German literature is one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated bodies of work worldwide, representing a significant part of German culture and life. German thinkers and philosophers had already committed to paper the values and virtues of common sense before the nation came into existence. Most writings have existed longer than the nation itself. Therefore, it is impossible to cover every single aspect. For this reason, this section offers only a very brief overview of the epochs and works in German literature.
LITERATURE IN THE MEDIEVAL TIMES
(500 - 1500)
During medieval times, German literature was characterized by writings that focused on religious topics and faith. In addition, there was a narrative tradition in which sagas and myths were told by traveling singers rather than written down. The Old High German language consisted of many dialects, and people often had trouble understanding dialects outside of their immediate geographical region. Old High German was later replaced by Middle High German, a more unified German language.
Among the most important literary works of the medieval period are the "Songs of the Nibelungs," which are the oldest written form of the saga of the hero Siegfried and his love for the king's daughter Kriemhild. Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzifal" is another well-known heroic legend that emphasizes chivalric virtues. Thanks to the German composer Richard Wagner, who adapted "Parzifal" for his play "Parsifal," the story still gains a large audience today.
Although the author of the "Songs of the Nibelungs" remains unknown, it is undoubtedly one of the masterpieces of the medieval period. The literature of this era was not only influential in shaping German culture and language but also had a significant impact on European literature as a whole.
RENAISSANCE AND HUMANISM
(1350 - 1600)
The Renaissance, a French borrowing, refers to the rediscovery and rebirth of ideas, particularly those of ancient Greek and Roman times. This historical period had a profound impact on arts, architecture, and literature. In addition, the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in 1458 falls into this period, which led to the widespread circulation of literary works across Europe.
Most literary works of the Renaissance originated from humanism, a philosophical movement of the 15th and 16th centuries that promoted the idea that education should support the development of the intellectual horizon fully. Renaissance authors focused on ancient times and emphasized the human being as a self-determined individual in their works. Some influential German writers of the period include Hans Sachs and Johannes von Tepl.
(1600 - 1720)
German poets of the Baroque period understood writing as an application of rules that could be learned by anyone. This period is characterized by works that feature strong contrasts or antitheses, such as day and night or life and afterlife. These contrasts are reflected in the guiding themes of the period: "Carpe Diem" (seize the day) and "Memento mori" (remember that you have to die).
Johann Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, Martin Opitz, and Paul Fleming are among the most important writers of the Baroque period. Grimmelshausen is best known for his novel "Simplicissimus," which tells the story of a young man's journey through the turmoil of the Thirty Years' War. Opitz was a poet and theorist who played a key role in shaping German poetry and language, while Fleming was known for his lyric poetry, which often expressed a sense of melancholy and longing.
(1680 - 1800)
Common sense and reason were central elements of the Enlightenment period, which aimed to create a free society where every individual had the same rights and duties. The origins of this literary and philosophical movement can be traced back to France and Great Britain, but it soon spread throughout Europe and had a profound impact on German literature.
One of the key philosophical principles of the Enlightenment was René Descartes's famous reflection, "cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), which emphasized the importance of individual thought and reason. Immanuel Kant, the most important German author of the Enlightenment, wrote extensively on these themes. His essay "What is Enlightenment?" (1784) argued that people should dare to use their minds and think for themselves, rather than blindly following tradition or authority. For Kant, Enlightenment was humanity's emergence from its self-imposed immaturity.
Other influential writers of the German Enlightenment included Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who wrote the play "Nathan the Wise" (1779), a plea for religious tolerance and mutual understanding between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Christoph Gottsched was a prominent literary critic and translator who helped to shape German literature and language, while Karl Philipp Moritz wrote a seminal work on aesthetics, "Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen" (On the Imitation of the Beautiful in the Arts, 1788).
The Enlightenment had a profound impact on many areas of culture and society, including politics, science, and art. Its emphasis on reason, freedom, and progress paved the way for many of the democratic and liberal values that are still cherished today.
