German Literature

by Ehrhard Bahr, C. Stephen Jaeger, Judith Ryan

Origins and Middle Ages

Pre-Christian and early Christian periods
The Germanic tribes immigrating to mainland Europe from Scandinavia from the 1st century bc onward brought with them a rich culture. Since its language-related heritage was orally transmitted and its recipients saw no need to replace the physical presence of the singer of tales with written texts, most of it is lost. The rich mythology and epic-heroic poetry are partly recoverable from later written sources, all from the 13th century and beyond—the Old Norse Eddic poems, the German Nibelungenlied, and various poems about the hero Dietrich von Bern/Theodoric. Only broken bits of this culture remain: runic inscriptions, mythological motifs on gold amulets, a few magic incantations (the “Merseburger Zaubersprüche” [“Merseburg charms”], preserved in the Merseburg library, which reveal pre-Christian origins), and a 67-line fragment of a heroic song depicting a tragic clash between the warrior Hildebrand and his own son (Hildebrandslied [c. 800; “Hildebrand’s Song,” Eng. trans. The Hildebrandslied]). The imagination of this nomadic warrior culture envisioned human destiny as being inescapably tragic. In Norse mythology, even the gods themselves fall prey to malice and revenge and are swallowed up in the cataclysm known as Ragnarǫk, the “Doom of the Gods.”
The society’s heroic pessimism and inability to free itself from revenge cycles made it ripe for a religion of reconciliation and atonement. The conversion of the Germans to Christianity (largely accomplished by the end of the 5th century) thus presented a great challenge: that of reeducating an entire people and of adapting and translating the literature of Christianity into a language that had no written tradition. The earliest known effort to this end is the remarkable late-4th-century Gothic Bible translation of Bishop Ulfilas. (In order to execute it, Ulfilas seems to have developed the Gothic alphabet.) Educational reforms instituted in the age of Charlemagne (768–814) brought scattered religious texts in one or another of the dialects of Old High German (for instance, Otfried of Weissenberg’s Evangelienbuch [c. 870, “Gospel Book”], a rhymed version of the Gospels). In the late 11th and throughout the 12th century, religious literature in early Middle High German proliferated.
These works warn of the sinfulness and perils of earthly life, painting it as an illusion and a net of the Devil to trap unwary fools. Their texts, which have no literary significance, dwell on the theme memento mori: think only of death and dying and live life as a preparation for its end. They arose out of conflict between church and state, the so-called Investiture Controversy (a power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire), and they served the interests of reactionary, ascetic movements toward monastic and church reform. They aimed at providing religious instruction for the laity—and were therefore written in the vernacular—but they were also a kind of propaganda rejecting the worldliness of secular rule and the subordination of the church to the state that occurred increasingly in the course of various imperial dynasties: Carolingian (750–887), Ottonian (936–1002), and Salian (1024–1125). It is a peculiar feature of German literary history that the first abundant texts in the German language reflect not mainstream culture and its secular manifestations but the conservative religious reaction against it.
High courtly literature: Middle High German Classicism
Cultural trends and mores unquestionably emanated from the German empire and the royal-imperial court, which from the 8th to the 13th century developed a rich and influential culture. Its literature was almost exclusively in the Latin language. The humanistic imperial culture and its politics were nourished from the idea of Classical revival. The motto renovatio imperii Romanorum (“renewal of the Roman Empire”) appears on German royal seals from the reign of Otto III on. The legitimacy of German rule rested on its derivation from Roman rule. Ideals of dress, behaviour, and speech were adapted from the Roman Empire’s ideals of the statesman and orator.
The values of the imperial courts were eagerly adopted by courts of dukes and counts. Beginning in the 12th century, these lesser feudal courts, first in France and Norman England, then in Germany, together produced one of the most brilliant bodies of literature in the West.
The literature of courtly society documents a civilizing process. It both represents and creates one of the most significant transformations of ethics and values experienced in the post-Roman West: the transformation from the rough-cut, brutal warrior values of early medieval Europe to courtly society’s ideals of restraint, humanity, elegance, and refined love.
The Lyric Poetry of Courtly Love
In a period of some 20 years, about 1160 to 1180, German emerged as a literary language. It was a remarkable transformation. By the end of the Classical period, c. 1230, courtly society had produced a radiant literary flowering where apparently nothing (at least nothing written) had existed before.
“Courtly love” (the Provençal troubadours’ fin’amors, the Middle High German hôhe minne) is the central theme of aristocratic lyric poetry from the 12th century to the end of the Middle Ages. A common stance of the courtly lover is long-suffering endurance of the coldness of an unapproachable, unyielding high noble lady whom he serves in the vain hope of some day winning her love. Love is suffering, sickness, and a magic spell that imposes patience and endurance on the lover. Hôhe minne is less an erotic experience than a process of ethical formation and of courtly education. The lover, held at bay by his lady, is made to polish his speech, his manners, and his virtues to a high standard of courtly excellence. He is denied her love until he passes her tests.
This typical posture of the courtly lover is found, for instance, in the verse of Reinmar von Hagenau and Heinrich von Morungen. The idea of yoking the erotic to a program of education is foreign to modern sensibilities but consistent with a long tradition (Greek and Roman) of the disciplining of desire to create self-control and a mature, civil character.
But the 12th century, the great divide between the ancient and the modern world, also raised individual experience of love to the level of an ideal for the first time in the West, and tensions between the artifice of love pedagogy and the experience of passion are everywhere evident in courtly literature. Walther von der Vogelweide, the greatest of the German courtly poets, commemorated, in his poem “Unter der Linden” (“Under the Linden Tree”), a love meeting that was mutual, intense, and passionate, in which the woman delights in uninhibitedly yielding to her lover. The poem is a challenge to the poetry of hôhe minne, high courtly love, and its chaste eroticism. It represents a kind of love that Walther called playfully “low love” (niedere minne) but valued the more highly for its naturalness and spontaneity. This conception was probably favoured by the philosopher-teacher Peter Abelard and his learned student and lover, Héloïse, in their tragic relationship.
Courtly Romance
Courtly romance, a new narrative form in the 12th century, was the major vehicle for Middle High German Classicism. The earliest courtly narratives were “romances of antiquity.” They show Achilles, Hector, Ulysses, and Aeneas behaving like 12th-century chivalric knights, fighting boldly but with noble restraint on horseback with lances, wondering in long inner monologues whether they can win the love of their ladies, and writing them love letters and poems. The northern German poet Heinrich von Veldeke produced the Eneide (c. 1170; written in an intermediate dialect that contained elements of both Low and High German), a “modern” version of Virgil’s Aeneid adapted from the anonymous Old French Roman d’Énéas. It turns on the two loves of Aeneas—one passionate and destructive (Dido); the other chaste, courtly, and the foundation of family and empire (Lavinia). The Trojan War was another popular theme from antiquity.
But the tales received from the ancient world paled before the wild popularity of the figure of King Arthur and his knights (see Arthurian legend). Arthurian romance in the wake of its great inventor, the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, overwhelmed other contenders for dominance of narrative poetry.
Hartmann von Aue
A Swabian knight, poet, theoretician of love, and writer of Minnesang (courtly love lyrics), Hartmann von Aue was the first to bring the new tales of King Arthur to Germany. He adapted and translated into elegant Middle High German verses two of Chrétien’s romances: Erec (c. 1180–85), from Érec et Énide, and Iwein (c. 1200), from Yvain; ou, le chevalier au lion. These works created a new structure for narrative and with it a new conception of the destiny of the hero: his education and gradual achievement of ethical perfection through making amends for shameful conduct, expunging guilt, resisting temptation, and avoiding behaviour conducive to tragic failure. Erec is the tale of a knight’s quest to repair his reputation, damaged when he neglects his duties as knight to spend all his time with his bride. In Iwein a great knight falls from grace by disregarding a seemingly trivial deadline. Denounced before King Arthur’s court by his wife, Iwein loses his mind and is reduced to living naked and wild in the forest. Restored by a magic salve and accompanied by a lion whom he has helped fight a dragon, he sets out on a series of grand chivalric undertakings, rescuing the helpless and those unjustly accused. Eventually, his acts of justice and compassion bring about a reconciliation with his wife.
The obsession with guilt expunged and shame overcome found its most poignant expression in Hartmann’s two “chivalric legends,” Gregorius (c. 1185–95) and Der arme Heinrich (c. 1195; “Poor Henry”). Gregorius is a chivalric-Christian adaptation of the Oedipus story, a tale of double incest in which the tragic hero, born from an incestuous union and later wed to his own mother, is raised to the position of pope after 17 years of suicidal penance for his sins as knight and lover. “Poor Henry,” a wealthy, virtuous, and famous knight, is stricken with leprosy and loses his possessions and standing. The only medicine that can cure his disease is the blood of a virgin willing to sacrifice herself for him. The youngest daughter of the family that takes him in at once offers herself and refuses to take no for an answer. Ultimately her sacrifice is rejected and the will accepted in place of the deed. Miraculously cured, the grand lord marries the young peasant girl.
Hartmann’s elegant simplicity and his gentle, noble sentimentality were greatly admired both in his own time and since. (Selections from his works can be found in English translation in The Narrative Works of Hartmann von Aue, 1983.) His younger contemporary, Gottfried von Strassburg, crowned him with the laurel wreath and praised him extravagantly. No less an author than Thomas Mann admired Hartmann’s legends of great sin and profound forgiveness; his late novel Der Erwählte (1951; The Holy Sinner) adapts Hartmann’s Gregorius.
