The time period covered on this page encompasses a vast swath of literary and historical developments: it is the period that saw the incipient development of the idea of a national canon amid political tumult. The conventional cultural milestones include the development of drama from Lessing to the Sturm und Drang and Weimar Classicism; the rise of the novel and prose writing; formal experimentations in Romanticism; interactions between literature and Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy. The political history of the period can be characterised by the  development of Enlightenment ideas, with consistent oscillations between hopes for wide scale political change and disappointments brought about by the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration, the Vormärz and the 1848 Revolution. Because this period is often taken as a reference point for German cultural identity, we consider it imperative to critically engage with ideas of Germanness broadly conceived.

The sections below, ordered alphabetically, are interconnected and overlap with material from other time periods; they are necessarily imperfect and designed to evolve. We are conscious of the page’s lacunae and welcome suggestions and responses to improve the content and categorisation below. Contact us to add or edit via the button below. We have foregrounded, for example, critical approaches to the Enlightenment by scholars of race and philosophy. This is because Enlightenment ideas are commonly understood to be foundational for liberal democracies and are still hotly contested in both scholarship and in the media.  

If you have experience of teaching contemporary materials and rethinking German Studies as a discipline, we would love to hear from you for our blog. Please contact us via our submissions page.

Black Central Europe offers a trove of information concerning the varied roles that people of African descent played in German-speaking territories in the period 1500-1750, including in the courts, Church, and academic institutions (in the case of Anton Wilhelm Amo). This critical work challenges deeply entrenched images of German identity as monolithically white. Below is a selection of texts that provide an introduction into this topic. Kelly draws attention to the persistent whiteness of knowledge production in Germany and its erasure of Black thought dating back to the eighteenth century.

  • Anton Wilhelm Amo’s Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body, ed. By Stephen Menn and Justin E. H. Smith (Oxford: OUP, 2020)
  • Kelly, Natasha. Afrokultur: der Raum zwischen gestern und morgen. (Münster: Unrast Verlag, 2018)
  • Kelly, Natasha. “Die Zukunft der Vergangenheit von Schwarzem Wissen in Europa.”  GLASPALÄSTE Journal #1, 19-20/05/17
  • Kuhlmann, Anne. “Ambiguous Duty: Black Germans at German Ancien Régime Courts.” Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914. Eds. Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann. (New York: Berghahn, 2013); pp. 57-73
  • Lind, Vera. “Privileged Dependency on the Edge of the Atlantic World: Africans and Germans in the Eighteenth Century.” Interpreting Colonialism. Eds. Byron R. Wells and Philip Stewart. (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2004); pp. 369-91
Stephen Menn and Justin E. H. Smith’s edition of Amo’s Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body (OUP, 2020).

Critiques of the German Enlightenment

  • Bernasconi, Robert. “Who Invented the Concept of Race? Kant’s Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race.” Race. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001)
  • da Silva, Denise Ferreira. Toward a Global Idea of Race. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)
  • Eigen, Sara and Mark Larrimore. The German Invention of Race (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006)
  • Eze, Emmanuel. “The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology.” Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) 
  • Eze, Emmanuel. Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
  • Lloyd, David. Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics. (New York: Fordham, 2019)
  • Spivak, Gayatri. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999)
  • Tautz, Birgit. Reading and Seeing Ethnic Differences in the Enlightenment From China to Africa. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007)
  • Zhang, Chunjie. Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2017) 

Much historical and theoretical work has been done to challenge emergent ideas about race dating back to the Enlightenment. Texts and authors typically cited in the idea of a “German” Enlightenment have been central to these theorizations and figurations of race. 

The Enlightenment Room at the British Museum. Photo by Victuallers on Wikimedia.

As the authors of the texts below argue, ideas surrounding disability and illness already contributed to conceptions of the human towards the end of the 18th century.

  • Bodammer, Eleoma, ‘Disability Studies and New Directions in Eighteenth-Century German Studies,’ Goethe Yearbook 28  (2021), pp. 307-314
  • Joshua, Eleoma and Michael Schillmeier, Disability in German Literature, Film, and Theater, Edinburgh German Yearbook 4 (Rochester: Camden House, 2010), (especially the first two chapters)

Early German colonial projects

The following texts document the involvement of Brandenburg-Prussia in colonial activities, memories of which were, as Purdy and Otele note, mobilized in the late nineteenth century to garner support for German colonization of African territories.

