This article examines the life and thought of Erich Heller, a prolific scholar of Austrian and German literature and philosophy. Born into a German Jewish family in the borderland of Habsburg Bohemia, Heller graduated from Prague’s German University, only to be forced to flee the Nazi invasion. He found refuge in Britain before moving ultimately to the United States where he taught for two decades at Northwestern University. Erich Heller’s physical and intellectual journey highlights both moments of conflict and cultural transmittance between German-speaking Central Europe and the Anglophone world. Heller was only half at home in the new world where he helped rehabilitated German and Austrian literature and thought abroad. The article explores Heller’s intellectual development throughout his voluntary and forced migrations and traces changes in his political and philosophical identity. Heller’s life, thought, and success are considered in two main contexts: that of his generation of Bohemian-born émigrés and of the postwar atmosphere in American higher education, in particular, the role of German-speaking scholars within it. It analyzes the way in which Heller understood his own transcendence within the national frames and its implication. The article answers two questions: What were the main contributing factors to Heller’s success in the postwar academic discipline German and Austrian Studies and what is the relevance of his teaching today?

Erich Heller, who fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 and became a prominent academic in the United States, shaped postwar German Studies as a discipline in his adopted country in a particular way. Through literary analysis of modern German-language writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, produced in both Austria and Germany, he helped to awaken an awareness of modern literature written in the German language in the English-speaking world. Each of Heller’s seminal works, The Disinherited Mind (1952) and The Ironic German (1958), were published in more than a dozen editions and were translated into German, French, Italian, and Japanese. In public Heller passionately depicted the epoch that stretched from Goethe to Nietzsche to Rilke and Thomas Mann as one defined by an irreversible tendency toward destruction. Soon after the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, Heller made discussions about German-speaking intellectuals and their work not only socially acceptable but also desired. That was a remarkable achievement for a German-speaking Jewish émigré born in Habsburg Bohemia.

This article considers Heller’s intellectual development and his path to becoming an influential academic in exile. I follow the origins of Heller’s thinking and its alignment with his own life experience. How relevant for himself was Heller’s assessment of the modern human condition? How relevant is it today, in a much more fragmented, disintegrating society? Heller’s friendship with Hans Egon Holthusen, an important, but controversial figure in post–World War II German literary circles and the German literary publishing industry, sheds light on some possible practical guiding principles stemming from Heller’s theoretical concepts. To consider also the external conditions Heller entered in American academia, the article outlines the development of German Studies at universities in the North American Midwest with a focus on its history and tendencies within it, and the political grounds for its recovery after 1945. It also defines the cultural heritage that Heller personally forsook and links that to the new values he adopted in exile. Both foundations conditioned his rise to be an internationally respected participant in and proponent of post–World War II cultural and intellectual exchange between the Old and the New World.

Komotau, Prague, Exile

Born in Komotau (today’s Chomutov), Bohemia, Heller was first a citizen of Austria-Hungary and then Czechoslovakia once that country was established in 1918. Chomutov was founded at a crossroads, connecting Prague with Leipzig. By the time Heller moved to Prague in 1929, the local Jewish community he left behind numbered only 1.3 percent of the total population and was highly integrated into it.1 Nearly 90 percent of the city’s inhabitants spoke German. In May 1938 the vast majority of the ethnic Germans in this region voted for the Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei), the main pro-Nazi force in Czechoslovakia. After the Munich Agreement of September 1938, which ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany, most of the region’s ethnic Czechs, anti-Nazi Germans, and Jews fled to the interior of the country. After World War II Czechoslovakia expelled nearly all of Komotau’s German speakers and, thus, truly transformed it into Chomutov.

By then Heller had long departed Central Europe. After March 1939, when the German army marched into Prague to finish the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, Prague could no longer provide a safe haven. Heller fled across the Polish border on foot, where he boarded the last ship to leave for England in late August 1939. He was the only one from his family to escape in time. His younger brother, Paul, had made plans to follow in the next days, but the beginning of the war sealed the borders. Instead, Paul Heller suffered imprisonment in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, transfer to Auschwitz, and a death march back to Buchenwald where he was finally liberated. He eventually settled with his family in the Chicago area where he worked as physician and clinical professor at University of Illinois–Chicago. Erich Heller explained that the presence of his brother in Chicago was the primary reason that led him to negotiate an academic position with Northwestern University in nearby Evanston.2

A decade before his flight, Heller moved to Prague to study law at the German University of Prague, where he (at least metaphorically) experienced his first exile. While Komotau was a German-speaking town with a small minority of Czech speakers, Prague was not. According to the 1930 census, at most 4.5 percent of Prague’s residents spoke German as their mother tongue. There, liberal German circles had already been struggling for cultural survival for the previous fifty years, with little success, while the German-speaking working class integrated into the Czech majority.3 Although it was customary that many Czechs, especially small business owners, could converse in both languages with their customers, the large cultural and everyday sphere of Prague likely remained foreign to Heller, as there is no evidence that he was conversant in Czech.

As a result of the power struggle between local Czech and German speakers, in 1882 the city’s ancient university was divided by language into two separate institutions. In 1920 the Czech one designated itself Charles University and the German one officially became the German University in Prague (Deutsche Universität Prag). Although Heller, a student of the German university, lived within the limited cultural sphere of German Praguers, he nonetheless believed that his time in the city gave him a special understanding of his fellow German-speaking Jewish Bohemian, Franz Kafka. Decades later Heller introduced his study of Kafka with the claim: “My contribution originates in the long familiarity with his works and, if this does not sound too presumptuous, with the mind behind the work, an acquaintance made perhaps a little more intimate by the facts of cultural geography. It is my hope that this, if nothing else, gives some legitimacy to this book.”4 Kafka, however, had been born in Prague, worked in a bilingual office, and had an admirable knowledge of Czech, even if his active use of the language remained in the shadow of his native German.5 Kafka himself engaged actively in editing Milena Jesenská’s translations of his work into Czech and in one of the early letters between them he assured her that he knew her native language and asked her to write back in Czech.6

Despite this significant variance, both Heller and Kafka graduated from the German university with a law degree and shared a sense of professional frustration. In a 1937 letter to a friend named Hans, Heller confided: “My occupation is becoming less and less tolerable for me and I am spying very persistently for a change.”7 And even more poignantly in an earlier letter to the same friend: “I have discovered yet again and now possibly definitely, causing myself in part much pain, that writing is my actual life. Everything else is an insubstantial, flavorless surrogate of bad style. In my little journal are the words: ‘My writing—horror vacui.’”8

When Heller arrived in England as a political refugee, he already had a law degree and an established professional connection to Karl Kraus under his belt.9 But he spoke no English. Barely ten years later he was a professor of German literature, held a chair at the University College Swansea in Wales, and had made a name for himself as an author writing in English. By the late 1950s he was able to negotiate—from overseas—a tenured academic position in the German Department at Northwestern University, a singular college of his choice. In Evanston, Illinois, his successful career continued and Heller eventually became the first holder of the prestigious Avalon Chair in the Humanities at Northwestern, clear evidence of the respect he had earned in his adopted country as a leading representative of German-language culture.

Despite Heller’s physical journey as a refugee, he was not part of the cohort of exiled writers who went more or less directly to the United States, hoping that America could offer a more humane democratic political system as an alternative to German National Socialism. Among that cohort were, for example, already renowned Thomas Mann and the Viennese writer Hermann Broch. Another fellow Bohemian, J. P. Stern, later a fellow literary critic, arrived in England and found there his second home. But all three intellectuals were politically engaged, actively pursuing democratic peace. According to the 1940 “The City of Man” declaration, which both Mann and Broch supported, they searched openly for a “third way” in opposition to both National Socialism and Bolshevism.10 Their pathways demonstrate alternative approaches to political engagement in exile.

