German Expressionist Poetry, 1914-1918


Professor Robert Vilain, Department of German, University of Bristol

18 October 2014


Note: The original intention was to include some reference to the British war poets, among them Brooke, Blunden, Sassoon, Graves, Owen, Rosenberg, Gurney and Thomas. In the event, this proved impossible. Readers are recommended to look up two excellent modern general studies:

Nicholas Murray: The Red Sweet Wine of Youth: British Poets of the First World War Little, Brown 2010.

Harry Ricketts: Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War Chatto and Windus 2010.


It will be noticed that each of these books, published in the same year, bears a title from a poem by one of the British poets. Murray’s comes from Rupert Brooke, while Ricketts refers to one of Wilfred Owen’s best-known poems, Strange Meeting.


The period from 1908 to 1920/21 is the era of German Expressionism in literature, art and music. It embraces thee atonal music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern (later called the ‘Second Viennese School’) the paintings of the Blaue Reiter and Brücke groups, and the large number of poets and dramatists of the time in Germany and Austria, many of whom were soldiers during the war. 1921 is usually seen as the year of ‘the death of Expressionism’. The ‘decline of German Imperialism’ runs in parallel with the course of the Great War, the rise of socialism and communism, leading to the unstable and sombre effects of the post-war era and the chequered, troubled course of the Weimar Republic.

The influence of the philosopher and polemicist Friedrich Nietszche (1944-1900) throughout the period was profound, many would say all pervasive. Though he had died in 1900, many young German and Austrian soldiers in the Great War carried copies of his Also sprach Zarathustra in their backpacks. Among other important non-German influences were Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Rimbaud and Walt Whitman, together with the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1866-1944).

A search for the ethical and social renewal of mankind brought about the concept of ‘der neue Mensch’ (The new Man), one who shapes and co-creates his environment rather than being merely shaped by it and accepting it. Many, even most, German poets of the time believed in the ideas of ‘Geist’ (Spirit) ‘ Zusammenheit’ (collectivity) and’ Brüderschaft’ (Brotherhood), the visionary spiritualisation of the world.  Optimism and pessimism went side by side.  Ernst Toller (1893-1939), a Jew, enlisted in 1914, fought at the Front, had a breakdown, and was invalided out in 1916. He became a pacifist and left-wing radical, and supported Kurt Eisner’s short-lived Communist government in 1918-1919. Eisner was assassinated by a young Bavarian nobleman in February 1919, provoking a Communist revolution. Toller went to prison for five years, writing Gedichte der Gefangenen  (Poems by Prisoners, 1921), and his early Expressionist plays Die Wandlung (TheTransfiguration)of 1919, Der Tag des Proletariats (The Day of the Proletariat) and Requiem den gemordeten Brüdern (Requiem of the murdered brothers ) both from 1920, Masse Mensch (Mass Man, 1921) and Die Maschinenstürmer (The Luddites, 1922) mad a great impact on their large audiences. Toller’s hectic, strident manner was typical of much of the poetic output of the time.


Ernst Toller (1893 – 1939)

Kurt Pinthus (1886-1975) was an Erfurt born critic who recognised the new Expressionist movement as of central importance for German letters. In 1920, he published Menschheitsdämmerung (The Twilight of Mankind), one of the best-known anthologies of Expressionist verse. Very wisely, Pinthus emigrated to the USA in 1933. He looked at the past as ‘entangling and engulfing’ society, in German ‘umschlingenden, verschlingenden Vergangenheit’.


Franz Werfel  (1890 – 1945)

Franz Werfel (1890-1945), a Jew, who later married Alma Mahler (1879-1964) , the great composer’s widow, is the best known of all these Austro-German writers in the English-speaking world, through later novels such as Verdi (1924),  The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933) and The Song of Bernadette (1941). Werfel was saturated with music, and translated the libretti of the Verdi operas La Forza del Destino, Simone Boccanegra, and Don Carlos. He was a friend of Franz Kafka, and a volunteer in the Austrian army. Werfel served on the Russian Front until 1917, and lived in Vienna after 1918. He was only one of the hundreds of Austro-German exiles in California after 1933, which is where he died suddenly in 1945, aged only 55. In the Expressionist period of his youth, Werfel published the following volumes of poetry: Der Weltfreund (Friend of the World, 1911), Einander (One Another, 1915), Gesänge aus den drei  Reichen (Songs Form the Three Kingdoms, 1917), Der Gerichtstag (The Day of Judgement, 1919) and Beschwörungen (Entreaties, 1923).

Kurt Heynicke (born in Liegnitz in 1891, d. 1985) produced three collections of Expressionist verse - Rings fallen die Sterne (1917) Gottes Geigen (God’s Violins, 1918) and Das namenlose Angesicht (The nameless countenance, 1920): 


wie du taumelt!

An meiner angestreckten Hand vorbei

Bunt und blutfallen


(World / how you stagger! / past my outstretched hand / coloured and stained with blood / World!)


Heynicke exhorted the world to collapse. He said:

Ich will nicht an den Wanden stehen!

O meine Brüder!

Ich will untergehen!

(I don’t want to stand by the walls! / Oh my brothers! / I wish to perish!)


Alfred Walter Heymel (1878-1914) founded the periodical Die Insel (The Island) with Otto Julius Bierbaum and Rudolf Alexander Schroeder. He published Eine Sehnsucht aus der Zeit (A Yearning to escape Time) in 1911. One stanza reads:

We all lack a sense of service

A goal, an inner compulsion,

Things that everyone needs, and no one wants.


Georg Heym (1887-1912) was a Silesian, who drowned accidentally on the Havel near Berlin, aged only 25. Heym was a natural rebel, a difficult young man, who would have been a protester against convention in any age. His poems were visionary and apocalyptic. Verse six of Der Krieg (War) runs:

Now he has arisen, he who has slept so long

From the depth arise, out of arches strong.

