Expand your knowledge of German literature by adding 16 of the most respected German novelists and best German authors to your reading list.
The contribution of Germany to the field of literature is immeasurable. German writers since the Enlightenment have been producing bestsellers and some of the world’s most revered academic work. In the 19th century, the country became a powerhouse of philosophy and early modern writing.
World War I and II profoundly impacted German-language writers, and much of their work in the 20th century gave the rest of the world an insight into the tragedies of war and the brutality of the Nazi regime.
This post will give you all the details about the best German-language authors and recommend some of their top work. And if you fancy following in their footsteps, have a look at our article on becoming a novelist.
- Here Are The Best German Authors
- 1. Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844 – 1900
- 2. Heinrich Heine, 1797 – 1856
- 3. Alfred Doblin, 1878 – 1957
- 4. Gunter Grass, 1927 – 2015
- 5. Herman Hesse, 1877 – 1962
- 6. Bertolt Brecht, 1898 – 1956
- 7. Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926
- 8. Franz Kafka, 1883 – 1924
- 9. Heinrich Boll, 1917 – 1985
- 10. Michael Ende, 1929 – 1995
- 11. Bernhard Schlink, 1944
- 12. Friedrich Schiller, 1759 – 1805
- 13. Patrick Suskind, 1949 –
- 14. Thomas Mann, 1875 – 1955
- 15. Erich Maria Remarque, 1898 – 1970
- 16. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749 – 1832
Here Are The Best German Authors
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844 – 1900
Friedrich Nietzsche is a German philosopher who is primarily known for his work regarding nihilism and the impact of ‘the death of god” on Western society. Nietzsche is a true heavyweight in philosophy circles, and no university course would be complete without at least a handful of his books.
He was born in Saxony, then Prussia, and studied at the University of Basel, where he became the youngest man to hold the position of Chair of Classical Philology.
During his time, Nietzsche developed several tracts of philosophical beliefs that are still widely debated and studied today. Arguably one of his most notable concepts was the ‘Übermensch,’ which he developed in his book ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra.’
The Übermensch sets out a new goal for humanity beyond the promises made by Christianity that focus our attention on the afterlife as opposed to the present. The ideas presented by the book were extremely controversial at a time when atheism was still taboo in many circles. For more recommendations like this, check out our guide to the best philosophy books.
“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.”Friedrich Nietzsche
2. Heinrich Heine, 1797 – 1856
Born to Jewish parents in Dusseldorf, Heinrich Heine was a poet and author well ahead of his time. His lyric poetry was often filled with satire, and he rarely shied away from political critique.
In his earlier days, Heine was actually a law student in Berlin, and later, he studied banking in Frankfurt and Hamburg at the behest of his family. However, Heine was never cut out for the business world and chose to focus on his writing.
Heine’s work in lyric poetry put him in the spotlight in Germany and other countries across Europe. However, the political class in Germany at the time was not fond of his harsh words, and as a result, he ended up having to flee.
Heine spent the final two decades of his life in exile in France.
If you want to read some of the best poetry from 19th-century Germany, then consider adding Heine’s Book of Songs to your reading list.
“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”Heinrich Heine
3. Alfred Doblin, 1878 – 1957
Alfred Doblin is often referred to as the father of German literary modernism, even though he was born in Stettin, in modern-day Poland.
Like many of the other authors on this list, Doblin was born to assimilated Jewish parents. His childhood was one of turbulence and uncertainty. At a young age, he witnessed his father leave his mother for a younger woman and disappear to the US.
With his father gone, Doblin moved to Berlin with his mother and siblings, where he studied medicine as a young man. In between exams and practicals, Doblin started writing and authored several novels.
Out of all of his work, Berlin Alexanderplatz cemented his place in German literary history. Published in 1929, the story follows a recently released prisoner and his attempt to navigate the streets of Berlin, where crime and fascism were rising.
“The cities are the principal home and seat of the human group. They are the coral colony for Man, the collective being.”Alfred Doblin
4. Gunter Grass, 1927 – 2015
Gunter Grass was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, just a couple of years before the great depression and the rise of German fascism. He was raised as a strict catholic, and as a teenager, he was drafted into the German Navy, where he was stationed with a submarine unit.
In 1945 as the war was drawing to an end, US soldiers captured Grass and released him a year later in 1946. After his release, he pursued a career as a sculptor and eventually moved to west Berlin to study.
He began writing about his experiences during World War II, often advocating for the people murdered and persecuted by the Nazi regime.
His most notable work came from his contributions to the European magic realism movement, and in 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
If you aren’t familiar with European magical realism, consider reading The Tin Drum by Grass.
“The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.“Gunter Grass
5. Herman Hesse, 1877 – 1962
The German-Swiss poet, writer, and painter Herman Hesse is widely regarded as one of the most influential 20th-century German authors.
