Bornholm in the Work of Hans Henny Jahnn

  • Author
    Reinhard Reichstein

The writer and organ-builder Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959) lived as a farm-owner on the island of Bornholm from 1934 until after the Second World War. Only in 1950 was he finally able to return to his home city of Hamburg. In a report to the Danish authorities in March 1946 he wrote:

In these turbulent and fearful years I have been able to write my work River Without Banks [...] If I have not found a special form of thanks for the fact that, being in Denmark, I can number myself among the survivors of the catastrophe which I prophesied so emphatically, then the extensive landscape descriptions in my work will bear witness to how much I have loved my small adopted home of Bornholm.[1]

Jahnn’s main work , the novel River without Banks [Fluss ohne Ufer], is one of the most radical books of the 20th century. In the context of a conference on the literature and art of the Baltic Sea region, the question suggests itself as to whether this significant work was decisively influenced by the place or even the region in which it was written. Could River Without Banks have been written somewhere else? It is an idle question - only the natural sciences allow for reproducible experiments. Nevertheless, it is astonishing how, in a highly diverse range of works, Jahnn deals with the same fundamental situations, and the same elements of desire and fear. The manner in which he develops the themes which preoccupied him existentially in this incomparably more extensive novel shows that his work was influenced not only by time but also by place.

Following a search of his house in Hamburg in the middle of March 1933, Jahnn fled to Copenhagen in April and then, on the invitation of Karin Michaelis, to Thurö, where he stayed until Brecht arrived at the end of May. Since he now felt he was in little danger and wished to stay in Germany for personal and economic reasons, he returned to Hamburg at the beginning of June. However, his wife Ellinor had Jewish relatives and pressed him to leave the country with her. At the beginning of July, Jahnn visited Bornholm for the first time in order to take photos for an essay he was planning to write on Germanic rotundas in Denmark, but he would certainly have already also been considering the island as a possible refuge. When the attempt to gain a foothold in Switzerland with his friend and patron Walter Muschg failed, he had the idea of becoming a landowner on the remote island of Bornholm. He also hoped that by being in Denmark he would have access to organ commissions in Scandinavia. At the end of 1934 he returned to Bornholm and found a farm near Rutsker in the north-west of the island, which he bought with money from Sibylle Harms, the sister of his wife Ellinor and the widow of his friend Gottlieb Friedrich (“Friedel”) Harms, who had died in 1931. In May 1934, the whole family moved to Bornholm.[2]

The essay on Germanic rotundas was not written. However, the preparatory work for the piece was used for the journal article The Island of Bornholm [Die Insel Bornholm] which was published in 1941.[3] Jahnn describes Bornholm as still having a recognisably pagan character, as witnessed by its oldest religious buildings and legends. This character had been overlaid, as it were, with Christianity and technical innovation. Jahnn saw himself as on a par with Ernst Barlach as a Nordic or Germanic artist. He was aware that, in his novel Peruddja, published in 1929, and the drama Poverty, Wealth, Human and Animal [Armut, Reichtum, Mensch und Tier], which he completed in 1933 – both of which are set in the mountains of Norway – he was dealing with the kind of Nordic themes favoured by the National Socialists. However, he distanced himself from their neo-pagan cultural presumptuousness, lamenting in a private letter of December 1933 a “rubbish heap of incorrect literature.”[4]

A second notable aspect of the article referred to above is the description of the landscape and of the sea as a “second landscape.” Bornholm is seen as a part of Scandinavia that is friendlier to people, separated from the mainland or perhaps risen from the sea. Jahnn and his boyhood friend Harms had experienced the stark Norwegian world of granite and ice on the Sogne Fjord as refugees during the First World War. The effect on Jahnn of the enormous granite rocks there is comparable with the effect of the presence of the sea on Bornholm:

The sea shapes the island. It is the second landscape. It lies deep beneath the hills. All the roads that lead to the coast end in a tremendous view whereby a blue, grey, gleaming or dull, overcast or wind-whipped surface spreads before one as in an enormous valley.

