German literature in the 19th century was written against a background of political aspirations for nationhood, democracy and freedom of speech. Censorship and authoritarianism prevailed for much of the century. The medieval Holy Roman Empire (which had lasted in Europe for six centuries) came to an end after Napoleon’s defeat of Austria (at Austerlitz in 1805) and Prussia (at Jena in 1806). After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the Congress of Vienna established a system of restoration called the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) which lasted until German unification in 1871.
The period 1815-1848 is sometimes called the Biedermeier but this term is controversial because it implies political conformity, placidity and even mediocrity. This description is inaccurate for many German-language writers of this period, and so the term ‘Vormärz’ (Pre-March) may be preferred. This term refers to the period of gradual political agitation which culminated in the German Revolution of March 1848. The Revolution led to the establishment of a national parliament in Frankfurt but this was soon dissolved. The standard work of history on this period is by Thomas Nipperdey (see reading list below).
Germany was united under Prussia. The Prussian Customs Union (Zollverein) founded in 1834 helped to create conditions of economic unity. Political union followed after Prussia, governed by its chancellor Otto von Bismarck, won three wars: with Austria against Denmark in 1864; against Austria in 1866; and against France in 1870. Germany became an Empire (Reich) and a nation-state for the first time in 1871, but its national parliament was toothless. The 1870s are known as the ‘Gründerjahre’ or 'Gründerzeit' (the foundation years) although there was an economic crash in 1873. In 1888 Wilhelm II (1859-1941) became Kaiser and in 1890 he forced Bismarck to resign as chancellor.
During the Napoleonic period two of the greatest German writers were at work:
the dramatist and short story writer Heinrich von Kleist;
and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin.
The great German humorist Johann Peter Hebel also published in this period.
Another important work of this period is Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura; The Night Watches of Bonaventura, published anonymously in 1804 (date on title page is 1805). The authorship of this text is uncertain.
The first half of the 19th century saw new generations of Romantic authors (in alphabetical order): Achim von Arnim, Bettina von Arnim, Clemens Brentano, Friederike Brun, Adelbert von Chamisso, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Joseph von Eichendorff, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Caroline de la Motte Fouqué, Henriette Frölich, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Ida Hahn-Hahn, Wilhelm Hauff, Heinrich Heine, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Sophie Mereau, Eduard Mörike, August von Platen, Friedrich Rückert, Johanna Schopenhauer, Rahel Varnhagen, Ludwig Uhland, Karoline von Woltmann.
In the 1830s Georg Büchner wrote his dramas.
Other German-language dramatists of the first half of the 19th century are (in alphabetical order): Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, Christian Dietrich Grabbe, Franz Grillparzer, Friedrich Hebbel, Johann Nestroy, Ferdinand Raimund.
In the 1830s Karl Immermann, Jeremias Gotthelf and Willibald Alexis produced the first major realist novels in German.
In 1845 Heinrich Hoffmann published Struwwelpeter, a famous book for children.
In the 1830s and 1840s a loose association of political poets and writers known as Das Junge Deutschland; Young Germany became prominent: this included Ludwig Börne, Franz Dingelstedt, Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Ferdinand Freiligrath, Adolf Glassbrenner, Karl Gutzkow, Heinrich Heine, Georg Herwegh, Heinrich Laube, Georg Weerth.
Between 1847 and 1849 the radical feminist Louise Aston published three political novels.
The first half of the 19th century also saw the publication of philosophical works by Feuerbach, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Schelling, Schleiermacher and Schopenhauer.
In the second half of the 19th century the preferred mode of literature was realist fiction (sometimes called ‘poetischer Realismus’; ‘poetic realism’ or ‘bürgerlicher Realismus’; ‘bourgeois realism’). The genre of the novella (Novelle) was richly developed.
German-language writers of realist fiction in this period include (in alphabetical order): Berthold Auerbach, Helene Böhlau, Felix Dahn, Marie Eugenie Delle Grazie, Hedwig Dohm, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Gustav Frenssen, Gustav Freytag, Theodor Fontane, Gerhart Hauptmann, Paul Heyse, Gottfried Keller, Max Kretzer, Ferdinand Kürnberger, Fanny Lewald, Otto Ludwig, Eugénie Marlitt, Karl May, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Wilhelm Raabe, Gabriele Reuter, Friedrich Spielhagen, Adalbert Stifter, Theodor Storm, Bertha von Suttner.
