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"Das Land der Dichter und Denker" ("The land of poets and thinkers") is a common nickname Germans give their country. The German self-identity has always laid emphasis on a shared culture and language, due to Germany not being a unified country at the time nationalism became the latest craze in Europe. And because of certain events during the years 1933 - 1945, seeking patriotic feelings in military accomplishments (or, as is even often the case, expressing any patriotism at all) is no longer en vogue in Germany. This fact has perhaps even strengthened the German emphasis on cultural and scientific achievements.
It's worth noting that even some Allied wartime propaganda acknowledged this, portraying the Nazis as crushing Germany's widely-admired cultural output with their unsophisticated militarism (this is in contradistinction with most other propaganda both in WW 2 and WW 1, when German Kultur was depicted as being brutal Prussian militarism ).
And so without further ado, we present you a list of some famous German "Dichter und Denker":
Actual Poets and Other Writers
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832) — Often claimed to be most important German language author. Wrote many poems, The Sorrows of Young Werther and an important version of the Faust legend. Many phrases originating in his works found their way into everyday German language. Because he dabbled a bit in botany, anatomy, colour theory, and geology, he could technically also be listed under Scientists here.
- Friedrich Schiller (1759 - 1805) — Best buddy of Goethe. Wrote plays like William Tell, Mary Stuart, and The Robbers. Also you can eat his hair. The lyrics to the Ode to Joy were lifted almost word-for-word from one of his poems.
- Jean-Paul (1763 – 1825) — Born Johann Paul Friedrich Richter. He was noted for his humorous novels and stories, as well as for essays expounding the spirit of German romanticism. His works were translated and popularized in English by Thomas Carlyle.
- Jacob (1785 - 1863) and Wilhelm (1786 - 1859) Grimm, AKA the Brothers Grimm—The Grimm Bros. are famous for a number of things, among them: 1) Their collection of Fairy Tales, and 2) the Deutsches Wörterbuch, a reallllllly big German dictionary, begun in 1838—the last volume of the first edition was published as late as 1961, with the addition of a source volume in '71.! (As it is not a 'simple' dictionary, but contains detailed information about the etymology and history of the words and language. A 'simple' dictionary more likely to be known by people who speak or learn German would be the Duden.) The Brothers Grimm were portrayed on the '90s-version of the 1000 Deutsche Mark banknote.
- Heinrich Heine (1797 - 1856) — Among other writings, author of the poem Germany. A Winter's Tale, in which Heine describes satirically his tour through Germany (he emigrated to France in 1831). Centuries later, the title of Sönke Wortmann's movie Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen (Germany. A Summer's Tale) is a Shout-Out. Quite ironic, if you think about it for a moment, given that Wortmann's movie is rather positive, while Heine portrays the political atmosphere in his contemporary Germany in rather a negative way.
- Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797 - 1848) — One of Germany's most important female authors. Her most famous work is the murder mystery The Jew's Beech. Also authored the awesomely creepy poem The Lad on the Moor. Droste-Hülshoff was portrayed on the '90s-version of the 20 Deutsche Mark banknote.
- Wilhelm Busch (1832 - 1908) — Told his stories using a sequence of pictures. Thus he was one of the pioneers of comics, although he didn't use speech bubbles yet, and the accompanied text was still quite descriptive. His most well known work is the story Max and Moritz, which directly inspired The Katzenjammer Kids on the other site of the Big Pond.
- Thomas Mann (1875 - 1955) — Got a Nobel Prize in Literature for his epic novel Buddenbrooks, in which he tells the story of a family whose members are largely based on his own relatives. Had to flee from the Nazis because of his political views.
- Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956) — Influential due to his plays and his theoretical works regarding theatre. Had to flee from the Nazis because of his pro-Communist political views and was brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee for the same reason. Later he lived in the GDR. After the government there violently struck down the 1953 uprising, Brecht famously "suggested" that the government should dissolve the people and elect another one. (See? Germans DO have a sense of humour!)
- Johann Pachelbel (1653 - 1706) — Baroque composer. Though he was quite prolific, writing some 500 pieces, today he is known almost entirely for his Canon in D.
- Georg Friedrich Händel (1685 - 1759), AKA George Frideric Handel—Baroque composer. Although born in Germany, he wrote his most important works while living in Britain (although from Saxony, he was employed by Georg, the Elector of Hanover, when fate decided to turn Elector Georg into George I of Great Britain; he came over with the newly-minted king, and unlike the King-Elector, he liked Britain enough to learn the language and stay). Most famous for composing Messiah.
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) — Baroque composer. Famous for his organ. Er, I mean organ compositions! (Although he did actually have twenty children.)