For Thomas Mann, a central subject of Heller’s academic interest, such engagement was a natural continuation of his theoretical exploration of the relationship between contemplation and action. Already during World War I, Mann had critically scrutinized his own German origin and his place in the disintegrating society he recognized (Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen [Reflections of an unpolitical man; also The meditation of a nonpolitical man], published in 1918). His traditional conservatism underwent many revisions, and the political extremes in Germany moved him eventually to active political involvement. For his earlier belief that the German spirit was a nonpolitical one he was heavily criticized, for example by Hannah Arendt, who saw him as a German traditionalist who distrusted civilization and the German democratic society.11

Hermann Broch, who before World War II lived the tradition Mann portrayed in his novel Buddenbrooks, broke with it and sold the family’s textile mill in order to enroll in the University of Vienna to study mathematics, philosophy, and psychology. Having witnessed radically violent societal changes in the thirties, together with his relatively brief imprisonment by the Nazis, which he survived thanks to international efforts, Broch parted with literature and started writing on mass psychology. In such dire times Broch considered the existence of literature paradoxical. In exile he turned to political theory and devoted himself fully to political writing and aiding European refugees. Heller later criticized this “growing aversion to literature” in a review of Broch’s Death of Virgil and The Spell.12 After the war Broch carefully rethought his own return to Austria or Germany for political reasons, not wanting to expose Germans to guilt by his emergence as a surviving Jew. Broch was skeptical of society’s susceptibility to totalitarian dictatorship and did not share his much younger correspondent Von Zühldorf’s enthusiasm for rebuilding German democracy. In a letter to Volkmar Zühldorf, Broch wrote:

In my opinion, we Jews cannot and must not return for the time being; no guilty conscience should grow at the sight of victims; Germany needs repentance, because only out of remorse consciousness could be built up: especially the non-Nazi needs repentance, he needs it for his Nazi brother, who is never capable of it himself.13

Joseph Peter Maria Stern, born in 1920 into a bilingual Jewish family in Prague, was educated at secondary schools (Gymnasien) in Prague and Vienna. In 1939, after his mother committed suicide, he and his father fled to Poland on foot and in August took the last ship to England. Aboard he met Erich Heller and befriended him for life. In England J. P. Stern studied for one semester, before he joined the Czechoslovak Squadron of the Royal Air Force in 1941. His plane was shot down over the Atlantic, but he was rescued after long hours in the water. After his return to Cambridge he, too, finished his studies of German literature and earned a doctorate in 1949. Stern specialized in German Realism, but he also wrote on Nietzsche, Rilke, Jünger, Mann, and Wittgenstein. He studied Russian and taught German and Czech before he became a teaching fellow in the German Department in St. John’s College of the University of Cambridge. With Heller, Stern immersed in enthusiastic correspondence (and also many conversations at his own house) about the tendencies of German literature and culture of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Heller was an inspiration for Stern’s academic work. They were both skeptics, Stern being perhaps a bit more passionate in his attempts to broaden the implications of the text into larger human domain.14 In his obituary for Stern, Martin Swales wrote: “He never forgot that in the 1930s it was Anglo-Saxon culture (particularly English) culture that stood for decency and humanity. Throughout his career he was concerned to explain German and Central European literacy, cultural and historical matters to an English audience.”15

By the time twenty-eight-year-old Heller left his homeland and entered exile, he had already completed mandatory military training and service for the Czechoslovak Army. Unlike Stern and many of his compatriots, however, Heller did not join the Allied forces abroad. He did not publicly engage in political or physical efforts to maintain peace, to help fight Nazi Germany, or to rebuild democracy in postwar Germany, Austria, or Czechoslovakia. Nonetheless, he very much became part of that process, consciously or not, by his mode of writing that spoke to an international audience, in the end reflecting positively on the achievements of German-language writers.

Heller and Mann

Heller entered the University of Cambridge in the fall of 1939 as a research student and candidate for a Ph.D. in the German Department. He had sent his application to the graduate program less than two months after his feet had touched Czechoslovak ground for the last time. He proposed a research subject, “The Development of Anti-humanistic Tendencies in German Literature of the Nineteenth Century,” and outlined the starting point: “The essential feature in the ideology of present-day Germany seems to be the opposition to Humanism, against the optimistic belief in the value and the continuously progressive evolution of human life, against Christian ethics and the creed of Western civilization and progress.”16 Later, after he was accepted, Heller changed his topic to: “Thomas Mann—A Study of His Work in Relation to the Main Currents of Thought in Nineteenth Century Germany.” He received his Ph.D. on March 13, 1948.

Heller reworked his dissertation and published it in 1958 as The Ironic German. The book presents Heller’s study of most of Mann’s works in the context of major European intellectuals. The title resonates intensely in two of his chapters. In the fourth chapter, “The Conservative Imagination” (study of The Meditation of a Non-Political Man), Heller engaged with Mann’s history of political sympathies and the intellectual foundations of Mann’s work. This chapter also includes a relatively brief description of Mann’s polemic with Kant and Mann’s interpretation and criticism of Kant as a “philosopher of Life,” a philosopher “who sacrificed Mind for the sake of Life.”17 From this polemic Mann emerges with confidence that only a man involved in practical life (politics) can be sure of reality. Yet, Heller comments, politically involved man lacks broader perspective and sacrifices imagination to authenticity. Heller considers Mann a more profound thinker in his conservative, nonpolitical period.

Then, in the sixth chapter, “The Theology of Irony,” Heller explores the different modes of irony and parody that Mann used to distance himself from the world of his characters, allowing him to unveil a society that exhausted its creative capacity and is trapped between chaos and despair. The Ironic German on the whole shows Heller’s interest in Mann’s perception of the fragmenting German society and in Mann’s awareness of his presence in such a world. It also demonstrates Heller’s continued fascination with Mann’s reasoning that private dilemmas and split loyalties (in pluralistic modern life) disrupted the traditional German moral and aesthetic integrity and German interest in universal values. Only by applying irony, submerging his characters in ignorance, was Mann able to identify and grasp the most serious societal problems. The Ironic German was frequently reviewed (positively, but also negatively) and the last edition appeared as late as 2010.18

The spirit of Thomas Mann was to accompany Heller on his academic path. Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks (1901), subtitled The Decline of a Family, is not only about one German family, but symbolically about the decline of the ideals in the changing German society and all Western civilization. When the family inheritance is up for grabs in the provincial Baltic city of Lübeck, the people who take it over represent a new kind of society, very different from that of the worthy, respectable burgher merchants, the Buddenbrooks. In an interview from the 1970s Heller summed up what he believed to be the essence of Mann’s Buddenbrooks and also what became his own lifelong search:

The story of the Buddenbrooks is dominated by the dualism between “Geist” and life, with “Geist,” by a process of differentiation and refinement, gradually emerging from life itself, undermining and finally destroying it. What then is this “Geist” that displays such disruptive energies, and what kind of life that crumbles away under the impact of such elusive force?19

Heller kept reworking the idea of a spirit, “Geist,” and defining the negative forces that according to him eventually undermine an established, integrated life. He himself was very familiar with the meaning of a disintegrated life, both first- and secondhand. Yet, until Hitler rose to power in Germany, Heller had lived a comfortable, provincial childhood as son of a successful family physician. His brother Paul, who testified to the USC Shoah Foundation in 1995, recalled their peaceful, conflict-free childhood:

Our father was the busiest physician in the area. . . . Our town was beautifully located at the foot of mountains, with lots of villages in the area. . . . We owned home with two apartments, one was ours and one we rented out. . . . We lived there in peace, in a very comfortable way.20

After Erich Heller moved from Chomutov to Prague in 1929 to study law, enjoy city life, and lay the foundation for his own future, the world around him started falling apart together with his own life. Subsequently, Heller lived to see many variations of a catastrophe. Yet he did not find any value in searching for integrative forces. Instead, Heller advised to wait and then re-form the fragments that disintegration left behind instead of trying to keep together what was falling apart. He saw value in building consciousness and the ability to endure this condition: “Having the strength, the intellectual composure to live with it, rather than to rush to historical attempts to find a solution. It may be that the strength to live through the catastrophes will at the same time supply the strength or the genius to reintegrate what has disintegrated.”21 In real life, he was prepared to deal with the disappearance of his world, as the professional path he took from 1939 to 1948 and beyond demonstrates.

