1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > [German Literature] The Latest Period

(Part 39)


The Latest Period

With the death of Goethe in 1832 began a new era in German literature, an era not yet closed. The period had been one of intense political excitement. In 1848 the national aspiration for freedom and unity found decisive expression in action ; since that time Germany has achieved unity by the sword, while she still slowly feels her way towards freedom. It was inevitable that in such an epoch much of the best energy of the nation should be devoted to politics, but there has also been great literary activity—activity deeply influenced by the practical struggles, hopes, and fears of the time.
Philosophical speculation has been continued without interruption, and in many respects it has been, and still is, the deepest current in the intellectual life of Germany. From 1818 till is death in 1831, when he was a professor in Berlin, Hegel, dominated the highest thought. His vast systems, in which he attempted to explain the ultimate facts of the world and to bind by a chain of deductive reasoning the elements of all knowledge, found enthusiastic adherents among the more ambitious of the younger literary men, and for many years after his death it determined the character of their work. Gradually, however, the school broke up into three distinct divisions, the right, the centre, and the left. Of these the most were the members of the latter partly, who interpreted doctrine in a revolutionary sense. Arnold Ruge, one of the most brilliant writers of the school, applied Hegelianism to politics, in which he associated himself with the extreme radicals. David Friedrich Strauss, who also started as a follower of Hegel, in his memorable Leben Jesu resolved the narratives of the Gospels into a series of myths, and found the vital element of Christianity in its spiritual teaching. Feuerbach, going still further, warred against all religion, urging that is should be replaced by a sentiment of humanity. While the different sections of Hegelians opposed each other, Schelling developed the later phases of his system ; and thought was turned into a new channel by Herbert, whose psychological work has been carried on at a later time by Lotze. Krause also attracted attention by philosophical ideas through which he aimed at solving the practical difficulties of modern life. Ulrici and the younger Fichte have exercised considerable influence as the advocates of a pantheistic doctrine by which they endeavour to reconcile religion and science. None of these names, however, have the importance which attaches to that of Arthur Schopenhauer, who, although his chief book was written in the lifetime of Goethe, did not secure a hearing until long afterwards. At the present time he stirs deeper interest than any other thinker. German philosophers have, as a rule, been utterly indifferent to style, but Schopenhauer’s prose is clear, firm, and graceful, and to this fact he owes much of his popularity. He expressed bitter contempt for his philosophical contemporaries, and, going back to Kant, claimed to have corrected and completed his system. His main doctrine is that will is the fundamental principle of existence ; but his importance arises less from his abstract teaching than from his descriptions of the misery of human life. History seemed to him but a record of turmoil and wretchedness ; and there is high literary genius as well as moral earnestness in his graphic and scornful picures of the darker aspects of the world. Eduard von Hartmann, the latest original philosopher of Germany, works on essentially the same lines, but seeks to reconcile Schopenhauer not only with Hegel and Schelling but with Leibnitz

The growth of science has been one of the most powerful factors in the recent intellectual development of Germany, and some of the best books of the period have been works presenting in a popular form the results of scientific labour. Among these the first place still belongs to the Cosmos of Alexander von Humboldt. Its fundamental conceptions are no longer in full accordance with the best thought; but it is made enduringly impressive by the writer’s power of handling vast masses of facts, by his poetic feeling for the beauty and the order of nature, and by the purity and nobility of his style. Some of the greatest men of science, such as Liebig, Virchow, and Helmholtz, have also made admirable attempts to render their subjects intelligible and interesting to ordinary readers. Büchner and Vogt have considerable merit as popular scientific authors, but their writings merit as a popular scientific authors, but their writings are marred by a polemical tendency, which induces them to dogmatize on metaphysical questions beyond their proper range.

