Johannes Bobrowski Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Johannes Bobrowski was born in a German town in East Prussia, not far from Lithuania; his father was a German railroad employee of Polish descent. Bobrowski spent his childhood in the small village of Mozischken and frequently visited his grandparents on their farm in the country. It was at this time that he learned much about the culture and history of the Slavic peoples who lived across the border. In 1928, the family moved to Königsberg (later called Kaliningrad), where Bobrowski attended a college-preparatory high school. In school, he was particularly attracted to the disciplines of music and painting; one of his teachers there was the writer Ernst Wiechert. In 1937, the family moved again, this time to Berlin, where Bobrowski began to study art history.

In 1939, Bobrowski was conscripted into military service. During World War II, he served as a soldier in France, Poland, and northern Russia, but he was also a member of the Bekennende Kirche (the Confessing Church), a Protestant resistance group. He was taken prisoner of war in 1945 and remained in Russian captivity until 1949; he was held in the regions of the Don and middle Volga Rivers and did forced labor as a coal miner. He returned to East Berlin in 1949, and in 1950 he began working as a reader at the publishing house Union Verlag, affiliated with the Lutheran Church. He remained there until his death, resulting from complications after an appendicitis operation, in 1965.

Bobrowski began writing poetry in 1941, when he was stationed at Lake Ilmen, and a few of his poems were published in the “inner emigration” magazine Das innere Reich. He did not write much again until the early 1950’s. His first poems after the war appeared in 1954 in the East German literary magazine Sinn und Form, which was edited by his friend Peter Huchel. Bobrowski continued to write sporadically after this literary debut, but he did not feel that his style had matured sufficiently until the early 1960’s, when he published his first two volumes of poetry. He completed work on Wetterzeichen (signs of the weather), but it did not appear until after his death. Im Windgesträuch (in the wind bushes), appeared in 1970, containing poems of lesser quality which were written between 1953 and 1964.

Layers of History

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

This historical dimension of Bobrowski’s poetry offers a key to understanding his works. His poems contain five intertwined temporal layers: ancient times, in which the Slavic or Sarmatian tribes were free to determine their own existence and live in close harmony with nature; past centuries of conflict with the German invaders; the horrors of World War II, which Bobrowski had personally experienced; the present time, in which one must rectify old wrongs; and a future era, in which all men will live in communion with one another. It is often difficult to separate these layers, particularly when the reader finds many confusing temporal references within a single poem, yet this very ambiguity accounts for the richness of Bobrowski’s verse; the various layers illuminate one another and promote an understanding of historical and cultural processes.

Moreover, these poems transcend their historical occasion, offering profound general insights into man’s inhumanity to man on a global scale and forcefully arguing the need for reconciliation and the end of barbarism. They can thus be read and appreciated by persons from various cultural backgrounds and different eras. This rich philosophical content of the poems also explains how Bobrowski, as a Christian non-Marxist, was able to survive and publish in East Germany. He was seen as a seer or prophet who pointed out the errors of the past and the way to achieve the future brotherhood of all men—one of the proclaimed goals of the communist state. In a manner similar to the historical process he was describing, Bobrowski’s poetry underwent a noticeable thematic development or progression: His first poems are concerned primarily with the fantastic landscape of Sarmatia; later poems include historical events and persons from the recent and distant past; and finally, Bobrowski arrives at a discussion of the problems of his present-day Berlin.