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3. Culture
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Overview: Forging an Empire: Bismarckian Germany, 1866-1890   |   1. Demographic and Economic Development   |   2. Society   |   3. Culture   |   4. Religion, Education, Social Welfare   |   5. Politics I: Forging an Empire   |   6. Military and International Relations   |   7. Politics II: Parties and Political Mobilization

Music, Verse, and Prose. The birth of the German Empire was anticipated by a requiem. Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem (Opus 45), completed in 1868, was a monument within the composer’s oeuvre (D21). It seemed to anticipate the great national events to come in adopting lines from 1 Corinthians 15: “[ . . . ] We shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of any eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” Unlike August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s Founding Songs (D23), which ridiculed the pretensions of speculators in the early 1870s (D17), Brahms’s Requiem provided a deeper resonance, a broader reflection on the accomplishment of unity – deeper, certainly, than the verses of The Watch on the Rhine, sung by German soldiers marching to the front in the summer of 1870 (D22). Likewise, the last of Richard Wagner’s grand operas, which premiered in the first decade of the German Empire, could hardly be said to lack resonance. When Wagner’s Ring Cycle was performed at Bayreuth for the first time in 1876, it constituted the culmination of the composer’s search for a “total work of art” [Gesamtkunstwerk] (D24, IM39) sufficiently grand and unique to measure up to the Germany of both ancient and modern times. Thereafter, for better or worse, German music was never the same again, even though Theodor Fontane privately found good reasons to forego a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal (D25).

Relatively few writers of poetry and prose in this era made a lasting mark on German literature. The most significant exception is the giant of German Realist literature, Theodor Fontane, whose novel The Stechlin is excerpted in Chapter 7. The Stechlin does three things at once: it captures the spirit and tone of other literature of this era, it depicts with wry humor the unfolding of a local election campaign in backwoods Prussia, and it conveys Fontane’s characteristic mix of admiration for Prussia’s rich heritage and his anxiety that German society had lost its moral compass (D8). The same anxiety can be found in other sources that, when considered together, also offer a contrasting mix of viewpoints: celebratory poems and satirical cartoons (D1, IM34, IM35, IM36, IM37), allegorical murals and children’s board games (IM2, IM5), monumental architecture and kitschy pageants (IM3, IM6), pronouncements on the mood of the times from outside Germany’s borders (D3, IM7), studies of German language and grammar, (D12, D13), and efforts to foster a culturally literate public while celebrating the accomplishments of the avant garde (D10, D11). It is difficult to overstress the diversity of ways in which German cultural production in these years reflected both pride in national achievement and misgivings about its future consequences. The opening of a National Gallery in Berlin in 1876 may not have provided the hoped-for opportunity to gather within one temple the variety of cultural expression in the Bismarckian era; but the Gallery’s very first acquisition, Adolph Menzel’s Iron Rolling Mill (IM20), illustrates the folly of labeling the new Germany “inartistic” and leaving it at that.

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