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This article is taken from PN Review 26, Volume 8 Number 6, July - August 1982.

Gottfried Benn's Letters Walter Michel

This is as important a corpus of letters as any by a modern author: D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Chekhov, even Pasternak (writing also within a regime of terror) are here complemented by one whose separation from society was greater than theirs. Benn is indispensable precisely because of what some critics object to: that his views about the age lack the moderation of such writers. In this he resembles Flaubert and Nietzsche, whose nihilism he shared.

The Letters cover the period from just before the coming to power of Hitler, through the whole of his regime, including the war, and ten years into the postwar. Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) had always been a voluntary exile from the technological culture, but until 193 3 he could think that, in his position of isolation, he still was of some account in the national life: medical officer in the First World War, practising physician, Expressionist poet, and in 1931 elected to the Prussian Academy of the Arts' Literature Section, whose members included most of the distinguished figures in German writing of the time.

The correspondence starts out at a time when this assumption began to collapse. Benn's support of the Nazi regime, brief as it turned out to be, stunned his admirers and supplied ammunition to those who were already hostile to him. The Nazis in turn rejected one who supported them in the name of art. They withdrew his license to issue medical certificates and struck him from the ...

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