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German Literature

What do Goethe, Kafka, Hesse, Brecht, and Frisch have in common? They all wrote in German. Sure, Hermann Hesse and Max Frisch were Swiss, and Franz Kafka lived in Prague, which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So even though not all of them lived and worked in Germany, their work is considered German literature since it was written in German.

German writers seem to like to write epic stories. However, German prose can be very diverse. The wide range includesThomas Mann's description of the decline of rich merchants family, Hermann Hesse's description of an everyday man, the works of Günter Grass, Bernhard Schlink, and Martin Walser, who wrote about the Nazi Era. All kind of stories have been told from German authors; far too many to list them all.

Instead, we’ll provide a short list of the most important German writers. We’ll begin in 1749 with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and we will end with Herta Müller, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. This article is not supposed to give you a comprehensive list of German literature. It is meant to spike your interest in German authors and give you some ideas on where to start your journey into German literature. We hope you'll find something you like here and maybe you'll even find your new favorite book. First, we should take a closer look at the German language itself.

The German language is said to be very exact. A good example might the be the word “Autobahnausfahrtsschild,“ which means freeway exit ramp sign. This one word consists of three other words: “Autobahn” - freeway, which itself consists of the words “Auto” (car) and “Bahn” (here: way); “Ausfahrt” - exit ramp; and “Schild” - sign. Combining words to form a new one is very common in the German language. It obviously makes German writing very precise, but at the same time it is obviously less poetic than let's say the French language with all its metaphors.

Translating German literature in English isn't impossible, but for obvious reasons the works tend to lose its natural flow. If possible, you should try and read the original version of a German text. If that's is not an option, don't worry, you'll find an English translation of at least one work of almost all writers in this article in your local bookshop or on the Internet.

Before we discuss the first two German writers in this article, we should have a look at the “Sturm und Drang”. This movement in German literature and music took place between the late 1760s and the early 1780s. “Sturm und Drang” is usually translated into  “Storm and Stress,” even though it should probably be translated as “turbulence and urge”.

The movement sought for individual subjectivity, and the extremes of emotion were given free expression. Most proponents of the “Sturm und Drang” had been young authors between the ages of 20 and 30. This young generation was opposed to the authorities and traditions of their time.

The most significant figures of the movement have probably been Johann Georg Hamann, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, H. L. Wagner, and Friedrich Maximilian Klinger. However they are probably not the most famous followers of this movement.  That would probably be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, even though they would later initiate the Weimar Classicism.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe was born 1749. He was a writer, an artist, a biologist, and a physicist. His works include poetry, drama, prose, philosophy, and science. Nicholas Boyle, a noted British Germanist, called Goethe's Faust the greatest long poem of modern European literature. Aside from “Faust”, Goethe is best known for his Bildungsroman “Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship”, and the novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.

Friedrich Schiller

Born in 1759, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was friend of Goethe, and just like him, he studied more than one field. Schiller was a poet, a philosopher, a historian, and a playwright. His plays include “the robbers”, “intrigue and love”, “Mary Stuart”, and “Wilhelm Tell”. His most famous poem was the “ode to joy”, which became the basis of the 4th movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

Think this famous writer’s name is complicated  already? Her full name was amazingly long, Anna Elisabeth Franzisca Adolphine Wilhelmine Louise Maria von Droste-Hülshoff. She was born in 1797 and died in 1848. Droste-Hülshoff is famous for being one of the most important German poets. The novella “Die Judenbuche” is her most famous work.

Theodor Mommsen

Theodor Mommson, a historian , is said to be one of the most important classical scholars of the 19th century. Mommsen was born in 1817. In 1902 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work. His work on the Roman law had and has a huge impact on the German Civil Code.

Karl May

He was probably the most successful German authors of all time…at least when it comes to books sales. Karl May was born in 1842 into an extremely poor family. May even spent some time in jail for theft. His work is still very popular in Germany, and he is famous for his adventure novels set in the American Wild West and in the Orient. While he inspired generations of children and adults to dream about visiting those exotic places, May himself never saw them.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Born in 1844, Nietzsche was a writer and philosopher. He was a harsh critic of Christianity. Even today, his influence on philosophy is immense. He created the concept of the death of God, the Übermensch, and the will to power. Friedrich Nietzsche died in 1900 after a stroke, his third one in two years.

Rudolf Eucken

Rudolf Christoph Eucken was a philosopher who received the Nobel Prize for  Literature in 1908. Among his most famous works are “The Problem of Human Life”, “The Struggle for a Spiritual Content of Life”, “The Meaning and Value of Life”, “Can We Still Be Christians?”, and “Present Day Ethics in their Relation to the Spiritual Life”.

Paul Heyse

Paul Johann Ludwig von Heyse (1830 – 1914) was the first German writer who received the Nobel Prize of Literature for a work of fiction. He wrote novels, poems, and over 170 short-stories. In Munich, a street is named after him.

