The sonnet in World War II

Why did - especially German - poets often choose this extraordinary lyric form?

Seminar Paper, 2006

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0





III.I Reinhold Schneider
III.II Rudolf Hagelstange
III.III Johannes R. Becher
III.IV Erich Fried
III.V Albrecht Haushofer
III.VI Jesse Thoor
III.VII Bertolt Brecht




In times of emigration, the strict lyrical form of the sonnet had a special position and meaning, above all for the emotionally agitated poets themselves, who identified a lot with their emotive texts. Especially among German authors of the inner emigration, the sonnet was considered the „Modeform des Widerstandes“[1], as it was the dominating genre[2] – and this is for several reasons,[3] which are going to be examined in the course of this essay.

First of all, one highly interesting fact has to be mentioned: The sonnet could and can only be found conspicuously seldom in national socialist lyric anthologies because, having its roots in a roman tradition, the form was considered to be “artfremd” and “undeutsch”[4] – and, hence, it was not appropriate to the taste of the German national socialist ‘Reichschrifttumskammer’. The common opinion of the time was that the sonnet was too ‘bright’ for the German nature, so that – on top of everything – this strict lyrical form was regarded as “Typikum der antifaschistischen Kräfte”.[5]

This essay attempts at exemplarily outlining how and why the form of the sonnet was applied by poets in the time of the Second World War, especially by a number of German authors. What are the extraordinary features this lyrical form offered (and still offer) various artists in a time so full of emotions, of fear, despair, but also hope and anger? And how did poets make use of these features; how did they develop them?

These questions are to be illuminated by looking at a number of concrete examples of wartime poets, which will certainly display a colourful demonstration not only of different working methods and applications of the sonnet form, but also of divergent feelings and ways to handle a gruesome fate.


In advance, it makes sense to briefly introduce some of the specifics of the artful form so rich in tradition. The traditional classification of the sonnet is, in the first place, determined by a striking conservatism, which considers the – apparently insolvably – fixed poetic form one of the most immovable lyric schemes. However, one may likewise not ignore that, paradoxically, the sonnet is also a form varying tremendously, yes, an actually unsteady pattern, for instance existing in long or shorter verses, in rhymed and unrhymed stanzas; Erika Greber even regards the sonnet as kind of a game poets play and experiment with – in enjambments, in variations of metric and (re-)combinations.[6] After all, the sonnet’s power is mainly based on its enormous ingeniosity, its potential to inspire to create and invent, to express thoughts and feelings, to mirror the most emotional moment or memory. Greber adds that the centuries-old fascination of the form lies in its longevity, its internationality, its adaptability and ever renewable modernity.[7] All of these genial qualities draws a parallel between the sonnet and the “Kunst der scharfsinnigen Gedanken- und Bildkombination”,[8] the conceit.

What is more, in his study on Modernism in the Second World War, Keith Alldritt states and important function of lyric for people in wartime, yes, for soldiers in particular, since “lyrics [give] the poet’s [sic!] responses to a large variety of military and combat experiences”.[9] For this reason, the – seemingly paradox – connection of war fighter and thoughtful sonnets or long poems, which analyse men’s horrible deadlock situation in detail, becomes understandable.


When in the following the individual poets and their works are introduced, it is not the point and objective here to illuminate each of their works in detail – this is also utopian due to a lack of space –, but to demonstrate in some exemplary ‘cross-section’ presentation of the multiplicity and the broad range of divergent applications of the sonnet. As already indicated, most of the lyricists presented in the course of this essay are German, however, also one striking Austrian author is included, and in the very end, even a British writer, who expresses his feelings to war in sonnets, is added, in order to show the enormous broadness of the implementation of the exceptional lyrical form.

