From the 16th century until today: The literary epochs of Germany in brief

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THINGS TO KNOW When interpreting and analysing german texts, few things are as important as a basic knowledge of the literary epochs, because only with background knowledge of the period in which they were written can you understand most texts in depth.

In this article, I will give an overview of the most important german literary epochs. If you want to know more – because there are, of course, quite a few more literary epochs – click here.

Literary epochs of Germany

Renaissance (15th – 16th century)

The Renaissance marks the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. The invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 made it possible for literary works to spread more quickly throughout the world. Thoughts of humanism and criticism of the church were expressed. In epic poetry, folk books, adventure stories and chivalric novels were particularly important. In poetry, it was folk and church songs, while in drama ancient forms were used.

  • Till Eulenspiegel – Hermann Bote
  • In Praise of Folly – Erasmus of Rotterdam
  • To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation – Martin Luther
  • Lucretia – Hans Sachs

Baroque period (1600 – 1750)

Lüftlmalerei, Lüftelmalerei, Zeit, Tod
Vanitas – On the transience of life

Against the backdrop of the 30 Years’ War, strict belief in God, absolutism and an extreme contrast between rich and poor, a pictorial, antithetical rhetorical art developed. Poetry (especially sonnets, odes, hymns), which was by far the most important, was mostly commissioned poetry and was understood as social art, i.e. personal feelings played a subordinate role. The literary motifs “memento mori” (remember, you will strive), “vanitas” (transience) and “carpe diem” (live the day) were influential. Martin Opitz’s work “Buch der deutschen Poeterey” (Book of German Poetics) set new lyrical standards, such as the Alexandrian in sonnets.

  • Simplicius Simplicissimus – H. J. Christoffel v. Grimmelshausen
  • Carolus Stuardus – A. Gryphius
  • The Cherubinic Wanderer – A. Silesius

The Enlightenment (1720 – 1785)

With new scientific knowledge, the loss of power of the church and the emerging idea of popular sovereignty, rationalism (knowledge through reason) and empiricism (knowledge through observation) spread rapidly. Tolerance, education, individualism, equality, were demanded. With “Have courage to use your own understanding” (I. Kant), people wanted to break up old systems. The resulting factual literature includes epic poetry such as fables, parables, satires or epigrams. In drama, the bourgeois tragedy emerged with, for the first time, bourgeois main characters.

  • Nathan the Wise – G. E. Lessing
  • Emilia Galotti – G. E. Lessing
  • Fables and Tales – C. F. Gellert
  • Sterbender Cato (Dying Cato) – J. C. Gottsched

Sturm und Drang (1765 – 1790) (Storm and urge)

This literary epoch emerged as a youth movement against the stiff language of rationality as well as against nobility and civilisation. In the midst of a conflict between moral code and passion, people demanded the liberation of the individual and self-awareness. The aspiration to be different (the idea of genius) arose. This was expressed in poetry with ballads and hymns, in epic poetry with epistolary novels and in drama in the form of prose texts.

  • The Sorrows of Young Werther – (young) J. W. v. Goethe
  • Prometheus – (young) J. W. v. Goethe Faust I – (young) J. W. v. Goethe
  • Intrigue and Love – (young) F. Schiller
  • Der Hofmeister (The courtmaster) – J. M. R. Lenz

Classicism (1786 – 1832)

File:Goethe Schiller Weimar 3.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Friedrich Schiller and Johann W. v. Goethe

Goethe’s trip to Italy in 1786 marked the beginning of a new era of recollection of antiquity against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Under the “triumvirate” of C. M. Wieland, J. G. Herder, F. Schiller and J. W. v. Goethe, the “Weimar Classicism” emerged, a literature of perfection and harmony that demanded tolerance, morality, humanity and purity. Significant were the educational novel in epic poetry, thought poetry and ballads in lyric poetry as well as the tectonic drama in dramatic poetry.

Note: The so-called “Weimar Classicism” as part of the literary epoch “Classicism” ended with the death of Schiller in 1805, while the “Classicism” itself lasted until the death of Goethe in 1832. 

  • Faust II – J. W. v. Goethe
  • Mary Stuart – F. Schiller
  • William Tell – F. Schiller
  • The Earthquake of Chili – H. v. Kleist

Romanticism (1790 – 1850)

With increasing industrialisation, there was a growing desire among people to retreat from their often difficult everyday lives into nature. In a new universal poetry (philosophy, religion, etc. flow into it), people strive to overcome the limits of the intellect, for authenticity, mysticism, infinity. Motifs include travel, the moon, the night, love, but also the dark soul (black romanticism). Poetry (folk songs, novellas) and epic poetry (novels, fairy tales) became important.

  • Hymns to the Night – Novalis
  • The Golden Pot – E. T. A. Hoffmann
  • Lucinde – F. Schlegel
  • Moonlight Night – Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff

Biedermeier (1815-1850) and Vormärz (1830 – 1848)

File:Die Barrikade an der Kronen- und Friedrichstraße in Berlin am 18. März 1848.jpg
The Revolution of 1848/49
Source: Die_Barrikade_an_der_Kronen-_und_

The reorganisation of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was followed by turbulent political upheavals with national-liberal ideas at the Wartburg Festival in 1817, the Hambach Festival in 1832 and finally the bourgeois revolution of 1848/49. This was reflected in literary works in two ways. 

