Germany Holidays: Lübeck’s Nobel laureates

For a city of just over 200,000 inhabitants to have a local Nobel Prize Winner is something to shout about. To have a second, well that would be really special. However to have three…. now that could just be seen as greedy. This is exactly what the city of Lübeck on the northern Baltic coast can claim – along with its fascinating background in the Hanseatic League. To be fair only two of the Nobel laureates were born there and the third died there, but it’s still not a bad haul and puts the city firmly on the cultural map of Germany.

Thomas Mann was born in the city in 1875, and despite moving away aged 16, he used it as the setting for Buddenbrooks, his majestic novel about the decline of a once proud family and its business. Despite never explicitly naming Lübeck in the book, it is clearly where the family lived and worked.

Subsequently going on to be hailed ‘the novel of the century’ it won Mann the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. The house where he was born and spent his childhood, the Buddenbrookshaus, has exhibits illustrating 19th century life in Lübeck and giving an account of Mann’s life and career (as well as that of his brother Heinrich, who also wrote and grew up there).

Brandt and Grass

And now to politics. Willy Brandt was the German Chancellor from 1969 to 1974. Following 20 years of West Germany refusing to recognise the GDR (East Germany) after World War II, he came into office promising to engender a closer relationship with the ‘other Germany’ and with Germany’s other eastern neighbours.

This he went on to achieve, concluding hugely significant treaties with not only with the GDR (which considerably improved links between the two countries), but with the Soviet Union, Poland and pre-division Czechoslovakia. On a visit to Poland in 1970 he famously fell to his knees in front of the Warsaw Ghetto and prayed, one of the most iconic images in postwar German history. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 in acknowledgement of his efforts to ease East West tension.

Brandt was born Herbert Frahm in humble surroundings in Lübeck in 1913, only fleeing the city in 1933 when the Nazis took over. He adopted his new alias and settled in Norway, returning to Germany in 1945. His life and achievements (he was also mayor of West Berlin when the Wall was erected in 1961) are commemorated at the Willy Brandt Haus in the city.

Günter Grass is to post-war German literature what Thomas Mann was pre-war. Born in Danzig (now Gdańsk in Poland), he wrote some of the most significant novels of the 1960s when West Germany really began to explore and evaluate its Nazi history. His Danzig Trilogy, featuring his most famous work, The Tin Drum, was particularly controversial at the time, focusing on issues which questioned people’s participation in the Nazi regime and their reluctance to acknowledge this.

Grass was very active politically, and coincidentally a close associate of Brandt. In his later years he based himself in Lübeck though spent a considerable amount of time in reunified Germany’s new capital, Berlin. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 and died in Lübeck in 2015. The city has subsequently opened the Günter Grass Haus dedicated to his life and work.

Visits to any or all of the city’s museums (although the Buddenbrookshaus is closed to 2023) will provide valuable insights to the history of both Lübeck and 20th century Germany as a whole. – Mark Arrol

Looking for more? See other destinations in Northern Germany

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