There are storms. They break on the cliffs, converge in the hollow valleys, rush up to the heights and begin their varied song. On the farm where I live, which is about 100 meters above sea level, I lie awake at night many an hour, listening to the screaming and crashing, to the voices of the darkness which cannot be eradicated by any civilisation, to these witnesses of creation. I do not hear the thundering of the waters. But I know that a few kilometres away the breakers are spraying and splitting on the myriad jagged points of the cliffs.” (WT 7, p. 370)


This inspiring feeling of security on the edge of the human world, this wistful happiness of a certain subjection to elemental forces, is already manifested in one of the earliest examples of Jahnn’s writing, a diary entry of 1 September 1912:


A storm is raging outside, and the leaves are being torn from the trees so that they stand there bare, and everything looks so wretched.

I am thinking of Gottlieb. – one can dream so wonderfully when the storm is howling, making the house shiver, and the room is cosy and warm. – I feel that I will inevitably achieve happiness, because outside there is such an unbridled force. (WT 7, p. 455)


The feeling of finding shelter from the brutality triumphing in Germany and his own private problems in a rather barren and flat landscape, which was at the same time given a heroic quality by the effect of the sea, created a bond between Jahnn and his new home on Bornholm from the outset. In a letter of 24 November 1934 he writes:


I took a walk for the first time in days to calm myself. The landscape was shrouded in mist, which gradually turned into rain. I walked as if in a dream. I am familiar with this condition from my Norwegian days. It is actually the only feeling of happiness I know – to submerge oneself in the unreal, in the impossible. I have no relationship with the landscape. It remains something foreign, and yet it is the means by which my ideas are awakened. It is in fact something wholly unnatural, exhausting, to concentrate one’s conscious thoughts on something that can never be reality. A pathological refuge which releases me from creating anything, because it exhausts me in a similar way to writing. But it is an immediate sensation of happiness, which only gradually gives way to depression.”[5]


At the same time he began to write a diary[6] intended for publication, which, like the prose piece Threshing in Late Autumn [Drusch im Spätherbst][7] from 1937 and the fragment of a “landscape novella” written in 1940, The Foreign Breeder [Der fremde Züchter][8], dealt with agricultural themes, including his experiments with sex hormones.

As an expatriate German, Jahnn always endeavoured to avoid being classified as an emigrant from Nazi Germany. He welcomed the struggle of the Nazis against Christianity, and his critique of civilisation and capitalism always displayed a petty bourgeois, anti-Semitic character. However, the turn of the urban author to agricultural life requires explanation. In this respect, Jahnn is a child of the 19th century, during which Protestant, northern Germany - drawing on the groundwork of Klopstock, Herder, Kosegarten and Arndt – discovered its northern origins. The enthusiastic reception of Ibsen and the northern travels of the youth movement strengthened the anti-Romanic tendency among Germans to claim ancestry from the unspoiled rural folk of the north. While still at school, Jahnn dreamed of travelling to Iceland.[9] And when he became aware of his homosexual inclinations and contrived to escape the bourgeois Christian confines of the family home with his friend Friedel Harms in 1913, his goal was Iceland again. The refuge the two ultimately found in the spring of 1915 – when they were also fleeing conscription – was a remote area on the Sogne Fjord in Norway: Aurland. The fact that, in the face of the overwhelming support for war among the masses, Jahnn and Harms remained pacifists, not out of political conviction but because they did not want to shoot at young men, is to their lasting credit.