Biedermeier: Part of the population retreated into the petit bourgeois, into the private sphere. Historical dramas, short narrative prose and verse narratives on the themes of history, religion and nature were written in a conservative and apolitical manner in order to maintain the “ideal world”.

  • The Dream is Life – F. Grillparzer
  • It’s him – E. Möricke
  • The Boy on the Moor – A. v. Droste-Hülshoff

From 1930 onwards, “Young Germany” also developed, a less radical current that was replaced by Vormärz in 1840. Literature was now politicised. With literary texts that were close to reality, critical and sometimes torn, people called for revolution in order to achieve more democracy and freedom of expression.

  • Germany. A Winter’s Tale – H. Heine
  • The Song of the Germans – A. H. H. v. Fallersleben
  • Woyzeck – G. Büchner

Realism (1850 – 1890)

The March Revolution of 1848/49 had failed and social differences were widening. Moral and economic values were increasingly questioned. During this period, a new form of objective representation of reality emerged. In the literary epoch bourgeois realism, the sober reality of a (bourgeois) person in his or her environment was described under the influence of chance and necessity – without making a value judgement. In poetic realism, everyday occurrences were aestheticised and poetically transfigured. In addition to the bourgeois tragedy and poetry, the novel and the novella were important.

  • The Rider on the White Horse – T. Storm
  • Effi Briest – T. Fontane
  • Clothes make the man – G. Keller

Naturalism (1870 – 1895)

The literary works of naturalism are a rebellion against social, economic and political conditions, against the industrialisation and double standards of the bourgeoisie. It is a detailed description of reality (both good and bad) that can be described through the senses. The seconds style, the concept of truth, colloquial language and dialect are important here. It is most evident in prose texts and drama, where character description was more important than the actual plot.

  • The Weavers – G. Hauptmann
  • Papa Hamlet – A. Holz
  • Master Oelze – J. Schlaf

Symbolism (1860 – 1900) and Impressionism (1890 – 1910)

The counter-currents to naturalism deal with themes such as urbanisation, capitalism and mechanisation by rejecting reality. In novels, monologues, novellas and dramas, the beautiful, the exotic and the precious are described subjectively. While symbolism turns to a dream world, the end of the world and the mysterious in turgid language, impressionism shows rather momentary impressions and sensations.

  • The Panther – R. M. Rilke
  • Lieutenant Gustl – A. Schnitzler

Expressionism (1910 – 1925)

Archiv C559 Erster Weltkrieg, Grabenkrieg, 1914-1918 | Flickr
The 1st World War had a decisive influence on the literary works of Expressionism

Expressionism processes the impressions of the First World War and the beginnings of the Weimar Republic in abstraction, exaggeration and irony. The desire for change, for a new humanity and for orientation is pursued in poetry (!), stories and station dramas. The big city, love, madness, decay, the end of the world and war are thematised in most literary works.

  • Steppenwolf – H. Hesse
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz – A. Döblin
  • Der Gott der Stadt (The God of the City) – G. Heym

New Objectivity (1918 – 1933)

The ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (New Objectivity) is characteristic of the literary period of the Weimar Republic, the Golden Twenties, but also of the economic crises and political instability. A factual, objective description of reality and the social/political/economic situation is given. In sober, simple language, one reacts to the decay of values, sham and technical progress, often in the form of (critical/historical/educational) novels, brewing poetry or epic or folk theatre.

  • Fabian – The Story of a Moralist – E. Kästner
  • Threepenny Opera – B. Brecht

Inner emigration and exile literature (1933 – 1945)

At the time of National Socialism, repression and persecution with strict press censorship (e.g. book burning in 1933) prevailed.

Those who remain in the Third Reich (inner emigration) form a political opposition with subliminal criticism in their works. Through stylistic pluralism and concealed writing, they do not want to put themselves on an equal footing with the propaganda. Contemporary novels, camouflage writings, reportages and epic theatre (historicisation) as well as poems are produced.

  • Wolf Among Wolves – H. Fallada
  • Jakob Littner’s Notes from a Hole in the Ground – W. Koeppen

Authors in exile offered resistance and enlightened people about the National Socialists. In their literary works they wrote about homesickness, turmoil, longing and existential problems, but also saw themselves as bearers of a German culture. They wrote novels, analyses and parable plays (dramas).

  • The Royal Game – S. Zweig
  • Mother Courage and Her Children – B. Brecht
  • The Seventh Cross – A. Seghers

Post-war literature (1945 – 1990)

File:Gruppe 47 - Sechzig Jahre danach 1.jpg
Former members of the ‘group ’47’ today

After the Second World War, Germany began to rebuild and to come to terms with what it had experienced. Experiences, criticism and the guilt of the individual were put into radio plays, short stories, prose sketches and novels. During this literary epoch, in 1947, the “Gruppe ’47” (Group ‘47, until 1967) was formed, a loose association of authors and publishers to renew German language literature .

  • The train was on time – H. Böll
  • The Funeral – W. Schnurre
  • Outside the Door – W. Borchert

The four occupation zones became two German states in 1949. Literature in East Germany initially remained strongly state-controlled and only later became socially and politically critical. In West Germany, war repression and stately control played a role, and later there was a politicisation towards the documentary and the working-class world.

  • The Divided Sky – C. Wolf (East)
  • Jakob the Liar – J. Becker (East)
  • Pigeons in the Grass – W. Koeppen (West)
  • The Tin Drum – G. Grass (West)

This was a rough overview of the German literary epochs up to 1990. More interesting information beyond literary knowledge can be found here.

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