Huge he stands and unknown in the twilight land,

And the moon he crushes in his blackened hand.

Echoes sound, around his shaken, blackened head

Sings a chain of shells he wrenched from a thousand dead.

(this poem is a reference to Goya’s famous painting The Colossus, of 1808-12)


Georg Heym (1887 – 1912)

Here are the last two stanzas of Heym’s Umbra vitae (1912), from his Nachgelassene Gedichte (Posthumous Poems) published by Kurt Wolff in 1924, and translated here by Christopher Middleton:

The dying man sits up, as if to stand

Just one more word a moment since he cries

All at once, he’s gone. Can life so end?

And crushed to fragments are his glassy eyes. 

The secret shadows thicken, darkness breaks

Behind the speechless doors dreams watch and creep

Burdened by light of dawn man that wakes

Must rub from greyish eyelids leaden sleep.


In the summer of 1914, both Ernst Toller and the novelist Thomas Mann were filled with patriotic anticipation; ‘How the hearts of poets were inflamed when the war became real!’

Ja, wir leben in einem Rausch des Gefühls! (Yes, we are living in a great surge (ecstasy) of feeling)


In 1918, Thomas Mann published Reflections of a Non-Political Man, essentially a defence of the German imperialist position. But he became a passionate anti-Nazi in the 1920s and beyond, and was forced into exile in Switzerland and the USA, from where he conducted a relentless campaign against the Hitler regime. Mann and his wife returned to Switzerland after 1945, but never lived in Germany again.


The Jewish writer Albert Ehrenstein (1886-1950) was born in Vienna, and worked in Berlin. He wrote Der Kriegsgott (The God of War), the last three lines of which run:

Your blood stains red

My slaughtering arm

How the sight of it pleases me!


Despite the lyrical tone of some of Ehrenstein’s writing, much of it is filled with anger and contempt for the contemporary world. His poetry collections of the war period were Die weisse Zeit (The White Time, 1914), Der Mensch schreit  (Mankind cries out, 1916) and Die rote Zeit (The Red Time, 1917).


Ernst Stadler (1883-1914) was killed in action at Ypres. He was 31. Stadler published Der Aufbruch  (The Breaking Out /The Beginning):

Perhaps by every victory, marches would play around us,

Perhaps we would be lying somewhere, stretched out among corpses.


Ernst Stadler (1883 – 1914)

Rudolf Leonhard (born Lissa 1889, died Berlin 1953) published Soldaten in 1914, when he volunteered for the German army. He was a Spartacist by 1918, and remained a communist. Leonhard moved to France in 1927, and was interned in 1939, returning to Berlin in 1950.

We learned calm gesture from our wounds,

There is no paradise on earth

But for us, war is better than peace.


Walter Hasenclever (1890-1940) was born in Aachen, and died in Aix-en-Provence by in own hand. He volunteered in 1914, but became a pacifist. He was interned twice in 1939-40, and could take no more.  But his ‘1917’ states:

Halte wach den Hass. Halte wach das Leid.

Brenne weiter. Flamme! Es naht die Zeit.

(Keep your hatred alive. Keep your suffering alive.

Burn more. Flame! The time is nearing.)


Georg Trakl  (1887 – 1914)

By common consent two of the finest Great War period poets were the Austrian Georg Trakl (1887-1914) and August Stramm (1874-1915). Trakl, a pharmacist, became a drug-addict, and a depressive. He was devoted to his sister, and died of a cocaine overdose. The last lines of Trakl’s final poem, Grodek, run:

Doch stille sammelt in Weidengrund

Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt,

Das vergossne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;

Alte Strassen munden in schwarze Verwesung.

Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen

Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,

Zur Grüssen die Geister der Helden, die blütenden Häupter;

Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.

O stolzere Trauer! Ihr ehernen Altäre,

Du heisse Flamme des Geistes nährt

Heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,

Die ungebornen Enkel.

(But quietly there in the pastureland / Red clouds in which an angry god resides/ the shed blood gathers, lunar coolness /All the roads lead to blackest carrion. / Under the golden twigs of the night and stars / The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse / to greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads; / And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds / Oh prouder sorrow!   You brazen altars, /A mighty grief today feeds / The hot flame of the spirit / The unborn grandchildren.) 

Tr. Michael Hamburger, with small amendments


August Stramm (1874 – 1915)

Stramm, much older than Trakl, was born in Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia, and was killed in action at Horodec, Russia. Educated in Halle and Berlin, he became a post office official. August Stramm was the most experimental and ‘pared down’ in style of all these poets, always arriving at his final version after much revision and compression. Stramm published Rudimentär (Rudimentary, 1914) Du (You, 1915) and Tropfblut  (Dripping Blood, posth., 1919). He wrote several plays, including Sancta Susanna, turned into a one-act opera by the young composer Paul Hindemith (b.1895) after the war. His Collected Poems appeared in two volumes in 1920/21. Stramm spoke of ‘der keuchen Tod ‘(gasping death)

Blinde schlachtet wildum das Entsetzen (Blind slaughter wild-around with terror).


Here is one of his very last poems in its entirety, Frostfeuer (Frost Fire) from February 1915:

Die Zehen sterben

Atem schmilzt zu Blei

In den Fingern sielen  heisse Nadeln.

