Hermann Hesse was born on July 2, 1877 in Calw, Germany. He grew up in a strictly religious but scholarly household. In 1891, Hesse began studies at the seminary in Maulbronn. Although an excellent student, Hesse was not well suited to the lifestyle of the seminary. After a tumultuous couple of years between the seminary and an apprenticeship, Hesse began work at a bookstore in Tubingen in 1895. Hesse took to poetry furthering straying from views inculcated in him by his parents to a more Romantic and freer system of thought. Hesse moved to Switzerland in 1912. When World War I began in 1914, he was further forced to question his allegiance to his origins—to Germany, his motherland, a country that inspired a national attachment far stronger than those which tend to exist today between people and their countries. Hesse's decision to write against the war while in Switzerland required breaking a strongly held bond to the German nation. These episodes in Hesse's life no doubt inform the transformation that he chose to explore in Demian, which he wrote in the midst of the war, in 1917.
Hesse's Demian dealt with the problem and experience of change. The First World War is often seen as a time during which the world was robbed of its innocence. It was the first truly modern war and was on an immensely large scale so as to affect practically all of Europe. The extent of the destruction and the capacity of the machinery used were of an entirely unprecedented scale. It is against this backdrop that Hesse chooses to explore the inner workings of a young boy as he grows and loses his innocence.
Hesse was profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and many of the ideas expressed in Demian are borrowed from Nietzsche's work. Nietzsche published Beyond Good and Evil in 1886, offering a radical rejection of traditional societal values. His work argued that moral edicts were unnecessary; the distinction between "good" and "evil" need not play a dominant role in the decisions people make and the actions they perform. For those who could see this, action could and would be guided by a will to power. Man has a natural inclination to rise up, but only a few special men would be able to see beyond the values of their society to be able to express this will. The rest, the herd of bestial men, would simply follow along and listen to the rules with which they had been presented. Nietzsche placed a particularly high value on creative genius and often claimed that the world existed only for a few very special men. He displayed an equally strong loathing for Christianity, which he saw as inculcating moral principles that suppressed that which could make man great. Nietzsche's ideas captured the imagination of many intellectuals, particularly in Germany, around the turn of the century.
Influences from Hesse's personal life, world affairs, and intellectual currents all pointed in the same direction. Hesse melds these influences into a compelling tale that explores fundamental questions about what it means to grow up and how best to lead one's life.