German Long Fiction Since World War I Analysis

The post-World War I novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

World War I represented a watershed, marring Zweig’s wonderful dream with a horrible reality. By 1920, the social and political security so necessary for equilibrium and progress had disappeared. For some, the new era was to prove exhilarating, a time for new beginnings, but for many others, the chaos resulting from the war caused severe trauma and would lead to a later and greater catastrophe in the ensuing search for stability.

The loss of tradition and continuity was felt in all areas of life and thus in the world of literature, which mirrored these social tremors. Some writers accepted the challenge of revaluing cultural traditions in quest of a new future, while others bemoaned the irretrievable loss of “the good old days.” This dichotomy, conspicuous in their works, is responsible for a remarkable variety and vitality of expressions—the hallmark of German fiction since 1920.

With the resounding defeat of the Central Powers in 1918, long-standing problems emerged to confront the German-speaking nations. Within fifty years, Germany had developed from a predominantly agrarian society to a modern, industrialized nation. Traditional middle-class values of an earlier age were no longer sufficient in an era of metropolitan anonymity, of mass conformity and blind obedience to emperor and state. The change was so drastic and so sudden that Hermann Hesse was to write in his Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929) of one individual’s reaction: “Now there are times when a whole generation is caughtbetween two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence.” The many strikes, revolutions, mutinies, putsches, and related forms of chaos during the 1920’s were merely reactions to external events that had become unfathomable. In the German-speaking countries, the shame of defeat was compounded by the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany and Austria saw long-standing monarchical rule replaced by republican forms of government. All colonies were surrendered, territories were ceded or occupied, and the army was limited to 100,000 soldiers. In addition to the loss of a generation of men, the Central Powers had to accept sole responsibility for the war and then make reparation payments to reimburse the victors.

Within a period of five years, Germany and its allies had gone from world powers to shrunken remnants of once-great nations. The shock, humiliation, and confusion could not have been greater. Since all were treading a foreboding terra incognita, it became the task of the writers to understand and clarify their situation, to create new values by which all could live.

Aside from the many problems of modernity, dealing with the immediate past was a necessity. War novels abounded, the most popular being Ernst Jünger’s In Stahlgewittern: Aus dem Tagebuch eines Strosstruppführers von Ernst Jünger (1920; The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Trooper Officer, 1929), Ludwig Renn’s Krieg (1928; War, 1929), Walter Flex’s Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten (1917; the wanderer between two worlds), Arnold Zweig’s Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa (1927; The Case of Sergeant Grischa, 1928), and Ernst Glaeser’s Jahrgang 1902 (1928; Class of 1902, 1929). Yet only Erich Maria Remarque, in his controversial Im Westen nichts Neues (1928, serial; 1929, book; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929), was able to capture the boredom and horror, the naïve enthusiasm and ultimate despair of World War I. Translations immediately communicated the experience to other participants around the globe, and a motion picture with the same title proved equally popular on an international scale. Even for Remarque, a journalist by trade, the gestation of the book took some time—it appeared in 1929, fully ten years after the conclusion of the war. In Austria, Joseph Roth required even more time to contemplate the loss of his beloved Habsburg monarchy. His novel Radetzkymarsch (1932; The Radetzky March, 1933) and its sequel Die Kapuzinergruft (1938; The Emperor’s Tomb, 1984) trace the ascent and demise of Emperor Franz Joseph through parallel developments in three generations of one Austrian family. For Roth, the death of Franz Joseph is synonymous with the irreplaceable loss of...

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The World War II novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Indeed, in one sense, the existential crisis of German culture in the post-World War I era was resolved not by philosophical treatises or literary masterpieces but by political fiat. With the ascension of the Nazi Party to power in 1933, all facets of culture were to be monitored and manipulated by the state. Membership in the respected Prussian Academy of Arts was soon to require an oath of loyalty to the government; similar organizations experienced a similar fate. Another omen of the proscriptive measures to come could be seen in the spring of 1933, when university professors, students, and Nazi Party members publicly burned books written by “undesirables.” The works of Freud were consigned to the flames for their purported immorality. Remarque’s famous novel was branded as “pacifistic,” while the social satires written by Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann’s older brother, were found to be derogatory. Authors of nonconforming racial background, religious preference, or political taint were blacklisted and banned from publishing on German soil. The list of prominent writers (along with scientists, politicians, and other civilian leaders) grew to include literally thousands of prominent Germans. Some were allowed to stay in the country, though they were forbidden to write except along party lines; most were forced into exile, under the threat of imprisonment or death. Thus, from Sweden to Russia, from Mexico to California, “the real German culture” (as one exile phrased it) struggled to survive.

