Experience Austria through Literature - Part I:
Introduction & Background

If you study a general introduction to German literature, you will quickly find that Austrian writers are over-represented with respect to the population of Austria compared to Germany. I think that there are several reasons for this.

A monk writing important things in a Medieval Scriptorium

There's partly a significant legacy of German-speaking "Austrians" from imperial days that lived in a country with a lot more residents than today's Austria (such as Franz Kafka or Ödön von Horvath). Partly it might be that the Austrian society is generally more urban than the German (which favours the survival rates of writers).

However, I think that there is also a strong tradition for music, fine arts and literature in Austria, concerned with a high social status for artists, at least within certain parts of the society. The bottom line is: Literature is a great way to learning more about Austria - be it on a train ride across the Alps, be it on the plane on the way to Vienna, or as a preparation for your trip.

Austrian Writing: A bit on the Historical Roots

A distinct "Austrian" sense of national identity did not arise until the later 18th century. Therefore, any literature produced by "Austrians" before that time is generally considered to be German, but not really nationally distinct. In the centuries that followed, Austria developed an increasing awareness of nationality and of the distinct features of Austrian German.

The Nibelungenlied is a Medieval epos on knights, women and other cool things

Even though it doesn't make much sense to evaluate Austrian literature without looking at pan-German (or global) literary developments, writers from Austria today have more confidence than ever before in their role as authors with a distinct tradition compared to Germany or Switzerland. What I write in this article are bits and pieces that I have found interesting, writers that I enjoyed reading and texts with either much impact on Austria or with typical Austrian themes.

In case you have specialist interests, you will find works from pretty much any period since the early Middle Ages that have some relevance for Austria. You can immerse yourself in medieval writings (songs and love poetry by the anonymous "Monk of Salzburg" or the Nibelungenlied, which is set partly in Austria). Or in Renaissance and Reformation literature, a period of political instability and feudal changes (classic works from that time are for example the "Fasnachtsspiele" by Hans Sachs).

Baroque, Enlightenment, Sturm & Drang, Classic

You can study the evolution of modern styles in the literature of the Baroque, a very shaping period for Austria, through the plays by Andreas Gryphius (if you like Shakespeare, it will be fun to read Gryphius and compare the two), his poetry or the novel "Der abendteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch" by Hans Jakob Christroffel von Grimmelshausen ("The adventurous Simplex").

The Lessing memorial on the Judenplatz Square in Vienna

The literature of the 18th century continues with these developments, picks up ideas of enlightenment and the concerned social changes (read, for example, Lessings's "Emilia Galotti"), formalises styles and leads directly to the not-so-much-specialist literature that is easier to access and more suitable as a supplement for a vacation.

The period of "Sturm and Drang" is dominated by the liberal ideas of the French Revolution: Equality and freedom for all nations of Europe. Its most prominent works were written between approximately 1750 and 1785, after which most of the early passionate Sturmers turned into writers of the "classic period", lasting until approximately 1805.

The 'Prince of Poetry' Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

By then, Austria was thoroughly conservative, Habsburgian and firmly Catholic, providing sparse grounds for revolutionary thought. Unsurprisingly, the most significant writers of these two periods were from German principalities north of Austria, most notably Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. For "Sturm und Drang", read "Die Leiden des jungen Werther" by Goethe ("The Sorrows of Young Werther") or "Die Räuber" by Schiller ("The Robbers").

For "Classical" reading, go for "Faust" by Goethe, the bloody best piece of literature that the German language has produced, or "Don Carlos" by the older Schiller. Again, there is little Austria-relevance in these works, but they do make good reading.

Back to previous page  -  Continue next page

Go to: Page 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

Further Reading

A detailed History of Austria in 10 parts

Reading Austria: Which books to choose

back to "background"