Georg Lukacs. Romanticism. 1945


Written: 1945
First published: “Die Romantik als Wendung in der deutschen Literatur,” in: Fortschritt und Reaktion in der deutschen Literatur, pg. 51-73, Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin, 1947
Translation: Anton P.

Romanticism is the most controversial field of German literature. From the beginning, anthemic praise and bitter rejection fight each other. As early as the 1840s, when the reactionary regime of Friedrich Wilhelm IV tried to renew Romanticism politically, its sharp criticism in the camp of progress was one of the main questions of the ideological struggle. In the imperialist period we experience a new ideological and political reawakening of Romanticism. This time the ideological resistance in the camp of the friends of progress is much weaker than in the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the beginnings of this renaissance are marked by the view that we would have misunderstood romanticism, not understood it deeply enough, if we branded it as ideologically and politically reactionary. Ricarda Huch, whose books, along with Dilthey’s essays, gave the most important impetus for the rebirth of Romanticism, declares that “none of the leading spirits of Romanticism would have thought of a restoration of past or even medieval conditions.” Of course, the literary historians and theorists of extreme reaction immediately use this renewal for their own purposes. Romanticism is characterized as the truly and deeply Germanic current in literature; Adolf Bartels calls it a “Germanic renaissance,” Moeller van den Bruck sees in it a “will to become German.” After the war, a split developed among the admirers of Romanticism. The extreme reactionaries, especially Baeumler, now proclaim that only the late, decidedly obscurantist Romanticism, that of Görres, Arnim and Brentano, is the true one; the Jena period of Schlegel and Novalis, which Dilthey and Ricarda Huch still viewed as the center of Romantic endeavors, is regarded by Bäumler as a belated offshoot of the eighteenth century, as not yet truly Romantic. These sharp differences of opinion show that Romanticism was and is a major problem in German ideology and literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The fundamental mistake in assessing and evaluating Romanticism, which often appears on both sides, both among friends and enemies, is that one sees in it a feudal movement. We shall, of course, see that within Romanticism – in sharp contrast to the Enlightenment and Classicism – a defense of the feudal remnants of Germany and even stylized attempts at renewal of the medieval, feudal ideology emerged. Establishing this fact must not, however, prevent us from clearly recognizing that the social basis of Romanticism was bourgeois. This is not to be understood in the sense that, for example, the ideological leaders of Romanticism come predominantly from the bourgeois intelligentsia – the descent here means very little: the bourgeois Friedrich Schlegel became a defender of Metternich’s reaction, while the noble Chamisso belonged to the opposition during the Restoration period. Rather, it is about the question of the decisive social content of Romanticism. And this is a bourgeois one. Heine was the first to see this clearly in the struggle against the literary and political Romanticism of the 1840s. In the last Barbarossa chapter of his “Germany. A winter’s tale” he apostrophizes the Hohenstaufenkaiser, the ideal hero of Germany’s Romantic dreams of renewal:

"Das Mittelalter, immerhin,
Das wahre, wie es gewesen,
Ich will es ertragen – erlöse uns nur
Von jenem Zwitterwesen,

Von jenem Gamaschenrittertum,
Das ekelhaft ein Gemisch ist
Von gotischem Wahn und modernem Lug,
Das weder Fleisch noch Fisch ist.

Jag fort das Komödiantenpack
Und schließe die Schauspielhäuser,
Wo man die Vorzeit parodiert ... “

(The Middle Ages I'll endure,
If you bring back the genuine item;
Just rescue us from this bastard state,
And from its farcical system,

From that mongrel chivalry,
Such a nauseating dish
Of Gothic fancies and modern deceit,
That is neither flesh nor fish.