In historical literature Germany has recently produced many eminent writers. The historian who enjoys the widest popularity is Leopold Ranke, who has instructed two generations by communicating in an agreeable style the results of extensive research in many different fields of inquiry. Gervinus acquired a permanent place as an historian by his excellent History of the Nineteenth Century. Works of high value also proceeded from Giesebrecht, who has written on the Holy Roman Empire with enthusiastic appreciation of the great emperors ; from Droyesen, the diligent historian of Prussia ; from Dahlmann, whose labours included German, English, French, and Danish history of Germany since the death of Frederick the Great; from Waitz, the chief authority on the growth of the German constitution ; from Sybel, by whose researches much new light has been thrown on the French Revolution ; from Mommsen, the vigorous historian of ancient Rome ; and from Curtius, whose history of Greece is not ore remarkable for its learning than for the clear and attractive arrangement of its materials. Of late years much attention has been devoted to "Culturgeschichte," which describes the life of a people inall its phases, either through the whole past of during a particular epoch. A favourable example of works of this class is Karl Biedermann’ Germany in the Eighteenth Century.

Recent German literature is extraordinary rich in histories of the individual elements of intellectual development. In its histories of philosophy it is absolutely supreme. Hegel still ranks as one of the greatest historians of philosophy, although the value of his expositions in lowered by a tendency to find his own doctrine in preceding thinkers. Erdmann, Schwegler, and Ueberweg were among the most important workers in the same department ; and with them may be named Kuno Fischer, who writes the history of philosophy with a striking power of sympathetic appreciation and in a fascinating literary style. Less attractive in manner than Fischer, Lange, in his History of Materialism, did full justice for the first time to the different phases of materialistic philosophy, and is especially happy in the skill with which he traces the growth of a recognition of law in the phenomena of nature. Since Lessing, aesthetics have always formed a prominent branch of philosophy among the Germans ; and they have hardly been less successful as historians of art than as historians of metaphysics. High distinction has been achieved, among other art historians, by Vischer, Carrière, and Lübke. Of historians of literature, especially German literature, there is almost a small army. One of the earliest of these was Gervinus, who, although his critical canons are not now in favour, had an unusual faculty for grouping his materials and sharply defining what seemed to him the essential qualities of particular writers and movements. The history of German literature by Vilmar, although written in an eloquent style, it too partial in its judgements to have permanent value. Koberstein is remarkable rather for industry than for insight ; but the literary histories of Julians Schmidst and Gottschall are both marked by decisive, often penetrating, critical judgment. One of the best works of this kind for style, thought, and research is Hettner’s elaborate History of Literature in the Eightented Century.

The German possess a vast mass of biographical literature, a large proportion of which is rendered almost worthless by inartistic treatment. Luther alone forms the subject of more than one hundred and fifty biographies ; yet a satisfactory study of the Reformer has still to be written. In recent times, however, there has been a marked improvement, several biographers having conscientiously striven not only to be thorough in research but to simply, clearly, and vividly. The first to set a good example was Varnhagen von Ense, whose numerous biographies are masterpieces of well ordered and dignified prose. Germany owes an admirable biography of Ulrich von Hutten to Strauss, who also wrote interesting sketches of several prominent modern authors. Other biographies which deserve mention are Karl Grün’s philosophical study of Feuerbach, Rosenkranz’s scholar-like life of Diderot, and Justi’s life of Winckelmann. The popularity of Mr Leaves’s life of Goethe for a long time deterred German writers from touching a subject he had handled with so much talent ; but of late there has been a remarkable revival of interest in Goethe, and Hermann Grimm has ventured to present a fresh study of his intellectual and moral character.

In imaginative literature the greatest writer of the latest period is Heinrich Heine. No German writer since Goethe and Schiller has excited so much interest throughout Europe, and among the Germans themselves his fame is steadily rising. He professed to care little for what men said of his poetry, yet it is mainly as a lyrical poet that his name lives. His Buch der Lieder is one of the most fascinating collections of lyrics in European literature. Although a deadly enemy of the Romantic school, he had moods, especially in youth, in which he shared its dreaminess and mysticism ; and these qualities he expressed in some of his best songs, but with perfect grace of style and melody. He struck with equally finished art chords of passion and aspiration beyond the range of even the chief Romanticists, for Heine was in every respect a modern man, penetrated by a love of freedom, and by a high enthusiasm for beauty. Except Goethe, no other German poet achieves his effects by such simple means ; with the language of a village maiden he gives shape to feelings and ideas of exquisite refinement and subtlety. His satirical poems are sometimes gross and cynical ;but none of them are without touches of humour. In his prose, which deals with a wide range of subjects, he is rather French than German in his love o sparkling epigram and biting wit. Almost every theme, however sacred, gives Heine occasion for mockery, but in the midst of cruel laughter he is often restrained by a pathetic memory, which he expresses with unsurpassed delicacy. This combination of pathos, wit, and humour gives him a unique place in the literature of his country.

