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...
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