Der Rücken schneckt

Die Ohren summen Tee

Das Feuer



Hoch vom Himmel


Dein kochig Herz




Sieden Schlaf

(Our toes die / breath melts to lead / in our fingers hot needles drain / Our backs snail  / Our hearts hum too / the fire /logs / and/ high from the sky / your simmery heart / Shrinkingly / Cracklingly / Laps up / Seethy sleep) 

Tr. Michael Hamburger


Ernst Toller’s Marschlied (Marching Song) of 1918 echoes the thoughts of many, even most soldiers on the battlefield:

Wir Wandres zum Tode

Der Erdnot geweiht

Wir kranzlose Opfer

Zu letztem bereit

(We are wanderers towards death / consecrated to the adversity of the world / we are the ungarlanded victims, ready for anything)


The last two lines of verse 3 of Marschlied run:

Wir wunschlose Kinder

Von Schmerzen gestillt

(We are wishless children / Suckled on pain)


Toller’s play Die Wandlung (The Transfiguration) of 1919 is a ‘Stationendrama.’ Apart from Friedrich and Gabriele, all the characters are types or ‘roles’ or professions:

Nun kommt Befreiung aus

Dumpfer quälender Enge

(Now liberation will emerge  / from dull tortuous narrowness)


Iwan Goll (real name Isaac Lang, 1891-1950) was another Jew, who was bilingual in French and German. Goll became a pacifist, and moved to Switzerland, bitter and disillusioned about the war. He was an internationalist in outlook, like Guillaume Apollinaire in France. Goll’s poetry of the war period included Films (1914) Der Panamakanal (1914) and Der neue Orpheus (1918).

Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) is commonly regarded as one of the major 20th century German poets. He qualified as a doctor in 1912, and published a volume of nine poems, Morgue, in that year, reflecting in a very frank and brutal way his experiences as a young hospital doctor. Benn began to practise in Berlin in 1914and served as a medical officer in Belgium, becoming a consultant in Berlin in 1917. Four other poetry collections appeared between 1913 and 1925, and a Complete Poems followed in 1927. Thus his post-war reputation was still high. He was briefly associated with National Socialism in 1933-4, but withdrew, and entered the army medical service in 1935,remaining there until 1945. Benn lived in East Berlin until his death, entering a new poetic phase in 1951-55.


Gottfried Benn  (1886 – 1956)

His poem Nachtcafe, (Night Café) from the volume Fleisch (1917) is quoted here in full. The sordid atmosphere is clear from the start, but so is the presence of bored professional musicians, alongside the coming and going of prostitutes, and their very unappealing clients. There are two explicit musical references, one to Schumann’s song cycle to poems by Chamisso, Frauenliebe und Leben  (A Woman’s Life and Love, op, 42) and the other to Chopin’s B flat minor Piano Sonata, Op.35, and its sidelong glance at Chopin’s incurable tuberculosis. Here is the 31 year-old Gottfried Benn is using his medical and musical knowledge to convey his sharp observational powers in a depressing late night urban setting, where human life is seen near its lowest and least dignified.

824: Der Frauen Liebe und Leben

Das Cello trinkt rasch mal. Die Flöte

Rülpst tief drei Takte lang: das schone Abendbrot.

Die Trommel  liest den Krimalroman zu Ende.


Grüne Zähne, Pickel im Gesicht

Winkt einer Lidrandentzündung

Fett im Haar

Spricht zu offenem Mund mit Rachenmandel,

Glaube Liebe Hoffnung um den Hals.


Junger Kropf ist Sattelnase gut.

Er bezählt fur sie drei Biere.

Bart flechte kauft Nelken

Doppelkinn zu erweichen.


B-moll: die 35. Sonate

Zwei Augen brüllen auf:

Spritzt nicht das Blut von Chopin in den Saal,

Damit das Pack drauf rümlatscht !

Schluss! He, Gigi! -


Die Tür fliesst hin: ein Weib.

Wüste ausgedorrt.  Kanaanitisch Braun.

Keusch. Hohlenreich. Ein Duft kommt mit. Kaum Duft.

Es ist nur süsse Vorwölbung der Luft

Gegen mein Gehirn.


Eine Fettleibigkeit  trippelt  hinterher.


(824: The loves and lives of women / The cello has a quick drink. The flute / belches three beats long: his tasty evening snack / The drum reads on to the end of the thriller. /

Green teeth, pimples on his face/waves to Conjunctivitis / Grease in his hair/Talks through his open mouth with swollen tonsils, / Faith, hope and charity round his neck.

Young Goitre is sweet on Saddle-Nose / He stands her three half-pints. / Sycosis buys carnations/ to mollify (his) double chin.

B flat minor: the Sonata, Opus 35 / A pair of eyes roars out / Don’t splash the blood of Chopin all over the place / for this lot to slouch about in! / Hey, Gigi! Stop!

The door dissolves: a woman. / Desert dried out. Canaanite brown. / Chaste. Full of caves / A scent comes with her. Hardly scent. / It’s only a sweet leaning forward of the air / against my brain. A paunched obesity waddles after her. )

Tr. Michael Hamburger, with some small changes.  


Otto Dix : Self Portrait 1912

Otto Dix (1891-1969) was of working-class origin, and trained as a house painter. Born in Untermhaus, Thuringia, Dix was the son of an ironworker. He won a scholarship to the Dresden School of Art, where he became Professor of Painting from 1927 to 1933. Dix was associated with the satirical wing of the German Neue Sachlichkiet (New Realism) movement of the 1920s. He served as a soldier throughout the Great War, and never forgot the suffering he had witnessed.  As a painter, Dix worked initially with Cubism and Expressionism, but soon returned to the techniques of the early Renaissance, aiming to depict contemporary scenes and the power of present-day evil.   In his poem Wounded Man, from autumn 1916, he declares:

Sun, envelop me

Freedom course through me

My eyes see the way

I want to go that way, my sister


(and): Oh, if only you were human beings

Unconditional, free human beings

As with many of his contemporaries, Otto Dix, who became one of the greatest German artists of the 20th century, was saturated with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Birth of Tragedy to Ecce Homo. After turning briefly to Dadaism, Dix created Der Krieg (War) in 1924, depicting the horrors of the Front, and then Der Schützengraben (The Trench), which unflinchingly shows dismembered bodies, a corpse surmounting all the fragments. Almost certainly destroyed by the Nazis as unpatriotic, this was re-worked for his (still surviving) triptych Der Krieg of 1932.