Shut down all the theatres,
And chase their comedians pack,
Who parody the olden days ... ) [1]

In these ironic stanzas it is clear what it is about. Romanticism, too, and the Romantic reaction, wants Germany to be transformed into a modern (and – what most of the representatives were not aware of at the time – into a capitalist) country, but wants this to happen without the annihilation of absolutism, without the removal of feudal remnants and feudal privileges. It does not strive to restore the pre-capitalist social order, but rather a politically and socially reactionary capitalism that “organically” absorbs the feudal remnants and thus preserves them. One will never understand German Romanticism if one does not clearly recognize its social nature is based on the French Revolution, it comes from the post-revolutionary situation in Europe, that is, Germany’s confrontation with that world event. Since it forms itself ideologically as a reaction against the French Revolution, its hostility to the Enlightenment becomes understandable, its necessary turning away from German Classicism also appears as an expression of its nature. German Classicism and German Romanticism are concerned with the same problems whose earlier physiognomy was decisively transformed by the victory of the French Revolution; but Romanticism has a different answer to the important questions that arise here than Classicism, an answer that is opposite to it.

For these reasons, the modern reactionary search for ancestors of Romanticism in the German Enlightenment is a falsification of history. It ties in with contradicting figures like Hamann and Herder, who, however, are ideologically faced with the separation of minds brought about by the victory of the French Revolution. Its ideological confusion has progressive and reactionary intentions at the same time, but its most important endeavor was nonetheless the vague longing for a concrete historical dialectic, for that thinking and shaping that was perfected in Goethe and Hegel. With all this, as we have seen, they represent an opposition within the German Enlightenment; as we have also seen, Herder already recognizes that he turned back to the beginnings of the German Enlightenment when he did not understand and rejected the efforts of Goethe and Schiller.

The stance of Romanticism is fundamentally different. Its main tendency is to break with the Enlightenment. Admittedly, this was not immediately apparent. The older generation of Romantics grew up under the influence of the ideology of the eighteenth century, the pre-revolutionary period. But everything that was dark in the beginnings of Romanticism is easily cleared up when we are aware that these beginnings represent a process of dissolution from the Enlightenment. It is important to know that this process – partly at the same time as the struggle against the Enlightenment, partly in its inevitable consequences – means breaking away from German Classicism. In these ideological struggles, Romanticism becomes conscious of itself and is founded as a spiritual current.

The situation becomes even clearer if one looks more closely at the historical processes of the epoch, which we have so far only treated in general terms. The first decisive date is 1794, the overthrow of Robespierre and the attempts to give the French Revolution a plebeian-democratic consummation, the second is 1799, the overthrow of the French interim government, the Directory, and the beginning of the consular military dictatorship of Napoleon I. Between these two dates, Romanticism is established as an independent movement. This period is also the period of the victorious military expansion of the heirs of the French Revolution. What the revolution itself achieved only to a very limited extent (think of the Mainz catastrophe) [2] is now being fulfilled to an ever greater extent. Above all, Germany and Italy become the arenas of war and conquest, but also of a violent – albeit not consistent – elimination of feudal remnants. The previous historical role of the Germans, especially the intelligentsia, in the world-historical events and the shaping of the destiny of their fatherland ends. The year of the turning point is 1806, the smashing of Frederician Prussia in the Battle of Jena. From this turning point on it becomes clear in all practical terms, and therefore also ideologically, how immature, how unprepared the German intelligentsia of high intellectual standing was to act, to make political decisions.

The transitional period in which German Romanticism established itself is most clearly reflected in the development of Friedrich Schlegel. (August Wilhelm Schlegel’s relation to Bürger is almost purely literary, and Tieck’s connections with the Berlin Nicolai Circle are often purely business.) It is striking, but by no means accidental, that Friedrich Schlegel’s beginnings lie in the peak achievements of the German Enlightenment. On the one hand, he ties in with Lessing, Winckelmann and Georg Forster, and on the other, with Schiller’s attempts to determine the essence of modern literature from an understanding of antiquity.

