BORN: 1929, Kaufbeuren, Bavaria, Germany
GENRE: Poetry, fiction, essays
Verteidigung der Wolfe (1957)
Der Untergang der Titanic (The Sinking of the Titanic, 1978)
Die Furie des Verschwindens (1980)
Wu Warst Du, Robert? (Where Were You, Robert?, 2000)
Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images
Hans Enzensberger, considered by many to be Germany’s most important living poet, is equally well known as an editor, translator, and social critic who has stirred a variety of controversies during his fifty-year career.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Nazi Germany. Enzensberger was born on November 11, 1929, in Bavaria, Germany. He grew up in Nazi-era Germany and at the end of World War II, he was conscripted into a German militia. He survived the war and went on to study literature, languages, and philosophy in various European universities. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the lyric poetry of Clemens Brentano, a German poet from the mid-1800s who was a leading member of the younger Romantic generation.
Poetry and Politics. Enzensberger began his literary career in post-World War II Germany. In 1955 he joined Group 47, an association of authors that encouraged criticism of political and social conditions and was generally opposed to the values and standards of West Germany. For the next decade, he devoted himself to political poetry. The appearance of his first two collections of poetry earned him great notoriety as Germany’s ‘‘angry young man.’’ From the late 1950s he spent prolonged periods abroad, visiting the United States, Mexico, Italy, Russia, the Far East, Cuba, and Norway before eventually settling back in Germany, in Munich.
By the mid-1960s, he had lost his faith in the political efficacy of poetry; thereafter, he became more actively involved in politics. He founded the political periodical Kursbuch. Remaining its editor until 1975, Enzensberger and his magazine became active in the sixties’ debates about the writer’s role and function.
In 1968 Enzensberger resigned a fellowship at Wesleyan University in protest against U.S. foreign policy and moved to Cuba, his model for revolutionary change. Until the mid-1970s, he focused his writings on revolutionary subjects.
Social Criticism. By the 1980s, Enzensberger had finished with his period of revolutionary fervor and returned to the lyricism characteristic of his earlier works. He remained an active social critic throughout the next two decades, however. He produced poetry, essays, and even children’s fiction, tackling a wide range of social issues. He stirred up controversy in 1995 with his provocative book Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia, which presents a broad definition of civil war that includes innercity rioting as well as full-blown national conflicts. His works continue to offer readers difficult challenges and to demonstrate the inseparable nature of politics and culture.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Enzensberger's famous contemporaries include:
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927—): Garcia Marquez, a Colombian writer, is best known for his use of magic realism in novels; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.
Fidel Castro (1926—): Castro was the leader of the successful Cuban Revolution in 1959 and served as the country's leader from 1959 until his retirement in February of 2008.
Imre Kertesz (1929—): Kertesz is a Hungarian Jewish author who survived the Holocaust; he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002.
JUrgen Habermas (1929—): This German philosopher and social scientist is best known for his theory of communicative action.
Andre Previn (1929—): Previn is a German-born composer and conductor who has won Academy and Grammy awards for his theatrical compositions.
Anne Frank (1929-1945): Frank was a German-born Jew who was killed during World War II; she is most famous for the publication of her diary, The Diary of Anne Frank.
John Barth (1930—): Barth is an American writer who is one of the pioneers of postmodernism in American literature.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Enzensberger's poetry combines dramatic satire with meditative verse to explore themes of oppression, coercion, and civil unrest. Here are some similar works:
Odas Elementales (1954-1959), a poetry collection by Pablo Neruda. This collection of poems demonstrates Neruda's Communist political views through an extensive description of the everyday world.
Festivals and Funerals (1971), a poetry collection by Jayne Cortez. This collection of poems uses excessive language and imagery to expose the oppression of women, particularly African American women.
Anarchy (1998), a poetry collection by John Cage. This collection of poems draws on and reworks the writings of famous anarchists to create a series of poetic lectures on important questions of human freedom.
Works in Literary Context
Enzensberger is perhaps the most wide-ranging and protean figure in contemporary letters. During his fifty-year career, he has moved fluidly through the important issues of the day, often influencing the public debate with his poetry and social commentary.
Germany’s “Angry Young Man’’. At the beginning of his career in postwar Germany, Enzensberger was concerned with the state of the language, which he felt was corrupted by war and tyranny, and with the material and spiritual state of his country. For Enzensberger, that conflict takes the form of anger in his early verse. As Helmut Gutmann explained in a German Quarterly review, the ‘‘irate aggressiveness’’ of Enzensberger’s poems ‘‘gave his first two volumes ... their own unmistakeable tone. They are protest and polemics, they denounce and unmask... . Enzensberger’s anger is directed against a world that he sees dominated by a dehumanizing technological civilization and by the machineries of power that enslave man, be they government or industry, politics or the military, the synod of bishops or the mass media of the ‘Bewusstseinsindustrie’ (consciousness industry).’’
