Georg Büchner (1813-1837)

Büchner is the most important dramatist of the mid-19th century, and considered by many to be one of the greatest German dramatists along with Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Brecht and Heiner Müller. Büchner died of typhoid aged 23 in 1837, and only gained his reputation around 1900, when Naturalists, Expressionists, Wedekind and (later) Brecht recognised him as a precursor. Today, Germany’s most prestigious literary prize, the Büchner-Preis, is named after him.

Before he died, Büchner produced three great plays and one great short story. Dantons Tod; Danton’s Death is an intense historical drama; Leonce und Lena; Leonce and Lena is philosophical comedy which contains profound reflections on determinism and scientific progress; Woyzeck is a gripping, fragmentary masterpiece. The short story Lenz, based on the life of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, is a humane and insightful study of mental illness.

The radical scepticism of Büchner’s drama owes much to his scientific research as a biologist (he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the nervous system of carp). His sceptical, contradictory aesthetic contrasts with the positivism and idealism which dominated 19th century German culture, but it clearly anticipates 20th century literary modernism.

Büchner’s works can be seen in part as a riposte to the idealism of Schiller and Kant. Schiller and Kant regard human beings as essentially free, rational and beings, capable of sublime apprehensions. Büchner rejects such abstract and aristocratic notions as (at best) unrealistic, and (at worst) arrogant. In Büchner’s work the hungering, lusting body is continually reasserting its elemental power over the mind, and making a mockery of pretensions to virtue. In his short story Lenz we read:

‘Dieser Idealismus ist die schmählichste Verachtung der menschlichen Natur’.


‘This idealism is the most shameful scorn of human nature.’

Büchner inserted a brilliant critique of idealist drama at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3 of Dantons Tod; Danton’s Death, where Camille talks about the hollow creatures of idealist drama, which mislead people and cause them to ignore (or sneer at) their fellow human beings.

Büchner’s study of the French Revolution led him to make some famous remarks in a letter to his fiancée Minna Jaeglé written between 9-12 March 1834:

Ich finde in der Menschennatur eine entsetzliche Gleichheit, in den menschlichen Verhältnissen eine unabwendbare Gewalt, Allen und Keinem verliehen. Der Einzelne nur Schaum auf der Welle, die Größe ein bloßer Zufall, die Herrschaft des Genies ein Puppenspiel, ein lächerliches Ringen gegen ein ehernes Gesetz, es zu erkennen das Höchste, es zu beherrschen unmöglich. […] Das muß ist eins von den Verdammungsworten, womit der Mensch getauft worden. Der Ausspruch: es muß ja Ärgernis kommen, aber wehe dem, durch den es kommt, – ist schauderhaft. Was ist das, was in uns lügt, mordet, stiehlt? Ich mag dem Gedanken nicht weiter nachgehen.


I find in human nature a terrible uniformity, in human relations an inescapable violence, given to everyone and no one. The individual is only foam on the wave, greatness is mere chance, the mastery of genius a puppet-play, a ridiculous struggle against an iron law; to recognise this law is the highest insight; to master this law is impossible. […] ‘Must’ is one of the words of damnation with which man has been baptised. The saying ‘Offence must come, but woe to that man by whom the offence comes’ – is terrible. What is it that lies, murders and steals in us? I would rather not think this through. [Translation ES].

This letter is known as the ‘Fatalismus-Brief’; ‘Fatalism Letter’. The phrase ‘es muß ja Ärgernis kommen […]’; ‘Offence must come […]’ is a quotation from Luke 17:1 and Matthew 18:7; the phrase also occurs in Act 5, Scene 10 of J.M.R. Lenz’s play Der Hofmeister; The Tutor (1774). Büchner reworked it and used it in Act 2, Scene 5 of Dantons Tod; Danton’s Death. However, John Reddick argues that this letter is a red herring, the expression of a transient mood rather than the statement of a definitive philosophy. He points out that the main characters in Dantons Tod; Danton’s Death act deliberately and exercise different kinds of limited freedom (see reading list below, Reddick, p. 109).

The pessimistic view which Büchner expressed in this famous letter did not stop him being politically engaged. In the same month that he wrote the letter to Minna Jaeglé, March 1834, he joined the ‘Gesellschaft der Menschenrechte’ (‘The Society for Human Rights’) in Giessen and began working on his political pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote; The Hessian Courier (1834), which he wrote together with Friedrich Ludwig Weidig.


