Borchert's profile, from a 1996 German stamp
20 May 1921|
20 November 1947 (aged 26)|
|Resting place||Friedhof Ohlsdorf, in Hamburg|
|Literary movement||Trümmerliteratur ("Rubble literature")|
Wolfgang Borchert (German: [ˈbɔɐ̯çɐt]; 20 May 1921 – 20 November 1947) was a German author and playwright whose work was affected by his experience of dictatorship and his service in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. His work is among the best examples of the Trümmerliteratur movement in post–World War II Germany. His most famous work is the drama "Draußen vor der Tür (The Man Outside)", which he wrote soon after the end of World War II. In his works he never makes compromises in questions of humanity and humanism. He is one of the most popular authors of the German postwar period, and today his work is often read in German schools.
Borchert was born in Hamburg, the only child of teacher Fritz Borchert, who worked also for the Dada magazine "Die Rote Erde" and author Hertha Borchert, who worked for the Hamburg radio and was famous for her dialect poetry. Borchert's family was very liberal and progressive, and they operated in Hamburg's intellectual society circles. Far from being an enthusiastic Nazi, Borchert hated his compulsory time in the party's youth wing, the Hitler Youth, from which, after missing meetings, he was released. So long before he wrote his famous drama "The Man Outside", he rebelled against the NS-dictatorship in his prewar-works (1938–1940). In April 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo (Secret State Police) and then released. The same year he reluctantly took up an apprenticeship at a Hamburg bookshop. While at the bookshop, Borchert took acting lessons, without, at first, telling his parents. He left the apprenticeship early in 1941. Upon passing his acting examination on 21 March 1941, he began working for the travelling theatre repertoire company Landesbühne Ost-Hannover based in Lüneburg. His nascent theatrical career was cut short, however, by his conscription into the Wehrmacht in June 1941.
Borchert was posted to the Eastern front, where he saw the full horror of the eastern conflict, witnessing the numerous casualties in battle and those sustained due to cold, starvation, and inadequate equipment. On 23 February 1942, Borchert returned from sentry duty on the Russian front missing the middle finger of his left hand. He claimed that he had surprised a Russian soldier, had engaged in hand-to-hand conflict, his rifle had gone off in the struggle and wounded him. His superior officer, accusing him of attempting to evade military service by self-mutilation, had him arrested and placed in isolation. At his trial, the military prosecutor called for the death penalty, but the court believed Borchert's version of the events, and he was pronounced not guilty. However, he was immediately re-arrested on charges under the Heimtückegesetz – making statements against the regime, He was convicted of making "statements endangering the country" and sentenced to serve a further six weeks of strict-regime detention, and was then sent back to the Eastern front "to prove himself at the front". There he suffered frostbite and several further bouts of hepatitis, after which he was granted medical leave. On leave he again acted in a nightclub in the now ravaged city of Hamburg. He then returned to his barracks, and successfully applied to be transferred to an army theatre group. He was transferred to a transit camp in Koblenz, but in the dormitory on the evening of 30 November 1943 he retold parodies of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Borchert was denounced by one of the other soldiers in the dormitory, arrested, and on 21 August 1944 sentenced to nine months in prison. The sentence was deferred until the end of the War, so he was again returned to the army, this time mostly spending his time in his barracks in Jena, before being sent, in March 1945, to the area around Frankfurt/M. His company surrendered to the French in March 1945. During their transportation to a prisoners of war camp, Borchert and others jumped off the lorry and escaped, and then he walked home to Hamburg (a distance of around 370 miles). He arrived there, totally exhausted, on 10 May, a week after Hamburg had surrendered to the British without putting up any resistance.
Following the war, Borchert's condition continued to worsen. In 1946 one doctor told his mother he expected Borchert would not live longer than another year, but Borchert himself was never told of this prognosis. He resumed his work with the theater, and continued writing. He wrote short prose and published a collection of poems Laterne, Nacht und Sterne (Lantern, Night and Stars) in December 1946. In December 1946 and/or January 1947 he wrote the play The Man Outside (Draußen vor der Tür). Even before its publication the play was performed on the radio on 13 February 1947, meeting with much acclaim. Later in 1947 Wolfgang Borchert entered a hepatic sanitorium in the Swiss city of Basel, where he continued with short stories and wrote his manifesto against war Dann gibt es nur eins! (Then there is only one thing!) shortly before his death due to liver failure.
