He originally hoped to become a missionary, then studied medicine at the Universities of Leipzig, Munich and Vienna and trained as a male nurse.
After military service during World War I, Johst turned to writing expressionist dramas. In 1929 Johst was made President of the Nazi poets’ organization in the Kampfhund für Deutsche Kultur. Three years later he wrote his famous jingoist drama, Schlageter, glorifying the proto-Nazi martyr, Albert Leo Schlageter, who had been executed by the French in 1923 during their occupation of the Rhineland.
Johst's sycophantic dedication - ‘Written for Adolf Hitler, in affectionate veneration and unchanging loyalty' - and the contents of the drama impressed Hitler. It was constantly performed as a Nazi classic during the Third Reich and one of the play’s lines, ‘When I hear the word culture, I slip back the safety catch of my revolver', came to epitomize the ethos of National Socialist art. Appointed dramatic adviser to the Berlin State Theatre in February 1933 and then President of the Academy of German Poetry, Johst was named a Prussian State Councillor in January 1934 and the following year he became President of the Reich Chamber of Literature.
Together with Goebbels Johst was now in a unique position to mould the arts, and especially the theatre, in the direction of National Socialist ideology in order ‘to save the German people from the complete materialism of a purely realistic world'.
On account of his activities during the Third Reich, Johst was categorized as a ‘fellow-traveller’ by a Munich de-Nazification court on 7 July 1949 and tined 500 marks. A few weeks later Johst's appeal led to a stiffer sentence - defined as a ‘Major Offender’ he was condemned to three-and-a-half years’ labour camp, half his property was confiscated and he was forbidden to exercise his profession for ten years.
He died in Ruhpolding, Bavaria, on 23 November 1978.