An Introduction to German Literature In 10 Writers

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Photo of Lily Cichanowicz
14 October 2016

As is the case in the realms of fine art and film, Germany’s literary legacy is an expansive one. From philosophy to fiction to verse poetry, Germans have made prolific contributions to humanity through their writing, something that has resulted in international recognition and, perhaps more importantly, a better understanding of the human condition.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

Bertolt Brecht is one of the most influential German poets and playwrights of the 20th century. He and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, operated the Berliner Ensemble through which they presented Germany with their original theatrical productions. Brecht spent the final years of his life residing in East Berlin. Marxist thought permeated the themes and aesthetics of his works, and he even received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954. His most influential works include The Threepenny Opera, Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Good Person of Szechwan. Today it is possible to visit Brecht’s former home in Berlin, which his wife converted into a museum upon his death in 1956.

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Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Walter Benjamin was a German-Jewish social critic, writer, and philosopher. He is known as an ‘eclectic thinker’ who blended Marxist theory with other schools of thought, like Jewish mysticism and German romanticism. After studying philosophy at Humboldt University, Benjamin translated the works of Baudelaire into German and became an associated member of the Frankfurt School. He was friends with Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt, Hermann Hesse, and acquainted with many other important thinkers of the time, like Theodor Adorno. Benjamin’s novel, Das Passagen-Werk (in English, ‘The Arcades Project’), is considered his magnum opus and was started in 1927 but never completed, only posthumously was it edited and published. With the onset of Nazi rule in the 1930s, Benjamin fled for his life and ultimately committed suicide in 1940 to escape being accosted by the Gestapo.

© Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928

Hans Fallada (1893-1947)

Hans Fallada was a German writer who worked during the first half of the 20th century. He contributed to the literary style of new objectivity. Two of his most notable novels are Little Man, What Now? (1932) and Every Man Dies Alone, published in the year of his death. Fallada spent much of his early life working odd jobs, battling addiction, and even committing petty crimes to finance it. He proceeded to work as a journalist and eventually became the subject of Nazi scrutiny. By the time the war had ended, Fallada had also achieved fame and notoriety. Still, the state of society following the war – particularly the ubiquitous presence of fascism that still remained interwoven in the very fabric of the culture – drove him back into a state of depression followed by addiction, which ultimately led to his death in 1947.

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Jenny Erpenbeck (1967)

Jenny Erpenbeck is a contemporary German writer and film director. Born in East Berlin, she is the granddaughter of the writer Hedda Zinner. In her young adulthood she studied the art of bookbinding, and then took charge of overseeing props and wardrobe production at theaters throughout Germany. After the Berlin Wall fell, she studied to become a musical theater director at Hanns Eisler Music Conservatory. Erpenbeck directed productions at several operas and even debuted an original play, Cats Have Seven Lives. From here, she has fostered a career in writing both plays and prose works. She is a columnist for the magazine Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and her most notable writings include Trinkets, Things That Disappear, and The End of Days.

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Often regarded as Germany’s Shakespeare, no discussion of German literature would be complete without mentioning Goethe. Prone to illness as a youth, he initially pursued study in law. Yet, today he is mostly known for his versatile array of poetic works, which include both epic and lyric forms, among others. By the mere age of 25, he already achieved fame as a writer after the release of his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. One of his most renowned works is his drama Faust. Goethe’s legacy extends beyond his poetry, however. He also served as a statesman, critic, novelist, and natural philosopher.

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Christa Wolf (1929-2011)

Christa Wolf is largely regarded as East Germany’s literary darling. Yet, in retrospect, there is actually much to say about her complicated relationship with socialism and politics more broadly. Behind the wall, she wrote within the genre of socialist realism. Over the course of her development as a writer, however, novels like The Quest for Christa T. began to examine the relationship between the individual and socialist ideals, which was not as well received. Wolf remained in the literary limelight following the fall of the wall, but subsequently received a good deal of criticism in the West for her portrayal of life behind the wall and lack of denunciation for the authoritarian rule of the GDR. Yet, many of her fans would argue that she played a fundamental role in articulating a literary voice that was distinct to East Germany.

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Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)

Hermann Hesse is a German writer, best known for his books Siddhartha, The Glass Bead Game, and Steppenwolf. Hesse was the son of two missionaries who worked for several years in India. He was born in the Black Forest, but spent much of his youth living in Switzerland. These multicultural experiences impacted him as a person and as a writer. Consequently, much of his work grapples with his own relationship with German nationalism. Hesse also cites Indian and Chinese philosophies as his major influences, something that was unique for the context within which he was writing. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.

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Thomas Mann (1875-1955)

Thomas Mann is a German writer and social critic who worked primarily in the first half of the 20th century. Mann provided fascinating commentary on the psyches of artists and intellectuals through his writing, which often employed heavy doses of irony and symbolism. He was a member of the Exilliteratur movement, which was comprised of German writers who outwardly opposed the Nazi regime. During the reign of the Third Reich, Mann fled to Switzerland. His brother Heinrich Mann is also a famed radical writer, and three of his six children rose to literary prominence as well.

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Günter Grass (1927-2015)

Günter Grass was a German writer and illustrator who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999. Born in 1927, a central theme in Grass’ writing was the question of what it meant to be German after Nazism took hold of the country. He is recognized for his contributions to the genre of European magical realism, which was mostly evident in his 1959 novel, The Tin Drum. His other major works included the Danzig Trilogy, The Flounder, My Century, Crabwalk, and his memoirs. The combination of his political messages and his whimsical style of writing often divided people when it came to the critical reception of his work.

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Anna Seghers (1900-1983)

Anna Seghers is best known for the ways she articulated the moral conundrum of German people in their complacency during World War II. Seghers herself was Jewish and a communist. Shortly after she joined this party she published her novel, Die Gefährten, which aptly warned against the perils of fascism. During World War II, she published her acclaimed novel The Seventh Cross. It offered one of the only published descriptions of life in concentration camps at the time. As the war bore onward, Seghers eventually fled to Mexico where she published her most notorious novel, Outing of the Dead Girls, and continued to work in anti-fascist activism, ultimately founding the Heinrich-Heine-Klub.

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