First name:
20th century
Field of expertise:
fine arts
Place of birth:
Stockerau (AUT)
* 09.10.1920
† 11.09.1991
Biography print

(Pen name: Alexander), Austrian poet and long-term psychiatric patient.


Ernst Herbeck (1920-1991) was born in Stockerau, Lower Austria, into a family of civil servants. Despite multiple surgery to correct his cleft lip and palate, the last time in 1938, speech problems and other physical impairments accompanied him all of his life. He attended primary and commercial school and, in 1939, was conscripted to a munitions factory as an unskilled worker. In August of 1940, his parents had him committed to a mental hospital because he claimed to hear voices and felt hypnotised by a girl. At the psychiatric clinic of Vienna University, he was diagnosed with “schizophrenia” and given sixty insulin shock treatments. He found employment with a forwarding company but was rehospitalised in January 1942 and then committed to the national mental hospital Maria Gugging in Klosterneuburg. In October 1944, Herbeck was drafted to the German army only to be discharged as unfit for military service in March 1945. Later in the same year, there followed another stay at Maria Gugging (due to an assault against his father and instances of self-aggression), where he again received insulin shock treatment. Picked up by the Viennese police in May 1946, he was permanently committed to Maria Gugging in July. In an autobiographical outline, dated 16 January 1970, he recalls:  “Eventually, I wound up in the mental hospital, and my parents were to blame for all this. I will never forget these twenty-five years. I worked at the mental hospital’s nursery garden until I was fifty years old” (our translation). According to his psychiatrist, Leo Navratil, Herbeck calmed down under psychopharmacological treatment in the 1950s, but also shut himself up while experiencing persistent “acoustic hallucinations” (1992: 280). The hospital maintained its own farm, where Herbeck did farm work in the early 1960s. During one of his rounds, Navratil asked him to write a poem for diagnostic purposes. Cued with the word “morning”, Herbeck composed the following lines:



In fall the wind-of-fairies      


as in the snow the

manes beat.                   

Blackbirds whistle afield

in the wind and feed.


Navratil recognized Herbeck’s literary talent. Each poem resulted from a question-answer game, with Navratil offering a subject and Herbeck writing. While in Klosterneuburg, he wrote more than 1,200 poems and pieces of prose. He worked at the farm’s bakery from 1967 onwards, and developed an identity as a writer. Heinar Kipphardt portrayed him in his controversial 1976 novel Life of the Schizophrenic Poet Alexander M. In 1977, Herbeck became a member of the Austrian writers’ association Grazer Autorenversammlung. He was discharged from the hospital at his own request in 1980. The legal incapacitation was lifted. He moved into a nursing home but returned to Maria Gugging [voluntarily?] in 1981. There he lived in a therapeutic community together with other patients doing artwork at the institution’s Zentrum für Kunst und Psychotherapie (centre for art and psychotherapy; renamed “Haus der Künstler” in 1986). Without Herbeck’s knowledge and using the pseudonym “Alexander”, Navratil published 83 poems in the mid-1960s. He commented: “These linguistic forms also reflect his mental disorder – yet, at the same time, they show that his mind cannot be disturbed” (1966: 157, our translation). Herbeck only began publishing under his own name in 1982. He died on 11 September 1991 at the age of 70.


Herbeck’s poetry won the appreciation of other writers, such as Winfried Georg Sebald, Ernst Jandl and Elfriede Jelinek. Some texts were set to music by Wolf Biermann (März-Lieder), Michael Hirsch (Das stilleZimmer) or Wolfgang Rihm (Alexanderlieder). In 2012, a selection of Herbeck’s poems was published in English (Everyone Has a Mouth). The originals of his writings are kept at the Austrian National Library in Vienna.



Herbeck, E. (1970): Mein Leben. In: E. Herbeck, L. Navratil (eds.) (1992): Im Herbst da reiht der Feenwind. Gesammelte Texte. 1960-1991. Salzburg: Residenz, pp. 90-92.

Herbeck, E., O. Tschirtner (1979): Bebende Herzen im Leibe der Hunde. Herausgegeben von Leo Navratil. München: Rogner und Bernhard.

Herbeck, E. (1982): Alexander. Ausgewählte Texte 1961-1981. Salzburg: Residenz.

Herbeck, E. (1992): Im Herbst da reiht der Feenwind. Gesammelte Texte. 1960-1991. Salzburg: Residenz.

Herbeck, E. (2002): Die Vergangenheit ist klar vorbei. Edited by Carl Aigner and Leo Navratil. Vienna: Brandstätter.

Herbeck, E. (2012): Everyone Has a Mouth. Selected Poems. Translated by Gary Sullivan and Oya Ataman. New York (NY): Ugly Duckling Presse.

Herbeck, E.(2013): Der Hase!!!! Ausgewählte Gedichte. Mit einem Nachwort von Gisela Steinlechner. Salzburg: Jung und Jung.

Kipphardt, H. (1976): Leben des schizophrenen Dichters Alexander M. Berlin: Wagenbach.

Navratil, L. (1966): Schizophrenie und Sprache. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.

Navratil, L. (ed.) (1977): Alexanders poetische Texte. Mit Beiträgen von Otto Breicha. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.

Navratil, L. (1992): Nachwort. In: E. Herbeck, L. Navratil. (eds.) (1992): Im Herbst da reiht der Feenwind. Gesammelte Texte. 1960-1991. Salzburg: Residenz, pp. 205-225.

Navratil, L. (2002): Eine große Psychotherapie der chronischen Schizophrenie. In: Schweizer Archiv für Psychiatrie und Neurologie 153, (2), pp. 157-160.

Schütte, U. (2005): Herbeck, nach Kafka. Zur “minderen Literatur” des schizophrenen Dichters Ernst Herbeck. In: Modern Austrian Literature 38, (3/4), pp. 37-63.

Steinlechner, G. (1989): Über die Ver-Rückung der Sprache - analytische Studien zu den Texten Alexanders. Vienna: Braumüller.

Thomashoff, H.-O., L. Naber (eds.) (1999): Psyche & Kunst. Psychiatrisch-kunsthistorische Anthologie. Katalog zur Ausstellung anlässlich des XI. Weltkongresses für Psychiatrie in Hamburg 1999. Stuttgart: Schattauer.

Robin Pape, Burkhart Brückner



Referencing format
Robin Pape, Burkhart Brückner (2015): Herbeck, Ernst.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:16.07.2024)