Concurrent with his poetry, Enzensberger began writing essays expressing both his literary and social concerns. He published two volumes of essays during the early sixties. Then, in 1965, he founded a new periodical, Kursbuch, to provide a forum for literary and political discussion. The demand that literature be politicized, and subsequent calls for the ‘‘end of literature,’’ were issues hotly discussed in Kursbuch. As one commentator noted, ‘‘Enzensberger’s contribution gave courage to this belief, and to the idea that literature, as ordinarily and traditionally understood, was on the way out.’’
Combining Lyricism and Social Criticism. Enzensberger’s ‘‘declaration of disbelief in literature,’’ however, did not prevent him from quietly continuing to write poetry. The 1970s saw the publication of various poetic works reflecting the author’s disillusionment with all social systems, as well as an apparent loss of faith in literature’s power to effect revolutionary change. The 1980 publication of Die Eurie des Verschwindens, a collection of short poems, marked the end of Enzensberger’s sixteen years of revolutionary fervor and a renewal of the lyricism characteristic of his earlier works.
Works in Critical Context
Called ‘‘Germany’s most important literary catalyst’’ in a 1968 issue of the New York Times Book Review, Enzensberger catapulted to fame with the publication of his first two volumes of poetry. Since those early works, the German poet has become equally well known as a social critic. One critic noted that Enzensberger ‘‘is more learned, cosmopolitan, and restless’’ than any of his contemporaries; and that he is ‘‘intent on radical doubt [and] does not participate in collective stances for very long.’’ The variety and range of Enzensberger’s works make it difficult to summarize critical response to his writing. A brief look at the critical response to a couple of his more provocative offerings can provide a sort of overview to his reception by critics and audiences.
Civil Wars. Enzensberger stirred up controversy in 1995 with his provocative book Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia. Enzensberger suggests that using high-tech weaponry to kill people we have never seen is far more terrible than a war that pits neighbor against neighbor. The book examines the types of violence that have proliferated since the end of the Cold War. His book is a ‘‘cluster of lively arguments,’’ according to Mark Thompson in New Statesman & Society, and Publishers Weekly claims the book convincingly demonstrates the inseparable nature of politics and culture.
Where Were You, Robert? Enzensberger’s Wu Warst Du, Robert?, which was translated as Lost in Time and published in England as Where Were You, Robert?, represents a different kind of offering from his usual poetry and politics. The book is a fanciful tale about a fourteen-year-old boy, Robert, who is capable of time travel simply by blinking his eyes. Robert is not aware of this power until his first accidental journey takes him to the Soviet Union in the year 1956. Robert moves through various historical vignettes, surviving his adventures through his own wit and skill. The history presented in the book is quite accurate, leading D. J. Enright in the Times Literary Supplement to call it ‘‘a fantasy for people who don’t read fantasy, and perhaps disapprove of it.’’ A Publishers Weekly writer noted the lack of a unifying theme in this episodic book but concluded that the author’s ‘‘humorously deadpan narrative voice, his taste for witty ironies and Robert’s sheer moxie offer a surfeit of pleasures in and of themselves.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read several of Enzensberger’s poems from the 1960s and 1970s. Do his ideas, which were considered radical and controversial at the time, still seem cogent today? Discuss some of the similarities and differences between then and now, analyzing developments in history, culture, politics, and technology.
2. Critics have noted that Enzensberger does not ‘‘participate in collective stances for very long.’’ Does a poet and social critic have a responsibility to remain fairly steady in his or her opinions? In what ways does changeability strengthen or weaken Enzensberger’s status as a social critic?
3. In 1965 Enzensberger founded a political periodical, Kursbuch, to explore the important literary and political questions of the day. Write a list of the important literary and political questions of today and compose an editorial addressing one of these questions.
4. Use Where Were You, Robert? as a model to write a short children’s story that depicts a time-traveler’s adventures in a notable period in the past.
Demetz, Peter. Postwar German Literature: A Critical Introduction. New York: Pegasus, 1970.
Domandi, Agnes Koerner, ed. Modern German Literature. New York: Ungar, 1972.
Thomas, R. Hinton, and Keith Bullivant. Literature in Upheaval: West German Writers and the Challenge of the 1960s. Dover, N.H.: Manchester University Press, 1974.