What is the central idea in literature

Overview of all literature epochs + motives & characteristics

Short introduction

The following article provides a brief overview of the various epochs and trends in German literature. He should only focus on the most important currents and epochs, as the multitude of less influential literary movements would produce a text that almost never ends.

It is also important that the history of literature and its epochs must not be thought of one after the other. It is not that one era ended and another began this year. The transitions are fluid and the next epoch usually originated in the middle of the previous epoch. The data given in the following article are only intended as a rough guide and are years on which various literary scholars have decided in favor of a clear classification.

Humanism and renaissance

Historical context

The era begins with Guttenberg's invention of printing in 1455, which made it possible to reproduce books. Classical motifs, central ideas and aspects that were strongly oriented towards antiquity (especially Aristotle) ​​were central. The epoch was also shaped by the spiritual world, the clergy. As one of the greatest opponents of the clergy, Martin Luther stood out with the Reformation he founded.

Central motifs and themes

There was a strong focus on the ancient Greek art of thinking and poetry, so that this was largely adapted. Furthermore, a difficult thematic aspect, according to the name humanism, was humanity. The audience should be "improved" humanly through literature. Aristotelian dramas were particularly suitable for this.

Baroque (16th and 17th centuries)

Historical context

The absolutist system gradually found its way into Germany. The literature was strongly influenced by social grievances that arose in the context of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). The population suffered from famine and the consequences of the black plague. The first works in the German language were created during this period, such as Martin Opitz ‘“ Von der teutschen Poeterey ”, a kind of guide for German poets.

Central motifs and themes

With regard to the Baroque, three leitmotifs are to be mentioned at the top:

  • Memento Mori (consider your mortality)
  • Carpe Diem (Seize the Day)
  • Vanitas (transience (of beauty))

In general, death was the focus of the epoch, but not only in a negative sense. In many works it is also touted as salvation.
Above all, the poem form sonnet reached its peak in the Baroque period. Representative for this are the names Opitz and Gryphius. Stylistically, the authors relied on allegories and personifications (preferably that of weapons or death).

Enlightenment (1720-1800)

Historical context

This epoch was shaped by the fact that the Reformation, the French Revolution and the incipient self-perception of people as well as the associated secularization (detachment from faith) called the world order that had prevailed up to that point into question. The people began to question the existing power relations, which led to tensions between the nobles and the poorer classes.

Central motifs and themes

Kant's demand for enlightenment (enlightenment is the exit of man from his self-inflicted immaturity), his appeal to all people to use their own understanding, was the motto of this epoch. The focus was that people should become aware of their personal responsibility. This epoch was shaped by Kant and Lessing.

Sensitivity / Anacreontics (1740-1790)

Historical context

The historical context is identical to that of the Enlightenment.

Central motifs and themes

The emotions, sensations and feelings of the individual were increasingly brought into focus in this current. Old friendships, piety or a strong relationship to nature served as motifs. As genres, novels, letters or odes offered themselves to give expression to the topics. Klopstock and Goethe are considered to be important authors in his early years.

Sturm und Drang (1765-1785)

Historical context

The historical context is identical to that of the Enlightenment.

Central motifs and themes

In this trend, too, the inner soul of the protagonists was increasingly the focus. It was about moral dilemmas and detachment from existing family and social hierarchies. It is also important that the authors saw themselves as a creative genius for the first time. Schiller and Goethe at a young age should be mentioned as representatives of this genre.

Weimar Classic (1785-1805 / 1836)

Historical context

This epoch was mainly against the background of the French Revolution and a strongly polarizing French person: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Central motifs and themes

This epoch was also marked by a return to ancient Greek ideals. The pursuit of harmony and morality was in the foreground of literature and the protagonists were usually endowed with the highest degree of humanity. In general, character formation was in the foreground of the era. For example, the genre of Bildungsromane was created on this occasion. As an author, especially in school, Goethe should be mentioned here.

Romanticism (1795-1840)

Historical context

This literary epoch took place against the background of industrialization and the resulting improvement in the standard of living. At the same time, life became more hectic and the Napoleonic Wars cast a shadow over the socio-cultural development in Germany. Napoleon had split the country into two opinions, there were supporters of his view and opponents. The idea of ​​a nation state germinated.

Central motifs and themes

This epoch was characterized by its closeness to nature. Most of the works focus on the natural. The Middle Ages were idealized and the freedom of the individual was strongly romanticized. A central model of romanticism was the blue flower. People should break away from the bourgeoisie and be more open to fun, creativity and joie de vivre. Fairy tales and folk songs in particular were created during this period and are inextricably linked with Romanticism. An important name from this time is Joseph von Eichendorff.

Vormärz or Young Germany (1815-1848)

Historical context

The Congress of Vienna (1815) took place due to the reintroduction of the monarchy and the increasing impoverishment of the population. There were also protests and public discussions about the introduction of a nation state. A broad mass, however, was interested in retaining the small states.

Central motifs and themes

On the one hand, the idea of ​​the nation state and the uprisings connected with it were reflected in literature. On the other hand, a written illustration of reality was the focus of the authors. The writing style was kept close to the people. Heine and Büchner are considered exemplary authors for this era.

Biedermeier (1815-1848)

Historical context

The historical context is identical to that in Vormärz and Young Germany.

Central motifs and themes

The bourgeois class was the main theme of the Biedermeier. It was about a demarcation of protests and other strata and the kindling of an idyllic, classic way of life.

Bourgeois Realism (1848-1890)

Historical context

The bourgeois idea from the Biedermeier period reached its climax and provided a demarcation between the proletariat and the nobility.

