Biographies of people from the German-speaking countries who have played a significant role in German and world history in the areas of politics, science, the arts, and technology.
Ken Adam (Klaus Hugo Adam, 1921-2016)
Noted as an innovative film set designer, Adam is perhaps best known for his futuristic sets for the early James Bond films (Goldfinger, 1964; Thunderball, 1965; You Only Live Twice, 1967; and Diamonds Are Forever, 1971). His supertanker set for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) was the largest sound stage in the world when it was built. His last Bond film was Moonraker (1979). Adam also designed the War Room set for Dr. Strangelove (1964). He won Academy Awards for his set designs for Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1994).
Born in Berlin to German Jewish parents on Feb. 5, 1921, Ken Adam left Germany in 1934 when he was 13 and his family moved to England because of the rise of the Nazis and Jewish persecution. He later became a naturalized British subject. In 2003 Adam was knighted for services to the film industry and Anglo-German relations. In September 2012 Sir Ken Adam donated his entire body of work to the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. The collection includes approximately 4,000 sketches for films from all periods, storyboards, photo albums, and other items from his life’s work. He remained active as a film set designer until 2001. He died in London on March 10, 2016, aged 95. – See Germany and Hollywood and this IMDb page for more about his work: Ken Adam – IMDb.
Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967)
Became the first chancellor (1949-63) of the new Federal Republic of Germany and helped lead West Germany to postwar recovery and prosperity. Adenauer held the record for his term in office until it was broken by former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl. Bonn was chosen as West Germany’s “provisional” capital, in part because it was Adenauer’s home town.
MORE: Featured Bio | Konrad Adenauer
Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915)
The German neuropathologist who in 1906 identified the memory-loss ailment named after him. The disease didn’t get its name until 1910 when Emil Kraepelin, Alzheimer’s coworker, wrote about the case of Auguste D in a psychiatric textbook and first referred to “Alzheimer’s disease.” Alzheimer was born in 1864 in Marktbreit, Germany. Excelling in science at school he later studied medicine in Berlin, Tübingen, and Würzburg. Alzheimer was buried next to his wife in the Main Cemetery (Hauptfriedhof) in Frankfurt am Main.
WEB: Alzheimer house in Marktbreit at www.marktbreit.de
WEB: Did Dr. Alzheimer discover Alzheimer’s Disease? at verywell.com
Ursula Andress (1936- )
Swiss actress best known as the bikini-clad Honey Ryder in Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond film.
MORE: Featured Bio | Ursula Andress
See Hermann der Cherusker below.
Nadja Auermann (1970- )
Though less well-known than her fellow German rival, Claudia Schiffer, Auermann had an equally dramatic rise to modeling stardom.
Andreas Baader (1943-1977)
Of the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang and the RAF.
MORE: Terrorism in Germany
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The most prominent in an amazing series of musical Bachs spanning the 16th to the 19th centuries. J.S. Bach’s career began in earnest when he became court organist at Weimar in 1708. By 1714 he had been appointed Konzertmeister. He went on to compose musical monuments like the “Brandenburg Concertos,” the “Pastoral Symphony,” and “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”
Karl Baedeker (1801-1859)
Father of the travel guide (Reiseführer). The first Baedeker guide, Rheinlande, was published in 1839 in Koblenz. That first book established the Baedeker’s reputation for accuracy and detail. Karl Baedeker was born into a publishing family in Essen. The eldest son of Gottschalk Diederich Baedeker, whose father Zacharias (1750-1800) had established the Baedeker publishing house in 1775, Karl Baedeker continued his family’s publishing tradition in Essen. After his death the Baedekers moved their travel publishing to Leipzig. After WWII, the Baedeker headquarters relocated to Freiburg in southwest Germany.
MORE: Baedeker, German Reiselust, and vacation days from the German Way Expat Blog
Michael Ballhaus (1935- )
You’ve seen this German cinematographer’s work in Air Force One, Working Girl, GoodFellas, The Departed, and other Hollywood movies.
Featured Bio | Michael Ballhaus – Germans in Hollywood
Albert Ballin (1857-1918)
The “Reeder des Kaisers” (“Ship operator to the Kaiser”) was born on August 15, 1857 in Hamburg. As head of the Hamburg-Amerika line (Hapag), Ballin was largely responsible for making Germany a leader in travel by oceanliner prior to World War I. He also invented the pleasure cruise.
MORE: Featured Bio | Albert Ballin
Baron, the Red (Manfred von Richthofen, 1892-1918)
The “Red Baron” World War I flying ace.