NOTE: Because of the scope and range of this enormous topic, certain important figures were excluded from Professor Vilain’s talk. All are discussed in detail in The German Poets of the First World War (1985) by Patrick Bridgwater, former Professor of German at the University of Durham. I have decided that they deserve a place in this account. Bridgwater places Trakl and Stramm at the top of his list, like other critics, but also discusses the following:

Alfred Lichtenstein, born in Berlin 1889, killed in action at Reims, 1914.One of the many war poets who contributed to the periodical Die Aktion edited by Franz Pfemfert. Lichtenstein was known to his friends as an amusing and witty man, with a strong taste for the grotesque and absurd.  He admired his older contemporaries Rilke and Wedekind (hard to imagine two more different figures) and had no time for Goethe (!!) or Stefan George.

Hugo Ball (1886-1927), one of the founders of Dadaism.  He volunteered three times for army service from 1914, but was turned down each time for medical reasons.  Ball went to Belgium to see the fighting for himself, and was naturally horrified. Fleeing to neutral Switzerland in May 1915, he said in his diary that the war had been a disastrous mistake. His poem Totentanz (Dance of Death, 1916) is savagely dry and sardonic throughout. It is a parody of a popular cabaret song of the time; Ball became very involved in the cabaret world of Zurich, where, as Roy Pascal put it in 1985, the Cabaret Voltaire became’ a jeering and hilarious caricature of the moral disorder and absurdity of the world.’

Wilhelm Klemm, born in Leipzig in 1881, trained as a doctor, served as a German army surgeon in Flanders, went into publishing after the war, and died in Wiesbaden in 1968, aged 87.  Klemm published three collections of Expressionist verse in 1915, 1916 and 1917, the last with the title Aufförderung (Invitation).  He perceived from the start the futility of it all. In the autumn of 1914, during the Battle of the Marne, Klemm said ‘My heart is as big as France and Germany together, pierced by all the shells in the world.’

Anton Schnack (1892-1973). Born at Rieneck in Lower Franconia, the third child of a stationmaster of the German gendarmerie. Like his elder brother Friedrich (1888-1977), also a writer, Anton Schnack survived the war. He is regarded by Bridgwater as ‘one of the two unambiguously great poets of the war on the German side - the other being August Stramm and the only German language poet whose work can be compared with Wilfred Owen.’   Schnack’s poetry is dominated by night and death. Unfortunately for his later reputation, Anton Schnack was one of 88 writers who pledged their allegiance to Hitler in October 1933.

Finally there is a group of three wartime poets from working-class backgrounds, usually referred to as the Worker Poets. They were all born between 1886 and 1890, in different parts of Germany: and were Heinrich Lersch (1889-1939), Karl Broger (1886-1944) and Gerrit Engelke (1890-1918). Engleke came from a poor Hannover family, became a house painter, and died in a military hospital in France, aged only 28, only a few days before Armistice Day. He wrote Expressionist ‘hymnic’ verse, in a powerful language, and was heavily influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman.  (Whitman’s work became available in German translation from 1914, first by Franz Blei, then by Johannes Schlaf).

Engelke said in a letter of 1918: ‘It is my belief that war as such cannot be described in literary terms. Not this war, anyway. Firstly, because it is so very complicated…and secondly because it has no soul…The ultimate inevitability which was the soul of so many in the earlier, small-scale wars is lacking in this war of ours. This war, when treated artistically, is more or less bound to appear just as the immensely and crazily bloody product of the age. War involves the negation, or at least the diminution of the spiritual, and the aggrandisement of the material.’

Both Heinrich Lersch and Karl Bröger used the ballade form extensively. Lersch was a boilermaker by trade; he was born in Mönchen-Gladbach in the Ruhr, and died at Remingen.  Lersch was a Roman Catholic, very anti-Marxist, and was forced to retire from manual work in 1925, aged only 36, through ill health. He always eulogised the workingman’s life. Initially he was filled with conventional patriotic fervour, as shown in the poem Soldatenabschied (A Soldier’s Farewell) which includes the exchange ‘Let me go, mother, let me go! All that crying will not do any good, for we are going to defend the Fatherland!’  Lersch was eventually posted to the Front in Champagne, and was buried alive during artillery bombardment. This event exacerbated his already faulty lungs, and in effect ruined his health permanently. In 1930, Lersch wrote that ‘mein Erlebnis durch die Schlacht was satanisch und grauenhaft’ (my experience throughout the conflict was diabolical and horrifying).  His most celebrated poem in Massengraber (Mass Graves) from his first collection, a poem of very long lines, which begins:

‘Massengräber liegen in der Einsamkeit der Heide im Niederland.    Dunkle Tannenwälder stehen von ferne, die Heide ist braun und der Sand ist Weiss, Der hellblaue Himmel steht hoch uber zerschossenen, verlassenen Dörfern.’

(Mass graves lie in the solitude of the heath in the lowland. Dark pine forests stand at a distance, the heath is brown and the sand is white. The pale blue sky stands high above shattered, deserted villages.)

Karl Bröger, who was born and died in Nurnberg, was a revolutionary, pacifist poet. He was a Catholic and a Socialist, served on the Western Front through the whole war, and wrote three collections of war poetry.  Bröger’s poem Bekenntnis (Profession) made him celebrated in Germany: it was quoted by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, and Hitler (!!) is said to have liked it. The opening stanza runs:

Immer schon haben wir eine Liebe zu dir gekannt, /bloss wir haben sie nie mit einem Namen genannt . / Als man uns rief, da zogen wir schweigend fort, / auf den Lippen nicht, aber im Herzen das Wort Deutschland.’