STURM UND DRANG
(1770 - 1789)
The Sturm und Drang period, which emerged in the late 18th century, was a literary and cultural movement that originated in Germany. It was characterized by a rebellious and revolutionary spirit that rejected the constraints of society and authority, and instead celebrated individualism and freedom. The period was marked by an emphasis on emotions and sentimentality, as well as a strong interest in nature and the natural world. One of the most significant writers of this period was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose works "The Sorrows of Young Werther," "Prometheus," and "Ganymed" had a profound impact on the literary and cultural landscape of Germany. Friedrich Schiller, another important writer of the period, also contributed to the movement with works such as "The Robbers." The Sturm und Drang period was a precursor to the Romantic movement that followed, and its influence can still be seen in modern literature and culture.
(1786 - 1832)
The period of classical literature in Germany was highly shaped by Goethe and Schiller and their departure from Sturm und Drang. In Weimar, they developed a new artistic sense, namely the ideals of antiquity. Essential works are Schiller's "Don Carlos" (1787) and "Wallenstein" (1799), Goethe's "Faust I" (1808), and "Faust II" (1832). Another German author who contributed to classical literature was Friedrich Hölderlin. His works, such as "Hyperion" (1797) and "Empedocles" (1802), reflected a profound interest in Greek mythology and philosophy. Classical literature is characterized by its adherence to formal structure and balance, as well as a focus on reason and rationality. It is often seen as the height of German literature and remains influential to this day.
(1795 - 1848)
Romanticism was a period of literature that emphasized a longing for the distant past, an appreciation for nature, and the preservation of legends, myths, and sagas in an era of scientific and technological progress. Nature was seen as a place of mystery and inspiration. Important writers of the Romantic era include Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Joseph von Eichendorff, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, among others. Romanticism also had a significant influence on the visual arts, music, and philosophy. The movement developed in response to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, rejecting the rationality and materialism of the time in favor of an emotional and imaginative approach to art and life.
(1815 - 1848)
The Biedermeier period, characterized by its emphasis on domesticity, sentimentality, and a retreat from political engagement, saw the emergence of a distinctive literary movement known as Biedermeier. The period takes its name from the fictional character Gottlieb Biedermeier, created by Ludwig Eichrodt and Adolf Kußmaul in the mid-19th century. The term "Biedermeier" came to represent the middle-class aspirations and values of the time. This literary movement emerged against the backdrop of political turmoil and social changes in post-Napoleonic Germany. In response to these turbulent times, Biedermeier authors sought solace in the intimate and tranquil aspects of everyday life. The literature was characterized by its focus on home and family life, as well as a celebration of nature, introspection, and nostalgia for simpler times.
(1848 - 1890)
The Realism literary period sought to objectively depict the lives of ordinary people while also presenting reality in a more aesthetic form. This approach aimed to uncover the truth in objects rather than simply portraying unfiltered reality. Therefore, Realism is often referred to as "Poetic Realism." Although political turmoil and change were prevalent during this period, writers avoided such topics and instead focused on the problems that the average person had to face, such as industrialization, the living environment of the working class, urbanization, unemployment, alcohol addiction, and prostitution. This period began with the German Revolution of 1848/49.
Some of the most influential writers during this period include Theodor Storm, Theodor Fontane, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Gottfried Keller, Friedrich Hebbel, Gustav Freytag, and Paul Heyse. Their works showed how reality could be, not necessarily how it was. In this way, they used their writing to present a more objective perspective of everyday life.
(1880 - 1900)
The period is named after the Latin word "natura," meaning nature, as writers of this period placed great emphasis on a detailed description of reality. They employed scientific methods, such as investigations to deduce regularities, and depicted scenes from everyday life, focusing on aesthetically challenging objects such as factories and taverns. Additionally, they accentuated the hardships, diseases, and addictions prevalent in society. Naturalism can be seen as a protest movement within literature, and its works were often met with refusal, as was the case with Emperor Wilhelm II, who expressed great disgust after seeing "The Weavers" (1892), a play by Gerhart Hauptmann. Other influential writers of this period included Arno Holz, Karl Schönherr, and Johannes Schlaf.
