German literature

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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 languageGerman language,
member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). It is the official language of Germany and Austria and is one of the official languages of Switzerland.
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). 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 minnesingersminnesinger
, a medieval German knight, poet, and singer of Minne, or courtly love. Originally imitators of Provençal troubadours, minnesingers developed their own style in the 13th and 14th cent.
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 on courtly lovecourtly love,
philosophy of love and code of lovemaking that flourished in France and England during the Middle Ages. Although its origins are obscure, it probably derived from the works of Ovid, various Middle Eastern ideas popular at the time, and the songs of the troubadours.
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 and other subjects. Courtly epics, such as Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (see ParsifalParsifal
, figure of Arthurian legend also known as Sir Percivale, who is in turn a later form of a hero of Celtic myth. The name originally occurs as Pryderi, an alternative name of Gwry in Pwyll Prince of Dyved, a tale in the Mabinogion.
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), were often based on French troubadour and trouvère sources (see troubadourstroubadours
, aristocratic poet-musicians of S France (Provence) who flourished from the end of the 11th cent. through the 13th cent. Many troubadours were noblemen and crusader knights; some were kings, e.g.
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; trouvèrestrouvères
, medieval poet-musicians of central and N France, fl. during the later 12th and the 13th cent. The trouvères imitated the troubadours of the south.
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), while epics like the Nibelungenlied (see under NibelungenNibelungen
or Nibelungs,
in Germanic myth and literature, an evil family possessing a magic hoard of gold. The hoard is accursed. The Nibelungenlied [song of the Nibelungen] is a long Middle High German epic by a south German poet of the early 13th cent.
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) and GudrunGudrun
or Kudrun
, in Germanic literature. 1 Heroine of the Icelandic epic, the Volsungasaga. 2 Heroine and title person of an anonymous Middle High German epic written shortly after and strongly influenced by the Nibelungenlied (see under Nibelungen).
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 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 meistersingersmeistersinger
[Ger.,=mastersinger], a member of one of the musical and poetic guilds that flourished in German cities during the 15th and 16th cent. The guilds or schools comprised chiefly artisans who claimed artistic descent from the courtly minnesingers.
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, notably Hans SachsSachs, Hans
, 1494–1576, German poet, leading meistersinger of the Nuremberg school. A shoemaker and guild master, he wrote more than 4,000 master songs in addition to some 2,000 fables, tales in verse (Schwanke), morality plays, and farces.
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. The Reformation profoundly influenced the course of German literature, and Martin LutherLuther, Martin,
1483–1546, German leader of the Protestant Reformation, b. Eisleben, Saxony, of a family of small, but free, landholders. Early Life and Spiritual Crisis

Luther was educated at the cathedral school at Eisenach and at the Univ.
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's translation (1522–34) of the Bible propagated a unified High German language. Religious and scholarly writings were also affected by humanismhumanism,
philosophical and literary movement in which man and his capabilities are the central concern. The term was originally restricted to a point of view prevalent among thinkers in the Renaissance.
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; German humanists included Ulrich von HuttenHutten, Ulrich von
, 1488–1523, German humanist and poet, partisan of the Reformation, an outstanding figure in German political history. Hutten's career as poet was launched by his participation in the famous Episculae obscurorum virorum
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 and Conradus CeltesCeltes, Conradus Protucius
, pseud. of Konrad Pickel
, 1459–1508, German scholar and humanist. He traveled widely, lectured at several universities, became librarian to Maximilian I, and founded various societies dedicated to classical learning.
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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 OpitzOpitz, Martin
, 1597–1639, leader of the Silesian school of German poetry. His influence as poet, critic, and metrical reformer was widely recognized during his time; he was ennobled as Opitz von Boberfeld by Emperor Ferdinand II in Vienna.