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) — Classical composer and Child Prodigy, who at the age of five was composing music and performing before European royalty. Please note that while Mozart's native city Salzburg nowadays belongs to Austria, it didn't at the time, and anyways everyone was considered to be a subset of the amorphous 'German group' during his time (since there was no united Germany).
- Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) — Ta ta ta taaa!! Classical composer. Wrote the Ode to Joy (lyrics: Friedrich Schiller, see above), nowadays the hymn of the European Union. Gradually went deaf, but that didn't stop him from composing more and more stuff.
- Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) — Yet another classical composer! This one is famous for his operas. Due to Hitler being a big fan of Wagner (and unfortunately also due to Wagner being virulently, if inconsistently, anti-Semitic himself), the first performance of a Wagner opera in Israel was as late as 2001!
- Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528) — Created many interesting pictures, showing such diverse things as the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, praying hands, a rhino, a hare, a piece of turf (such mundane motifs were still very uncommon in his time), and a self-portrait in which he points at the spot were it hurts (it was for his physician). Motifs by Dürer could be seen on the '60s-'80s-versions of the 5 and 20 Deutsche Mark banknotes.
- Hans Holbein (the Younger) (ca. 1498 - 1543) — A great portrait-painter, perhaps most famous for his meticulously detailed paintings of a number of personalities from the Tudor court (including Henry VIII himself) in Pimped-Out Dress, which Holbein painted while in England.
- Caspar David Friedrich (1774 - 1840) — A master of the Early Romantic period, which his mysterious, symbolic landscapes—sometimes featuring Gothic ruins and often featuring human figures turned away from the viewer—perfectly embody. His works seem to turn up frequently on the covers of Horror fictions.
- Carl Spitzweg (1808 - 1885) — Famous for his paintings showing humorous scenes, making good-natured fun of his contemporaries during the conservative Biedermeier-era (the time between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the European Revolutions in 1848).
- Franz Marc (1880 - 1916) — Important member of the expressionist movement and co-founder (together with the Russian Wassily Kandinsky) of the artist group Der blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Most well known are probably his many paintings depicting horses. He sadly died relatively young during the Battle of Verdun.
- Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781 - 1841) — If you visit Berlin and you see a building that looks sorta like a Greek temple (this style is called classicism), your chances are high that this building was designed by this guy.
- Leo von Klenze (1784 - 1864) — Who also was a writer and a painter. Left his big footprint primarily in Munich, where he constructed e.g. the Ruhmeshalle beneath the Bavaria and the Glyptotheque. However, he also constructed the New Eremitage in St. Petersburg.
- Walter Gropius (1883 - 1969) — Founder of the Bauhaus movement. Had an affair with the wife of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, and even married her after Mahler's death. Had to flee from the Nazis, because they didn't like the Bauhaus-style. They considered modern art in general to be Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). Though another detractor of the Bauhaus design school was one Frank Lloyd Wright, who described Gropius' designs as "soulless".
- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886 - 1969) — A disciple of Gropius, he didn't have much time to design anything in Germany before the Nazis forced him to leave; he was the last director of the Bauhaus. He brought the Bauhaus style to America and designed some very simple, elegant buildings across Chicago, where he settled down. To this day, Chicago has the nicest collection of International Style buildings in the United States. His minimalist style is neatly summed up by his three-word motto, "Less is more".
- Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716) — Very important philosopher, theorized that we live in the Best of All Possible Worlds. Like many of his contemporaries, he dabbled in many fields nowadays categorized under "science". Notorious is his dispute with none other than his English colleague Isaac Newton over the question of who of them invented calculus. (You know that elongated S used in calculus notation? Leibniz invented this symbol.) Also important was his pioneer work in computer science. Oh, and there exists a German brand of biscuit named after him. (Nur echt mit 52 Zähnen!)
- Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) — Formulated the categorical imperative as part of his writings on morality. (Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.) Also, spent his whole life in Königsberg (nowadays Kaliningrad).
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831) — Developed a system of thought which encompassed politics, religion, history and logic, much of it in terms that are famously awful to translate. Critic of Kant. Notably, he theorized that the whole of human history is leading up to a grand awakening of spiritual unity and absolute knowledge. For a while, followers clashed on whether or not we were already there.
- Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) — Father of Marxism, which eventually shaped communism. Because of this, some people see him in a rather negative light, others in far too rosy a light. Not related to Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo or Gummo.
- Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1895) — A good friend of Karl Marx and co-wrote the Manifesto with him. He also edited the 2nd and 3rd editions of Das Kapital after Marx died. Considered the co-founder of Communism, ironically came from quite a rich family.
- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) — (Dah dah dah... Tadah! Bom-bom, bom-bom...) Not a Nietzsche Wannabe, because he was the real one. His concept of the Übermensch was abused by the Nazis and also may have inspired two certain young American comic authors. über (over, above) has even found its way into contemporary English slang. Nietzsche also was of the opinion that the supreme Judeo-Christian entity has passed away. He died in a madhouse.
- Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) — Philosopher of history and a bit of Renaissance Man. Strongly influenced by both Goethe and Nietzsche. Best known for his book The Decline of the West, which proposes that all the great human cultures go through a thousand-year cycle, after which they either stagnate or wilt and die. Very critical of the Weimar Republic, but didn't like The Nazis that much either - after meeting Hitler in 1933, he stated that [Germany doesn't need a] "heroic tenor but a real hero."
- Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) — Building off of the works of Nietzsche, he ended up with a unique—and impossible to describe—philosophy of his own. During the Nazi period, he actually became a Nazi, for which he never repented after the war. Despite the Nazism, he had quite the case of Matzo Fever, having stormy affairs with his Jewish students Hannah Arendt and Elisabeth Blochmann; of course, this was justified, in that he shared Nietzsche's disdain for anti-Semitism, and arguably he joined the Nazis on the misconception that they had any principles besides hating the Jews (and the Poles and the Russians and...).
Theologians and Clerics
- Hildegard of Bingen (1098 - 1179) — Called the Sybil of the Rhine and Germany's First Woman Scientist, was a Catholic mystic, Benedictine abbess, author, linguist, naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician, herbalist, poet, and composer. She wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, letters, poems, dramas, and liturgical music which has had a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
- Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200 - 1280) — AKA Albert the Great, Albert of Cologne, and "The Universal Doctor", was a Dominican friar, bishop of Regensburg, scholar, philosopher, and reputed magician, in which capacity he or his spell-books tend to show up in fiction. Albert was canonized and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI.
- Nikolaus von Kues (1401 - 1464) — AKA Nicholas Cusanus, was a Catholic cardinal, as well as a philosopher, theologian, jurist, mathematician, and an astronomer (in which capacity, he was an early advocate for heliocentrism and the elliptical orbits of the planets). He is noted as a profound writer on mysticism.
- Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) — His criticisms regarding the Catholic Church triggered the founding of Protestantism. Also, together with his buddy Melanchthon, he translated the Bible into German. Unfortunately, some of his own writings are unambiguously anti-Semitic. Not to be confused with this other historically important Protestant minister!
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 - 1945) — Lutheran pastor and German Resistance member during the time of Nazi Germany and double-agent of the Abwehr. Considered by some to be a Nietzsche Wannabe because of his unconventional views on Christian religion. Also he was an important inspiration for Dr. King.
- Joseph Alois Ratzinger (1927 - ) — A well established theologian, Ratzinger taught matters of Catholic theology at the University of Tübingen for years as a reformist. It's said he acquired a 'slight' conservative bent while on the job. He left after a series of promotions. Nowadays he goes by the moniker Pope Benedict XVI.
- Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 - 1717) — Female naturalist during a time when this was still very unusual. Did an expedition to Surinam and was the first to research the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies in great detail. Also showed artistic talent by drawing her objects of study. Was portrayed on the '90s-version of the 500 Deutsche Mark banknote.
- Alexander von Humboldt (1769 -1859) — Naturalist, famous for his scientific expeditions, mainly to South America. Like Goethe, he was quite omnidisciplinary.
- Carl Friedrich Gauß (1777 - 1855) — Nicknamed Prince of Mathematicians, most famous for the Gaussian Distribution (also called Normal Distribution—the one with the characteristic bell-shape).A lot of other mathematics-related stuff is named after him too. Was portrayed (with a picture of the graph of the distribution) on the '90s-version of the 10 Deutsche Mark banknote.
- Gregor Johann Mendel (1822 - 1884) — Nicknamed Father of Genetics. Scientist and Augustinian priest. Famous for his incredibly long-winded and statistical study of the inheritance of certain traits of pea plants, leading to his discovery of the Mendelian Laws named after him, which established genetics as a science.
- Max Planck (1858 - 1947) — The father of quantum physics. Named after him are the Planck Constant and the Planck Units. Also didn't like how the Nazis treated Jewish physicists, and tried to help out Fritz Haber and others.
- Fritz Haber (1868 - 1934) — Speaking of whom, Haber is a primary reason the 20th and 21st centuries have so many people and so many interesting ways to kill them: Haber discovered the revolutionary Haber process for synthesizing ammonia from nothing more than hydrogen (which can be obtained easily from natural gas and less easily, but still fairly cost-effectively, from the electrolysis of water) and atmospheric nitrogen (no prizes for guessing where that comes from). Ammonia can then be used to make nitrates and nitrites—key ingredients in both fertilizer and explosives (including all forms of gunpowder), sparing countries the embarrassment of literally fighting wars over bird poop to make these vital products. He also did serious research into the military applications of chemistry, particularly during World War One, leading to the unfortunate nickname Father of Chemical Warfare (although in fairness, he also helped develop the gas mask). A patriotic German decorated by the Kaiser, he was (being Jewish) nevertheless run out of Germany when the Nazis took over (leaving with Planck's help), and died in 1934 in Switzerland, never living to see Zyklon-B (a product of his laboratory underlings) be used to kill thousands of Jews.