(1905 - 1925)
German Expressionism was a literary and artistic movement that emerged in Germany in the early 20th century. It was a reaction to the industrialization and modernization of society, as well as the trauma of World War I. Expressionist writers sought to express their inner experience and emotions, often through the use of vivid and striking imagery. Their works often reflected feelings of alienation, anxiety, and disillusionment, as well as a rejection of traditional values and societal norms. The Expressionist writers also shared an interest in exploring the subconscious and irrational aspects of the human psyche.
In addition to literature, Expressionism also influenced other forms of art, including painting, sculpture, theater, and film. The Expressionist movement was marked by a fascination with the grotesque, the macabre, and the primitive. Many Expressionist writers and artists were associated with the Berlin-based magazine "Der Sturm," which served as a platform for their work.
Some of the most significant writers of the German Expressionist movement include Franz Kafka, Alfred Döblin, Georg Heym, Georg Kaiser, and Paul Zech. Kafka's works, such as "The Metamorphosis" and "The Trial," explore the individual's struggle against an oppressive and incomprehensible society. Döblin's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" portrays the seedy underbelly of the city, while Heym's poetry reflects the despair of a generation shattered by war. Kaiser's plays often feature characters in crisis, grappling with existential questions, while Zech's poetry reflects the sense of dislocation and fragmentation that marked the era.
LITERATURE UNDER NATIONAL SOCIALISM
(1933 - 1945)
German literature during the National Socialist period was marked by a strong adherence to the ideology of the regime. This period is not widely recognized as a distinctive literary era, as most works were disregarded due to their political beliefs. The literature of the time emphasized the Aryan ideology, which included the values of ethnic community, Germanness, obedience, and loyalty. The language used was often simple and easy to understand, making the works memorable to a wide audience. The literature of this time also exalted the heroic German as a model figure, often placing him at the center of the works. Approved German literature was considered a powerful tool for promoting the ideology of the regime, and the best works were showcased at the Weimar Book Fair.
Despite the controversial nature of the literature produced during this time, there were several influential writers who were celebrated for their contributions. These included Hans Johst, Eberhard Wolfgang Möller, Ernst Guido Kolbenheyer, Emil Strauß, Hans Grimm, and Heinrich Anacker. Notably, Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf" was widely read and studied during this period, making a significant impact on the literary landscape of the time.
MODERNISM AND POSTMODERN ERA
The periods of Modernism and Postmodernism in German literature are marked by a wide range of stylistic and thematic innovations that defy easy classification. Modernist writers of the early 20th century sought to break free from traditional forms and conventions, experimenting with stream-of-consciousness narration, fragmented structures, and subjective perspectives. They often grappled with the disorientation and trauma of a rapidly changing world, from the upheavals of World War I to the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.
Famous Modernist authors include Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Kurt Tucholsky, Berthold Brecht, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Hesse's introspective, mystical works explore themes of identity, spirituality, and self-discovery, while Mann's epic novels and novellas scrutinize the moral and intellectual dilemmas of modern civilization. Kafka's surreal, existential tales probe the anxieties and absurdities of bureaucratic society, and Tucholsky's satirical writings expose the hypocrisies and injustices of German politics and culture.
In the post-World War II era, writers of the Postmodernist movement questioned the assumptions and conventions of Modernism, challenging the notion of a unified, coherent self and exploring the dissonance and fragmentation of contemporary experience. They experimented with hybrid genres, intertextuality, and metafiction, often blurring the boundaries between high and low culture, reality and fiction. Notable Postmodernist writers include Günter Grass, Max Frisch, Peter Handke, Christa Wolf, and Ingeborg Bachmann.
Overall, the periods of Modernism and Postmodernism in German literature reflect the evolving concerns and sensibilities of the times, from the existential angst and political upheavals of the early 20th century to the cultural pluralism and media saturation of the late 20th century.