The young Schlegel seems to be much more radical than Schiller. We find in him not only a more abrupt juxtaposition of antiquity and modernism (antiquity is conceived in the spirit of Forster’s Classicist Jacobinism), but also a more energetic emphasis on the ambiguity of modern literature. While Schiller looks at the deepest, most fundamental problems of modern literature from a secular point of view, the young Schlegel’s most peculiar, most recent features appear. What Schlegel gives is often an anticipation of the decadent currents that emerged in a more pronounced form a century later. With him the problem of the ugly is raised as the central question of modern literature for the first time.

This general characteristic is certainly not only one of his present, but an anticipation of the main tendencies of decadence in bourgeois literature. Schlegel also transfers his observations from the present to the past, and finds it confirmed in all the greats of modern literature, especially Shakespeare; this is where the “modernization” of the past begins, which then culminates with the barbarization of antiquity through the development of late Romantic efforts via Nietzsche in fascism. He finds the hallmark of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a “maximum despair”; he writes in a letter to young people about Hamlet: “The innermost part of his existence is a hideous nothingness, contempt for the world and himself.” This consideration of modern literature leads to the characteristics of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, whom at that time he still sharply criticized from the standpoint of the Enlightenment; but this criticism ends in a consideration of the ambivalent nature of modern bourgeois literature, in an – unconscious – self-characteristic. In Jacobi he combats “the anger of being unique,” the “idolatry” that he practices with his own individuality. And the conclusion of the article reads today like a prophetic anticipation of Friedrich Schlegel’s own fate. He speaks of the eternal vacillation of Jacobi and his heroes “between closed solitude and absolute devotion, between pride and contrition, between delight and despair, between licentiousness and bondage.”

In all of this a very deep influence of Forster’s radicalism can be felt, but only in the content, not in the tone, not in the spiritual atmosphere. The Jacobin Forster aesthetically represents a consistent Classicist objectivism, the art view of a revolutionary of this period. Friedrich Schlegel’s “revolutionary objectivity rage,” as he later described this period himself, was the hysterical exuberance of an extremely individualistic intellectual, in whom spirit and knowledge were in abundance, but who had nowhere really deep roots and therefore – according to his true nature – had to be without conviction. That is why Friedrich Schlegel’s assessment of modernity differs so strongly from Forster’s: the latter’s criticism has the sharp characteristics of an external observer, while with the former, the condemnation of modern literature is an unconscious self-expression and self-criticism. The Jacobi criticism even contains an anticipation of his own fate, his later freightened flight into the Catholic Church.

World events decided Schlegel’s ideological skill. The turn of the year 1794 is a nodal point in his development, as in that of many of his contemporaries, even if the effects of this event do not always occur in rapid succession. The more clearly the result of the French Revolution, modern bourgeois society, showed itself – first in the excesses of the liberated bourgeoisie in the Directory period – the more abstract enthusiasm receded in the German intelligentsia, and the bourgeois fear of plebeian forms of the French Revolution became predominant. The vacant space is taken up by the problems of modern bourgeois society.

The effects of the French events naturally dominated the entire German intelligentsia. However, the directions in which the German intelligentsia reacted to the events of the time are very different, indeed opposite. We have seen how this situation brought about the classic treatment of the great and new social and historical problems of Germany in Goethe and Schiller. It is different with the socially rootless new intelligence. With Thermidor and the Directory, the deeply untrue citoyen pathos imposed by self-exaggeration disappears and is replaced by the unrestricted cult of the completely liberated, self-reliant individual.

However, especially with Friedrich Schlegel, it turned into a Thermidorian-libertine dissolution of all social ties. It is found in this form above all in Friedrich Schlegel’s artistically completely unsuccessful novel Lucinde. It is indicative of the bourgeois character of Romanticism that these endeavors were later resumed by the “Young Germany” movement [3], which generally rejected Romanticism as reactionary.

