10 German books you have to read before you die

These ten novels, ranging from the late 19th century to the last couple of years, are modern German classics. Earning international acclaim, each one is essential reading.

10 German books you have to read before you die
This archive photo shows a 2009 exhibition devoted to the 50th anniversary of the 'Blechtrommel' at the Günter-Grass-Haus in Lübeck. Photo: DPA

From Nobel Prize winners to a book burned by the Nazis, this list takes a whistlestop tour through Germany's most influential books and authors.

1. Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) by Günter Grass (1959)


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In Die Blechtrommel, Oskar Matzerath narrates his life story from a mental hospital in the early 1950s.

Born in 1924, Matzerath decided at the age of three to stop growing, retaining the stature of a child whilst having an adult’s capacity for thought. Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass’ most famous novel is not the easiest of reads, but it is definitely worth the effort.

The book “most completely defines the [20th century] in all its glories and catastrophes – the moods, atmospheres, manias, streams, currents, histories and under-histories,” writes The Guardian.

2. Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) by Thomas Mann (1912)


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Buddenbrooks and Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) are probably Thomas Mann's most renowned novels.

But to get a taste of Mann’s writing, Der Tod in Venedig is a good place to start.

Gustav von Aschenbach is a famous writer who takes a summer holiday in Venice. During one dinner, he notices an exceptionally beautiful adolescent boy.

He becomes obsessed from a distance, shutting out the ominous news of a danger spreading through the city.

3. Der Vorleser (The Reader) by Bernhard Schlink (1995)


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In the late 1950s, 15-year-old West German Michael Berg finds himself in a passionate but secret love affair with a woman who is over 20 years his senior, leaving him confused yet enthralled.

As a law student several years later, he is observing a trial when he realizes that the woman in the dock is his former lover. But the woman on trial is a very different person to the one he thought he knew. 

Der Vorleser belongs to the genre of Vergangenheitsbewältigung – a term used to describe post-war attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past – and is one of the best known examples outside of Germany. In 1997, it became the first ever German book to top the New York Times bestseller list, and Kate Winslet won an Oscar for her performance in the 2008 film adaptation.

The book has however come in for staunch criticism, as critics claim it encourages identification with the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

4. Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

One of the most well-known books about the First World War, Remarque’s novel tells the story of German soldier Paul Bäumer, giving a human perspective to the mass of fighting in Europe between 1914 and 1918. Remarque was himself a veteran of the war, and he wrote and published the book a decade after its conclusion.

The novel zooms in to the daily life of a private soldier, detailing both the violence of battle and the mundaneness of life on the front.

Published in 1929, it quickly received international acclaim, being translated into 22 different languages and selling 2.5 million copies in the first 18 months.

It was also one of the first books banned and burned by the Nazis for being “degenerate.”

5. Das Parfum (Perfume) by Patrick Süskind (1985)


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Whereas most good novels manage to conjure up images in your head, Das Parfum also conjures up scents and smells that waft up from the page.

Following the journey of a boy with an exquisite sense of smell which drives him to gruesome deeds, Süskind’s novel transports you back to 18th century France, and the sprawling, stinking city of Paris.

When it was published in 1985, Das Parfum shot to the top of the best-seller tables. It stayed in Der Spiegel’s bestseller list for eight consecutive years, also experiencing great success internationally.

You will not regret picking up this gripping yet grotesque read.

SEE ALSO: 10 German films you have to watch before you die

6. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (2001)

W.G. Sebald’s fourth and final novel before his untimely death in a car crash in 2001 is a challenging but unquestionably rewarding book. He lived in southeast England for the majority of his life as a university professor, and the breadth and depth of his knowledge shared in the novel could only be that of an academic.

The novel traces the journey of Jacques Austerlitz, a man who arrived in Britain in 1939 as a young boy from Prague. Through a series of lengthy conversations with the narrator, Austerlitz slowly reveals his life story.

Sebald's unusual style has been described as its own genre: dense and slightly old-fashioned, it still captivates the reader and leads them on a fascinating journey through the history of Europe.

7. Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka (1915)


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Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, now capital of the Czech Republic.

At the time, Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Kafka wrote in German. He is now regarded as one of the most influential literary figures of the 20th century, and the adjective “Kafkaesque” – meaning nightmarishly complex and oppressive – is taken from the themes of his works.

Die Verwandlung is probably his most famous work, and many are familiar with the bizarre first line: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.”

Don’t expect this novella to get any less nightmarish from thereon in.

8. Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929)

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The year 1929 – when Berlin Alexanderplatz was published – was the highpoint of the Weimar Republic, before it all came tumbling down with the Wall Street Crash. Berlin was like no other city in the late 1920s: diverse, liberal, and often debauched. 