Heller, however, became best known for his tragic vision of modernity, for his perception that human catastrophes are inevitable. He maintained that the romantic, satisfied art of living leads to a withdrawal from real life and this illusion eventually fully replaces the perception of the real world. This happens often unnoticed by the subject. In the arts this gap may refer to the content and form, soul and form, or ethics and aesthetics. Parallel dualisms were, of course, examined by a number of philosophers, including Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx and György Lukács. In his lengthy essay, “The Artist’s Journey into Interior,” Heller did not call this phenomenon alienation.22 He spoke instead about the presence or absence of politics, as an analogue to the real life. In adherence to this real life, which includes politics, he saw especially Mann’s writings as generally healthy: “Literature versus poetry, literature, which for Thomas Mann formed a unity with politics, against poetry that is subject to a different law than life, or even politics. This was and still is a very German subject.”23

In his essay “Die verantwortungslose Literatur” [Literature without responsibility], Heller expressed his deep criticism of the distinction between the life of the mind and the life in the world (politics). For “to think” is to be in the world, as the thinking appears in the particular time and place that influences the thinker. To Heller, Hegel was the binding authority. To dispute Plato’s famed statement about Art’s lack of truth, Heller argued that without spiritual consciousness, literature would become trivial and it would not make sense to go into the great efforts of banning it. And to his defense, Heller also called on Nietzsche and used his articulation that a pure form equals a pure nothing and thus the peculiarity of the obsession with form is perverse.24 In other words, Heller was a passionate critic of what became accepted as formalism. He used the verse of his friend W. H. Auden (Thomas Mann’s son-in-law) to illustrate his argument:

God may reduce you
On Judgement Day
To tears of shame,
Reciting by heart
The poems you would
Have written, had
Your life been good.25

The Disinherited Mind

After obtaining his Ph.D., Heller moved to the University College of Swansea in Wales as an independent lecturer and head of the German Department. In 1950 he was promoted to professor and remained at University College through the fall of 1959. In 1960, when Heller arrived in the United States, he was welcomed with champagne at an ostentatious party friends threw for him in New York. The suitcases that the dock porters carried for him also contained his personal correspondence with many public intellectuals of the time, including Conrad Aiken, Hannah Arendt, T. S. Eliot, and Theodor Adorno, as well as with Henry Kissinger and Werner Heisenberg. Heller recalled this arrival in terms that melded the Old World with the New and emphasized his intimate knowledge of both: “Relatives and acquaintances had gathered in a welcome crowd, and there it was, New York, so interwoven with Prague and Vienna that if you looked, but not specifically out the window, you lost New York completely out of sight and certainly out of hearing.”26

Heller never lost the belief that his prewar roots in Habsburg Central Europe gave him a special ability to understand the men he studied and the world they inhabited. Toward the end of Heller’s academic career, a student newspaper posed a question to him: “You have written about the idea of disinheritance in literature. Is there a relationship between your personal experience as a refugee and your writing about disinheritance?” Heller responded:

I was well prepared for my personal experience, because I was convinced that some catastrophic event was in the making. The rise of Hitler took quite a number of years and I watched it with a kind of pessimistic certainty. But my personal experience as a refugee is more or less contingent. The theme of disinheritance has occupied my thoughts for a long time.27

Heller further explained that the term and idea of inheritance he borrowed from Kafka, who spoke of himself as a disinherited son, by which he meant his inability to follow in the footsteps of the old Orthodox Jewish traditions of Central Europe. Heller also borrowed from Rilke’s Seventh Duino Elegy: “Each vague turn of the world has such disinherited ones, to whom the former does not, and the next does not yet, belong.”28 As an agnostic himself, Heller felt right at home in such an epicenter of modernity.

Heller’s fame came mostly from this first publication, The Disinherited Mind, in which he coined the conception of cultural and spiritual “disinheritance.” Its title and the essays included in the book (on Goethe, Nietzsche, Spengler, Rilke, Kafka, and Karl Kraus) capture the experience of the loss of fundamental values in the process of secularization. Heller turns it into a critical key term for determining the state of consciousness of the epoch. Throughout the text he makes frequent references to the sense of “disinheritance” as he looks for references to this awareness in works of German literature.

But it was Heller’s compatriot from Prague, Paul Roubiczek, who offered a clearer and crisper narrative of the problem. A generation older than Heller, Roubiczek was born in 1898 into the family of a Prague Jewish manufacturer. He experienced World War I as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, studied in Berlin, but then had to interrupt his studies and take care of his father’s business after his early death. In 1933 Roubiczek emigrated to Paris where he established Der europäische Merkur, an anti-Nazi publishing house. After 1939 he fled the continent and worked as an extramural lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge and as a supervisor of German at various colleges in England. In 1956 the University of Cambridge awarded Roubiczek the honorary degree of Master of Arts.29

In Misinterpretations of Man (published in 1934 in German and 1947 in English translation), Roubiczek emphasized that it was ten years before the French Revolution that Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason, restricting the scope of metaphysics, introducing the laws of thinking, and making room for intrinsic freedom and the “experiencing” of the sensual inner mind. This inner mind is an essential part of our experience of reality, our existence in the world and our awareness of it. This recognition, Roubiczek argued, paved the way to “setting the man free from the old feudal laws.” For the inner mind, the power of sense, forms concepts of our knowledge and also “guarantees the sovereignty and freedom of man, by excluding absolute knowledge and establishing the role which we ourselves have to play in the world.”30 Aware of this inner mind, a man would not need a dogma to guide him through his life. The moral laws are represented as part of human nature. Roubiczek articulated his belief that hardly any important thoughts of the nineteenth century would have been possible without Kant’s preparatory work because he had opened up the way to Romanticism and the modern form of individualism that inspired Nietzsche. He argued there that the achievements of Kant and Goethe helped to liberate the personality. This sensual individual is inspired by nature and mysticism and becomes the moral lawmaker for his own acts.31

Heller was no stranger to Roubiczek’s ideas and work. During the decade after World War II, he exchanged letters with Roubiczek, read his work, and recommended it to publishers. Heller also dedicated his book The Ironic German to Paul and Hjoerdis Roubiczek (as well as Francis Bennet and Graham Storey): “For affectionate memories of those days in Cambridge when the idea of this book was first conceived.” In Heller’s own published studies of the “disinherited world,” however, he mostly skipped over the work of Kant and Fichte and instead analyzed the guiding principles of Goethe, the mastermind Nietzsche, the conservative critic of liberalism Spengler, and the Central European writers Rilke and Kafka.

Among those, the author that seems to be a strange misfit to remain in the postwar canon is Oswald Spengler. Yet, Heller’s admiration of Spengler led him not only to include an analysis of The Decline of the West, but also to state that the works of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and H. G. Wells are “invariably an elaboration of themes from The Decline of the West. Heller acknowledged that Spengler was by general consent utterly out of date, but nonetheless made the effort to resuscitate interest in Spengler’s writing. Heller seems to be in an agreement with Spengler’s vision of History as Destiny, a cycle of life and death, at a societal level. Heller approvingly quoted Spengler to describe the death of cultured human society: “Then, with its (given culture’s) spiritual substance exhausted, outward expansion is the only gesture of life that is left.” In terms of government and foreign policy Heller further quotes Spengler: “The totalitarian state becomes the instrument of inevitable imperialistic wars.” Yet Heller was also critical of Spengler, whom he termed a “false prophet.” Heller used the adjective “false” not in the relation to the correctness of the prediction, but rather based on the sincerity of his concern for the things threatened by human “sin and anger.” After all, Spengler appeared to Heller to be “merely concerned with lending Destiny a hand in the business of destruction.”32

The Disinherited Mind earned mostly positive reviews over a span of decades. In 1953, in one of the first published reviews, Bonamy Dobrée kept a satirical distance from what Heller described. Firmly earthbound, Dobrée stated that “the Teutonic soul seems to live in a difficult chaos and for a German poet the affirmation to life has to emerge from this dark chaos.”33 When The Disinherited Mind came out in a Pelican edition in 1961 (and could thus more easily reach a wider audience), Leslie Bodi reviewed the book and argued that Heller’s work presented a synthesis of Central European and English thought. According to Bodi, Heller himself served as a mediator between “Oxbridge and Kakanien”: he translated the “intellectual small-talk of old-time Prague and Vienna into excellent English . . . and adapt[ed] it most skillfully into Anglo-Saxon attitudes and ideas.”34 In 1981 German literary scholar Hans Egon Holthusen, a close friend of Heller since the early 1950s, summarized The Disinherited Mind in his public congratulatory letter for Heller’s seventieth birthday:

What is described is the disintegration of a great culture, the exodus of the guiding spirits from the Occidental aeon, as an inevitable fate. Heller’s πάτος [pathos, spelled in Greek in the original] is the question of meaning, it is the great calamity caused by the fact that the recognizability of truth is desperately uncertain, even hopeless. It is what Thomas Mann calls “hollow silence” in the Magic Mountain [Zauberberg], where The Time persistently silences all of our questions about the unconditional meaning of our efforts. . . . His [Heller’s] models have German names. What was achieved in Heller’s books was in fact the critical mediation of a German literature of the 20th century under cosmopolitan auspices. And this in a historical moment, in which an Empire as a political way of life for Germans has become in the eyes of the world forever impossible.35

Was a thesis like this a radical understanding of German literature? It certainly hurt the nostalgic yearning for continuity, yet also more than that: Heller identified with the loss of the “inheritance” and approved of the loss. For him, the loss itself is The Authority, setting new norms. To those without first-hand experience of the loss emotionally and personally, or those who remained unaware of it, it indeed might have seemed a rather radical pointer to their spiritual future.