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, noted for his metrical reforms, and the poets Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau (1618–79), Paul Fleming (1609–40), Andreas GryphiusGryphius, Andreas
, 1616–64, German poet-dramatist, originally named Andreas Greif. He wrote in Latin, new High German, and Silesian dialect. Among his many sonnets, odes, epigrams, and religious lyrics is the famous "Vanitas! Vanitatum Vanitas!" His tragedies include
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, and Daniel Casper von LohensteinLohenstein, Daniel Caspar von
, 1635–83, German dramatist, novelist, and poet. Lohenstein is credited with having created baroque tragedy in Germany. He employed ancient themes of sensuality and inhumanity in Cleopatra (1661), Sophonisbe (1680), and
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. Leading writers of hymns were the Protestant Paul GerhardtGerhardt, Paul,
1607–76, German hymn writer and clergyman. Some of his famous texts, such as O Sacred Head Sore Wounded, are much used in English translations.
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 and the Catholic Angelus Silesius. Hans Jakob von GrimmelshausenGrimmelshausen, Hans Jakob Christoffel von
, 1625–76, German novelist. Impressed into the Thirty Years War at the age of 10, he educated himself in letters and the law.
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'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 GottschedGottsched, Johann Christoph
, 1700–1766, German literary critic, disciple of the Enlightenment. As professor of poetry and philosophy at the Univ. of Leipzig, he virtually dictated intellectual life in that city, and he exerted great influence upon 18th-century German
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 aroused violent critical reactions, indirectly paving the way for Friedrich KlopstockKlopstock, Friedrich Gottlieb
, 1724–1803, German poet, important for his influence upon Goethe, the Göttingen poets, and the Sturm und Drang movement. His epic Messias (4 vol., 1748–73, tr.
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 and especially for Gotthold LessingLessing, Gotthold Ephraim
, 1729–81, German philosopher, dramatist, and critic, one of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment. He was connected with the theater in Berlin, where he produced some of his most famous works, and with the national theater in Hamburg.
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, the greatest preclassical critic and dramatist. The period known as Sturm und DrangSturm und Drang
or Storm and Stress,
movement in German literature that flourished from c.1770 to c.1784. It takes its name from a play by F. M. von Klinger, Wirrwarr; oder, Sturm und Drang (1776).
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 embraced the works of Johann HamannHamann, Johann Georg
, 1730–88, German Protestant theologian, b. Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). Although opposed to the rationalism of Kant and the German Enlightenment of Herder and Lessing, he was highly esteemed by the leading thinkers of his day.
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, Johann Gottfried von HerderHerder, Johann Gottfried von
, 1744–1803, German philosopher, critic, and clergyman, b. East Prussia. Herder was an enormously influential literary critic and a leader in the Sturm und Drang movement.
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, and Jakob LenzLenz, Jakob Michael Reinhold
, 1751–92, German writer. He was a friend of Goethe, whom he first imitated, then lampooned. A gifted poet, he wrote lyric poems; plays, including the comedies Der Hofmeister (1774) and Die Soldaten
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The period also encompassed the early works of Johann Wolfgang von GoetheGoethe, Johann Wolfgang von
, 1749–1832, German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist, b. Frankfurt. One of the great masters of world literature, his genius embraced most fields of human endeavor; his art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust.
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 and Friedrich von SchillerSchiller, Friedrich von,
1759–1805, German dramatist, poet, and historian, one of the greatest of German literary figures, b. Marbach, Württemberg. The poets of German romanticism were strongly influenced by Schiller, and he ranks as one of the founders of modern
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. 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 classicismclassicism,
a term that, when applied generally, means clearness, elegance, symmetry, and repose produced by attention to traditional forms. It is sometimes synonymous with excellence or artistic quality of high distinction.
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). Their cultural ideals, expressed in the novel of self-formation or Bildungsroman, were also spread by C. M. WielandWieland, Christoph Martin
, 1733–1813, German poet and novelist. His style, typical of the German rococo, is elegant, satiric, and often playful. He borrowed subjects from classical antiquity as well as from fairy tales.
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 and Friedrich HölderlinHölderlin, Friedrich
, 1770–1843, German lyric poet. Befriended and influenced by Schiller, Hölderlin produced, before the onset of insanity at 36, lofty yet subjective poetry, modeled on classic Greek verse.
