German literature, literature of the German-speaking peoples in Europe, primarily the Germans, Austrians, and Swiss. The German language, like its literature, has strong regional characteristics. The language of southern and central Germany is considered High German, while the language of the northern regions is called Low German. Almost without exception, the great works of German literature have been written in High German.
Early German literature
The earliest works in German literature date from the 9th Century A.D. and were inspired by the growth of monasteries. The monks disseminated Christian thought through literature. As a result, poems and stories based on biblical sources were popularized. The first known German author of this period was a monk, Otfried von Weissenberg, who wrote The Book of Gospels in rhyme. In addition, the monks chronicled some of the more ancient heroic sagas and invented new ones. One of the classics of this era is the story Lay of Hildebrand, whose author is anonymous.
The golden ages of German literature
The first great, or golden, age of German literature occurred in the 12th century and was inspired by the Crusades and chivalry. Many of the great works were epics written by knights, who through the literature expressed love, courage, and a belief in God. Wandering minstrels, or minnesingers, composed poems of love and adventure. Perhaps the most famous minnesinger was Walther von der Vogelweide. One of the great works of this era is the epic poem Song of the Nibelungs. Another major influence on the German literature of this period is the legend of King Arthur, which came to Germany from France. The German poet Hartmann von Aue, inspired by these Arthurian tales, composed an important work of this period in Germany: Poor Henry. The greatest work of the German Middle Ages, however, was a poem about a knight's search for God written by Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival. Another major work of this golden age is Tristan and Isolde (early 13th century), written by Gottfried von Strassburg.
The highest literary expression during the Renaissance (16th century) was influenced by the events of the Reformation and the development of humanism. It is, however, in the 18th century that the second golden age began and the greatest cultural achievement was accomplished in Germany. During this era the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in drama (The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faust); Friedrich Schiller in drama, poetry, and history (The Robbers, Wallenstein, William Tell); Immanuel Kant in metaphysics (Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason); and the brothers Grimm in folk literature (Fairy Tales) were all created.
German literature of the late h (19t) and early h centuries (20t)
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were characterized by a literature of naturalism characterized by social concern exemplified in the works of Karl Marx (Communist Manifesto, Capital) and Friedrich Nietzche (Thus Spake Zarat-hustra). Also from this era are the works of more impressionistic writers whose focus was more idealistic, including Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain), Herman Hesse (Demian, Steppenwolf Siddartha), and Arthur Schnitzler (The Reckoning, Anatol). In poetry, the works of Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George are most notable. The literature after World War I is often referred to as expressionistic, but shares with the naturalistic literature an emphasis on social concerns. Its unique characteristic, however, is the often terrifying and horrific dimension of the works. Its most important author is Frank Kafka (The Trial, The Castle, Amerika). Two of his short stories deserve particular distinction because they have become classics of world literature: “The Metamorphosis” and “A Country Doctor.”
German literature after (1945)
The literature immediately following World War II dealt mostly with the war and its impact on German spirit and civilization. Most notable are the works of Heinrich Böll (Group Portrait with Lady), Günter Grass (The Tin Drum), and Siegfried Lenz, whose works continued into the 1970s and 1980s.