MORE: Featured Bio | Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Born in tiny Bonn, he moved to Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, at the age of 22. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” became the official anthem of the European Community in 1986, and the unofficial anthem of German unification in 1989. Beethoven’s grand symphonies, chamber music, and other classical works now also belong to the entire world.
Peter Behrens (1868-1940)
Behrens became famous as the chief designer and architect for Germany’s AEG electrical concern between 1909 and 1912. He proved that industrial plants could also be eye-pleasing architectural works, and he influenced the later work of Walter Gropius (Bauhaus), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier, all of whom worked under Behrens.
Karl Benz (1844-1929) and Gottfried Daimler (1834-1900)
Independently invented the first practical internal-combustion powered automobile (Benz in 1885, Daimler in 1886), though they never met. The two firms merged in 1926 to form Daimler-Benz, today Germany’s largest industrial concern. Benz, born in Karlsruhe, invented the differential drive and other automotive technology, including two types of internal-combustion engines and electrical ignition.
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Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898)
Unified Germany in 1871. As Reichskanzler (imperial chancellor) Bismarck stayed at the helm of the Prussian Second Reich until 1890. A scheming manipulator to the end, even his introduction of the first social security system for workers (1883) was politically motivated.
Willy Brandt (1913-1992)
Became mayor of West Berlin in 1957, was German chancellor (SPD, Social Democrats) from 1969 to 1974, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his Ostpolitik of rapprochement with East Germany. Brandt was a popular statesman and remained influential in the SPD party right up to his death.
Wernher von Braun (1912-1977)
Born in Wirsitz in eastern Germany (now Poland) and worked at Peenemünde developing the V2 rockets that struck at Britain in 1944-45. One of the first true “rocket scientists,” he and about 120 other German scientists were brought to the US to work on rocket systems. The US space program was greatly speeded up by their work, culminating in the Saturn V rocket that sent Americans to the moon on the Apollo mission in 1969, when von Braun was the head of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
MORE: Featured Bio | Wernher von Braun
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Birthday and Holiday Calendar
A special downloadable calendar with birth dates of notable people, plus holidays and observances in the German-speaking world
Martin Buber (1878-1965)
Austrian Jewish philosopher, writer, translator, and educator who was a Zionist supporter of a Jewish state (but wanted a binational Jewish-Arab solution). Born in Vienna, Buber lived and worked mostly in Germany until 1938, when he left Nazi Germany to become a professor at Hebrew University in British-occupied Palestine. Buber was very influential in politics, religion and philosophy. His works include Ich und du (1923) and a German translation of the Hebrew Torah (with Franz Rosenzweig).
Elias Canetti (Cañete, 1905-1994)
Born in Bulgaria, the Jewish Canetti lived in several countries before settling in Vienna, where he began his career as a writer in 1924. Following the 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria, Canetti moved to London (British citizenship in 1952), where he lived and worked until the 1970s, continuing to write in German. In the 1960s and ’70s he was awarded various Austrian and German literature prizes before receiving the 1981 Nobel Prize in literature. During most of the last two decades of his life, Canetti lived in Switzerland. His grave lies in Zurich. His key works include: Die Blendung (1935, novel, translated as Auto-da-Fé in 1946), Masse und Macht (1960, Crowds and Power), Die gerettete Zunge (1977, memoirs), Die Fackel im Ohr (1980, memoirs).
Charlemagne (Karl der Große, 742-814)
Crowned Emperor (Kaiser) of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (das Heilige Römische Reich Deutscher Nation), the First Reich, in 800. He had become King of the Franks in 776. The Germanic Charlemagne and his Frankish tribe gave France its name. Frankreich (empire of the Franks) is the German word for France.
MORE: Charlemagne’s grave in Germany
Adolf (Adi) Dassler (1900-1959)
In 1924 Adi and his brother Rudolph (Rudi) founded the German sports shoe company Gebrüder Dassler OHG—now known as adidas (pron. AH-dee-DAHS, not uh-DEE-duhs). Born the son of a cobbler in Herzogenaurauch, Germany, Adi invented spiked shoes for track and field in 1920. Jesse Owens was wearing a pair of Dassler’s shoes when he won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The brothers split in 1948 when Rudi founded Puma (one of adidas’ biggest competitors in Europe) and Adi renamed his firm by combining elements of his name.
Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)
Beginning with The Blue Angel in 1930, Dietrich became a Hollywood sex symbol for several decades.