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, the age's greatest German poet.


At the end of the 18th cent. literary romanticismromanticism,
term loosely applied to literary and artistic movements of the late 18th and 19th cent. Characteristics of Romanticism

Resulting in part from the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the romantic movements had in common only a
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, initiated in Germany by the brothers Friedrich and H. W. von SchlegelSchlegel, Friedrich von
, 1772–1829, German philosopher, critic, and writer, most prominent of the founders of German romanticism. Educated in law at Göttingen and Leipzig, he turned to literature, writing Die Griechen und Römer (1797).
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 and by NovalisNovalis
, pseud. of Friederich von Hardenberg
, 1772–1801, German poet. He studied philosophy under Schiller, Schlegel, and Fichte and was especially influenced by Fichte. He later studied geology.
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, 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 TieckTieck, Ludwig
, 1773–1853, German writer. In his youth he led the transition from Sturm und Drang to romanticism, writing with W. H. Wackenroder Phantasien über die Kunst (1799), essays on aesthetics, and Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen
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, Clemens BrentanoBrentano, Clemens
, 1778–1842, German poet of the romantic school; brother of Bettina von Arnim (see under Arnim, Achim von). While studying at Halle and Jena he met Wieland, Herder, and Goethe, but his sympathies were with the younger German romantics.
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, and Joachim von ArnimArnim, Achim or Joachim von
, 1781–1831, German writer of the romantic school. He is best remembered for his work with his brother-in-law, Clemens Brentano, on the folk-song collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn
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, who were also collectors and editors of folktales and folk songs, sometimes set to music by Robert SchumannSchumann, Robert Alexander
, 1810–56, German composer. Both as a composer and as a highly articulate music critic he was a leader of the romantic movement. He studied theory with Heinrich Dorn and piano with Friedrich Wieck, whose daughter Clara he married.
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 and other composers.

Freiherr von EichendorffEichendorff, Joseph, Freiherr von
, 1788–1857, German poet, a leader of the late romantics. He studied law, volunteered in Lützow's corps in the Napoleonic Wars, and, as a civil servant in Berlin, associated with Schlegel, Arnim, Brentano, and other romantic poets.
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, Adelbert von ChamissoChamisso, Adelbert von
(Louis Charles Adelaide de Chamisso) , 1781–1838, German poet and naturalist, b. Château de Boncourt, France. He served as page at the court of William II of Prussia and, after army service and travels, became keeper of the royal botanical
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, and Ludwig UhlandUhland, Ludwig
, 1787–1862, German poet, leader of the Swabian group. He studied and practiced law at Tübingen, held various official posts, and taught German literature.
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 were other notable German romantics. The movement's historical tendencies were supplemented by the philological and folkloristic researches of the brothers GrimmGrimm, Jakob
, 1785–1863, German philologist and folklorist, a founder of comparative philology. His interest in the relationship among Germanic languages led to his formulation of Grimm's law. His German grammar (1819–37) and his German Mythology (1835, tr.
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. The writer E. T. A. HoffmannHoffmann, Ernst Theodor Amadeus
, 1776–1822, German romantic novelist and composer, a lawyer. At one time an opera composer and musical director at Bamberg and a gifted music critic, he is most famous as a master of the gothic tale.
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 was romanticism's greatest psychologist of the unconscious. Hovering between classicism and romanticism, Heinrich von KleistKleist, Heinrich von
, 1777–1811, German dramatic poet. He is one of the most evocative and disturbing of the German Romantic writers. Kleist served (1792–99) in the Prussian army and led an unhappy life that ended in suicide.
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's stories and plays were masterpieces of dramatic economy, other important playwrights were Franz GrillparzerGrillparzer, Franz
, 1791–1872, Austrian dramatist. His work combines German classicism and exuberant lyricism. Considered Austria's greatest playwright, he wrote Der Traum: ein Leben (1817–34, tr.
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 and C. F. HebbelHebbel, Christian Friedrich
, 1813–63, German tragic dramatist. Born poor, he was largely self-educated. Hegel's historical theories influenced his work, which is a link between romantic and realist drama. Hebbel's first play, Judith (1840, tr.
