[This page by Martin Liebscher]

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)

Until today Hermann Hesse’s work has polarised its readers. The reception has been fluctuating between the extremes of an uncritical adoration by an overly enthusiastic readership and, at times, an almost contemptuous reaction by the critics. Though from today’s point of view there can be no doubt that Hesse wrote some of the most influential and important novels of 20th-century German literature, amongst them Demian (1919), Das Glasperlenspiel; The Glass Bead Game (1943) or Der Steppenwolf (1927). Especially the latter has been described as one of the canonical contributions of the German novel to high modernism. The Nobel Prize award in 1946 was the official acknowledgement by the literary and cultural establishment, though it was the counter cultural movement of the 1960s that is mostly associated with his name today.

Hesse was born in Calw (Württemberg) into the household of a pietistic missionary; his father and grandfather were both missionaries to India. As a child he suffered under the rigid educational regime of his parents which, together with the experience of the severe pedagogical system he encountered in the schools of the protestant monastery Maulbronn and the gymnasium Cannstatt, led to a suicide attempt and the referral to a mental institution. Later Hesse would describe the despair of children in the 19th-century educational system in texts such as the early novel Unterm Rad (1906) or the short story Kinderseele (1919).

Another literary topic that derived from the impressions of his childhood years was his fascination with Asia, its cultures and religions. His father had experienced places like Ceylon, Singapore, and Sumatra, which Hesse visited himself in 1911. Though the journey did not have the immediate spiritually enlightening effect that he had expected, it would eventually start to influence his thinking and manifest in works like Siddhartha (1922).

At the outbreak of the war in 1914 Hesse volunteered for the German army, but was rejected due to his bad eyesight. Instead he worked with prisoners of war and became increasingly sceptical of the powerful war propaganda machine. His contacts with pacifist intellectuals such as Romain Rolland and articles against patriotic war poetry led to outbreaks of hatred against the author in Germany.

But Hesse also faced a severe personal crisis during the war years. His father died in 1916, at the same time when Hesse had to cope with a serious illness of his son Martin and the onset of his wife’s psychosis. The pressure led to a nervous breakdown and Hesse was brought to a sanatorium. There he got in contact with Jungian psychotherapy. His therapy with Josef Bernhard Lang and, in 1921, with Jung himself had a deep influence on novels such as Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), and Der Steppenwolf (1927). All three are dedicated to Jung’s concept of individuation and archetypal theory.

In 1919 Hesse moved to Mantagnola in the Tessin (Switzerland), a region, to which he remained deeply connected for the rest of his life. In the process of his therapy he began to paint and in the subsequent years the landscape of the Tessin featured in many of his paintings.

When his second marriage broke down, Hesse faced the most severe psychological crises of his life in the winter of 1925. At the time he lived in a flat in Basel and wrote Der Steppenwolf (1927) depicting the inner conflict of Harry Haller torn apart between the instinctual and anti-bourgeois demands of the Steppenwolf and nostalgic sentiments for middle class life. His free depictions of sexuality and drug culture, to which Harry is initiated in the novel, provoked a public outcry.

In 1931 he married Ninon Dolbin (nee Ausländer), with whom he finally found a fulfilling private life. Politically Hesse distanced himself from Germany and the rise of National Socialism. He supported friends and artists who fled Germany. The Nazi regime reacted to Hesse’s firm opposition by banning the reprint of any of his books in 1939. His last big novel Das Glasperlenspiel; The Glass Bead Game (1943) was therefore published in Switzerland, but not in Germany.

Though Hesse was rewarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946 and honoured with many other awards (Goethe Prize, 1946; Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels, 1955), he almost completely retreated from public and literary life after the war. He spent the last years of his life in his beloved Montagnola, where he died on 9 August 1962.

Further Reading in English

Ingo Cornils (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Hermann Hesse (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009)

Ingo Cornils, ‘A Model European? Hermann Hesse’s Influence on the Suhrkamp Verlag’, German Life and Letters 68:1 (2015), 54-65

Ingo Cornlis (ed.), Forever young? Unschuld und Erfahrung im Werk Hermann Hesses, literatur für leser 38:1 (2015)

Further Reading in German

Jürgen Below, Hermann Hesse-Handbuch: Quellentexte zu Leben, Werk und Wirkung (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2012)

Gabriele Lück, An Hermann Hesse: Der Leser als Produzent (Frankfurt a.M. and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009)

Web Link


Nobel Prize citation for Hermann Hesse (1946)