Scholars consider German literature the totality of German language works produced by German, Swiss, Austrian, and ethnic German peoples from around the world. In the Medieval period, much of this work was written in regional dialects, with the authors attempting to reach as wide an audience as possible by choosing a dialect that could be widely understood. This eventually led to the standardization of German. Today’s German literature is written mostly in Standardized German, but dialects remain a strong influence on the history and heritage of the Teutonic literary arts.
Medieval German literature was largely poetic, dominated by great works of Epic and Lyric Poetry. It is divided into three periods, the Old High German period, which ended in the middle of the eleventh century and was characterized by references to a vast oral tradition, the Middle High German period, which began in the twelfth century and can be described as an updating of the previous era’s oral tradition for contemporary courts, and the Late High German period, which began in the 13th century and featured the first works of urban and Judeo-German literature.
One of the oldest pieces of German poetry is The Lay of Hildebrand (Das Hildebrandslied), an epic poem from the Old High period that tells the tale of a battle between a father and son in alliterative verse. Authors from this period include such luminaries as Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Strassburg, Heinrich Frauenlob, and Wolfram von Eschenbach. German literature of this period provided the foundation upon which later authors built their masterpieces.
The Early Modern period of German literature, which began in the sixteenth century and drew to a close during the eighteenth century, was characterized by many complex styles. Artistic and intellectual movements from around Europe, such as the Baroque style, Neoclassicism, and the Enlightenment, all strongly influenced German literature from this period. This is also the period where new forms of literature, such as the novel, began to emerge on the literary scene. By far the most prominent German author of this period was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who worked as a poet, dramaturge, novelist, theologian, and scientist. His greatest work is considered Faust, a play about a prominent scholar who sells his soul to fulfill his heart’s desires for power and knowledge.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many changes and influences on German literature made themselves felt. During the 1800s, German Romanticism became the dominant form of literature, characterized by its emphasis on humor and beauty. Some of the authors who wrote during this period were G. W. F. Hege, Friedrich Schlegel, and Theodor Storm. The twentieth century saw the development of increasingly complex and nuanced styles, such as Realism, Expressionism, and Dadaism. Authors of this period include Bertolt Brecht, a dramatist, Erich Maria Remarque, a novelist whose most famous work, All Quiet on the Western Front, depicts life in the trenches of The Great War, and Rainer Maria Rike, a poet whose style was characterized by metaphors, metonymy, and contradictions.