Wolfram von Eschenbach
The high point of Classical Middle High German literature is the work of the two great literary rivals Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg. Wolfram presents himself as an unlearned, rough-cut genius:
I am Wolfram von Eschenbach, and I know a thing or two about poetry.…I was born to knighthood, and any woman who lovesme for my writing instead of my boldness must be weak in her wits.…I don’t know a single letter of the alphabet.
Gottfried, the elegant, highly educated humanist-courtier poet, classified Wolfram as a teller of wild stories persuasive to “dull minds.” Wolfram’s style is eccentric and brilliant. His works, with a high ethical seriousness at their core, are full of a robust humour that can shade into the grotesque.
Wolfram adapted his major work, Parzival, from Chrétien de Troyes’s unfinished Perceval; ou, le conte du graal (Perceval: The Tale of the Grail) and completed it about 1205. He also wrote a long fragment of a heroic legend (chanson de geste, or “song of heroic deeds”), Willehalm, and two short fragments called Titurel, a spin-off from the Grail story begun in Parzival. (Wolfram probably stopped working on Willehalm and Titurel at some time after 1217.) In addition to these works, he composed a number of lyric poems.
Parzival has been compared with Dante’s Divine Comedy and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. It is a kind of summation of the human condition in its 12th-century embodiment: the sinful knight questing to reconcile the demands of God with those of life in the world. Parzival is the simpleton with a grand destiny. He becomes king of the Grail castle and overcomes his youthful sins by steadfastly loving his wife, by learning discipline, compassion, and courtesy, and by remaining loyal to his own human destiny as knight and fighter. In fact, Parzival seems to reiterate the parable of the prodigal son: the good man who has sinned and fallen into doubt of God (zwîvel) is the candidate for grace. Parzival shares with Goethe’s Faust the idea that the very effort to perfect flawed human nature has redemptive power. The work contains a grand symbol of this obligation to maintain life and destiny, raised to the level of a religious symbol: the Holy Grail. Parzival becomes king of the Grail by remaining a knight and loyal husband. In this he is an answer to Hartmann’s Gregorius, who could find redemption only in complete renunciation of his human identity. Wolfram’s Parzival is a rejection of ascetic Christian values and a grand confirmation of the worth of life in this world.
Gottfried von Strassburg
Gottfried’s Tristan und Isolde is an unfinished masterpiece of some 19,000 lines. Its source was the Roman de Tristan by the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas. Gottfried died about 1210 without completing it. In almost every point it is the opposite of Wolfram’s work. It is a tragedy of adulterous love whose hero is fatally bound by a love potion to Isolde, the wife of King Marke of England. The work is revolutionary in many ways. It rejects a strong tendency in tales and lyrics of “courtly love” to make the woman into the man’s educator and an administrator of courtliness and virtue. The concept of love in Tristan crosses the aforementioned great divide between the ancient world (in which love was regarded as an ennobling, educating force) and the modern world (which perceived love as obsessive, a lofty but destructive passion). The tragedy of Tristan and Isolde contradicts the love pedagogy that had shaped Érec and Énite, Iwein, and Parzival into models of marital fidelity and courtly humanity. Tragic love is still ennobling, but it ennobles by glorifying suffering, melancholy, death, and the fusing of joy and sorrow in love. Gottfried dedicates his work to the elite of “noble hearts” who can appreciate the exquisite benefits of tragic passion.
The work is also revolutionary in its style and form. It is poetry of the highest order. The language of secular narrative poetry in Germany was a newborn, so to speak; at least it was no more than half a generation old. But in Tristan und Isolde the German language achieves a high point of elegance, allusiveness, and sophistication that it would not reach again until the late 18th and 19th centuries. Gottfried studied in the humanistic Latin schools of France or in those of Germany, and he brought a wealth of Classical knowledge to his composition. In Tristan the traditions of Classical Latin literature inform, deepen, and strengthen German poetry.
The hero is no longer a chivalric knight earning fame and love by combat but rather a courtier and an artist who makes his way in the life of a royal court by eloquence and talent, by his skill in music and the hunt. As in any court novel, deceit loses some of its negative moral charge and becomes a skill parallel to art and learning. Tristan and Isolde become tricksters and illusion makers in order to conceal their affair from her husband and his uncle, the cuckold King Marke.
In the work there is an idyllic “adventure” when the lovers, banished from the court, live in a magical “cave of lovers.” Their cathedral-like love temple is interpreted by the poet as an allegory of the virtues of love.
The other major epic from this remarkable decade, 1200–10, takes the reader into a social and ethical world designed as the antithesis to that of the civilized, refined courtesy of the romance. The Nibelungenlied (“Song of the Nibelungs”) is a return to a more primitive, pre-courtly, Germanic heroic world. The hero, Siegfried, arouses envy and suspicion by marrying Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther of the Burgundians. Her family, led by the dark assassin Hagen, murders him treacherously and steals the fabulous Nibelung treasure. Years later she remarries, lures her family to visit, and exacts her revenge in a disastrous battle that leaves thousands on both sides dead, including all the protagonists.
Parzival progresses from an unthinking brutality to a sensitive, compassionate humanity. Kriemhild goes in the opposite direction; she reverts from courtly modesty to mayhem and raving. Deceit, assassination, and gruesome revenge are the major elements of this work, and they unfold against the background of a thin veneer of politeness, courtesy, and courtly restraint overlying the characters’ behaviour. The work is a reactionary rejection of the civilizing trends advocated by courtly literature. It returns to the heroic Germanic past to construct a doomed world where the tragic demise of whole peoples was inevitable and glorious at the same time, courteousness was stupidity, and trust and love were childishly naive.
Post-Classical Middle High German literature
The flowering of Middle High German courtly literature lasted about 60 years. In its wake literature did not subside; it mushroomed. But these latecomer authors, interesting as their works can be, are imitators, and, in the shadow of a Classical period, they sensed their own mediocrity. The major figures of this post-Classical era are Heinrich von dem Türlîn, who wrote an obscure and lengthy baroque romance of Sir Gawain called Die Krône (c. 1220–30; The Crown); Rudolf von Ems, who authored various longer epics and a chronicle of world history; and Konrad von Würzburg, a versatile stylist who continued the Classical style of Gottfried in a variety of narrative works—Partonopier und Meliur (“Partonopier and Meliur”), Der Schwanritter (“The Knight of the Swan”), and Engelhard. His magnum opus is Der Trojanerkrieg, a courtly retelling of the Trojan War in an epic poem of more than 40,000 lines (Parzival was long at about 25,000 lines).
The autumn of courtly forms corresponded to a decline in the political position of Germany brought about by the victory of the papacy in the Investiture Controversy and the consequent weakening of central political authority. The “Holy Roman Empire” proclaimed by the propaganda of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa existed mostly in name and ceremonial form. The last great emperor of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, Frederick II (1220–50), moved the imperial residence to Sicily. This period set loose on Germany the plagues that ravaged the political life of that country until its reunification in 1989–90: political fragmentation, provincialism, dependence on Italian and French culture, and a lack of confidence in its own culture that alternated with convulsive attempts to establish German culture and national identity.
Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance
The late Middle Ages in Europe was a time of decadence and regeneration. A proliferation of literary forms, including didactic literature, prose renderings of classic works, and mystical tracts, was one symptom of this double tendency. The elegant Minnesang was replaced by the wooden verse of guild poetasters, the Meistersang (“mastersong”). The age’s preoccupation with death produced a macabre flowering of art: the dance of death, a large body of sermon literature on the memento mori theme, tracts on the art of dying well (ars moriendi), as well as a rich body of visual and plastic art.
A curious and remarkable work, Der Ackermann aus Böhmen (Death and the Ploughman is the colourful title of a modern translation), consists of a debate between its author, Johannes von Tepl, and the figure of Death that is in effect a confrontation between the moribund late Middle Ages and the life-affirming tendencies of a nascent Renaissance. Perched significantly on the watershed between a dying and a rising culture, Johannes von Tepl made his work, written about 1400, a monument to his young wife, Margaretha, who had recently died in childbirth. The author (the “ploughman”) raises a hue and cry against Death, who has robbed him of his wife. Death answers his complaints, and a debate follows in which Johannes defends the value of human life against its attacker, Death. God judges the debate and gives victory to Death but honour to man.
The Renaissance in Germany—rich in art, architecture, and learned humanist writings—was poor in German-language literature. Works from Italy were eagerly received and translated, especially those of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and the humanist scholar Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. Rabelais’s works found a vigorous imitator in Johann Fischart. For Germany the 16th century was an age of satire. One of its most popular works was Das Narrenschiff (1494; Ship of Fools) by Sebastian Brant, who thus inaugurated a genre of “fool” literature. (The best-known representative of this body of work is probably Desiderius Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly [1509].) One of the most versatile writers of popular plays, short stories in verse, and narrative and satirical poems was the Nürnberg shoemaker and Meistersinger Hans Sachs, whose style has the simplicity and roughness of woodcuts.
Among the abundant popular literary digests known as Volksbücher (“folk books,” popular prose narratives), one that deserves mention—because of its resonance in a time of renewed enthusiasm for learning and because of its grand future—is the Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1587). This story of a doctor whose thirst for knowledge leads him to make a pact with the Devil was to supply Goethe with the outline of his drama Faust.
