Mann was born in Munich. As a child, he pronounced his first name as Golo, and this name was adopted. He had an elder sister, Erika Mann, an elder brother, Klaus Mann, and three younger siblings, Monika, Elisabeth and Michael.
In her diary his mother describes him in his early years as sensitive, nervous and frightened. His father hardly concealed his disappointment and rarely mentioned the son in his diary. Golo Mann in turn described him later: "Indeed he was able to radiate some kindness, but mostly it was silence, strictness, nervousness or rage." Among his siblings he was most tightly connected with Klaus, whereas he disliked the dogmatism and radical views of his sister Erika.
An average pupil, he received a classical education at the Wilhelms-Gymnasium in Munich beginning in September 1918, revealing talents in history, Latin, and especially in reciting poems, the latter being a lifelong passion. Increasingly sensing his parents‘ home as a burden, he attempted a kind of break-out by joining the Boy Scouts in spring 1921. On one of the holiday marches he was the victim of a slight sexual violation by his group leader.
New horizons opened up in 1923, when Mann entered the boarding school in Salem, feeling liberated from home and enjoying the new educational approach. Here, in the countryside near Lake Constance, he developed an enduring passion for hiking through the mountains, although he suffered from a lifelong knee injury.
In 1925 Mann suffered a severe mental crisis that overshadowed the rest of his life. "In those days the doubt entered my life, or rather: broke in with tremendous power (...) I was seized by darkest melancholy." That is what Golo explained
Upon the final school exams in 1927, he commenced his studies of law in Munich, moving the same year to Berlin and switching to history and philosophy. He used the summer of 1928 to learn French in Paris and to get to know "real work" during six weeks in a coal mine in Lower Lusatia, abruptly stopping because of new knee injuries.
At last Mann entered the University of Heidelberg in spring 1929. Here he followed the advice of his teacher Karl Jaspers to graduate in philosophy on the one hand, and to study history and Latin with the prospect of becoming a schoolteacher on the other. He nevertheless found time to join a socialist student group in the autumn of 1930. In May 1932, Mann finished his dissertation, Concerning the terms of the individual and the ego in Hegel's works, which was rated with an average cum laude. Nevertheless, his parents bought him a small car that he used for extended rides across Germany.
Golo Mann intended to finish his university studies in Hamburg and Göttingen, but dark clouds were arriving over Germany. That was especially the case for Thomas Mann, who never hesitated to articulate his dislike for National Socialism. While his parents already lived abroad, Golo Mann looked after the family house in Munich in April 1933, helped his three younger siblings leave the country and brought the greater part of his parents' savings via Karlsruhe and the German embassy in Paris to Switzerland.
On 31 May 1933, Mann left Germany for the French town of Bandol near Toulon. He spent the summer at the mansion of the American travel writer William Seabrook near Sanary-sur-Mer and lived six further weeks at the new family house in Küsnacht near Zurich. In November he joined the École Normale Supérieure at Saint-Cloud near Paris for two intensive, instructive years as lecturer on the German language. At that time he worked for the emigrants' journal Die Sammlung (The Collection) founded by his brother Klaus.
In November 1935, Mann accepted a call from the University of Rennes to lecture on German language and literature. Mann travels to Switzerland prove that the relationship to his father was easier, because in the meantime Thomas Mann had learned to appreciate his son's political knowledge. But it was only when Golo Mann helped edit his father's diaries in later years that he realised fully how much acceptance he had gained. In a confidential note to the German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki he wrote, "It was inevitable that I had to wish his death; but I was completely broken-hearted when he passed away".
In 1936 Thomas Mann and his family were deprived of their German citizenship. Help came from the Czech businessman and admirer Rudolf Fleischmann, who arranged the naturalization to his Bohemian town of Prosec and subsequently Czech citizenship. Golo Mann wanted to take the opportunity to continue his studies in Prague, but soon stopped the experiment.
Early in 1939 Mann traveled to Princeton, New Jersey, where his father worked as guest professor. Although war was drawing closer, he hesitantly returned to Zurich in August to become editor of the emigrant journal Maß und Wert (Measure and Value).
