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German literature, German literature comprises the written works of the German-speaking peoples of central Europe. It has shared the fate of German politics and history: fragmentation and discontinuity. Germany did not become a modern nation-state until 1871, and the prior history of the various German states is marked by warfare, religious turmoil, and periods of economic decline. This fragmented development sets German literature apart from the national literatures of France and England, for instance, which enjoyed uninterrupted brilliance from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Nevertheless, German literature has experienced three periods of established greatness: the high Middle Ages (c. 1160–c. 1230), the turn of the 18th to the 19th century (the “age of Goethe”), and the turn of the 19th to the 20th.

This article provides a concise historical survey of German literature. Its major periods, movements, works, and themes are discussed and set into their political and cultural context. The aim is to characterize major and representative works and ideas and not to attempt a complete or even thorough survey of authors and the literary scene.

The turn of the 21st century

In the mid-1990s a new generation of writers emerged who finally provided the “reunification” novels that critics had expected immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thomas Brussig’s grotesquely comic novel Helden wie wir (1995; Heroes Like Us) was a satiric reworking of the debate about the East German secret police. Thomas Hettche’s Nox (1995; “Night”) has a strangely omniscient narrator in the form of a young man whose throat has been slit in a sadomasochistic sexual act during the night the Wall came down. Nox draws a rather too obvious equivalence between its narrator’s wound, from which he is dying, and the “wound” of the divided Germany, which, on the face of things, is about to be healed. Nonetheless, Hettche succeeds in transforming this central metaphor into a multilayered analysis of postunification psychology. The cityscape of Berlin comes to stand for national and individual memory, conserved, as it were, beneath the surface of streets and canals and the no-man’s-land of the former border.

In these and other novels of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Nazi past continues to haunt German writing. Marcel Beyer’s novel Flughunde (1995; “Flying Foxes,” Eng. trans. Flughunde) recounts the deaths of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s children through the eyes of two narrators: the eldest daughter, Helga, and a sound technician who had worked for Goebbels. Long after the children’s deaths, the technician begins to recognize his own role in their murders at the hands of their mother. Thomas Lehr’s experimental novella Frühling (2001; “Spring”) employs drastically ruptured syntax to reproduce, in the form of a hesitating interior monologue, the final 39 seconds of its protagonist’s life. Only toward the end of the story does the narrator, who has just completed a suicide pact with his female lover, come to understand his father’s guilt as a former concentration-camp doctor. This guilt, which has already caused the narrator’s young brother to commit suicide, is revealed as the solution to a childhood scene that the narrator has never fully understood. In contrast to German novels of the 1960s, which attempted to “master” the Nazi past through narration, these more recent novels belong to what has come to be called “memory culture.”

Linked with debates about the problem of memorializing the victims of Nazism in the form of public monuments, German-language novels of the 1990s explicitly probe questions about how memories of the Nazi period can best be represented. The Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr’s powerful Morbus Kitahara (1995; The Dog King) is set in a dystopian landscape that resembles Mauthausen concentration camp and in an imagined alternative history in which Germany has not been permitted to redevelop its industrial capabilities following World War II. W.G. Sebald’s haunting novel Austerlitz (2001; Eng. trans. Austerlitz)—the story of a man who had been saved from Nazi Germany and adopted by an English couple but who has been traveling in search of the places he believes to have been way stations in his early life—has had international success as a moving, though puzzling, exploration of memory, real and imagined.