The Romantic theory of art is even more characteristic. It consciously strives for the dissolution of all genres, the breaking down of the barriers that separate them from one another. The goal is concisely expressed in a programmatic aphorism by Friedrich Schlegel: “Romantic poetry is a progressive universal philosophy. Its purpose is not merely to reunite all the separate genres of poetry and to bring poetry into contact with philosophy and rhetoric. It wants and should also mix poetry and prose, genius and criticism, art poetry and natural poetry, soon to merge, to make poetry lively and sociable and to make life and society poetic, to poetize jokes and to fill the forms of art with solid educational material of every kind and satiate and enliven with the vibrations of humor.

The art theory of the Athenaeum [4] goes beyond that; the boundaries between life and literature should also disappear. The aesthetic categories here are no longer reflections of life, but are intended to represent the building forces of life thus – apparently – very radical forms that go far beyond the demands of the classical period. For the classical period it was a matter of contrasting the prose of everyday bourgeoisie with the poetry of the great perspectives of human development, the poetry of what was revealed by uncovering the deepest problems of reality. The essence of its message became visible precisely with the help of the strict form, which was kept pure and which is precisely the concentrated expression of the most general and truest thing about matter. In Romanticism, on the other hand, this bourgeois prose is supposed to be destroyed by the – allegedly – irresistible magic of creative, ingenious subjectivity.

Romanticism takes over from classical philosophy and poetry the principle of the subject’s activity in cognizing and shaping the matter of life, but transforms it into the opposite through a conscious overstress. For the classical period, the active part of subjectivity was just an important part, the decisive element of a cognitive or creative process, the aim of which was to faithfully grasp and highlight the essence of objective reality. This principle becomes an end in itself in the hands of the Romantics. In order to carry out its creative role, subjectivity in Romanticism has to be the absolute ruler of the material, to rise above it with sovereignty, to act with it – apparently at will. Romanticism tries to establish this standing above it as the essence of artistic creation (and the art of living) and to place it at the center of the theory and practice of literature (and morality). Every peculiarity that is organically associated with the material, every material authenticity is thus destroyed. The – allegedly – omnipotent subjectivity can make everything out of everything; it, its independent self-movement is the alpha and omega of art and philosophy of life.

This “irony,” as it is called by Romantic theory, is now supposed to be the only fully valid overcoming of the prose of bourgeois society. And in fact: subjectively, this suspension seems to have been achieved for the moment experienced. A colorful dream veil of spirit and poetry covers everything bad and ugly, everything low; it has not become perceptible, even if the high-handed subjectivity has to suspect that it has not discovered an existing, hidden poetry, but rather gilds an inherently unpoetic world with its own poetry – this is an essential aspect of irony, so, without prejudice to ironic awareness, illusions can arise as if this subjectivity were the last ontological core of the cosmos, as if this subjective creativity playing with magical motifs is transformed into really active magic, as if the Romantic overcoming of bourgeois prose were just the disenchantment of an enchanted, bewitched world (Novalis).

Its second, aggressive, anti-philistine side is closely connected with this side of Romantic irony. Here the turning away from the Enlightenment and from Classicism is even more clearly visible. Enlightenment and Classicism also fought against German philistinism. Their struggle, however, was just the organic part of a larger, wider dispute. Their endeavors went to the awakening of Germany, to the education of people who are able, in the midst of the German misery, in the midst of the degrading effects of the capitalist division of labor, to develop the great ideals of humanity, of the many-sided, harmonious human being, and to pass them on to others. We have shown how many utopian elements there are in this plan. We have also shown the limits of this conception, especially in the classical period: that by turning away from socio-political action it neglects the most important means of overcoming the German bourgeoisie, the awakening of citizen consciousness. In the Romantic irony there arises a further disastrous narrowing and thus a distortion of the struggle against German philistinism. For the Romantics, the philistine is simply the banause; the great political-social cultural problem is shrinking to a circular educational problem, indeed to the problem of an aesthetic conventicular system. The distortion of the question is shown above all in the fact that the ironic overconsciousness of the Romantics remains unconscious of how philistine their own, refined philosophical and aesthetic cult of sovereign individuality in the social and human can – and indeed must – be.

