Davidsohn, Hans 1887-1942
DAVIDSOHN, Hans 1887-1942
(Jakob van Hoddis)
PERSONAL: Born 1887; died in a Nazi concentration camp, 1942; son of Doris Davidsohn. Nationality: German.
CAREER: Poet. Contributor to magazine Aktion.
MEMBER: Neue Club (Berlin, Germany).
(Under pseudonym Jakob van Hoddis) Weltende (title means "End of the World"), Verlag der Wochenschrift die Aktion (Berlin, Germany), 1918, translation by G. P. Skratz published as The End of the World, G. P. Skratz (Norwich, CT), 1974.
(Under pseudonym Jakob van Hoddis) Weltende: gesammelte Dichtungen, edited by Paul Portner, Arche (Zurich, Switzerland), 1958.
SIDELIGHTS: German poet Hans Davidsohn, who wrote under the pseudonym Jakob van Hoddis, was an important participant in the expressionist cabarets and clubs in Berlin during the early 1900s. In fact, many academics and literary critics consider his most prominent and influential work, a poem titled "Weltende," as the first published example of German expressionism. The poem offers an apocalyptic view of the modern world, and includes scenes of destruction, particularly to the bourgeois elements of German society that Davidsohn appeared to despise. The Oxford Companion to Germanic Literature described Davidsohn as "capable of brilliant satire exposing the ugly face of city life to the point of the grotesque and absurd." Some of Davidsohn's other noted poems include "Tristitia ante" and "Aurora."
Born in 1887, Davidsohn wrote the majority of his poems between 1908 and 1914. Davidsohn suffered from schizophrenia, which first began to affect him in 1912, and which cut short his period of creativity. By late 1914, the affliction had greatly inhibited his ability to function normally, and he was considered mad. Davidsohn spent the remainder of his life moving from one home, hospital, or sanitarium to another. In April of 1942, with Germany caught up in World War II, the Nazis deported him from a hospital in Bendorf-Sayn to an unknown concentration camp where he was subsequently killed.
Written in 1910, "Weltende" was inspired by Halley's Comet, which made an appearance that year. Earlier in 1910 Davidsohn, along with Kurt Hiller, Erwin Loewenson, and some other writers, founded the Neue Club in Berlin and opened a cabaret where they read their poetry. It was there that Davidsohn first read versions of "Weltende" and some of his other early poems, many of which were being published in German periodicals such as Der Sturm and especially Die Aktion. Davidsohn used the poem as a warning against the destruction of war, which was symbolized by the coming of a comet-like force sweeping over the earth: "The hat flies away from the pointed head of the philistine./ Everywhere in the atmosphere there is a resounding as of screams./ Slaters fall from the roofs and break in two/ And on the coasts—one reads—the waters are rising./ The storm is here, the unleashed seas are hopping/ On land in order to squash big dams./ Most people are having a cold in their head./ Railway trains are falling off the bridges." Despite warnings of the coming disaster, the bourgeois characters in the book ignore everything and continue on with life. In the periodical Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch im Auftrage der Gorres Gesellschaft, critic Richard Sheppard commented that, with the poem, Davidsohn created a scenario "where images of destructive irrationality are used to diagnose the situation of technological civilization and yet resisted through irony."
"Weltende" was very influential during the early part of the twentieth century, and continued to be discussed in college classrooms over four decades after its first appearance. "To print all essays devoted to Davidsohn's poem would fill volumes," literary critic Armin Arnold wrote in Review of National Literatures. In Modern Language, critic Michael Butler called the poem "the modernist breakthrough of Expressionism" and a "programmatic vision of the end of the world." Butler continued, "Davidsohn's vision is a sardonic and grotesque one which mocks any pretension to see causality as the mortar cementing the social fabric together."
In 1918 "Weltende" appeared in a collection of poems by the same name. It was the only collection of Davidsohn's poetry to be published during his lifetime. In more recent years, other collections of his work have appeared, including Weltende: gesammelte Dichtungen, edited by Paul Portner, and the English-language The End of the World, translated by G. P. Skratz. In addition to his published verse, Davidsohn left behind at least seventeen poems written later in his career that were never included in any collection. Among these are "Der Idealist," "Lebendes Bild," "En Ego," and "Herbst an den Zelten." Sheppard contended that these later poems are marked by "ragged disorder" and "characterized by a more pronounced note of irony." With the exception of one or two of these poems, Sheppard felt Davidsohn's work had become "ever more incoherent and nonsensical."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
The Oxford Companion to Germanic Literature, 3rd edition, Oxford University (Oxford, England), 1997.
Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch im Auftrage der Gorres Gesellschaft, 1977, pp. 219-270.
Modern Languages, June, 1977, pp. 69-72.
Review of National Literatures, 1978, pp. 47-58.*