A Literature in Transition: Main Currents of Postwar German Writing



ONE cannot discuss postwar German literature without considering the political and social situation of the country. The unconditional surrender of 1945 brought, after all, not only liberation from Fascist tyranny but also an almost total disintegration of national life. Hitler seemed to have reduced German history to absurdity, with many of the most cherished political and cultural traditions now appearing in a dubious, if not diabolical light. “Germany” has since been a kind of permanent makeshift without faith in itself. Estranged from their past, her people do not live in harmony with their present. The lack of national unity is the reason — or, if not the reason, it is the symbol for a prevailing sense of unreality and transience.

There is something equally provisional and discontented about literary life in Germany today. It suffers from profound misgivings about itself. In the Federal Republic, to be sure, economic prosperity has been accompanied by a veritable overproduction of highand low-class foods and stimulants for the mind, distributed by a “cultural industry” whose perpetual motion spreads an atmosphere of hothouse luxuriance. Book production has risen to dizzy heights: more than ten thousand titles a year are published in West Germany alone. And yet, both public opinion and popular criticism are convinced that nothing essentially new has happened in the field of German literature since the war. Today’s equivalent of the rebellious optimism of the “roaring twenties” is a general inferiority complex, although there is no dearth of notable talent. The public believes in some great names of the old generation; it does not believe in the existence of a living German literature.

This discomfort, less critical than depressive in character, rests largely on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in the history of arts and letters. The great dates of literary history have hardly ever coincided with the turning points of political history. Thus the unlamented fade-out of a kind of writing that served ideological and propagandist purposes was not so much a spiritual event as a political consequence; the year 1945 was no “epochal” date in the realm of art — for our terms “modern poetry" and “modern art ” denote an epoch which by now encompasses nearly half a century. The language of modern literature has emerged from a revolution that occurred roughly between 1910 and about 1925. It was then that the great, still dominant break-throughs were made, in Germany as well as in England, France, America, Italy, and Russia. It was then that the new provinces of expression, in which we now move, were conquered. So far-reaching a formal and thematic upheaval cannot be accomplished in a few years. It must be followed by a longer period of absorption, by a phase of training in the new language, of cultivation and cautious expansion of the newly won fields. If today we find nothing absolutely new in any Western literature, this is because ours has been a post-revolutionary situation for at least three decades.

A critic trying to do justice to contemporary German literary activity will almost certainly find the true progress not in the displays of pseudorevolutionary attitudes but in the manifestations of uncommon quality. And if he goes by his sense of quality only, he can hardly deny that the quantity of talent is considerable. Above all, this is true of lyric poetry-always a form of expression particularly well suited to the spirit of the German language, and one which time and again has helped it realize its full potential.

There is a large number of noteworthy poets who still feel indebted to the classic and romantic traditions of German verse and know how to combine a “conservative” formula with the impulses of modern experience. On the other hand, scores of younger authors practice the different variants of the surrealist manner and have developed a sort of collective style that makes their poetic individualities all but indiscernible. Between these two wings, the formal conservatives and the formal surrealists, we find the outstanding talents of all ages moving along a road that has its origin, its language-historical premises, in the expressionist movement of the years from 1910 to 1925. And the man who exerted the greatest influence after the war was an aged protagonist of that earlier literary revolution, a poet who had won his spurs and stunned the burghers with the furious daring of his innovations just before World War I: Gottfried Benn, a Berlin dermatologist who was born in 1886 and died only last summer.

The youthful Benn, author of some of the most frightful and rabid poems ever written in the German language, might be described as a German counterpart of T. S. Eliot‘s early Bostonian period. A radical disillusionment with the bourgeois world, a grim scorn for social, sexual, aesthetic, and linguistic taboos, a medically based obsession with the phenomena of physical and mental decay these were the mainsprings that enabled him to penetrate to a new truth about man. The most impressive aspect of this poetry was a strangely harmonious balance between disenchantment and intoxication.

The classic Western view of the world was replaced by a historic-biological vision encompassing the “hominine age” as a whole — the human species of the Quaternary — and this species was seen as living in the sign of perdition. Nietzsche was the prophet of this terminal situation; the theme that Benn conceived as unavoidable fate and varied over a lifetime was the Nietzschean theme of “nihilism.” However, in Benn’s version it acquired a peculiarly positive meaning: “Nihilism is a sense of happiness.” Benn believed in the “form-seeking power of nothingness.” He held that if all traditional truths have become invalid, if the mere possibility of truth is no longer acceptable, there still remains something above change and decay: artistic form, the “absolute” work of art, which like a scarab outlasts the fugacity of time.

