Gottfried Benn 1886-1956
German poet, essayist, and novelist.
One of the major poets of German Expressionist movement, Benn is widely considered one of the of the most important German poets of the twentieth century. Benn's poetry frequently draws from his experiences as a physician, evoking imagery of disease and decay. His early volumes of poetry, Morgue (1912) and Fleisch (1917) draw from his clinical association with death and the human body. Benn was a controversial figure in terms of his political sympathies, and throughout his life was simultaneously accused by Nazis of being anti-German and accused by others of being a Nazi sympathizer.
Benn was born in Mansfeld, Westprignitz, Germany, on May 2, 1886. His father was a German and a Lutheran minister, and his mother was from French-speaking Switzerland. From 1905 to 1912, Benn studied medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm Akademie, which trained physicians for the armed forces. In 1914, he married the actress Edith Brosin, and later adopted her son from a previous marriage. Their daughter, Benn's only child, was born in 1915. During World War I Benn served as an army physician in a hospital for prostitutes located in Brussels. In 1917, after the War, Benn set up a private practice in Berlin, specializing in skin and venereal diseases. The first of a series of tragic deaths of his close female companions occurred in 1931, when a friend committed suicide by jumping out of a window, immediately following a telephone conversation in which Benn had attempted to talk her out of killing herself. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Benn was initially in favor of Nazism. In 1934, however, upon becoming aware of violent acts perpetrated by high-ranking members of the Nazi party, he became an outspoken critic of Nazism. Accordingly, Benn was criticized by the government and his works banned from publication. Upon being proclaimed a Jew, Benn did not hesitate to prove his non-Jewish identity through official documentation. However, because of ongoing suspicions that he was Jewish, Benn's medical practice suffered, and in 1935 he chose to rejoin the armed forces as an army physician. Nonetheless, he remained embroiled in political controversy throughout the 1930s. In 1938, his first wife having died, Benn married Herta von Wedemeyer, who was twenty-one years younger than he. In 1945, shortly after the German surrender to the Allies, she committed suicide. In 1946, he married Dr. Ilse Kaul, a dentist, who was also considerably younger than he. He retired from medical practice in 1953. On July 7, 1956, at the age of seventy, Benn died of spine cancer. Since his death, critics and biographers have striven to make sense of the complicated evolution of Benn's political sympathies, resulting in ongoing disagreement over the implications of the poet's relationship to Nazism.
Benn's first volume of poetry, Morgue und andere gedichte (Morgue and Other Poems) was written in response to his experiences in an autopsy course, where he dissected cadavers. It includes clinical descriptions of flesh in various stages of decomposition, as well as local Berlin slang mixed with medical jargon, written in unrhymed or loosely rhymed free verse. As its title indicates, Benn's second volume, Fleisch, continues in this vein. Benn's next three poetry volumes were Schutt (1924), Betäubung (1925), and Spaltung (1925). The poems of this series are characterized by themes of mystical visions and the primordial human condition. Unlike the earlier volumes, these poems are written in classical rhymed verse. In 1936, in honor of Benn's fiftieth birthday, a collection of his poetry, Ausgewählte gedichte, 1911-1936 was published. Statische Gedichte (1948) includes works written between 1936-1947. In 1949, Trunkene Flut, a collection of his more recent poems, was published. Benn's next two poetry volumes were Fragmente (1951) and Destillationen (1953). The last volume of Benn's poetry to be published during his lifetime was Aprèslude, in 1955. Collections of his poetry in English translation include Primal Vision (1960), Selected Poems (1970), and Prose, Essays, Poems (1987). In addition to poetry, Benn wrote numerous essays and several novellas. His autobiography, Doppelleben, was published in 1950.
Throughout his literary career, and for half a century after his death, Benn has been considered one of the most important German poets of the twentieth century, and a major poet of German Expressionism. However, although Benn was never a staunchly political person, his literary reputation, both during his lifetime and since his death, has always been embroiled in controversy over his political sympathies. He was attacked from all sides of the political spectrum. John Mander quotes Benn as stating that he had been “publicly labeled a swine by the Nazis, an imbecile by the Communists, an intellectual prostitute by the deomocrates, a renegade by the emigrants, and a pathological nihilist by the religious.” Critics generally agree that, although there is some development in his style, Benn's poetry remained essentially uniform and static during some forty years of publication. His early poetry, such as the first volume, Morgue, was immediately embraced by the avant-garde and German Expressionists. It was also, however, harshly criticized as offensive to the predominantly romantic literary sensibilities of the time. During the inter-war years, Benn was often banned and frequently discouraged from publication, due to hostilities toward his poetry on the part of Nazi authorities. After the World War II, he received renewed recognition as a great poet, but was also compelled to defend himself against charges of being a Nazi-sympathizer, based on his early pro-Nazi statements (made during the years 1933-34). By the time of his death in 1956, however, Benn was recognized internationally as one of the greatest German poets of the twentieth century, and an important figure in the German Expressionist movement.