The culture of Germany in the 16th century stood in the shadow of the Protestant Reformation, which was initiated by the German monk Martin Luther in 1517. Luther contributed to the development of the German language in his translation of the Bible, one of the vital forces creating a standard language in a Germany whose culture was essentially regional and whose language was essentially a collection of local dialects. The century’s literary culture produced few classic works but many instruments of religious propaganda, which now reached comparatively large audiences because of new media developed since the 14th century—the woodcut and the printing press. An extensive body of polemical literature served the causes of the parties to the religious schism initiated by Luther. Epistolae obscurorum virorum (1515–17; The Letters of Obscure Men), a witty satire written in large part by the humanists Crotus Rubeanus (Johannes Jäger) and Ulrich von Hutten against the anti-Semitic and antihumanistic forces at work in the German universities, opened a gap between humanists and conservative scholastic intellectuals that would favour the move of the humanists into the Lutheran camp, where they became part of an important intellectual coalition against the Roman Catholic party. The satiric mode of literature set the tone for popular polemics such as the “fool” satires of Thomas Murner, a Catholic adversary of Martin Luther: Die Geuchmat (1519; “Field of Fools”) and Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren (1522; “Concerning the Great Lutheran Fool”).
The 16th century, although poor in great works of literature, was an immensely vital period that produced extraordinary characters such as the revolutionary humanist Ulrich von Hutten, the Nürnberg artist Albrecht Dürer, the Reformer Luther, and the doctor-scientist-charlatan Paracelsus. In the early modern period, as in various periods before and after, Germany was subject to division and party wrangling.
The Baroque
The political and social consequences of the Reformation reached with devastating effect into the 17th and early 18th centuries. German literature of the Baroque period (c. 1600–1720) suffers equally from the miseries of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), in which the various tensions set in place by the religious divisions were fought out, and from Germany’s dependence on foreign cultural models—particularly on the French model.
It was an age of contradictions and extremes: A wealthy, sophisticated, overly ornate court society coexisted with political chaos and destructive warfare. A courtly literature of sublime, chivalric ideals and romances that were played out in utopian landscapes thrived opposite a court drama obsessed with violence, intrigue, murder, and betrayal. Sensual lyric poetry with Petrarchan-Platonic strains of ideal love was matched by poems exhibiting a preoccupation with death, mutability, the corruption of the flesh, and the illusory nature of life (“Life is a dream” was a prominent motif of Baroque literature). Extremes of worldliness met extremes of religiosity.
The period produced one major work that quintessentially expressed the chaotic extravagance and deep wretchedness of life in Germany in the 17th century: the novel Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1669; The Adventurous Simplicissimus) by Hans Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen. It is a bildungsroman, or “novel of education,” with many parallels to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. After his putative father disappears in a marauding episode of the Thirty Years’ War, the young hero sets out into the world as a simple fool, knowing nothing yet often wiser than the experienced fools he encounters. His crazy-quilt career takes him through one role after another: a fool, a woman, an officer’s adjutant, a Robin Hood-like highwayman, an army officer, a prisoner of war, a pilgrim, a nobleman, and a snake-oil salesman. Erotic adventures in Paris leave him with a disfiguring disease. He makes visits to utopian communities. One of them is populated by mermen and mermaids and located at the bottom of a lake in the Black Forest. The only controlling logic of the work is unpredictability. There is no development of character, no movement toward an ethical goal, only the changing of masks. At each point where a stable life could develop, some unpredictable catastrophe interferes, often brought about by the war. In the end, the fool-hero abandons the treacherous world and retreats to the forest, where he lives as a religious hermit.
Alongside Grimmelshausen, other Baroque writers who deserve mention are the poet and poetic theorist Martin Opitz, who introduced foreign literary models and rules into German poetry, and the lyric poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, who wrote sonnets and tragedies imbued with a deep Christian faith.
Baroque-era efforts to form a German literary culture in the popular theatre and in the Sprachgesellschaften (“language societies”)—established to further the use of the German language and the development of German literary activity—were small currents in the chaotic tide of pessimism, fear, cynicism, and despair that swept Germany in the 17th century.
C. Stephen Jaeger

The 18th century

Age of Enlightenment
Recovery from the devastating Thirty Years’ War was reflected in the cultural life of the Holy Roman Empire and in the various German states. The era of confessional conflict and war had come to an end in 1648, but urban culture continued to decline, and the empire became a country of innumerable courts. Dependent mostly upon princely patronage, cultural life became decentralized and very provincial. By the middle of the 18th century, however, after decades of exhaustion, stagnation, and provincialization, a significant cultural and literary revival occurred that was to provide the basis of one of Germany’s most exalted literary periods, the Weimar Classicism of the 1790s (sometimes called the “age of Goethe”).
This recovery was accompanied by a new understanding of man’s ability to master nature and by a belief in his rational capacity to set his own moral course. Enlightenment optimism envisioned progress as attainable through education and science. The foundations of this rationalism were laid in science by Sir Isaac Newton and in philosophy by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, with his Essais de Théodicée (1710; Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil) and his Monadologie (1714; Monadology). To Leibniz this was the best of all possible worlds. He constructed a model for the universe as an absolutist state with God as the monarch, or central monad, which all other monads, including man, reflect and strive to emulate. This metaphysical model of the universe influenced European writers from Voltaire (who satirized Leibniz in Candide) to Goethe, who as late as 1832 represented the protagonist of Faust as a monad seeking salvation.
During the period of economic decline in the second half of the 17th century, the German courts and the educated class had sought to profit from the progressive developments in France by adopting not only the standards of French civilization but also its language. Leibniz wrote most of his essays in French or in Latin, which was the language of university scholarship. Those who wrote in German needed to free themselves from charges of provinciality and from foreign dominance. Considering popular German culture plebeian and vulgar, the aristocracy read only French literature and listened to Italian opera. By the 1750s the effort to demonstrate that German was capable of literary expression led to a search for roots in national history and a discovery of an indigenous German tradition in folk songs and ballads. These enterprises would serve as models for a national literature.
Early Enlightenment
The first literary reforms in Germany between 1724 and 1740, however, were based on French 17th-century Classicism. Its primary proponent was Johann Christoph Gottsched, a professor at Leipzig whose Versuch einer kritischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen (1730; “Essay on a German Critical Poetic Theory”) provided examples for German writers to follow. Gottsched’s principal criterion for the production and reception of literature was reason. Basing his precepts on a literal interpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics, he argued that Nature was governed by reason and that it was the task of poets to imitate reason as it manifested itself in Nature. He also initiated a reform of the German theatre aimed on the one hand against the Baroque extravagance of the aristocratic theatre and on the other against the vulgarity of popular theatre. He introduced tragedies and comedies conforming to the models of French Classicism, and he expelled from the stage the popular figure of the clown along with the clown’s crude jokes and ad-libbing. In addition, Gottsched edited some of the first German moral weeklies (so called because they were published for the moral edification of the middle class), which were patterned after English models such as The Spectator and The Tatler. While the plays of French Classicism, written for the court theatre, proved uncongenial to the German middle class, the moral weeklies provided acceptable reading material for Gottsched’s audience and contributed to the establishment of a middle-class public opinion.
Gottsched’s derivative, rule-governed poetics made him an unlikely candidate for founder of modern German literature. He functioned, instead, as the barrier to be overcome. Opposition arose on various fronts. Basing their arguments on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, two Swiss critics, Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger, called for a stronger emphasis on imagination in literary production: something virtually ruled out by Gottsched’s mechanical recipes for writing poetry. With the first cantos of his epic poem Der Messias (1748; The Messiah), Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock succeeded in re-creating the visionary heroism of Milton’s theological epics in a German poem on the life of Christ. It created a sensation in 1748, more by its poetic language and bold images than by its theme.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
The major representative of the Enlightenment in German literature was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He surmounted Gottsched’s strictures, declaring in 1759, in Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend, Nr. 17 (“Letters Concerning the Newest Literature, No. 17”), “Nobody will deny that the German stage owes a great share of its early improvement to Professor Gottsched. I am this Nobody!” It was Lessing who became, through his own impressive output of plays and theoretical writings for the theatre, the founder of modern German literature. Interestingly enough, he urged the story of Faust on his contemporaries as a subject particularly appropriate to the German stage.
With his play Miss Sara Sampson (1755), Lessing also introduced to the German stage a new genre: the bürgerliches Trauerspiel (“bourgeois tragedy”). It demonstrated that tragedy need not be limited to the highborn, as Gottsched had maintained in his interpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics. Lessing reinterpreted Aristotle in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–69; Hamburg Dramaturgy), asserting that the cathartic emotions of pity and fear are felt by the audience rather than by figures in the drama. With this stress on pity and on compassion, Lessing interpreted Aristotle in terms of Christian middle-class virtues and established Shakespeare as the model for German dramatists to follow. According to Lessing, Shakespeare’s tragedies arouse fear, pity, and compassion more successfully than the dramas of French Classicism. In Emilia Galotti (1772), his major “bourgeois tragedy,” Lessing adapted the Roman legend of Virginia to the setting of 18th-century absolutism: a father is forced to kill his own daughter in order to protect her from seduction by an absolutist prince. This obvious indictment of a political system escaped contemporary audiences but inspired the later dramatists of the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) movement, which exalted nature and human feeling and individualism.
