Dö blin, Alfred (1878–1957)

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DÖ BLIN, ALFRED (1878–1957)


German physician and writer.

Alfred Döblin ranks with Thomas Mann (1875–1955) and Franz Kafka (1883–1924) among the three most significant German prose writers of the twentieth century. Although during his life—except for a brief period at the end of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933)—Döblin's reputation fell short of his two competitors, it has risen constantly since his death. The Nobel Prize–winning author Günter Grass (b. 1927) has referred to him as "my teacher."

Born on 10 August 1878 in Stettin, Pomerania (present-day Polish Szczecin), Döblin was the fourth of five children of Jewish parents. When the boy was ten, his father deserted the family, an experience that traumatized Döblin for the rest of his life and left its mark on his works. Following his university studies in Berlin and Freiburg, he practiced medicine in Regensburg and Berlin.

With his short stories and one-act plays Döblin had a great impact on the German literary scene during the first decade of the twentieth century. His works appeared in expressionist journals such as Herwarth Walden's Der Sturm. In 1912 he published Die Ermordung einer Butterblume (The murder of a buttercup), a collection of novellas; the title story is one of the most famous expressionist prose texts. On a walk through the forest the protagonist beheads a buttercup with his walking stick. Driven by guilt, he plants a buttercup in his home and opens a bank account for it. Following the flower's demise the man returns to the forest and kills flowers at his delight. With such depiction of schizophrenic bourgeois behavior Döblin found the central theme for his entire oeuvre: critique of modern man's neurotic actions and alienation from nature.

Döblin's first novel to appear in print was Die drei Sprünge des Wang-Lun (1915; The three leaps of Wang-Lun), which was followed by three more novels by 1920. In these works Döblin developed what in his theoretical writings he called his "lapidary style" (steinerner Stil), a mode of writing in which the auctorial "I" disappears behind the epic material. He carried this style, which he also called "epic," to extremes in the novel Berge, Meere, und Giganten (Mountains, oceans, and giants), published in 1924 and depicting a futuristic world of political dictatorship and inhuman technology.

It seems that Döblin felt the limitations of his "epic" style when he wrote a novel that was to become his most famous work and also one of the greatest novelistic achievements of German literature during the Weimar Republic. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), with its reference to the main square of the German capital, has a realistic touch, but it also opened the then outgoing style of expressionism to the incoming "New Matter-of-Factness" (Neue Sachlichkeit). The plot centers on a Berlin worker named Biberkopf ("Beaver Head"), who entangles himself in criminal actions and thereby reflects the negative consequences of modern capitalism. The social ills of the Weimar Republic are set in parallel to visionary scenes of guilt and suffering with biblical references. While Biberkopf stubbornly adheres to his habits, the narrator suggests the possibility of another ending, in which an improved protagonist emerges as the "new man" of expressionism. It is this latter aspect that the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946–1982) stressed in his 1970 fifteen-hour adaptation of the novel. Alexanderplatz is also one of the first large-city novels in German literature, whose epic tapestry has been compared to John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925) and James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).

Döblin became one of the most outspoken social and cultural critics of the Weimar Republic. In 1924 he was chosen chair of the Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller (German writers organization). He strongly opposed oppressive government actions, among them the censorship law (Schmutzund Schundgesetz) of 1926; and he used both radio and press to warn against the rise of the political right. Following his election into the most prestigious German cultural institution, the Preußische Akademie der Künste, in 1928, Döblin became one of its most outspoken members. When the novelist Heinrich Mann and the artist Käthe Kollwitz were ousted from the Akademie under political pressure, Döblin led the opponents' protest.

After the rise to power of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), Döblin fled Germany. Following a few months in Switzerland, he and his family moved to France and became French citizens. In 1940, with the help of an Emergency Rescue Committee visa, they reached the United States, thereafter living consecutively in Los Angeles and Hollywood. In 1941 Döblin converted to Catholicism. As soon as the war was over, he joined the French occupation forces in Baden-Baden and participated in Germany's "reeducation" by selecting manuscripts for publication.

From 1946 to 1951 Döblin published Das Goldene Tor (The golden gate), one of the most prestigious postwar German periodicals; and in 1949 he became a cofounder of the Mainzer Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur. His novels written during and after his exile have gradually, but increasingly, found positive reception. Having repeatedly changed his residence between Germany and France during his final years, he died in Emmendingen near Freiburg im Breisgau on 26 June 1957.

See alsoHesse, Hermann; Kafka, Franz; Mann, Thomas.


Primary Sources

Döblin, Alfred. Berge, Meere, und Giganten. Berlin, 1924.

——. Alexanderplatz, Berlin: The Story of Franz Biberkopf. Translated by Eugene Jolas. New York, 1931. Translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929).

——. "The Murder of a Buttercup." Translated by Patrick O'Neill. In Early Twentieth Century German Fiction, edited and introduced by Alexander Stephan. New York, 2003.

Secondary Sources

Dollinger, David B. The Berlin Novels of Alfred Döblin: Wadzek's Battle with the Steam Turbine, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Men without Mercy, and November 1918. Berkeley, Calif., 1988. Succinct analyses of the mentioned works with focus on the tension between the individual and society.

Dollinger, Roland, Wulf Köpke, and Heidi Thomann Tewarson, eds. A Companion to the Works of Alfred Döblin. Rochester, N.Y., 2004. In-depth analyses of Döblin's major works by critics and literary historians.

Köpke, Wulf. The Critical Reception of Alfred Döblin's Major Novels. Rochester, N.Y., 2003. A comprehensive review of the reception of several of Döblin's novels.

Kort, Wolfgang. Alfred Döblin. New York, 1974. The only English biography in book form to date, with general discussion of Döblin's oeuvre.

Helmut F. Pfanner

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