The word Steppenwolf appears in Peter Gay's book Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. The context of the statement is:

Kehr was a lonely operator, the Steppenwolf of German historical profession.

I think it means something similar to lone wolf, but I'm not sure. What does it mean to be a Steppenwolf?

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    This question requires knowledge of German, since steppenwolf is set in italics as a untranslated foreign word. Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 15:08
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    I'd not agree. The Urban Dictionary article on the novel by Hesse seems to give a clear answer: << a lonely intellectual trying to figure out his place in a world consumed in its own meaninglessness and worthlessness.... "... I am the Steppenwolf who I often call myself; the beast astray who find neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him." >> I believe this should perhaps be on Literature.SE, as the term is not overly well known. Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 15:11
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    ELU can accommodate questions like "There's this German werd Steppenwolf which means ... How do I express that in an English term?" but not "What's a steppenwolf?" Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 15:22
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    I thought it was obvious but maybe people don't read Hesse anymore. Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 17:29
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    Born to be wilde, anyone Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 19:23

4 Answers 4


The original phrase from Peter Gay's book is

Kehr was a lonely operator, the Steppenwolf of German historical profession.

The word Steppenwolf is written in italics with a capital "S", i.e. in German with a special emphasis, and therefore I conclude that it refers to nothing else than Hermann Hesse's novel "Der Steppenwolf" which was published in 1927. In Hesse's novel the Steppenwolf is the protagonist Harry Haller. Quotation from German wikipedia:

Haller leidet an der Zerrissenheit seiner Persönlichkeit: Seine menschliche, bürgerlich-angepasste Seite und seine steppenwölfische, einsame, sozial- und kulturkritische Seite bekämpfen sich und blockieren Hallers künstlerische Entwicklung.

My (poor) translation of the bold text is

His human, bourgeois and conformist side of his personality struggles with his steppe-wolfish, lonely, socio- and culture-critical side of his personality (...)

And here is a quotation from Hesse's original text:

Wise minds might argue the point as to whether he really was a wolf; whether he had once, even before his birth, been transformed by magic from a wolf into a human being; whether he had been born a human being but endowed with and possessed by the spirit of a lone wolf; or, alternatively, whether his belief that he was in fact a wolf was merely a delusion or a form of sickness on his part.

Also note that in 1928 Hesse published the short story "Harry, the Steppenwolf" (German: "Vom Steppenwolf") related to the novel. Quotation from English wikipedia:

It is about a wolf named Harry who is kept in a zoo, and who entertains crowds by destroying images of German cultural icons such as Goethe and Mozart.

The above references should sufficiently explain why Peter Gay calls Kehr a Steppenwolf: In Weimar Germany he was widely perceived as a misfit. Read this longer quotation from Gay's book:

Eckart Kehr 's tragically short career - he died in 1933 at the age of thirty - illustrates the high price a heretic had to pay, even in the Republic. His family swarmed with powerful figures in the intellectual establishment of the late Empire, but, shaken by war and defeat, he rebelled against the Prussian conservatism of his immediate environ­ment; by heritage an insider, his experience and temperament made Kehr into an outsider determined to compel the university world to grant him recognition. His studies of the intimate relations of business leaders, industrialists, and foreign-policy-makers in the Empire forced him to the conclusion that profit had been a far more significant in­centive for German imperialism than grandiose thoughts about the German mission. Writing the dissertation had had a "revolutionizing effect" on him; he bad begun, after all, with "political history and philosophy," but he discovered that social structure and economic in­terests influenced political decisions in ways that pious historians had always denied, or, rather, never seen. His articles, which appeared in rapid succession in the late 1920s, were as scandalous as bis book; they dealt, in biting language but irreproachable scholarship, with such touchy subjects as the rise of the Prussian bureaucracy, the class struggles in the early Empire, the social and financial foundations of foreign policy, the sociology of the Reichswehr. Predictably, Kehr's fellow historians did not know what to do with him. His articles were noticed, his book had some respectful and respectable reviews, but for the most part, it was a handful of young students in Germany and American progressive historians like Charles Beard who appreciated Kehr's true value. For the rest, there was pa­triotic denunciation and worried head-shaking; Hermann Oncken called Kehr the "enfant terrible" of the profession; even Friedrich Meinecke, one of Kehr's teachers and one of his strongest, most disinterested supporters, called him, more in friendly warning than in serious disapproval, "a complete Nihilist" who believed that "to un­derstand all is to criticize all." And this, of course, was precisely the point.

Kehr was a lonely operator, the Steppenwolf of the German his­torical profession. In contrast, his fellow critics, committed like him to the proposition that to understand all is to criticize all, generally joined in schools or institutes, huddling together for warmth, mutual support, and informed self-criticism.


In the literal sense, a Steppenwolf, according to Wikipedia, is the German word for the steppe wulf, a grey wulf living in southeastern Europe and Asia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steppe_wolf

I have only ever heard this word in connection to the novel of that name by Hermann Hesse though (or in connection to a music band that is clearly named alluding to the novel). The Steppenwolf in that book is one side of the split personality of the main character. It is seen by the character as a wild lone wolf with animalistic impulses that drive him away from society, while the other side is a more bourgeois high-ground intellectual. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steppenwolf_(novel)

I think that this mostly explains what Peter Gay wants to say about Kehr when calling him a steppenwolf. It's probably clearer what exact character traits of Kehr he is refering to when you know more about Kehr. To liken a person to "Steppenwolf" is not a commonly used idiom in German, and I suppose it isn't in English either.

  • Yes, it's most likely that it's referring to the Hesse character than anything specific to German. Steppenwolf does not even have an entry in DWDS and doesn't seem to be in common use in German other than as a reference to the character. There was a North American rack band "Steppenwolf", again apparently referencing Hesse, so it's possible that the name is better known in English than the original German.
    – RDBury
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 17:38
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    @RDBury Well, the term is pretty well known to Germans with the least bit of literary knowledge - It's just not used for anthing else.
    – tofro
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 17:54
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    The term should be quite clear for Germans that have reached a certain level of education, referring to the characteristics of the literary figure Harry Haller, main character of the Hesse novel. The book was one of the main reasons Hesse was awarded a Nobel price in literature.
    – Stephie
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 17:57
  • HalvarF, I disagree with you last paragraph (+1 nevertheless for the rest), for me, the term is absolutely clear - referring to the novel and the main character - and basic literature knowledge. I might be biased, having attended school in Hesse‘s birthplace, but we still get tourists visiting not for the other tourist attractions, but explicitly exploring a place that influenced his work.
    – Stephie
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 18:03
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    @Stephie: maybe you like to characterize this more (in an answer)? I think I do have some idea, but Haller is quite an extreme character, and the "Steppenwolf" part of him even more so, so I'm not really sure what it would mean to say about a public figure intellectual that he is a "steppenwolf". Is it flattering? An insult? Does it just mean he's a "lone wulf"? Doesn't care about conventions? Self-destructive?
    – HalvarF
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 18:59

Basically a drifter roaming the streets walking everywhere with no one having their back

  • Welcome to German.SE.Do you think you can elaborate a bit further how you came to this description? Because for me I can say I only know that Hermann Hesse wrote a book with this title and have no idea about it's content... Commented Jan 5, 2022 at 20:04

You need to read the book.

There is only one way to think about the word Steppenwolf in German and everyone who read some literature without being forced to do so, knows about that one and only Steppenwolf.

There is no way to fold that masterpiece down to some lines here.

Then you will have your interpretation of what Peter Gay meant. And that will be as right and as wrong as anything that we could tell you here.

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