Gottfried Benn

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Gottfried Benn in 1934

Gottfried Benn (2 May 1886 Putlitz, Brandenburg – 7 July 1956 West Berlin) was a German essayist, novelist, and expressionist poet. A doctor of medicine, he initially welcomed but soon thereafter criticized the National Socialist regime.

Biography and work[edit]

He was born in a Lutheran country parsonage, a few hours from Berlin, the son and grandson of pastors in Mansfeld, now part of Putlitz in the district of Prignitz, Brandenburg.[1] He was educated in Sellin in the Neumark and Frankfurt an der Oder. To please his father, he studied theology at the University of Marburg and military medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm Academy in Berlin.[2]

With a beat of a kettledrum, Benn started as an expressionist poet before World War I when he published a booklet of poems, titled Morgue and other Poems, 1912, dealing with physical decay of flesh, with blood, cancer, and death — for example No III — „Cycle:

Der einsame Backzahn einer Dirne, / die unbekannt verstorben war, / trug eine Goldplombe. / Die übrigen waren wie auf stille Verabredung / ausgegangen. / Den schlug der Leichendiener sich heraus, / versetzte ihn und ging für tanzen. / Denn, sagte er, / nur Erde solle zur Erde werden.

— Gottfried Benn[3]

The lonesome molar of a love-maid, / who had died unknown, / wore a gold filling. / As if by silent agreement the leftovers / had gone out. / The mortician knocked out the filling, / pawned it and went dancing for. / Because, he said, / only earth should return to earth.

Natias Neutert[4][5]

Library in Berlin named after Gottfried Benn

Poems like this "were received by critics and public with shock, dismay, even revulsion."[6] 1913 the next volume followed, called Sons. New Poems.[7]

Benn's poetry offers an introverted nihilism: an existentialist philosophy which sees artistic expression as the only purposeful action. In his early poems Benn used his medical experience and terminology to portray a morbid conception of humanity as another species of disease-ridden animal.[8] He enlisted in 1914, spent a brief period on the Belgian front, and then served as a military doctor in Brussels. Benn attended the trial and execution of Nurse Edith Cavell. He worked as a physician in an army brothel. After the war, he returned to Berlin and practiced as a dermatology and venereal disease specialist.[9] During the 1920s he had a close relationship with Jewish poet Elsa Lasker-Schueler who addressed love poems to him. This paradoxical bond is treated in the film, Mein Herz-niemandem (1997) by Helma Sanders-Brahms.

Hostile to the Weimar Republic, and rejecting Marxism and Americanism, Benn, like many Germans, was upset with ongoing economic and political instability, and sympathized for a short period with the Nazis as a revolutionary force. He hoped that National Socialism would exalt his aesthetics, that Expressionism would become the official art of Germany, as Futurism had in Italy. Benn was elected to the poetry section of the Prussian Academy in 1932 and appointed head of that section in February 1933. In May he defended the new regime in a radio broadcast, saying "the German workers are better off than ever before,"[10] and later signed the Gelöbnis treuester Gefolgschaft, the "vow of most faithful allegiance" to Adolf Hitler.[10]

The cultural policy of the new State didn't turn out the way he hoped, and in June Hans Friederich Blunck replaced Benn as head of the Academy's poetry section. Appalled by the Night of the Long Knives, Benn abandoned his support for the Nazi movement. He lived quietly, refraining from public criticism of the Nazi party, but wrote that the bad conditions of the system "gave me the latter punch", as he quoted in a letter — a "dreadful tragedy!"[11] He decided to perform "the aristocratic form of emigration" and joined the Wehrmacht in 1935, where he found many officers sympathetic to his disapproval of the régime. In May 1936 the SS magazine Das Schwarze Korps attacked his expressionist and experimental poetry as degenerate, Jewish, and homosexual. In the summer of 1937, Wolfgang Willrich, a member of the SS, lampooned Benn in his book Säuberung des Kunsttempels; Heinrich Himmler, however, stepped in to reprimand Willrich and defended Benn on the grounds of his good record since 1933 (his earlier artistic output being irrelevant). In 1938 the Reichsschrifttumskammer (the National Socialist authors' association) banned Benn from further writing.

