and forbidding greatness towering up like some ancient granite boulder amid the new life of the time (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 109).

Goethe’s official status risked becoming a block to the spirit of his work. Contrary to the fictional Adele Schopenhauer, though, Goethe’s Werther does have things to tell us at a moment of European crisis when contemporary elected ‘thrones are shattering, empires quaking’. As Steiner suggests in his 2004 essay The Idea of Europe, cultural meaning has become lost:

It may be that the future of the ‘idea of Europe’, if it has one, depends less on central banking and agricultural subsidies, on investment in technology or common tariffs, than we are instructed to believe. It may be that the OECD or NATO, the further extension of the Euro or parliamentary democracies on the model of Luxembourg are not the primary dynamics of the European vision. Or, if, indeed, they are, that vision is hardly one to rouse the human soul. (Steiner, 2004)   

Goethe’s Werther and Mann’s Lotte in Weimar are a reminder of a European culture, appealing to the human soul and seeking to build a more humane culture for our humanity to flourish. Even if our times are culturally inhumane, we as individuals may still try to pursue an ‘independence of spirit’ (Goethe, 1989, [1774], p. 82), and take responsibility for cultivating humanist ideals. In the words of Mann, ‘Wherever I am, there is German culture’. Mann’s seemingly arrogant declaration is not just for the Manns or Goethes of this world, but the Lottes or Magers (Steiner, 2004). All our actions shape the meaning of humanity and human culture. Cultural creation, which has lost touch with its fellow humans, narrows itself and ossifies. And any culture that is truly humanist and has any hope of preventing barbarism is a popular culture of the people. Goethe’s Werther appealed beyond the heads of the aristocracy. Mann’s Lotte still has enough lingering youthful folly to give her the freedom to live and act without entirely conforming to what is socially appropriate. In this she identifies with Werther’s spirit. Fittingly our last glimpse of Mann’s Lotte is through the eyes of the inn’s literature-reading waiter, who is honoured ‘to help Werther’s Lotte out of Goethe’s carriage’ (Mann, 1968, [1939], p. 331).

Vanessa Pupavac is leading the module Civilization and Barbarism this spring semester. She is writing a monograph on Shakespeare and international politics. Her previous book was Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance (2012).  Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.


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Charlotte Buff, later Charlotte Kestner was born on January 1753 in Wezlar and died on 16 January 1828 in Hanover.


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