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German Literature

Expatrio 2024-02-15
Stapled books representing German culture


German literature is rich in beautifully crafted stories, especially from the eras of Sturm und Drang, Romanticism, and Realism. Certain German books are an excellent introduction not only to German literature but to German culture and the history of Germany too. Many of the most famous works of literature to emerge from Germany, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, The Never-ending Story and The Sorrows of Young Werther, have all been translated into English.

This article will give a short-and-sweet overview of German Literature and some of the books you should really have on your reading bucket list.

History of German Literature

One of the earliest texts written in Old German (Old Saxon) is the epic poem "Heliand". Throughout Medieval Germany, poetry and, later, folk stories dominated the literary landscape. The great age of German Literature really began in the late 18th century with the advent of the Sturm and Drang (storm and stress) genre, a proto-romantic, emotional genre which emerged as a response to the more clinical expectations of the Enlightenment.

This was followed by Weimar Classicism and later German Romanticism into the early 19th century, with writers such as Goethe.

By the late 19th century, Classic German literature was characterized by Realism: books that featured important social commentary. In the 20th century, Realism and Naturalism gave way to the social commentary of Weimar Literature.

In the modern post-war period, the characteristics of German literature were dominated by both subjective and political explorations of Nazism, the Holocaust, war, and political division - these themes were written about in an attempt to help heal the wounds of the 21st century.


German books you have to read before you die

What are famous German books?

1. Die Blechtromme/The Tin Drum - Günter Grass

The first in the novelist's Danziger Trilogy, magical realism meets political and religious commentary in this 1959 classic. It's narrated by the main character Oskar Matzerath, a Pole living in a mental hospital in the 1950s. In 1979, it was made into an award-winning film.

2. Der Tod in Venedig/Death in Venice - Thomas Mann

Death in Venice is a 1912 novella in which philosophy, erotic obsession and a mid-life crisis play out during a famous writer's sojourn to Venice. Part tragedy, part liberation tale, this book is one of the writer's earlier works. Mann is also famous for writing the 1947 book Doctor Faustus.

3. Der Vorleser/The Reader - Bernhard Schlink

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was written in 1995 and quickly became a modern classic. It gained even more notoriety when it was made into a movie in 2008 starring Kate Winslet. In the book, an illiterate SS guard has an affair with a teenage boy.

4. Effi Briest - Theodor Fontane

This 1895 realist novel tells the tale of 17-year-old Effi Breist, a woman married off to a man much older than her. This book is a quietly subversive and gently political; it's an adultery tragedy that shares similarities with Madame Bovary.

5. Berlin Alexanderplatz - Alfred Döblin

Berlin Alexanderplatz is the most famous work from Alfred Doblin, one of Germany's most notable modern realist writers. This 1929 book explores the internal and external struggles of a criminal living in Berlin's underclass during the dawn of Nazi Germany. It's often cited as one of the best novels of all time.

6. Im Westen Nicht Neues/All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque

This war novel tells the story of a German soldier who enlists himself in World War I. Published between the wars in 1929, the book explores the difficulty of soldiers returning to civilian life as well as the senselessness of war. Another book that is sometimes listed as the best book of all time.

7. Der Zauberberg/The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann is one of the most acclaimed German novelists of all time, which is why two of his works appear on this list. This coming-of-age tale follows Hans Castorp, a young Hamburg merchant who travels to the mountains of Switzerland to live in a sanatorium -- an exploration of pre-war Europe.

8. Das Leiden des jungen Werthers/The Sorrows of Young Werther - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Published in 1774, an important novel in the Sturm und Drang Romantic period of German literature. A tale of painful unrequited love told through a collection of letters from the young artist named Werther to his friend.

9. Die unendliche Geschichte/The Neverending Story - Michael Ende

This 1979 fantasy children's novel tells the classic tale of childhood struggles against the backdrop of a magical land. Protagonist Bastian Balthazar Bux escapes his miserable home life to discover the world of Fantastica, which he finds in a book named The Never-Ending Story. As he enters the story himself, he learns about compassion, bravery and friendship.

Improve your German language skills

Use books you enjoy to improve your German language skills. Read them first in English if you are at a more elementary level, and then you'll have a good understanding for when you attempt to untangle the German version. Get ready to learn a lot of new vocabulary!


Significant German writers

One of the first significant early German writers is Goethe, thanks to his part in both the Sturm and Drang and Weimar Classic genres. The Grimm Brothers and their collection of 19th-century fairy tales also have global significance.

In the modern post-war era, Herman Hesse, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass are all credited as being globally influential. Also worthy of note is Bertolt Brecht, one of the most famous 20th-century playwrights, thanks to scripts such as The Threepenny Opera - he is also credited with being one of the most influential dramatists of all time.

German and English translation

When it comes to the works of the great writers, you can often find copies of their poetry collections, short stories or even novels which have both the German and English translation side-by-side. Look out for these in popular German bookstores like "Thalia", or check online.


Who was Germany's most famous author?

Thomas Mann, author of Death in Venice and Magic Mountain is probably the most acclaimed German writer of all time and one of the only 13 German writers to ever receive a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Who is the most successful German author of all time?

Whilst Thomas Mann and Van Goethe are probably the most famous and acclaimed German writers, the most successful is arguably Erich Maria Remarque, writer of "All Quiet on the Western Front", which has sold 20 million copies worldwide. The next biggest selling book is the Never-Ending Story by Michael Ende, which has sold 16 million copies.


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