Wolfgang Borchert (1921-1947) is best known as the founder of German Trümmerliteratur – »literature of the ruins«, »rubble literature« – realistically depicting the physical and spiritual state of Germany immediately after the Second World War and delineating the war years leading up to it. He is most famous for his play Draußen vor der Tür (The Man Outside), in which Beckmann, a soldier who has just returned from Russia to a devastated Germany, tries unsuccessfully to reintegrate into society, to accept or be accepted by others. He remains an outsider, unable to adopt the values of others or live by his own, and ends asking the forlorn question »Will no-one, no-one give me an answer?«
The Man Outside was first broadcast as a radio play in February 1947, and then put on as a stage play in November 1947, one day after Borchert’s death. Seemingly a play of and for its time, it deals with the questions of war, individual and social responsibility, and moral and ethical values, themes which have remained topical to the present day: world-wide, it has become the most-often performed play in German.
He wrote poems, short stories, plays, and essays. Inspired by American short-story writers Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, he established the genre of the short story in Germany after the Second World War, influencing writers such as Heinrich Böll and Siegfried Lenz. The topics of Borchert’s stories are largely drawn from his own first- or second-hand experiences, and the range is fairly limited: stories of life in prison, stories of experiences of soldiers in war-time, sometimes specifically during the Second World War, stories set among the post-war ruins, stories of childhood, and manifestos which have a rhetorical but no narrative structure. What is common to all of them is that they are essentially dramatic: Borchert trained as an actor and to the end of his life regarded himself as an actor first and foremost and as a writer only second.
After leaving school without an Abitur, Borchert took acting lessons and gained his acting diploma in March 1941. He spent April – June 1941 with a repertory company in North Germany, but was called up in June 1941 and was sent to the Eastern front, as part of Hitler’s »Operation Barbarossa« to invade the Soviet Union. Between 1941 and 1944, he was court-martialled three times, inter alia on charges of defamation of the Nazi state, but, despite the prosecutors calling for the death penalty, was found either not guilty or given relatively mild prison sentences. After the war, he began rebuilding his budding career as an actor, but due to his increasing ill health, caused by a sensitive liver condition that had been exacerbated by the severe Russian winters and German prison conditions, he became practically bed-ridden from November 1945 until his death two years later. It was during these two years that he wrote Draußen vor der Tür and some fifty short stories on which his fame rests. In September 1947 he was transported to Switzerland in the hope of obtaining better medical treatment than that available in post-war Germany, but he died in Basle on 20 November. One of his last and most-quoted texts, written just before his death, was Das ist unser Manifest (This is our Manifesto), an impassioned anti-war tract which has been taken up by pacifist groups the world over.
Individual collections of Borchert’s short stories and Draußen vor der Tür were amalgamated in his so-called Gesamtwerk (»Complete Works«) first published in 1949 (in English as The Man Outside) and then reprinted until 2008, when a new edition of the Gesamtwerk came out incorporating several stories and other texts that had subsequently come to light. Selected letters, poems and other texts had been published in 1996, followed a year later by a modest edition of further letters leading up to and written during Borchert’s time in Switzerland.
In 1988, a group of writers, artists, academics, friends of Borchert, and enthusiasts of his work founded the Internationale Wolfgang-Borchert-Gesellschaft e.V. (IWBG / »International Wolfgang Borchert Society«). Its stated aim is to work closely with the Wolfgang Borchert Archive in the State and University Library of Hamburg to facilitate and promote discussion on Borchert’s work and cultural inheritance at an international level. The Society has some 250 members worldwide, with whom it keeps in touch via international conferences, readings and performances of Borchert’s works organised in collaboration with actors, theatres and artists, and a travelling exhibition. The Society also publishes a Yearbook (Jahresheft), which every member receives free of charge. In 2007, the Society privately published three hitherto unpublished plays (»Jugenddramen«) which Borchert had written as a teenager (one as co-author) in 1938-40.
Membership of the Society is open to anyone with an interest in Borchert’s life and works and who wishes to support the aims of the Society. The annual fee is 25 Euro (reduced for students and other concessions to 10 Euro): please complete the form available at »Mitgliedschaft«. For general enquiries, please fill in the email web page at »Kontakt«.