Since all questions of the time found their sharpest expression in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister at that time, the intentions of Romanticism are most clearly shown in its confrontation with this work. Here, too, various stages of development can be traced. Friedrich Schlegel’s review of Goethe’s novel is another enthusiastic glorification and a clever and comprehensive analysis. But here, too, the agreement relates above all to artistic perfection; this work of Schlegel is a transitional product. Very soon the differences become more and more apparent. The Romantic novels now emerging are all subject to this influence of Wilhelm Meister, however, they are in sharp contrast to it, both aesthetically and morally: Tieck’s Sternbald, Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde.

Corresponding to this situation, Friedrich Schlegel wrote a year after his critique of Wilhelm Meister about Sternbald: “It is the first novel since Cervantes that is Romantic and, at this, it goes far beyond ‘Meister’.” And Schleiermacher in his defense of Lucinde opposes Schlegel’s novel, albeit without mentioning Goethe, against Wilhelm Meister, which because of its empirical nature is only a novella, while Schlegel’s imaginative poetry is a real novel. As in all Romantic controversies, here too, Novalis is the most clear, most open and most radical. We give only a few of the most characteristic passages from his critique of Wilhelm Meister:

'Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’ is to a certain extent thoroughly prosaic and modern. The Romantic perishes in it, as does the wonderful natural poetry. It is only about ordinary human things, nature and mysticism are completely forgotten. It is a poetic civil and domestic story. The wonderful thing in it is explicitly treated as poetry and enthusiasm. Artistic atheism is the spirit of the book. A lot of economy; achieved a poetic effect with prosaic, cheap material ... It is basically a fatal and silly book ... It is a satire on poetry, religion and so on ... Economic nature is the true, remaining ... Wilhelm Meister is actually a Candide, directed against poetry.[5]

Here the contrast between Romanticism and Goethe is most clearly expressed. Novalis’ plans for the second part of his Ofterdingen show where the positive, the practical of his intention lies. The poeticization of the world there openly transitions into magic. Aesthetically, the novel turns from Romanticism into mood or idea poetry, it dissolves into arbitrary fairy tale fantasy.

Novalis is the most important figure of the complete separation from Goethe, as Friedrich Schlegel was of the transition. Novalis possesses the audacity of the real poet in ending his dangerous and wrong ways. His Hymns to the Night were a fateful poetry for German literature. It is not about the lyrical motif of the night beneath or alongside other motifs – that would be nothing new in literary terms – but about an ideological contrast. The night is here the metaphysical counterpoint to the day, to light, to the intellectual illumination of life. (In the rejection of Wilhelm Meister by Novalis, the important idea is that Goethe’s novel is a “product of the intellect”).

With the cult of the night, Novalis engages in a cult of the dark underground, of the unconscious, of the instinctive and spontaneous. What was frivolously and secularly preached in Lucinde appears here genuinely poetic, deeply lyrical: the destruction of that spiritually illuminated universality that has dominated the best part of German life from Lessing to Goethe. Night and day are philosophical symbols and have preserved their meaning in death and life, in sickness and health. To Novalis, all of this is triggered by individual experiences and therefore possesses lyrical authenticity and the power of suggestion. But the ultimate reason for the ideological change is deeper and more general. In the birth pangs of a new epoch, especially in backward Germany troubled by the manifold crises of the old and the new, the actually crisis-ridden, the pathological element of transition had to have a strong effect on sensitive people. It all depended on whether the morbid was conceived as a necessary stage of development or as the final substance that was now being revealed. The Romantic cult of the immediate and the unconscious necessarily leads to a cult of night and death, of sickness and decay. Novalis says: “As man wanted to become God, he sinned. – Diseases of plants are animalizations, diseases of animals are rationalizations, diseases of stones are vegetations ... Plants are dead stones, animals are dead plants.