As a reaction to Adolf Hitler's successes in the west in May 1940 during World War II, Golo Mann decided to fight against the German invaders and to join a Czech military unit on French soil as a volunteer. Upon crossing the border he was arrested at Annecy and brought to the French concentration camp Les Milles, a brickyard near Aix-en-Provence. In the beginning of August he was released by the intervention of an American committee. On 13 September 1940, he undertook a daring escape from Perpignan across the Pyrenees to Spain. With him were his uncle Heinrich Mann, the latter's wife Nelly Kröger, Alma Mahler-Werfel and Franz Werfel. They crossed the Atlantic from Lisbon to New York in October on board the Greek steamer Nea Hellas.
In the United States Golo Mann, for the time being, was condemned to inactivity. He stayed at his parents' house in Princeton, then in New York, before moving with them in 1941 to Pacific Palisades, California. In the autumn of 1942, he finally got the chance to teach history at Olivet College in Michigan.
As did his brother Klaus Mann before, Golo Mann joined the US Army in 1943. After basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, he worked at the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, DC. In his capacity as intelligence officer it was his duty to collect and translate relevant information.
In April 1944, he was sent to London where he made radio commentaries for the German language division of the American Broadcasting Station. For the last months of World War II he worked in same function for a military propaganda station in Luxembourg. Then he helped organise the foundation of Radio Frankfurt. During this period he worked with Robert Lochner, who thought very highly of him. During his journeys across Germany he was shocked at the extent of destruction, especially that caused by Allied bombing.
In 1946, Mann left the US Army by his own request. He nevertheless kept a job as civil control officer, watching the war crimes trials at Nuremberg in this capacity. The same year saw the publication of his first book of lasting value, a biography in English of the 19th century diplomat Friedrich von Gentz.
In autumn 1947, Mann became assistant professor of History at Claremont Men's College in California. In hindsight he recalled the nine-year engagement as "the happiest of my life"; on the other hand he complained, "My students are scornful, unfriendly and painfully stupid as never before". The professorship in California was interrupted by several residences in German-speaking Europe.
In 1956 and 1957, Mann spent many weeks at the tavern Zur Krone at Altnau on the shores of Lake Constance to write his German History of the 19th and 20th century. It was released in 1958 and became an instant bestseller. It also marked his final return to Europe because he became guest professor at the University of Münster for two winter terms in a row.
In autumn 1960, Mann joined the University of Stuttgart in the higher position of professor in ordinary for Political Science. It soon became clear that he felt unsatisfied with the machinery at the universities: "In those years I had a feeling of immense, but fruitless effort without getting any echo. This led to a depression that made me resign the professorship in 1963".
In the following years Mann worked as a free-lance historian and essayist, suffering in both capacities from chronic overwork that increasingly damaged not only his work but also his health. He took up residence at his parents' house in Kilchberg near the Lake of Zurich, where he lived until 1993 — sharing the house for most years with his mother.
In his political work Mann first praised the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer for his course towards integration with France and the United States. He nevertheless criticized Adenauer's insincerity concerning a reunification with East Germany, so that he came to support the new détente ideas of Willy Brandt. He even sometimes worked for Brandt as a ghostwriter.
Mann nevertheless perceived the emergence of the student movement as a grave threat for democracy. He gradually became alienated from Brandt in 1973, reproaching him with passivity towards alleged communist infiltration in his Social Democratic Party.
Mann's almost lifelong passion for the best-known field-marshal of the Thirty Years War culminated in 1971 with the release of the monumental biography Wallenstein. It is considered as a masterpiece of narrative history for its pictorial language.
In 1979 Golo Mann delivered the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, The Netherlands, under the title: 1914-1980: Ein Ueberblick (1914–1980, seen with a birds-eye view).
In a surprising discontinuity with his former political engagement for Willy Brandt, Mann supported the controversial politician Franz-Josef Strauß in his campaign for Chancellor in 1980, hoping for a more decisive fight against radical left-wing activities. Some fellow political commentators were alienated, and Mann himself foresaw the negative effects. He wrote in his diary, "I will have to pay for it as Kaiser Wilhelm did for his 'Daily Telegraph Affair'".
In 1986 his adopted son Hans Beck-Mann died. Beck-Mann was a pharmacist he got to know in 1955 and supported financially in his studies. In November of the same year followed the release of the successful semi-autobiography Erinnerungen und Gedanken. Eine Jugend in Deutschland (Memories and Thoughts. A Youth in Germany). He immediately started work at a sequel that was never finished. In 1988, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Letters) by the University of Bath.
