German Literature 1789–1815


THE German literature of the age of Napoleon was affected by the natural rebelliousness of youth, the lingering waves of Sturm und Drang, the echoes of English Romantic poetry and Richardson’s novels, the classical tradition in Lessing and the later Goethe, the successful revolt of the American colonies, the heresies of the French Enlightenment, above all by the daily impact of the French Revolution, and, toward the end, by the drama of Napoleon’s rise and fall. Many educated Germans had read—some in French—works by Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, and a lesser number had felt the sting of Helvétius, d’Holbach, and La Mettrie. The French philosophes had helped to form rulers like Frederick the Great, Joseph II of Austria, Duke Charles William Ferdinand of Brunswick, and Duke Charles Augustus of Saxe-Weimar; and, if only through these men, those writers had left their mark on German civilization. The French Revolution seemed, at first, a logical development of the Enlightenment philosophy: a happy end to feudalism and class privileges, a lusty proclamation of universal human rights, an invigorating liberation of speech, press, worship, conduct, and thought. These ideas—many of them independently developed in Germany —crossed the Rhine on the wings of news or with the armies of the Revolution, and swept over the heartland of Europe even to distant Königsberg.

So the molders of the German mind, and the makers of German literature, welcomed the French Revolution in its first three years. Gentlemen Freemasons, mystic Rosicrucians, proud Illuminati, hailed it as the dawn of the golden age they had awaited so long and ardently. Peasants staged revolts against feudal lords, “Imperial Knights,” and the episcopal rulers of Trier and Speyer.1 Bourgeois Hamburg applauded the Revolution as an uprising of businessmen against arrogant aristocrats. Klopstock, the old poet domiciled in Hamburg, read his poems at a festival of freedom, and cried with joy over his lines. Scholars, journalists, poets, and philosophers broke out in a cappella hymns of praise. Johann Voss, translator of Homer, Johannes von Müller, historian, Friedrich von Gentz, diplomat at large, Friedrich Hölderlin, poet, Friedrich Schleiermacher, theologian, the philosophers from Kant to Hegel—all sang litanies to the Revolution. “It is glorious,” wrote Georg Forster (who had accompanied Captain Cook around the world), “to see what philosophy has ripened in the brain and realized in the state.”2 Everywhere, even in the ranks of royalty (as in Prince Henry, surviving brother of Frederick the Great), Germany, for an ecstatic while, raised lauds to revolutionary France. In that ecstasy German literature, after so long hibernating from religious strife, adding the Revolution to the victories of Frederick, rose in thirty years (1770–1800) to such vigor, diversity, and brilliance as to rival the ripe literatures of England and France. And that revival, astonishing in its pace, went to play its part in rousing Germany to throw off the yoke of France, and enter into the politically, industrially, scientifically, philosophically richest century in its history.

Of course that joyous mood did not last. Stories came of the assault upon the Tuileries, of the September Massacres and the Terror, of the imprisonment and execution of the King and the Queen. Then came the French occupation of German states, the mounting levies of money and men to pay for imperial protection and the martial cost of spreading liberty. Year by year German fervor for the Revolution waned, and one by one the defenders (excepting Kant) turned into disillusioned skeptics, and some of them into angry foes.

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