(All along we were aware of our love for you, only we never put a name to it. When we were called, we set off in silence, not on our lips, but in our hearts the word ‘Germany’)

Broger’s three collections of war poetry appeared in 1915, 1916 and 1918. An autobiographical novel, Der Held in Schatten (Hero in the Shadows) appeared in 1920, and in 1929, his war novel Bunker 17.  Geschichte einer Kameradschaft was published. It was translated into English by Oakley Williams in 1930, and published as Pillbox 17. Both Lersch and Bröger were disillusioned by the horrors of the Great War, yet both joined the Nazi Party after 1933.


Appendix to the Talk on German Expressionist Poetry: Some Notes on German Expressionist Drama 1910-1925

Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor Literature and Humanities, BRLSI

As I made clear earlier, this topic could not be included in Professor Robert Vilain’s talk, even though it was advertised, because of obvious constraints of time.  Another full talk would have been needed, so vast is the subject. But the German literary contribution to the era from 1910 to the early 1920s cannot be properly understood without it. There was no comparable burst of creative theatrical activity in Britain, where the conditions of theatrical performance were completely different. In particular, every German town of any size or importance had its own theatre, and often more than one. The impulse towards technical experiment in Germany went in this period before and after the Great War with a vision of the future for mankind, a yearning and hope that a ‘New Man’ (and Woman) might emerge from the catastrophes and disappointments of the present age. The typical Expressionist play is high-flown, looking to an idealised future, while displaying an underlying (or explicit) despair with the present. Many deal with family strife and collisions, while the majority show a critical attitude to the war which was happening even as they were being written. Only some of these often deliberately experimental plays have survived into the 21st century, but all are of great interest for the modern social and literary historian.  Two figures stand out from the rest - Ernst Toller, also a poet and activist, discussed as a poet in Robert Vilain’s talk, and Georg Kaiser, whose plays Von Morgens bis Mitternacht (From Morning to Midnight) and Die Burger von Calais (The Burghers of Calais) broke new ground, and eventually were among the best-known dramas of the period. Kaiser was experimental, yet at the same time aimed his work at traditional German theatre audiences. He was librettist for two of Kurt Weill’s shorter operas, while Weill also wrote the music for the substantial Kaiser text Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake) in 1933. What also strikes one is that a number of the Expressionist playwrights were practitioners in other art forms. Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), the great Austrian painter, is probably the most familiar of these, because of his links with Britain in later years, while another is the sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) author of Squire Blue Boll (1926).  In any case, German Expressionism was a movement which, however short-lived historically, profoundly affected all the arts, especially painting and music.

The work of the German Expressionist playwrights overlap with the rise of silent film (most famously The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, director Robert Wiene, 1919) and runs in parallel with the social comedies of the Jewish-born Carl Sternheim (1878-1942) which aim to entertain by holding up for inspection the weaknesses of the self-satisfied German middle-class - stupidity, pride and dishonesty being the leading vices. Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) was a cabaret artist and actor of great charisma, whose plays were aimed at shocking the bourgeoisie, in particular middle-class hypocrisy in sexual matters. His early play Fruhlings Erwachen (Spring’s Awakening, 1891) focused on a group of teenagers, an unwanted pregnancy and a suicide, and still has the power to shock to this day. His plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Buchse des Pandora (Pandora’s Box) were turned into one of the greatest operas of the 20th century. Alban Berg’s Lulu, begun in 1931, was left unfinished at the composer’s untimely death in 1935, though the whole work had been sketched out in short score, and the first two acts were performable as Berg left them. Happily, the score was completed in the 1970s by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, using his deep knowledge of Berg’s compositional methods and orchestration. They still stand up as  stage plays, of course, but the association with Berg, and Berg ‘s modernist, very demanding music, has changed the cultural context of Wedekind’s vivid and socially explosive dramas forever.

Wedekind the iconoclast was a central hero of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who was influenced heavily by Expressionism early on in his writing life, and always, throughout his work, by its ‘didactic’ tendency and tone. Brecht is now universally regarded as the greatest 20th century German playwright.  His early play Baal (first performed in 1923) belongs in the same stable as Toller, Iwan Goll and Reinhard Sorge. Brecht wanted, of course, to move audiences to ‘pity and indignation’, out of their passive and accepting lethargy.  From the start Brecht was against the Aristotelian unities, and Aristotelian ‘empathy’. His aim was to disturb his audiences, to provoke them into thought and reflection about the actions they were witnessing, rather than acquiescing in their own limited and self- satisfied perceptions of the world. The term used for the effect and aim of his dramas was ‘Verfremdungseffekt’; commonly translated as ‘alienation effect’, the awkward word ‘distantiation’ has been chosen in preference by certain recent critics (Kolinsky and van de Will; see short bibliography at the end of this piece) to convey the meaning of an audience being ‘impelled to a fresh consideration of the issues and events being presented before them’, creating a new relationship in which ‘the spectator is challenged to make new observations about what is observed on stage’ - without actually intervening physically, that is, or interrupting the action.

Many Expressionist playwrights effectively wrote for what became ‘theatre in the round’, a central arena with the audience sitting on all four sides - or for a stage that could be extended at will into the auditorium itself, with actors appearing from the sides or the rear, or even emerging from the audience. This is something we take for granted now, but was decidedly avant garde in the very early 20th century. There was in the majority of German plays of the time a tendency towards abstraction, hysteria, and intense moralising. In Oskar Kokoschka’s Morder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, Hope of Women) which was turned into an opera in 1922 by the young composer Paul Hindemith, the sole characters are ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’, un-named, along with a Chorus of men and women in the background. Rolf Lauckner’s Schrei in der Strasse (Cry in the Street) features Three Blind Men (Sachs, Kanziel and Wolf) plus Marinka, a Drunk and a Quaker; the setting is a Home for the Blind, in a densely urban area, and the tone is both realist and allegorical.