But both extremes belong together socially and psychologically. The ecstasy of extreme solitude in subjectivism is inevitably followed by the ecstasy of equally extreme surrender, the complete devotion to sickness, night and death, the somersault into religiosity. Here the final idea of Friedrich Schlegel’s youth essay was quickly fulfilled.

From such sources arises the religious turn of the Romantics. At times it is predominantly aesthetic (August Wilhelm Schlegel, Tieck); it can be the expression of a modern, subjectivist inner life that withdraws purely to the individual and private (Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion); it can be a refuge for weary indolence (Friedrich Schlegel’s conversion to the Catholic Church); it can finally be deep and honestly experienced decadence and reaction like in Novalis.

The theory and practice of the Romantics got as far as when, as a result of the Battle of Jena, they changed from ideological spectators to characters in action, when their philosophical and aesthetic contradictions led to political opposition. We have to repeat, of course, that this phase is also genuinely German, that is, immature and amateurish in the political sense. Mainly because the actual political decisions were not determined by real popular movements, which is why the intellectual spectator role of the ideological participants was often preserved. The immaturity is already evident in the choice which the intelligentsia was now faced with: whether one could expect the removal of the feudal remnants in Germany from the Confederation of the Rhine, from Napoleon, or whether a national liberation movement and the shaking-off of the Napoleonic yoke would also bring an internal liberation or at least certain internal progress – and for the second possibility the subjective conditions were missing almost completely.

The classics and the descendants of the Enlightenment chose the first road. Hegel expects the regeneration of Germany from the “great constitutional law teacher in Paris”; the old enlightener Voss also occasionally calls Napoleon “our ally.” Goethe was not only a supporter of Napoleon, but also after his overthrow he was extremely skeptical of the results of the wars of liberation. In a conversation with the historian Luden he speaks of “liberation, not from the yoke of foreigners, but from a foreign yoke,” which he cautiously suggests that only the geographical character of foreign rule – and that not in favor of progress – has changed.

It is clear that the Romantics had to be on the other side. The resulting deep division of minds is reflected in all literary and philosophical struggles of the time. Just as the enthusiasm for antiquity was earlier aimed at the French Revolution, albeit in different nuances among the various writers, it was now the aesthetic expression of the Napoleonic ideals. The enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, on the other hand, was the symbol of the connection to the restoration of feudal absolutism. Here “organic growth” appeared as a fetish, as a prohibition for the people to change their institutions of their own accord; blind reverence for what has “become historical” down to German small states, down to feudal absolutism, even serfdom and guilds became dogma; thereby a narrow-minded belief in Germany’s “world mission” grew together with a chauvinistic hatred of France as the embodiment of political progress. Behind the manifestos of Goethe and Meyer against Christian-German patriotic art, of Voss against attempts to “romanticize” antiquity. and thus to barbarize it, there is a premonition, admittedly mostly only a premonition of the dangers that threaten Germany’s future from the Romantic position.

But that does not define the problem sufficiently, because the struggle against Napoleon was, as Marx said, “a regeneration that is paired with reaction.” This two-sidedness of the movement can be clearly seen in the political and military leaders of the reform efforts, in Stein and Schön, in Hardenberg and Humboldt, in Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. But if we search for the real poets and ideologues of Romanticism, we will find them remarkably seldom in this camp. Heinrich von Kleist, the greatest creative force of German Romanticism, had together with the corrupt adventurer Adam Müller headed the organ of the feudal opposition to Hardenberg; Friedrich Schlegel became Metternich’s journalistic assistant, etc. Some Romantics now openly expressed their decadent literary attitude. Clemens Brentano wrote to a friend: “I can be more interested in your zeal for things than in things themselves; I would be sorry if you loved your fatherland less than if Bavaria were going to ruin.” The really popular expression for the existing mass moods in the young German intelligentsia came by an epigone of the classical era, Theodor Körner.