Heller and H. E. Holthusen

In the postwar period Hans Egon Holthusen assumed an important role as an intermediary in the cultural exchange between the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany. In his essays and books he repeatedly dealt with current literary trends. The “Holthusen Papers” in Northwestern’s McCormick Special Collections archive holds some of his correspondence with distinguished European authors, poets, and philosophers, dating between 1939 and 1982.36 The list of more than forty correspondents in the inventory starts alphabetically with the following names: T. Adorno, A. Andersch, H. Arendt, W. H. Auden, I. Bachmann, M. Brod, G. Grass, M. Heidegger. The sense the reader gets from reading of the voluminous private correspondence between Heller and Holthusen is that their friendship rested on both personal and literary matters, despite the seemingly opposite natures of their personalities.37 Heller admitted to pessimism as his mode of being. Holthusen’s letters show, by contrast, a limitless, optimistic curiosity about life, even about tabloid news. The friendship developed despite Heller’s initial criticism of Holthusen’s writing and lasted many years.

Holthusen was born into a Protestant family in Rendsburg in northern Germany. In 1933, at the age of twenty, he voluntarily enlisted in the SS. Four years later, for unclear reasons, he left the SS and became a member of the Nazi Party.38 He spent five years as a Wehrmacht soldier in Poland, France, and Russia, and lost his younger brother Walter in 1942 on the Eastern Front. Despite his checkered history, by the 1950s, Joachim Kaiser remarked in Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, Holthusen “ruled” German literature.39 By the early 1960s he worked in major German cultural affairs, from 1961 to 1964 as the director of the Goethe Institut in New York, and as a visiting professor at several American universities. In 1968 he joined Heller as a tenured professor at Northwestern University, until he returned to Germany in 1981 to continue his career as the elected president of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts (Bayrische Akademie der schönen Künste) and an elected member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin (Akademie der schönen Künste in Berlin) untill 1983, as well as a member of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. When Holthusen celebrated his sixtieth birthday in 1973, Heller wrote a public congratulatory letter to mark the occasion. In this laudation Heller characterized his friend and colleague as an eternal optimist:

Aliveness—that’s it! Someone who has been ordered to live. To quote our, your Rilke incorrectly, since there is often a lack of “glory” when one is not only orphic, but also critically active nowadays. Yes, most vividly alive, that is you, and as if one were also a little more in your presence, than what one would be without you, and thank you for that!40

In a private reply to Heller, Holthusen labeled the letter as one that mattered most to him.41

In winter 1960 the Library of Congress invited two representative scholars of French and two of German literary studies to deliver lectures about their respective literatures. The two scholars invited to present the development and most important works of German literature were Erich Heller and Hans Egon Holthusen. While Heller chose to speak about the lasting impact of Nietzsche (“The Modern German Mind: The Legacy of Nietzsche”), Holthusen lectured about the German apocalypse (“Crossing the Zero Point: German Literature since World War II”). The audience was surely taken by surprise when Holthusen started: “Our point of departure, and at the same time the very focus of our whole enquiry, must needs be [original wording] the German catastrophe of 1945.” He went on to vividly depict German suffering immediately after World War II and then presented four German writers, all of whom were born in the nineteenth century: Gottfried Benn (1886), Bertolt Brecht (1898), Thomas Mann (1875), and Ernst Jünger (1895). Holthusen explained that given the apocalyptic conditions in Germany after 1945, no one could expect an appearance of another German genius writer like Rilke or Kafka.42

Despite his myopic focus on German suffering, Holthusen was one of the few German writers who dared to respond to Wolfgang Weyrauch’s 1966 article, “War ich ein Nazi?” The article challenged writers to reflect on their own uncomfortable pasts. Holthusen did, in the lengthiest response of only nine published contributions. His answer, however, just like his lecture at the Library of Congress six years earlier, was no critical introspection, and not orphic in any sense. He depicted an environment, the 1930s in Germany, where nothing made sense and no decision would have made a difference. The largest part of his essay described over and over the circumstances of the year 1933. He enlightened readers that he joined the SS simply out of conceitedness and for advancement possibilities, not as a true follower of fascist ideology:

The black uniformed organization with the skull emblem of the Schill officers was considered elite, it was considered chic, it was considered elegant, and so it was preferred by many exclusively appointed younglings, because they were too delicate to walk around in the shit brown gown of the SA.43

Holthusen hid behind Arendt’s systemic theory and he did not shy from pointing the finger at others, for example, at Adorno for his admiration of music composed for Hitler. At the very beginning of the essay Holthusen mentioned his participation in the resistance movement against National Socialism in Bavaria, in the very last days of World War II. 44 The members of that resistance group, the Freedom Action Bavaria (FAB), came mainly from the conservative, Bavarian patriots and educated middle class. Nonetheless, for Holthusen his resistance activity was apparently of such little importance that he devoted only one sentence to it in his almost fifty-page-long contribution. In the self-centered letter there was little to no space left for the name of any of the peoples that fell victim to the Holocaust. In a review of the anthology for Die Zeit, Horst Krüger expressed his perplexity: “The inability of the North German pastor’s son of critical introspection is dismaying.”45

Perhaps Heller’s friendship with Holthusen was proof of a belief in coping, not saving in everyday practice. If Holthusen’s life story sounds similar to one of the more eminent thinkers, then it might be worth mentioning that Heller did grow critical of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy because Heidegger supported Hitler and National Socialism for philosophical reasons. Of course, Heidegger’s Black Notebooks had not yet been published when Heller was reassessing his intellectual relationship with Heidegger’s thought.46

German Studies in the Midwest before Heller’s Arrival

When Heller accepted his position at Northwestern University, German Studies as academic field in the United States was still young. The discipline had been part of the legacy of German immigration to the United States. Between 1850 and 1890 almost 2 million German speakers immigrated to the United States and settled predominantly in the Midwest. German was used in schools and churches and German newspapers were widely printed. The knowledge of German classics was considered a stepping-stone to education. Up until World War I the image of German literature was favorable and so powerful that it took some effort to rally the American public to anti-German World War I propaganda. The war hysteria targeted specifically public universities, especially in regions with a strong German immigrant population. Professors at the universities of Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin were censured and dismissed because of their attitudes toward the war. At the University of Michigan, the administration almost completely dismantled its German Department in the years 1917–1918, permanently discharging six professors for suspected disloyalty.47 This loss of status hit many German patriots more than the fact that the world had entered a war. The old positive and the new aggressive image of Germans mixed together and produced a deeper interest in Germany as societal phenomenon rather than in German literature.48

Only when the situation in the Weimar Republic seemed more stable in the 1920s did the situation of German Studies start changing. German classics and Romanticism slowly became permissible again, but excluding anything on the Left or anything with more than a singular German background, for example, works by Jewish Germans. In this period, German academia in the Midwest promoted authors from the national conservative (pre-fascist) circles, for example, Hans Carossa. Then refugees from Nazism from Germany and Central Europe brought liberal ideas into the sensitive environment where the anti-German hysteria of 1917 was followed by anticommunist hysteria. Jost Hermand argued that interest in authors like Hermann Broch, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Franz Kafka, and Franz Werfel did not disturb the established classic cannon and did not voice too loudly the criticism coming from the Left. It merely shifted interest to the intrinsic values: “form-content, rhythm.”49

By focusing on the intrinsic literary values, rather than interpretative approach, the authors and their critics were better protected from any suspicion of political (leftist) engagement. Avoidance of political or ideological engagement offered the possibility to continue talking about literature. Heller fulfilled this condition instinctively, thanks to his standing interest in the newly discovered, mostly Central European writers. He did so despite his stated aversion to formalism, despite having contributed strongly to the existential literary criticism by his depiction of the symptom of the era: the spiritual barrenness and despair (Disinherited Mind). By the 1960s, when Heller arrived in the United States, his political loyalties were already conservative, almost mainstream. In January 1968 Hannah Arendt (an avid reader of Heller’s writings) sent him a letter about a review of his essay on Kafka in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “I took a very close look at the supplement from FAZ. Indeed, you should not do anything about Mr. Wagenbach’s rabid remarks about your introduction. It is of course also an attack on your general position by the ‘Left.’”50

