DebateDer Untertan (the loyal subject)

Der Untertan (the loyal subject)

Reading time: 2:30 min | With the changes that await us, which will be most likely full-blown upheavals on many levels, we, the citizens, will play a defining role. But what kind of citizen are we?

In 1914 Heinrich Mann released in a newspaper periodically texts of his novel Der Untertan. In this novel, he describes the rise of the servile patriot and Wilhelmine Prussian citizen Dr Diederich Hessling. The book ends with his pompous inauguration of a statue of the beloved Kaiser Wilhelm II (addressed by him as Kaiser Wilhelm The Great), washed away by a severe thunderstorm. While this would have been an anticipating ending of the First World War’s future outcomes, Heinrich Mann adds an unpredicted outlook. After the storm, Diederich accidentally witnesses the death of an old revolutionary of 1848. He is a political adversary, who is surrounded by his loved ones on his deathbed. The old man looks at Diederich’s eyes, falters, and dies. Muffled by horror, the elder’s wife cried out, “He has seen something! He has seen the devil!” Judith Lauer slowly got up and closed the door. Diederich had already escaped.

There is no justice in this world-class novel. It describes a preposterous and noxious world that we shrug off as entirely unrealistic from our today’s perspective.

But, is it?

Diederich only follows the rules and culture of the society he lives in. Sure, he’s a bit worse than others. He’s more unfaithful, more servile, more of a coward, more mean, but generally plays by the rules.

Many citizens of today do precisely this. They obey the law, comply with the rules and culture — and foster an unjust and destructive society that is risking the future generation’s pursuit of happiness in an unprecedented way. Even in the most liberal and educated parts of our society, many are Untertanen. They defend their privileges by pointing to the law and understand their achievements as deserved despite a huge head start. Such a self-righteous view of the world is often explained with a short we can’t save the world.

The dying old man with the name Buck thinks differently. As a revolutionary, he believes in the possibility to save the world or at least make the world a better place. Untertanen don’t feel so because they experience the world already as a good place. No need to change a thing.

In Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan we learn about the making of a loyal subject.

“If he had nibbled or lied, he would squeeze around the writing desk, smacking and wagging shyly, until Mr Heßling noticed something and took the cane off the wall.

”Together they squeezed the last drop of atmosphere out of the festivities by singing, playing the piano and telling fairy tales. When Diederich began to doubt the Christ Child, he let his mother persuade him to believe for a little while longer, and he felt relieved, faithful and good.

We feel sorry for the boy. With that knowledge, we forgive him later his bootlicking and servility. We understand his actions and explain them with the circumstances. And yet, it’s all wrong. Diederich is the story’s villain. For the reader, he carries full responsibility for everything bad, harmful and destructive. But eventually, he will get away with everything. That’s exactly the thinking of many: I will get away with it.

But our children won’t.

It’s going to be crucial for the future what kind of citizens we want to be—loyal subjects of responsible citizens.