Apitz was born in Leipzig as the twelfth child of a washer woman. He attended school until he was fourteen, then started training as a printer. During World War I he was a passionate supporter of German Communist Party leader Karl Liebknecht. At 17, he made a speech in front of striking factory workers that resulted in his being sentenced to twenty-nine months in prison. In 1919 he joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and in 1927, the more radical Communist Party of Germany (KPD). He took active part in the German November Revolution of 1918 and in opposition to the Kapp Putsch of 1920. During the latter he published his first poems and short stories in Communist newspapers. He wrote his first play in 1924 and was later repeatedly imprisoned under Nazi rule in various concentration camps for spreading socialistic anti-war propaganda and being an active member of the Communist Party. From 1937 to 1945 he was an inmate of the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar. It was this stay that became the basis for his most famous novel, Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked among Wolves).
After 1945 he worked for the East German state film company Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft and as a radio play author. He was one of the founding members of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), which became the dominant party in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). In the early 1950s, Apitz worked as a guide to the former camp, Buchenwald, and was "actively involved in the plan for the earliest expedition to be shown there in 1952." He was a member of the Academy of Arts and the PEN-Clubs of the GDR.
Apitz's best selling novel Nackt unter Wölfen was first published in 1958 and then translated into over thirty languages, winning him worldwide recognition. The English translation, the only Apitz novel to have been translated into English, was by Edith Anderson and published by Seven Seas Books in 1967. The logline for this edition reads as follows: "Armies drive before them the rags of Hitler's might and news trickles through to the concentration camp inmates and a child is saved."
- Der Mensch im Nacken, 1924
- Nackt unter Wölfen, 1958; English translation, Naked among Wolves, 1967
- Esther, 1959
- Der Regenbogen, 1976
- Schwelbrand. Autobiografischer Roman, Berlin 1984
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