The son of a Lutheran minister and a mother of French-Swiss extraction, Gottfried Benn was raised in the small German village of Mansfeld, in an area which is now part of Poland. There he was educated privately and in the Gymnasium at Frankfurt an der Oder, living in the same boarding-house as did the poet Klabund. In 1903, following his father's desires, he entered the University of Marbach, studying theology and philosophy. But he soon switched to medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm Akademie, a part of the University of Berlin, and, upon graduating, focused on venereolgy (the study of venereal disease) and dermatology as a medical doctor until the end of World War I.
In 1912, upon his graduation from medical school Benn was called to active military duty, but fell ill from the strenuous training. During this period, in utter mental and physical exhaustion, he wrote the work Morgue und andere Gedichte (Morge and Other Poems), which focuses on the kind of haunted visions and depersonalization of contemporary man that characterized much of Expressionist writing. The reaction to his poems, filed with drug-addicts, prostitutes, alcoholics, and other low-life figures, was one of outrage from bourgeois readers. During this period he met and entered into an intimate relationship with the poet Else Lasker-Schüler, and dedicated his second book, Söhne (published in 1913), to her.
Upon discharge from the military, Benn became employed as an assistant at the Pathological Institute of Westend Hospital, where he performed hundreds of autopsies. The result of this employment and the mental anguish from which he suffered and expressed in his poetry, he left that position, becoming a ship's physician in the spring of 1913. However, Benn suffered from sea-sickness, and, in New York, left the ship, attending a performance of Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera, and ultimately returning to Berlin. The ship to which he was to have been assigned sank with no survivors.
His third collection of poetry, Fleisch (Flesh), was published in 1917. This book carried further his prevailing sentiments of melancholy and cynicism. Over the next several years, his poetry continued to appear in expressionist journals, where he came to be recognized as a major avant-garde writer. But his work continued to move toward Nietzschean ideas that saw art as an escape from nihilism and sought, as solace to the suffering of mankind, beliefs underlying ancient mythologies and their primal urges. In 1916 Benn published a collection of short tales, Gehirne (Brains) which explored the psyche and its pulls between the Dionysian and Apollonian elements, ideas which he would further develop in his 1920 essay Das moderne Ich (The Modern Self).
These ideas, popular in their day, at first seemed simply to be a part of his unorthodox poetics; but with the rise of National Socialism, which shared many of these underlying beliefs, it became apparent that Benn was on a dangerous intellectual path. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he greeted Hitler's rise to power enthusiastically, expressing his shared values of the Nazi eugenics program and other concepts of the "German folk" on radio and in essays. Several of his Expressionist friends, now in exile in Russia and elsewhere, reproached him, further isolating his from the literary avant-garde. With Hitler's appointment to the head of German government in 1933, Heinrich Mann, the president of the literary academy, called for the Socialist-Communist coalition to overthrow Hitler. Benn supported Hitler, and Mann and his brother Thomas were expelled and, ultimately, forced to leave the country. Klaus Mann and others now questioned Benn's cooperation with Hitler's regime. Benn fought back through radio speeches. But he soon was himself denounced as a Jew, and was forbidden a health certificate to practice medicine. When his new collection, Ausegwählte Gedichte was published in 1936, in celebration of his fiftieth birthday, the book was denounced by the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps and was reprinted in Nazi journals. In 1938 he was officially ousted from his membership in the Reichsschrifttumskammer and threatened with penalties if he continued writing.
After the War, Benn was further attacked by figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Alfred Döblin for his involvement with the Nazi regime. But he still had many friends, and with their support and the publication of his collection Statische Gedichte (Static Poems, 1948) and his lengthy autobiographical essay Doppelleben (Double Life) in 1950, he began to rehabilitate his career. In 1961 he won the Georg Büchner Prize of Poetry, upon which he delivered his famous essay, Probleme der Lyrik (Problems for Poetry). His final volumes, Destillationen (Distillations, 1953) and Apréslude (Afterlude, 1955) continued the expression of despair and disillusionment of his major poetry. Today Benn is recognized as one of the greatest of German poets, perhaps the best since Rilke.
BOOKS OF POETRY:
Morgue und andere Gedichte (Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Meyer, 1912); Söhne: Neue Gedichte (Berlin-Wilmersdorf, 1913); Fleisch: Gesammelte Lyrik (Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Aktion, 1917); Betäubung: Fünf neue Gedichte (Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Meyer, 1925); Spaltung: Neue Gedichte (Berlin: Meyer, 1925); Das Unaufhörliche: Oratorim [text by Benn, music by Paul Hindemith (Mainz: Schott, 1931); Zweiundzwanzig Gedichte: 1936-1943 (Berlin: privately printed, 1953); Statische Gedichte (Zurich: Arche, 1948); Fragmente: Neue Gedichte (Weisbaden: Limes, 1951); Destillationen: Neue Gedichte (Weisbaden: Limes, 1953); Apréslude (Weisbaden: Limes, 1955); Gesammelte Gedichte 1912-1956 (Wiesbaden: Limes, 1956); Gesammelte Werke in vier Bänden. Band 3: Gedichte (Wiesbaden: Limes, 1959-1961).
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS:
Selected Poems (London: Oxford Press, 1970); Primal Vision: Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, edited by E. B. Ashton (New York: New Directions, 1971); Gottfried Benn: Prose, Essays, Poems, edited by Volkmar Sander (New York: Continuum, 1987).