  • Friederichsmeyer, Sara, et al. “Introduction.” The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and its Legacy. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998) 
  • Otele, Olivette. “Chapter 5: Fleeting Memories: Colonial Amnesia and Forgotten Figures.” African Europeans: An Untold History. (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2020) 
  • Purdy, Daniel. “Mobilizing the Archive in Support of Colonialism during the Kaiserreich.” Journal of Germanic Studies, vol. 53, no. 3 (2017), pp. 219-233

The Brandenburg Navy, documented in Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History.

Germany and Eastern Europe 

The latter third of the eighteenth century and start of the nineteenth century saw the three Partitions of Poland, which led to the dissolution of Poland-Lithuania as a sovereign state. Poland (as well as Russia)  then became a space for exploring questions of political organisation, civilisation and ‘barbarism’ in German-language discourse of the time.

  • Dawson, Ruth, ‘Eighteenth-Century Libertinism in a Time of Change: Representations of Catherine the Great’, Women in German Yearbook 18 (2002), 67-88.
  • Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel, The German Myth of the East. 1800 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Orlowski, Hubert, „Polnische Wirtschaft“. Zum deutschen Polendiskurs der Neuzeit (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1996)
  • Struck, Bernhard, Nicht West – nicht Ost. Frankreich und Polen in der Wahrnehmung deutscher Reisender zwischen 1750 und 1850 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2006)
  • Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: the map of civilization on the mind of the enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994)

Orientalism shaped German writers’ and thinkers’ ideas about a new “German” national literary tradition, and Orientalist texts often served as the basis for generalizing statements about life beyond Europe. Included here are both primary texts that contributed to German interest in Eastern literatures, as well as secondary literature on German Orientalisms. 

  • Brandt, Bettina and Daniel Purdy. China in the German Enlightenment. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016) 
  • Cyranka, Daniel. Mahomet: Repräsentationen des Propheten in deutschsprachigen Texten des 18. Jahrhunderts, Beiträge zur Europäischen Religionsgeschichte, 6 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018)
  • Forster, Georg. Sakontala (1791)
  • Germana, Nicholas A. The Anxiety of Autonomy and the Aesthetics of German Orientalism. (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2017)
  • Hodkinson, James and Jeffrey Morrison (eds). Encounters with Islam in German Literature and Culture. (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2013)
  • Kontje, Todd. German Orientalisms. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004)
  • Marchand, Suzanne. German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010)
  • Zhang, Chunjie. Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2017) 

Intersectional approaches to Weimar Classicism

The following texts offer an entry point into reading Goethe and Schiller more critically and with attentiveness to their depictions of cultural difference.

  • Bhatti, Anil. “’… zwischen zwei Welten schwebend….’ Zu Goethes Fremdheitsexperiment im West-östlichen Divan.” Goethe: Neue Ansichten – Neue Einsichten. Ed. Hans-Jörg Knoblock and Helmut Koopmann. (Würzburg: Verlag Königshausen und Neumann GmbH, 2007); 103-121.
  • May, Yomb. “Goethe, Islam, and the Orient: The Impetus for and Mode of Cultural Encounter in the West-östlicher Divan.” Encounters with Islam in German Literature and Culture. (Rochester: Camden House, 2009); 89-107.
  • Mommsen, Katharina. Goethe and the Poets of Arabia. Trans. Michael M. Metzger. (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014)
  • See also David Lloyd’s Under Representation and Chunjie Zhang’s Transculturality (listed above in Critiques of the Enlightenment)  for extended treatments of the racial architecture of Schiller’s Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen and of Herder, respectively. 

“Installation zum Goethes Geburtstag in Weimar Von Pirusan Mahboob & Stefan Kratsch”
Photo by Pirusan Mahboob, Wikimedia

The Enlightenment had a complex relationship with the Jewish population in German-speaking lands, not least because Judaism was bound up in theological criticism of Christianity at the time. It was also a period of religious toleration that led to some political steps towards Jewish emancipation.