As a result of the Nazi cultural monopoly, three distinct types of German literature emerged during the twelve years from 1933 to 1945. First, there was the “officially approved” literature by those writers who had remained in the Third Reich or whose works had been appropriated by the Nazis, such as Hans Grimm’s massive Volk ohne Raum, published in 1926. This Blut und Bodenliteratur (blood and soil literature), extolling the virtues of the Germanic race and its cultural roots, was not a product of National Socialist ideology. As in most things cultural, the Nazis adopted earlier works and traditions that had existed long before Adolf Hitler came to power. Heimatkunst (or regional art), neo-Romanticism, and expressionism provided powerful, already extant sources from which to draw—novels such as Der Hitlerjunge Quex (1932; quest of the Hitler Youth), by Karl Aloys Schenzinger, Die S.A. erobert Berlin (1933; the S.A. conquers Berlin), by Wilfrid Bade, and Die grosse Fahrt (1934; the great journey), by Hans Friedrich Blunck. Parallel to Hitler’s penchant for historical figures, a spate of historical novels appeared after 1933. Although purporting to depict ages and situations past, these works attempted to extol current Nazi values. As J. M. Ritchie postulates in his German Literature Under National Socialism (1983), Blunck’s Die grosse Fahrt is typical in many ways:...

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West German fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

West German fiction after 1945 was strongly marked by the Nazi years. Gradually, many of the exiled authors returned to Europe, though generally with diminished productivity. Of the major writers of the post-World War I era, Musil was no longer living; Hesse wrote no fiction between 1943 and his death in 1962; Mann lived in Switzerland until his death in 1955, publishing one of his greatest works in the immediate postwar years, the novel Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948); Döblin returned to Germany and died there in 1957, leaving little impact on the new society; and Broch, who had long since emigrated to the United States, died there in 1951. This generation of writers had fought the early battles with...

(The entire section is 2065 words.)

East German fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In an article in the volume Deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur (1981), Frank Trommler observed that East German literature existed under tenuous circumstances: It was only one of many national literatures among its Soviet bloc neighbors and ranked as only a variant within the literature of German-speaking nations. The result was an inferiority complex and an identity crisis on a national scale, creating a situation in which East German literature was dependent on that of West Germany for critical resonance, contrast, and thus confirmation of its “otherness.” Ironically, West German scholars were the first to recognize East German literature as a cohesive body, and they wrote literary histories in the mid-1970’s on its...

(The entire section is 1438 words.)

German fiction after reunification

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The collapse of socialism in East Germany and the reunification of West and East Germany into a single country in 1990 enabled works to be published in the East that would have been banned previously. Uwe Saeger’s partly autobiographical novel Die Nacht danach und der Morgen (1991) looked at the issue of the border guards who had been charged with keeping easterners from fleeing to the West. Karl Mickel published Lachmans Freunde (1991), a novel set in the 1950’s and actually written between 1968 and 1983, which considered the problems of socialist society that had led to East Germany’s end. Erich Köhler treated the same subject in a novel that blended elements of realism and fantasy, Sture und das...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Austrian fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The nearly seven-century-old Habsburg monarchy of Austria dissolved in 1918 with national and global consequences. Gone were the giant empire, the cultural influence and prestige, the political alliances, and the practical administration of everyday affairs. While still grieving over their loss, the Austrians were annexed by Nazi Germany and engulfed by the Third Reich. Only after the war, when occupation forces withdrew and exiles returned to aid in the cultural reconstruction, could one envision a restoration of timeless Austrian values. Certain qualities such as stability and equilibrium, an aversion to extremes, an appreciation for timeless and lasting values, a sense of tradition, and an allegiance to a specific geographical...

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Swiss fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although Switzerland is politically neutral, the country and its people are not disinterested in world affairs. They are clearly aligned with the democratic West and have always maintained close cultural ties with the other German-speaking countries in Europe. For this reason, the onset of German fascism was a blow to Switzerland, and in the area of cultural exchange, many Swiss authors could no longer be published in the larger German market. Direct contact among individual writers was often halted, while many German authors attempted to enter Switzerland so that they could continue writing for a native-language audience during their exile.

Because of its long tradition of neutrality, Switzerland was able to survive...

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The challenge of modern German fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

For all the notable achievements in poetry and drama, the modern period has been a high point for German fiction. One superficial illustration of this is the fact that six of the seven German-language writers who won the Nobel Prize in Literature from the 1920’s through the first decade of the twenty-first century were novelists: Thomas Mann in 1929, Hermann Hesse in 1946, Heinrich Böll in 1972, Elias Canetti in 1981, Günter Grass in 1999, and Elfriede Jelinek in 2004. Thanks to an abundance of competent translators and a voracious reading public, readers around the globe are now able to enjoy the works of many German novelists, thus bringing great change to the personal circumstances of the individual writers. With the mass...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Adams, Jeffrey, and Eric Williams, eds. Mimetic Desire: Essays on Narcissism in German Literature from Romanticism to Post Modernism. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Collection of scholarly essays focuses on the theme of narcissism in the works of several German writers, including Thomas Mann, Gottfried Benn, Max Frisch, Christa Wolf, and Thomas Bernhard.

Beutin, Wolfgang, et al. A History of German Literature: From the Beginnings to the Present Day. 4th ed. Translated by Clare Krojzl. New York: Routledge, 1993. Comprehensive work provides a basic historical and critical overview. Includes bibliographical references and an...

(The entire section is 518 words.)