However, Heller was part of a cohort of primarily German Jewish writers who published in German and (mostly) had leftist pasts, at least in their youth in Europe between the wars. In an interview Heller explained: “I was quite well known in student and political circles in Prague, I had been in liberal student movements, socially [sic, socialist] movements, even, and I was politically very much compromised.”51 Heller reflected on his leftist past in several other conversations, if not with shame, then with definite contempt: “I’m much more conservative now than I ever could have imagined at the age of twenty. I have learned not to be particularly proud of that part of my past.”52 In another interview, Heller stated that his transformation had to do with his “gradual disillusionment with any Utopia. . . . One of the most decisive wounds perhaps, to my progressive socialist ideology, was the total impotence of the liberal opponents to Hitler.”53

Heller’s statement about “the impotence of liberal opponents to Hitler” likely referred in part to the Munich Agreement of September 1938, when France and Great Britain treacherously forced Czechoslovakia to surrender its border regions and defenses to Nazi Germany in exchange for Hitler’s useless pledge of peace. Heller, in other words, suffered from what the Czechs call a “Munich complex.” Heller carried this lesson within and applied it as late as the 1980s, when he concluded: “the ‘peace movement’ is naively and unconsciously one of the most destructive movements ever invented. . . . The only means of preserving political independence of the West is atomic blackmail.”54

In the post-Nazi era Heller as a critic of German literature and philosophy enjoyed a double advantage that may explain his success as a public intellectual. Not only did he not bear any personal stain of Nazism; he also hailed from the Habsburg lands that did not shoulder the moral burden of Germany itself. Heller, as noted above, chose to emphasize his cultural connection to German-language writers from his native Bohemia. In an interview with Stephen Bates, the dean of faculty in Northwestern’s College of Arts and Sciences, he also proudly maintained that many of the most important writers in German did not come from Germany.55 The Austrian publishers (post–World War II) that Heller collaborated with, for example, the journal FORVM in 1956, expressed the same affinity to one’s own: “contribution by Erich Heller, a Professor of German Literature, originating from Austria.”56

Ironically, if Heller was aware of the shifting in the American reception of literary works and simply played his Central European cards, then it removed him from his own thesis that he spelled out in The Ironic German, namely that literature is truthful and politically conscious. Or perhaps he could consider his own turn to political conservatism in exile as a turn closer to current local political life. Heller also eventually distanced himself from his initial admiration for Thomas Mann. Although his socialist connections had once allowed Heller to meet many intellectuals, including Mann, Heller dismissed him in 1980 as a “mere bureaucrat, nothing more”: “Mann looked like a higher state official and conducted himself in the same way.”57

Thomas Mann and Erich Heller moved in their own political lives in opposite directions. While Heller moved from a leftist past closer and closer to a conservative approach in his adult life in England and the United States, Thomas Mann transformed from a conservative anti-republican Romantic to a supporter of the Weimar Republic. When confronted with the radical Right challenges to Weimar, Mann shifted to increasingly strong support of the Social Democratic Party. Some critics, for example, Georgy Lukács, saw Mann’s writing very differently from Heller: as a rebirth of society along Marxist lines, especially in Buddenbrooks, Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus. Although neither Heller nor Mann was religious, Heller continued to believe that the Enlightenment was the cornerstone leading to a catastrophe, but Mann eventually fully accepted it.58

Heller’s Golden Cage in the Midwest

The nonpolitical interpretative literary methods applied in the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II gradually lost their novelty as the fear of being read as leftist and moving too close to the danger of falling onto the radar of the House Un-American Activities Committee slowly eased up. German Studies began to change by the time Erich Heller arrived in the United States and accepted the position at Northwestern University. In the 1960s American universities and, with them, German departments began to expand and grow. New liberal minds, many arriving directly from Germany, filled opening teaching positions. This new generation of academics, operating in the new political atmosphere, eventually cleared the “Muff” of the stagnating American Germanistik, just like they would in Germany itself.59

The new emphasis stressed ethical leadership and voicing political ideas once again. The connection between academia and life outside was slowly reestablished. The change became visible not only in the theoretical research focus, but also in practical teaching. While in the 1950s the focus was on language training and for academic advancement the development of language materials might have been enough, that was no longer the case by the late 1960s. Not only younger German academics (who came because of better prospects for advancement in academia compared to the situation at home), but also the Vietnam War brought calls for the political relevance of literature in the wider world. The ability to speak to a wider audience, which in turn brought in more students and possibly raised the profile of both the department and the university, marked the return of a connection to politics.

Heller was rather careful in his interviews with regard to the current political situation in any of his homelands. He remained devoted to literature and when he commented on life in Germany or Austria, it was through the literary lens and mostly pointing to the past. Heller did not articulate a vision for a societal organization in these countries going forward, aside from taking a strong position with respect to the Cold War, as the independence of the West was the dearest value for him.

That distinction became clearer in a response that Heller wrote to a critical review of The Ironic German. In the 1959 review Goronwy Rees interpreted Heller’s praising of Mann as a novelist as an insufficient criticism of Mann’s writing (only) in the face of Hitler. Rees doubted that Mann has done enough in his opposition to Hitler and he even doubted the honesty of Mann’s opposition.60 Within three months Heller responded to Rees, explaining that his published retort was “entirely for Thomas Mann’s sake.”61 Heller vehemently rejected Rees’s suggestion that the German catastrophe meant little to Mann along with Rees’s jest that Mann’s “answer to Buchenwald was a smile.”62 Heller reminded the reader of “the many pamphlets and speeches in which Mann sought first to rouse resistance to Hitler inside Germany, then awaken the world to the immensity of the German danger, and finally to undermine, through broadcasts from London, the moral defenses of Hitler’s ‘fortress Europe’”63 Heller found Mann’s dealings with Hitler “utterly un-problematical,” but he had a much greater difficulty understanding Mann’s postwar contacts with the German Democratic Republic and “his benevolent shaking of hands with its literary lackeys.” In this response, shortly after the publication of The Ironic German, Heller spelled out the greatest irony of Thomas Mann anew:

Is it not ironical that in a world of liberal letters, applauding with “non-political” abandon and almost masochistic delight the politically corrupted genius of Bertolt Brecht, frowning doubts should be voiced in 1958 concerning the depth of Thomas Mann’s humanistic indignation at the tyrannical infamies of—Hitler?64

Setting aside any potential personal reasons, Heller’s firm stand on the East/West conflict, his distrust in liberal democracies, and fear of proletarian tyranny were all possibly at the root of Heller’s continuing drift away from Mann.

In the course of his own life Thomas Mann stepped out of the “Unpolitische” [nonpolitical] and became himself “Der tätige Geist” [acting inner self] that he originally rejected. This conscious spirit drove his political engagement during the thirties and early forties. He was among the exiled authors who expressed their affinity to and support of American political values. Mann, however, returned to Europe in 1952, after he was forced to quit his position as a consultant in Germanic Literature at the Library of Congress, as a suspected communist (after testifying to the House for Un-American Activities Committee), and after he had been challenged by German intellectuals to consider return (as early as 1945 in an open letter from Walter von Molo).65 Mann refused to live in Germany and settled for the last two years of his life in Switzerland (where he had often visited before World War I and then lived in exile from 1933 to 1938).

For Heller there was no urgent political or personal need, or any familiar physical space to which he could return or which he would wish to preserve. When Czechoslovakia emerged back into existence after liberation in 1945, it had a different size and demography. The ethnic Germans had been expelled, their homes looted, and land resettled. Larger estates and factories were seized by the state. Czech and Slovak became the country’s only official languages, social realism and the communist doctrine the only permitted way of living. The country he knew from his youth no longer existed. The communist coup in 1948 sealed this situation for the next four decades.

But Heller did have an opportunity to visit Prague in the 1960s. A fellow countryman from northern Bohemia, literary critic, Germanist, Slavicist and Anglicist Kurt Krolop (born 1930), whose family had been expelled after World War II to East Germany, repeatedly invited Heller to make a return visit to his homeland. Krolop taught at Martin-Luther University in Halle and from 1957 onward at Charles University in Prague, where in 1968 he had become the first chair of the Forschungsstelle für Prager deutsche Literatur [Research Center for Prague German Literature] until the institute was dissolved in 1969. Krolop participated in the famous 1963 Kafka conference in Liblice near Prague and he delivered one of the keynote speeches at the follow-up conference in 1965. His efforts to engage in research about Prague German and Moravian German literature, to organize conferences that confronted the problem (for the Communist Party) of the German presence in Bohemia, and to lead the institute were politically daring undertakings. Krolop made at least two attempts to bring Heller to Prague in 1968 and 1969 to give a talk. He tried to coordinate with Heller’s existing travel itineraries in Germany and proposed “a side trip [Abstecher] to Prague.”66 Heller never accepted the invitation.