Platen, who belongs rather to the previous period, was one of the many writers whom Heine bitterly attacked, but he was a poet of considerable power. Like Heine himself, he failed in the drama ; and even in his successful writings he is not remarkable for wealth of though or depth of feeling. His odes and sonnets, however, are in languages and metre so artistically finished as to rank among the best classical poems of modern times. Börne was another writer whose fame, although the two men were at one time warm friends, suffered from Heine’s satire. He was a manly literary critic, as a political writer dealt at the despotic Governments of Germany blows which they keenly felt.

A school of writers known as Young Germany was deeply influenced by Heine, and had the good fortune to be singled out for persecution by the confederate diet. Their object was to effect a complete revolution in the political and social institutions of Germany, and at the same time they became the propagandists of ideas intended to undermine the church. The most important member of the school was Karl Gutzkow, who wrote a number of dramas which maintain their hold of the stage. He was also the author of many romances, of which the chief were Die Ritter vom Geiste ("The Knights of the Mind") and Der Zauberer von Rom ("The Magician of Rome"). These works are of enormous length, and their polemical tendency has already begun to weaken their interest. But the leading characters are genuine creations, and the incidents are interwoven with great artistic skill. Heinrich Laube, another member of the group, is the author of an historical romance, The German War, which represents, in a clear, fresh, and vivid style, the condition of Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. He has also enriched the stage with several excellent plays. Less importat authors associated with these writers were Gustav Kühne, Theodor Mundt, and Ludolf Wienbarg—the latter universally recognized as a keen and vigorous critic.

The novel has acquired the same important place in Germany as in France and England, and it need scarcely be said that the vast mojority of works of this class are forgotten almost as soon as they are issued. One of the most distinguished of recent novelist is Gustav Freytag, whose chief work, Soll und Haben ("Debit and Credit"), is a study of commercial life intensely realistic in tendency. Lately he has undertaken a series of romances, Die Ahnen ("The Forefathers’), intended to represent in a highly poetic form the different epochs of German history. Important historical romances have been written by Levin Schücking, who is remarkable for his power of vividly conceiving character. The Countess Ida Hahn-Hahn is the writer of a number of novels in an artificial style, affecting to represent good society. Her manner has been cleverly satirized by Fanny Lewald, who is one of the best German novelist, keen and true in observation of life, and artistic in method. Paul Heyse’s short tales have firmness of outline, and are at the same time full of delicate grace ; as a writer of elaborate romance, he has also achieved success. The humour of Hackländer is generally considered to surpass that of any other recent writer ; and among the novelists of simple village life Auerbach easily takes the first place. Frederick Spielhagen has penetrated deeply into the spirit of the age, and in Problematische Naturen ("Problemati Natures") and other works reveals its tendencies with cultivated imaginative force. The novels of Fritz Reuter, although written in Platt Deutsch, take high rank ; they are fresh in style, and combine keen observation of life with a fine appreciation of comic effect.

Contemporary literature has not, as in England, been divorced from the stage ; the best imaginative writers finds scope for their energies in work for the theatre. Besides Gutzkow and Laube, Gottschall has been a fertile writer both of comedy ; Freytag also, and Prutz, are original dramatic authors. The dramas of Christian Grabbe, full eccentricity, but with a certain wild power, originated a movement resembling to some extent that of the "Sturm und Drang" poets. Its chief representative was Hebbel, a writer endowed with imaginative gifts, but who marred every play by affectation and extravagance. Freiherr von Münch-Bellinghausen, known as Friedrich Halm, author of Der Fechter von Ravenna ("The Gladiator of Ravenna"), and Mosenthal, author of Deborah, achieved distinction by aiming at something higher than mere stage effect. Paul Lindau is the author of some refined comedies, and Adolf Wilbrandt has written both comedies and tragedies which meet the taste of Vienna. Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer and Roderich Benedix were prolific writers of plays with the sort of merit that belongs to an intimate knowledge of the technical necessities of the stage.