Following the end of the war, the opposition between the enthusiasm for technological development and reactionary concepts of agrarianism became more pronounced. The popularity of Knut Hamsun is representative of a strong European yearning for a simple, comprehensible life, a yearning which was expressed in the reactionary fascistic movements emerging in most European countries following the economic crises at the end of the 1920s. Prior to 1933, Jahnn had declared his opposition to National Socialism in public talks and in private statements. As a pacifist he despised the brutality of the Nazis and felt himself personally threatened by it. However, he was also disillusioned with urban life due to the failure of his artistic ambitions. His philosophical vacillation in relation to the Nazi regime was in line with a tradition of retreat from civilisation and of investing hope in an intact world of peasant agriculture, which was seen as a the fundamental form of human life – a tradition that in Germany stretched from Caspar David Friedrich and Eichendorff to Barlach and Gerhart Hauptmann. Moreover, Jahnn saw his flight from Germany as also providing him with a new beginning and a basis for existence better protected from crises.[10] What distinguished Jahnn’s outlook here from the ideology of blood and soil, apart from his rejection of racial purity, was his almost sensuous drive for knowledge. As witnessed by the writings referred to above, he sought a physical experience of the way animals live; he breathed in the smells of animals and plants and attempted to nestle himself, as it were, into the landscape. His empathy for animals, particularly his love of horses, was appalled by the brutality of the country folk, whom he saw as incapable of yielding a human ideal.[11]

The agricultural ambitions Jahnn brought with him to Bornholm were not fulfilled. In addition, he had difficulties with the authorities in regard to his passport, and the island‘s inhabitants mistrusted him as a potential German spy .Jahnn’s existential fear increased to the point of panic. In his Bornholm Diary [Bornholmer Tagebuch] he sees the human being as harnessed to a dismal fate:


He awakes each morning anew and wears himself out. He rows against a current and does not desist even though he realises that in spite of his efforts he is driven into the unknown, into a sea devoid of sympathy. It seems to me that the tragic life of the animals is no further away from happiness than ours.[12]


Only now, after the general decline on all fronts and only after the collapse of all hopes connected with his bourgeois existence did Jahnn form his unbending and comprehensive concept of creation as a process of destruction. His River Without Banks is the presentation of this creation as inexorably engulfing life forms, and at the same time formulates the resistance of the poet to this fate in the form of the recollection of momentary fulfilment and the memory of “wanting and feeling”.

The novel is the continuation of the allegorical novella The Wooden Ship [Das Holzschiff]written between 1935 and 1936 and aims to provide the solution to a puzzle left unsolved in the earlier work. In the novella reality is dominated by an oppressive, bureaucratic system and a collective preparedness to use violence. Only traces of Jahnn’s stay on Bornholm are manifested here. Early in 1937, Jahnn began the Account by Gustav Anias Horn after he had turned forty-nine [Niederschrift des Gustav Anias Horn nachdem er neunundvierzig Jahre alt geworden war], the title of the main section of his then current project, River Without Banks. The narrator looks back on the events recounted in The Wooden Ship. He tells of the fateful friendship springing from these events with the sailor Alfred Tutein, the murderer of his fiancée Ellena, and notes prophetically that his own fate is being fulfilled by a combination of internal decay and external threat. In a vague analogy to the form of the Bornholm Diary, the time-span of the narration is divided into thirteen chapters titled with the names of the months, the first being “November” and the last “November, once again”, and incorporates the present of the author on Bornholm.

The Account is above all an epitaph of the narrator’s friendship with the dead Alfred Turtein, hymned by the superb use of the lament over the dead Enkidu from the epic of Gilgamesh. The novel is Jahnn’s defence of his homosexuality on the basis of a comprehensive revision of the Judeo-Christian conception of God and the world. In the final chapter, the composer Horn comments on the personal motivations for his works:


The motivation for my expansive and (perhaps I might say) deeper works is my personal life. My fears, my sorrows, my desolateness, my health, the disturbances within me and the times of equilibrium, the way of my senses and my love, my obsession with it have also formed my musical ideas and feelings. Art grows in the field of Eros; therefore it is only to art that beauty clings.” (WT 3, p. 503)


Jahnn tells of how his protagonists become aware of the enmity for the body realised with the value judgements of good and evil. Concrete sensual feelings and desires, real experience within time, are rendered clear by way of embeddedness in and the emotional and physical effect of the seasonal process of becoming and passing. Here Jahnn has his narrator describe the way of life and geographical and climatic conditions on the island of Bornholm, which within the fiction is the more northern island of Fastaholm in Åland.

