German Long Fiction from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to World War I Analysis

The Gründerzeit

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 was followed by several decades of general peace, prosperity, and pride in the (Second) Reich fashioned by Otto von Bismarck, who served as chancellor from 1871 to 1890. The early period after the unification of Germany is known as the Gründerzeit or the Gründerjahre, the time of the founders, builders, and speculators. Factories, cities, and whole industrial empires were expanded, banks were set up, and the export and import trade flourished. The boom led to the creation of a myth of national greatness and vigor that was hardly affected by financial fluctuations, crashes such as the one of 1873, and other growing pains of the Gründerzeit. A line from Emanuel Geibel’s 1861 poem “Deutschlands Beruf” (Germany’s calling), published in 1871 in the series Heroldsrufe, “Und es mag am deutschen Wesen einmal noch die Welt genesen” (someday the German spirit may yet cure the world’s ills), became a sort of Pan-German slogan; Wilhelm II quoted it in his Münster speech of 1907.

As great numbers of people moved from the country to the city, an industrial proletariat came into being, and this strengthened the workers’ movement. What has been called “the dilemma of the industrialized agrarian state” did not have a salutary effect on literature and culture. As the spirit of 1870-1871 focused attention on Germany’s political and geopolitical aims—its quest for a place in...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Before the major writers after the middle or late 1880’s can be discussed, it is necessary to take a brief look backward at the fictional forms of German realism. Paul Heyse not only wrote more than one hundred Novellen, issued in two dozen volumes between 1850 and 1914, but also became one of the chief theoreticians of the genre. According to his Falkentheorie (derived from the story of the falcon in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto, 1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), a Novelle must have a clearly delineated basic motif and a characteristic that sets it apart from all other stories. In 1871, Heyse wrote that a Novelle should present “a significant human fate, a spiritual, intellectual, or ethical conflict, revealing through an uncommon occurrence a new side of human nature.” (The “uncommon occurrence” seems to be the same unerhörte Begebenheit that Goethe specified as the hallmark of the genre.) Despite the fact that the prolific Heyse was once widely read and, in 1910, became the first German to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, he is all but forgotten today, possibly as a result of what George Wallis Field called the “sentimental fragrance of old lace and lavender which lingers in most of [his] narratives.”

Theodor Storm, another prolific practitioner of the genre, gave his own definition of the Novelle in an 1881 letter to Keller. Storm wrote, Today’s Novelle is a sister of the drama and the most defined form of prose. Like the drama, it deals with the profoundest problems of human life and demands for its perfection a central conflict around which the entire story organizes itself. Consequently it requires the most compact form and the elimination of everything nonessential.

Storm, whose reputation has grown over the years, produced a great variety of Novellen and in his last decade favored the forms of the Chroniknovelle and the Problemnovelle, such as Ein Bekenntnis (1888; a confession), which deals with euthanasia. (“How does a person get into the position of killing the person he loves most?” wrote Storm to Keller. “And when it has happened, what becomes of him?”) In Storm’s last work, Der Schimmelreiter (1888; The Rider on the White Horse, 1915), the protagonist is presented in conflict with nature. Storm also made masterful use of the Erinnerungsnovelle, presenting a character’s memories in the form of a Rahmenerzählung, the framework technique that anticipates the flashbacks of the cinema.

Another outstanding writer of Novellen, some of them long enough to rate as novels, was the Swiss Conrad Ferdinand Meyer. This prim patrician and emotionally unstable man wrote passionately and dramatically about the Italian Renaissance and the religious strife of the...

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Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The two outstanding German storytellers of the latter part of the nineteenth century were Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane, writers whose reputations grew during the last several decades of the twentieth century. Since at least some of their work falls in the fin de siècle period, a more extended discussion of their contribution is in order here.

Raabe was a curiously isolated figure who had no real successors, although some of his narrative techniques foreshadow those of Thomas Mann. In his quirky ambivalence, wry humor, whimsy, and latter-day Romantic irony, this subtle and sophisticated storyteller harks back to Sterne and Jean Paul, but these qualities also bespeak an affinity with Dickens and Thackeray. Raabe grasped the moral dilemmas of his world and portrayed that world honestly and truthfully. His social range was rather narrow, his intellectual penetration not very profound, and he had little passion or reformers’ zeal. Yet his admitted philistinism had a gleam of true wisdom that has been called “simply an acknowledgment of the inscrutable fitness of things,” and his pessimism is somehow uplifting and cheering as often as it is despairing and depressing. Lange sees Raabe as the continuator of a fertile tradition, that of the German baroque imagination, and concludes that “his work represents the impressive climax of the literature of German bourgeois idealism." Barker Fairley calls Raabe’s work “the most richly conceived body of fiction in the German language.”

“Look up to the stars! Watch life in the streets!” This admonition reflects what may be termed Raabe’s idealistic realism as he foreshadows the coming German (and indeed European) crisis of morals. His best-known novels portray the eventual triumph of inner strength and integrity over the forces of decay and dissolution. The individual must stand inviolate amid all onslaughts: “We want to remain what we must be.” There is more tension than action in Raabe’s novels; his subjective style and multiple narrative perspectives may have been intended to facilitate communication with a wider readership, but in effect, his subtleties were lost on many readers, and his modest, pseudonaïve disclaimers were accepted at face value.

