Hanns Johst

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Hanns Johst
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2007-1010-501, Hanns Johst.jpg
Johst in 1933
Born(1890-07-08)8 July 1890
Seerhausen bei Riesa, Kingdom of Saxony
Died23 November 1978(1978-11-23) (aged 88)
Ruhpolding, Bavaria, West Germany
Service/branchGerman Army in World War I and Waffen SS in World War II
Years of service1914–1918 and 1939–1945
Commands held
  • Präsident der Akademie für Deutsche Dichtung
  • Präsident der Reichsschriftumskammer
  • Stab Reichsführer-SS
AwardsSS-Honour Ring

Hanns Johst (8 July 1890 – 23 November 1978) was a German poet and playwright, directly aligned with Nazi philosophy, as a member of the officially approved writers’ organisations in the Third Reich. The statement “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”, variously misattributed to Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring, was in fact a corrupted version of a line in his play Schlageter.


Hanns Johst was born in Seerhausen as the son of an elementary school teacher. He grew up in Oschatz and Leipzig. As a juvenile he planned to become a missionary. When he was 17 years old he worked as an auxiliary in a Bethel Institution. In 1910 he earned his Abitur in Leipzig and then started studying medicine and philosophy and—later—history of art. He volunteered for the army in 1914. In 1918 he settled down in Allmannshausen (part of Berg) at the Starnberger See.

Early work[edit]

His early work is influenced by Expressionism. Examples include Der Anfang (The Beginning) (1917) and Der König (The King) (1920). Later, he turned to a naturalist philosophy in plays such as Wechsler und Händler (Money changers and Traders) (1923) and Thomas Paine (1927).

Bertolt Brecht's first play Baal was written in response to Johst's play Der Einsame (The Lonely), a dramatization of the life of playwright Christian Dietrich Grabbe. In 1928 Johst joined Alfred Rosenberg's "Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur" (Militant League for German Culture) designed to combat Jewish influence in German culture. In 1932 he joined the Nazi party, explaining his agreement with Hitler's ideology in the essay "Standpunkt und Fortschritt" ("Standpoint and Progress") in 1933.


When the Nazis achieved power in 1933, Johst wrote the play Schlageter, an expression of Nazi ideology which was performed on Hitler's 44th birthday, 20 April 1933, to celebrate his victory. It was a heroic biography of the proto-Nazi martyr Albert Leo Schlageter. The famous line "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun", often associated with Nazi leaders, derives from this play. The actual line in the play is, however, slightly different: "Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!" "When I hear 'Culture'... I release the safety catch on my Browning!" (Act 1, Scene 1). It is spoken by another character in conversation with the young Schlageter. In the scene Schlageter and his wartime comrade Friedrich Thiemann are studying for a college examination, but then start debating whether it is worthwhile doing so when the nation is not free. Thiemann argues that he would prefer to fight rather than study.

SCHLAGETER: Good old Fritz! (Laughing.) No paradise will entice you out of your barbed wire entanglement!

THIEMANN: That's for damned sure! Barbed wire is barbed wire! I know what I'm up against.... No rose without a thorn!... And the last thing I'll stand for is ideas to get the better of me! I know that rubbish from '18 ..., fraternity, equality, ..., freedom ..., beauty and dignity! You gotta use the right bait to hook 'em. And then, you're right in the middle of a parley and they say: Hands up! You're disarmed..., you republican voting swine!—No, let 'em keep their good distance with their whole ideological kettle of fish ... I shoot with live ammunition! When I hear the word culture ..., I release the safety on my Browning!"

SCHLAGETER: What a thing to say!

THIEMANN: It hits the mark! You can be sure of that.

SCHLAGETER: You've got a hair trigger.

— Hanns Johst's Nazi Drama Schlageter. Translated with an introduction by Ford B. Parkes-Perret. Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, Stuttgart, 1984.

The line is frequently misattributed, sometimes to Hermann Göring and sometimes to Heinrich Himmler. In December 2007, historian David Starkey misattributed it to Joseph Goebbels in comments criticizing Queen Elizabeth II for being "poorly educated and philistine".[1] It has also been adapted by, for example Stephen Hawking as "When I hear of Schrödinger's cat, I reach for my pistol" and by filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard in his 1963 film Le Mépris, when a producer says to Fritz Lang: "Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my checkbook." Lang evokes the original line when he answers "Some years ago—some horrible years ago—the Nazis used to take out a pistol instead of a checkbook." Songwriter Clint Conley of Mission of Burma titled a song he wrote in 1981 "That's When I Reach for My Revolver". In 1994, Tuli Kupferberg wrote the book When I Hear the Word 'Culture' I Reach for My Gun. In 2008 he wrote a book, Cartoons Collages and Perverbs [sic] with a cartoon in it reading "WHEN I HEAR THE WORD 'GUN' I REACH FOR MY CULTURE".