Borchert was keen on poetry since his mid-teens and that continued with him to his last day. He used to write verse on his own, and the readers sensed famous poets in his poems such as, Shakespeare, Stefan George, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Rainer Maria Rilke was his role model, to the extent where he signed a work of his by “Wolff Maria Borchert” to express his respect to him. He was a follower of some poets and had seen them as his source of art fulfillment, for example, when he was to join the army, he wrote that he was hungry for art, listing Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Musset, Schiller and Hölderlin.
Writing poetry was easier for Borchert than creating prose. His poem production rate was around five to 10 per day. And, his work was reviewed by his father, which Wolfgang considered as an endorsement. He was later well known for expressing himself in poems when he needed to, no matter what the outcome. Borchert’s writings indicates that he was less concerned with the quality of his work than he was fulfilled creating poems. This later came in when he joined the theater where he became an actor to better express himself. For instance, in one of his letters to Aline Bussmann he was not interested in hearing her opinion in what he wrote but rather he asked her whether the piece pleased her or not!
Borchert’s work was distributed to whomever showed interest in them; later, this helped the Gestapo arrest him along with other reasons. Even though Wolfgang’s work was widely spread, he was not satisfied with his work and thought it was more of a self-expression need that he needed to let out:
“Aber ich bin seit einiger Zeit darüber, meine Gedichte für etwas Wichtiges anzusehen, das nicht verloren gehen dürfte. Wenn von den paar Tausend – debb so viele warden es ja allmählich sein- nur zwei – drei übrig bleiben die es wert sind, dann will ich zufrieden sein. Wenn ich aber dennoch immer welche schreibe, die oft garnichts taugen, dann nur, um sie loszuwerden – sonst nichts.”
Later when Wolfgang grew up, he purified his creation by destroying many poems that were irrelevant to that time period. In Wolfgang’s eyes, what was left of his poems were not of high quality. Therefore, what survived from his poems were mostly included in his letters to Aline Bussmann, Ruth Hager, Carl Albert Lange and Hugo Seiker. Those poems were not to be published, or at least that was the intention of Borchert. However, in 1960, his mother Hertha Borchert and the American Stanley Tschopp gathered around two hundred poems to be published but that did not happen until 1996 when Allein mit meinem Schattten und dem Mond, a compiled selection of Wolfgang Borchert’s poems, was published.
When it comes to putting Wolfgang’s poems under critique spotlight, should only his later work that he endorsed publishing be studied. This is due to the fact that his poems were mostly written for certain events or to a particular person, or occasional literature; his earlier poems was done when he was young.
From one of his longer poems:
Laterne, Nacht und Sterne:
Ich möchte Leuchtturm sein
In Nacht und Wind-
für Dorsch und Stint-
für jedes Boot-
und bin doch selbst
ein Schiff in Not!
Which translate to:
Lantern, Night and Stars:
I would like to be a lighthouse
at night and wind –
for codfish and smelt –
for any boat –
A ship in need!
Style and Influence
Wolfgang Borchert’s style was not limited to his poems writing, but rather it was his short stories that made his style more vivid. The experience he had been through during war was a key player in the way he expressed himself; his work reflects the trauma he went through. The preoccupations of war and post war in Borchert’s writings are the pictures he had in mind of the front from the war, the life of prisoner during the war, the return of a soldier to a destroyed Germany and the hope for the future after devastating war. From there his writings entail abrupt and fragmented pictures. Most of what he creates is not memorable-character based, meaning, he describes people and things without the labels placed by the society or the nation. For example, he mentions men, soldiers, or widows instead of giving up characters like himself, his parents or anyone else. People felt the pain in his writing even with this anonymity and that points out a humanitarian success he achieved; reaching the people’s hearts with simplicity. The basic language he used contributed to delivering the desired message of suffering the people, and him, experienced during the war time.
His play Draußen von der Tür, which was “a tragedy of a returning soldier”, had a hopelessly nihilistic theme. There was emphasis on how nothing was worth living for and everything was destroyed; the smell of guilt is spread everywhere, and the largest share of guilt is the God’s guilt. There was no tolerance or acceptance to fate. This describes what Borchert felt inside and how he wanted to touch the audience feelings. He aimed to bring up disjointed events and present them as a shattered mirror and let the audience enjoy feeling it instead of watching it. The normal style of narrating a story does not exist in Borchert’s writings due to the intensity of experience he had to go through. Instead, the reader finds Borchert’s stories divided into sections of despair, guilt, solitary and a small of faith and willingness. That was caused by the distracted mind, the shaken soul, and the disordered emotions that was initiated by the war experience.
