German fiction has a rich history, with countless novelists and some truly great books, going back generations from the very best German writers. There are almost no fiction writers to match the likes of Goethe and Mann among writers of their time. Later, the Nazi terror’s actions were contrary to Germany’s traditional values of strong civil society, responsible government and respect for human rights, which is why there were so many writers during that era who rebelled against the Nazis in the novels they wrote. The Nazis did their best to corrupt both the literature and language of the Germans but the writers kept the faith and made a strong, surging recovery. Here are ten of the very best German authors.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1842
Goethe is not only the giant – the Shakespeare – of German literature but one of the greatest of all European writers. If he had never written a word he would still have been a great man, with an unbeaten legacy as critic, philosopher and civil servant. However, he did write, and has been immortalised by his play, Faust but almost equally hailed for his novel, Sorrows of Young Werther 1774, as well as his several other novels and it is as a writer that he is remembered and lauded. . He lived for most of his life in Weimar. His two-part play, Faust was written over 60 years. The plot, about a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for a life enjoying all the things he desired, and is then dragged down to Hell, is familiar to us all but even though the English writer Marlowe had written a version of the story, it was astonishing in early nineteenth century Europe and was a huge influence on the upcoming generation of writers – Kafka, Beckett, Joyce and Nietzsche.
Thomas Mann, 1875-1955
Thomas Mann lived through both wars and was therefore able to observe Germany at a very important and crucial time in its history. He was a communist supervisor and while Hitler was rising to power Mann was travelling around the country and lecturing about socialism and communism. As Hitler’s power grew more dangerous for him he left Germany, went to Switzerland and then to the United States. He returned to Switzerland in 1952 but never went back to Germany. He wrote several popular novels, including The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice, the latter being turned into both a film and an opera by Benjamin Britten. Another novel, Buddenbrooks, 1924, won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926
One may wonder why Rilke is included in this list of German writers. Strictly speaking he was Austrian but he counts as a German writer and is certainly claimed by Germans. Moreover, he was far more famous as a poet (and is in fact one of the most famous of all German poets) However, he did write one acclaimed novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (translated as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). It is a short novel written in high poetic style, depicting, among other things, a prodigal son story, a graphic description of someone dying, the joys of the freedom of childhood and striking images of weird neighbours. The novel very much anticipated, or introduced, “Expressionism,” which took hold of European art and fiction in the early years of the 20th century.
Herman Hesse, 1877-1962
Hermann Hesse was probably the most famous 20th-century German novelist, with Siddhartha (1922) and Steppenwolf (1927), novels that express the struggle to find meaning in life. He was initially popular and influential among Germans in the early years of his writing and later became internationally acclaimed. He was critical of the society of his time. His novel, Unterm Rad, traces the childhood of a student who faces enormous pressure and spirals down a path of self-destruction. Hess was very bold in his criticism of the political order and even criticised the Nazi regime. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.
Franz Kafka, 1883-1924
Kafka was a German who spent most of his life in Prague. He is one of the most influential novelists of all time because of his unique imagination and prose style. He is known equally for his novels and short stories and is famous for the grotesque, head-spinning nature of his words, which have led to any writer using his approach or any situations that are absurd and weird being called “Kafkaesque.” His novel The Trial has the protagonist going round in circles, meeting weird people, entering rooms that just lead to more rooms, like a maze, and never getting anywhere. His other novels are equally Kafkaesque. He is most famous for his short story, The Metamorphasis, in which a man wakes up one morning to find that he has turned into a giant cockroach.
Heinrich Boll, 1917-1985
Heinrich Boll came to prominence after the Second World War. He is one of the most widely read and influential of German writers, and is internationally popular. His popularity may be because his novels and short stories are about individuals who struggle to survive in an environment of war, political turmoil, terrorism and economic devastation. Several of his books feature an individual who pits himself against the mechanisms of state or public institutions. He has a large body of work, with best-sellers like Billiards at half-past nine, The Bread of those Early Years, The Clown, The safety Net, and more, which have been translated into more than thirty languages. He was awarded both the Geog Buchner Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Gunter Grass, 1927-2015
Gunter Grass, fighting in the German army during World War II, was captured by the United States forces and held until the end of the war. On his release he worked in several jobs before moving to West Germany, where he studied graphics and sculpture, and it was then that he began writing about his experiences in the war. He led the moral fight-back by those who had been crushed by the Nazis and became the voice of that generation. He is best known for the novel The Tin Drum (1959), the first novel of the Danzig Trilogy, consisting of The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999.
Michael Ende, 1929-1995
Ende was Germany’s leading and best-selling children’s author, with post-war children of all generations growing up with his stories and characters, and even now, thirty years after his death he is still popular. He also wrote several novels for adults. Most of his children’s stories have been adapted for film. His writing was informed by his understanding of the value of the freedom of expression and of information, which was influenced by his going AWOL from the army and joining the German resistance and also by his artist father’s paintings having been banned by the Nazis. He is best known for his epic fantasy The Neverending Story and its 1980s screen adaptation and later, its animated television adaptation.
Patrick Suskind, 1949-
A German writer, and one of the very best, one of the most popular of all time, Suskind lives in France where he finds inspiration in the French cities, in which he sets many of his novels. He became an established novelist the hard way, when like so many other men and women who aspire to making a mark, he slaved away writing, in his words, “short unpublished prose pieces and longer un-produced screenplays.” He then found fame in 1981 with a monodrama, The Double Bass. When, four years later, his Perfume:The Story of a Murderer was published he became a household name internationally.
Cornelia Funke, 1958-
Cornelia Funke is the most popular children’s novelist in Germany. Her novels have been translated into numerous languages and by 2020 she had sold forty million copies of her books worldwide. She began writing in the 80s and, as a social worker working with disadvantaged children, her novels were fantasies woven around the lives of disadvantaged children. Her most acclaimed novels are The Thief Lord 2002, and Dragon Rider 2004. All the novels in her Inkheart novel series have been adapted for the screen as well as spending long periods on the New York Times Best Seller List.
And that’s our pick of the best German authors. What’s your take – anyone missing from this list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below.