A Concise Survey of German Literature by Henry B. Garland

By Henry B. Garland

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Der Weisskunig, which was in part the work of Maximilian himself, remained unfinished and was not printed until 1775. The unreality of these two fantastic anachronisms only served to show that the world of the knight had outlived itself. They are steeped in an archaising romanticism which looks back nostalgically to an age which is irrevocably lost. It is perhaps symbolical that 'the last knight', as Maximilian was called, was almost uniformly unsuccessful in the practical world of politics. A generation earlier a new invention had opened possibilities which were only gradually perceived but were of the farthest-reaching consequence.

He saw the need and the urgency for ecclesiastical reform and he sympathised with and supported the early steps taken by Luther. In the end he was repelled by the coarseness and short-sightedness of the reform movement and was especially concerned at the division of the Christian world for which the Reformation seemed to be heading. As the theological hurly-burly grew, the voice of moderates, such as Erasmus, drew less and less attention. Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), the first great German humanist of the sixteenth century, also found himself, through his very tolerance and impartiality, embroiled in religious controversy with a narrow Catholic faction in Cologne.

A novel more obviously designed for entertainment is Die asiatische Banise (1689) by a Saxon squire, Heinrich Anselm von Ziegler und Kliphausen (1663-96). This love story, at the end of which the two principal characters live happily ever after, offers an exotic setting, disguises, rescues in the nick of time, and lavish descriptions of slaughter, atrocities and torture, all recounted in the fashionable, ornate and hyperbolical style of the Baroque. In strong contrast to these extravagant and artificial productions, which appealed to an upper stratum of a hierarchical society and gratified a taste which was soon to disappear, Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus ( 1669) stands out not only as the best novel but as the finest German work of literature in the whole century.

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