In Minna von Barnhelm (1767), Lessing’s most successful comedy, he deals with love and honour in 18th-century Prussia. The play shows the protagonists’ emancipation from the Prussian code of honour and from societal conventions of marriage. Lessing’s lighthearted yet profound questioning of severe codes made his play the first work in German literature with a significant contemporary content.
His final, blank-verse drama, Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the Wise), is representative of the Enlightenment. Set in 12th-century Jerusalem during the Crusades, the play deals with religious tolerance. The dramatic conflicts are oriented to the conflicts of the three religions involved—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and coalesce in the love of a Knight Templar for the daughter of Nathan, the wise Jew who embodies the ideal of humanity. At the core of the play is the parable of the ring that Nathan offers as an answer to the question of which of the three religions is the true one. A father has one precious ring but three sons whom he loves equally. To avoid favouring one son, he obtains two identical copies of the ring, but only the “genuine” ring has the power to make its possessor beloved of God and men. The brothers are advised to prove through their actions which of the three received the original ring. The parable implies that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are involved like the three brothers in a competition to prove by ethical conduct—rather than by prejudice, warfare, and bickering over dogma—the truth of their respective religions. With this play Lessing was far ahead of his time, not only in terms of religious tolerance but also in his dramatic subversion of one of the stereotypes of European religious anti-Semitism: the evil Jew and his beautiful daughter. Lessing’s use of a wise Jew was a tribute to his friend Moses Mendelssohn, a philosopher who was the central figure of German Jewish emancipation.
Nathan der Weise shows that Lessing was involved in one of the central theological debates about religious revelation in 18th-century Germany, a debate in which he yielded neither to orthodoxy nor to superficial rationalism. The play was first conceived as a religious statement opposing Protestant orthodoxy rather than as a stage play, but the censorship that threatened to curtail Lessing’s long drawn-out polemics against dogmatic Protestant theologians encouraged him to make it a powerful drama. He never expected the play to be staged.
Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Christoph Martin Wieland
Although known mainly as the author of the epic Der Messias, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock was in fact the major poet of the German Enlightenment, liberating lyric poetry from the standing rules and stressing innovative language, images, and metres. His alleged discovery of a Germanic genre—the Bardiet (adapted from barditus, Tacitus’s term for a Germanic war song, and signifying a lyrical drama of national content)—was pure fiction, but the occasion revealed the nationalistic overtones of 18th-century German literature. Although this nationalism cannot be compared to that of the 19th and 20th centuries, it showed the central role of literature in the formation of German national consciousness.
Christoph Martin Wieland was the foremost novelist of the German Enlightenment. He introduced the Miguel de Cervantes model of Don Quixote in his Die Abentheuer des Don Sylvio von Rosalva (1764; The Adventures of Don Sylvio von Rosalva) and the Henry Fielding model of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews in his Geschichte des Agathon (1766–67; The History of Agathon). The hero of each is a visionary dreamer who, after many failures and erotic temptations, eventually adopts an enlightened outlook on life. Another of Wieland’s major contributions was his prose translation of Shakespeare into German, which served as an inspiration to Sturm und Drang dramatists. Although Wieland’s novels were forerunners of the bildungsroman, they missed the temper of the time in Germany by placing their protagonists in a fictitious Spain or ancient Greece rather than in 18th-century Germany. Sophie von La Roche, Wieland’s onetime fiancée and his protégé, wrote the first woman’s novel by a German, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771; History of Lady Sophia Sternheim); its female protagonist inhabited contemporary German and English society.
Johann Gottfried von Herder
The temper of the time demanded a concept of German national identity liberated from the tyranny of Rome and Paris, and it demanded a literature that would express this new national self-awareness. Johann Gottfried von Herder, who had abandoned a comfortable position as pastor in provincial Riga (then part of the Russian Empire) on the Baltic Sea in order to pursue philosophical interests, was a central figure in this movement. He was a transitional figure, belonging to the Enlightenment as well as to the Sturm und Drang movement. His Journal meiner Reise im Jahr 1769 (Journal of My Travels in the Year 1769) is a diary of his ocean journey from Riga to Nantes, France, and at the same time an allegory of a progress away from unthinking German provincialism to the kind of strongly individualistic rebellion that was to set the tone for his generation of German intellectuals and poets. Herder conceived the idea of cultural relativism and historicism that regards each culture as possessing a distinct collective identity, an “ethnic soul” (Volksseele) that allows it to be studied and judged within its own context. The existence of a Volksseele, in Herder’s view, creates national destinies: to realize and perfect the authentic characteristics of the Volk and prevent their nature from being lost through ignorance or foreign dominance. This mission is especially critical for peoples who have forgotten or abandoned or not yet found their own identities, and the latter certainly applied to the Germans in the mid-18th century, when a German nation-state did not exist.
Herder’s theory legitimated the study of folk literature and privileged its naive but expressive discourse as a model for 18th-century poetry. It was precisely popular oral poetry (Volksdichtung) that contained and defined the Volksseele. While Herder contributed two seminal essays, on Ossian (the counterfeit 3rd-century Gaelic poet created by James MacPherson) and on Shakespeare, to the volume Von deutscher Art und Kunst (1773; “Concerning German Character and Art”), the Sturm und Drang manifesto on language and drama, he continued to support Enlightenment ideas in his Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität (1793–97; “Letters for the Advancement of Humanity”). His concept of Humanität (“humanism”), reconciling intellect and feeling, provided continuity between the Enlightenment and Weimar Classicism.
The major achievement of the Enlightenment in Germany was the formation of a public opinion expressing the concerns of the educated middle class of writers and readers. The first vehicles of this opinion were the moral weeklies, which focused on ethical instruction. Then came the literary periodicals, as edited by Lessing and others; these concentrated on aesthetics. Lastly, national group enterprises, as manifested in works such as Von deutscher Art und Kunst, dealt with national history and national identity. Thus occurred a development and shift from morals to aesthetics and, finally, to national concerns.
Late Enlightenment (Sturm Und Drang)
The Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) movement, with its emphasis on feeling and individualism, has often been described as having developed in opposition to the Enlightenment, but it also adapts and extends such basic ideas of early 18th-century rationalism as natural law, constitutional government, and the rights of the middle class, especially those of middle-class women. The Enlightenment as a European movement had begun in England and Holland and spread from there to France. When it finally arrived in Germany, English authors became the models for German literature to follow during the latter half of the 18th century, after the influence of French Classicism had faded. Even a literary forgery of poetic fragments by the fictional Ossian exerted an immense influence, because it corresponded to the German authors’ new understanding of popular oral poetry and seemed to provide a representative national poet in whom the Volksseele of the Scottish Celts lived on unspoiled.
In lyric poetry, the Sturm und Drang movement continued in admiration of the standards set by Herder in his essay on Ossian and by Klopstock in his poetry. An influential group of Göttingen poets named themselves the Göttinger Hain (“Göttingen Grove”) in 1772 after a line from a Klopstock poem stressing the authenticity of native poetry vis-à-vis Classical Greek models, thus demonstrating their enthusiastic allegiance to Klopstock. The Sturm und Drang dramatists admired Lessing and his bourgeois tragedies, especially Emilia Galotti, with its social and political criticism. Besides bourgeois tragedy, they favoured historical drama, such as Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen (1773), and dramatic satire; however, bourgeois tragedy remained the prime vehicle of Sturm und Drang drama. In their plays, the dramatists attacked social and political conditions such as prostitution, sexual exploitation of middle-class women by the nobility, private education of the nobility by tutors, primogeniture, and capital punishment for infanticide. Next to the young Goethe, and the young Friedrich Schiller as a latecomer in 1781 with Die Räuber (The Robbers), the major dramatists were Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, Johann Anton Leisewitz, Heinrich Leopold Wagner, and Friedrich Müller. Their favourite male protagonists are titanic, revolutionary characters with self-destructive passions, fighting against the evils of the world and ending in defeat. With the dramatization of problems of primogeniture (Leisewitz, Klinger, and Schiller), fratricide as a motif assumed biblical dimensions. A favourite female stage figure is the deserted mother who resorts to infanticide to avoid the social stigma of illegitimate motherhood and faces capital punishment as a result. This topic also formed the core of Goethe’s Urfaust (begun in the early 1770s but not published until 1887), the first version of his treatment of the Faust figure.
The novelists, introducing the autobiographical novel, continued a search for authentic bourgeois voices that had begun during the Enlightenment. Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, but substantially revised in 1787; The Sorrows of Young Werther) was an immense success, not only in Germany but also throughout Europe. Changing the conventions of the epistolary novel from an exchange of letters to a passionate monologue, Goethe captured and addressed the malaise and Weltschmerz (“world-weariness”) of his generation. Werther narrates the desperate love affair of a sensitive young poet-dilettante with a married woman; it ends in the young man’s suicide. The novel sets the passionate intensity of a fatally flawed artist type against the plodding reliability of the middle class and the callous stupidity and self-satisfaction of the aristocracy. As passionate in rebellion as it was futile in reform, Werther reflected its generation’s opposition to societal convention and at the same time their inability to effect change.
The other novels of this period show lower-middle-class protagonists in works such as Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser, 4 vol. (1785–90; Anton Reiser: A Psychological Novel), Ulrich Bräker’s Lebensgeschichte und natürliche Ebenteuer des Armen Manns im Tockenburg (1789; “Life Story and Natural Adventures of the Poor Man in Tockenburg”), and Heinrich Jung-Stilling’s Heinrich Stillings Jugend: eine wahrhafte Geschichte (1777; “Heinrich Stilling’s Youth: A True Story”).