It was only when the battles against Napoleon ended with the rule of the Restoration that Romanticism became the leading ideology of a period of the darkest obscurantism. The “moonlit magical night” of the restoration of feudal absolutism was the time of the deepest and most momentous darkening among the nation of “poets and thinkers.” It was not only the time of the most humiliating oppression, but also of the most oppressive domination of philistinism. The wrong, aesthetic direction of the Romantic struggle against the philistine is shown socially in the fact that no ideology or art movement gripped German philistinism as strongly and influenced in as lastingly as Romanticism. From medieval imperial glory, from the pseudo-poetic transfiguration of social and political ties, the “organically” grown historical power, down to the glorification of the “emotional life,” down to the quietist sinking into the night of any unconscious, any “community,” down to the hatred of progress and freedom of self-responsibility – the consequences of the victory of Romantic ideology can still be felt today in the German psyche.

The more recent literary historians want to include the period of “Biedermeier” [6] in German literary history. But what is Biedermeier but the predominance of Romantic ideology in the masses, the penetration of Romanticism into German philistineism? For it was precisely Romantic ideology, which was only temporarily pushed back around the middle of the nineteenth century, that dominated the German intelligentsia – after all, Romanticism corresponded most to the position of the intelligentsia in the midst of the German misery, its rootlessness on the one hand and the attempts on the other to overcome this misery by the way of an objectively false, socially dangerous “depth.”

That is why the criticism of Romanticism is a very topical task in German literary history. This criticism can never be deep and harsh enough. It is true that most of the works of the well-known Romantics (Tieck, Brentano, Arnim, Zacharias Werner, etc.) have long been read only by literary historians. But the greatest poetic talent of Romanticism, Heinrich von Kleist, has long been a living literary power. To many he appears to be the real German playwright, who is supposed to lead from the wrong ways of Lessing, Schiller and Goethe to the “native” Germanic drama. And Kleist’s drama is really “native.” It shows the most brilliant seductions of the Germans on the most dangerous wrong ways, in the swamp of the most unrestrained reaction. From the most servile submissiveness, from the hysteria of the power-hungry love-hatred to the wild fanatic xenophobia and the glorification of the Hohenzollern glory, we find in Kleist the poetic glorification of everything that is threatening and reprehensible in German intellectual development. The fact that all of this did not become a playful experiment in form with him, as with his Romantic contemporaries, but experienced a powerful, sometimes ingenious design, elevates Kleist to a powerful symbol of the wrong path in German literature and ideology, makes the critical examination of him, mentally and aesthetically, into the order of the day. (A detailed critical appraisal of Kleist, which cannot even be outlined here, includes the removal of those distortions, which Gundolf and others performed on him, who unconditionally affirm everything reactionary, while the few victories of realism over Romantic prejudice, health over hysteria, such as the Broken Jug, are dismissed as insignificant “by-products.” The question must also be asked in relation to the novella Michael Kohlhaas.)

Even this question indicates the type and direction of a real criticism of the inner contradictions of Romanticism. In spite of the noting and branding of reaction and decadence, one must not overlook the fact that in Romanticism appears the reflection of the first – albeit confused and weak – popular movement in Germany since the Peasants’ War: hence the strong return to popular life, to folk art, whereby the Herder period of the German Enlightenment is renewed in an intensified form. There is certainly not a little artistic gimmick in these reversals, but at the same time gates are opened for genuine, folk poetry. Above all, one should think of collections such as the folk poems collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the Grimm brothers’ fairytales. But this development is not limited to a mere collection of existing treasures of folk poetry. In addition to the almost unbearable artificiality in the main stream of Romantic lyric poetry, there is also a real, folk song-like resumption of the poetic endeavors of the young Goethe (such folk poetry is in the general direction of the period and often arises entirely independently of Romanticism, as in Hebbel); In addition to purely artistic fairy tales and refined, informal novellas, there is also a genuinely folkish art of narration. Both tendencies are most pronounced in Eichendorff, whose best works are rightfully alive until today.

