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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The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

Once you've learned the basics of German, listening to podcasts is one of the best ways of increasing vocabulary and speeding up comprehension. Here are some of the best podcasts out there for German learners.

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German


Coffee Break German

Coffee Break German aims to take you through the basics of German in a casual lesson-like format. It is extremely easy to listen to. Each 20-minute episode acts as a mini-lesson, where German native Thomas teaches Mark Pendleton, the founder and CEO of Coffee Break Languages, the basics.

All phrases are broken down into individual words. After new phrases are introduced the listeners are encouraged to repeat them back to practise pronunciation.

The advantage of listening to this podcast is that the learner, Mark, begins at the same level as you. He is also a former high school French and Spanish teacher. He often asks for clarification of certain phrases, and it can feel as if he is asking the very questions you want answered.

You can also stream the podcast directly from the provider’s website, where they sell a supplementary package from the Coffee Break German Academy, which offers additional audio content, video flashcards and comprehensive lesson notes

German Pod 101

German Pod 101 aims to teach you all about the German language, from the basics in conversations and comprehension to the intricacies of German culture. German Pod 101 offers various levels for your German learning and starts with Absolute Beginner.

The hosts are made up of one German native and one American expat living in Germany, in order to provide you with true authentic language, but also explanations about the comparisons and contrasts with English. This podcast will, hopefully, get you speaking German from day one.

Their website offers more information and the option to create an account to access more learning materials.

Learn German by Podcast

This is a great podcast if you don’t have any previous knowledge of German. The hosts guide you through a series of scenarios in each episode and introduce you to new vocabulary based on the role-plays. Within just a few episodes, you will learn how to talk about your family, order something in a restaurant and discuss evening plans. Each phrase is uttered clearly and repeated several times, along with translations.


Learn German by Podcast provides the podcasts for free but any accompanying lesson guides must be purchased from their website. These guides include episode transcripts and some grammar tips. 


Easy German

This podcast takes the form of a casual conversation between hosts Manuel and Cari, who chat in a fairly free-form manner about aspects of their daily lives. Sometimes they invite guests onto the podcast, and they often talk about issues particularly interesting to expats, such as: “How do Germans see themselves?”. Targeted at young adults, the podcasters bring out a new episode very three or four days.

News in Slow German

This is a fantastic podcast to improve your German listening skills. What’s more, it helps you stay informed about the news in several different levels of fluency.

The speakers are extremely clear and aim to make the podcast enjoyable to listen to. For the first part of each episode the hosts talk about a current big news story, then the second part usually features a socially relevant topic. 

A new episode comes out once a week and subscriptions are available which unlock new learning tools.

SBS German

This podcast is somewhat interesting as it is run by an Australian broadcaster for the German-speaking community down under. Perhaps because ethnic Germans in Australia have become somewhat rusty in their mother tongue, the language is relatively simple but still has a completely natural feel.

There is a lot of news here, with regular pieces on German current affairs but also quite a bit of content looking at what ties Germany and Australia together. This lies somewhere between intermediate and advanced.

A woman puts on headphones in Gadebusch, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Photo: dpa | Jens Büttner


Auf Deutsche gesagt

This is another great podcast for people who have a high level of German. The host, Robin Meinert, talks in a completely natural way but still manages to keep it clear and comprehensible.

This podcast also explores a whole range of topics that are interesting to internationals in Germany, such as a recent episode on whether the band Rammstein are xenophobic. In other words, the podcast doesn’t just help you learn the language, it also gives you really good insights into what Germans think about a wide range of topics.


Bayern 2 present their podcast Sozusagen! for all those who are interested in the German language. This isn’t specifically directed at language learners and is likely to be just as interesting to Germans and foreigners because it talks about changes in the language like the debate over gender-sensitive nouns. Each episode explores a different linguistic question, from a discussion on German dialects to an analysis of political linguistics in Germany.