I can't find a specific community for German literature so I will try my luck here. My guess is this community is populated by lovers of German language and German books :)

So, I came across a list of German authors and mentioned it on Twitter. A good friend caught the tweet and corrected me saying that Kafka wasn't German. My perception however, is that because Kafka wrote in German in my non-European eyes his works are German literature. I understand because I am not European the sociopolitical distinction between German - Czech - Austrian - Hungarian together with changing national boundaries during Kafka's entire lifetime are pretty lost on me.

My question is: how is German literature defined? What qualifies as German literature? Does the writer have to be a German citizen for their work to qualify as German literature, or merely sharing some cultural similarities across borders and writing in German enough?

I am asking as someone who has never been learning German in a formal setting.

Thanks in advance!

Edit: changed the phrasing to please some contributors. I do try…

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    I’m voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about history of literature, cultural and educational policy etc., but not about the German language.
    – chirlu
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 12:26
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    Oh. Tough crowd. I will try my luck outside of stackexchange then.
    – braaains
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 12:30
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    @chirlu I don't think this is off-topic. It's surely not as on-topic as most other questions, but it's still closely related to the German language and where else would you ask the question? Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 12:30
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    Es mutet recht kafkaesk an, Franz Kafka nicht der deutschen Literatur zuordnen zu wollen.
    – Alexander
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 15:41
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    Consider an analogy: Is "The Old Man and the Sea" considered English literature, or American literature?
    – Benubird
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 9:19

3 Answers 3


In German there is a distinction between deutsche Literatur (German literature) and deutschsprachige Literatur (literature written in German). The former would only include authors from Germany, while the latter expands to Austrians and Swiss as well. Thus, Kafka is part of the deutschsprachige Literatur (see German Wikipedia, for example).

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    By the way, there is also German language literature in other parts of the world beyond the three main countries. Examples are Kazakhstan, Belgium and Brazil. Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 12:51
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    what exactly in the german wikipedia? Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 14:28
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    People in Liechtenstein also speak German! Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 14:33
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    The reference to German Wikipedia contradicts your answer: Deutsche Literatur redirects to "Deutschsprachige Literatur", which in turn uses both terms as synonyms in its introductory sentence.
    – Matthias
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 15:10
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    BЈовић: The article about Kafka himself. Matthias: I think I'll disagree with the German wikipedia about that topic then. "Österreichische Literatur" (Austrian literature) and "Schweizer Literatur" (Swiss literature) are clearly a thing and describe literature from Austria or Switzerland. How exactly should we name literature from Germany if not with "Deutsche Literatur"? (There is a complaint on wiki's discussion page as well.) Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 17:36

How do you define German literature?

What do you mean by "you"? If you intend to collect some personal, individual convictions of German SE users who bother to write an answer - well, let's close this question as "primarily opinion-based". If, however, you want to address some unnamed community, assuming that their members agree on a definition of German literature - then, I am afraid, it depends. But let us first look on your second question.

Does the writer have to be a German citizen for their work to qualify as German literature...?

I think this can be answered - if it doesn't come with a specific temporal context - with a clear No. Simply for the lack of such a thing as "German citizenship" for long periods in history. This quote from the German Wikipedia article on Germany illustrates the problem quite well [emphasis mine]:

Nach der Niederlegung der Reichskrone 1806 dominierten das Kaisertum Österreich, das Königreich Preußen und der Rheinbund das staatliche Geschehen im Vorstellungsraum Deutschlands; nach 1815 folgte als die deutsche Nationalität sichernder Staatenbund der Deutsche Bund unter der Führung Österreichs.

"Germany" was then a term of the imaginative space, not of the real world. It's only since 1871 that we have a succession of political entities that can be called "Germany".

Now let's come back to "it depends". As you can see from the other answers and comments it depends on who you are asking ;-) But searching for references I mainly found indications that "Deutsche Literatur" is understood as "Deutschsprachige Literatur":

  • German Wikipedia seems to treat "Deutsche Literatur" as synonym to "Deutschsprachige Literatur", both by redirection and by the introductory phrase.
  • There is the term "Prager deutsche Literatur" (see here for a lengthy discussion in German about its definition) that is also referenced by the Franz Kafka society. The term would not make much sense if "deutsche Literatur" would normally be understood as "literature from Germany". I assume its creators would have explicitly used "Prager deutschsprachige Literatur" if they had seen a necessity for that.
  • A couple of years ago a large anthology has been published under the title Kanon. Die deutsche Literatur. It also contains works by Austrian and Swiss authors - and Kafka. The title for sure is debatable, but I think it shows how the publishers expected the public to understand the term "Deutsche Literatur".

But there is also Austrian literature and Swiss literature - how do you call literature from Germany then? Well, in a context where it is clear that we are speaking about the contemporary literaric production of different countries: German literature. (Remember: it depends...) But ottherwise, you could explicitly specify the country you are referring to: "Literatur der Bundesrepublik Deutschland / DDR / Weimarer Republik / ...". And what would be the use of putting all these very different political entities in one set and contrasting it with other German speaking parts of the world? There simply has been much more continuity in what language the adjective "deutsch" is referring to that to which nationality, political entity or region.

tl;dr You can safely say that the works of Franz Kafka belong to German literature ("deutsche Literatur"), unless there is a clear context where German would be rather understood as a nationality or regional attribute. If you want to avoid any discussions, call them works of literature in German language.

  • I didn't exactly mean "you" in the literal sense when I wrote the question. It escaped me that people can interpret the question as "anyone is invited to give their personal definition". English is not my first language, as I have explained in a comment under my question. I was typing the sentence the way it popped into my head, the way one would offhand ask a friend "How do you say '_____' in German?"
    – braaains
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 19:55
  • Double comment because app doesn't allow paragraphs. Thank you for the lengthy and informative reply. I did understand German literature as more language-based rather than nationality-based, so your answer has clarified my confusion. I also wish other book readers wouldn't be so anal about which writer is German and which isn't, and just focus on the language.
    – braaains
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 20:01

I would consider Kafka as much and as little German literature as I would consider Mozart's works German. Nationality surely matters when analyzing the social and political circumstances under which these works were created, but in the end what people talk about is the language.

Kafka is very common subject material for German lessons in school, so from that point of view it's surely considered German or at least German-language literature. From a historical standpoint, however, I wouldn't call it German literature.

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    "I would ..." - it would be helpful if you could back your personal opinion with references and facts.
    – Matthias
    Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 15:13
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    Well, I can't really. I just answered the question, how I would define it. My only evidence is Kafka as subject material in schools. Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 16:33
  • Thank you @JanekBevendorff. I find your answer useful because it gives me an idea of how German schools teach literature.
    – braaains
    Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 5:19

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