German novels have a long and rich history, dating back to the 18th century. Some of the earliest German novels were influenced by the French Enlightenment, and they often explored themes of reason, individualism, and social reform. In the 19th century, German novels became more diverse in their subject matter and style, and they began to address a wider range of social and political issues. Some of the most important German novels of the 19th century include The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, and Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.
In the 20th century, German novels continued to explore a wide range of themes, but they were also increasingly influenced by the political and social upheaval of the time. Some of the most important German novels of the 20th century include The Trial by Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.
German novels are known for their distinctive style and their focus on complex themes. They often use experimental narrative techniques and explore the darker side of human nature. Some of the essential distinctive qualities of German novels include:
German novels are also known for their preoccupations with a number of recurring themes, including: the individual versus society, the nature of good and evil, the meaning of life, the search for identity and the relationship between art and reality.
Here are ten of the top German novels of all time:
The Trial by Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924)
The Trial, published posthumously in 1925, follows Josef K, a bank employee who is arrested and put on trial for a crime he does not know he has committed. K. attempts to defend himself, but the legal system is byzantine and opaque, and he is ultimately unable to clear his name. The novel ends with K.’s execution, which is both sudden and arbitrary.
The Trial is a dark and disturbing novel that explores themes of alienation, guilt, and the power of bureaucracy. It is considered one of Kafka’s most important works, and it has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some critics see the novel as a metaphor for the individual’s struggle against an oppressive society, while others view it as a commentary on the absurdity of the legal system.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955)
The Magic Mountain is a novel by Thomas Mann, first published in German in 1924. The novel is about Hans Castorp, a young German engineer who visits his sick cousin at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Castorp is initially supposed to stay for a few weeks, but he is stll there after seven years. During his time at the sanatorium, Castorp witnesses the lives of the other patients and staff, and he comes to terms with his own mortality. The novel explores themes of life, death, and meaning in the face of illness and mortality. It is a complex and challenging novel, but it is also a rewarding one. It is a novel that can be read and reread, and each time it reveals new layers of meaning.
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962)
Steppenwolf is a novel by Hermann Hesse. Harry Haller, a man who feels like an outsider in both the world of ordinary people and the world of artists and intellectuals, is torn between his civilized and intellectual side, which he calls his “Human” side, and his wild and untamed side, which he calls his “Wolf” side. The novel follows Harry’s journey as he tries to reconcile these two sides of himself.
The novel is set in Zurich, Switzerland, and is divided into two parts. The first part, “Harry Haller’s Record,” is a series of autobiographical writings in which Harry describes his inner turmoil. The second part, “The Magic Theatre,” is a dreamlike sequence in which Harry encounters a variety of characters and situations that represent different aspects of himself.
Steppenwolf is a complex and challenging novel that explores themes of alienation, identity, and self-discovery. It has been praised for its psychological insights and its poetic language. The novel has been translated into over 40 languages and has been adapted into several films and plays.
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1878 – 1957)
Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin, is considered one of the most important novels of the Weimar Republic and is known for its experimental style and use of stream-of-consciousness narration. The novel tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, a petty criminal who is released from prison after serving four years for the murder of his girlfriend. Biberkopf tries to rebuild his life in Berlin, but he is constantly drawn back into the world of crime and violence. The novel is a powerful and disturbing portrait of the human condition and the dark side of the city.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1898 – 1970)
All Quiet on the Western Front is a novel about the experiences of German soldiers during World War I. It is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man who joins the army with his friends after being inspired by patriotic speeches. However, Paul and his friends soon learn that the reality of war is far different from the romanticized version they had been taught. They experience the horrors of trench warfare, the deaths of their comrades, and the constant fear of being killed. As the war drags on, Paul and his friends become increasingly disillusioned and desensitized to violence. In the end, Paul is killed in battle, a victim of the senseless brutality of war.
The novel was published in 1929 and was an immediate bestseller. It was translated into dozens of languages and made into several films. All Quiet on the Western Front is considered one of the most important anti-war novels ever written. It is a powerful and unflinching depiction of the horrors of war and the devastating impact it can have on young people.
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1927-2015)
The Tin Drum is a 1959 novel by Günter Grass that tells the story of Oskar Matzerath, a dwarf who refuses to grow up. Oskar is born in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) in 1924, and he witnesses the rise of the Nazi Party and the Second World War. Oskar uses his tin drum to protest against the adults around him, and he eventually becomes a symbol of resistance against the Nazi regime.
The novel is written in a variety of styles, including stream-of-consciousness narration, and it is known for its use of symbolism and allegory. The Tin Drum is a complex and challenging novel, but it is also a powerful and moving work of literature.
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (1944-2001)
Austerlitz is a novel by W. G. Sebald about Jacques Austerlitz, a man who is trying to piece together his past. Austerlitz was born in Prague in 1930 and evacuated to England in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport. He grew up in England knowing very little about his family or his origins. As an adult, he begins to travel to Europe in search of clues about his past. He eventually learns that his real name is Kurt Bachmann and that his parents were killed in the Holocaust. Austerlitz is a novel about memory, loss, and the search for identity. It is also a meditation on the history of Europe in the 20th century.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1944 -)
The Reader is a novel by Bernhard Schlink set in Germany in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was first published in 1995. The protagonist is Michael Berg, a young man who has a brief affair with an older woman named Hanna Schmitz. Hanna is illiterate, and Michael reads to her. After the affair ends, Michael learns that Hanna is a former concentration camp guard who was convicted of war crimes. The novel explores themes of guilt, memory, and the legacy of the Holocaust. It was adapted into a film in 2008, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.
The Lives of Others by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (1973 -)
The novel The Lives of Others was published in 2006, the same year as the film. The novel is based on the screenplay for the film, but it also includes additional details and insights into the characters and the story. The novel is a powerful and moving exploration of the themes of surveillance, privacy, and the power of art.
The Lives of Others was originally a 2006 German drama film written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It tells the story of Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi captain who is assigned to spy on a playwright and his lover during the Cold War. As Wiesler listens in on their conversations, he begins to question his own beliefs and loyalties. The film won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (1975 -)
The Book Thief is a historical novel set in Nazi Germany during World War II. The story is told from the perspective of Death, who narrates the events of the novel as he witnesses the lives of several characters, including Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is sent to live with foster parents in Molching. Liesel loves to steal books, and she learns to read with the help of her foster father, Hans. As the war progresses, Liesel witnesses the horrors of Nazi rule, but she also finds solace in the power of words. The Book Thief is a story about the importance of literacy, the power of the human spirit, and the resilience of the human heart. It was published in 2005 and has since been translated into over 63 languages. It has won several awards, including the Michael L. Printz Award for Young Adult Literature and the Printz Honour Award.
And that’s our list of the 10 very best German novels. What’s your take on these – have you read any of these, or feel that any great Germans novels are missing?