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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 realismrealism,
in literature, an approach that attempts to describe life without idealization or romantic subjectivity. Although realism is not limited to any one century or group of writers, it is most often associated with the literary movement in 19th-century France, specifically
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; its great leaders were Karl BörneBörne, Karl Ludwig
, 1786–1837, German journalist, of Jewish origin. His original name was Löb Baruch. He studied medicine and political science and held office in Frankfurt until, after the fall of Napoleon, a policy of racial discrimination was restored.
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 and Heinrich HeineHeine, Heinrich
, 1797–1856, German poet, b. Düsseldorf, of a Jewish family. One of the greatest of German lyric poets, he had a varied career. After failing in business he tried law but found it uncongenial and finally turned to history and literature.
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. Realism was consolidated in the influential social novels of Theodor FontaneFontane, Theodor
, 1819–98, German writer. Although he is primarily important as a novelist, he did not begin to write fiction until he was almost 60 years old. Thereafter, during his last two decades, he produced almost a novel a year.
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, whereas Eduard MörikeMörike, Eduard
, 1804–75, German writer and clergyman, a leader of the Swabian school. Over 50 of his rich and varied lyrics, among them "Schlafendes Jesuskind" [the sleeping Child Jesus] and "Auf ein altes Bild" [to an old painting], were set to music by Hugo Wolf.
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 and Adalbert StifterStifter, Adalbert
, 1805–68, Austrian writer, b. Bohemia. Learned in law, mathematics, and science and accomplished as an artist, he was a tutor to important families and, later, a school inspector.
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 adhered to a form of classicism. The theory of realism was further developed by the school of naturalismnaturalism,
in literature, an approach that proceeds from an analysis of reality in terms of natural forces, e.g., heredity, environment, physical drives. The chief literary theorist on naturalism was Émile Zola, who said in his essay Le Roman expérimental
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, represented by the young Gerhart HauptmannHauptmann, Gerhart
, 1862–1946, German dramatist, novelist, and poet. He showed the influence of the theories of Zola and the plays of Ibsen in his play Before Dawn (1889, tr.
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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 GeorgeGeorge, Stefan
, 1868–1933, German poet, leader of the revolt against realism in German literature. He was poetically influenced by Greek classical forms, by the Parnassians, and by the French symbolists. Intellectually he was a disciple of Nietzsche.
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, Rainer Maria RilkeRilke, Rainer Maria
, 1875–1926, German poet, b. Prague, the greatest lyric poet of modern Germany. Life

Rilke's youth at military and business school was not happy. His relations with his father were difficult, and he was able to attend the Univ.
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, Hugo von HofmannsthalHofmannsthal, Hugo von
, 1874–1929, Austrian dramatist and poet. His first verses were published when he was 16 years old, and his play The Death of Titian (1892, tr. 1913) when he was 18.
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) and in the novel (Thomas MannMann, Thomas
, 1875–1955, German novelist and essayist, the outstanding German novelist of the 20th cent., b. Lübeck; brother of Heinrich Mann. A writer of great intellectual breadth, Mann developed literary themes that not only delved into the inner self but also
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, Alfred DöblinDöblin, Alfred
, 1878–1957, German novelist and physician. His experiences as a psychiatrist in the workers' district of Berlin served as the basis for his experimental novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929, tr.
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, Hermann HesseHesse, Hermann
, 1877–1962, German novelist and poet. A pacifist, he went to Switzerland at the outbreak of World War I and became (1923) a Swiss citizen. The spiritual loneliness of the artist and his estrangement from the modern world are recurring themes in Hesse's
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, Franz KafkaKafka, Franz
, 1883–1924, German-language novelist, b. Prague. Along with Joyce, Kafka is perhaps the most influential of 20th-century writers. From a middle-class Jewish family from Bohemia, he spent most of his life in Prague.