When Goethe accepted a civil service position at the court of the duke of Saxony-Weimar in 1775, this conservative turn by one of the leading figures of the movement marked the end of the Sturm und Drang movement as a period of generational protest.
Weimar Classicism: Goethe and Schiller
It took Goethe more than 10 years to adapt himself to life at the court. After a two-year sojourn in Italy from 1786 to 1788, he published his first Neoclassical work, the drama Iphigenie auf Tauris (1779–87; Iphigenie in Tauris), which reflects his reading of the great Greek dramas, specifically of Euripides’ Iphigeneia en Taurois. Goethe’s Iphigenie, in blank verse, marks the beginning of Weimar Classicism, with its projection of objectivity of form and a new ethical message of Humanität in opposition to barbarism. (Weimar Classicism owes its name to Goethe’s and Schiller’s residence at Weimar.) Iphigenie rescues her brother Orestes from the death to which he is condemned by the harsh customs of the island of Tauris, where she lives in exile. She softens the harshness of the “barbarian” king Thoas, calling forth his forgiveness by throwing herself and her brother completely at his mercy and facing death rather than lie to save her family. He is so moved by her honesty and trustfulness, by what Goethe would call some years later her “pure humanity” (reine Menschlichkeit), that he releases her and her Greek countrymen to return home. Iphigenie’s “humanity” not only conquers barbaric customs; it also lifts the curse that pursues her entire family, the descendants of Tantalus—the same curse that had driven her brother Orestes to kill his own mother, Clytemnestra.
Goethe completed his Renaissance drama Torquato Tasso (1790) on the eve of the French Revolution. It deals with the fate of the bourgeois poet in courtly society and arises from Goethe’s own dilemma at the court of Weimar. The poet Tasso finds himself isolated and misunderstood by the court. He feels that he can no longer glorify his noble patron and the aristocratic society that nurtures and protects him but must respond to a higher calling that commands him to express his individual suffering. In the final scene, Tasso, exiled in favour of the courtier and diplomat Antonio, embraces his rival, who saves him from self-destruction and helps him to accept his new identity as a bourgeois poet.
The meeting of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar and Jena in 1794 began not only a friendship but also a dialogue that proved mutually productive and creative. It was at Schiller’s insistence that Goethe resumed his major work, Faust, Part I, which he completed three years after Schiller’s death in 1808. Weimar Classicism was the “shared achievement” (as T.J. Reed puts it in his 1984 biography Goethe) of Goethe and Schiller and is considered the culmination of German literature. Goethe’s and Schiller’s move toward Greek Classicism at the end of the 18th century was motivated by the search for aesthetic standards in contemporary literature. Both were aware that they could not repeat the achievements of Greek Classicism but that an infusion of Classical Greek aesthetics would contribute to new forms for their culture and literature, forms suited to the character of their time. Their Classicism was to be an integration of individualism into a higher form and a reformulation of Herder’s concept of Humanität. For this purpose Goethe employed Classical metres and genres such as the epigram, the elegy, and even the epic, as in his idyll Hermann und Dorothea (1797), for example, which portrays in Greek hexameters the fate of German refugees from the French Revolution. But Goethe and Schiller did not shun modern genres, such as the ballad or, in Goethe’s case, the novel. With his Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–96; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), Goethe provided the “founding text” of the German bildungsroman. The concept of Bildung (“formation”), linked to Humanität as harmonious development of individuality, was central to Goethe’s work. His protagonist, Wilhelm Meister, progresses through a series of metamorphoses of role and character, eventually abandoning ill-conceived plans for a career in the theatre. Gradually in the course of the novel and its much later continuation, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821–29; Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Travel), the notion of a significant destiny toward which the hero develops—inward compulsion finding direction through experience, the ego-driven goal of formation of the inner kernel of selfhood—gives way to a more modest ideal of restraint and self-control achieved through adapting to wise and authoritative models outside the self. Wilhelm ends his development modestly by becoming an ordinary medic. In spite of the hero’s incomplete and modest Bildung, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre became a model for the German novel of education until the 20th century.
Like Goethe, Schiller was a many-sided talent. Alongside his lyric and historical works (a history of the Thirty Years’ War among them), he had established a reputation with his powerful dramas of the Sturm und Drang period, but his Classical period produced his major dramas, the Wallenstein trilogy (1800–01, drawing on his historian’s knowledge of the Thirty Years’ War) and Maria Stuart (1800), probably his most successful play. The figure of the condemned rival of Queen Elizabeth for the throne of England is the dramatic realization of Schiller’s idea of erhabene Seele (“sublimity of soul”). Schiller’s Mary Stuart attains sublimity by facing her death with a noble dignity that overcomes all desire and worldly ambition and makes her in death superior to her successful rival, Elizabeth.
In Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801; The Maid of Orleans), Schiller’s Joan of Arc dies a sublime death on the battlefield, instead of perishing at the stake as the historical Joan did. His last drama, Demetrius (1805)—on the deluded pretender to the Russian throne at the end of the 16th century—remains a fragment.
Schiller had found the philosophical essay useful in his early days, but the form came to fruition in his Classical period. His most influential philosophical works were Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (1795; Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man), Über Anmut und Würde (1793; “On Grace and Dignity”), and Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795–96; Naive and Sentimental Poetry). Schiller developed his ideas of Anmut (“grace”) and Würde (“dignity”) under the influence of Immanuel Kant. The Kantian notion of the sublime allowed Schiller to articulate an ideal of the subjection of Neigung (“impulse”) to Pflicht (“duty”), which results in an inner composition and control expressed outwardly in grace and composure. The dramatic protagonists of his Classical dramas (particularly Mary Stuart and Joan of Arc) embody the ethical message essential to grace and dignity by maintaining Humanität in the face of adversity. The essay “Naive and Sentimental Poetry” presents itself as a reflection on two types of poetry—one spontaneous and natural (naiv), the other forced and calculated, a product of will and laborious poetic engineering (sentimentalisch). In it Schiller also reflects on the difference between himself, the “sentimental” writer, and his envied friend Goethe, the “naive” poet. According to Schiller, all truly modern literature is “sentimental”; “naive” poetry is a lost mode from a no-longer-attainable phase of creativity, one that is only recoverable in individual geniuses like Goethe, not in the spirit of the contemporary world.
An important accomplishment of their friendship was the completion of Goethe’s Faust, Part I (1808). The play’s core was the infanticide tragedy Urfaust (from the 1770s), in which a village girl, Margarete, is destroyed along with her whole family by her love affair with Faust. The latter, a scholar and professor glutted with dry book learning and hungry for experience, resorts to magic, arranges a pact with the Devil, and embarks on a journey with his new companion, Mephistopheles, that leads him straight to Margarete and their fatal love affair. The greater drama of 1808 fits this tragic love story into the cosmic frame of a wager between God and Mephisto, modeled on the wager of God with Satan in the biblical book of Job. The wager is not that Faust will shun evil but that his association with the Devil will not deter him from ultimately striving for God as the central monad (see above for a discussion of Leibnitz’s Monadology). The bet is ultimately resolved in Faust, Part II (1832), in favour of God—contrary to the Renaissance tradition in which Faust forfeits his soul. Faust can be redeemed because of his striving for God and the supernal love that comes to his aid. The cosmic drama of the play’s final scenes is an apocalyptic allegory reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Faust’s soul is wrested from the Devil partly by the intercession of his former beloved, Margarete, who comes to earth from heaven, in a chorus including other redeemed women as well as the Mater Gloriosa (“Glorious Mother,” an epithet for the Virgin Mary present in Catholic litany), to receive Faust’s earthly remains and to inspire the closing lines of the drama:
Alles Vergängliche
Ist nur ein Gleichniss;
Das Unzulängliche
Hier wird’s Ereigniss;
Das Unbeschreibliche
Hier ist’s getan
Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.
All that is transitory
Is but a parable;
The unattainable
Here it is done;
The ineffable
Here becomes fact:
The Eternal Feminine
Shows us the way to transcend.
A chorus of angels sings that his redemption is realized through his “constant striving”: “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,/ Den können wir erlösen” (“We can give redemption to him who struggles in constant questing”). But human striving would be in vain if it were not for the “Liebe von oben” (“supernal love”), the divine love embodied in Margarete.
Goethe and The Romantics
In the years after Schiller’s death in 1805, Goethe developed a style that was in some ways Romantic, but he nevertheless maintained a distance from the younger generation of Romanticists. He shared their interest in Greek antiquity but not their nationalist politics, their inclination toward Catholicism, or their idealization of the Middle Ages. Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities), with its emphasis on the supranatural and spiritual as well as on the sainthood of the female protagonist, is an example of this new style. Another example is Part II of his Faust drama. This sprawling cosmic allegory dramatizes the magician’s career at the emperor’s court, his ventures into Classical Greece and union with Helen of Troy, and his final salvation in a scene of mountain gorges, replete with Catholic saints, including the Holy Virgin.
Goethe’s poetry of this period was characterized by exoticism, an assimilation of foreign genres and styles, such as those of Chinese or, especially, Persian poetry. His West-östlicher Divan (1819; Poems of the West and the East) is a collection of poetry in imitation of Ḥāfeẓ and other Persian poets. Sharing this exoticism with the Romantics, Goethe nevertheless was able to adapt the mode to his own expressive needs. With his continuation of Wilhelm Meister as an archival novel in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, Goethe approached 20th-century Modernism.