Dantons Tod; Danton’s Death (written and published 1835)

Leonce und Lena; Leonce and Lena (written 1836)

Woyzeck (written 1836-37)


Lenz (written 1835; published 1839)

Political Pamphlet:

Der Hessische Landbote; The Hessian Courier (1834)

Translations from French into German:

Victor Hugo, Lucretia Borgia (1835)

Victor Hugo, Maria Tudor (1835)

Scientific Research:

Mémoire sur le système nerveux du barbeau; Dissertation on the Nervous System of the Barbel (1836)

Probevorlesung über Schädelnerven; Trial Lecture on Cranial Nerves (1836)

Standard Edition in English

Georg Büchner: The Major Works, ed. by Matthew Wilson Smith (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012)

Further Reading in English

Matthew Bell, The German Tradition of Psychology in Literature and Thought, 1700-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Chapter 7: ‘After Romanticism: The Physiological Unconscious’, pp. 208-28

Maurice R. Benn, The Drama of Revolt: A Critical Study of Georg Büchner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)

Michael Hamburger, Reason and Energy. Studies in German Literature (London: Rouledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), pp. 177-208

Patrick Fortmann and Martha B. Helfer (eds.), Commitment and Compassion: Essays on Georg Büchner. Festschrift for Gerhard P. Knapp (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2012)

Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (eds.), Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives (Leiden: Brill, 2017)

Reinhold Grimm, Love, Lust, and Rebellion: New Approaches to Georg Büchner (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985)

Julian Hilton, Georg Büchner (London: Macmillan, 1982)

Georg Lukács, ‘The Real Georg Büchner and his Fascist Misrepresentation’ [1937], in Lukács, German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, trans. by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast, ed. by Rodney Livingstone (London: Libris, 1993), pp. 69-94

Ken Mills and Brian Keith-Smith (eds.), Büchner in Britain: A Passport to Georg Büchner (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 1987)

Ken Mills and Brian Keith-Smith (eds.), Georg Büchner – Tradition and Innovation: Fourteen Essays (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 1990)

Michael Perraudin,‘Towards a new cultural life: Büchner and the “Volk”’, Modern Language Review 86 (1991), 627-44; revised version in Michael Perraudin, Literature, the Volk and Revolution in mid nineteenth-century Germany (Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 2001), Chapter 2, pp. 37-63

John Reddick, ‘“Ihr könntet einen noch in die Lüge verliebt machen”. Georg Büchner and the Agony of Authenticity’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 23 (1987), 289-324

John Reddick, Georg Büchner: The Shattered Whole (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

David G. Richards, Georg Büchner and the Birth of Modern Drama (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977)

Sheila Stern, ‘Truth So Difficult: George Eliot and Georg Büchner, A Shared Theme’, Modern Language Review 96:1 (2001), 1-13

Standard Editions in German

Single-volume editions of Büchner’s works:

Georg Büchner, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. by Ariane Martin (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2012)

Georg Büchner, Werke und Briefe, Münchner Ausgabe, ed. by Karl Pörnbacher, Gerhard Schaub, Hans-Joachim Simm and Edda Ziegler (Munich: Carl Hanser / Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988)

Ten-volume critical edition of Büchner’s works:

Georg Büchner, Sämtliche Werke und Schriften. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe mit Quellendokumentation und Kommentar (Marburger Ausgabe), 10 vols, ed. by Burghard Dedner and Thomas Michael Mayer (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2001-2013)

Further Reading in German

Roland Borgards and Harald Neumeyer (eds.), Büchner-Handbuch. Leben, Werk, Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2009)

Dietmar Goltschnigg (ed.), Georg Büchner und die Moderne. Texte, Analysen, Kommentar, 3 vols (Berlin, Schmidt, 2001-04)

Jan-Christoph Hauschild, Georg Büchner. Biographie (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 1993)

Jan-Christoph Hauschild, Georg Büchner. Verschwörung für die Gleichheit (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 2013)

Hermann Kurzke, Georg Büchner. Geschichte eines Genies (Munich: Beck, 2013)

Ariane Martin, Georg Büchner (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2007)

Ariane Martin and Bodo Morawe, Dichter der Immanenz. Vier Studien zu Georg Büchner (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2013)

Christian Neuhuber, Georg Büchner: Das literarische Werk (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 2009)

Barbara Neyrmeyr (ed.), Georg Büchner. Neue Wege der Forschung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2012)

Henri Poschmann, Georg Büchner. Dichtung der Revolution und Revolution der Dichtung (Berlin: Aufbau, 1985)

Dieter Sevin (ed.), Georg Büchner. Neue Perspektiven zur internationalen Rezeption (Berlin: Schmidt, 2007)

Daniel Steuer, ‘“[…] aber das Mühlrad dreht sich als fort ohne Rast und Ruh”. Büchners Gegenwortkunst und der Satz von der Erhaltung der Schönheit’, in Das schwierige neunzehnte Jahrhundert. Germanistische Tagung zum 65. Geburtstag von Eda Sagarra im August 1998, ed. by Jürgen Barkhoff, Gilbert Carr and Roger Paulin (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2000), pp. 365-76

Web Links in German


Georg Büchner Portal


Georg Büchner Society


Georg Büchner exhibition in Darmstadt (2013-14). Exhibition catalogue: Ralf Beil and Burghard Dedner (eds.), Georg Büchner. Revolutionär mit Feder und Skalpell (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2013)