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, Robert MusilMusil, Robert
, 1880–1942, Austrian novelist. His style, which has been compared to Proust's, is marked by subtle psychological analysis. This is evident in the novel Young Törless (1906, tr.
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, Hermann BrochBroch, Hermann
, 1886–1951, Austrian novelist. Broch is one of the masters of European modernism. Influenced by Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, and the Vienna Circle, his trilogy Die Schlafwandler (1931–32; tr.
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) and as expressionismexpressionism,
term used to describe works of art and literature in which the representation of reality is distorted to communicate an inner vision. The expressionist transforms nature rather than imitates it.
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 in verse (Georg TraklTrakl, Georg
, 1887–1914, Austrian expressionist poet. Trakl's work, influenced by French impressionist poetry, reveals his disgust with imperialistic society. An absorption with sorrow and decay permeates his Gedichte
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, Georg HeymHeym, Georg
, 1887–1912, German poet and novelist of early expressionism. Rebelling against the new romanticism, Heym created the "demon" metropolis. This became his symbol for the tyrannization of man and nature, which he embodied in grotesques of fear and chaos.
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, Gottfried BennBenn, Gottfried
, 1886–1956, German poet and critic, a physician. His early verse and poetic dramas, such as Der Vermessungsdirigent [the surveyor] (1919), were strongly expressionistic and even nihilistic.
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) and drama (Frank WedekindWedekind, Frank
, 1864–1918, German dramatist. He was also a journalist and publicist, and he worked on the staff of Simplicissimus. A forerunner of the expressionists, he employed grotesque fantasy and unconventional characters in order to attack the bourgeois
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, Georg KaiserKaiser, Georg
, 1878–1945, German expressionist playwright. His early plays dealt with the erotic and the psychological. In maturity Kaiser turned to social themes, glorifying the ideal of sacrifice for the mass interest and attacking the brutality of the machine age.
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, Bertolt BrechtBrecht, Bertolt
, 1898–1956, German dramatist and poet, b. Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht. His brilliant wit, his outspoken Marxism, and his revolutionary experiments in the theater made Brecht a vital and controversial force in modern drama.
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). 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 ZweigZweig, Arnold
, 1887–1968, German novelist and dramatist. A Zionist, he was denationalized under National Socialism and went to Palestine. There he wrote about the plight of German Jews in Insulted and Exiled (1933, tr. 1937).
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 into emigration.

Postwar Literature

The postwar decades saw a gradual literary resurgence, with the social and critical novels of authors like Heinrich BöllBöll, Heinrich
, 1917–85, German novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. Böll presents a critical, antimilitarist view of modern society in a collection of masterful short stories, Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa· · · (1950; tr.
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, Günter GrassGrass, Günter
, 1927–2015, German novelist, lyricist, artist, and playwright, b. Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). Writing from his experience in the Hitler Youth, the German army, and as a prisoner of war, Grass deplored fascist militarism.
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, and Max FrischFrisch, Max,
1911–91, Swiss writer. He obtained a diploma in architecture in 1941, and his designs included the Zürich Recreation Park. After 1955 he became recognized as one of Europe's major literary voices. In the novels Stiller (1954, tr.
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 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 realismsocialist realism,
Soviet artistic and literary doctrine. The role of literature and art in Soviet society was redefined in 1932 when the newly created Union of Soviet Writers proclaimed socialist realism as compulsory literary practice.
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, 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 JohnsonJohnson, Uwe
, 1934–84, German novelist. Johnson's works explore the complex effects on the average German of the postwar division of their nation, both halves of which he sees as zones of moral poverty.
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, Arno Schmidt, Martin Walser, Peter WeissWeiss, Peter
, 1916–82, German-Swedish dramatist, novelist, film director, and painter. Weiss's early novels Abschied von den Eltern (1961; tr. Leavetaking, 1962) and Fluchtpunkt (1962; tr.
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, 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 CelanCelan, Paul
, pseud. of Paul Antschel
, 1920–70, Romanian-French poet. Although he spent his early years in Romania and his later years in France, Celan wrote in German and is widely considered the greatest postwar poet in Europe.
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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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