He was born into an extremely religious family that often went on ‘missions’ to India, where they attempted to sow the seeds of Christianity. Despite his rigid upbringing, Hesse was a rebel in many ways, as his work often criticized societal norms and, later, the Nazi regime.
It’s clear that his experiences in Asia and his traditional Western upbringing gave Hesse a unique outlook on the world. In his book ‘Siddhartha’ he cleverly weaves together western and eastern philosophy in a journey of self-discovery.
If Siddhartha sounds like a book that would interest you, also read Steppenwolf, which many people consider Hesse’s finest work.
“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”Herman Hesse
6. Bertolt Brecht, 1898 – 1956
Bertolt Brecht is a 20th-century German poet and playwright who served in the medical corps of the German army during World War I.
His experiences during World War I deeply impacted the young German writer, and he struggled to adapt to normality once the peace accords were signed. He eventually moved to Berlin, where he studied theater.
Brecht’s career in Berlin was cut short when he went into exile in Scandinavia in the face of the Nazi movement’s political power grab in Germany. The Nazis eventually followed Brecht to Scandanivan, and as a result, he once again went into exile, this time in the US.
Following World War II, Brecht was back in Germany, this time in East Berlin, where he built a strong reputation as a writer and founded his own theatre company.
The Good Person Szechwan is a play by Brecht set in the Chinese city of Sichuan and explores the core principles of morality by telling the life story of a Chinese prostitute.
“Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.”Bertolt Brecht
7. Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926
Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian-German writer who grew up under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Despite being Austrian by birth, Rilke perfected his writing skills in Paris after moving there in 1902.
Rilke was an avid traveler and spent a lot of time exploring European countries such as Russia, Spain, Switzerland, and France. His understanding of early 20th-century Europe and Russian, Spanish, and Swiss cultural norms is evident in his work.
Many of his books center around themes of mysticism and often hinge on semi-autobiographic pieces. If you want to start reading Rainer Maria Rilke, then Letters to a Young Poet is a good place to start.
“We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.”Rainer Maria Rilke
8. Franz Kafka, 1883 – 1924
Despite dying young, Franz Kafka contributed more than most to 20th-century German-language literature.
Kafka was born in Prague, which at the time was under Austro-Hungarian rule, to a wealthy Jewish family. He studied law as a young man but eventually gave up on the legal world and moved to Berlin to pursue his passion for the written word.
Kafka’s work is notoriously grotesque and often verges on the absurd, which wasn’t common in German literature in the early 20th century. Read our guide to the best 20th-century authors.
He is primarily known for short story writing. Consider reading Metamorphosis and The Trail if you want to experience Kafka’s unique storytelling and dark edge.
It’s almost certain that Kafka would have produced countless more classics if he hadn’t passed away at such a young age. If you would like to explore more authors from neighboring countries, you might also enjoy our list of the best Polish authors.
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”Franz Kafka
9. Heinrich Boll, 1917 – 1985
The winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature, Heinrich Boll is one of Germany’s most prominent post-World War II authors.
He was heavily involved in political discourse following the war and criticized the German government’s human rights record. His impact on German political thought has been immortalized in the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum explores propaganda and how tabloid sensationalism can often lead to panic and violence. The book was a huge hit when it was published in 1974 and has since been turned into a film.
“We must learn, and especially we Germans, that resistance is not only possible and allowed in dictatorships. There is resistance that man must perform every day.”Heinrich Boll
10. Michael Ende, 1929 – 1995
Michael Ende is a 20th-century German author who pushed fantasy and children’s fiction in the German language to new highs. Even though he focused primarily on children’s books, he also penned several successful novels for adults.
Ende’s children’s books have sold millions of copies, have been translated into around 40 languages, and some have even been recreated as movies.
He was born and raised in Bavaria, Germany, and was drafted into the army at a young age. Like many 20th-century German writers, Ende experienced the horrors of World War II.
His most notable book is The Never Ending Story, which has been translated into over 30 languages and turned into several successful films.
The Never Ending Story is a great read for adults and children. Ende’s fantasy world in the book is brilliantly original and explores themes of innocence, childhood, and hardship.
“Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little because we all know that an hour can seem as eternity or pass in a flash, according to how we spend it.”Michael Ende
Bernhard Schlink was born just months before the end of World War II in Bielefeld, Germany, to Swiss-German parents. His early professional life saw him embark on a successful legal career in post-war Germany.
While forging a career in law, he managed to make time for writing novels, and in 1987 he published his first novel Selbs Justiz.
He wrote The Reader a few years after Selbs Justiz, and it quickly became a bestseller. Published in 1995, The Reader looks at post-World War II Germany and the nation’s struggles with understanding the Holocaust.
The Reader has sold millions of copies, been translated into over 40 languages, and often features on university reading lists.
