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Today, German literature is by no means a dead-serious, high-brow matter, with scholars of literature brooding over critical editions of Germany’s most challenging thinkers from Kant to Nietzsche. Instead, Germany’s literary landscape proves that many people regard literature as a lively leisure time activity that brings writers, book-sellers, and book-lovers together.
German Literature: A Short History of German Literature
In 2009, the Romanian-born German author Herta Müller received a Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the seventh German writer to be awarded thus. While this was definitely one of the great moments for contemporary German literature, its history goes back about 1,200 years. Of course, it is impossible to give an adequate summary of an entire millennium’s literature here. However, we would like to give you an overview of the development of German literature since the 18th century.
German Literature: From the 18th to the 20th Century
The famous 18th-century playwrights Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe emphasized and popularized the values of the European Enlightenment, Classicism, and Romanticism. And while the writers of the early 19th century had dreamed of revolution, rights, and a German nation state, later novels of bourgeois realism rather focused on manners and matters of the heart. Regional traditions and social questions were popular subjects as well.
The literary movements before the First World War (1914-1918) were largely concerned with linguistic and philosophical musings but starting with the Weimar Republic (1919-1932), Germany’s first democracy, literature was mainly categorized by the political upheavals and conditions of its time. The literature of exile written during the Nazi regime, the Trümmerliteratur (“literature of ruins”) after World War Two, the two divergent literary scenes of both the Federal Republic of Germany and the Socialist GDR were only some of the examples.
German Literature: The 21st Century
Today’s popular German authors are often criticized for being apolitical, especially in comparison to politically influential novelists like Heinrich Böll (1917-1985) and Günter Grass (*1927). Their work often deals with the Second World War and the social climate in the new Federal Republic of Germany.
Younger generations of German writers such as Daniel Kehlmann (Die Vermessung der Welt) have developed a new love for story-telling. An avid interest in pop culture and a tendency to blur the distinctions between “serious” writing and pure entertainment has also become rather common. In authors like Wladimir Kaminer and Rafik Schami, Germany’s migrant population has found best-selling literary voices as well. However, some of the most successful German genre fiction writers include Frank Schätzing (technological thrillers), Andreas Eschbach (sci-fi and fantasy), Tanja Kinkel (historical novels), or Cornelia Funke (children’s books). Their books have largely been translated into foreign languages, so even with only mediocre German language skills you can become familiar with German literature.
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