This iconic novel narrates the story of ex-convict Franz Biberkopf who, after being released from prison in Berlin, swears that he will live an upstanding and decent life. He is soon, however, plunged into the capital's louche but exhilarating underworld. Döblin’s novel was voted one of “The top 100 books of all time”, a list compiled in 2002 by The Guardian.

9. Imperium (Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas) by Christian Kracht (2012) 


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In Imperium, a vegetarian nudist from Nuremberg sets sail for a South Pacific island to set up a religion worshipping coconuts and the sun. Sounds like absurdist fiction? Kracht’s novel Imperium is actually based on a true story.

In this witty and ironic book, Kracht – one of modern German literature's most elusive figures – tells more than just the surprising yet true story of this extreme figure. He also deals with extremist movements of the 20th century, as well as offering other interesting insights.

10. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1896)

Written at the end of the 19th century, Fontane’s novel tells the story of a way of life that was also on its way out, with the unification of Germany and its rapid modernisation.

Effi Briest is a young girl from traditional Prussian noblility, who is married off to a considerably older official. Although a devoted servant to the state, her husband is less loving towards his wife, which leads to great problems.

This poignant work is seen as one of the great German realist masterpieces, and a beautiful yet tragic story of two people caught up in the shackles of society.

By Alexander Johnstone

For all The Local's guides to learning German CLICK HERE

Member comments

  1. While I agree with what you are saying, I wouldn’t blame The Local for it. I went to school in Germany and we never read anything by women.
    Hopefully the school system will adapt and choose to but more books by women on the list.
    However, we cannot forget that these books really ARE important and that they shouldn’t be left out only to ensure gender equality.
    There are two sides of everything.
    Maybe there could be another list of “10 German books written by women to read before you die” as well, the we would have both sides (and more good stuff to read.)

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Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

The German word 'Wanderlust' means "the desire to travel" and is used even in other languages. Here are some of the other words commonly used in Germany to describe the nation's love affair with travelling.

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

Germans are very connected to nature and a lot of the activities they routinely do, even in winter, involve staying outdoors. So it’s no wonder the language also reflects that passion for walking, travelling, and spending time in nature.

Some of the German words that are most famous to speakers of other languages reference this passion. Perhaps most notably, the term “Wanderlust” which has made its way to other dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, with the definition “a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering”.

The word is composed of “wandern“, which means to hike or roam about and “lust“, meaning “pleasure or delight”.

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

This is not the only unique expression the German language has related to travelling. Another of the hard to translate ones is “Fernweh“. It comes from “fern“, meaning “far”, and “Weh“, meaning “pain”. It is used to describe the longing for far-off places – in contrast to “Heimweh”, a feeling many immigrants might be very attuned to and could be translated to homesickness.

The German language also has several interesting and even funny expressions for walkers and travellers alike. The Local talked with German teacher and travel enthusiast Lutz Michaelis to collect a few of the best expressions.

“So weit dich deine/mich meine Füße tragen”

It literally means “as far as my feet will take me” (or alternatively, “as far as your feet will take you”). It is often said as an answer to the question, “where are you going?”.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

“Die Sieben-Meilen-Stiefel anhaben”

“To wear the seven-league boots”. This means being able to walk long distances fast. Lutz explains that it was actually based on a trope in French mythology, in which magical boots could help the wearer cover long distances in a short amount of time. Having been used in The Little Thumb by Charles Perrault, the term was brought into the German language by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Wer rastet, der rostet”

The translation would be “he who rests, rusts”. It is used in the German language to say that being in motion is a good thing, not only with travelling but also to incentivise people to keep learning new things.

“Das Reisen kost’t Geld, Doch sieht man die Welt.”

It’s a very common rhyme used to show the downsides and benefits of travelling: “travelling costs money, but one sees the world”.

“Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.”

It literally means that “travellers shouldn’t be stopped”. However, Lutz explains that the expression is not only used to refer to travellers but also to anyone that might be going through a transitional situation – such as someone wanting to change their jobs, for example.

Rhododendren park Bremen

Rhododendrons bloom in the Rhododendron Park in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

“der Weg ist das Ziel.”

One of the most beautiful ones, and many languages have their own version of it. It translates to “the road is the destination”.

Of course, coming back home, especially for those suffering from Heimweh, can also be something beautiful. One common saying is “Wiedersehen macht Freude“, which means that to meet again brings happiness, used among those looking forward to seeing someone again after a long trip.

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

And one more…

In Germany, there is a common joke about finding German people abroad. The rhyme goes “Hüte dich vor Sturm und Wind, und Deutschen, die im Ausland sind“, which could be translated as “Be on your guard for storm and wind, and Germans in a foreign land”.

“It refers both to the bad behaviour of Germans on holidays or travels and a dark joke and a funny nod to the fact that German troops have invaded other countries”, Lutz, who is a German himself, explains.