9 of the best German books to read
Enter the world of complex storytelling with German literature, for stories of history and influence. From the works of Mann to Kafka to Hesse, there is a plethora of fascinating German literature for readers with all kinds of tastes to indulge in. Whether you were born and raised in Germany and want to broaden your literary horizons, or you are an expat trying to enrich your German skills, here are some of the best German books to read.
Must-read German books
The following are just some of the fundamental German books to start with for your reading exploration.
1. Der Tod in Venedig, Thomas Mann
Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) by Thomas Mann depicts the story of an established writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, who visits Venice in search of a spiritual fulfilment that instead leads to his erotic doom. He meets a Polish tourist, Tadzio, and immediately feels liberated. What originally starts as a pique of interest becomes an overwhelming obsession with the young Polish boy, ultimately leading to a dark end. What makes this novel unique is that the character of Tadzio was inspired by a real boy Mann met on a trip to Venice, but the story is fictional.
Thomas Mann was a famous German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. His work is influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, explaining the deep psychological and philosophical tone of his writings.
2. Tintenherz, Cornelia Funke
Tintenherz (Inkheart) by Cornelia Funke is a renowned young adult fantasy novel that follows the story of Meggie and her father, who read aloud from a book called Inkheart and enable an evil ruler to escape the bounds of the fictional book and land in their living room. Meggie must learn how to harness spell-bounding knowledge of magic and find a way to return the evil ruler back into the novel. The timeless tale of a young girl's love of books and her wild imagination is a sure page-turner for any young adult.
Cornelia Funke is an award-winning German fantasy writer, illustrator and storyteller, and she has become Germany’s best-selling author for children. Her stories have been translated into over 30 languages and Inkheart, The Thief Lord and Dragon Rider have become successful film adaptations.
3. Im Westen Nichts Neues, Erich Maria Remarque
Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) by Erich Maria Remarque describes the extreme physical stress and mental toll of German soldiers during World War I, along with the difficulty of returning back to civilian lives when they left the battlefield. The main character is Paul Bäumer, who enthusiastically enlists with his classmates for the war after hearing patriotic speeches from his teachers, but instead gets wrapped up in the horrors and disillusionment of life in the trenches.
Erich Maria Remarque is one of the most well known and widely read German authors of the 20th century. His writing is heavily influenced by the history of his own life including World War I, the Weimar Republic and then exile in Switzerland and the United States. His work has a sombre but realistic tone on the lives of people during those time periods.
4. Das Leiden des jungen Werthers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Das Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is one of the most famous novels of the Sturm and Drang period in German literature, and would go on to influence a plethora of literature during the Romantic period. It depicts a passionate yet unhappy young man who is hopelessly in love with his friend’s wife, Charlotte. His friend is a man whom he greatly admires yet detests. Werther’s constantly contradictory emotions are displayed in a series of letters.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer whose works spanned the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, humanism and science. His works influenced the movements of Romanticism, the Enlightenment, Sentimentality, Sturm and Drang and even Evolution. Later in life, he turned his talents towards painting and the field of optics.
5. Der Prozess, Franz Kafka
Der Prozess (The Trial) by Franz Kafka is one of Kafka’s best works and tells the story of Josef K., who is arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority. The fascinating aspect of this novel is that the nature of his crime is not revealed to him nor the author, and he must defend himself. The book was never entirely finished, and therefore can be read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excessiveness of modern bureaucracy, or anything the reader wants to interpret it as.
Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Prague-born author, and one of the major fiction writers of the 20th century. Most of his writing - albeit incomplete - is considered to be amongst the most influential in western literature. His style of writing became so unique that it has its own name: “Kafkaesque”, which refers to writing that is characteristic of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Kafka's work.
6. Der Vorleser, Bernhard Schlink
Der Vorleser (The Reader) by Bernhard Schlink explores how postwar generations approach those who took part or participated in the atrocities of the 20th century, specifically the Holocaust. The story follows 15-year-old Michael Berg, who gets to know Hanna, a woman twice his age. She eventually becomes his lover and then inexplicably disappears. The next time he sees her, Michael is a law student, and she is put on trial for a horrendous crime, and she refuses to defend her innocence.
Bernhard Schlink is a German judge at the constitutional court of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and he is also a professor of law at Humboldt University in Berlin. His most famous works of literature consist of Der Vorleser and Olga. Der Vorleser was the first German book to reach the number one position on the New York Times bestseller list.
7. The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse is a futuristic novel set in a fictional province of Europe called Castalia where technology and economic life are restricted to a minimum. It is home to a group of intellectuals with two purposes: to run boarding schools or to play the glass bead game. The nature and rules of the game are elusive and complex, and playing the game takes years of studying music, mathematics and cultural history, as it is an abstract synthesis of arts and sciences. The novel helps readers create deep connections with these seemingly unrelated topics through the understanding of the game.
Hermann Hesse was a German-Swiss poet, novelist and painter. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, and his works contemplate the topics of spirituality, authenticity, self-actualisation, philosophy and more. His works were banned in Germany during the Nazi regime due to his anti-fascist views.
8. Die Blechtrommel, Günter Grass
Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) by Günter Grass sees Oskar Matzerath narrate his years in a psychiatric hospital between 1952 and 1954. He recounts his extraordinary life packed with violent events such as the death of his parents, the nightmares of the Nazi era and the anarchic adventures of post-war Germany - but in a unique fashion, as the main character decides not to age past the age of three.
Günter Grass was a Nobel Prize-winning German novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist and sculptor who often illustrated his bizarre world views through his work. His writing style is termed “broadened reality” which consists of European magic realism with famous works including The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.
9. Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin
Berlin Alexanderplatz is a novel by Alfred Döblin about a murderer, Franz Biberkopf, who has just been released from prison. Struggling with life after prison, he begins to rely on a sex worker for help, a woman his friend then murders. As the story progresses he finds himself unable to pull out of his dark world of turmoil, and so, he must deal with the misery, the lack of opportunities, crime, and the imminent rise of Nazism.
Alfred Döblin was a German novelist, essayist and doctor. His most famous work was Berlin Alexanderplatz but his prolific writing influenced more than half of a century of literary movements. His entire collection of historical novels to science fiction stories have made Döblin one of the most important figures of German literary modernism.
Discover an entirely new world through German literature
Reading in German or even reading German literature translated into English is one of the best ways to broaden your mind! German literature has spanned many centuries and gives readers marvellous insight about topics like history to the philosophies of life. These are just some of the best German books to start with.