Around 1933 Benn had briefly identified himself with Nazism, falsely mistaking its ideology for his own intellectualist biologism. But very soon he withdrew in deep disillusionment, to submerge as an army surgeon in the wehrmacht which was then still anti-Nazi and in which he thought he saw an “aristocratic form of emigration.”In 1949 he returned from abroad and reappeared before the German public, after long years of Nazi and Allied bans, with a violent proclamation of expressionism’s “Second Phase” — and he succeeded not only in winning over the critics but in arousing the enthusiasm of the young.

The message Benn brought had been known for decades, but only now was it fully grasped and appreciated as the expression of a public attitude and the definition of a universally valid historic situation. No one, it seemed, was more in accord with the pessimism of the German intellectuals, with their grimly skeptical view of all the ideological constructions of their time, than this old man who was to show an amazing productivity in the last decade of his life. Nor did anyone do as much to accommodate certain escapist tendencies regarding history — which Benn, with dogged consistency, characterized as a bloody, nonsensical chaos, good for nothing but to goad the thinking and creative genius into greater efforts. No one coined such brilliant cynicisms about the tragic blindness of the political world, about the rummage sale of all traditions of the spirit in the chaos of modern civilization; but neither did anyone else attain the intoxicating power of expression and the pensive mellowness of Benn’s versemaking art.


BENN’S intellectual position in a dying culture shaken by basic disasters was challenged by others who reached very different solutions, trying to phrase Christian, existentialist, or humanist messages. In contrast to these poets there is a third group, a school that has been striving for decades to revive the tradition of the German “nature poem” with the linguistic means of the post-expressionist era. This new plunge into the Pandean and elementary, expressed with an unprecedented precision of language and virtually fanatic sensitivity, is nothing but the idyllic counterpart of Benn’s elegiac skepticism about history. It has been termed “embittered idyllicism.” Deeply pagan moods are voiced in it, particularly by Wilhelm Lehmann, the seventy-five-year-old leader of the nature-lyrical school. He is the stubborn disclaimer of the historic life that fluctuates in the city, the discoverer of the Pandean noon hour which threatens to deprive man of his self, the hour that can be either enjoyed or suffered as a feeling of nihilist indifference. But he does believe in an immanent world soul, revealed in the omnipresence of mythical happenings.

Lehmann’s younger followers have frequently relaxed the rigidity of the nature-lyrical formula to vary and enlarge its list of themes. Experiences of war and captivity and social and moral subjects of the postwar period have been dealt with, notably by Günter Eich (born in 1907) and Heinz Piontek (born in 1925). The most prolific and perhaps the most important poet of the Lehmann school is Karl Krolow (born in 1915). Starting from the simplest, idyllic-bucolic themes, Krolow has over the years, by his word-discovering instinct and his fantastic, adventurously ranging metaphorics, expanded the limits of poetic expression bevond anything attempted by others of his generation. He deals not only with the Pandean noon but also, and most impressively, with the daemonic nocturnal side ol nature - repeated in the historic world as terror, war, and anarchy.

One of the most gifted of the younger poets is Ingeborg Bachmann. Because she is Austrian, I must arbitrarily pass over her work (as also, I must slight the Rumanian exile Paul celan, or, in the field of the novel, the Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse, and others whose writings are vital forces in the Herman language literary community), but her influence is already considerable.


To EXAMINE the present situation of the German novel is to discover, first of all, that the broad stream of artistically formed prose has lately split into two branches: a purely fictional one, and a non-fictional one that produces essayistic, documentary, and diary-type manners of narration. There are still many novelists whom the crisis of the novel — marked by the names of Kafka, Joyce, Proust, and Musil – has passed by without leaving a trace. They use naïvely conservative storytelling techniques and can depend on a wide audience. This is especially true of a number of very successful and much translated authors of emphatically Catholic or else emphatically Protestant bent, such as Ina Seklel (born in 1885), Werner Bergengruen (born in 1892), Hertrud von Le Port (born in 1876), ami Stefan Andres (born in 1906). The courage to experiment is chiefly found among the members of the younger generation. Some have managed to develop new creative forms under the influence of modern American writers, others have tried it in the footsteps of Kafka. Yet the valid achievements are fewer in number than in the lyrical field.

The foremost, all-overshadowing Herman novelist of the postwar period was, of course, Thomas Mann (1875-1955). After the war, when his works were put back on the Herman market, his name reflected the glory of a world-wide fame that was accorded to no other twentieth-century Herman author and approximated only by Kafka and Rilke.