Gerhart Hauptmann

Gerhart Johann Robert Hauptmann, a Prussian writer, was born in 1862. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1912. He was one of the leading figures of the Naturalism movement. Its goal was to replicate everyday situations. Follower of the Naturalistic movement were influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Gerhart Hauptmann's work includes the novels “Der Narr in Christo Emanuel Quint”, “Wanda, der Dämon”, “Die Insel der grossen Mutter”, and “Der Abenteuer meiner Jugend”. He died in 1946.

Franz Kafka

Kafka (born in 1883) was a very influential German-language author. Many critics and academics call him the best writer of the 20th century. He came from a Jewish middle class German-speaking family in Prague. Most of his work was published after his death from his friend Max Brod. He is best known for his numerous short stories, his three novels (“the trial”, “the castle”, and “Amerika”), and his novella “the Metamorphosis”. Kafka had tuberculosis and died in 1924 at the age of 40.

Kurt Tucholsky

Tucholsky was a German-Jewish writer and journalist who was born in Berlin in 1890. He wrote under different pseudonyms including Theobald Tiger and Ignaz Wrobel. Tucholsky was one of the most important journalists in the Weimar Republic, but he moved to Paris in the 1920s and then later to Sweden in 1930. He warned against anti-democratic movements in Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he was unfortunately proven right. He died at the age of 45 in Sweden.

Thomas Mann

Thoman Mann (6 June 1875 – 12 August 1955) was a German author. He received the Nobel Prize on 1929 and is best known for his novels “the Buddenbrooks”, “the Magic Mountain”, and “Doktor Faustus”. Among his short stories is “Felix Krull”, and his most important novella is “Death in Venice”. His brother Heinrich Mann was a noted author himself, and three of his six children, Erika Mann, Klaus Mann and Golo Mann, became important German writers as well. Mann, who was married to Jewish wife, was an anti-fascist and he fled the country in 1933. In 1939 he emigrated to the United States and returned to Europe after the war in 1952.

Hermann Hesse

Born in 1877, Hesse was a Swiss-German author and painter. His best known works are “Steppenwolf”, “Siddhartha” and “the Glass Bead Game”. His work is famous for exploring an individual's search for spirituality and self-knowledge. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. He died in 1962 and was buried in a Swiss cemetery. Many schools all over Germany are named after him.

Max Frisch

Max Frisch was born in 1911 in Zurich. He was a playwright and novelist. He is one of the most important German-speaking writers after World War II. His most important works include “Homo Faber”, “a Wilderness of Mirrors”, “Man in the Holocene”, and “Bluebeard”. Frisch died of cancer in 1991 in his birthplace Zurich.

Heinrich Böll

Heinrich Theodor Böll was perhaps the most important German writer after World War II. He is best known for writing “Billiards at Half-past Nine”, “Group Portrait with Lady”, “The Clown”, and “The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum”. In 1987, two years after his death, the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation was founded. The Foundation supports research projects in Germany and is affiliated with the German Green Party.

Siegfried Lenz

He was born in 1926. He was a noted novelist an playwright. Since 2003 is a professor at the Heinrich-Heine-University in Düsseldorf. His most famous novels are “the German lesson”,  “an exemplary life”, “the heritage”, and “Training Ground”.

Martin Walser

Born in 1927, Martin Walser is an acclaimed German writer. Some of his most famous novels are: “Halftime”, “The Gadarene Club”, “Runaway Horse”, “Swan Villa”, “The Inner Man”, “Breakers”, and “No Man's Land”. He also wrote a play about Goethe's love for  a 17 year old girl.

Günter Grass

Günter Grass (1927) is best known for writing “the Tin Drum”, his first novel. He received the Nobel-Prize in Literature in 1999. Grass has been an outspoken supporter of the Social Democratic Party in Germany. He's one of the most important contemporary German writers. In 2006 he revealed that he was in the Waffen-SS during World War II.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Enzenzberger is a German writer and translator. His most famous works are “The Number Devil”, “The Sinking of the Titanic”, and “The Silences of the Hammersteins”. He was born in 1929 in a small Bavarian village. In 2009, he won the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Elfriede Jelinek

Born in 1946, Elfriede Jelinek is an Austrian novelist and playwright. In 2004, she received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Before that her work was largely unknown outside of the German-speaking parts of the world. Jelinek's political positions have stirred up some controversy over the years, especially her affiliation with Austria's communist party between 1974 and 1991.

Herta Müller

Herta Müller (1953) is a Romanian-born German writer. Her work usually centers around violence, terror, and cruelty. Most of her work is set in communist Romania, a period she experienced herself. In 2009, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her work has been translated in over twenty languages. In her acclaimed novel “Everything I Possess I Carry With Me,” she portrays the deportation of the German minority in Romania to a gulag in Soviet Russia.

If this list does not satisfy your hunger for German literature, fear not, over 90,000 books are being published in German every year!

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