The Modern Restoration

Discourses of style in German literature (1930-1960)

AHRB-funded three-year research project, Department of German Studies, The University of Manchester

Professor Stephen Parker (The University of Manchester), Dr Peter Davies (Edinburgh University), Dr Matthew Philpotts (The University of Manchester)

Hitherto, the periodisation of 20th-century German literature has often been determined by the emotional force of key political date brackets (1918/9-1933; 1933-1945; 1945-1989), rather than by aesthetic criteria. The latter have been subsumed within a political paradigm that, despite a measure of re-appraisal, not only continues to stress discontinuity but also in some measure replicates the ideological antagonisms and crass binary oppositions in official discourse of the Nazi and Cold War years.

The result has been that the literariness of literature has suffered some neglect. The present project has been conceived as a corrective to conventional literary historiography, proposing instead, without losing sight of political contexts, the investigation of continuities in style that cut across political boundaries.

Aims and objectives

The objective of the project is:

  • To produce a book analysing discourses of style and, where appropriate, genre in representative works and statements by German authors in the period 1930-1960.

In meeting that objective, the project will fulfil the following aims:

  • To determine the validity of a periodisation of twentieth-century German literature which posits a restoration period in the years 1930-1960, typified by a backward-looking turn towards aesthetically conservative styles;
  • To establish and develop a theory of cultural and literary change compatible with such a periodisation, highlighting aesthetic turning-points (1930; 1960) while not overlooking the significance of social and political turning-points (1933; 1945);
  • To identify a range of discourses, both Modernist and pre-Modernist, which might potentially characterise such a period and establish to what extent these discourses proceed according to a discourse-internal logic specific to literary style, that is, in dialogue and conflict with its own history;
  • To examine synchronically a corpus of representative literary journals to determine whether such procedures are readily identifiable in the literature of the last years of the Weimar Republic, inside and outside the Third Reich, and in the FRG and the GDR up to 1960;
  • To examine diachronically the contributions to journals of a representative group of authors from 1930 to 1960 in order to determine the extent to which their development is compatible with the proposed periodisation.

Research imperative and context

The project takes as its starting-point the thesis formulated by Hans-Dieter Schäfer in his 1977 essay 'Zur Periodiserung der deutschen Literatur seit 1930' (collected in Schäfer's Das gespaltene Bewußtsein(Munich and Vienna: Hanser, 1981, pp. 55-71), namely that 1930 marks the start of a new period in German literature, characteristic features of which endure until the sea-changes of the 1960s.

In this ground-breaking essay and related studies, Schäfer draws upon a wealth of material from journals and works from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, as well as the findings of social historians, in order to postulate a culturally conservative 'turn' in German literature and cultural life in general around 1930. According to Schäfer, this was occasioned by the atmosphere of crisis gripping the Weimar Republic, which was not so much determined by the rise of Nazism, but rather out of which Nazism itself emerged. Similarly, Schäfer relativises the perception that the artistic avant-garde thrived until it was smashed by the Nazis in 1933, arguing persuasively that avant-gardist experimentation forfeited much of its credibility earlier.

For Schäfer, the common thread informing authors' stylistic choices from 1930 is the marginalisation of avant-gardist experimentation in favour of the integration of Modernist and pre-Modernist stylistic features. Schäfer argues that not only did non-Nazi writers in Germany and anti-Nazi writers in exile share this response to the seminal experience of crisis but that this response remained a key feature in the development by those same groups of seemingly distinct East and West German literatures between 1945 and the early 1960s. Schäfer's essay was welcomed in many quarters as a landmark initiative.


The investigation of discourses of style will include the following, both individually and in combination: Baroque; Classicism; Romanticism; Biedermeier; Poetic Realism; Naturalism; Aestheticism; Neo-Romanticism; Expressionism; NeueSachlichkeit; and Socialist Realism. The principal corpus for the study will be a range of journals published between 1930 and 1960. Journals have been chosen since they lend themselves to the analysis of both synchronically and diachronically conceived problems. The corpus consists of the following:

  1. In and around 1930: Die Kolonne, Die literarische Welt, Die Linkskurve;
  2. Inside and outside the Third Reich: Das innere Reich, Das Wort, Maß und Wert;
  3. GDR and FRG: Sinn und Form, Aufbau, Neue Rundschau, Merkur.

Operating initially within the conventional labels which reinforce political and/or moral boundaries within the literature of this period, such as Inner Emigration, Nazi and Exile Literature, Nullpunkt, and Aufbauliteratur, we hope to identify and analyse the re-instatement of the aforementioned discourses around 1930, proceeding synchronically through the juxtaposition of journals under 1, 2 and 3 above.

In the diachronic dimension of the project, the following writers have been selected to act as case studies: Johannes R. Becher; Gottfried Benn; Bertolt Brecht; Günter Eich; and Peter Huchel. Born within twenty years of each other, all these writers were active from 1930 until at least the mid-1950s and represent a band of stylistic orientations, from Expressionist to post-Expressionist, which undergo change within the climate that prevailed from the late 1920s.

However, neither has Schäfer's anticipated elaboration upon his thesis materialised, nor have other researchers followed his lead, despite repeated acknowledgement of its value and potential for development. The project seeks to undertake the empirical study necessary to test Schäfer's thesis and to address areas in his original work liable for further development.