Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century

This is one of the 273 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

    "The Man Without Qualities" is a satirical novel set in Vienna during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It follows the life of Ulrich, a thirty-two-year-old mathematician, who is in search of a sense of life and reality but is caught up in the societal changes and political chaos of his time. The book explores themes of existentialism, morality, and the search for meaning in a rapidly changing world.

  • The Trial by Franz Kafka

    The book revolves around a bank clerk who wakes one morning to find himself under arrest for an unspecified crime. Despite not being detained, he is subjected to the psychological torment of a bizarre and nightmarish judicial process. The story is a critique of bureaucracy, exploring themes of guilt, alienation and the inefficiency of the justice system.

  • The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

    In this novel, the protagonist, a young, ordinary man, visits his cousin at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Intending to stay for only a few weeks, he ends up remaining there for seven years, becoming a patient himself. The book explores his experiences and relationships with other patients and staff, delving into philosophical discussions on life, time, and the nature of disease. It also provides a vivid portrayal of the European society and intellectual life on the eve of World War I.

  • Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

    Set in 1920s Berlin, the book follows the life of Franz Biberkopf, a man recently released from prison who is trying to make an honest life for himself. However, he is drawn back into the criminal underworld due to circumstances and the influence of his acquaintance, Reinhold. The book is a vivid portrayal of city life in Weimar-era Germany, exploring themes of poverty, crime, redemption and the struggle to maintain one's morality amidst chaos and corruption.

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

    The novel tells the story of Oskar Matzerath, a boy who decides on his third birthday that he will stop growing and remain a three-year-old forever. Oskar is gifted with a tin drum by his mother, which he uses to express his emotions and thoughts. Living in Danzig during the rise of Nazi Germany, Oskar's refusal to grow is a form of protest against the adult world. The book is a blend of magical realism and historical fiction, providing a unique perspective on the horrors of World War II and the post-war era in Germany.

  • Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson

    "Anniversaries" is a novel that provides a detailed account of a year in the life of Gesine Cresspahl, a German immigrant living in New York City with her young daughter. The narrative unfolds through daily entries, spanning from August 1967 to August 1968, intertwining the protagonist's present-day experiences with her traumatic past in Nazi and post-war East Germany. The novel explores themes of memory, identity, displacement, and the complexities of history, offering a nuanced perspective on the immigrant experience and the lasting impacts of historical trauma.

  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

    "Buddenbrooks" is a novel that chronicles the decline of a wealthy north German merchant family over the course of four generations. The narrative focuses on the fluctuating fortunes and internal struggles of the family, reflecting the societal changes and economic decline of the period. The family's personal and business relationships, their moral values, and their struggle to maintain social status are all explored against the backdrop of the changing political and social landscape.

  • The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

    "The Radetzky March" is a historical novel that explores the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the experiences of the Trotta family, across three generations. The narrative begins with Lieutenant Trotta, who saves the life of the Emperor during the Battle of Solferino, and follows his descendants as they navigate the complexities of life in the empire. The novel delves into themes of duty, honor, and the inevitability of change, painting a vivid picture of a society in decline.

  • Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

    The novel is a reimagining of the Faust legend set in the context of the first half of the 20th century and the turmoil of Germany in that period. It tells the story of a composer who makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited creative genius. The protagonist's life and work reflect the cultural and political journey of Germany leading up to World War II, providing a deep exploration of the individual's role in a society undergoing dramatic change. The novel is also a profound meditation on the nature of time, the art and the artist, and the destructiveness of human ambition.

  • The Castle by Franz Kafka

    This novel presents the story of a man who arrives in a village and struggles to gain access to the mysterious authorities who govern it from a castle. The protagonist, a surveyor, faces the constant frustration of his efforts to make contact with the elusive authorities and integrate into village society. The book explores themes of alienation, bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man's attempts to stand against the system, and the futile pursuit of an unobtainable goal.

About this list

Wikipedia, 10 Books

The Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century is a list of books compiled in 1999 by Literaturhaus München and Bertelsmann, in which 99 prominent German authors, literary critics, and scholars of German ranked the most significant German-language novels of the twentieth century.

The group brought together 33 experts from each of the three categories. Each was allowed to name three books as having been the most important of the century.

Added about 7 years ago.

How Good is this List?

This list has a weight of 80%. To learn more about what this means please visit the Rankings page.

Here is a list of what is decreasing the importance of this list:

  • Voters: are mostly from a single country/location
  • List: only covers mostly "Western Canon" books
  • List: only covers 100 years

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