After the death of his adopted son, he lived a secluded life, most of the time in Berzona, in the Swiss Canton of the Ticino. He devoted his life to translating Pío Baroja from Spanish into German. He was surrounded by a group of young Spanish language enthusiasts, some of whom have become notable in their field.
In the meantime, the East German regime lifted its ban on Golo Mann at the beginning of 1989. Not only was his Wallenstein biography finally available in East Germany after 18 years — he was even allowed to read from it on invitation from the East German Minister of Education. When the reunification of Germany came only one year later, he reacted dispassionately: "No delight in German unity. They are bound to fool around once more, even if I won't live to see it".
In March 1990, Mann had a heart attack after a public lecture. In the same year it became evident that he suffered from prostate cancer. Because of his ill health he moved to Leverkusen in 1992, where he was nursed by his daughter-in-law Ingrid Beck-Mann. A few days prior to his death, he acknowledged his homosexuality in a TV interview: "I did not fall in love often. I often kept it to myself, maybe that was a mistake. It also was forbidden, even in America, and one had to be a little careful".
According to Tilman Lahme's biography, although Golo Mann did not act out his homosexuality as openly as his brother Klaus Mann he still had love relationships since his student days.
On 7 April 1994, Mann died in Leverkusen aged 85. His urn was buried in Kilchberg, but – in fulfillment of his last will – outside the family grave.
Golo Mann's literary estate is archived in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern.
- 1947 Friedrich von Gentz
- 1958 Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts
- 1964 Wilhelm II
- 1970 Von Weimar nach Bonn. Fünfzig Jahre deutsche Republik
- 1971 Wallenstein
- 1986 Erinnerungen und Gedanken. Eine Jugend in Deutschland
- 1989 Wir alle sind, was wir gelesen
- 1992 Wissen und Trauer
- 2009 Man muss über sich selbst schreiben. Erzählungen, Familienporträts, Essays. Herausgegeben vn Tilmann Lahme. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag.
- Entry in Swiss historic lexicon
- Mann (1986), p. 10f.
- Mann (1986), p. 41.
- Bitterli (2005), p. 620.
- Mann (1986), p. 25.
- Mann (1986), p. 113f.
- Mann (1986), pp. 193–197.
- Mann (1986), Chapter Eine neue Erfahrung (a new experience), pp. 265–278.
- Mann (1986), pp. 430, 462ff.
- Worthington (1966), p. 123.
- Mann (1999), p. 129.
- Bitterli (2005), 547.
- Bitterli (2005), p. 548.
- Bitterli (2005), p. 66f.
- Bitterli (2005), p. 140f.
- Bitterli (2005), p. 204.
- Bitterli (2005), p. 534.
- "Honorary Graduates 1989 to present". bath.ac.uk. University of Bath. Retrieved 18 February 2012.
- Bitterli (2005), p. 695.
- Schock & Fessel (2004)
- Bitterli, Urs (2005). Golo Mann. Instanz und Außenseiter. Berlin: Reinbek. ISBN 978-3-463-40460-8.
- Mann, Golo (1986). Erinnerungen und Gedanken. Eine Jugend in Deutschland. Frankfurt-am-Main. ISBN 978-3-596-10714-8.
- Mann, Golo (1999). Erinnerungen und Gedanken. Lehrjahre in Frankreich. Fischer S. Verlag. ISBN 978-3-10-047911-2.
- Schock Axel; Fessel, Karen-Susan (2004). OUT! – 800 berühmte Lesben, Schwule und Bisexuelle. Berlin: Querverlag. ISBN 3-89656-111-1.
- Worthington, Marjorie (1966). The Strange World of Willie Seabrook. Harcourt Brace and World.
- Golo Mann: Briefe 1932-1992, hg. von Tilmann Lahme und Kathrin Lüssi (Göttingen, 2006).
- Tilmann Lahme, Golo Mann. Biographie (Frankfurt am Main, 2009).
- Martin Mauthner: German Writers in French Exile, 1933-1940, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 2007, (ISBN : 978 0 85303 540 4)