The first homeland for which Heller could have longed was for him irretrievably lost. He commented on this fact frequently in the interviews that he also frequently gave. But he did seriously consider an offer from his second homeland. In March 1971 the provost of University College London, Noel Annan, invited Heller once again to become the head of their German Department (which for Heller could have meant closing the circle, not dissimilar to returning home). It took Heller six months to respond and he made the provost greatly impatient. Perhaps he acted in a Kafkaesque manner, consciously or not, first creating a hostile environment by procrastination, and then being left with no other option but to reject. Heller eventually wrote the provost in October that he “would very much enjoy this, if only it had not been for the Germanic leadership,” explaining how much he disliked administrative work. And then Heller continued in a very pragmatic fashion:

My Northwestern professorial freedom allows me to teach almost whatever I happen to like teaching, and from time to time not to teach at all; the difference in salary (even after taking into account the lower cost of living)—I would have to take a cut of 50 percent and the considerable reduction of my retirement income.67

Heller also inquired whether it would be possible for London to contribute to his pension insurance in America, revealing the ultimate reasons for his decision.

The Inheritance

For the formulation of the title of his seminal work, The Disinherited Mind, and the ideas within it, Heller was attacked by some readers for whom the idea of one’s making, completely detached from the tradition, was unimaginable, and even sinful. Yet for Heller, an agnostic who lived a parallel of a similar disintegration of societal network in 1918, this was very close to home and he could have easily been writing about his own life. It may be that Heller’s successful career was enabled by the fact that he originated from Bohemia and was so naturally part of the circles where Central European authors were more prominently discussed. Heller remained faithful (mostly) to the same group of writers that had enchanted him in his youth and whose writing was so firmly connected to his “romantic” way of living in the literary cafés in Prague in interwar Czechoslovakia, now so pragmatically and firmly rejected as naïve. The only German writer that Heller so assertively spurned in his later career, Thomas Mann, was the one who did not share his Habsburg cultural heritage.

However, they both still shared the cultural heritage of Nietzsche. For Mann, this presented a painful awareness. Buddenbrooks (1901) is to some extent a result of Mann’s fascination with Nietzsche and the urge to respond to his philosophy in his own creative way. In his Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (1918) Mann spoke about the eternally connected spirits of the triumvirate Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wagner, and the inspiration they provided for him and most of the German educated middle class in the first half of the twentieth century. Nicolas Martin argues that Friedrich Nietzsche emerged also as a key figure in Thomas Mann’s continued efforts in the mid-1940s to account for National Socialism and to contextualize Germany’s “Faustian bargain.” Mann examined Nietzsche’s intellectual and emotional authority and attempted to distance himself from him, but ended up in a renewed admiration. Martin cited from a letter Mann wrote to a Bavarian lawyer and lyricist Maximillian Brantl in 1947: “I can’t be angry with Nietzsche because he ‘spoiled my Germans.’ If they were so stupid as to fall for his diabolism, that is their business, and if they cannot take their great men, so they should no longer produce any.”68 In this wording, Mann’s quotation gets familiarly close to Nietzsche’s own statement: “One even ought not to know more of a thing than what one can create. Furthermore, the only way to know a thing truly is the attempt to make it.”69

Heller would have to agree that German thinkers found the diagnosis (the loss of the spiritual guidance by God), but no cure. The wound remained open and the German attempt to close it forcefully (replacement with a human leader full of Will to Power) failed terribly, as it led to the horrors of the Holocaust. Perhaps that was on Heller’s mind when he advised against any forceful attempts to reintegrate what had disintegrated. However, the return of a spiritual life that includes faith, the return of God, is not part of Heller’s prophesy for the Western democracies. Reinventing a new spiritual foundation for the disinherited modern Western society is unlikely. The birthright is lost, and we have to have the composure to come to terms with it.

How relevant would Heller’s teaching be today and for whom? He himself may have found the answer in a letter to a friend from the German Department of the University of Wales in Swansea: “I don’t believe in German departments. How can one get a picture of the world by reading Thomas Mann, but not Anna Karenina? I believe in World literature.”70 That is a clear shift away from the still-complex and complicated, but narrow (national) understanding of the world: Austrian, Bohemian, or German. The physical space Heller inhabited, of course, had become much larger for him after having come from the Bohemian borderlands to Prague and having experienced two physical exiles, one involuntary, one chosen. In his countless interviews Heller wrapped his message more carefully:

What seems to me particularly disturbing, at times, is that English-speaking students should devote themselves to the study of even not very important German writers whom they have to read with great effort (at the same time learning the subtleties of the language), while they remain ignorant of the great literary works in their own language.71

Historically, Heller derived his view also from the German eighteenth-century search for the roots (Ursprünge) that so many small nations in Europe followed. He viewed the burrowing for national roots as a resurrection of primitivity, capable of destroying the delicate fabric of civilization. For Heller, the imaginative immersion into the “primitivity” to find new intellectual goals reveals the greatest (German) irony.72 Thus Heller’s resolution was to call for “World or European literature” to lead students to the best sources and skip “unimportant” authors often included in national canons. Instead, he proposed an analogue to the national awakening movements, not to recover the past, but to recover the interior past, a movement to retrieve one’s historical consciousness. Which in turn explains Heller’s inclination to accept a description of his own work as a “historian of consciousness,” while objecting to the label “psychoanalyst.” For Heller, consciousness was a changing entity. And “psychoanalysis is the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.”73

Heller called this introspective journey a “voyage into the interior.” Yet in a paraphrase of Hegel, Heller still highlighted the importance of a connection to reality: “no imagination can equal the excitements of the real world.”74 What remained with all these doubts is only the questioning of the value of truth. This conclusion not only reflects Heller’s belief that “Nietzsche is the master-mind of modern Germany and few can think in Germany without thinking of Nietzsche,” but also his handling of the truth in his own life.75 Heller’s own voyage resulted in a dislike, if not fear, of universal truths, that is, ideologies.

When the 1938 German invasion tore apart the familiar atmosphere of democratic Prague, Heller may not have undergone as radical and sudden a transformation as other writers and thinkers from Prague who spoke Czech in addition to their native German and felt more rooted and sheltered in the city. They found it more difficult to accept the reality of their world disappearing. His sense of belonging had already been limited, at least during his studies in Prague. He could not comfortably socialize with a majority of the city’s residents who spoke Czech, fully partake in their cultural life, or engage in arguments with them—about politics or literature. Heller himself emphasized that his idea of inheritance was conceived long before his physical flight. Holthusen’s memory confirmed Heller’s awareness of being an outsider when he recalled how they both sat in a house over the Swansea Bay and drank a lot of Drambuie, while Heller recounted witty tales from the “Czech provincial prison” [tschechisches Provinz-gefängnis].76

The Ironic Erich Heller

In 1958 Northwestern University created a new program to “provide qualified students of literature with a perspective broader than that offered in any single department.”77 The Avalon Professorship at Northwestern University was established in 1966 by the Avalon Foundation, along with the university’s “First Plan for the Seventies.” Heller persuaded the university that his perspective on life would fit the vision and he was appointed to direct the university’s general and comparative literature program. Two years later, Heller, the first Avalon Professor, was awarded the 1968 Gold Medal by the Goethe Institute of Germany for his activities as a teacher and writer. He received the prize in Munich and delivered his acceptance speech titled, “On the Margins of World Literature.”78 In 1971 he was then elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at its annual meeting in Boston. And in 1978 Heller received the Great Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Heller’s early life in a province electorally and geographically, if not intellectually, detached from German political strife redefined his attachment to cultural Germanness and empowered him with the skills to recognize and navigate the transforming world. In his youth at home, his native German represented for the first time the political interests of a minority. This extrication and refinement of the understanding of the cultural heritage possibly allowed Heller to engage so passionately in the post–World War II revival of German and Austrian culture. For Heller, it was represented in the achievements of thinkers who used the German tongue since the age of Goethe, and a select few, mostly writers who lived on non-German soil, who did so after Nietzsche.

