The 18th century in Germany sees the rise of Prussia, under the rule of the enlightened absolutist Frederick II (1712-86, ruled from 1740-86), also called Frederick the Great. The Seven Years War (1756-63) between Prussia and Austria and their allies Britain, France and Russia enables Prussia to confirm its possession of Silesia. From this point onwards there is an uneasy truce between Prussia and Austria known as ‘Austro-Prussian dualism’. In Austria there was a period of enlightened absolutism under Joseph II (lived 1741-90, ruled from 1765-90). Towards the end of the century, the French Revolution of 1789 ushers in a new age of political modernity in Europe.
Modern German literature begins around 1750 with the dramas of Lessing (Miss Sara Sampson, 1755; Minna von Barnhelm, 1767), the poems of Klopstock and the novels of Gellert, Wieland and Sophie von La Roche.
The classical period in German literature is known as the Goethezeit, in other words Goethe’s (life)time (1749-1832). Within this period there are several key turning points: Goethe’s move to Weimar in 1775; Goethe’s departure for Italy in 1786 and Schiller’s death in 1805. In the last few years of the century the German Romantics Tieck, Schlegel and Novalis produced some astonishingly modern writing. But it is also rewarding to read texts by mid 18th century poets such as Gleim, Klopstock, Albrecht von Haller and Anna Louisa Karsch.
The 18th century moves from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, but it is too simplistic to say that the Enlightenment represents rationality and that Romanticism represents an emotional backlash to it. It is more accurate to say that Romanticism is an extension of the Enlightenment concern with the self and its limits, one which developed as a result of the triple shock of the French revolution, the industrial revolution and Kantian philosophy.
The 18th century in Germany contains a number of partially overlapping periods, genres, movements and/or groupings:
Early Enlightenment (Frühaufklärung)
The Enlightenment actually begins in the early 17th century with Descartes in France and in mid-17th century with Pufendorf in Germany. The most important German philosopher of the early Enlightenment is Leibniz (1646-1716). Leibniz's ideas were popularised by Christian Wolff (1679-1754). The most important public intellectual of this period was Christian Thomasius (1655-1728). Also worthy of note are the poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747), the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768); the prose satirist Gottlieb Wilhelm Rabener (1714-1771) who was known as ‘the German Swift’; and Anton Wilhelm Amo (circa 1703-circa 1759), a black African who in 1736 became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Halle. In the first half of the 18th century, enlightened tragedies and comedies were written by Johann Christoph Gottsched and his wife Luise Adelgunde Gottsched.
Rococo (mid 18th century)
This refers to the charming poetry produced by Gleim, Hagedorn and Uz. Their poems were modelled on the ancient Greek poet Anacreon who wrote love poems and drinking songs.
Literature of Sensibility (Literatur der Empfindsamkeit)
This mid-18th century genre, developed by English and French writers such as Richardson and Prévost, soon became highly popular in German, e.g. Gellert's Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G...; Life of the Swedish Countess of G... (1748). Wieland and La Roche produced fine sentimental novels, but the most famous novel of this genre in German is Goethe’s epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers; The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Later examples of this genre are Johann Martin Miller’s Siegwart (1776), the novels of Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter), and Caroline Auguste Fischer’s epistolary novel Die Honigmonathe; The Honeymoon (1802).
Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Stress’)
This movement lasted less than a decade (1770-78). Under the aegis of Johann Gottfried Herder and Shakespeare, young German writers such as Goethe, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, Johann Heinrich Merck, Friedrich Maximilian Klinger and Friedrich (Maler) Müller cut loose from French classical models in order to produce some intense, realistic dramas. Schiller was not a member of the movement, although his early plays (1781 onwards) show affinities with it. In the wake of Sturm und Drang a number of popular gothic novels appeared by writers such as Benedikte Naubert and C. A. Vulpius.
The late Enlightenment (Spätaufklärung), roughly the second half of the 18th century, boasts a number of philosophers and writers including Kant, Lichtenberg, Herder, Hamann, Friedrich Nicolai, Georg Forster, Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel and Carl Arnold Kortum. Of great psychological interest is the autobiography of Karl Philipp Moritz.
Weimar Classicism (Weimarer Klassik)
This name is given to the period of Goethe and Schiller’s mature works, and particularly to the period of their collaboration, 1794-1805. Arguably though, Goethe’s classical period begins earlier, with his departure for Italy in 1786. This period ends in 1805 with Schiller’s death.
