German Writing | The Canadian Encyclopedia


German Writing

German Canadians, Canada's third-largest ethnic group, hail from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds: German, Austrian, Swiss, Mennonite and others.

German Writing

German Canadians, Canada's third-largest ethnic group, hail from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds: German, Austrian, Swiss, Mennonite and others. Common to them are their language (High or Low German, or a variety of dialects), the experience of leaving the Old World and finding roots in the New World, and that of learning the new language(s) and adapting to new customs. Reflecting their experience, first-generation writers generally perceive and portray the new country from their perspective of the old, and in their native tongue; the next generation, having acquired the new cultural traditions and at least one of the official languages, contributes to one of Canada's mainstream literatures, usually English Canadian.

Chronology and locations of developing literary activity are related to settlement. In 1750 the first Germans arrived in Nova Scotia and established Lunenburg. At the time of the American Revolution the Loyalists - among them some of German origin - moved north. During the 1830s many Mennonites from Pennsylvania settled in the Berlin [Kitchener, Ont] area. Large waves of German immigration came from Europe to Ontario from 1830-80, and to western Canada from 1880-1910. The most significant influxes followed the 2 world wars, and during the same periods many Mennonites came, mainly to Manitoba.

The pioneers had little time for literature, but newspapers and periodicals provided an early forum for creative writing. One of the earliest publications, Der Neu-Schottländische Calender (1788-1801), featured anonymous poems and short prose. Among the numerous German-language newspapers, the Berliner Journal (Waterloo) is of special interest for its humorous and entertaining dialect letters to the editor by John A. Rittinger. Spiritual leaders published religiously oriented didactic literature in early church bulletins, such as the Kirchenblatt der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Synode von Canada (1869-1909) and Der Deutsche Lutheraner (1920-22); samples from 14 contributors are contained in the collection Hier laßt uns Hütten bauen. Deutsche Gedichte Lutherischer Pfarrer in Ontario (1869-1930) (Gerhard Friesen, ed, 1984). These poems, along with book-length publications by Father Eugen Funcken (1831-88) and Heinrich Rembe (1858-1927), for example, reflect strong influences of German classicism and romanticism, as does early Canadian Mennonite devotional didactic literature, which was written in Low German for a Mennonite audience.

A significant departure in Mennonite literature is the recording of the experience of being uprooted from Russia, migrating to Canada and starting anew. Dietrich Neufeld's diary, Ein Tagebuch aus dem Reiche des Totentanzes (1921), and Hans Harder's In Wologdas weissen Wäldern (1934; tr A Russian Dance of Death, 1977, and No Strangers in Exile, 1979, respectively), and the novels of Gerhard Toews (pseud Georg de Brecht) deal with these chaotic times and events. Other important works are Arnold B. Dyck's educational, autobiographical novel Verloren in der Steppe (1944; tr Lost in the Steppes, 1974) and the vivid poetry of Gerhard Friesen (pseud Fritz Senn).

Beginning in 1935, the periodical Die Mennonitische Warte encouraged literary activity. The anthologies Harvest (ed William de Fehr et al, 1974) and Unter dem Nordlicht (ed G.K. Epp, 1977) feature poetry and short prose in High and Low German and in English by more than 40 Mennonite contributors. Most significant in contemporary Mennonite literature is a new generation of writers born in Canada and writing in English, including Rudy Wiebe, Clint Toews, David Waltner-Toews, Menno Wiebe and Patrick Friesen.

Writers who had made their debut in German-speaking Europe continued to publish there. Else Seel (1894-1974) came from Berlin in 1927 to the BC wilderness, where she wrote poetry, short prose and a diary reminiscent of the work of Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. Walter Bauer (1904-76), well known as an author in Germany, came to Canada in 1952. His books on Canadian themes reflect his European view of Canada. A small part of his work is available in English translation: The Price of Morning (1968) and A Different Sun (1976; both tr Henry Beissel) and A Slight Trace of Ash (1976, tr H. Milnes). Swiss-born Hermann Böschenstein (1900-82), author of expressionist prose, wrote, besides scholarly publications on German literature, short stories and a novel dealing perceptively with the immigrant experience. Some writers who were at home in both German and English made their mark in English Canadian literature: Felix Paul Greve, under his adopted name Frederick Philip Grove, became one of Canada's most important realists; his work is deeply rooted in the literary traditions of German naturalism and neoromanticism.

Three writers came to Canada during WWII via internment in England: Carl Weiselberger (1900-70), already known in Vienna, served as the art and music critic of the Ottawa Citizen after his internment, and wrote short stories and newspaper articles reflecting a refreshing enthusiasm for his new homeland. Henry Kreisel, born in Vienna, Austria, has written short stories and 2 novels, The Rich Man (1948) and The Betrayal (1964), with themes concerning Europe and Canada. Charles Wassermann (1924-78), reporter, broadcaster and writer, became an important intermediary between the Old World and the New.

The writers who came to Canada at an early age were most successful in adopting English as their creative medium: Henry Beissel, born in 1929 in Cologne, Germany, came to Canada in 1951 via England. His work dealing with Indigenous themes, his epic Cantos North (1982) and his subjective Kanada, Romantik und Wirklichkeit (1981) are sensitive statements about the Canadian experience. Derk Wynand, born in 1944 in Bad Suderode, Germany, came to Canada in 1952 and became known as the translator of H.C. Artmann and as an author of modernist poetry and short prose in English.

Andreas Schroeder, born in Hoheneggelsen, Germany, in 1946, was educated in Canada and is known as an editor and translator from German and an author of prose and poetry in English. Ulrich Schaffer, born in 1942 in Germany, came to Canada in 1953. Though he writes in both English and German, his audience is primarily in German-speaking western Europe. His writing, often inspired by the Canadian landscape, is sometimes reminiscent of Kafka. Those writers who continue to write in German well after their arrival in Canada invariably have to contend with the problems of both publication in a minority language and reaching an audience. Rolf Windthorst, born in 1909 in Dortmund, Germany, and living in Alberta since 1956, and Valentin Sawatsky, born in Ukraine in 1914 and living in Ontario since 1950 - to name but 2 of the more prolific writers - have not been able to find the readership their works may deserve.

The anthologies edited by Friesen as well as Ahornblätter (comp Heinz Kloss and Arnold B. Dyck, 1961) and Nachrichten aus Ontario (ed Hartmut Fröschle, 1981) feature samples of work by over 60 authors. The latter also contains a comprehensive introduction to German Canadian literature, a useful "Who's Who" and a selected bibliography. Critical attention to the writing of German Canadians is recent. The most important forums are the German-Canadian Yearbook (ed Hartmut Fröschle, 1973- ), the proceedings of symposia on German Canadian studies and 2 series of critical editions and studies of German Canadiana.

Further Reading