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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10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.