Is Suicide Selfish?

A curious aspect of the euthanasia debate is the cunning with which the advocates of assisted suicide have persuaded the gullible that this is a noble, even unselfish act. Until recently suicide — regardless of legality or medical ethics — was generally seen as an act of supreme selfishness. A case in point is the suicide of Nelly Kröger, the wife of the writer Heinrich Mann. Their rackety life together is movingly described by Evelyn Juers in House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles (Allen Lane, £25), in which she evokes the world of German refugees from the Nazis. Nelly had been a Berlin barmaid, a single mother but never (she insisted) a prostitute, before she met Heinrich, one of the literary grandees of the Weimar Republic. Heinrich’s younger brother, Thomas, thought her “very common” and so did the rest of the Manns. Unlike the more celebrated Thomas, Heinrich did not flourish in Californian exile, and as the couple descended into poverty and obscurity, Nelly took to the bottle. After several failed attempts, she finally killed herself with an overdose of pills in December 1944, leaving a distraught Heinrich to pick up the pieces. 

The reaction of his literary nephew, Klaus Mann, is revealing. Allan Massie recently published a novella, Klaus and Other Stories (Vagabond Voices, £10), which portrays this gifted gay drug addict in a sympathetic light. Juers quotes the letter that Klaus wrote in English to his mother Katia about Nelly’s suicide: “What an embarrassing, superfluous, ugly tragedy! It must be an awful blow to poor old Heini — who is likely to follow her soon. Couldn’t she wait a few years? What deplorable, objectionable lack of consideration and self-control! Yet I feel sorry for her. She should have stayed in Germany with people of her own kind.” 

To be fair to Klaus, he wrote more kindly to his uncle, who thanked him for the “wunderful [sic] letter about my poor wife”. The real point, though, is that only four years later, in 1949, Klaus Mann, too, killed himself. He was 42. Shortly before, he had called for “a suicide wave among the world’s most distinguished minds” in protest against the Cold War. Nobody followed his example. Those who commit suicide deserve all our compassion; but to ennoble their act as a moral or political gesture is a betrayal of the bereaved family and friends they leave behind. 

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