And yet his first postwar book, Doctor Fautstuns (1947), was as vehemently criticized as it was admired. In this novel Mann had made the reckless attempt to compose a narrative symphony about the Herman catastrophe itself, artfully synchronizing the tale of the Third Reich’s descent to hell with the tragic story of a modern musician who has sold his soul to the Evil One for “an hour-glass full of ingenious Devil‘s time.” Again — as once in The Magic Mountain — Mann sketched an intellectual panorama of an epoch, this time under the gloomiest aspects and with an admirably subtle web of motif complications, interconnections, and correlations, Still, the impression created was that the whole Herman people along with their political and cultural history should be sent to hell in a body — and that, however deftly done, was a simplification one could not go along with. A taboo seemed violated; the “mystery of evil,” which provokes more silence than discussion among shuddering theologians, seemed to have been too smoothly unlocked with the keys of psychology and cultural criticism.

After this, his “wildest” and most painful book, Mann returned to subjects easier to grasp and more likely fully to succeed. In 1954 he published his last masterpiece, the Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. Cast in the form of a modern picaresque tale, it is a compendium of all the leitmotifs of his thinking and his imagination, another paragon of his ironic, ceremoniously involved, retinedly exhilarating style.

A world of high culture and artistic discrimination went to the grave with Thomas Mann. Meanwhile, a new generation had entered the lists, one that was “uncultured” in a tragic sense, having grown up in a decade of public disasters, in a barbarous, catch-as-catch-can world. War, terror, and resistance, total collapse of the fatherland, dissolution of all order, then tenacious, sullen survival terminating in a sultry prosperity: these were the experiences of the young authors, and they called for presentation in adequate form. Many tried to approach the task reportorially, many in diaries; only a few succeeded in developing a new, “realistic literary prose. War books by numerous new talents were published, acclaimed, and soon forgotten. The “front-line experience” of World War I, with its either “rightist” or “leftist,” militaristic or pacifist interpretation, was seldom repeated. World War II was conceived and described rather as a religious or an anarchic or nihilistic situation – as in the sketches of Wohgang Borehert. The circular image of total senselessness frequently recurs as in the work of Heinrich Böll (born in 1917), whose Adam, where Arf Thou? surpasses the rest of his generation in poetic vigor. Here the war is the ignoble alibi of the human being Startled by the question, “Adam, where art thou?” It shows a state of being utterly Godforsaken, yet not without a hopeful reservation: “We must pray to comfort God.”

The best recent German novel, in my opinion, is Gerd Gainer’s The Last Squadron, a prose epic about the end of the German Air Force in Norway. This book is “realistic" and symbolic at the same time, casting a light of high poetry on the world of technological warfare as it shows the tragedy of a group of men, a doomed band of cynics and technicians, who disappear one by one. The Last Squadron is full of laconic melancholia, of suggestive reticence about the enormity of the German soldier’s moral situation — a situation all but impossible to rationalize: “There is no way out. To give up your mother or your wife because she is the Devils that you aren’t cut out for.”

Another large group of authors can be characterized by its denial of the “realistic" concept of truth as too one-dimensional. They take the view that neither the naïve logic or real connections nor the customary understanding of time and space should bind the writer. Though nearly all are influenced by Kafka, most of them have managed to work out a “handwriting” of their own, the start in this direction was made in 1947 by a member of the older generation, Hermann Kasack (born in 1896), with his book, The City Beyond the River. It is the description of a fantastic-allegorical journey through a visionary kingdom of the dead, a parable not only of the meaningless mass existence in a totalitarian state but of the crisis of Western civilization as a whole. Outstanding among the younger talents writing in this style is the Austrian Ilse Aichinger.

As a form of art, the novel is today considered obsolete by many authors. A pure, artistic essayistic prose can arise where the plot of a novel is no longer desired — in other words, where the inventive principle is replaced by a principle of imaginative transformation, of seeing poetic images in the given facts of the real world. Aside from Thomas Mann, it is a pair of masters of the poetically intensified essay who have exerted the greatest influence over the past ten years: Gottfried Benn and Ernst Jünger. Their common theme is the reconnaissance of the intellectual and psychological content of the present, the diagnosis of the “position.”The word “position,”of which both are very fond, has an undertone of General Staff terminology — and this is no accident, since in both cases the link with the soldierly life has strongly influenced the author’s development.

