Gottfried Benn Analysis

Other Literary Forms

Gottfried Benn was primarily a poet, but he did write some significant works in other genres, most notably a collection of novellas, Gehirne (1916; brains); a novel, Roman des Phänotyp (1944; novel of the phenotype); the essay Goethe und die Naturwissenschaften (1949; Goethe and the natural sciences); his autobiography, Doppelleben (1950; double life); and a theoretical treatise, Probleme der Lyrik (1951; problems of lyric poetry). His writings also include other prose and dramatic works.


No other German poet exemplifies as fully as Gottfried Benn the emergence of the modern tradition within postwar German literature. His radical aesthetic as well as his political affiliations have made Benn a controversial figure. He was the “phenotype” of his age—that is, the exemplary representation of the intellectual and spiritual condition of his times. As such, Benn can be viewed not only as a remarkable poet, but also as an important figure of twentieth century German Geistesgeschichte.

Benn’s early work (until about 1920) was known only to a relatively small circle of readers. Indeed, it was only after World War II, in the last decade of his life, that Benn achieved fame. His achievements were acknowledged in 1951, when he was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize in literature. For years prior to this time, Benn had been blacklisted, as it were, as a result of his short-lived infatuation with Nazism. Because of the public commentary to which he had been subjected, Benn was reluctant to reenter public life. He did publish again, however, and in the years before his death a generation of poets in search of a tradition flocked around him like disciples around a master. What were the reasons for Benn’s appeal?

The years of Nazi control had yielded a vast wasteland in German literature. Indeed, the historical events of the twentieth century, in particular as they affected Germany, intensified the general philosophical disorientation of the immediate postwar period. Marxism was no real alternative for the West; Existentialism prevailed instead, based in large measure on the writings of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. In this context, Benn’s theory of art as a metaphysical act had considerable authority. For postwar poets in search of a new way of writing, Benn provided a transition from the various offshoots of French Symbolism and German expressionism to contemporary modernism.


Alter, Reinhard. Gottfried Benn: The Artist and Politics (1910-1934). Bern, Switzerland: Herbert Lang, 1976. A biography including the history of German politics and literature in Benn’s time.

Benn, Gottfried. Briefe. Edited by Harald Steinhagen, Jürgen Schröder, Friedrich Wilhelm Oelze, Paul Hindemith, and Ann Clark Fehn. Wiesbaden, Germany: Limes-Verlag, 1977. Three volumes of Benn’s correspondence with bibliographic references and an index.

Dierick, Augustinus Petrus. Gottfried Benn and His Critics: Major Interpretations, 1912-1992. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992. Critical interpretation and history by an expert in German expressionist literature. Includes an exhaustive bibliography.

Hamburger, Michael. Reason and Energy: Studies in German Literature. Rev. ed. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970. A critical and historical study of German literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Includes bibliographic references.

Roche, Mark William. Gottfried Benn’s Static. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Intellectual and historical interpretation of Benn’s poetry with bibliography and index.