How is Doctor Faustus?

Summary of Doctor Faustus

Disintegration of the German Empire

When the allied opposing powers massively intensified the bombing of German cities in 1943, the Germans first became aware of the threat posed by the war they had begun. The certainty of victory and the intoxicating self-esteem of the Nazi era gave way towards the end of the war to a sense of the impending catastrophe. The Red Army conquered large parts of south-eastern Europe in 1944, and on June 6 the Western Allies began the invasion of Normandy. Dresden, Nuremberg, Mainz and many other cities were almost completely destroyed until Germany's unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. The victorious powers of the USA, the Soviet Union and Great Britain initially took over government power, which then, together with France, divided Germany into four zones of occupation. The American, British and French zones became the Federal Republic of Germany with the entry into force of the Basic Law on May 24, 1949, the Soviet occupation zone became the German Democratic Republic on October 7, 1949.

While some Germans were able to turn a blind eye to the crimes during the Nazi era, the Nazi atrocities reached the world with the liberation of the concentration camps and could no longer be denied - not even to themselves. The Holocaust took place between 1939 and in 1945 about six million Jews as well as other hostile population groups and political opponents were victims. From now on, the Germans had to live with this guilt, which - together with the loss of the romantic, irrational, but identity-creating Germanism of the past few years - led to a great deal of insecurity in national sentiment. Some of the artists and politically persecuted people who fled into exile from the National Socialists were never able to reconcile with their former homeland. Like Thomas Mann, they stayed abroad for the rest of their lives.


As early as 1904, Thomas Mann made his first notes on a Faust novel with a syphilitic main character: "The poison acts as an intoxication, a stimulant, an inspiration; he is delighted to create ingenious, wonderful works, the devil shakes his hand." However, the actual work on his version of the German folk tale did not begin until he was in exile in California, against the background of the gloomy political and social developments in Germany. Like the narrator Serenus Zeitblom in the novel, the author himself began writing on May 23, 1943 and finished work on May 8, 1945, the day of Germany's surrender. Extensive research was incorporated into the work: on the historical figure of Johann Faust, a wandering fortune teller from the 15th century who, according to legend, had got involved with the devil, on the medieval language and history, but above all on the many contemporary aspects, that Mann incorporated into the novel. He studied musicological textbooks and made contact with composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Hanns Eisler and Arnold Schönberg. Theodor W. Adorno, with whom Thomas Mann met regularly while he was working, had a great influence on the text. After completing his huge novel project, the author was proud of his achievement - not least because the then over 70-year-old had to struggle with major health problems (lung cancer operation) and persistent phases of self-doubt while working.

Impact history

One of the first reviews of Doctor Faustus that appeared in post-war Germany came from the prominent literary scholar Käte Hamburger, who had previously had a good relationship with Thomas Mann. The poet described her article as "the dullest, dumbest and most obstructed" and spoke of a "personal hostility". Hamburger had particularly criticized the symbolism of the novel: to warm up the old legend of Doctor Faust's devil pact and to transfer it to the social conditions in Nazi Germany was an unimaginative and well-adjusted concept. The criticism sparked a long argument between the exiled author and representatives of the German public. In his text Why I will not return to Germany, Mann expressed his conviction of the collective guilt of the Germans and thus provoked further criticisms of Doctor Faustus and even death threats.

In later years there was a more relaxed, but by no means less intensive, occupation with the text, whose assembly principle and wealth of theory have now been appreciated. With more than 80,000 pages of secondary literature, Doctor Faustus is one of the most researched and thus also one of the most widely read German books of the post-war period. Translated into numerous languages, the book is also successful abroad and is considered the novel that can explain the German catastrophe of the 20th century like no other.