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Hanns Johst

Hanns Johst receiving a literary prize from Alfred Rosenberg in 1935
Hanns Johst (right) receiving a literary prize from Alfred Rosenberg in 1935.

Hanns Johst (July 8, 1890 - November 23, 1978) was a German playwright and Nazi Poet Laureate.

Johst studied medicine and philosophy and - later - history of art. He volunteered for the army in 1914. In 1918 he settled down at the Starnberger See.

His early work is influenced by Expressionism. Examples include Der Anfang [The Beginning] (1917) and Der König [The King] (1920)). Later, he turned to a naturalist philosophy in plays such as Wechsler und Händler [Money changers and Traders] (1923) and Thomas Paine (1927)).

Bertolt Brecht's first play Baal was written in response to Johst's play Der Einsame [The Lonely], a dramatization of the life of anti-Semitic playwright Christian Dietrich Grabbe. In 1928 Johst joined Alfred Rosenberg's "Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur" (Militant League for German Culture) designed to combat "Jewish" influence in German culture. In 1932 he joined the Nazi party, explaining his agreement with Hitler's ideology in the essay "Standpunkt und Fortschritt" [Standpoint and Progress] in 1933.

When the Nazis achieved power in 1933, Johst wrote the play Schlageter, an expression of Nazi ideology performed on Hitler's birthday to celebrate his victory. It was a heroic biography of the proto-Nazi martyr Albert Leo Schlageter. The line "when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun", often associated with Nazi leaders, derives from this play. The original line is slightly different: "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning," "Whenever I hear of culture... I release the safety-catch of my Browning!" (Act 1, Scene 1). It is spoken by another character in conversation with the young Schlageter. In the scene Schlageter and his wartime comrade Friedrich Thiemann are studying for a college examination, but then start disputing whether it's worthwhile doing so when the nation is not free. Thiemann argues he would prefer to fight than to study.

The famous line is regularly misattributed, sometimes to Hermann Göring and sometimes to Heinrich Himmler. It has also been adapted, for example by Stephen Hawking as "When I hear of Schrödinger's cat, I reach for my pistol."

In 1935 Johst became the President of the Reichsschrifttumskammer (writer's union) and of the Deutsche Akademie für Dichtung (poetry academy), powerful organisations for German writers. In the same year the last prominent Jewish writers, e.g. Martin Buber, were expelled from the Reichsschrifttumskammer. By this time these organisations restricted membership to writers whose work was either explicitly pro-Nazi or at least approved of by the Nazis as non-"degenerate". Johst achieved many other positions of importance within the Nazi state. During the war he held various positions within the SS.

After the war Johst was interned by the Allies. In 1949 he was tried for his activities, and was imprisoned for three and a half years. On his release he was unable to reestablish his career as a writer.

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