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The Life and Works of Wolfgang Borchert

The Life and Works of Wolfgang Borchert

Gordon Burgess
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Life and Works of Wolfgang Borchert
    Book Description:

    Wolfgang Borchert has been called "the most important voice of post-war German literature." He came to fame literally overnight when his play 'Draussen vor der Tür' (The Man Outside) was broadcast in the British zone of occupied Germany in February 1947 and evoked impassioned reactions both for and against. An examination of the plight of the returning soldier in the postwar world, it has become an icon of its time, capturing the futility of war and the true cost of the destruction in both physical and spiritual terms. Worldwide, 'Draussen vor der Tür' has been produced more often than any other German play. Between January 1946 and his death in November 1947, Borchert wrote over forty short stories on the model of Hemingway and Wolfe, many of them highly experimental. Indeed, he is widely regarded as having introduced the short-story form into German literature. This is the first full-length account of Borchert's life and works in English. It benefits from unprecedented access to archival material and from interviews with Borchert's contemporaries. The study links Borchert's own literary ambition with the enlightened family circumstances in which he grew up, and charts his development from a rebellious teenager with a passion for theater via his fighting as a soldier on Germany's Eastern Front and his imprisonment by the Nazis to his brief but intense career as a writer. Gordon Burgess is Emeritus Professor of German at the University of Aberdeen.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-629-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    G. J. A. B.
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    These words from Wolfgang Borchert’s short prose text “Gespräch über den Dächern” were written from the heart. Borchert was born in Hamburg on 20 May 1921, and died on 20 November 1947. His passion for life never left him, whether he was in military service on the Russian front, languishing in German military prisons under the Nazi regimes, or being treated in a succession of military and civilian hospitals.

    Looking back, 1921 was not a good year to have been born. The Weimar Republic, established in 1918, was to get progressively weaker as rampant inflation led to the Great Slump,...

  6. 1: Childhood, School, Apprenticeship: 1921–1940
    (pp. 9-43)

    Wolfgang Borchert was born at three o’clock on what his mother later recalled as the most splendid spring morning of 20 May 1921, as the only son of Hertha and Fritz Borchert. At the time of his birth, they were living at 82 Tarpenbekstrasse, in the Hamburg suburb of Eppendorf.

    On the morning of his twenty-fifth birthday, Borchert placed a letter at his mother’s bedroom door, recalling and embellishing the night of his birth, and wondering whether his attempt to live in this world had failed. At the same time, however, Borchert the writer and optimist shows through:

    Heute nacht...

  7. 2: “The Happiest Time of My Life”: January–June 1941
    (pp. 44-56)

    By the end of 1940, the life of the nineteen-year-old Borchert had not been exactly crowned with success. He had left school with a poor report and low grades. He had left his job as a bookshop assistant without gaining any qualification in the trade, despite being almost at the end of his apprenticeship, solely in order to concentrate on his acting examination before the board of the Reichstheaterkammer. He had written a play with Günter Mackenthun that they both regarded as a work of genius and sent off to the leading actor of the day, Gustaf Gründgens, probably without...

  8. 3: The Eastern Front and Courts-Martial: 1941–1943
    (pp. 57-90)

    The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact signed on 23 August 1939 had been seen as expedient at the time by both Hitler and Stalin. In his address to the Reichstag on 1 September 1939, Hitler announced that the pact would last “for all the future,”¹ but in late 1940 he decided that it no longer served his purposes. The Battle of Britain had taken its toll on both the German and the British airforces, and strategically it would have made more sense for Hitler to have concentrated on weakening Britain further by increasing U-boat attacks on British shipping. Hitler did toy with...

  9. 4: Actor Turned Writer: Jena, Hamburg, and Basel, 1944–1947
    (pp. 91-135)

    After the turbulent eleven months from December 1943 to September 1944, with all that he had experienced and feared, Borchert must have found life during the last phase of the war a haven of peace. After the verdict of the third court martial was confirmed on 4 September, he was transferred back to his battalion in Jena and found himself outside bars for the first time again on 15 September — and was immediately assigned to guard duty. Nevertheless, his newfound freedom made him feel quite light-headed, even though he at first expected to spend only a few days in Jena...

  10. 5: The Poems
    (pp. 136-150)

    From his mid-teens until the end of his life, Wolfgang Borchert was an avid and critical reader of poetry. Indeed, three of the five reviews he wrote for the Hamburger Freie Presse and which were published in late 1946 and early 1947 were of collections of poems. From his mid-teens onward, he wrote verse himself, proud that some of his readers could detect traces of poets such as Shakespeare, Stefan George, or Rainer Maria Rilke in his own work.¹ For a time, in 1940, he even signed his letters and poems “Wolff Maria Borchert” in honor of his favorite model...

  11. 6: Draussen vor der Tür
    (pp. 151-173)

    As noted earlier, neither Borchert’s original manuscript of Draussen vor der Tür nor any of the copies immediately typed out by his father have survived. Three versions of the play exist, to all of which Borchert gave his seal of approval in some degree: the version as first published in 1947 and later incorporated into the Gesamtwerk; the first broadcast as a radio play; and the 1949 film version Liebe 47. The premiere in the Hamburg Kammerspiele, which Borchert is reported as having discussed with Wolfgang Liebeneiner and Hans Quest, follows the published version, with cuts similar to those made...

  12. 7: The Short Stories
    (pp. 174-218)

    Before Wolfgang Borchert, the conventional short prose form in German was the novella, which flourished during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Goethe famously described the novella as focusing on an unusual event that could have happened. The length could be anything from a few pages to over a hundred, and at some point, the action would take an unexpected or decisive turn of events, called appropriately the Wendepunkt in German. Conventionally, there would be an omniscient narrator, and the central tale would often be set within a framework narrative (Rahmenerzählung). The novella was a “closed” form,...

  13. 8: The Reception of Borchert’s Life and Works
    (pp. 219-233)

    The popular image of Borchert and his work was created from several elements: the first productions of Draussen vor der Tür as a radio play in the winter/spring of 1947 and as a stage play from November 1947 onward; his early death; and the publication of the Gesamtwerk in 1949. The image was to prove a lasting one. In the public imagination, Borchert and his work quickly became summed up in three terms: “Schrei,” “Verzweiflung,” and “Nihilist/Nihilismus,” the last set generally modified by an epithet such as “positiv.” These labels have endured, with minor variations, ever since. The purpose of...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 234-236)

    The brief survey of critical literature given in the introductory chapter was designed to provide the academic context in which this account of Borchert’s life and work has been written. In the last chapter, we have looked at the popular image of Borchert. That image was, to a great extent, created and fixed by Bernhard Meyer-Marwitz’s “Nachwort,” which has been reprinted — with only minor changes — in the Gesamtwerk since 1949. The view of Borchert as a naïve writer, screaming his work into existence against all the odds of his debilitating illness, remained largely unchanged for half a century. Allied to...

  15. Published Works Cited
    (pp. 237-248)
  16. Index
    (pp. 249-256)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-257)