- Otto Hahn (1879 - 1968) — Discovered nuclear fission, together with Lise Meitner and Fritz Straßmann, and later became a vigorous opponent of nuclear weapons. He later caught a lot of flack for claiming more of the discovery than some said was his due; he got a particularly bad reputation with the Jewish community, as (unlike Straßmann), he did little to protect Jewish scientists (including Meitner) when the Nazis went after them (Straßmann, for the record, is considered among the Righteous Among the Nations, so Jews, feel free to say, "Screw Otto Hahn").
- Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) — Did have a cool hair style. His Theory of Relativity revolutionized physics. Had to flee from the Nazis because he was a Jew. The Nazis even denounced modern physics as "Jewish physics" and tried to replace it with their own "Aryan physics". Needless to say, this approach didn't lead anywhere.
- Alfred Wegener (1880 - 1930) — Developed the theory of Continental Drift. Sadly, Wegener's theory wasn't widely accepted until after his death (during an expedition to Greenland, by the way).
- Werner Heisenberg (1901 - 1976) — Quantum physicist. Because he was a proponent of Einsteinian physics (Why did the Nazis consider that bad? See above!), some Nazis considered him a "white Jew". Nevertheless, he stayed in Germany, where he had to research nuclear physics. His Uncertainty Principle has become a stock element of nerd humour, right up there next to Schrödinger's Cat. Also, the Heisenberg compensator is named after him.
- Johannes Gutenberg, born as Johannes Gensfleisch (1398 - 1468) — Invented movable type printing and the mechanical printing press. From now on, mass-production of books and other writings was possible.
- Philipp Reis (1834 - 1874) — Inventor of the telephone! Well, actually, the answer to the question "Who exactly invented the telephone?" is a bit complicated. Reiss' device was the first to be actually called Telephon.
- Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838 - 1917) — An actual count (which is what Graf means) who invented the type of airship named after him. Although the popularity of airships did considerably shrink for some reason, the company founded by Graf von Zeppelin (after decades of producing airship-unrelated stuff) has started to construct new Zeppelins since the 1990s.
- Karl Benz (1844 - 1929) — Added a combustion engine to a carriage and thus invented the car as it is known today, (or at least was the first to patent this contraption). The Daimler-Benz company (Gottlieb Daimler being another German automobile pioneer, and one of the competitors regarding the "Who exactly invented the car?"-issue) as well as the trademark Mercedes Benz bear his name.
- Willy Messerschmitt (1898 - 1978) — Built airplanes for the Nazis. The fact that his planes (along with Ferdinand Porsche's ground vehicles) were (in their time!) considered high-tech, probably gave rise to this trope. After the war, Messerschmitt was in prison for two years (put on trial for using slave labour and convicted as "fellow traveller"). After his release it was not allowed to produce airplanes, so instead his company produced sewing machines, pressing irons, prefabricated buildings—and little cars that looked like airplane cockpits!
- Konrad Zuse (1910 - 1995) — Inventor of the computer! Well, actually, the answer to the question "Who exactly invented the computer?" is a bit complicated, but Zuse's Z3 is a serious competitor for the title World's First Computer. The original Z3 was destroyed during an Allied air raid, but a fully functioning replica was built in the 1960's for the Deutsches Museum, by a company founded by Zuse himself after the war. And it is definitely true that his computers used the binary system, the floating point system and the clear seperation of RAM and hard disk before American computers did.
- Wernher "Not My Department" von Braun (1912 - 1977) — Rocket pioneer who is very controversial due to his cooperating with the Nazis and even entering the NSDAP (the Nazi Party) and the SS. His lifelong dream was human space exploration, and apparently he was of the opinion that the end justifies the means. The result was that instead of transporting people into space, his rockets were used to bombard London. More people died building the V-2 rockets than were killed by it as a weapon. After the war, he and other scientists were brought to the United States, where he became a key figure in the American space program. The "Program Head" in the film The Right Stuff is based loosely on him, as is Dr. Strangelove.
- Notice the club carried by the ape in the Unfortunate Implications picture
- Nietzsche, not God
- Or rather re-invented: it had been known in East Asia for centuries, but was rendered utterly useless by the nature of East Asian writing. A typical printer needs to keep anywhere from half a dozen to dozens of copies of each character in order to print. This is difficult enough with the Latin alphabet's 26 letters; imagine that with the 3,000+ characters of Chinese, or the ~1,000 Japanese Kanji. (Hangul doesn't count, as it was invented four years after Gutenberg's press).