Featured Bio | Marlene Dietrich
Klaus Doldinger (1936- )
Born in Berlin, Doldinger played the piano and clarinet before moving to the saxophone – for which he is now best known. Perhaps Doldinger’s greatest claim to fame is as the composer of the theme music for the popular German TV crime series “Tatort” (“scene of the crime”), Germany’s longest running TV crime series (since 1970). Doldinger has also composed music for German and Hollywood TV productions and films, including Das Boot (1981) and Palmetto (1998). He has made over 50 recordings and more than 4,200 live performances. He still regularly appears on stage with his “Passport” jazz band. In addition to more than a dozen awards, in 2010 he was honored with a star on Berlin’s “Boulevard of Stars.”
Christian Doppler (1803-1853)
The Austrian mathematician and physicist whose name is best known from the “Doppler effect” he first described in 1842 while a professor in Prague (then still within the Austrian empire) was born in Salzburg. Doppler studied there and in Vienna. The asteroid 3905 Doppler is named for him.
Ruth Dreifuss (1940- )
Switzerland’s first female president took office on the first day of 1999. (The office is an appointed one-year term and rotates among the seven Cabinet ministers in the Swiss federal government.) This is all the more notable when one realizes that women have only had the right to vote in Swiss national elections since 1971! The Jewish Dreifuss was born in German Switzerland, but later moved to Geneva, where she worked as a secretary and journalist and attended university. Fluent in five languages, Dreifuss served in many governmental capacities before being appointed Home Affairs Minister in 1993.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
Led the way to a new art perspective of the world with his realistic drawings of animals (a hare being one of the most famous), Ritter, Tod und Teufel, in which death is portrayed as a skeleton, and other subjects.
WEB: The art of Albrecht Dürer at the Web Museum
Rudi Dutschke (1940-1979)
Infamous leader of the German student rebellions of the 1960s.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Published his theory of relativity in 1905. Born in Ulm, Germany, Einstein later attended university in Zurich, Switzerland, where he received his Ph.D. In 1916, while a professor at the University of Berlin, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, a significant expansion of his earlier work. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics. In 1933 Einstein moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where he was to live for the rest of his life. Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt helped start the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb by the United States. Einstein became a US citizen in 1940.
Elisabeth/Sissi (Kaiserin Elisabeth, Empress Elisabeth, 1837-1898)
Franz Joseph’s wife, better known as Sisi (or Sissi), was a popular Austrian Empress who was assassinated in Geneva in 1898.
WEB: More about Sisi from Wien-Vienna.at (in German, illustrated)
From 1958 to 1960 Elvis Presley was a US soldier stationed in West Germany.
MORE: Elvis in West Germany | Elvis Presley, G.I.
Roland Emmerich (1955- )
The director of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Godzilla, plus other famous film people, is among the Germans in Hollywood.
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Germans in Hollywood
Austrians, Germans, and Swiss in Hollywood
Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)
The son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, Engels left his native Prussia in 1842 to work for his father’s company in Manchester, England. In 1844, he met Karl Marx, a fellow-Prussian who was now living in London. The two worked together to publish the Communist Manifesto in 1848. After the death of Marx in 1883, it was Engels who completed Das Kapital, of which Marx had only completed the first of three volumes.
Erik H. Erikson (1902-1994)
Grew up in Karlsruhe as Erik Homburger but changed his name to Erikson before coming to the United States. Erikson was a disciple of Freud, but disagreed with the Freudian philosophy that early childhood and sex mainly determined a person’s identity. Erikson, a psychoanalyst, author, and professor (Yale, Harvard, Berkeley), coined the term “identity crisis” and wrote several “psychobiographies” on figures such as Darwin, Einstein (above), Gandhi, and Jesus. He never obtained a college degree.
Max Ernst (1891-1976)
The German surrealist artist was born in Cologne. At the nearby University of Bonn he studied philosophy and psychology, but after meeting various “Blue Rider” artists there, he turned to art. In 1920, along with Hans Arp, Ernst set up the Dada group in Cologne. He later moved to Paris, where his word-image “picture poem” paintings and collages set him apart from most artists of the time. During World War II, after being imprisoned as an enemy alien, Ernst went to the United States (1941-1952). In the early 1950s he went back to France, set up a studio in Paris, and became a French citizen.
Harmut Esslinger (1944- )
The legendary German-American industrial designer who helped Steve Jobs design the Apple IIc and the Mac SE.
MORE: Featured Bio | Hartmut Esslinger
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Famous Graves in Germany
Where are they buried?
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- Notable People – Brief biographies of people from the German-speaking countries
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- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?