Jean Paul, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Heinrich Von Kleist
Three other writers belonging to this post-Classical period are Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter), Friedrich Hölderlin, and Heinrich von Kleist. Often referred to as Romantics, they stood in an ambiguous relation to Goethe, one compounded of admiration and antagonism. Both Hölderlin and Kleist shared Goethe’s interest in Greek antiquity, while Jean Paul with his eccentric and discursive novels was a German successor to the 18th-century English novelist Laurence Sterne.
Jean Paul was opposed to Goethe and Schiller as well as to the Romantics, and with his humour he tried to maintain a middle path between the opposing schools of literature. Neither of his two major novels, Siebenkäs (1796–97; title is the hero’s name) and Titan (1800–03), qualifies as a bildungsroman. Siebenkäs is the story of a poor man’s lawyer who attempts to escape his marital problems by simulating death, and Titan has a number of protagonists with titanic ambitions defying the very model of balanced Bildung in the Goethean sense.
Hölderlin was able to revive with considerable success genres of Greek poetry—the Horatian ode, the elegy, and the Pindaric ode—in German literature and to fuse his love for his native land with the longing for ancient Greece. His epistolary novel Hyperion; oder, der Eremit in Griechenland (1797–99; Hyperion; or, The Hermit in Greece) integrates ideals of Platonic philosophy into a revolutionary concern for the restoration of the ancient poetical and intellectual grandeur of a Greece that had come under Turkish domination.
Kleist pushed beyond the borders of Weimar Classicism with his dramas on Greek subjects (Amphitryon in 1807 and Penthesilea in 1808) and his historical dramas (Die Hermannsschlacht, or “Hermann’s Battle,” dealing with the defeat of the Romans by Germanic tribes under Arminius [Hermann] in ad 9, and Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, a play about the conflict of Prussian military law and human compassion; both plays were posthumously published in 1821), while his novellas (Erzählungen, 1810–11; Eng. trans. The Marquise of O– and Other Stories) are remarkable for their classical mastery of form and subject matter. In Kleist’s tale “Das Erdbeben in Chili” (“The Earthquake in Chile”), from the Erzählungen volume, a nun (who has borne a child) and her lover are saved from execution and suicide, respectively, by an earthquake that destroys all of Santiago and their persecutors. They perceive the cataclysm as an act of redemptive grace sent by God. But their illusions of divine grace are shattered when a churchman incites a frightened mob to slay the two “sinners” (whose misdeed is understood to have caused the earthquake). The Erzählungen story “Die Marquise von O–” begins when a reputable young woman places an ad in the newspaper asking the father of the child she is bearing to make his identity known to her; she has become pregnant without her own knowledge or conscious participation. The theme of “Michael Kohlhaas,” also in Erzählungen, is the unbending search for justice of a wronged man who destroys himself seeking redress.
Kleist was more affected by the violence of his period than any other German writer and made the display of violence a central topic of his works. In his drama Die Hermannsschlacht and his Erzählungen novella Die Verlobung in St. Domingo (The Engagement in Santo Domingo), the concept of violence as a just means in the fight against imperialism takes on strong anti-French overtones, reflecting the emergence of modern German nationalism in the wars against Napoleon. Nationalism links Kleist to the Romantic Movement, which made a fierce and revolutionary patriotism into one of its programmatic features.

The 19th century

The Romantic Movement
The early years of German Romanticism have been aptly termed the theoretical phase of a movement whose origin can be traced back to the Sturm und Drang era and, beyond Germany itself, to the French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An interest in individual liberty and in nature as a source of poetic inspiration is a common thread in the sequence of the movements Sturm und Drang, Weimar Classicism, and Romanticism, which from one perspective can be regarded as separate phases in a single literary development. Within this framework, the German Romantics forged a distinctive new synthesis of poetry, philosophy, and science. Two generations of Romantic writers are usually distinguished: the older group, composed in part of Ludwig Tieck, Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Novalis, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel; and the younger group, comprising Achim von Arnim, Clemens Brentano, Joseph Eichendorff, Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, and the painter Philipp Otto Runge.
The French Revolution (1787–99) had had a decisive impact on German Romantic writers and thinkers. The Napoleonic Wars, beginning in 1792 and ending with the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15, brought much suffering and ultimately led to a major restructuring of Germany. The upheavals of this period gave rise to a new desire for a uniquely German cultural movement that would explicitly oppose French rationalism.
German Idealist philosophy played an important role in the genesis of Romanticism, which saw itself as grappling with a crisis in human subjectivity and laying the foundation for a new synthesis of mental and physical reality. The first step was taken by Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre (1794; “Science of Knowledge”), which defined the subject (“Ich,” or “I”) in terms of its relation to the object-world (“Nicht-Ich,” or “Not-I”). Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling’s Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (1797; Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature) posited a reciprocal relationship between nature and mind: his famous formulation “Nature is unconscious mind, mind is unconscious nature” forms the groundwork for a great deal of German Romantic literature. Friedrich von Schlegel’s philosophical writings continued this line of thinking by reevaluating the role of creative imagination in human life. Poetry—the Romantics’ term for all forms of creative writing—was an anticipation of a future harmony in which all forms of conflict would be resolved in a vast productive unity. Adapting Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s dialectic (a posited interaction of opposite ideas leading to a synthesis), Schlegel developed his key concept of “irony,” by which he meant a form of thinking or writing that included its own self-reflection and self-critique. Ironic poetry, in Schlegel’s view, was a two-track form of literature in which a naive or immediate perception of reality is accompanied by a more sophisticated critical reflection upon it.
The Romantic writer Novalis (the pseudonym of Friedrich Leopold, Baron von Hardenberg) put Schlegel’s theory of irony into practice in his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802; Henry of Ofterdingen), which depicts the development of a naive young man who is destined to become a poet. Heinrich’s untutored responses to experience are juxtaposed with a sequence of inset narratives that culminate in an allegorical “fairy tale” that was to be followed, according to the author’s notes, by the depiction of an “astral” counterreality. Each successive stage of the novel was to move toward a higher and more complex understanding of the world.
Many of the German Romantics drew heavily on contemporary science, notably on Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert’s Ansichten von der Nachtseite der Naturwissenschaften (1808; “Views about the Night Side of Science”). In contrast to the Enlightenment, the Romantic Movement reevaluated the power of rational thinking, preferring instead more intuitive modes of thought such as dreams (in Schubert’s terms, the “night side” as opposed to the “day side” of reality). In many ways, the German Romantics can be seen as anticipating Sigmund Freud in their emphasis on the pervasive influence of the unconscious in human motivation. Characteristic Romantic motifs such as night, moonlight, dreams, hallucinations, inchoate longings, and a melancholic sense of lack or loss are direct reflections of this interest in the unconscious.
According to the Romantics, some minds are particularly adapted to discern the hidden workings of nature. Poets, they believed, possess the faculty of hearing the “voice of nature” and transposing it into human language. Lyric poetry was a dominant genre throughout the period, with Ludwig Tieck, Joseph Eichendorff, and Clemens Brentano as its major practitioners. Folk traditions such as the fairy tale, ballad, and folk song were also seen as ways of gaining access to preconscious modes of thought. Fairy tales and folk poetry were the object of quasi-scholarly collections such as the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812–15; “Children’s and Household Stories,” commonly known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales), assembled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the poetry anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805–08; “The Boy’s Magic Horn”), edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. At the same time, these genres were also much imitated, as in Ludwig Tieck’s sophisticated “art fairy tale” Der blonde Eckbert (1797; “Blond Eckbert”). The Romantics were also intensely interested in the Middle Ages, which they saw as a simpler and more integrated time that could become a model for the new political, social, and religious unity they were seeking. Novalis’s essay “Die Christenheit oder Europa” (1799; “Christendom or Europe”) expressed this view.
As the Romantic Movement unfolded, its writers became increasingly aware of the tenuous nature of the synthesis they were attempting to establish, and they felt wracked by a sense of irreconcilable dualism. Later Romanticism is perhaps best exemplified by E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose best-known tales, such as Der goldne Topf (1814; The Golden Pot) and Der Sandmann (1816; The Sandman), turn upon a tension between an everyday or philistine world and the seemingly crazed mental projections of creative genius. The poetry of Heinrich Heine, with its simultaneous expression and critique of Romantic sentiment, is also characteristic of this later phase of the movement; indeed, Heine is best seen as a transitional figure who emerged from late Romanticism but had his most decisive influence during the 1830s. His essay “Die Romantische Schule” (1833–35; “The Romantic School”) presented a critique of Romanticism’s tendency to look to the medieval past.

