“Der Untertan” by Heinrich Mann, remains a deformed mirror of a dark era in German history that was the period of Wilhelm II and sets the foundations of critical realism.
Heinrich Mann, born in 1871, much around the same time German Imperialism took shape; nourished, from an early age, a hatred and despise against immorality, cruelty, and stupidity of the German bourgeoisie that will forever mark his literary works.
An astute observer of his time, Heinrich Mann understood that one of the most disastrous products of the Wilhem’s Era was the German Philistine, with the instincts of a maggot and the heart of a constable, arrogant and hateful towards its fellow men in the lower class, yet, an ardent supporter and admirer of the those who are in power and rule over others.
Who is Diedrich Hessling?
Diedrich Hessling, born in Netzig, is the son of a paper factory owner, whose traits of character as a child already give us an insight of the future adult. Petty and cruel towards the working class, he seems to have respect for nothing except those more powerful than him. The only authority figure in his life is his father, who teaches him obedience through force. He fails to show the same respect towards his mother, not only throughout childhood but throughout his entire life.
Tricks, lies, deceit, betrayal, among others, are the arrows in his quiver, using everybody around him to his personal gain. He draws his power only through affiliation rather than through individual merit. When he bullies the only Jew in his class “he was acting on behalf of the whole Christian community of Netzig. How splendid it was to share responsibility and to be part of a collective”.
He stands out for all the wrong reasons, embracing hatred towards anybody who doesn’t align with his train of thought and action.
Diedrich professes much but practices exactly the opposite.
- hides behind his bravery, yet, leaves his military service three months in, after trying to avoid it altogether and failed
- professes power yet hides behind others in everything he does. He professes responsibility yet evades it every chance he gets
- claims to love, yet, see it as a means to an end
- promises faithfulness yet doesn’t mind cheating and deceiving the women who fall in love with him.
His portrait is synthesized by one of the characters: “The servant of Wilhelm II. A mediocre man, of an average intellect, who can be easily influenced, depending on those around him, including the Kaiser, without courage so long as things go bad and immediately finding strength when things start to turn around”.
His political beliefs
His life in Berlin adds the final touches of a dedicated “Untertan”, who is subservient to the imperialism doctrine and the figure of Wilhelm II as its personification.
Through action and gestures, Diedrich embodies the expression of a dark era, which came to life and is driven by imperialism that rules over Germany, weighing heavy on people’s lives. At the opposite end, in the character of old Buck, we find the dying liberalism of the nineteenth century.
Heinrich Mann revealed through more or less grotesque characters the moral bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie and the weakness of German society under Wilhelm II.
Diedrich Hessling lacks morals and scruples, leaving a trail of ruined destinies in his struggle to ascend to power.
A closed circle
Even if, judging by his early character traits, one can easily identify the future individual; Diedrich’s time in Berlin was decisive in adding the final touches to the fanatic personality that he was to become. He returns to Netzig to gain full power, showing no mercy to whoever stands in his way.
Even his family members are divided according to the usefulness factor. Guste Daimchen becomes his wife, appearing very attractive judging by the size of her inheritance. Even his brother-in-law is interesting so long as he brings value to his financial life.
Whether it is his personal or his professional life, all the characters he comes into contact with are divided in two: useful for Diedrich or not useful, and therefore, an obstacle to be eliminated.
Diedrich Hessling: praying on the weak and obeying the strong.