Central motifs and central ideas

With reference to the classical period, the bourgeoisie as a social class was the defining theme of this epoch. In addition, sociological topics such as social mobility (opportunities for advancement and relegation of individuals) and emancipation found their way into the German literary landscape. Theodor Fontane was an important author of this movement.

Poetic Realism (1848-1890)

Historical context

The historical context is identical to that of bourgeois realism.

Central motifs and central ideas

In the beginning, Poetic Realism served as a critique of naturalism and realism. The aim was to present reality in a simplified and partly imagined way. In later years of this era it was about questioning reality.

Naturalism (1880-1900)

Historical context

This epoch was marked on the one hand by industrialization and on the other hand by the impoverishment of the population and the low chances of advancement in society. Those who were born poor mostly stayed poor.

Central motifs and guiding principle

An exact representation of the darker side of reality was the guiding principle of this current. Art as such, insofar as it contained fictional elements, was criticized because it contradicted naturalness. Above all, the genres dialect and novella were used for these purposes.

Turn of the century 1890-1925

The turn of the century serves as a collective term that brings together many different literary trends under one roof. These differed greatly and all they had in common was a turning away from positivism. The following is a brief overview of the most important trends at the turn of the century:

Historical background

Industrialization and the associated urbanization of the country increased social inequality in Germany. The Weimar Republic came into being and the Treaty of Versailles was signed following the First World War. The November Revolution came about.


Expressionism describes the expression of subjective perception. The “I” was set across from the collective, the explicitly ugly was examined for its aesthetics. Doomsday literature and urban poetry emerged, whereby the logic and explainability of phenomena no longer had to be given.


In Impressionism, the authors wanted to describe in detail the impressions and subjective feelings of their protagonists. The most important role was assigned to the inner workings of the protagonists.

Art Nouveau

Based on the fine arts, literature was elevated to a creative and meaningful element of public life.


In this trend, art served entertainment and intellectual education. It was created for its own sake and was not intended to be instructive.

Decadence or Fin de Siecle

The focus was on the conscious representation of morbid and hopeless situations. The protagonists defined themselves as trapped in a society that is inexorably hurtling towards the abyss. In contrast, there was nationalist and anti-nationalist literature.


This current revived romanticism and returned to the mystical and legendary.


The neoclassical stood in contrast to the other currents of the turn of the century. While formal and stylistic guidelines were designed more freely or even ignored, the fixed rules of the classical period were the central concern of neoclassicism.

Home art movement

Nationalist and right-wing extremist currents, which are based on a völkisch-national model and reject ethno-pluralism. Racial ideological texts and the “blood and soil” literature begin in this current.

New Objectivity (1910-1925)

Historical context

The First World War influenced literature and artificiality was abandoned at the turn of the century.

Central motifs and themes

The central point was the simple and straightforward representation of the tension between the individual and society. The protagonists are everyday characters who reflect on themselves and the society in which they live. Kästner and Döberlin should be named as deputy authors of this era.

War literature (1935-1945

This epoch also had the task of uniting different currents under one roof. The lowest common denominator is the Second World War. The main literary trends are briefly explained below:

Historical context

The war literature takes place against the background of the Second World War and the associated persecution of Jews in the Third Reich.

"Blood and Soil" literature

This current served as a kind of war propaganda and was based on a völkisch-nationalist guiding principle.

Inner emigration

A literary movement that was shaped by non-political texts. The authors feared persecution and did not incorporate political views into their works.

Exile literature

This current brings authors under one roof who had left the Third Reich in order to publish critical texts against National Socialism abroad.

Radio play art

Historical context

A paper shortage in the post-war period and the battered infrastructure of the publishing industry made written publications difficult. The radio as "popular medium" favored the new literary trend.

Central motifs and central ideas

In this trend, the authors wanted to ignite public debates that were deliberately intended to be provoked by written radio plays and aimed at social conditions.

GDR literature

This epoch is also a collective term for various currents, which are briefly explained below:

Historical context

The end of the Second World War and the founding of the GDR served as the historical context. The SED took over political control of the country and the building of the wall completely divided Germany. The social protests and the crackdown on them also found their way into literature.

Antifascist Current (1945-1960)

This current served the reprocessing of National Socialism and a confrontation with the various classes. Returned authors in exile like Brecht had a strong influence on this trend.

Socialist Realism (1950-1960)

This current served the propaganda of work and the construction of the GDR. So-called “work heroes” were created.

Bitterfelder Weg (1959-1964)

This current should stimulate production and encourage workers to write documentaries. The documentation literature arose from this.

Arrival literature (1955-1965)

The first disappointments about socialism spread and gave rise to hopes for communism. On the other hand, there was criticism of the state system. Central motifs in literature were the Stasi and love.

Liberalization (1965-1980)

The opportunity arose to design art more freely, but this was suppressed again towards the end with strong reprisals.

Criticism of the state and "change of scenery literature" (1980-1989)

The examination of the state system became more and more critical and the desire to leave the country also grew in the literature.

FRG literature

This epoch refers to the literary development in West Germany, which occurred at the same time as GDR literature, the most important trends of which are briefly presented below:

Historical context

The literature took place against the background of the end of the Second World War and the subsequent reconstruction of the FRG, which was divided into zones of occupation.

Post-war literature or clear-cut rubble literature (1945-1965)

This trend served to come to terms with National Socialism and to deal with the consequences of the war in Germany. The reality was reproduced in great detail.

Other currents of the post-war period in the FRG

  • New Paths of Language (1950)
  • Literary politicization (1960)
  • New Subjectivity (1970)
  • Postmodern (1980)