The world travellers Horn and Tutein have lived for some years as foreigners in the mountains of Norway, in Urrland (Aurland) an the Sogne Fjord, and later with friends in the western Swedish town of Halmberg (a combination of Halmstad and Varberg). Here, in order avoid temptation by others, they seal their pact of friendship through complete physical devotion, so-called “dissipation,” and through the exchange of blood. They decide to leave:


We wanted only greater solitude, greater security for the special case of our existence. We looked at maps. [...] We selected an island, a granite massif towering out from the sea, torn by thousands of bays, surrounded by many rock islets.” (WT 2, p. 785f).


The description, which here still aims to evoke an image of Åland, changes with the arrival on the island, now referring more to the milder geography of Bornholm: “The granite hills of the sea-washed land lay uncertainly in the damp haze of the low clouds and salty mist.” (781)

On the land that they buy there is a “forgotten sacrificial site from pagan times” (WT 3 p. 10). Their plan for a house with a stable makes use of the architectural ideas which they formed in the mountains of Norway: thick, concealing walls of broken granite blocks. Even the name of the piece of fallow land on which they plant young oaks - “Urrland” (11) - is also a reference to Norway. The comparison with Norway makes the new domicile – Bornholm – initially seem very prosaic, thus corresponding to the narrator’s experiences of loss and the physical weakness brought on in Tutein’s case by the exchange of blood:


In the beginning when Tutein and I arrived on this island, we believed that there would be so much wind here and sober existence, so little crime and dissipation, calculated agriculture and ideas of progress, too many paths and thinned out undergrowth, churchyards tended like hotbeds, hardly any wild creatures, no mysterious mills or unfathomable depths - that the ruling entities of the many places, the invisible ones, would have died. But then they began to trust us and no longer avoided us. (WT 2, p. 610)


Tutein, who is the same age as Horn, dies at 42 of an untreated fever, the result of being out on a rainy night and falling into a pond near the house. On an equally stormy November night, the 49-year-old Horn encounters a diabolical, nihilistic stranger in the Rotna Hotel in the nearby harbour town (this corresponds to a hotel favoured by Jahnn in Allinge on the north-western tip of Bornholm.) The stranger reproaches Horn for his “useless, wasted life” (WT 2, p. 284) and his illusionary belief in identity and the possession of memories in the torrential river of time. Horn flees from the hotel inland. “I was freezing. The storm seeped through the material of my coat like tiny needles and licked at my skin. It was in my back. It drove me up the street. Like black dogs it raced past my feet, ahead of me.” (WT 2, p. 184) He makes a plan to write down his life: “Regret it? - I cannot regret being who I have become. Am I ashamed of it? - I will have to lose the shame. Make myself better? - How do I know what is better? [...] I have to desire memory. It is my measure. I cannot be the person who forgets after twenty-four hours.” (196)

In the September chapter he is granted a happy memory. As he is walking through the young oak plantation, he suddenly sees a vision of Tutein in his inner eye: “For a second his face shimmered in the freshness of that season, with the blush of March [...] It was like the greatest ecstasy to have found him again within myself, albeit for only a brief time.” (WT 3, p. 247) He refers to this precise, undimmed memory as “the only indisputable happiness in life” (247), i.e. it has the intensity of a physical presence in so far and as long as it is supported in time by the place.