Role in Nazi Germany[edit]

Johst receives a literary prize from Alfred Rosenberg

In 1933, Johst signed the Gelöbnis treuester Gefolgschaft, a declaration of loyalty to Hitler by pro-Nazi writers.[2] Succeeding Hans-Friedrich Blunck in 1935, Johst became the President of the Reichsschrifttumskammer (writer's union) and of the Deutsche Akademie für Dichtung (poetry academy), powerful organisations for German writers. In the same year the last prominent Jewish writers, e.g. Martin Buber, were expelled from the Reichsschrifttumskammer. By this time these organisations restricted membership to writers whose work was either explicitly pro-Nazi or at least approved of by the Nazis as non-degenerate. Johst achieved other positions of importance within the Nazi state, and he was named in the Gottbegnadeten list of September 1944 as one of the Reich's most important artists. During the war he held various positions within the SS, which Thomas Mann stated was the reason that several charges of pedophilia and abuse of children were dropped against Johst in the winter of 1944.[2]


God the Father Himself did weave the splendor
with starry light and rays of the sun.
They however pushed the wreath of thorns
down into His hair and head and blood.
I weave for the child
only meadow herbs and larkspur.
Please, God, spare it the cross and thorns!
(in the anthology "Mother")[3]

The harder this war is becoming and the longer it takes, the more do we experience the clear certainty of the true value of culture. The intellectual and spiritual forces reveal their solace, their splendor, and their grace. The outward life is constantly getting simpler and harder, burdened with the sacrifice of our time, but the inner life gets new, young and rich confirmation. Nothing can endanger this inner richness, on the contrary the more cruelly the outward world attacks spirit and soul, the more redeeming does the marvel of art prove to be."[4] (June 1943, in a speech about Robert Schumann)


After the war Johst was interned and on July 7, 1949, a Munich denazification tribunal classified him as a "fellow traveler". An appeal process ended in 1949 with his reclassification as a "main culprit" and a three and a half year labor camp sentence (the time Johst had already served). After his release from prison and further denazification proceedings in 1951, he was classified as “incriminated”.[5] In 1955, Johst obtained an overturning of this decision and the termination of the proceedings at the public expense. He was thus effectively rehabilitated.[6]

In the Soviet Occupation Zone, many of his works were placed on the banned books list, with the exception of Der Anfang. Roman (1917), Der Ausländer (1916), Ave Eva (1932), Lieder der Sehnsucht. Gedichte (1924), Der junge Mensch. Szenarium (1916), Mutter. Gedichte (1921), Mutter ohne Tod. Begegnung (1933), Stroh (1916), Die Stunde der Sterbenden (1914), Torheit einer Liebe. Roman (1931) and Wegwärts. Gedichte (1916).[7]

In the Federal Republic of Germany, Johst could no longer gain publication as a writer but, after 1952, he wrote poems under the pseudonym "Odemar Oderich" for the Edeka supermarkets customer magazine, "Die kluge Hausfrau".[8][9] Johst attempted to publish a book in 1953, which he had completed and revised at the end of 1943, but failed to find a publisher.[8] He died on November 23, 1978, in an old people's home in Ruhpolding.


Novels, stories, novellas[edit]

  • Der Anfang, 1917 [The Beginning]
  • Der Kreuzweg, 1921 [Stations of the Cross]
  • Consuela, 1924
  • Consuela. Aus dem Tagebuch einer Spitzbergenfahrt, 1925 [Consuela: Excerpts From a Diary About a Trip to Spitsbergen]
  • So gehen sie hin, 1930 [So They Vanish]
  • Die Begegnung, 1930 [The Encounter]
  • Die Torheit einer Liebe, 1931 [The Foolishness of a Love]
  • Ave Maria, 1932
  • Mutter ohne Tod. Die Begegnung, 1933 [Mother Without Death (i.e. undying). The encounter]
  • Maske und Gesicht, 1935 [Mask and Face]
  • Erzählungen, 1944 [Stories]
  • Gesegnete Vergänglichkeit, 1955 [Blessed Mortality]


