Middle European Literature

Middle Europe is a not-quite-technical term for the countries comprising the center of the continent. In that sense, Germany is the heart of Europe (and, by extension, the West as a whole), lying at the middle of Middle Europe. This is true in a non-literal sense, too—despite the rather poor showing in the first half of the 20th century, Germany has long been at the center of cultural and intellectual development in the West.

But what is this elusive "West" of which we speak? Like most things historical, it's hard to pin down and there isn't a single agreed-upon definition, but generally speaking, the West (or Western civilization) is a body of cultures forming a more or less consistent worldview. The salient features of the Western worldview are a commitment to human reason, a belief in progress, and the idea of individual human liberty and freedom of conscience.

As things become increasingly postmodern, Westerners have distanced themselves from unmitigated faith in human reason, though even the most postmodern philosophers haven't been able to abandon it entirely. After all, philosophy depends on the articulation of ideas (not always clearly, as Kant and Derrida have taught us), and ideas must be expressed at least in part through rational means.

Such rational expression seems particularly the forte of the Middle Europeans, particular the Germans. It should come as no surprise that both the Reformation and the Enlightenment largely originated in Germany. The Reformation reemphasized the role of reason in the interpretation of Scripture, and the Enlightenment went so far as to assert that human reason was the only way anything could be known (any other authority was summarily dismissed as mere superstition or insupportable).

But through all this celebration and even worship of reason there ran a different chord, a more physical and less abstract one that didn't dismiss reason but didn't entirely depend on it, either. That chord was existentialism, expressed by French philosophers in the neat little epigram "existence precedes essence," but centered on the idea that we are physical beings who sometimes behave irrationally and who inherently yearn for meaning.

After supernatural authority had been toppled by the Enlightenment, people were left with an emptiness and lack of meaning no one was quite sure how to fill. Plenty of Middle European writers were able to artfully identify and depict the problem, few had any solution. Among the most artful and most brilliant of the identifiers was a mysterious young Czech named Franz Kafka, whose black humor and genius conveyed the precise state of angst and despair so many were feeling.

Herman Hesse was one of the few who both identified the problem and offered an alternative, but his brand of Eastern-influenced spirituality was so nebulous that few heeded his message (except Hippies in the 1960s who thought it was groovy). Nevertheless, Hesse is one of the great novelists, and his books are worth reading if for no other reason than that he was such a capable observer of human nature and such an original stylist.

The greatest of the Germanic/Middle European writers, however, was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose Faust plays are among the best written works of any place and any time. Writing in the 18th century, he brought together the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the existentialism of later generations. In Faust, the protagonist makes a deal with the Devil to serve him in hell as long as the Devil will do anything for Faust while he remains alive. Faust is a scholar, but also a man, and Goethe artfully shows the tension between reason and existence.

Some of the most destructive philosophies of the Modern Era originated in central Europe, and to a great extent each of them reflected this same tension, though usually not as eloquently. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' Communist Manifesto and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf took things in a decidedly political direction, while Friedrich Nietzsche explored anti-spirituality and quasi-religious nihilism. For each of them, the attempt at existential/rational resolution ended in madness and despair.

If you're starting to think Middle Europe is a very dark place, you're getting the right impression. The intellectuals and artists assembled there have gone out of their way to exclude the possiblity of a divine presence, and to promote man to the central entity of the universe. Of course, Martin Luther was a Middle European, but his message was better disseminated throughout Western Europe than in his own land.

Reading the literature of places like Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslavakia needn't be a wholly dreary affair, however. Many of the writers from those countries managed to pen vibrant works, despite their gloomy outlook and godless worldview. And in many ways, the views they espoused are the views accepted by the entirety of Western civilization clear to the present day; achieving a familiarity with them is one of the first steps toward combatting them in the name of Christ.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

Did you find this review helpful?
26 Items found Print
All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque
from Ballantine Books
War/Realistic Fiction for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
$5.59
Bondage of the Will
by Martin Luther
from Baker Academics
for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: MLIT3-REN)
$17.59
Communist Manifesto
Penguin Classics
by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
from Penguin Classics
Political Philosophy for 10th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: MLIT6-19)
$6.40
Communist Manifesto
by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
from Signet Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: MLIT6-19)
$4.76
Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
by Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm
3rd edition from Bantam Books
Fairy Tales, Fables, and Folklore for 7th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: MLIT6-19)
$18.40
Every Man Dies Alone
by Hans Fallada
1st edition from Melville House
for 11th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
Goethe's Faust
by Goethe, Walter Kaufmann (translator)
from Anchor Books
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: MLIT5-18)
$10.36
Imitation of Christ
by Thomas à Kempis
from Penguin Classics
Devotional Material for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: MLIT2-MED)
$11.20
Imitation of Christ
by Thomas à Kempis
from Dover Publications
Devotional Material for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: MLIT2-MED)
$4.00 $3.00 (1 in stock)
In Praise of Folly
Dover Thrift Editions
by Desiderius Erasmus
from Dover Publications
Religious Satire for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: MLIT3-REN)
$2.40
Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses
by Martin Luther
from P&R Publishing
for 7th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: MLIT3-REN)
Mein Kampf
by Adolf Hitler
from Houghton Mifflin
Autobiography for 9th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
$17.60
Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln
by Gluckel of Hamelin
from Schocken
for 8th-Adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: MLIT4-17)
$12.80
Metamorphosis
by Franz Kafka
from Dover Publications
for 11th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
$4.76
Metamorphosis
by Franz Kafka
First Edition from Bantam Books
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
Night
by Elie Wiesel
Revised from Hill & Wang
Autobiographies & Memoirs for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
$7.96 $6.00 (1 in stock)
On Christian Liberty
by Martin Luther
from Fortress Press
Religion for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: MLIT3-REN)
$9.59
Periodic Table
by Primo Levi
from Schocken
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
$9.50 (1 in stock)
Praise of Folly
Dover Thrift Editions
by Desiderius Erasmus
from Penguin Classics
Religious Satire for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: MLIT3-REN)
$12.00
Quo Vadis
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
from Regnery Publishing, Inc.
for 9th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: MLIT6-19)
$13.00 (1 in stock)
Quo Vadis
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
from Dover Publications
Historical Fiction for 9th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: MLIT6-19)
$11.96
Saga of the Volsungs
by Anonymous, Jesse L. Byock
from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: MLIT2-MED)
$12.00
Survival in Auschwitz
by Primo Levi
1st edition from Touchstone
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
$11.20 $5.50 (1 in stock)
The Trial
by Franz Kafka
from Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
$16.00
The Trial
by Franz Kafka
from Schocken
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: NLIT7-20)
$10.00 (1 in stock)
Twilight of the Idols & The Antichrist
by Friedrich Nietzsche
from Dover Publications
for 11th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: MLIT6-19)
$5.56