During World War II, Benn was posted to garrisons in eastern Germany where he wrote poems and essays. After the war, his work was banned by the Allies because of his initial support for Hitler. In 1951 he won the Georg Büchner Prize. He died in West Berlin in 1956, and was buried in Waldfriedhof Dahlem, Berlin.

Benn's tomb in Berlin


Benn had an enormous literary influence on German poetry and verse-making immediately before World War I (as an Expressionist) and even after World War II (as the 'Static' poet).[12] He was referred to in Günter Grass's book, My Century, meeting with his ideological opposite, Bertolt Brecht, shortly before both of them died in the summer of 1956. It is unclear if this meeting ever occurred in reality, or if it is purely symbolic. He was also mentioned in John Berryman's "Dream Song #53".


  • Morgue und andere Gedichte [Morgue and other Poems] (Berlin, 1912)
  • Fleisch (1917)
  • Die Gesammelten Schriften [The collected works] (Berlin, 1922)
  • Schutt (1924)
  • Betäubung (1925)
  • Spaltung (1925)
  • Nach dem Nihilismus (Berlin, 1932)
  • Der Neue Staat und die Intellektuellen (1933)
  • Kunst und Macht (1935)
  • Ausgewählte Gedichte [Selected Poems] (May, 1936) Note: 1st edition contained two poems that were removed for the 2nd edition in November 1936: 'Mann und Frau gehen durch die Krebsbaracke' and 'D-Zug'. The vast majority of the 1st editions were collected and destroyed.
  • Statische Gedichte [Static poems] (Zürich, 1948)
  • Ptolemäer (Limes, 1949); Ptolemy's Disciple (edited, translated and with a preface by Simona Draghici), Plutarch Press, 2005, ISBN 0-943045-20-7 (pbk).
  • Doppelleben (1950); autobiography translated as Double Life (edited, translated, and with a preface by Simona Draghici, Plutarch Press, 2002, ISBN 0-943045-19-3).
  • Stimme hinter dem Vorhang; translated as The Voice Behind the Screen (translated with an introduction by Simona Draghici (Plutarch Press, 1996, ISBN 0-943045-10-X).



  1. ^ cf Primal Vision: Selected Poetry and Prose of Gottfried Benn edited by E. B. Ashton (NY: Bodley Head, 1961; Boyars, 1971; Marion Boyars, 1984, p. ix. ISBN 0-7145-2500-6
  2. ^ cf p. x.
  3. ^ Gottfried Benn: Morgue und andere Gedichte. 21. Flugblatt des Verlages A. R. Meyer, Berlin 1912./ Gottfried Benn: Sämtliche Werke ('Stuttgarter Ausgabe'), ed. by Gerhard Schuster and Holger Hof, 7 volumes in 8 parts, Stuttgart 2003 p. 12. ISBN 3-608-95313-2).
  4. ^ Translated and recited by German poet and translator Natias Neutert. Cf. Foolnotes, Booklet, Smith Gallery Performance, Soho New York 1980.
  5. ^ Cf. Under the headline Latently existing words in the Frankfurter Rundschau, Anja Juhre-Wright talks with Natias Neutert about the difficulties of translating Benn. See external links
  6. ^ Reinhard Paul Becker: Introduction. In: Volkmar Sander (Ed.): Gottfried Benn. Prose, Essays, Poems. (Foreword by E.B. Ashton). The German L Vol. 73, Continuum, New York, p. XX*.
  7. ^ Gottfried Benn: Söhne. Neue Gedichte. Berlin (n.d. [1913].
  8. ^ Cf. Twentieth-Century Culture: A Biographical Companion edited by Alan Bullock and R. B. Woodings Harpercollins, 1984, p.61. ISBN 0-06-015248-6
  9. ^ cf E.B. Ashton (Ed.): Gottfried Benn Primal Vision. New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, p. xi-xii.
  10. ^ a b 88 "writers", from Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900-1949, Volume 12 of Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism, University of California Press 1998, ISBN 0-520-07278-2, p. 367-8
  11. ^ Cf. Gottfried-Benn-Gesellschaft e.V. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany:
  12. ^ Derived from his most effective and well known work, from Gottfried Benn's Statische Gedichte. Arche Verlag, Zürich 1948/Limes Verlag Wiesbaden 1949 (with three more poems).


External links[edit]