German authors that were geniuses of their time and continue to inspire us today. 18th – 20th century literature.
I have been reading a lot more these days (due to COVID-19 restrictions) and realized I have not read many works of literature written by German authors. Of course I’d heard of Goethe, Mann, etc., but my preconceptions of German literature held me back. Little did I know what I was missing. Especially interesting are their own personal stories. I have summarized as best as I could, for your own amusement.
One thing was missing during my search for Best German Authors. I didn’t encounter many female names on the lists. So I started searching for Famous Female German Authors. What I encountered was disappointing, but not surprising. There are a number of women poets, novelists, etc, but their works have never been translated. This is one of the biggest barriers against receiving international acclaim. I still managed to find two female German authors /poets/novelists, now considered the greatest of their time, in their own genre.
Here is my list of popular German authors, in no particular order.
In the top position, is the most famous German author of all time. Some would say Germany’s Shakespeare:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Goethe (August 28, 1749 – March 22, 1832) – leaves a legacy as statesman, critic, natural philosopher, but Goethe was mostly renowned for his writing. From the very young age of 25, he achieved fame as a writer. In 1774 he wrote the book which would bring him worldwide acclaim, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Soon after, he was invited to the court of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, becoming the Duke’s friend and chief adviser. Goethe spent most of his long life in Weimar. From theatre, poetry to novels, his literary genius makes Goethe one of the most influential authors of all times. Faust was Goethe’s masterpiece, which took him 60 years to complete. A philosophical drama that inspired intellectuals, such as, Nietzsche, Beckett and Kafka.
- Thomas Mann – (June 6, 1875 – August 12, 1955) After his father’s death in 1891, Mann moved to Munich, where he lived until 1933. Around 1930, Thomas Mann already started lecturing against Fascism and attacked Nazi policy. He expressed sympathy for communist and socialist ideals as the principles that guaranteed humanism and freedom. While in Switzerland in 1933, he was warned not to return to Munich. He lived in the US for over 10 years, but returned to Zurich in 1952, refusing to settle back in Germany. Many of his works reflect the cultural crisis of his times. Buddenbrooks (1924) earned Mann the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. Death in Venice (1912) and The Magic Mountain (1924) also received prizes and honors.
- Michael Ende – (November 12, 1929 – August 28, 1995) was a German author whose rise to fame was due to his children’s fiction novels. Best known for The Neverending Story (1979), Momo (1973) and Jim Button (1960-62), he also wrote books for adults. It was his children’s fiction, however, that sold millions of copies and adapted as motion pictures. Born in Garmisch-Partenkirche, Ende moved to Munich when he was 6 years old due to his father’s artistic career. In 1936, his father’s paintings were labeled “degenerate” and were banned by the Nazi party. Edgar Ende was forced to work in secret. Michael Ende was 16 years old when German youths were drafted and sent to war. Ende threw his draft papers in the trash. Instead, he joined a Bavarian resistance movement intended to sabotage the SS’s intention to defend Munich.
Rainer Maria Rilke
- Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875 – December 29, 1926) – poet and novelist, Rilke was born in Prague, Bohemia, formerly part of the Austro-Hungary empire. It seems his early childhood was not a particularly happy one. After a fragmented and misguided education, his uncle finally helped him settle into an educational career path more suited to his interests. It was clear from an early age that he would dedicate his life to literature. Even before completing High School, Rilke had already published his first volume of poetry: Life & Songs (1894). His travels throughout Europe influenced his writing, with Russia, France and Switzerland having had the greatest impact on his writing. He is recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets. He became internationally famous for his works: Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus.
- Hermann Hesse – (July 2, 1877 – August 9, 1962) was born in a small village on the edge of the Black Forest. His parents as well as his grandfather were missionaries in India. Early on, Hesse was exposed to religious influences of Protestantism, as well as Eastern religions and philosophies. They became integral to his being and were a constant reflection in his writings. As a child, Hesse disliked the rigidness of the German educational system of his time. To such an extent, that he expressed his disgust in his novel Unterm Rad (1906; Beneath the Wheel). It tells the story of an overly diligent student that is driven to self-destruction, as a consequence of such an oppressive atmosphere. Beneath the Wheel is similar to his own. At the age of 13, Hesse considers suicide before leaving the school that causes him so much stress. Much of his work will reflect his life experiences. His divorce, his criticism against German nationalism, his travels and his search for enlightenment are at the core of his writing. His most recognized books of literature are Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (1927) and The Glass Bead Game (1943). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.
- Alfred Döblin – (Aug. 10, 1878, Stettin, (at the time Germany, now Poland) – June 26, 1957, West Germany) When Döblin was just 10 years old, his father’s love affair broke the family up. His mother decided to move with her five children to Berlin. Like most of the famous German authors of the time, Döblin was no exception when it came to school performance. Although bright, his grades declined as a response to his opposition to the militaristic style of education. Regardless, he went on to become a doctor, practising Psychiatry in the worker’s district of Alexanderplatz in Berlin. He is best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), which earned him global fame. The following years marked the high point in his career, until the Nazi’s rise to power. His Jewish ancestry and socialist views made him a target and he was therefore forced to flee to France in 1933 and then again to the US in 1940. He returned to Germany in 1945, but resettled in Paris in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, his final years were met with failing health and financial trouble. It is often said that Döblin was under-recognized at the time. He is now considered one the most talented narrative writers of the German Expressionist movement.