Horn looks for a place to bury Tutein’s sealed coffin. However, the location on land he first considers subsequently does not seem safe enough. Jahnn thus has his alter ego express the following reservations, written on Bornholm during the Second World War: “Amidst the human world, amidst the madness a long peace of the grave. Am I foolish? Do I not know the restlessness of those possessed as I am? Can I even assume that the little underworld in the wasteland will remain unbothered?” (327)

Together with his servant Ajax he decides to take a boat out at night and sink the heavy coffin in the sea. The description of the spot he selects - “A few miles from the coast there is a channel, where the sea is eighty or even a hundred meters deep” (328) - suggests the Baltic Sea between Bornholm and southern Sweden, and this now becomes the embodiment of the River Styx. “I looked over the side of the boat. The black gurgling tar of the sea. This glass, made from two gases. This viscous, heavy fog in the valley between the dry lands. This too is an Acheron, and we are the ferry people.” (339)

Several days later, Ajax and Horn travel again to the sand bay of Krogeduren and look out over the sea, “the gravestone extended into the universal” (366). For Horn only such real endlessness can be seen as an image of eternity, as a “river without banks,” not the false Christian infinity of heaven and hell, which humans create by standing between two mirrors, and certainly not the pagan memorial stones which they see on the shore: “Erecting stones for the souls of the dead is probably a nice custom. They also weather. The bodies of their crystals become sand. And thus the eternal soul turns to dust with them.” (368)

Horn increasingly needs the concealing fog, the comforting veiling of the gaze onto the destructive infinity of creation, and he becomes ever greedier to hold fast to the memory of the people and things he has loved:


In the glass veranda of the Kaasvaang hotel we had lunch, an indifferent meal which was brightened by wonderful memories and the incomparable splendour of the sea under the dozing pines. One could not make out the Krogeduren strand in the distance; it lay embedded in the larger line curving up to the horizon, which was once more interrupted by foothills before fading away into the fog of infinity. We could look far out over the sea from our high observation point in the glazed dining room. If a supernatural force had sucked it dry, then we would have been able to see the deep channel in which lay Tutein’s grave.... (368)


A particular consolation for the ever lonelier Horn, a particularly happy sensation of security and memory, are provided by Horn’s carriage rides with his horse Ilok across the island.[13] These give the work a uniquely poetic appeal: “Perhaps it would be best if I  [...] travelled the roads with Ilok [...] I must heal a wound within me.” (WT 2. p. 665) “She is pregnant. The carriage of death is drawn by pregnant mares. Who would not want once again, in the body of their mother, to be able to sway over the earth surrounded by the warmth that comforts him!” (WT 3, p. 340) The carriage is his “rolling homeland” – he sits in the pleasant seclusion of a vehicle which “is drawn by a horse along the crust of the globe.” (367) “The grinding of the wheels, the sound of hooves, the beating of the gradually coarser rain on the cover, the audible roll of my heartbeat in a vessel in my lung or my throat – they joined to form a single happy sound. An incessant refreshment, replete.” (484)


Before he dies, Horn experiences once again the compression of the outer world into a spiritual landscape:


After this I could not resist the temptation to take the glorious lonely road to Rotna. [...] I sank into the road. It was inlayed like a crevice into the woods and overgrown cliffs. [...] A short time later I drove over the incomparable hills, which now and then are so barren that only heather, wild berries, briars, bent oaks, windblown pines and turned junipers can take hold in the hollows and crevices of the worn cliffs. I love such wasteland, which cannot be traversed by any plough – perhaps too much. I cannot see enough. In the distance, far below lay the sea, pale, grey, expressionless, just an indefinite foggy shimmer, even less, a mist. It had only its scent, which incomprehensibly mingled with the scent of the moor and the wet dying foliage. I saw no animals on the ground. There was only the beautiful broken line of late migrating wild geese in the sky, which gave off restrained, almost whispered cries. (531f)


It is the same place that is described in the essay The Island of Bornholm, although in that case the fishing villages are “sawed up by means of asphalt streets fastened with concrete” to bring forth the “commonplace landscape”.(WT 7, p. 375) On “Fastaholm” the road is inlayed into the landscape like a crevice. As if returned to the womb of the mother, Jahnn’s narrator Horn travels through the overcast landscape and comes closer than ever to his chimera, the reversal of time. Jahnn had found on Bornholm the ideal place – Nordic enough - to sense the rift between the human, natural world and the destructive indifference of the universe, but in such a mild form that his imagination could populate it with the real and dream forms of his love.


