Germany, land of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), has produced some of the world’s finest literature, though its literary scene didn’t really get going until the 18th century with heavyweight figures such as Goethe and Schiller. For modern readers curious about the country, the 150 years following unification in 1871 are of most interest. Since becoming a modern nation state, Germany has seen intense industrialisation, two world wars, nazism and communism, the ignominy of division and the joy of reunification. Given this history, there are different Germanys to read about, and I have compiled this list with that in mind. As elsewhere, until the postwar era most high-profile books are by white males, but the proportion of female and BAME voices has increased since reunification, and is reflected in my more recent choices.
One of the finest novels to characterise 19th-century Germany, Buddenbrooks was published in 1901, when Mann was 25. Over a thousand or so pages, this epic family chronicle takes place in the north of the country, drawing heavily on Mann’s life in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, near the Baltic coast. Mirroring, to some extent, his own struggle to fit into his bourgeois family as an artist, it portrays the decline of a wealthy German merchant family over four generations as they face modernity, changing mores and, eventually, bankruptcy. The lifestyles and attitudes of the period are evoked through the records of births and marriages, divorces and deaths. The book won Mann the Nobel prize for literature in 1929.
Many books have been written about the depressions and debaucheries of the Weimar demi-monde, among them Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin and Ernst Haffner’s Blood Brothers. But none capture the modern aspect of the times better than Döblin’s masterpiece. This is the story of former cement worker and small-time crook Franz Biberkopf as he is released from prison into the kaleidoscopic capital of the 1920s. Influenced by modernists such as James Joyce, Döblin employs stream-of-consciousness to capture the speed, confusion and anonymity of modern city life, and splices in newspaper articles, songs and speeches for good measure. Set in 1929, the book also features the increasingly minatory presence of the Nazis. Adapted twice for the screen: as a 1931 movie by Piel Jutzi, and as a German television series in 1980 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder – it’s arguably best read in Michael Hofmann’s polychromatic 2018 translation.
Fallada’s novel – published in 1947 as Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone) – portrays the intense, fraught atmosphere of Nazi Berlin. It was the first novel (by a German author) to look at local resistance to the National Socialists and is based on the true story of a working-class couple, the Hampels, which was unearthed from Gestapo files and handed to Fallada by the Soviets. The Hampels (the Quangels in the book) aren’t proactively against the Nazis until 1940, when their son is killed while fighting in France. They then begin a low-key but persistent campaign of writing anonymous postcards and leaflets, leaving them in postboxes and stairwells around their neighbourhood, and advising people to turn against the regime. The book depicts everyday life as the war rages and the terrifying grip of the National Socialiststightens on the city. The pair were eventually betrayed, arrested and executed, but thanks to Fallada their story lives on.
Postwar Germany was still in shock – and an awful lot of denial – in the 1950s. So when The Tin Drum was published in 1959 – looking at the war and its aftermath through the eyes of its notoriously unreliable narrator Oskar Matzerath, a paranoid dwarf living in an asylum – it landed like a bombshell. Set in Grass’s hometown of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) and the wider region of Eastern Pomerania, which had been annexed by Nazi Germany, the novel is by turns surreal, grotesque, poetic and reflective, its subtext a loud shout against the complacency of the “economic miracle” years and their lack of moral responsibility for the recent past. It was turned into a film in 1979 by director Volker Schlöndorff, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and an Oscar for best foreign language film.
This 1963 debut novel established Wolf’s reputation in East German literature. Set during 1961, when construction of the Berlin Wall began, the tale is based around two lovers separated by it: Rita Seidel, a woman in her early 20s who, like the writer, generally supports the values of the “antifascist” GDR, and Manfred Herrfurth, a chemist who settles in the west. Although the Wall is not specifically mentioned in the novel, the book is saturated with the atmosphere of the newly partitioned city. Though Wolf would go on to write works that were much more critical of the regime, They Divided the Sky doesn’t shy away from exposing the cracks and corruption in the communist system.
The second book of a trilogy by Turkish-German writer, actor and director Sevgi Özdamar, this semi-autobiographical work looks at life in Germany from the perspective of a teenage gastarbeiter (guest worker) in the 1960s and 70s. The narrator, who has left Turkey having lied about her age, learns German while working in menial jobs to earn money for drama school. A sepia-toned snapshot of West Berlin, the book mostly centres around Kreuzberg, a hub for Turkish immigrants, and features local landmarks, such as the bombed-out Anhalter Bahnhof and the Hebbel Theatre, both of which are still standing. It also focuses on artistically minded socialists and students, the occasional fascist exile from Greece, and real-life events like the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg by a policeman at a protest march in 1967, an outrage that sparked the left-wing German student movement. The second part of the book takes in a parallel political life in Turkey.
An idiosyncratic road trip novel through the somewhat unlikely terrain of Brandenburg (the state which surrounds Berlin), this novel is also a tender and lighthearted coming-of-age story of two outsider schoolboys. The boys are chalk and cheese: Maik Klingenberg, offspring of a heavy-drinking mother and philandering father who takes off with his mistress, and Andrej Tschichatschow, AKA Tschick, a surly Russian immigrant who comes to school smelling of vodka and doesn’t balk at a bit of petty crime. When the summer holidays arrive and the pair haven’t been invited to any parties, they take off in a Lada that Tschick has “borrowed”, with no destination in mind. Almost all of the people they meet are decent and kind, if sometimes a little quirky – the message is that you don’t have to travel far to have the adventure of a lifetime. It was made into a fine movie by Fatih Akin in 2016.
One of Germany’s most talked about contemporary talents, Erpenbeck’s Visitation (Heimsuchung) reconstructs 100 years of German history through events in a lakeside house in Brandenburg. By chronicling the intersecting lives of three generations who lived in the house, , Erpenbeck creates an intimate way of bringing the century to life, with its excesses of insanity and tragedy, hopes and reconciliations. The lives come and go along with the ideologies, with the only constant the silent gardener who provides soothing breaks between all the personal upheavals. This is no accident: along with a dramatic prologue depicting the prehistoric creation of the lake, the point about nature’s persistence and indifference in the face of human events is clear.
Meyer’s novel takes as its subject the world of prostitution and drugs following the fall of the communist regime. Set in Leipzig, Meyer playfully blends reportage with impressionistic, dreamlike and non-linear styles, presenting his dark and often hard-hitting tale via a kaleidoscope of characters, from former DJs and addicts to traffickers and sex workers. Making sure to zoom out far enough to show the influence of globalisation, and implicating policemen and politicians along the way, the story tells how the sex trade went from a forbidden entity in East Germany to a legal and sprawling operation under capitalism. Though Meyer is careful to eschew sentimentality and easy moralising, there is plenty here to be heartbroken about.
This House is Mine by Dörte Hansen
Something of a surprise hit, this 2015 novel is set in a rural fruit-picking area near Hamburg. The tale spans 70 years and begins with a family of aristocratic refugees from East Prussia arriving at a run-down farmhouse in 1945 to start their lives anew. As well as interactions with others in the remote village, a new generation of the same family arrive several decades later, this time fleeing city life in Hamburg. Though different in terms of temperament and world view, the two main women – Vera and her niece, Anna – manage to find common ground and a kind of healing. Hansen’s narration, wonderful dialogue and nonlinear storyline keep the reader hooked, and the themes (from physical deprivations and inter-family conflicts, to community and the concept of home) are applicable to the current European refugee crisis, lending the novel not a little contemporary relevance.