From the 1770s onwards, and well into the 19th century, a number of German women novelists wrote fiction focusing on romance, marriage and the family. For a long time this genre was ignored by scholars, who labelled it dismissively as the Frauenroman (women’s novel). In recent decades, however, this genre has benefited from serious critical attention (see below, Goodman and Waldstein, Fronius, Kontje). Examples of this genre include: Sophie von La Roche, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim; The Story of Young Lady von Sternheim (1771); Caroline von Wolzogen, Agnes von Lilien (1798); Friederike Helene Unger, Julchen Grünthal: Eine Pensiongeschichte; A Boarding School Story (1784/1798); Therese Huber, Die Familie Seldorf; The Seldorf Family (1795-96); Sophie Mereau, Das Blüthenalter der Empfindung; The Springtime of Sensation (1794); Amanda und Eduard (1803).
Early Romanticism (Frühromantik)
Around 1800 writers such as Wackenroder, Tieck, Novalis, Karoline von Günderrode, Friedrich Schlegel, Dorothea Schlegel and August Wilhelm Schlegel imbued art with a new religious significance, combining medieval nostalgia with modern insights into the nature of the self. The early Romantics were influenced by the work of the philosophers Kant and Fichte. The novelist Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) was not a member of this group but his work can be seen as loosely associated with early Romanticism.
Universitätsmamsellen (Academic Young Ladies)
The Universitätsmamsellen were a group of five female intellectuals, daughters of academics at Göttingen University, who were active around 1800: Meta Forkel-Liebeskind, Therese Huber, Philippine Engelhard, Karoline Schelling (née Michaelis) and Dorothea Schlözer.
Further Reading on the 18th century
Eric A. Blackall, The Emergence of German as a Literary Language 1700-1775 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959)
Nicholas Boyle, Goethe, The Poet and the Age: Vol. 1, The Poetry of Desire, 1749-1790 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991); Goethe, The Poet and the Age: Vol. 2, Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000)
W. H. Bruford, Germany in the eighteenth century: the social background of the literary revival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935)
W. H. Bruford, Theatre, Drama and Audience in Goethe’s Germany (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950)
W. H. Bruford, Culture and Society in Classical Weimar, 1775-1806 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962)
Matt Erlin, Berlin’s Forgotten Future: City, History and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004)
Matt Erlin and Sean Franzel (eds.), Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 49:2 (2013), special issue on the eighteenth-century novel
Helen Fronius, Women and Literature in the Goethe Era: Determined Dilettantes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 vols (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967-70)
Katherine R. Goodman and Edith Waldstein, In the Shadow of Olympus: German Women Writers Around 1800 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992)
Paul Hazard, The European Mind 1680-1715, trans. by J. Lewis May (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973); reprinted as Paul Hazard, The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715, intro. by Anthony Grafton (New York: New York Review Books, 2013)
K. F. Hilliard, Freethinkers, Libertines and Schwärmer: Heterodoxy in German Literature, 1750-1800 (London: igrs, 2011)
Todd Kontje, Women, the Novel, and the German Nation 1771-1871: Domestic Fiction in the Fatherland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Roy Pascal, The German Sturm und Drang (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1953)
T. J. Reed, 'Paths through the Labyrinth: Finding Your Way in the Eighteenth Century', Publications of the English Goethe Society 51 (1981), 81-113
T. J. Reed, The Classical Centre: Goethe and Weimar 1775-1832 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)
T. J. Reed, Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015)
Thomas P. Saine, The Problem of Being Modern, or the German Pursuit of Enlightenment from Leibniz to the French Revolution (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1997)
Gabriel Trop, Poetry as a Way of Life: Aesthetics and Askesis in the German Eighteenth Century (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015)
Further Reading on the 18th century in German
Steffen Martus, Aufklärung. Das deutsche 18. Jahrhundert - ein Epochenbild (Berlin: Rowohlt, 2015)
T.J. Reed, Mehr Licht in Deutschland - Eine kleine Geschichte der Aufklärung (Munich: Beck, 2009)
Further Reading in English on Romanticism
Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (London: Chatto & Windus, 1999)
Lilian R. Furst, Romanticism in Perspective: a comparative study of aspects of the Romantic movements in England, France and Germany (London: Macmillan, 1969)
Dennis F. Mahoney (ed.), The Literature of German Romanticism, Camden House History of German Literature, vol. 8 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004)
Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985)
Alan Menhennet, The Romantic Movement (London: Croom Helm, 1981)
Siegbert Prawer (ed.), The Romantic Period in Germany (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1971)
Jeanne Riou, Imagination in German Romanticism: Re-thinking the Self and its Environment (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004)
Nicholas Saul (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to German Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Theodore Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990)
Sophie: A digital library of works by German-speaking women, includes many 18th-century writers
Ritchie Robertson, Freemasons versus Jesuits: Conspiracy Theories in Enlightenment Germany (2011)
Joachim Whaley, ‘True Enlightenment can be both achieved and beneficial.’ The German Enlightenment and its Interpretation (2014)
T.J. Reed discusses his book Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment with colleagues (May 2015)