  • Stunde der Sterbenden, 1914 [Hour of the Dying]
  • Strof, 1915
  • Der junge Mensch, 1916 [The Young Person]
  • Der Ausländer, 1916 [The Foreigner]
  • Stroh, 1916 [Straw]
  • Der Einsame, 1917 [The Lonely]
  • Der König, 1920 [The King]
  • Propheten, 1922 [Prophets]
  • Wechsler und Händler, 1923 [Money Changers and Traders]
  • Die fröhliche Stadt, 1925 [The Happy City]
  • Der Herr Monsieur, 1926 [Mister Monsieur]
  • Thomas Paine, 1927
  • Schlageter, 1933
  • Fritz Todt. Requiem, 1943


  • Wegwärts, 1916 [Way-Bound]
  • Rolandruf, 1918 [Roland's Call]
  • Mutter, 1921 [Mother]
  • Lieder der Sehnsucht, 1924 [Songs of Longing]
  • Briefe und Gedichte von einer Reise durch Italien und durch die Wüste, 1926 [Letters and Poems About a Journey Through Italy and the Desert]
  • Die Straße. Gedichte und Gesänge, 1941. [The Road: Poems and Songs.]
  • Im Tal der Sterne. Liebeslieder. Mutterlieder, 1943. [In the Valley of Stars: Love Songs, Mother-Songs]

Essays, speeches, propaganda articles et al.[edit]

  • Dramatisches Schaffen, 1922 [Dramatic Creativity]
  • Wissen und Gewissen, 1924 [Knowledge and Conscience]
  • Ich glaube! Bekenntnisse, 1928 [I believe! Declarations of Faith]
  • Meine Erde heißt Deutschland, 1938 [My World is Called Germany]
  • Ruf des Reiches, Echo des Volkes, 1940 [Call of the Reich, Echo of the People]
  • Hanns Johst spricht zu dir (Sammelausgabe), 1942 [Hanns Johst Talks to You. Combined edition]


  1. ^ Queen is poorly educated and philistine, says Starkey | UK news | The Guardian
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Anthology: Mutter (i.e. Mother), Albert Langen, Munich, 1921, p. 27. Original in German "Gottvater selber flocht den Glanz / aus Sternenlicht und Sonnenschein. / Sie aber pressten den Dornenkranz / in Haar und Haupt und Blut hinein. / Ich winde dem Kinde / nur Wiesenkraut und Rittersporn / Bewahr' es Gott vor Kreuz und Dorn!"
  4. ^ Musik im Kriege, 1. Jg., Heft 3–4, Juni–Juli 1943. Original in German: "Je härter dieser Krieg wird, und je länger er dauert, mit um so klarerer Eindeutigkeit erleben wir die wahren Werte der Kultur. Die geistigen und seelischen Kräfte offenbaren ihren Trost, ihren Glanz und ihre Gnade. Das äußere Leben wird ständig einfacher, ständig härter belastet von dem Verzicht des Alltages, da erhält das innere Leben neue, junge, reiche Bestätigung. Der innere Besitz ist durch nichts zu gefährden, im Gegenteil, je roher und grausamer die äußere Welt sich gegen Geist und Seele aufstellen mögen, nur um so erlösender beweist sich das Wunder der Künste."
  5. ^ Ernst Klee: [“The dictionary of persons on the Third Reich. Who was what before and after 1945"]. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, edition 2005, p. 289.
  6. ^ Ernst Piper: "Kurze Geschichte des NS von 1919 bis heute." ["Brief history of NS from 1919 to today"]. Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 2007, pp. 279-.
  7. ^ "Deutsche Verwaltung für Volksbildung in der sowjetischen Besatzungszone, Liste der auszusondernden Literatur" [German Administration for popular education in the Soviet zone of occupation: list of literature to be resolved]. polunbi.de. Zentralverlag, Berlin. 1946. pp. 190–203. Retrieved 2019-08-31.
  8. ^ a b Ernst Klee. "Das Kulturlexikon zum Dritten Reich." ["The Cultural Lexicon for the Third Reich"]. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 286.
  9. ^ Jürgen P. Wallmann: "Hanns Johst", review by Rolf Düsterberg.

External links[edit]