In point of fact, Heller did ultimately cross the political threshold, but to criticize the younger generation in the sixties and seventies and, ironically, their own break with the tradition. As a keynote guest speaker for the annual public meeting of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts (Bayrische Akademie der schönen Künste) in the summer of 1971, invited by the academy’s president, his friend and colleague Holthusen, Heller sealed his position in the eyes of most of the German audience (and readers of German) as a deeply dated conservative man, estranged from late modernity. In his celebratory lecture, “Culture and Counter-Culture” [Kultur und Gegenkultur], Heller condemned American youth culture (and, among others, the Beatles) as a symptomatic product of bad education. He colorfully labeled John Lennon a music comedian [Musik-Komödiant].79 Heller continued with his attack, speaking about the hideousness of what he termed modern terrorist irrationalism and mocking the younger generation’s “journey into the interior” as “pubertal mysticism and soul tourism” [pubertäre Mystik und Seelentourismus]. The German press (and, according to reports, also a substantial part of the audience) responded with sharp criticism. In response to Heller’s statement that Sigmund Freud provided the theoretical foundation for generational conflict, the Munich Merkur commented: “The quintessence of Heller’s lecture consisted in the sharp rejection of a mentality that sees in the father-son conflict an inevitable necessity and in the destruction a creative principle.”80 In the Süddeutsche Zeitung Joachim Kaiser summarized Heller’s condemnation of modern education: “Anyone who praises the old grammar education system conservatively because it produced great men behaves roughly as logically as someone who criticizes education because it did not prevent Auschwitz.”81 And the Frankfurter Allgemeine, in reaction to Heller’s defense of preservation against renewal, called desperately for a “counter-academy.”82 Yet, given Heller’s negative assessment of the European secularization process, such celebration of the closed social and educational systems from the presecular era might appear logical.

Perhaps Heller’s fascination with the drama of German and Austrian intellectual history of the nineteenth century absorbed him so completely that not only did he search for tranquility in the departed values, but he also never publicly tested the outcomes of this struggle against the drama of post-Nazi German and Austrian politics (and literature) of the twentieth century. As a literary critic, he described the experience of irretrievability and ways of coping with it. In his own historical reality, World War II propelled many into a realm beyond recovery and the merciless consequences of the war presented survivors with bewildering acts and the need for a graspable and accountable theoretical framework. The shared awareness of the postwar void was more intense and painful than the perception of the immediate reality. That was a situation Heller was fully prepared to confront. For the critical period of two decades of post–World War II recovery, when the world demanded an explanation about what happened to Austria, Germany, and Europe, Heller offered answers that resonated on both sides of the Atlantic.



Hugo Gold, Die Juden und Judengemeinden Boehmens in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, I; ein Sammelwerk (Bruenn-Prag: Juedischer Buch- und Kunstverlarg, 1934), 299–304. Jewish Virtual Library, a project of AICE: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/chomutov (accessed August 26, 2021).


Erich Heller (1911–1990) Papers, 1932–1990 (hereafter Heller Papers), Box 6, Folder 1, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives, Northwestern University.


Gary B. Cohen, The Politics of Ethnic Survival: Germans in Prague, 1861–1914 (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2006).


Erich Heller, Kafka (London: Fontana, 1974).


For more about Kafka’s languages, see Marek Nekula, Franz Kafkas Sprachen: “In Einem Stockwerk des innern babylonischen Turmes” (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2003).


Franz Kafka and Philip Boehm, Letters to Milena, 1st American ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1990), 8.


“Der Beruf wird mir immer unleidlicher und ich spähe sehr hartnäckig nach einer Veränderung aus.” Box 1, Folder 18, Heller Papers.


“Ich habe, was zum Teil sehr schmerzlich ist, wieder und jetzt wohl endgültig entdeckt, dass das Schreiben mein eigentliches Leben ist. Alles sonst ist substanzloses und geschmackloses und stilloses Surrogat. In meinem kleinen Tagebuch steht das Wort: ‘Mein Schreiben—horror vacui.’” Ibid.


Heller published his first article about K. Kraus in Wiener Saturn Verlag in 1938: “Flucht aus dem zwanzigsten Jahrhundert.”


Herbert Agar, The City of Man; a Declaration on World Democracy (New York: Viking Press, 1941). Available from: Weltdemokratie.de: https://weltdemokratie.de/pdf/the-city-of-man.pdf (accessed June 7, 2021).


Gordon Alexander Craig, The Politics of the Unpolitical: German Writers and the Problem of Power, 1770–1871 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).


Erich Heller, “Hitler in a Very Small Town: Review,” New York Times, January 25, 1987, Late Edition (East Coast). “The trouble was that despite his frustrated determination to devote the rest of his life to philosophical and psychological studies, he did have the gifts of the literary artist. Even in the present work, jettisoned by him, these are unmistakable in the evocations of landscape, skies, flowers and farmsteads, or in the characterization of Mother Gisson or the narrator’s dog and the villagers’ children and animals. Yet the novelist is, again and again, betrayed by the theorist, and the theorist, in his turn, led astray by the imagination. This is the very predicament that pervades Hermann Broch’s exceptional and exceptionally creative life, and it reflects the character of the age.”


Hermann Broch, Briefe über Deutschland: 1945–1949; die Korrespondenz mit Volkmar von Zühlsdorff, ed. Paul Michael Lützeler (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), 21.


J. P. Stern, Idylls and Realities (London: Methuen, 1971).


Martin Swales, “J. P. Stern, 1920–1991,” German Life and Letters 45, no. 2 (1992): 191.


Box 1, Folder 21, Heller Papers.


Erich Heller, The Ironic German (South Bend, IN: Regnery/Gateway, 1979), 126.


Erich Heller, Thomas Mann: The Ironic German (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).


Box 9, Folder 13, Heller Papers. The word Geist Heller decided to use “instead of an English equivalent he characterizes as being closer to ‘imaginative questioning and possibly creative intelligence.’ Its connotations being closer to those of ‘spirit’ than of ‘mind’ or ‘intellect.’”


Paul Heller, Interview 2904 led by Jack Graller, Tape 1, Segments 1–11, Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation, 1999.


Reece Hirsch, “Fleeing Hitler’s Europe,” Daily Northwestern, April 17, 1980, Box 1, Folder 6, Heller Papers.


Erich Heller, The Artist’s Journey Into the Interior and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).


Erich Heller, “Die verantwortungslose Literatur,” Merkur 22, no. 9 (1968): 804. “Literatur versus Dichtung, die Literatur, die für Thomas Mann eins war mit der Politik, gegen die Dichtung, die einem andern Gesetzt untersteht als das ‘Leben’ oder gar die Politik: dies war und ist noch immer ein sehr deutscher Gegenstand.”


Ibid., 808–9.


Ibid., 809.


Erich Heller, “Pädagogischer Gast in Amerika,” in Jemand, der schreibt: 57 Aussagen, ed. Rudolf de le Roi (München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1972), 231. “Verwandte und Bekannte hatten sich zu einer Begrüßungsgesellschaft versammelt, und da war New York, so sehr mir Prag und Wien durchwirkt, daß man, schaute man, schaute man nicht gerade aus dem Fenster, New York ganz aus den Augen und gewiß aus den Ohren verlor.”


Hirsch, “Fleeing Hitler’s Europe.”


Rainer Maria Rilke, Duineser Elegien (Leipzig: Insel-Verlag, 1923), 28. “Jede dumpfe Umkehr der Welt hat solche Enterbte, denen das frühere nicht und noch nicht das Nächste gehört.”


Gregory Needham, “Paul Roubiczek: Some Aspects of His Thinking,” Theology (Norwich) [online] 76 (635): 256–63, https://zh.booksc.eu/book/54809911/1ce66c.


Paul Roubiczek, The Misinterpreattion of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947), 14, 17.


Roubiczek later developed the dualism of external and internal realities in full in Thinking in Opposites: An Investigation of the Nature of Man as Revealed by the Nature of Thinking (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), and Thinking Towards Religion (Sagwan Press, 2018).


Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 182, 183, 194.


Bonamy Dobrée, “The Disinherited Mind by Erich Heller (Book Review),” The Spectator 190, no. 6502 (1953): 159.


Leslie Bodi, “The Disinherited Mind (Book Review),” Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 18, no. 1 (1962): 280.