Realist modes

Bourgeois Realism
The deaths of Hegel in 1831 and of Goethe in 1832 released many German writers from the feeling that they stood in the shadow of great men. A new group of writers, only very loosely connected, began to emerge who felt that the aesthetic models of the age of Goethe could be laid aside in favour of a distinctly political form of literature. Inspired by the July Revolution in France (1830), these young German liberals aimed to have a direct impact on social, political, and moral realities. They opted in the main for literary forms such as pamphlets, essays, journalism, and satire. The agitations of this period gave rise to a tradition of political lyric, exemplified by the work of Heinrich Heine, which continued to provide models for political poetry into the late 20th century. Many of the “Young German” writers were prohibited from publishing their writing in Germany, because of their opposition to feudal absolutism and their promotion of democratic ideals. Some produced their works in exile, as in the case of Heine, whose long poem Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen (1844; Germany, A Winter’s Tale) presented a damning critique of his native land, and Ludwig Börne, whose Briefe aus Paris (1831–34; Letters from Paris) provided an influential record of the political ferment in France. Others were condemned to periods of imprisonment, as were Karl Gutzkow for his novel Wally die Zweiflerin (1835; Wally the Sceptic) and Heinrich Laube for his journalistic activity in support of political liberalism. Georg Büchner narrowly escaped imprisonment following the publication of his radical socialist pamphlet Der hessische Landbote (1834; “Messenger to the Hessian Peasants”), an attack on authoritarian government in his native Hesse. He is best known for his revolutionary drama Dantons Tod (1835; Danton’s Death) and for his remarkable dramatic fragment and critique of the social class system, Woyzeck (1879; Eng. trans. Woyzeck), published posthumously.
German realism, variously termed Bourgeois, or Poetic, Realism, is usually thought to have begun about 1840. In its earliest manifestations German realism is closely linked with the Biedermeier movement in art and interior decoration, a sedate and dignified style that emphasized the value of real things, domestic tranquility, and the social status quo. Writers linked with Biedermeier are Adalbert Stifter, Eduard Friedrich Mörike, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Karl Immermann, and Nikolaus Lenau. Adalbert Stifter paid loving attention to detail, cherishing individual objects, plants, and stones because, large or small, they bore witness to the order of the cosmos as a whole. In the preface to his collection of stories Bunte Steine (1853; “Stones of Many Colours”), Stifter enunciates most movingly his principle of the “sanftes Gesetz” (“gentle law of nature”), according to which the force that causes milk to boil over in the pot is the same as that which causes volcanoes to erupt. By attending to small phenomena that commonly recur, Stifter argues, one can more effectively represent reality than by focusing on more cataclysmic events. His carefully controlled narrative style, with its repeated motifs and structural symmetries, reveals upon closer inspection an awareness of upheaval and disruption.
The Bourgeois Realists refrained from depicting the larger social and political world as exemplified in urban reality and focused instead on village or peasant life and isolated individuals cut off from world events. Swiss writers Gottfried Keller and Jeremias Gotthelf (Albert Bitzius) are representative of this tendency, often known as “provincial realism.” Keller’s representative work is his collection of stories about life in his home country, Die Leute von Seldwyla (1856–74; The People of Seldwyla). Gotthelf is best known for his novella Die schwarze Spinne (1842; The Black Spider). Similarly, in his collection of stories Studien (1844–50; “Studies”), Stifter prefers isolated geographic settings, frequently the heart of the forest, and lonely protagonists whose little worlds are almost entirely of their own making. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s novella Die Judenbuche (1842; The Jew’s Beech), a murder mystery set in a Westphalian village, also belongs to this genre.
The Bourgeois Realists saw themselves as epigones or latecomers who could only inadequately emulate the great works of their predecessor Goethe. The two major novels of Bourgeois Realism, Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (1857; Indian Summer) and Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich (first version 1854–55; Green Henry) are suffused with an acute awareness of the fragility of memory, a deep sense of personal loss, and a consciousness that reality cannot live up to the ideal. Nineteenth-century lyric poetry, especially that of Eduard Friedrich Mörike and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, is similarly marked by a highly sensitive, elegiac relation to experience.
In contrast to the German Romantics, the German Bourgeois Realists did not attempt to create an all-encompassing philosophy. Instead, they focused on the essential subjectivity of experience. The individual’s angle of vision was fundamentally important to them, and to illustrate that subjectivity they made frequent use of metaphors having to do with sight and the instruments of sight. The novella, originally derived from the technique of embedding individual stories within a large narrative frame, is used by the Bourgeois Realists to draw attention to the limitations of individual subjectivity and to the problems of narration. Thus, despite its focus on the world of “objects,” German realism is anything other than objective. Later realist works, notably those of Wilhelm Raabe, explore the problem of how human beings come to know what they do and draw attention to the troublesome problem of gaps in their knowledge. Perhaps the best example is Raabe’s novel Stopfkuchen (1891; “Plumcake”), a circuitous double-framework narrative about a long-unresolved murder. Similarly, Theodor Woldsen Storm’s doubly framed novella Der Schimmelreiter (1888; The Rider on the White Horse) strikes a precarious balance between rational knowledge and superstition against the backdrop of Frisian village life.
Theodor Fontane
While some German novelists, for example Gustav Freytag in his novel about North German merchants, Soll und Haben (1855; Debit and Credit), did heed the economic circumstances of social development, German realism was not greatly concerned with this central theme of European realism. The novels of Theodor Fontane, however, owe much to Sir Walter Scott’s extensive use of conversation as a way of moving narrative forward and Gustave Flaubert’s methods of enabling the reader to enter the minds of his characters. Fontane’s novels of Berlin life—Irrungen, Wirrungen (1888; Entanglements), Frau Jenny Treibel (1892; Eng. trans. Jenny Treibel), and Effi Briest (1895; Eng. trans. Effi Briest)—are dazzling examples of social criticism and psychological observation. The tension between modern marriage and public life is depicted with a fine sense of irony. In Effi Briest, for example, a young woman who has imagined that marriage will fulfill her social ambitions is frustrated when she discovers that her husband, a Prussian official who is part of Otto von Bismarck’s inner circle, is constantly drawn away from domestic life by his political duties. Like the Bourgeois Realists, Fontane also depends on close description of detail and repeated images that acquire the significance of a leitmotiv; like the Bourgeois Realists, too, he imbues his works with a poignant sense of resignation in the face of forces too vast to counteract. A famous phrase in Effi Briest, repeatedly uttered by the heroine’s father—“Das ist ein zu weites Feld” (“That is too big a subject”)—epitomizes this spirit of capitulation. Der Stechlin (published posthumously in 1899; The Stechlin), the great novel of Fontane’s old age, mourns the decline of the aristocracy through the lens of a narrative about a single family that bears the same name as a lake. The continued existence of nature (i.e., the lake) is seen as a consolation for the prospect of the family’s demise. At the same time, Fontane’s novels also criticize excessive conservatism, as in the complex discussion in Effi Briest, a novel about adultery, as to whether the wronged husband is obliged by the code of honour of his class to challenge his rival to a duel even though considerable time has elapsed between the adulterous affair and its discovery. Similarly, in several of his novels Fontane criticizes the conservative restrictions on women’s education, which he condemns as superficial, riddled with gaps, and fraught with superstition.
19th-Century Drama
The tendency toward slowly unfolding plot that characterizes much 19th-century German literature was not especially conducive to the development of drama. Nonetheless, at least three dramatists from the period have found a place in the literary canon. Reacting against Weimar Classicism and aspiring to accede to the position that had been occupied by Goethe and Schiller, these playwrights of the 1820s to ’50s experimented with historical drama based variously on Greek, biblical, or German themes. The patriotic drama König Ottokars Glück und Ende (1825; King Ottocar: His Rise and Fall), by Franz Grillparzer, and Napoleon; oder, die hundert Tage (1831; “Napoleon; or, The Hundred Days”), by Christian Dietrich Grabbe, are examples of this genre. These works can be seen as precursors of an entire series of 20th-century history plays, beginning with those of Bertolt Brecht, in which political and social issues are explored through displacement into an earlier historical period. Continuing a tradition established largely by Lessing, the third important 19th-century dramatist is Christian Friedrich Hebbel, who wrote, among other plays, a bourgeois tragedy, Maria Magdalena (1844).
In the last two decades of the 19th century, the influence of French realists and naturalists such as Flaubert, Honoré Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola gave rise to a new concern for social problems, the life of the lower classes, and the driven nature of the human psyche. The two main centres of the German naturalist movement were Munich and Berlin, where its programmatic declarations were published in small periodicals. The Freie Bühne (“Free Stage”) in Berlin became the arena for new controversial plays presented only to private audiences in order to escape censorship. Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf published three prose sketches under the title Papa Hamlet (1889), in which the characters’ actions are captured in minute, realistic detail. The technique was known as Sekundenstil (“second-by-second style”). The novella Bahnwärter Thiel (1888; Lineman Thiel), by Gerhart Hauptmann, explores the psychology of a railway-crossing guard who is driven to insanity and ultimately to murder by the death of his young son. Hauptmann’s dramas, most notably his play about the Silesian weavers and their futile rebellion, Die Weber (1892; The Weavers), with its emphasis on lower-class figures and their struggle for bare existence, are the best examples of the deterministic views of German naturalism. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912.

Fin de siècle movements

Friedrich Nietzsche
Writing at the same time as the later realists and the naturalist writers but forming a bridge to German Modernism, Friedrich Nietzsche developed a philosophy that understood art as the result of a fundamental conflict between two opposing forces—the Apollonian, or the desire for Classical form and serenity, and the Dionysian, or the ecstatic and quasi-religious search for liberation from formal constraints. His Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy) was a significant influence on 20th-century literature and aesthetic theory. Nietzsche’s later works combined cultural pessimism with a vitalistic philosophy that called for the development of the “superman,” or titanic personality, capable of providing a new and more forceful type of cultural leadership. Rejecting mediocrity, Nietzsche believed that the ideal personality was in a constant state of development, affirming its identity by continually enlarging its sphere of experience. Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85; Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886; Beyond Good and Evil) proclaimed the new ideals. In these works, Nietzsche also questioned the value of truth and knowledge, espousing the view that “facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations.” Nietzsche’s perspectivism, reflected in the composition of some of his works as an assemblage of aphorisms and essays, and his insistence that objectivity is a fiction provided an important basis for Modernist presentations of reality.
