The period I’m learning about is defined somewhat arbitrarily. While other periods are defined by particular literary or intellectual movements (Romanticism, Enlightenment) or by specific historical events (post-1989), mine is sort of a mixture. The starting date is vaguely defined around the turn of the twentieth century, but reaching a bit further back to about 1890. By going back a little further, it becomes possible to look at some of the movements that inspired and anticipated developments in literature after 1900. Also, some of these early 20th century movements started just prior to 1900 and carried over even into the late teens and twenties. Furthermore, the historical events of the last decade of the 19th century in many ways influenced and anticipated the events of the first half of the 20th century in Germany. 1888 saw Wilhelm II rise to become Emperor of Germany and there is a new movement of colonialism. His epic struggles for power with Bismarck (Wilhelm II eventually prevailed) seems in retrospect to foreshadow the machinations that led to Hindenburg naming Hitler Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Wilhelm II’s interventional and expansionary foreign policy and actions following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austro-Este, did nothing to prevent and, in fact, may have hastened the development of WWI, which caused, in turn, the devastation of the German economy after war’s end, which, in turn, gave rise to the Nazis and WWII.
1945 becomes an obvious cutoff date for this period, being the end of WWII and marking a rather drastic shift in literature predicated to no small degree by Adorno’s polemic against art, but also impacted by the devastation of Germany and the division of East and West. But the time in between ca. 1900 and 1945 is a time of subtler shifts in literary styles and movements and a time of major schisms and political upheaval in Germany’s history. The literature that appears around the time of these upheavals seems to gain in significance by its relation to those historic events and, more obviously, becomes inextricably tied to those events by their response to the political and historical shifts that the authors themselves witnessed and experienced.
So, the period from 1900-1945 can’t be said to have a unified vision or approach in the way that Enlightenment or Classicism could, and its context can’t be narrowed to any single political/historical event. Looking at it this way, I would perhaps call it literature of upheaval? The literature itself reflects the political/historical ruptures and shifts in content and (in some cases) form – this is especially true in Expressionism (particularly in Expressionist film and theater), which developed as well as it could a new medium – as well as reflecting on the social and cultural inheritance of the past – here we can think about Thomas Mann’s dealing with an outmoded bourgeoisie in Der Tod in Venedig or in Wedekind’s criticism of outmoded social mores and ideas about education in Frühlings Erwachen.
In the period of time from 1900 to 1945, we find a group of movements that act in harmony or discord with one another. Starting in about 1880, Naturalism becomes a major literary movement on the German scene. Naturalism was a self-conscious movement and saw itself as a literary revolution. The word Die Moderne was used to describe Naturalism. This movement’s active grappling with the social problems which plagued the political system (the worker’s movement and socialist movements within Germany) and it’s self-conscious modern-ness seems to place it more at the beginning of the twentieth century rather than at the end of the nineteenth. Around this period there is also an acute awareness of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which gave rise to “die Hoffnung auf eine Aufwärtsentwicklung des Menschengeschlechts.” [Frenzel, H.A. and E. Daten deutscher Dichtung. p. 458] Naturalism is marked by a reliance on natural laws – “Auch die psychischen Äußerungen des Menschen seien eine Funktion des körperlichen Mechanismus. Die geistige Welt funktioniere wie die natürliche nach Kausalgesetzen.” [DdD, p. 459] They saw, as did the philosophers of the time (Mill, Spencer, et al.), knowledge as the product of experience. Important influence: Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) transferred positivism also to the judgment of history and art and exposed the influence of race, milieu, and time on the artistic product. Hence, Naturalism moves away from transcendentalism and the transcendent. Instead a kind of fatalistic/deterministic impulse takes over – emphasis is only on the time we have on Earth and there is very little belief in free will. Politically, the state began to be seen as oppressive of the lower classes (see here the struggles between Wilhelm II and Bismarck about workers’ rights) a tendency that continues to be an issue well into the twentieth century (see the Russian revolution, socialist movements in Germany, nationalists’ attempts to crush socialist movements and the division of Germany). (aside: Marx’s Communist Manifesto – 1848) The naturalist movement in Germany looked to similar movements in other countries for inspiration in hopes of expanding their own literary borders and to achieve a renewed international appeal. International naturalists of impact include: Balzac, Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola, Russian realists: Turgenyev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, other Scandinavians.
“Die Modernität dieser Welt wurde im wesentlichen in ihre Natürlichkeit und die Modernität der Literatur in der Wiedergabe dieser Natürlichkeit gesehen.” [DdD, p. 460]
“Moderner Nachfolger des traditionellen ‘Helden’ war der passive Held, der unentschlossene und schwankende charakter, der ‘halbe Held’. Das Natürliche trat auch auf dem Gebiet ds Gefühls- und Seelenlebens in den Vordergrund, die Liebe wurde in ihrer Abhängigkeit vom Trieb gezeigt, und die Wahrheit verlangte, daß auch das Perverse nicht ausgeschlossen blieb. Die Einbeziehung des nach alten Maßstäben Unschönen und Unsittlichen führte in oppositionellem Gegenschlag zu einer einseitigen Bevorzugung des Häßlichen und Niederen: Kranke, Geistesgestörte, Alkoholiker, die Dirne wurden beliebte Handlungsträger.” [DdD, p. 460]
Here, see Benjamin, “Der Autor als Produzent” on the commidification of the low and impoverished.
Naturalism also attempted to naturalize its form – authors made notes on their own experiences living in cities, searched the newspapers for material, the notion of Genius and Inspiration became suspicious. In Drama, especially, the form tried to reflect the content and considerations of the movement – “unnatural” gestures were rejected, including the aside and monologue, and verse as a form. Verse still appeared in some poetry, but was unrecognizable as such. Literary language became very colloquial.
Naturalism appeared first in the novel. Special influence: Zola’s Theory on the experimental novel. Most important forms: psychological novel, then other narrative forms. In Drama, a break with the French tradition and some aspects taken over from Ibsen (small number of characters, return to natural unity of time and place, slow revelation of a past crime, ineluctable approach of catastrophe). In lyric, pathos, beauty, and mysticism are banned. As in the Vormärz, lyric deals with themes of technology and begins to deal with the Großstadt, Großstadtmenschen. In form, stayed relatively traditional, very like the Vormärz. Arno Holz tried to develop a form that would combine form and content by “der innere Rhythmus des Auszusagenden zum Ausdruck gebracht wurde.” [DdD, p.462] He wanted to avoid rhyme, stanzas, and free rhythms. This developed further in expressionism.
Authors to consider here: Arno Holz, Gerhart Hauptmann.