Poets of this period include Theodor Fontane, Friederike Kempner, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Eduard Mörike, Carl Spitteler, Theodor Storm.
The theatre of the 1880s and 1890s was dominated by naturalism, which was influenced by the works of the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Naturalist dramatists include (in alphabetical order): Elsa Bernstein, Gerhart Hauptmann, Arno Holz, Johannes Schlaf, Hermann Sudermann. Also in the 1890s, Arthur Schnitzler caused a stir in Vienna with some penetrating psychological dramas.
The rival movement to naturalism was symbolism. Naturalists tended to write dramas and, to a lesser extent, prose; symbolists preferred poetry. Symbolist poets of the fin-de-siècle writing in German include Richard Dehmel, Stefan George, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Detlev von Liliencron, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Another literary movement at this time was Neo-Romanticism (Neuromantik or literarischer Jugendstil). This is an offshoot of symbolism informed by a rediscovery of German Romanticism (die Romantik). It lasted from around 1890 to 1915 and is associated with writers including Stefan George, Ernst Hardt, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Ricarda Huch.
For fin-de-siècle modernist authors such as Rilke, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler and Wedekind, please refer to the 20th century section of this website.
The most famous cultural figure in late 19th-century Germany was the composer Richard Wagner.
The most important philosopher of the late 19th century was Friedrich Nietzsche. His works exerted a decisive influence on German modernism from the 1890s onwards. The most important literary theorists around the turn of the century were the Austrian writers Hermann Bahr and Fritz Mauthner, who helped to popularize the ideas of Nietzsche, Freud and Ernst Mach.
Frazer S. Clark, Zeitgeist und Zerrbild: Word, Image and Idea in German Satire, 1800-1848 (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2006)
Carol Diethe, Towards Emancipation: German Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 1998)
Katy Heady, Literature and Censorship in Restoration Germany: Repression & Rhetoric (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009)
Robert C. Holub, Reflections of Realism: Paradox, Norm, and Ideology in Nineteenth-Century German Prose (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991)
Clayton Koelb and Eric Downing (eds.), German Literature of the Nineteenth Century, Camden House History of German Lit. vol. 9 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005)
Todd Kontje, Women, the Novel, and the German Nation 1771-1871: Domestic Fiction in the Fatherland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Todd Kontje (ed.), A Companion to German Realism 1848-1900 (Columbia SC: Camden House, 2002)
Georg Lukács, German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, trans. by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast (London: Libris, 1993)
Thomas Nipperdey, Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck, 1800-1866, trans. by Daniel Nolan (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996)
Roger Paulin, The Brief Compass: The Nineteenth Century German Novelle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)
Michael Perraudin, Literature, the Volk and Revolution in mid nineteenth-century German (Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 2001)
Ritchie Robertson, ‘German Literature and Thought from 1810 to 1890’, in The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History, ed. by Helmut Walser Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 260-77
Eda Sagarra, Tradition and Revolution: German Literature and Society, 1830-1890 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971)
J. P. Stern, Idylls and Realities: Studies in Nineteenth-Century German Literature (London: Methuen, 1971)
J. P. Stern, Re-Interpretations: Seven Studies in nineteenth-century German literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
Dolf Sternberger, Panorama of the 19th Century, trans. by Joachim Neugroschel, intro. by Erich Heller (New York: Urizen, 1977)
John Walker, The Truth of Realism: A Reassessment of the German Novel 1830-1900 (London: Legenda/MHRA, 2011)
Ruth Whittle, Gender, Canon and Literary History: The Changing Place of Nineteenth-Century German Women Writers (1835-1918) (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013)
Charlotte Woodford and Benedict Schofield (eds.), The German Bestseller in the Late Nineteenth Century (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012)
Charlotte Woodford, Women, Emancipation and the German Novel 1871-1910 (London: Legenda, 2014)
Karin Wurst, Fabricating Pleasure: Fashion, Entertainment, and Cultural Consumption in Germany 1780-1830 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005)
Further Reading in German
Friedrich Sengle, Biedermeierzeit. Deutsche Literatur im Spannungsfeld zwischen Restauration und Revolution 1815-1848, 3 vols (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1971-80)
Sophie: A digital library of works by German-speaking women, includes many 19th-century writers