Erwachen (Awakening), by the poet August Stramm, was written near the end of his life (he was killed in Russia in 1915) along with two other dramas. Krafte (Powers / Forces) and Menschheit (Humanity/ Humankind). Erwachen is set in a hotel room, and has five un-named characters, He, She, It (a girl), the Hotel Manager and a Porter, together with a Mob. It has been likened to a silent film with mime, long stares, silences, and exaggerated arm and hand gestures.

Die Menschen (Humanity) in five short acts, by Walter Hasenclever , appeared in 1918, and is a typical wartime Expressionist drama. It is set ‘today’ and in ‘The World’, and has only three named characters: Alexander, Lissi and Agathe. There are 24 other characters with only descriptive titles: The Murderer, The Head, The Tippler, The Fortune-Teller, The Father, The Mother, The Doctor, A Prosecuting Attorney, and so on. Another array of background characters is listed: Gentlemen; Lunatics; Whores; Porters; People. Compared with this, Hasenclever’s version of Antigone (after Sophocles), completed a year earlier, is conventional in its cast, presenting the People of Thebes, Creon (King of Thebes) Eurydice (his Queen), Haemon (his son) Antigone and Ismene (daughters of Creon), Tiresias ( the blind seer), together with guards, a Captain and a Herald. This play was passed by the censor, which makes one wonder whether he understood any of its implications for a staged play in wartime. The language is ecstatic and exalted, as in so many Expressionist plays, and the theme is a Utopian one, concerning itself with self sacrifice and love of humanity. Creon is an authoritarian warlord, Antigone a willing victim, yet Creon loses his power, and in doing so, turns his back on the past, and greets a new dawn. Antigone’s voice speaks from the grave in the final scene, and we feel though her, a total repudiation of violence, and a triumph for the values of tolerance and forgiveness.

The writer Reinhard Sorge, a Berliner, was killed in action on the Somme in 1916, aged only 28. His output was considerable (though not published complete until the 1960s) but he is best remembered for his Expressionist play Der Bettler (The Beggar, 1911/ 1912), subtitled ‘A Dramatic Mission’. Here the main individual characters are: The Poet, the Father, the Mother, the Sister, the Girl, the Older Friend, the Patron of the Arts, and the Three Critics.  Sorge’s play also includes groups - newspaper readers, prostitutes, fliers) incidental persons (the Nurse, the Waiter) Mute Persons in the Café, and ‘Projections of the Poet’. It is as if by dispensing with actual names, and replacing identity with schemata or types, a higher degree of intensity and concentrated communication might be achieved. Brecht’s Baal, written in 1918, but set in 1911, has an even larger cast of characters, but many of them are given names - from the poet Baal to the publisher Mech and his wife Emily, the critic Dr Piller, the composer Eleart, the waitress Louise, Sophie Barger, and Johannes Schmidt and his fiancee Johanna.

Sorge’s Der Bettler, together with Hasenclever’s Der Sohn and Unruh’s Ein Geschlecht, and other less well known examples, demonstrate the Expressionist obsession with turning away from the past, the younger generation attempting to strike out in new ways, and above all rejecting the tyranny of the father figure within the family. The father/son conflict is not exactly a new theme in European drama, but it took on a new intensity in Germany during these few brief years just before and during the Great War. ‘Vatermord’ (the killing of the father) is sometimes seen alongside another Expressionist theme, that of incest.

A short play, The Protagonist, from 1921, by the productive Georg Kaiser, is set in ‘Shakespeare’s England’, and has a cast list which runs: The Protagonist / Sister / First Player / Second Player /Third Player / The Young Gentleman/ Innkeeper/ The Duke’s Major Domo and Seven Musicians. There is an elaborate mime scene, and the Duke, referred to many times, never appears. As against this sketch, a very long play with a very long cast-list, Carl Hauptmann’s ‘biblical’ War: A Te Deum (1913) has eleven named parts, ranging from the Minister of State, Kail and Princess Kail to Petrus, ‘Frau’ Heissler and Father Francis, followed by a huge list of anonymous figures; examples are The Great Power Beasts, The Three Monstrous Figures, a Drunk, A Wretched Woman, a Miserable Man, the Escaped Visionary, a French General, a Group of Anxious Ragged Women, and a whole range of cripples (nine of them in the main list). Beyond that, the dramatis personae sub-list contains numerous other groups; ministers, officers, young couples, rentiers, factory girls, ‘German infantry columns in close formation’, French soldiers, wounded of various nationalities, individual nursing sisters, corpses and ‘creatures variously crippled and vilely clad.’ All these in a play written a year before the Great War actually broke out.

Reinhard Goering’s Seeschlacht (Naval Battle) was written in 1917. It presents the reactions of seven naval ratings (simply given numbers, First Sailor to Seventh Sailor) in a gun turret of a warship during the Battle of Jutland. The play conveys the atmosphere of panic and terror, the initial reluctance to contemplate the imminent battle, followed by ‘the thrill of danger’ and the military comradeship at sea. This leads to the ultimate grim determination of that tragic sea confrontation. The men are finally drowned, and the play ends with a cry to the Fatherland (‘Give us death! Death, death! Give us death!) and a mighty explosion. It was first performed at the Royal Theatre in Dresden in February 1918, a full nine months before Armistice Day, and caused a scandal through its demonstration of the sheer irrationality of war.  RC Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, with which Goering’s play has been compared (Sherriff has a group of soldiers living and dying together in a trench) was written and performed in 1927-8, nearly a decade after the war ended. It is contemporary with Robert Graves’ autobiography Goodbye to All That, and Edmund Blunden’s war memoir Undertones of War, both of them portrayals of the utter destructiveness of war as these two officers had experienced it a decade earlier.