III.I Reinhold Schneider

One important German literary protagonist of the inner emigration was Reinhold Schneider (1903-1958). His anti-war poems were – as many works of poets of the inner emigration – forbidden by the government; his texts against megalomania and warfare only circulated backhandedly. The Christian oriented poet intended to claim a high communicative aspiration of his verses, which were especially strict and stringent concerning their poetic form. Moreover, Schneider mostly attempted to create a lyric tension by opposing contrasting expressions and, consequently, made use of religious motives and imagery. One typical example for Schneider’s poetry is his moral text “Allein den Betern”[10] as the first and the last stanza of the traditional sonnet may illustrate:

Allein den Betern kann es noch gelingen,

Das Schwert ob unsern Häuptern aufzuhalten

Und diese Welt den richtenden Gewalten

Durch ein geheiligt Leben abzubringen.


Bis Gott aus unsern Opfern Segen wirkt

Und in den Tiefen, die kein Aug’ entschleiert,

Die trocknen Brunnen sich mit Leben füllen.

Not only the author’s deep belief in Christian virtues become obvious here, also the aforementioned application of contrasting elements – especially the opposition of morality and sin – (in order to enforce the imagery) are featured.

III.II Rudolf Hagelstange

Rudolf Hagelstange (1912-1984) is another exceedingly interesting poet of the inner emigration. He published his first big book of poetry with 35 sonnets, Venezianisches Credo, after coming back from war captivity. In his texts, the author sees himself in the role of a male Kassandra:[11] He keeps on warning his country, but nobody listens to his desperate words. In comparison to Schneider, Hagelstange’s sonnets are not that strict, not that classical any more. Above all, he makes use of run-on-lines (enjambments), which loosen the closed form of the sonnet[12] to a certain extend. Concerning style, Hagelstange and Schneider both employ antitheses to confront constant and fading elements. Although it meant an enormous risk and danger for him, freedom can be seen as Hagelstange’s leitmotif.[13]

Hagelstange raises his voice against the tendency to forget, which is e.g. indicated in the verses “Vergessen schießt wie Unkraut um die Kinder”,[14] or „[...] wie man ein altes Bild sein eigen heißt. / Es hängt vergessen schon und halbverwaist / in toten Räumen [...]“[15] and “Denn einmal wird es still sein. Und auch diese Stille / wird Sprache sein.“ It is exceedingly striking, how often dumbness, wordlessness appear in Hagelstange’s poems („stumm“).[16]


[1] Rudolf Hagelstange: Die Form als erste Entscheidung. In: Hans Bender (Hg.): Mein Gedicht ist mein Messer. Lyriker zu ihren Gedichten. München 1961, S. 37-47, hier: S. 38. (ZITIERT bei Braune-Steininger, 141.)

[2] Vgl. auch Gunter Groll (Hg.): De Profundis. Deutsche Lyrik in dieser Zeit. Eine Anthologie aus zwölf Jahren. München 1946.

[3] The divergent reasons for the popularity of this complex and extravagant traditional lyric form can be explained by the fact that the sonnet could not only follow one but many different intentions.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Braune-Steininger, 141.

[6] Cf. Greber., 60ff.

[7] Cf. ibid., 70.

[8] Ibid., 62.

[9] Alldritt, 1.

[10] Schneider, Die Sonette von Leben und Zeit, dem Glauben und der Geschichte, 86.

[11] For detailed information on the mythological character Kassandra see for example Stephanie Jentgens’ study: Kassandra. Spielarten einer literarischen Figur. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann 1995.

[12] The closedness of the sonnet is e.g. stressed by Erika Greber. Cf. Greber, 65.

[13] Cf. Kemp, 387.

[14] Hagelstange, Venezianisches Credo, 9 (“Ich habe lange, lange wie ein Stein geschwiegen [...]“).

[15] Ibid., 28 (“Ihr glaubtet wohl, sie wären Euch zu eigen […]“).

[16] E.g. in the two sonnets on page 22 and 23 (“Er aber stand und schrieb in Feuer […]” and “Und während drinnen alle sprachlos saßen [...]“), the word “stumm” appears four times.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The sonnet in World War II
Why did - especially German - poets often choose this extraordinary lyric form?
University of Siegen  (FB 3: Literatur-, Sprach- und Medienwissenschaften)
Sonette / Sonnets
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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World, Sonette, Sonnets
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Sabine Buchholz (Author), 2006, The sonnet in World War II, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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