For any scholar wanting to learn a foreign language and become bilingual, reading literature is one of the most effective techniques. The same is true if you want to learn German.
Students learning Deutsch should consider reading aloud, listening to audio books, or even saying certain terms themselves so that they can practice the pronunciation themselves. German literature includes some of the most famous works in the world!
Discovering German literature can help students improve in the language as well as learning about it and the accompanying culture. Put simply, if you want to Speak German, you have to read German.
If you're not familiar with German literature, here are some of the German writers you have to read! This list includes a variety of writers that are well known in most German speaking countries and includes poets, novelists, and even literary works that you may be more familiar with as Disney films!
Discover Classical German Literature with Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is one of German literature’s most prominent figures. As both a writer and a statesman, Goethe had a huge influence on German literary culture. Anyone doing German studies will probably hear about his linguistic prowess. His writing is as synonymous with German as Shakespeare is with English.
Goethe’s first written work was published in 1773 and most German schools study him. Goethe tried to explore German culture in its entirety. He was also a proponent of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) Romantic movement of the late 18th century.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was simultaneously a:
- Art Theorist
- Botanist, etc.
The romantic author aimed to bring fiction and philosophy together in all his works in order to expose the 18th-century European way of thinking. As an opponent of the French Revolution, Goethe was controversial, especially when it came to sensitive topics like suicide.
Goethe inspired a number of English and German writers in the 1790s and is often considered as the precursor to the Romantic movement.
Not content with just writing simple prose, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explored a number of literary styles including autobiographies, essays, scientific studies, and even poetry. The Goethe Institut, which promotes the German language and culture, is named after the man.
Some of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s most famous works include:
- Faust, Part One
- Faust, Part Two
- The Sorrows of Young Werther
- Torquato Tasso
- Elective Affinities
- Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, etc.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is considered as one of German literature’s most important works. Covering the woes of a young suicidal man, the novel was controversial at the time. In fact, suicide was against the morals of the bourgeoisie and the book was considered immoral and subjected to heavy criticism from the bourgeoisie of the time.
The book even inspired “Werther Fever” in Europe in which men dressed like the protagonist and women like Charlotte, his sweetheart.
Discover German Thrillers with Süskind
Patrick Süskind is a contemporary German author. He was born in 1949 and studied at the University of Munich before moving to Paris where he started writing his first works.
Patrick Süskind was and remains a secretive writer and only gave interviews to speak about his work. Süskind was inspired in French towns and often used it as the backdrop to his works. He explained that he found 18th century France attractive as it was the birthplace of “modern man”.
His works often mix fiction and historicity. To describe the society of the time, Süskind often uses extensive narratives that expose the protagonists’ feelings.
Perfume is undoubtedly Patrick Süskind’s most popular work and one of the most important works of the 20th century.
His other important works include:
- Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
- The Pigeon
- The Story of Mr. Sommer
- On Love and Death
- Maître Mussard's Bequest
- The Double Bass
- A Battle, etc.
Perfume covers the history of Grenouille, a French orphan with an exceptional sense of smell. Guided by his nose, Grenouille starts killing those whose smells are particularly powerful. The novel is often seen as a allegory of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
Discover German Philosophy with Thomas Mann
Born in 1875, Thomas Mann is one of the world’s most famous German writers. He’s part of the German language’s history. The novelist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 and was inspired by Goethe, Schopenhauer. and even Nietzche. Thomas Mann criticised the German and European way of thinking by modernising biblical and classical literature.
His writing was highly symbolic and Mann tended to provide an glimpse into the individual psychology of his protagonists. Mann was without a doubt a humanist but he also deeply believed in humanity’s downfall. He was considered to have pioneered modern literature’s decadence.
Through his writing, Mann tried to protect human values and fight against the extremism of the time.
Thomas Mann was responsible for a number of famous German novels including:
- The Magic Mountain
- Death in Venice
- The Holy Sinner
- Joseph and His Brothers
- Royal Highness
- Confessions of Felix Krull
- Tonio Kröger
The Magic Mountain remains one of the most influential novels in German literature. Mann explores themes like time, illness, death, and even seduction. Each character is an allegory: Settembrini represents humanism, Naphta radicalism, Ziemssen duty.
Learn German online for more inspiration about German authors.
Discover Children’s Literature with the Brothers Grimm
Born in 1785 and 1786, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were linguists and philologists famous for their fairy tales.
The two brothers, who were interested in the German language, created grammar manuals in order to help their young compatriots learn about sentence and word formation.
They were also really influential in linguistics and created a dictionary! Jacob Grimm also studied Germanic languages and the First Germanic Sound Shift is more commonly known as Grimm's Law.
Unlike modern dictionaries, the Grimm dictionary also included the history and evolution of each word over time. This massive work unfortunately remains unfinished since the brothers underestimated the size of the task.
The Brothers Grimm decided to create their own fairy tales in order to get adults interested in German literature and improve literacy.
Grimms’ Fairy Tales were never really intended for children. In fact, it’s only through being heavily censored that they were even told to children. Themes like nature, cruelty, and violence were lifted from the works in order to make them more suitable for children.
However, Grimms’ Fairy Tales also comment on the societal problems of 17th century Germany.
Thanks to Disney adaptations, everyone is familiar with their fairy tales.
Some of their most famous fairy tales include:
- Beauty and the Beast
- Hansel and Gretel
- The Princess and the Frog
- Sleeping Beauty
- Tom Thumb
- Snow White
- Little Red Riding Hood
Reading the original Grimm version can help learners discover simple German vocabulary and accessible language. By reading familiar stories, you can improve your German as well as discover the differences.
Discover War Literature with Stefan Zweig
Born in the late nineteenth century in Austria, Stefan Zweig is one of the most famous contemporary German writers and was at the height of his career in the early twentieth century.
The Austrian writer of Jewish heritage was particularly affected by his personal experience during the First World War where he was in the army. The violent scenes that he witnessed can be seen in his texts. His writing became more violent, as did the writing of others at the time.
Zweig’s work includes themes such as social exclusion, physical and moral violence, repression, and psychology. Zweig was also very close friends with the psychologist Sigmund Freud who inspired him in creating his characters. Zweig is an author you should know if you’re wanting to impress the German authorities and pass a German citizenship test.
The author’s tragic demise may have also played a role in the popularity of his works. Traumatised by the Second World War, Zweig lost faith in humanity and decided to commit suicide with his partner Lotte in 1942.
Some of Zweig’s most popular works include:
- Confusion of Feelings
- Journey into the Past
- The Royal Game
- Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman
- Forgotten Dreams
- Beware of Pity
- The Refugee
Zweig’s works are particularly useful for discovering the German language. In fact, most of his stories of novellas meaning you can discover most of his most important works in just a few hours of reading.
Furthermore, Zweig’s writing is available to everyone since it’s been public domain since 2013.
Remember that reading German literature can really help those learning German and is a gateway to discovering the culture, too!