- Günter Wilhelm Grass (16 October 1927 – 13 April 2015) was an accomplished German novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, sculptor, and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in the Free City of Danzig, Germany (now Gdańsk, Poland), he was drafted into the military branch of the Nazi party, as a teenager, in late 1944. In May 1945, Grass was captured by US forces at the end of the war. A year later Grass was released, where he worked in a mine and trained in stonemasonry. He then studied sculpture and graphics at The Arts Academy of Dusseldorf and in 1953 he moved to West Berlin to study at the Berlin University of the Arts. Grass began writing in the 1950s and is best-known for The Tin Drum (1959), followed by Cat and Mouse (1961) and then the novel, Dog Years (1963). The books are collectively called the Danzig Trilogy and focus on the rise of Nazism and how World War II affected The Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). All other subsequent works were often compared unfavorably to this early work by critics. A main theme in Grass’s work is World War II and its effects on Germany and the German people. Grass wrote critically of Fascism and was considered an influential voice in helping Germany work through its guilt. He established himself as a leading moral voice in the post war period. So it came as a surprise, when after 60 years, Grass confesses to having been a soldier in the SS. The news shocked the country and Grass received much criticism for it. Of course, this situation embodies a great paradox that many Germans from this time could personally identify with.
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff
- Annette von Droste-Hülshoff – (January 1797 – May 1848) – born near Münster as Baroness von Droste-Hülshoff, Annette showed great promise as a writer from an early age. She is most famous as a poet and novelist, although she was quite musically gifted. She played the piano and composed many songs as well. Her most well-known poem remains the ballad, “The Boy on the Moor.” Her only complete novel was The Jew’s Beech (1842), which brought her much acclaim. It has been considered as potentially one of the first murder mysteries. In this story, gossip, superstition, jealousy and prejudice determine what passes for justice. Her publisher, Cotta, paid her a considerable sum for some of her works of literature. This was rare at the time, since it was unusual for a woman to earn her own money in the 19th century. Unfortunately, she suffered from illness throughout her life and escaped her solitude by visiting her sister on Lake Constance. Annette enjoyed her stays there and spent the majority of her time there from 1841 on, until her death in 1848. In time, Droste was acknowledged as the greatest female German author of the 19th century.
- Bertolt Brecht (10 February 1898 – 14 August 1956) – born in Augsburg, Brecht is one of the most influential German poets and playwrights of the 20th century. He served as a medical order during WWI, but was appalled by the war. Brecht was nearly expelled from school in 1915, when he argued that only an empty-headed person could be persuaded to die for their country. His expulsion was only prevented through the intervention of his religion teacher. He later moved to Munich and then Berlin to pursue a career in theatre, where his career started gaining traction. In 1933, during the Nazi’s rise in power, Brecht escaped Germany and lived in exile in Scandinavia. He wrote most of his great plays between 1937 – 1941. As the Nazi Party invaded Scandinavia, Brecht had to flee to the US in 1941. Because of his left leaning nature, Brecht was subpoenaed in 1947 by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, which targeted intellectuals with Communist ideals. To escape his appeal, he moved back to East Berlin and established the theatre company, Berliner Ensemble, with his wife and collaborator, the actress Helene Weigel. 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. The turmoil of the times through which Brecht lived gave him a strong political voice. The opposition he faced is testament to the fact that he had the courage to express his personal voice in the world of the theatre. He also had unique talent to bring out a dynamic theatrical style to express his views. Brecht’s poetry is collected in Poems 1913-1956 (1997) and Poetry and Prose: Bertolt Brecht (2003).
Sophie von La Roche
- Sophie von La Roche (December 6, 1731 – February 18, 1807) is considered to be the first financially independent professional German author. She was raised in an extremely pious household, which was reflected in her literary works. The spirit of the Enlightenment Period and women’s education permeates through her writing. Initially engaged to Christoph Wieland, she instead married Georg von La Roche, which surprised her former fiancé. Sophie went on to have 8 children with La Roche, 5 of whom survived. Her family lived at court at her father-in-law’s castle Warthausen, near Biberach. Sophie’s husband was then appointed supervisor of the Bönningheim estates, whom she followed in 1770. It was there that she completed her novel The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim, published by Wieland in 1771. This was to become her most famous work. During her 9 years at Koblenz, Sophie held a literary salon in her home. Many influential writers of the time attended and even Goethe mentions it in his Poetry and Truth. The death of her husband in 1788 and the French Revolutionary occupation of the left bank of the Rhine in 1794 was a turning point for La Roche. She was forced to secure her income through writing. She continued to do so until her passing. A small portion of her writings have been translated.
There you have my list of 10 German authors you must start reading today. Geniuses of their time, their literary works continue to inspire, amuse and intrigue us. Many of their words still resonate with us decades and centuries later.
Let me know if you have read any of the works from the German authors mentioned above. Any other German authors you would recommend? I would like to hear from you in the comments below. Thanks for reading until the end.