Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
Karl Georg Büchner was born October 17, 1813, the oldest of six children of the physician Ernst Büchner and his wife, Caroline. The family encouraged wide-ranging intellectual interests—literary, political, and scientific—although the father was a reactionary conservative whose relationship with his eldest son was strained. Büchner’s youngest brother, Alexander, was a writer and a political activist who took part in the revolution of 1848 and later became a professor of literature in France, where the political climate was more liberal than in Hesse. His sister Louise also became a writer and a champion of women’s rights. Ludwig Büchner, a physician like his father and brother, become well-known as the author of Kraft und Stoff (1855; Power and Matter, 1870) and edited the first published collection of Georg’s works. (This edition had little impact, however, because Ludwig altered and “corrected” the text extensively wherever he found Georg’s linguistic expression offensive to the sensibilities of the bourgeois circle in which he lived and worked.) Another brother, Wilhelm, was a chemist, factory owner, and politician.
Georg Büchner grew up during the time of political turmoil that followed the collapse of Napoleon Bonaparte’s power in Europe. As a student at the Ludwig-Georg-Gymnasium (a preparatory school for the university) in Darmstadt, which he entered at age twelve, Büchner showed not only superior intellectual and academic abilities but also an inquisitive, skeptical, and uncompromising mind that was not easily influenced by convention. In his recommendation of Büchner to officials at the University of Strasbourg, where the young man matriculated in 1831 as a medical student, the school’s director noted not only Büchner’s academic achievements and his keen and penetrating mind, but also what appeared to the director as imprudence in certain judgments. For the politically radical Büchner, the German-speaking French city of Strasbourg, operating after the July Revolution under the Constitutional Charter of 1830, represented a welcome liberation from the oppressive atmosphere across the Rhine River. He participated in the open political discussions that, along with rallies and demonstrations, were part of daily student life; he very likely was active also in the Société des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen’s Strasbourg chapter. Letters to his family contain references to the necessity of throwing off the shackles that Büchner perceived as binding Germany politically. While in Strasbourg, he also became secretly engaged to Wilhelmine (Minna) Jaeglé, daughter of the pastor in whose house he lived.
The Hessian law requiring all university candidates to study for at least two years at a state institution necessitated Büchner’s return to Germany in 1833. He enrolled at the University of Giessen but was incensed at the routine arrests of politically active students and at the consequent isolation he experienced when shunned and mocked by those less liberal than himself. With a small and close group of friends (August Becker, Gustav Clemm, Karl Minnigerode), he founded the secret Society for the Rights of Man in 1834. This short-lived personal engagement in revolutionary action, which engendered his incendiary flyer The Hessian Messenger, ended when Minnigerode was arrested with a bundle of pamphlets. Büchner attempted to warn other members of the group on the same day (August 1, 1834), reached Weidig and Becker in Butzbach, then traveled to Offenbach, where the flyer was printed. Returning to Giessen by way of Frankfurt, he found that his room had been entered and his papers searched and confiscated. In constant fear of arrest, he returned to his parents in Darmstadt in late August, and, after writing Danton’s Death in January and February of 1835, he fled to Strasbourg in March. Becker, Clemm, and Minnigerode received long prison terms; Weidig was arrested several times, and continually harassed by the police; he committed suicide.
The remainder of Büchner’s short life was spent in feverish productivity. In Strasbourg, he wrote his dissertation, read several papers to the Society of Natural History, translated two dramas by Victor Hugo to earn some income, and wrote the remainder of his literary works during a period of only a year and a half. In September, 1836, he was granted his doctorate and invited to the University of Zurich for a trial lecture, followed by an appointment there as lecturer for the winter semester, 1836-1837. He lectured on the “Comparative Anatomy of Fishes and Amphibians.” His brief time in Zurich was tranquil. He spent it chiefly within a small circle of colleagues—some who were refugees like himself—and frequently with Wilhelm Friedrich Schulz and his wife, Caroline. Büchner fell ill in early February, 1837, but the nature of his condition was not determined until the middle of the month, when he was already delirious and only intermittently lucid. Wilhelmine was summoned from Strasbourg, and, on February 19, 1837, Büchner died of typhus in her presence.
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