Lecture given at the Visby conference on "The Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002


Hans Henny Jahnn

1894               Born in Stellingen near Hamburg

1913-14          Failed escape attempts with his friend Gottlieb Friedrich Harms (1893-1931): Amrum, Lübeck, Mecklenburg and East Pomerania. School-leaving exam (Abitur) in August 1914

1915- 18         Together with Harms, flees conscription to Norway: Oslo, Sogne-Fjord. Involvement in organ construction and pre-Romantic organ music. Dramas: "Pastor Ephraim Magnus", "The Coronation of Richard III.". Novel fragment: "Ugrino and Ingrabanien"

1920                Kleist-Prize for "Pastor Ephraim Magnus". Founds the religious community of Ugrino in Klecken near Hamburg. Treatises on archaic building arts. Together with Harms, publication of pre- and early Baroque music literature

1926                Marriage to Ellinor Philips, the sister-in-law of Gottlieb Harms, and return to Hamburg

1929                Novel "Perrudja"

1931-33          Organ specialist for the city of Hamburg. Organ commissions in Scandinavia.

1933                Flees to Denmark, to Karin Michaelis on Thurö, then to Zürich to his patron Walter Muschg. Drama "Poverty, Wealth, Human and Animal"

1934                Moves to Bornholm, Bondegaard Farm near Rutsker. "Bornholm Diary"

1935-36          Novella "The Wooden Ship"

1937-45          "Account by Gustav Anias Horn", main section of the novel "River Without Banks ". Jahnn worked on the "Epilogue" to this work till his death. Newspaper articles "Threshing in Late Autumn " (1940) and "The Island of Bornholm " (1941)

1945-50          Confiscation of property on Bornholm. New attempts to publish dramas and novels. Final return to Hamburg 1950. President of newly founded Hamburg Academy of the Arts (Freie Akademie der Künste)

1957                "Theses against nuclear armament"

1959                Jahnn dies 29 November following a heart attack

[1] Thomas Scheuffelen, Hans Henny Jahnn im Exil. Exilmotive in seinem Roman "Fluß ohne Ufer" und eine Chronik von Leben und Werk 1933 -1945, Munich 1972 (Masch.), p. 109.

[2]If not otherwise indicated, biographical details have been taken from Thomas Freeman, Hans Henny Jahnn, (Hamburg 1986).

[3] Hans Henny Jahnn, Werke und Tagebücher in sieben Bänden. Mit einer Einleitung von Hans Mayer, edited by Thomas Freeman and Thomas Scheuffelen, Hamburg 1974, vol. 7, p. 368-375. This edition (WT) is the source of the quotations I have used in my text.

[4] cited in Freeman (see note 2), p. 287f.

[5] Hans Henny Jahnn, Werke in Einzelbänden. Hamburg Edition (HE), edited by Ulrich Bitz and Uwe Schweikert, Briefe. Erster Teil 1913-1940 (Hamburg 1994). “An Ernst Eggers, 21.11.1934,” p. 746f.

[6] WT 7, p. 657-709.

[7] WT 6, p. 123-128.

[8] WT 6, p. 129f.

[9] Freeman, p. 48

[10] “Bornholmer Tagebuch,” 17 March 1935. “I realise I have tried too hard to begin a new life.” WT 7, p. 701f

[11] ibid., p. 678

[12] ibid. (26 March 1935), p. 705.

[13] For a detailed analysis of this motif in the novel as “erotic-aesthetic experience”, see Roswitha Schieb, Das teilbare Individuum. Körperbilder bei Ernst Jünger, Hans Henny Jahnn and Peter Weiss (Stuttgart 1997) p. 251-273.