A writer often overlooked in accounts of this crowded period of German writing is Fritz von Unruh, born in Koblenz in 1885, a man who unlike so many of his writer contemporaries, lived a long life, and died in his native Rhine-Pfalz region, in the village of Diez, between Koblenz and Frankfurt, in 1970. Fritz von Unruh was the son of a general, and became an officer in the German army until his resignation in 1912, to become a writer. His play Offiziere of 1911 was essentially anti-war, preaching the message of the individual’s responsibility for social order and morality, as against authoritarianism and dictatorship. Vor der Enscheidung (Before the Judgement, 1914-15) is a play which in high-flown language attacks the pointless destructiveness of war, and contrasts this with the Christian message of peace and understanding. His best known play was Ein Geschlecht (A Family, 1916), with its sequel Platz (1920). Von Unruh became a fierce opponent of Nazism, and left Germany for France in 1932, later settling in the U.S.A. Unusually for this group of writers, he gave many public lectures from 1923 into his old age. His gravestone at Diez bears the inscription ‘Fritz von Unruh 1885-1970: Dichter und Demokrat : Machtig seid ihr nicht in Waffen! / Unbezwingbar ist allein der Geist! (Your power does not lie in weapons, The spirit alone is indomitable!)

The work of Ernst Toller (1893-1939) was mentioned at the beginning of the summary of Professor Robert Vilain’s talk (see above). The Jewish-born Toller studied at Grenoble University, but enlisted in the German army in 1914. Invalided out in 1916, he became an active pacifist as a result of his experiences. Early in 1918, he was involved in anti-war demonstrations, and briefly supported Karl Eisner’s Communist government (a very short lived experiment) in Bavaria. Toller was sentenced to five years in prison, which he served in full, writing all the time, both poetry and plays. Following his release in 1924, Toller was a celebrity for a time, but said later that in many ways, his time in the penitentiary was the happiest in his life. Three early plays (he called them ‘Chorwerke’) were Die Wandlung(The Transfiguration ) of 1919, and two from 1920, Der Tag des Proletariats (The Day of the Proletariat) and Requiem den gemordeten Brudern (Requiem for the murdered brothers). He had considerable success with Masse-Mensch (Masses and Man, 1921), Die Maschinensturmer (The Luddites, or The Machine-Wreckers, 1922) and Der deutsche Hinkemann (1923, republished in 1924 as Hinkemann).

In this last play, the subject is the plight of the returning soldier, treated realistically and in morbid detail. It belongs to the genre known in Germany as Heimkehrliteratur, a term which came into use after 1945, and refers to the demobilised, often badly disabled soldier, and the enormous problems such men experienced in going back to civilian life in a disturbed, often seriously confused world. The returning soldier here is severely wounded, in fact emasculated, but instead of attracting sympathy or pity, he is treated as a grotesque object of fun. Another man is released from an asylum into a world which is clearly contemporary Germany: bestial, uncaring and generally corrupt. Toller went on writing plays and poetry for the rest of his life, first in Europe, then in the USA. His final play, Pastor Hall (1939) dates from the year of his suicide in New York, after he had heard of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Two modern literary historians, Eda Sagara and Pete Skrine, have seen in Toller’s 1923 play Der entfremdete Odin (Odin Alienated), a portrayal of a little man attempting to be Germany’s saviour, a clear anticipation of the rise of the Austrian Adolf Hitler.

Hinkemann is described as ‘A Tragedy in three acts’, and is set about 1921 in Germany. The characters are given descriptive, allegorical names - Paul Grosshahn (Fat Cockerel), Max Knatsch (Anarchist or Troublemaker), Peter Immergleich (The Man of Indifference, or The Shrugger), Sebaldus Singegott  (The Preacher), Michel Unbeschwert (Carefree Man). Greta, Hinkemann’s wife, calls her husband Eugeni. Paul Grosshahn, the factory boss, is soon to be Greta’s lover. In the stage directions, Hinkemann ‘ speaks neither fluently nor rhetorically. At all times his speech has the ponderous groping quality of the elemental soul.’ He is Toller’s best example of the proletarian hero-figure.  Hinkemann is disabled, and loathes factory life: ‘Fighting for humanity is all well and good. But for factory machine… They crush our bodies before we’re fully grown.  Every new working day is a nightmare, and when I start work in the morning, I can’t imagine how anybody can stand the whole day. And when the hooter goes at the end of the day, I rush out of the factory gates, like a mad thing!

In the war, Hinkemann has suffered genital disablement, and is now ‘less than a man’, de-sexed. Greta still cares for him, but she is nevertheless seduced by the arrogant, possessive Paul Grosshahn. Hinkemann himself becomes an object of fairground mockery, as his marriage is put under huge pressure. Greta, urged by Hinkemann to fight for a better world, is afraid of life as it is (‘Alone in a jungle of hunted animals! No good people left these days… They all tear at your heart!’) and wants to stay with Hinkemann, but to no avail. Hinkemann’s final monologue is one of unconfined pessimism. His view is ‘that it will be the same next time: (the people) will suffer hardships, and hate their officers again, and then… they’ll obey orders and… kill each other. Again and again. That’s what people are like… Yet they could be different if they wanted to. But they don’t want to.’

A crowd bursts into the room, headed by Max Knatsch, bearing Greta’s body under a sheet. In despair, she has jumped from a window to her death. The last lines of the play are:

HINKEMANN  (with glazed look and mechanical gestures): Leave me alone, leave me alone… Leave me alone with my wife… (Pleading) Please!!

