Although the novel was completed in July 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, it was not published until 1918 (by Kurt Wolff Verlag of Leipzig). After the war, the novel enjoyed considerable popularity, given its critiques of the ultra-nationalism of Wilhelmine Germany.
"Der Untertan" portrays the life of Diederich Hessling, a slavish and fanatical admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm II, as an archetype of nationalist Wilhelmine Germany. Hessling is unthinkingly obedient to authority and maintains a rigid dedication to the nationalist goals of the German state.
Throughout the novel, Hessling's inflexible ideals are often contradicted by his actions: he preaches bravery but is a coward; he is the strongest proponent of the military but seeks to be excused from his obligatory military service; his greatest political opponents are the revolutionary Social Democrats, yet he uses his influence to help send his hometown's SPD candidate to the Reichstag to defeat his Liberal competitors in business; he starts vicious rumors against the latter and then dissociates himself from them; he preaches and enforces Christian virtues upon others but lies, cheats, and regularly commits infidelity.
Diederich's ideals: blood and iron, and the might of opulent power, are exposed as hollowness and weakness. Diederich Hessling--the child (and later adult) who acts as an informer, the member of the Neo-Teuton student fraternity, the doctor of chemistry, the paper manufacturer, and eventually the most influential man in town--is a critical allegory depicting German society's increasing susceptibility to chauvinism, jingoism, ultra-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and proto-fascism. His character is often juxtaposed, in both words and appearance to another man of straw: Kaiser Wilhelm II. In one instance, Hessling's behavior and outward appearance move an observer to stammer, 'It almost seems to me...You look so very much like His ...' , meaning the Kaiser.
Mann uses the moral bankruptcy and shallow ridiculousness of Hessling's life to critique Wilhelmine German society generally. Like other novels of the period, such as Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest, or even his brother Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, the principal target is the hypocrisy of bourgeois society and the risk of social collapse in a nation of loyal 'Untertan' citizens.