To Benn, the position — the “Nietzschean position,” as he calls it — is characterized by the final “relativalion and relativibility of the world of European thought, the loss of the definite and of the absolute.”Starting from scientifically, literarily, or culture-critically posed questions, he proceeds in ever-changing, fascinating incantations to depict the unbelieving, nihilistically depressed man of our day. He calls him “the phono-type,”an expression borrowed from biology. Benn’s solution for life is to stand firm before a lightless, godless horizon — “to live in the dark, to do in the dark what we can.” Ernst Jünger (born in 1895) has also done Ids share of poetic scrutiny and interpretative description of the volcanic epoch of unleashed technology and war that arose with the year 1914. He also recognized and appreciated the nihilistic trends of our time. But he was never tempted to surrender to a halcyon sense of nothingness and to equate the absolute with the phenomenon of art. Throughout his life he has striven to find an obligatory meaning in the catastrophic processes of history, and to define moral values one can live with. At one time, about l920, he had proclaimed a heroic ethos of the warrior: later he had championed a militaristictechnocratie world of “the worker.” But under the impression of the Nazi regime’s political reality he revised all of his evaluations. His World War II diary written as a captain in the Wehrmacht, and published in 1049 under the title Strahlungen (Radiations) — is a representative testimony to the fight for intellectual and moral self-preservation in the nether world of a political and military nihilism. It is one of the most important war books we possess. Jünger’s intense imagination always manages to perceive the mythical primal relations in the everyday trivia of modern life, the “law of the earth" in the facts and in the accidents.

Jünger has many disciples, friends, and intellectual relatives, especially in the generation of those now in their forties. Benn, as a prose writer, has as yet found hardly any important successor; but there is one literary document on World War II that often equals Bonn’s texts in expressive power. The author was an insignificant German soldier named Felix Hartlaub (born in 1913), a historian in private life, conscripted into the army at the outbreak of war, and attached in 194“-2, by an order of seeming absurdity, to Hitler’s headquarters as an assistant to the “war diarist.”Later he was caught up in the pandemonium of the battle of Berlin and has since been listed as missing.

Hartlaub’s central theme was the military positions ma}at GHQ as the signature of an all-encompassing disaster. To be more specific: what interested him was the secret difference between the official, politically colored situation reports and the real state of affairs. He saw the General Staff environment from the valet‘s angle, so to speak, and recorded what he thought as the last and only chance of truth — that is to say, he saw just how much weakness, despair, fear, stupidity, malice, triviality, and human mediocrity lay hidden behind the ideological and propagandistic pseudo-world, behind the illusionism of the positions maps and the ornamental elan of a terse language of command.

In conclusion, a man must be named whose passion for analyzing his age and its culture, fed by intense faith, uses literary forms only to achieve a moral and religious awakening: Reinhold Schneider (born in 1903), a Catholic convert. His main field is the poetic essay, his theme the history of Western Christendom. He has the audacity once more to preach the unconditional imitation of Christ to a humanity estranged from God and standing on the threshold of barbarism.

A report on the German drama of the present must, of course, first mention Bertolt Brecht (1898 1956), our only playwright to develop a novel and very personal dramatic style. As the most distinguished representative and enfant gâté of the East Berlin regime he could realize his dramaturgic ideas to his heart’s content and assemble a brilliant ensemble for his political-poetic purposes. In his theoretical writings Brecht has explained the principles of his “epic theater": the illusionary character of the classic stage play is to be overcome; by the so-called “effects of estrangement” — announcements, interpolated songs, self-elucidations by the actors, masks that break the illusion — the spectator is to be agitationally and educationally spurred to action. Brecht was a cardinal example of that puzzling split consciousness that lets a man of great talent subject the impulses of his political will to an anti-truth and anti-human ideology while producing true poetry with his creative forces.

Brecht was especially successful with Mother Courage — a dramatic reportage of the Thirty Years’ War that one cannot but admire as a great concept filled with balladesque dynamism—and with The Good Woman of Setzuan, a parable play about “the defenselessness of gods and good men in a world oppressed by poverty and misery. Brecht’s language is elemental, vigorous, and outspokenly personal. It is plain, sensuous, thrilling, expressing certain barbarous trails of the period and rough-hewn primitivisms in the consciousness of modern man in the mass, but also a deeply moving tone of solidarity with all suffering humanity.

Besides Brecht — and some distance behind him — there is but one other dramatist worth mentioning: Carl Zuckmayer (born in 1896), a last disciple of the grand old man of naturalism, Gerhart Hauptmann. Zuckmayer too is a poet of “the people” in his own, democratic way; he too, like Brecht, returned from American exile after 1945. His forte is the topical play with literary ambitions; war, resistance, atomic espionage, are his themes. His faith in the traditional dramatic plot is unbroken; his conflicts and motivations are simple and plausible; his elan vital can be inspiring.

Of the dramatic authors of the young generation none has yet been able to assert himself, though many have been honored with world premieres. For ten years the German theater’s vast need for contemporary plays has had to be satisfied by foreign authors. Since the German stages are extraordinarily numerous, active, and insatiable in their hunger for novelties, their repertories offer a fairly complete picture of dramatic activities throughout the civilized world.

Translated by E. B. Ashton