(They leave the room. HINKEMANN goes to the table and takes a ball of string out of the drawer. With great calm he fashions a rope out of the ball of string.)

HINKEMANN: She was healthy and broke through the web. And I still stand here… I stand here monstrous and ridiculous… In all times there will be men like me.  But why me, why pick on me?.. It strikes at random. This man and that man are stricken. The next and the next again go free… What do we know?.. Where from?.. Where to?.. Any day can bring the Kingdom of Heaven, any night the End of the World…’


A final word needs to be aid about Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) by the Viennese satirist ad commentator Karl Kraus (1874-1936)., founder, editor and sole writer  of the periodical Die Fackel (The Torch). Invariably on the attack (the press in general, political parties, and individuals such as Hermann Bahr, Maximilian Harden, and Alfred Kerr) he was a feared and (by many) a hated figure. In turn, Karl Kraus loathed everything about the Great War, without actually opposing it as such -though he was hostile to pacifists such as the French writer Romain Rolland (1866-1944). He expressed this loathing in this vast drama, written between 1915 and 1917, with later revisions and additions in 1919-1921. It eventually ran to 220 scenes, and Kraus insisted that it would take ten evenings to perform. The Last Days of Mankind was published in an Akt-Ausgabe in 1919, and in a book edition in 1922. It appeared as Volume Five of his Collected Works in 1957. Kraus pilloried every aspect of Austrian society which he saw as complicit in the war-mongering stupidity of the army, the press, the business world, war profiteers and propagandists, the politicians (of course) and the general population of Vienna. Few escaped his unforgiving lash. As always, he addresses with passionate contempt the ability of language, and especially the deformation of language, to utter banalities, mis-statements and outright lies, without number. The two central characters are The Optimist and The Grumbler, the latter reflecting much of Kraus himself. A comparison has been made with the role of Socrates in the Platonic Dialogues, setting himself against the ‘naïve interlocutors’ who stimulate him to his own profound and searching thoughts.

For those who would like to pursue this subject in more detail, the following anthologies of German Expressionist drama are recommended. In the majority of cases, these plays had to wait until the 1960s before they were translated into English. As a group, they represent a stand against Naturalist drama of the previous period, a movement towards revolution, a cry of protest and anguish.  Again and again we are reminded of the powerful influences of Dostoevsky and Strindberg on many of these young German playwrights, as well as the startlingly original work of the early 19th century German Georg Buchner (1813-1837), particularly Woyzeck and Dantons Tod. Largely forgotten for decades, Buchner’s work was read with astonished admiration by many in the early 20th century, and seen as far ahead of its time.


1. Doubleday/Anchor 1963

Part One: The Theory (prose pieces)

Man in the Centre, By Ludwig Rubiner (1917)

Epilogue to the Actor, by Paul Kornfeld (1913)

Two Superdramas, by Iwan Goll (1918)

Man in the Tunnel, by Georg Kaiser (1922)


Part Two: The Plays       

Murderer, the Women’s Hope by Oskar Kokoschka (1907)

The Beggar by Reinhard Sorge (1911, published 1922)

The Strongbox: A comedy, by Carl Sternheim (1912)

Job (Hiob): A drama, by Oskar Kokoschka (1917)

Humanity, by Walter Hasenclever (1918)

Alcibiades Saved, a play in 3 acts, by Georg Kaiser (1920)

The Immortal One, by Iwan Goll

Cry in the Street, by Rolf Lauckner

Baal, by Bertolt Brecht


2. Seven Expressionist Plays:

Kokoschka to Barlach, translated from the German by J.M. Ritchie and HF Garten; Calder and Boyars, 1968

Murderer, Hope of Womankind, by Oskar Kokoschka (1907)

Awakening, by August Stramm (1915)

The Guardian of the Tomb, by Franz Kafka (1916)

The Protagonist, by Georg Kaiser (1921)

Methusalem or The Eternal Bourgeois: a satirical drama, by Iwan Goll, with three figurines by Georg Grosz (1922)

The Wolves: a Winter Play, by Alfred Brust (1921)

Squire Blue Boll, by Ernst Barlach (1926)


3. Vision and Aftermath: Four Expressionist War Plays, translated from the German by JM Ritchie and JD Stowell; Calder and Boyars, 1969

War: A Te Deum, by Carl Hauptmann (1913)

Naval Encounter, by Reinhard Goering (1917)

Antigone: A Tragedy in Five Acts, by Walter Hasenclever (1917)

Hinkemann: a Tragedy in three Acts by Ernst Toller (written in Niederschoenenfeld Penitentiary, 1921-22)


Also recommended:

John Willett: Expressionism; World University Library 1970.  Willett’s short (254pp) book is the ideal starting point. It covers all the arts, demonstrates how interconnected they were in Germany and Austria, and takes the Expressionist theme through to 1945.

HF Garten: Modern German Drama; Methuen 1959

Walter H Sokel: The Writer in Extremis: Expressionism in 20th Century German Literature; Stanford, California 1959

Roy Pascal: From Naturalism to Expressionism: German Literature and Society 1880-1918  Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1973

Paul Raabe (ed.), translated by J.M.Ritchie: The Era of German Expressionism; John Calder/ Riverrun Press 1980

Eda Sagara and Peter Skrine: A Companion to German Literature; Blackwell 1997

CP Magill: German Literature; Oxford 1974

Edward Timms: Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist: Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna; Yale UP 1986

Hans Kohn: The Mind of Germany: The Education of a Nation; Macmillan 1961

Eva Kolinsky and Wilfried van der Will (eds.): The Cambridge Companion to Modern German Culture; Cambridge U.P. 1998



© 2016 Dr Robert Blackburn, BRLSI Convenor for Literature and Humanities, based on notes taken at Professor Vilain’s talk, with some additions.