Hans Egon Holthusen, “Geburtstagsgruß an Erich Heller Zum 27. März 1981,” Merkur 35, no. 3 (1981): 340. “Was beschrieben wird, ist die Desintegration einer großen Kultur, der Exodus der maßgeblichen Geister aus dem abendländischen Äon, als ein Unabwendbares Verhängnis, Hellers Pathos ist die Sinnfrage, es ist die große Kalamität, die darin liegt, dass es mit der Erkennbarkeit von Wahrheit eine so verzweifelt ungewisse, ja, hoffnungslose Bewandtnis hat, es ist was Thomas Mann im Zauberberg das Hohle Schweigen nennt, mit dem die Zeit all unser Fragen nach einem unbedingten Sinn unserer Bemühungen beharrlich überschweigt.

Seine Modelle tragen deutsche Namen. Was in Hellers Büchern geleistet wurde, war in der Tat die kritische Vermittlung einer deutschen Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts unter kosmopolitischen Auspizien, und dies in einem geschichtlichen Augenblick, dass das Reich als die politische Lebensform der Deutschen in den Augen der Welt für immer unmöglich geworden war.”


Hans Egon Holthusen (1913–1997) Papers, 1939–1982, Box 1, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives, Northwestern University.


Box 5, Folder 24, Heller Papers.


Mechthild Raabe, Hans Egon Holthusen: Bibliographie 1931-1997 (Hildesheim: Universitätsbibliothek, 2000).


Joachim Kaiser, Süddeutsche Zeitung, April 15, 1973 (Stiftung Universität Hildesheim): https://www.uni-hildesheim.de/en/bibliothek/forschen-publizieren/literaturarchiv/hans-egon-holthusen/zur-person-he-holthusen/ (accessed: August 31, 2021). “In den 50-er Jahren beherrschte er die deutsche Literatur, soweit ein kritisierender sie beherrschen kann.”


Erich Heller, “Geburtstagsbrief an Hans Egon Holthusen,” Merkur 22, no. 4 (April 1973).

“Lebendigkeit—das ist‘s! Ein zum Leben Bestellter, um unsern, Deinen Rilke falsch zu zitieren, da es am ‘Rühmen’ ja doch oft hapert, wenn man heutzutage sich nicht nur orphisch, sondern auch kritisch betätigt. Ja, aufs lebhafteste lebendig, das bist Du, und als ist‘s man in Deiner Gegenwart selber ein bißchen mehr, als man es ohne Dich wäre, und danke Dir dafür!” [on the occasion of Holthusen’s 60th birthday].


Personal note to Heller, Box 5, Folder 24, Heller Papers.


Pierre Emmanuel, French and German Letters Today: Four Lectures (Washington, DC: Reference Dept., Library of Congress, 1960), 39, 40.


Hans Egon Holthusen, “Porträt eines jungen Mannes, der freiwillig zur SS ging,” in Joachim Günther and Ludwig Marcuse, War ich ein Nazi? Politik-Anfechtung des Gewissens (München: Rütten and Loenig, 1968). 61. “Die schwarzuniformierte Organisation mit dem Totenkopfemblem der Schillschen Offiziere galt als eine Auslese, sie galt als schic, sie galt als elegant, und darum wurde sie von vielen exklusiv eingestellten Jünglingen bevorzugt, weil sie sich zu fein waren, in der kackbraunen Kluft der SA herumzulaufen.”


Holthusen, “Porträt eines jungen Mannes, der freiwillig zur SS ging,” 41.


Horst Krüger, “Waren sie Nazis?” Die Zeit 27 (1968), https://www.zeit.de/1968/27/waren-sie-nazis/komplettansicht (accessed June 7, 2021). “Die Unfähigkeit des norddeutschen Pastorensohnes zur kritischen Introspektion ist bestürzend.”


Martin Heidegger, Ponderings VII–XI: Black Notebooks, 1938–1939, trans. Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017).


Clifford Wilcox, “World War I and the Attack of Professors of German and the University of Michigan,” History of Education Quarterly 33, no. 1 (1993): 59–84.


Hermand Jost, “Zur Situation der Germanistik in den USA. Eine historische Bilanz,” Zeitschrift Für Germanistik 11, no. 3 (2001): 578–89.


Ibid., 580, 581.


Wagenbach was a German publisher and scholar who wrote a major critical biography of Kafka. Klaus Wagenbach, Franz Kafka in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Leipzig: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1964). See also Box 4, Folder 9, Heller Papers.“Ich habe mir die Beilage aus der FAZ sehr genau angesehen. Gegen die pöbelhaften Bemerkungen von Herrn Wagenbach gegen Ihre Einleitung sollten Sie in der Tat nichts tun. Es ist natürlich auch ein Angriff der ‘Linken’ auf Ihre Gesamtposition.”


Bates, “Interview with Erich Heller,” Box 1, Folder 6, Heller Papers.


Hirsch, “Fleeing Hitler’s Europe.”


Paul Herron, “An Interview with Erich Heller,” Box 1, Folder 6, Heller Papers.


Herron, “An Interview with Erich Heller.”


Bates, “Interview with Erich Heller.”


“Zum 20. Todestag von Karl Kraus,” FORVM 111, no. 30 (1956): 217.


Hirsch, “Fleeing Hitler’s Europe.”


Hans Rudolf Vaget, Thomas Mann: Enlightenment and Social Democracy, Publications of the English Goethe Society, 86, no. 3 (2017): 196–97.


The “Muff Action” was a student protest against the double-morality of German professors with a “brown past” and their exclusive control over academic decision-making at German universities. At the celebration of the change of rector in the Hamburg Audimax on November 9, 1967, the protesters rolled out their slogan that read “Unter den Talaren Muff von 1000 Jahren [Muff under the gowns of 1000 years].”


Goronwy Rees, “Thomas Mann, The Ironic German. By Erich Heller,” Encounter 1, no. 1 (1959): 81–83.


Erich Heller, “Thomas Mann and the ‘Domestic Perversity,’” Encounter 12, no. 3 (1959): 54–55.


Rees, “Thomas Mann, The Ironic German,” 81–83.


Heller, “Thomas Mann and the ‘Domestic Perversity,’” 55.


Ibid., 56.


David Kettler and Detlef Garz, “I Do Not Lift a Stone,” chapter 3 of First Letters After Exile by Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Bloch, and Others (London: Anthem Press, 2021), 53.


Box 6, Folder 6, Heller Papers.


Box 4, Folder 8, Heller Papers.


Nicholas Martin, “Ewig verbundene Geister: Thomas Mann’s Re-engagement with Nietzsche, 1943–1947,” Oxford German Studies 34, no. 2 (2005): 203. “Ich kann Nietzschen nicht böse sein, weil er mir ‘meine Deutschen verdorben hat’. Wenn sie so dumm waren, auf seinen Diabolism hineinzufallen, so ist das ihre Sache, und wenn sie ihre großen Männer nicht vertragen können, so sollen sie keine mehr hervorbringen.”


Daniel W. Conway and Peter S. Groff, Nietzsche: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 1998), 106.


Hirsch, “Fleeing Hitler’s Europe.”




Bates, “Interview with Erich Heller.”


Heller quotes Karl Kraus, originally used in his own essay, “The Modern German Mind: The Legacy of Nietzsche,” in French and German Letters Today, ed. Emmanuel, 31.


Bates, “Interview with Erich Heller.”


Heller, “The Modern German Mind,” 38.


Holthusen, “Geburtstagsgruß an Erich Heller.”


“The University’s First Plan for the Seventies,” Box 1, Folder 1, Heller Papers.


Box 1, Folder 8, Heller Papers.


“Kultur und Gegenkultur,” Box 8, Folder 29, Heller Papers.


“Jahressitzung der Akademie der Schönen Künste: vom Schönheitssinn der Steinkeule” [Annual meeting of the Academy of Fine Arts: From the Stone Club‘s sense of beauty], clippings from Merkur, July 1971, Box 8, Folder 29, Heller Papers. “Die Quintessenz von Hellers Vortrag bestand in der schroffen Ablehnung einer Mentalität, die in dem Vater-Sohn-Konflikt eine unabänderliche Notwendigkeit und in der Zerstörung ein schöpferisches Prinzip erblickt.”


Joachim Kaiser, “Die Donnerkeile des Plauderers” [The chatterer’s thunderbolts], clippings from Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 9, 1971, Box 8, Folder 29, Heller Papers. “Wer das alte Grammatik Bildungssystem konservativ lobt, weil es große Männer hervorgebracht habe, verhält sich etwa so logisch wie jemand, der die Bildung tadelt, weil sie Ausschwitz nicht verhinderte.”


“Unbildung und Gegenkultur?” [Illiterateness and counter culture], clippings from Frankfurter Allgemeine, July 12, 1971, Box 8, Folder 29, Heller Papers.

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