Another contradiction in the image of Romanticism (and at the same time an underlining of its bourgeois character) is shown in the fact that the defense of the old, of the “organic” did not always and necessarily mean support for reaction. In individual states of Germany, especially in Württemberg where the class traditions had not yet been eradicated by absolutism, the defense of the “old rights” could become a gathering of oppositional forces, a battle slogan against the claims to power of absolutism. A liberal Romanticism emerges on this ground. Its greatest poetic representative is Uhland. The German misery is of course evident here too; the defense extends so much that is not worthy of protection; from the appeal to the “old rights” a timidly bourgeois form of the struggle against absolutism emerges. These weak sides of liberal Romanticism can already be seen clearly in Uhland himself; They emerge even stronger and more humiliating among his supporters, in the “Swabian School,” against whom Heine’s ironic criticism was justified.

The contradictions of Romanticism are most evident in their greatest form, in E. T. A. Hoffmann. He already differs from the others in life. As a Prussian judge at the time of the demagogue persecution after the Wartburg Festival and Sand’s attack on Kotzebue [7], Hoffmann courageously resisted the reactionary demands of the Prussian government. The polemical content of his writings can also be sharply distinguished from Romanticism. Like Romanticism, Hoffmann fights philistinism with direct and indirect satire, caricaturally allowing his peculiarities to grow eerily into the demonic and ghostly. But the philistinism against which he fights tirelessly and relentlessly, is the manifestation of the disenfranchisement and degradation of the human being through the German misery under the conditions of the emerging capitalism. He is thus returning from the narrowly aesthetic standpoint of the real Romantics to the great points of view of the democratic revolution. But all of this appears to be on a higher level with him than with his predecessors. Like the Romantics, he too belongs to the post-revolutionary period; the material he creates is therefore already the new bourgeois society, and its forms grow out of the criticism of it. (Here lies the common ground of Hoffmann and Romanticism.) But since he is a truly great realist, he is concerned with the new society in its wretched German forms. Precisely for this reason the new is heightened into the eerie, especially in the pettiest German appearance of the modern world, and conversely, he sees the ghostly in the transformation of the German philistine through world social events. Hoffmann was also a Romantic in the way he depicted this. He was however – on German soil, of course, by German standards – a European Romantic. On the scale of his personality – but as vividly as Goethe before him and Balzac after him – he grasps the essential developmental tendencies of the period and depicts them with novel, suggestive realism. Thus, between Goethe and Heine, he is the only German writer who had an international impact. His influence can be felt everywhere from Balzac to Gogol and Dostoyevsky. The recognition and elaboration of Hoffmann’s peculiarity, the demonstration of what separates him from actual German Romanticism, without prejudice to the artistic similarities resulting from the common historical-social soil, is an important task of German literary history.


1. Heinrich Heine, Germany. A Winter’s Tale, 1844

2. The Republic of Mainz was the first democratic state on German soil and was centered in Mainz. It was established by German Jacobins inspired by the French Revolution in March 1793 and lasted until July 1793, when Mainz was conquered by the Prussian Army, and the Jacobins, including republican leader Georg Forster, were persecuted.

3. Progressive and liberal-republican movement of German artists and intellectuals in the 1830s and 1840s.

4. Literary magazine established in 1798 by August Wilhelm and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel. It is considered to be the founding publication of German Romanticism.

5. Novalis, Werke, ed. G. Schulz, p. 546

6. The Biedermeier period was an era in Central Europe between 1815 and 1848 during which the middle class grew in number and the arts appealed to common sensibilities.

7. In the wake of Karl Sand’s assassination of August von Kotzebue in March 1819, a counter-revolutionary surveillance regime (known as the Demagogenverfolgung) was formed in the German Confederation. In line with the Karlsbad Decrees and the policies of the Holy Alliance, it represented the reaction to popular revolutionary strivings in Germany.