“I can’t say I’m thankful about being German because I sometimes experience it as a huge burden. But it is an integral part of me and I wouldn’t want to escape it. I have accepted it.”Bernhard Schlink
12. Friedrich Schiller, 1759 – 1805
The German writer, poet, playwright, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller was born in Wruttemberg and, despite his short life, contributed a great deal to late 18th-century German literature.
His father was a military doctor and expected his son to join him in medicine. Schiller became a doctor and, in 1780, joined a military regiment.
However, the military was not Schiller’s calling, and he went AWOL to see a play in Mannheim. He was imprisoned for two weeks for abandoning his post, but that didn’t discourage him from pursuing a career in literature.
He wrote several notable plays and poems in his short career. Arguably, his five-act tragedy play Don Carlos earned him a place among the German greats.
Don Carlos is set in Northern Spain and follows the semi-factual story of Carlos, the Prince of Asturias, in the 16th Century.
“Only those who have the patience to do simple things perfectly will acquire the skill to do difficult things easily.”Friedrich Schiller
13. Patrick Suskind, 1949 –
Patrick Suskind is a 20th-century German author and screenwriter born in Bavaria just as West and East Germany were starting to recover from the war. After finishing his studies in Munich, he moved to Paris, where he mastered the art of writing.
France has played a central role in his writing development, and French cities often inspire his novels. If you’re interested in 18th and 19th-century France or crime thrillers, then Suskind’s work offers a lot.
The first Suskin book to consider reading is Parfume, The Story of a Murderer, a psychological thriller set in 18th century France that was so successful that it has since been turned into a film.
“He realized that all his life he had been a nobody to everyone. What he now felt was the fear of his own oblivion. It was as though he did not exist.“Patrick Suskind
14. Thomas Mann, 1875 – 1955
The 1929 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann is undoubtedly one of the best-known authors globally, not just in the German literary world.
Born in Germany towards the end of the 19th century Thomas Mann survived both World Wars and experienced the first decade of peace that followed the collapse of the Nazi regime.
Mann spent most of his early adulthood in Munich, where he witnessed the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. Despite the dangers, he was one of the loudest voices against fascism and regularly lectured the public on the threat posed by ruthless ideology.
In 1930 he held a lecture titled An Appeal to Reason in Berlin, calling for the workers and the bourgeoisie to unite against fascism.
Unfortunately, Mann couldn’t shift public discourse, and in the mid-1930s, he moved to neutral Switzerland, where he was advised to remain as Hitler rose to power in his native country. Later in his life, Mann moved to the US and later back to Switzerland, but he never returned to Germany.
Thomas Mann’s impact on the literary and academic world is still felt. He contributed massively to philosophical ideas, often building on earlier German thinkers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.
Naturally, his work often commented on the political state of Germany and Europe in the 20th century. His novella Early Sorrow examines fascism through symbolic storytelling and narrations.
Out of all his essays, novels, and books, Buddenbrooks is arguably his most important piece. The story follows a wealthy German family attempting to adapt to modernity across several generations. Buddenbrooks earned Mann the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.
“Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.”Thomas Mann
15. Erich Maria Remarque, 1898 – 1970
Erich Maria Remarque is best known for his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which has been turned into several films, including an extremely successful adaptation by Netflix in 2023.
He was born in Osnabruck, Germany, and he was drafted into the German army as a young man following the outbreak of World War I.
He experienced the horrors of trench warfare in World War I, and this is often reflected in his work. After surviving the war, he began writing, and in 1929, he published All Quiet on the Western Front.
The story is a profoundly moving insight into the terror that the German soldiers suffered during the First World War. It gives the reader an insight into the young men that joined the war effort on patriotic grounds only to be thrown into one of the most deadly conflicts ever unleashed on the European continent.
An additional aspect of All Quiet on the Western Front that makes it a must-read is how it examines the long-term trauma that the German soldiers took home after the war.
Remarque’s criticism of the German war effort was labeled unpatriotic by the Nazi regime, and he lived out his life in exile. If you enjoyed learning about the best German authors and want to explore other best authors from around the globe, you might be interested in reading our guide on the best French authors.
“We have our dreams because without them we could not bear the truth.”Erich Maria Remarque
16. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749 – 1832
The German writer, poet, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe contributed greatly to German language literature. He’s regarded as one of the best 19th-century authors.
Goethe was born in Frankfurt and made a name for himself as an early member of the Sturm und Drang literary movement. Beyond writing, he also forged a successful political career, securing several high-ranking government roles.
The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe’s first highly-successful publication. The story is a collection of letters that focus on a young man’s first experience of love. The story was hugely popular in late 18th-century Europe and became one of Napoleon’s favorites.
If you’re looking to read just one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s books, consider Faust. It took Goethe the best part of half a century to write Faust, the two-part tragedy that tells the story of a man who makes a deal with the devil and inspired several future German writers, including Nietzsche and Beckett.
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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