In the final decades of the 19th century the literary scene was divided between naturalism and its opposites, variously collected under terms such as Neoromanticism, Impressionism, Jugendstil, and Decadence. Aestheticism—the belief that the work of art need have no moral or political use beyond its existence as a beautiful object—may prove to be the most appropriate overarching term for this period. In a series of essays written between 1890 and 1904, the Austrian critic and playwright Hermann Bahr explained the unsettling effects of Impressionism, which appeared to dissolve the boundaries of objects and make even the perceiving subject little more than a fluctuating angle of vision. Hugo von Hofmannsthal presented a fictional analysis of the Impressionist philosophy in his influential essay Ein Brief (1902; “A Letter,” commonly known as “Chandos-Brief,” Eng. trans. The Lord Chandos Letter), a fictive missive from Lord Chandos to Sir Francis Bacon. In the Letter, Chandos describes an experience akin to sickness or paralysis. Language, he feels, has become a depleted and meaningless medium. He feels himself pulled into a whirlpool of words that have lost all coherence. At the end of the Letter, Chandos expresses his longing for a new language that has no words as such, a language “in which dumb things will speak to me.” Sometimes regarded as a personal testimony to the “crisis of language” that accompanied the Aestheticist movement, Ein Brief is in fact a diagnosis and critique of that crisis. It became a central document that initiated some of the most important experiments of German literary Modernism.
A number of specialized periodicals, published in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and Prague, led to a wide dissemination of Aestheticist writing. Magazines such as Pan and Die weissen Blatter (“White Pages”) welcomed short texts by young authors experimenting with what was regarded at the time as the “modern” style; and the annual Inselalmanach (“Insel Yearbook”) featured new writing by authors in the then-Aestheticist Insel Publishing House. Stefan George’s early lyric poetry, together with Hofmannsthal’s poems and lyrical dramas and Arthur Schnitzler’s dramas and short stories, set the tone for the Aestheticist movement in the 1890s. The influence of French Symbolism is especially evident in the poetry of George and Hofmannsthal. A novel by Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901; subtitled Verfall einer Famille, or “The Decline of a Family,” Eng. trans. Buddenbrooks), links aesthetic decadence with social and moral decline. Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will and Nietzsche’s cultural pessimism are important ingredients in Mann’s engagement with Aestheticism. His early stories, for example Tonio Kröger (1903) and the novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice), turn upon a simultaneous fascination with and critique of the Aestheticist impulse. His preoccupation with the figure of the artist, perennially longing to participate in the active and robust life of bourgeois society but perennially condemned to decadence, illness, and an inability to cope with practical realities, is a characteristic theme of Aestheticism. Rainer Maria Rilke and Hermann Hesse also explore this problematic relation between the artist and real life. Rilke’s early poetry belongs to the Aestheticist movement, and even his later, more boldly experimental works, Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies) and Sonette an Orpheus (1923; Sonnets to Orpheus), bear clear traces of his Aestheticist origins. The early stories of Franz Kafka also owe much to Aestheticism.

The 20th century

German Modernism
German Modernism emerged from turn-of-the-century Aestheticism. Like European Modernism as a whole, German Modernism was in fact a cluster of different literary movements, including Expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”), and Dada. Of these, Expressionism is the best known and most important. Beginning about 1910 and reaching its culmination during World War I, Expressionism was a powerful response to the chaos and suffering of modern life. Georg Trakl, Georg Heym, and Gottfried Benn created terrifying images of war, urban life, oppression, and illness in their lyric poetry, and, although Trakl expressed a visionary mysticism in his battlefield scenes, Heym and Benn presented reality as grotesque, distorted, and starkly unrelieved. At the same time, their poetry, like Expressionist art of the period, is full of such colours as red, gold, purple, and blue, which bear an often hermetic or deeply personal significance for these writers. The anthology Menschheitsdämmerung (1919; The Dawn of Humanity), edited by Kurt Pinthus, was a rich and influential collection of Expressionist poetry. Expressionist drama used the same methods of grotesque distortion to attack what it saw as the soullessness of modern technology and the subjection of workers to machines. Yet Expressionist drama often took a more optimistic approach to the machine age, in part because of impulses derived from Italian Futurism. Whereas the Futurists glorified the machine, however, the Expressionists saw it more as an instrument that might help bring about a socialist utopia. The Expressionist stage became a vehicle to effect a transformation of consciousness in the audience. Die Wandlung (1919; Transfiguration), a play by Ernst Toller, depicts this kind of transformation in a young man who turns his horrific war experience into a new awareness of the brotherhood of man; his play Masse-Mensch (1920; Man and the Masses) presents the tragic attempt of a woman worker to effect a mass revolution among her fellow workers and lead them beyond violence toward peaceful coexistence. The dramas Gas I (1918) and Gas II (1920), by Georg Kaiser, show how a group of gas production workers are thwarted in their attempt to gain control of technology and establish a workers’ utopia in brotherhood and peace.
Franz Kafka
The works of Franz Kafka, especially his two stories Das Urteil (1913; The Judgment) and Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis), owe much to Expressionism and are often considered in the context of that movement. But his writing is better understood as an early phase of experimental Modernism. Kafka’s central concern, like that of other 20th-century Modernists, is the problematic nature of human subjectivity and the limitations of individual perception and knowledge. His striking narrative technique, first developed in The Judgment, of presenting reality from a limited third-person point of view enables readers to identify with his oppressed and passive protagonists while also recognizing that their view is deeply flawed. Kafka’s unfinished novels, especially Der Prozess (1925; The Trial) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle), explore further aspects of the individual’s inescapable entrapment in subjectivity. Like many other Modernists, Kafka also treated problems of authority and power. His characters feel hopelessly subjugated to inexplicable forces associated with patriarchal social structures and an overly mechanized and bureaucratic modern world. The Brief an den Vater (posthumously published, 1960; “Letter to His Father,” bilingual edition, 1966), written in 1919 but never actually delivered to his father, reveals the autobiographical background to the father-son conflict Kafka depicted in many of his stories, a thematic concern he shared with the Expressionists. The grotesque element in Kafka’s writing stems from his tendency to take metaphors literally, as when the “spineless” Gregor Samsa, protagonist of The Metamorphosis, wakes up one morning to find he has become an insect, a creature without a spine. Kafka’s love of paradoxes and logical puzzles gave rise to a highly symbolic style of writing that makes his works resistant to any single interpretive key.
Other Works of German Modernism
A foundational novel for German Modernism is Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). Set in Paris and presented in the form of fragmentary jottings, the novel depicts modern city life as the multiple reflexes of a disoriented narrator who tries in vain to recapture the straightforward narrative logic he recalls from stories heard and read in his youth. Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain), a bildungsroman set in the self-contained and seemingly timeless world of a tuberculosis sanatorium, interweaves an exploration of human psychology with philosophical reflection in an attempt to reveal the subtle interplay of rationalism and the irrational in modern culture. In Der Steppenwolf (1927; Eng. trans. Steppenwolf), Hermann Hesse also developed many concerns of Modernism, depicting the ordeals of a divided psyche torn between the conventional and the artistic worlds, the feminine and the masculine, reason and hallucination. The novel ends with a grotesque surrealistic episode set in a “Magic Theatre.” Other novelists of this period continued to experiment with the presentation of consciousness in a fractured world. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929; Alexanderplatz, Berlin) by Alfred Döblin, the trilogy Die Schlafwandler (1930–32; The Sleepwalkers) by Hermann Broch, and the unfinished novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930–43; The Man Without Qualities) by Robert Musil use multiple techniques such as stream-of-consciousness narration, montage, essayistic reflection embedded in the narrative, and experimental visionary passages to explore the problematic relation between individual consciousness and a modern world that is experienced as a threat to individual identity. All three writers took a deep interest in the psychological and social determinants of criminality: the protagonist of Döblin’s novel is a released prisoner; the main character in the third volume of Broch’s trilogy becomes involved in a life of crime; and several characters in Musil’s novel are obsessed with the fate of a condemned sex-murderer.
A substantial part of Musil’s experimental novel was written during his Swiss exile from Adolf Hitler’s Reich. Similarly, Broch’s stream-of-consciousness novel Der Tod des Vergil (1945; The Death of Virgil) was written during his exile in America, as was Thomas Mann’s pathbreaking novel on the genesis of Nazism and its relation to the aesthetic, Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus). Anna Seghers’s novel Das siebte Kreuz (1942; The Seventh Cross) depicts the escape of seven prisoners, only one of whom survives, from a concentration camp. Other important exile writers were Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Roth, Franz Werfel, Arnold Zweig, and Stefan Zweig. Among the communist writers who had fled from Nazi Germany a major debate took place about the merits of realist as opposed to Modernist techniques. The issue was whether straightforward presentation of reality or formal experimentation was a more effective way of raising social consciousness in readers of literature. The main proponent of the realist cause was the theorist and literary historian Georg Lukacs (György Lukács); on the Modernist side were Brecht and Seghers. This debate was later to have significant repercussions in East Germany.
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