Some of his works are
- Die Hundeblume
- Draußen vor der Tür
- An diesem Dienstag
- Ich sehe in einen Spiegel 
Borchert’s work was not famous during his early days, although there were many people who liked his poems and proses. The war gave Wolfgang’s writings an everlasting impression; it was characterized as one of the best war-literature. He employed the styles of Reiner Maria Rilke and Holderlin into his poems and short stories. Rilke tends to use metaphors, metonymy and contradictions which affected Borchert in that he utilized many metaphors in his writings such as Borchert’s short story “The Kitchen Clock”. In the story, he used the clock as a metaphor that reminds him of his mother and his lost family, it was a great resemblance of trauma-literature. Then, comes Holderlin role in inspiring Borchert where Holderlin was known of using symbols in his writings instead of labeling people and places with their known tags. And, again in “The Kitchen Clock”, Borchert uses symbols in describing characters, for example, describing the returning soldier in “The Kitchen Clock” he says:
“… He looked at his clock and shook his head pensively. No, dear sir, no, you are wiring about that. It has nothing to do with the bombs. You should not keep talking about the bombs. No. At 2:30. At night I mean. Nearly always at 2:30. That is just it…”
The character is missing here but the message he wanted to send is clear and deliverable because there are many people who had their different “Clock” after World War II and can relate to his situation. Borchert was a heavy reader and he read the product of other poets from other countries. Borchert was influenced by an American civil-was poet Walt Whitman. For example, the “Laterne, Nacht und Sterne“ written by Borchert is very similar to Whitman’s “youth, old, age and night”. They share the same images of insomnia with darkness that are mixed with cold, hunger and the long time outside standings Later in Borchert’s life, his work extended beyond the national borders as it was translated to other languages, especially English. The most famous work of Wolfgang Borchert was The Man Outside, a play that was first performed in 1947 only one day after his death. The Man Outside has the same tone as the Kitchen Clock so that it describes the return of a man who was in war prisons to his home. This play was first translated to English in 1952 by David Porter whose translation reduced the quality of this artistic piece. Then, Thomas Fisher, an English producer, retranslated the play and produced it to be played in London in 1998 at the Gate Theater. The translation of Borchert’s work opened up the opportunity for foreigners to further study the trauma literature which is greatly presented in his poems and short stories. In 1988, a group of people who were keen on Wolfgang Borchert work initiated the International Wolfgang-Borchert Society. The mission of the society is to promote studying Borchert’s writings to the international level.
- Die drei dunklen Könige (The three dark kings, 1946)
- An diesem Dienstag (On this Tuesday, 1946)
- Das Brot (The Bread, 1946)
- Draußen vor der Tür (The Man Outside, 1946)
- Nachts schlafen die Ratten doch (The rats do sleep at night, 1947)
- Die Kirschen (The cherries, 1947)
- Dann gibt es nur eins! (Then there's only one thing!, 1947)
- Die lange lange Strasse lang (Along the Long, Long Road, 1947)
- These works are for example: Yorrick, der Narr; Granvella! Der schwarze Kardinal; Der Käseladen – two of the works show the individual fight against state power by establishing the stories in ancient time.
- Rodenberg, Kajetan (1999). Das pubertäre Genie: Wolfgang Borcherts emotionale Veränderung in seinem Jugendwerk. Hamburg: Dolling and Galitz. p. 98.
- Burgess, Gordon (2007). Wolfgang Borchert Ich glaube an mein Glück. Berlin: aufbau. pp. 136–138. ISBN 978-3-7466-2385-6.
- Wolfgang Borchert Das Gesantwerk. Rowohlt. 2007 .
- Klarmann, Adolf (1952). "Wolfgang Borchert: The Lost Voice of a New Germany". Germanic Review: 108.
- Wolfgang Borchert Das Gesamtwerk. Rowohlt. 2007.
- Padgett, Jacqieline (1980). "The Poet in War: Walt Whitman and Wolfgang Borchert". Monatshefte. 72: 149–161. JSTOR 30157060.
- Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English. London: FITZROY DEARBORN. 2000. pp. 173–174.
- Wolf, Rudolf. 1984. Wolfgang Borchert. Werk und Wirkung. Bouvier Verlag. Bonn.
- Gumtau, Helmut. 1969. Wolfgang Borchert. Colloquium Verlag. Berlin.
- Rühmkopf, Peter. 1961. Wolfgang Borchert. Rowohlt. Reinbeck bei Hamburg.
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