Many recent writers have attempted lyrical and narrative poetry, some of them with sufficient power to maintain worthily the traditions of German literature. From about 1830 onwards, a group of Austrian poets, more or less political in tendency, commanded the respect of all Germans. The chief was Count von Auersperg, who assumed the name of Anastasius Grün. His first important work was Walks of a Vienna Poet, published in 1831, but his fame rests chiefly on two volumes of lyrics issued some year later. He had enthusiastic faith in the future, and expresses his hopes in verses full of colour, sometimes brilliant and effective. Another Austrian writer, Nicholas Strehlenau, generally called Lenau, gives powerful utterance in several poems to the sorrows of a deeply melancholy nature. Meissner and Hartmann, Bohemian poets, have a considerable reputation, the latter as a writer of great artistic merit, the former as a poet of vivid imagination and free sympathies. Leopold Schefer was for a long time a popular poet, and the genial optimism of his chief book, the Laienbrevier, is interesting because of the contrast it presents to the pessimist tone of more recent writers. Before the revolutionary movements of 1848 a number of writers attempted to force poetry into the service of freedom. Of these one of the best known is Herwegh. He advocated liberty with a vehemence that won for him immense popularity, but the interest of his writings is rather historical than literary. Ferdinand Freiligrath was of a more truly poetic temperament. His poems, although without delicacy, have graphic force, and in his earlier writings he displayed a remarkable talent for reproducing the gorgeous colours of tropical landscape. Other poets who have made verse a means of awakening in the popular mind a passion for political justice are Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who has a considerable command of musical expression, and Franz Dingelstedt, a versatile writer who has done good work as a novelist and dramatist. Gottschall, already named as a dramatist and an historian of literature, began as a political poet, but afterwards gave evidence of disinterested imagination in two narrative poems, Göttin and Zeno. The lyrics of Emmanuel Geibel, some of which are also political, with a conservative tendency, have found favour with nearly all classes ; they reveal a gentle and refined spirit, and are written with something of Uhland’s grace. Among the most distinguished contemporary writers is Robert Hamerling, whose poetry is remarkable for the boldness of its conceptions and its almost vehement passion.

Since the middle of the 18th century Germany has never been without writers of deep thought and vast research ; and in her supreme writers—in Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, and Heine—these qualities have been associated with a felling for artistic finish which has not been surpassed in England or even in France. But the tendency of German authors beneath the highest rank has been to neglect the laws of expression. Thus there is in Germany an extraordinary quantity of literature which, although the result of great labour, and full of ideas, makes intolerable demands on the patiences of readers. The lack of measure and precision has in many cases deprived of nearly all value powers of imagination, reason, and industry, which would have made the literary fortune of a Frenchman. This deficiency of style is in some degree explained by the fact that an undue proportion of German literature has hitherto been addressed, not to the public, but to specialists, who naturally concern themselves more with substance than with form. During the present generation there have been symptoms of a remarkable change. Ever since the Germans began to feel that they are one people, and to strive after political unity, an increasing number of scholars and thinkers have displayed an ambition to extend their influence, while several imaginative writers have consciously appealed to the nation as a whole. The inevitable result has been that they have aimed at more methodical arrangement than their predecessors, and have cultivated greater force, simplicity, and directions of speech. Nothing has fortered this wholesome tendency so much as the growing respect of the nation for the great master of its language, a respect indicated by the new editions of their writings which appear year after year. The higher class of poets, dramatists, and novelists have also profited by the deepening conviction that the function of art is not to battle with practical evils, but to create a world of ideal beauty in which the mind may find refuge from the perplexities of real life.

Read the rest of this article:
Germany - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-21 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries