German literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

German literature

German literature, works in the German language by German, Austrian, Austro-Hungarian, and Swiss authors, as well as by writers of German in other countries.

Old and Middle High German: From Early to Medieval Literature

Heroic legends, among them the Lay of Hildebrand, date from the turn of the 8th cent. to the 9th cent. and are the earliest known works in Old High German (see German language). The Waltherius (10th cent.) is written in Latin. Low German and Saxon dialects are also used in these epics. Writings of the 9th to the 11th cent., largely inspired by the church, include the works of the monks Rabanus Maurus Magnentius, Otfried, and Notker Labeo.

The succeeding period of Middle High German (12th–14th cent.) is characterized by chivalric poetry, such as the songs and lyrics of the minnesingers on courtly love and other subjects. Courtly epics, such as Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (see Parsifal), were often based on French troubadour and trouvère sources (see troubadours; trouvères), while epics like the Nibelungenlied (see under Nibelungen) and Gudrun use Germanic traditions. A gradual decline of chivalric poetry is evident in the works of Ulrich von Lichtenstein, and the rise of the urban literary traditions is seen in such epics as Wernher der Gartenaere's Meier Helmbrecht (c.1250).

The Protestant Reformation, High German, and Literary Academies: The Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries

After 1400 more popular literary forms became dominant: folk songs, fables, folktales, and short plays. The aristocratic heritage of the minnesingers was replaced by meistersingers, notably Hans Sachs. The Reformation profoundly influenced the course of German literature, and Martin Luther's translation (1522–34) of the Bible propagated a unified High German language. Religious and scholarly writings were also affected by humanism; German humanists included Ulrich von Hutten and Conradus Celtes.

The Thirty Years War (1618–48) brought religious schism, widespread devastation, and, concomitantly, a consolidation of national consciousness resulting in a flowering of German literature with strong courtly and absolutist tendencies. Literary academies, arising in Hamburg, Nuremberg, and other cities, worked for the purification and development of the German language. Most influential was the Silesian school, which included Martin Opitz, noted for his metrical reforms, and the poets Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau (1618–79), Paul Fleming (1609–40), Andreas Gryphius, and Daniel Casper von Lohenstein. Leading writers of hymns were the Protestant Paul Gerhardt and the Catholic Angelus Silesius. Hans Jakob von Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus (1669), a picaresque account of the Thirty Years War, may be considered the first German novel.

The Eighteenth Century

Sturm und Drang and Classicism

The great age of German literature began in the 18th cent. The classicist theories of Johann Christoph Gottsched aroused violent critical reactions, indirectly paving the way for Friedrich Klopstock and especially for Gotthold Lessing, the greatest preclassical critic and dramatist. The period known as Sturm und Drang embraced the works of Johann Hamann, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Jakob Lenz.

The period also encompassed the early works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. Goethe and Schiller were widely considered the greatest figures in the subsequent classical period, when artistic forms in general were characterized by restraint, lucidity, and balance (see classicism). Their cultural ideals, expressed in the novel of self-formation or Bildungsroman, were also spread by C. M. Wieland and Friedrich Hölderlin, the age's greatest German poet.


At the end of the 18th cent. literary romanticism, initiated in Germany by the brothers Friedrich and H. W. von Schlegel and by Novalis, brought greater emphasis on subjective emotion. A new literary form appeared in the novelle, a prose tale often dealing with supernatural elements. Typical early romantic poets were Ludwig Tieck, Clemens Brentano, and Joachim von Arnim, who were also collectors and editors of folktales and folk songs, sometimes set to music by Robert Schumann and other composers.

Freiherr von Eichendorff, Adelbert von Chamisso, and Ludwig Uhland were other notable German romantics. The movement's historical tendencies were supplemented by the philological and folkloristic researches of the brothers Grimm. The writer E. T. A. Hoffmann was romanticism's greatest psychologist of the unconscious. Hovering between classicism and romanticism, Heinrich von Kleist's stories and plays were masterpieces of dramatic economy, other important playwrights were Franz Grillparzer and C. F. Hebbel.

The Nineteenth Century: Realism and Naturalism

The revolutionary literary movement known as Young Germany, which strove to arouse German political opinion, turned from romanticism to the more sober realism; its great leaders were Karl Börne and Heinrich Heine. Realism was consolidated in the influential social novels of Theodor Fontane, whereas Eduard Mörike and Adalbert Stifter adhered to a form of classicism. The theory of realism was further developed by the school of naturalism, represented by the young Gerhart Hauptmann.

The Twentieth Century

Symbolism, Impressionism, and Expressionism

Antinaturalistic movements grew stronger in the German imperialistic period. They became evident as symbolism and impressionism in poetry (Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal) and in the novel (Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch) and as expressionism in verse (Georg Trakl, Georg Heym, Gottfried Benn) and drama (Frank Wedekind, Georg Kaiser, Bertolt Brecht). The literature of the Weimar Republic carried forward prewar traditions and excelled in formal experimentation and innovation. This activity was stifled by the rise of National Socialism, which forced leading writers like Thomas Mann and Arnold Zweig into emigration.

Postwar Literature

The postwar decades saw a gradual literary resurgence, with the social and critical novels of authors like Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, and Max Frisch gaining prominance. Two important centers of literary activity were Group 47, organized by Hans Werner Richter in Germany, and the Vienna Circle, which attracted a number of experimental writers, such as H. C. Artmann and Ernst Jandl in Austria. East Germany's writers generally upheld the tenets of socialist realism, while those in the west were more varied.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, both groups were preoccupied with the Nazi period. Among the significant German writers were Ingeborg Bachmann, Horst Bienek, Johannes Bobrowski, Uwe Johnson, Arno Schmidt, Martin Walser, Peter Weiss, and Christa Wolf. Some of the German-language writers who have received the greatest recent international attention are the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard and the Romanian-Jewish poet Paul Celan.


See general histories of German literature by E. A. Rose (1960), A. Closs, ed. (4 vol., 1967–70), J. M. Ritchie, ed. (3 vol., 1967–70), J. G. Robertson (6th ed. 1971), H. B. Garland (2d ed. 1986), and H. Bschenstein (1990); W. T. H. Jackson, The Literature of the Middle Ages (1960); W. H. Bruford, Germany in the 18th Century (2d ed. 1965); H. T. Moore, Twentieth-Century German Literature (1967); P. Demetz, Postwar German Literature (1970); A. K. Domandi, ed., Modern German Literature (2 vol., 1972); A. Menhennet, The Romantic Movement (1981); V. Lange, The Classical Age of German Literature (1982).

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