Raabe’s basic theme is humanity in an age of social change. After 1870, he remained loyal to the Reich, but he was troubled by the political developments and the social upheavals he witnessed, and his late novels reflect his disillusionment with Bismarck’s nationalistic policies. Pfisters Mühle (1884) deals with the clash of the old and the new as a rural landscape is rapidly transformed into an industrial one. The novel takes the form of a reminiscence of a young Berlin schoolmaster who is spending his honeymoon in his father’s mill, soon to make way for a factory. It turns out that the water of the millstream is polluted by the effluvia of a beet-sugar factory. Even though the father wins a lawsuit against the factory, it is a Pyrrhic victory, for he dies knowing that the old way of life is doomed. The conflict between the old and the new worlds is personified by Dr. Asche, who in his youth enjoyed the mill but as an industrial scientist and founder of a dye business aligns himself with the forces of “progress.” Yet the fact that he remains essentially humane shows that the march of time need not drown out the harmonies of tradition. Im alten Eisen (1887) is less optimistic; the wheel of history rolls over the human community. Das Odfeld (1889; The Odin Field, 2001), set during the Seven Years’ War, is about some uprooted civilians who are guided back to their homesteads to rebuild their lives. Die Akten des Vogelsangs (1896) tells the story of three children who experience the breakup of an old-fashioned neighborhood in a town that is being modernized. In an ironic concession to popular taste, Raabe called his novel Stopfkuchen: Eine See-und Mordgeschichte (1891; Tubby Schaumann: A Tale of Murder and the High Seas, 1983) a “murder and sea story”; he also described it as his best and most subjective book. The title is the nickname of a nibbler named Heinrich Schaumann, a warm and humane Biedermeier type, who tells the story of his life to Eduard, a prosperous settler in Africa who is on his way home after a visit to his native Germany. In its attack on tendencies to idealize the past and its deflation of the materialistic person of action, this wry commentary on a quarter-century of change may be regarded as anti-Faust.

Pointing out that Raabe “presents metaphysical problems in a precisely described social and historical milieu,” Eda Sagarra formulates some basic, penetrating questions that Raabe posed in his most mature novels: Should life be lived in conformity with changing patterns of society at the cost of spiritual and intellectual values, or should it be lived in self-imposed seclusion? Can one be involved in the process of historical change without...

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The theory of naturalism

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

“Our world is no longer classical,” wrote Arno Holz; “our world is no longer romantic; our world is modern.” Terms such as modern and die Moderne (coined by Eugen Wolff) became battle cries as a new generation of writers strove to modify Germany’s feudal and parochial structure sufficiently to admit cultural currents from elsewhere in Europe and to allow a heightened realism finally to take hold in German literature. Marxism became increasingly influential in the 1870’s and 1880’s, and the doctrines of Charles Darwin as presented by his chief German disciple Ernst Haeckel promoted a more materialistic Weltanschauung. Nietzsche’s rejection of conventional morality and his call for a “new...

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The fiction of naturalism

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The naturalists favored the novel over the Novelle or other forms of short prose, but a few outstanding examples of the latter genre deserve pride of place. In Hauptmann’ssymbolistic masterpiece Bahnwärter Thiel (1888; Flagman Thiel, 1933), a railroad gatekeeper is haunted by his deceased first wife even while he is under the erotic spell of his current one, who mistreats his little son and through carelessness causes the boy to be killed by a train, whereupon the Woyzeck-like Thiel goes mad and murders her. Equally tragic is the prose sketch Papa Hamlet by Holz and Schlaf, published in 1889; that year Hauptmann dedicated his first play, Vor Sonnenaufgang (pr., pb. 1889; Before...

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Countercurrents to naturalism

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Various countercurrents to naturalism made themselves felt at an early stage of the movement; as early as 1891, the Austrian critic Hermann Bahr wrote a monograph about its Überwindung (transcending). Apart from the fact that “consistent naturalism” and other doctrinaire forms were bound to be limited and short-lived, there was a general tendency to abandon the empirical and “scientific” for the irrational, the intuitive, the psychic, the aesthetic, the mystic, and the mythological—to shift from the problems of the time to the problems of the individual. Remembering Goethe’s insight that “Art is called art precisely because it is not Nature,” the antinaturalists pointed out that the methods of the...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Adams, Jeffrey, and Eric Williams, eds. Mimetic Desire: Essays on Narcissism in German Literature from Romanticism to Post Modernism. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Collection of scholarly essays focuses on the theme of narcissism in the works of several German writers, including Thomas Mann, Gottfried Benn, Max Frisch, Christa Wolf, and Thomas Bernhard.

Berman, Russell A. The Rise of the Modern German Novel: Crisis and Charisma. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Explains the rise of the German novel by looking at the social processes and political tensions in modern society.


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