  • Dohm, Christian Wilhelm. Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (1781/83)
  • Helfer, Martha B. The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011)
  • Mendelssohn, Moses. Jerusalem (1783)
  • Moritz, Karl Philipp. Salomon Maimons Lebensgeschichte in zwei Teilen (1792/3)
  • Robertson, Ritchie. The “Jewish Question” in German Literature, 1749-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 
  • On the reception of the figure of Moses, see:
  • Assmann, Jan. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997)
  • Hartwich, Wolf-Daniel. Die Sendung Moses: Von der Aufklärung bis Thomas Mann (Munich: Fink, 1997)
Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelssohn.

Queer identity and culture 

The following texts break new ground in documenting the pervasiveness of queer desire and eroticism in eighteenth-century Germany, painting a richer and more complex image of emergent ideas around sexuality, family, and gender roles. 

  • John, David G.  “Margarete von Parma in Goethe’s Egmont: Text and Performance.” Queering the Canon: Defying Sights in German Literature and Culture, eds. Christoph Lorey and John L. Plews, (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 1998)
  • Kuzniar, Alice A. (ed.), Outing Goethe & His Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996)
  • Luly, Sara, “Polite Hauntings: Same-Sex Eroticism in Sophie Albrecht’s Das höfliche Gespenst.Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies (Vol. 52, Issue 1, February 2016), pp. 60-79.
  • Wilson, W. Daniel. Goethe Männer Knaben. Ansichten zur  »Homosexualität« (Berlin: Insel, 2012)
  • Tobin, Robert. Warm Brothers: Queer Theory and the Age of Goethe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). 
Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann by Angelika Kaufmann (1764).

German women wrote across all genres as early as the 18th century, despite their persistent erasure from accounts of the literature of the time period. Here you will find suggestions for primary sources that demonstrate the breadth of their production: poetry, drama, novels, and fairy tales. There are also suggestions for major works in the secondary literature. 

Works by Women Writers

  • Albrecht, Sophie. Theresgen: ein Schauspiel mit Gesang, in fünf Auszügen [1781]. Hrsg. Gaby Pailer und Rüdiger Schütt (Hannover: Wehrhahn Verlag, 2016)
  • Günderrode, Karoline von. Sämtliche Werke und ausgewählte Studien: historisch-kritische Ausgabe (3 vols). Hrsg. Walter Morgenthaler. Basel: Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, 1990-1991.
  • Karsh, Anna Louisa. Neue Gedichte. Hrsg. Barbara Becker-Cantarino. (P. Wald, 1996)
  • La Roche, Sophie von. Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim [1771]. Hrsg. Barbara Becker-Cantarino. (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2011). This text has also been translated into English: The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim. Trans. James Collyer. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1991)
  • Mereau, Sophie, Das Blütenalter der Empfindung; Amanda und Eduard: Romane. Hrsg. Katharina von Hammerstein (München: dtv, 1997)
  • Mereau, Sophie. Ein Glück, das keine Wirklichkeit umspannt: Gedichte und Erzählungen. Hrsg. Katharina von Hammerstein (München: dtv, 1996)
  • Mereau, Sophie. Wie sehn’ ich mich hinaus in die freie Welt: Tagebuch, Betrachtungen, und vermischte Prosa. Hrsg. Katharina von Hammerstein. (München: dtv, 1997)
  • Naubert, Benedikte (1756-1819), published prolifically during her lifetime, yet we lack a critical edition of her works. Rosalba [1817] is available as a scan through HaithiTrust. Brigham Young University and the Sophie Archive have digitized Velleda: ein Zauberroman [1795].

Works on Women’s Writing of the 18th Century

  • Theodor von Hippel, Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber
  • Fronius, Helen. German Women’s Writing of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: Future Directions in Feminist Criticism. (Routledge, 2017)
  • Goodman, Katherine R. and Edith Waldstein (eds). In the Shadow of Olympus: German Women Writers (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992)
  • Hilger, Stephanie M. Women Write Back: Strategies of Response and the Dynamics of European Literary Culture, 1790-1805, Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft, 124 (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2009)
  • Kontje, Todd. Women, The Novel, and the German Nation 1771-1871. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 
  • Kord, Susanne. Ein Blick hinter die Kulissen: Deutschsprachige Dramatikerinnen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert, Ergebnisse der Frauenforschung, 27 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1992)
Poet and philosopher Karoline von Günderrode.