My interest in German literary figures was sparked when I lived in Vienna during my middle school years. I was intrigued by the “Hier war Goethe nie” metal plate and Schiller, who had a monument built in his honour and a square named after him. I slowly became familiar with other major names: the one-of-a-kind poet Rilke, famous psychoanalyst Freud, spiritual writer and painter Hesse. I read the iconic Faust and Remarque’s Drei Kameraden in my literature classes, analysed Der Besuch der alten Dame by Dürrenmatt, Schlink’s Der Vorleser and Herrndorf’s coming-of-age story Tschick… By the age of 19, I had yet to be acquainted with any texts written by German-speaking female authors.
A fountain pen on paper. Photo: Aaron Burden via Wikimedia Commons
This changed soon enough, in part thanks to my German Studies course at university, but also because I decided to seek out female perspectives myself. This is half of the German-speaking population we’re ignoring; in 2021, it’s about time we start acknowledging, celebrating, building monuments for and brightening curriculums up with women and their stories. Here are 10 talented German-speaking women whose lived experiences, fantasy worlds and compelling reflections translate beautifully into prose and poetry.
1. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797–1848)
Portrait of Annette Droste-Hülshoff. Photo: Johann Joseph Sprick via Wikimedia Commons
Baroness Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was a poet, novelist, and composer of Classical music. Francis Joste called her ‘Germany’s greatest poetess’ in 1913, praising her inimitable representation of nature. Die Judenbuche, one of the writer’s best-known works, is a piece of Gothic fiction and one of Germany’s first murder mysteries. Check out the Droste-Portal to explore Droste-Hülshoff’s life and literary works.
2. Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945)
Else Lasker-Schüler was a German-Jewish playwright and poet, and one of the few women associated with the Expressionist movement. Though the writer won the Kleist Prize in 1932, she was regularly threatened by the Nazis, and after emigrating to Zurich and later the Holy Land, she eventually settled in Jerusalem. Her first and most important play remains Die Wupper, while “Ein alter Tibettepich” is a wonderful example of her poetic skill.
3. Vera Lachmann (1904–1985)
Vera Lachmann telling a bedtime story at Camp Catawba. She is said to have retold either the Odyssey or the Iliad over the course of each summer. Photo: Ron Blau via Wikimedia Commons
Born in Berlin in 1904 to a family of German-Jewish heritage, Lachmann studied philology, language and literature and later earned a PhD from the University of Berlin. After Hitler came to power, Lachmann founded a school for children from Jewish backgrounds who had been banned from public schools; this institution was shut down by Nazi officials after Kristallnacht. Lachmann fled to the U.S. in 1939, where she ended up meeting her life partner Lorraine “Tui” St. George Tucker and founding Camp Catawba, a summer camp for boys.
4. Irmgard Keun (1905–1982)
A plaque for Irmgard Keun in Marktplatz, Bonn. Photo: Axel Kirch via Wikimedia Commons
Irmgard Keun is known for her bold portrayal of women and sexuality. An important writer of the late Weimar Period, Keun’s works were banned by Nazi authorities, but Keun gained deserved recognition towards the end of her life. The author’s writing focusses on young women navigating life in Nazi Germany. Some well-rated novels of hers include Gilgi, eine von uns and Nach Mitternacht.
5. Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–1973)
Born in Klagenfurt, Bachmann saw Nazi troops march through her town at age 12. Having earned a PhD in Vienna, the distinguished Austrian poet went on to teach at the University of Frankfurt and Harvard University. The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize was created in 1977 and is considered one of the most important awards for literature in the German language. Read Bachmann’s poem “Keine Delikatessen” alongside an English translation here.
6. Ruth Klüger (1931–2020)
Klüger in 2008. Photo: Das blaue Sofa / Club Bertelsmann via Wikimedia Commons
Vienna-born Ruth Klüger was a Holocaust survivor who was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp at age 10 along with her mother. She was later transferred to Auschwitz and Christianstadt, and resettled in Straubing at the end of World War II. Klüger wrote a powerful memoir about her haunting experiences called weiter leben: Eine Jugend, which is one of my all-time favourite books. The writer was a notable critic of museum culture surrounding the Holocaust.
7. Elfriede Jelinek (1946–)
Jelinek is an Austrian playwright and journalist. The writer attended the Vienna Conservatory and graduated with an organist diploma, and later studied art history and theatre at the University of Vienna. Jelinek’s commitment to feminism and affiliations with the Communist party are indispensable to her work. In 2004, Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in Literature and was praised for her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power". The author’s works include Die Klavierspielerin and Die Liebhaberinnen.
8. Herta Müller (1953–)
Müller is a Romanian-born German novelist, essayist and poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. The writer often explores cruelty and violence in her works, especially in the context of Ceaușescu’s repressive regime in the Socialist Republic of Romania. Müller aims to shed light on Romanian people’s experiences as a minority group in Germany. Her most celebrated work is Atemschaukel, a prose poem about the persecution of Romanian Germans by the Stalinist regime.
9. Emine Sevgi Özdamar (1946–)
Emine Sevgi Özdamar. Photo: Buchmesse RUHR via Facebook
Born in Malatya, Turkey, Özdamar is a director, writer and actress who has lived in Germany since the age of 19. The writer began learning German by memorizing street names and headlines of newspapers without knowing their meaning. Her literary work, which centres on the experiences of Turkish immigrants in Germany, has gained much recognition and earned Özdamar the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1991. Her collection of short stories Mutterzunge was named International Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement.
10. Alice Hasters (1989–)
Hasters at a book launch in Witten, Germany. Photo: Reclus via Wikimedia Commons
Alice Hasters is a journalist, podcaster and author. Having grown up in Cologne, she graduated from the German School of Journalism in Munich. Haster navigates identity, racism and intersectional feminism in her works; her book Was Weisse Menschen Nicht über Rassismus Hören Wollen aber Wissen Sollten breaks down the definition of racism and how crucial it is to actively fight not only extreme forms of it, but daily occurrences and microaggressions that often go unnoticed by white people in Germany.