By the beginning of World War I, Hermann Hesse had become, in the German-speaking countries of Europe, a solid literary success. His poems, prose vignettes, and novels sold well, and he was tantamount to a habit with German readers by 1914. At the outbreak of the war, however, this situation soon changed in Germany, the result primarily of Hesse’s outspoken disparagement of militarism and chauvinism. After the war, Hesse once again became a popular author, especially among younger readers, but this popularity lasted only until the advent of National Socialism, and in 1939, Hesse was officially placed on the list of banned authors, having long since been vilified as a “Jew lover” and unpatriotic draft dodger (from 1890 to 1924, Hesse was a German, not a Swiss, citizen). Throughout and despite this ebb and flow of critical celebration, Hesse continued to write.
After World War II, Hesse was once again sought after—personally and as a writer—as one who could offer moral guidance to a spiritually bankrupt and physically crippled Germany. He became, almost overnight, a celebrity, and was awarded a series of literary prizes, including the Goethe Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, both in 1946. Although some still voiced doubts about Hesse as a writer and insisted he was not of the stature of a Thomas Mann, a Bertolt Brecht, or a Franz Kafka, Hesse’s popularity in Germany lasted until about 1960, when it rapidly declined. It was at that time, paradoxically enough, that an international “Hessemania” took hold, a kind of exuberant reverence that was particularly strong among disaffected young people in countries as disparate as Sweden, Japan, and the United States. In the United States alone, more than ten million copies of Hesse’s works were sold between 1960 and 1970 (when the Hesse wave crested), a literary phenomenon without precedent. Whatever reservations one may have about Hesse, it is a fact that he remains the most widely read German author of all time.