Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In reaction to the dryness of Baroque and Enlightenment literature, Goethe and several of his contemporaries invented an exciting new genre of literature, Sturm und Drang, which proved immensely popular throughout Germany in the 1770’s and laid the groundwork for the evolution of neoclassicism and Romanticism.

Summary of Event

Sturm und Drang (German for “storm and stress”) arguably began in the 1760’s as a political rather than literary movement, but it soon became mainly literary and extended also into painting, music, and other arts. Its proponents and adherents were mainly young, disaffected men, the most famous of whom was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Loosely configured and unnamed at first, the movement eventually took its name from a play by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, Wirrwarr: Oder, Sturm und Drang Wirrwarr (Klinger) (1776; confusion: or, storm and stress), whose title suggests raging turmoil and confusion. The Sturm und Drang movement’s main intellectual antecedents were William Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The high theatricality that typified not only its drama but also its novels and lyrics was chiefly due to Shakespeare’s influence on Goethe. Its focus on human dignity and its advocacy of human freedom derived from Rousseau’s political and social philosophy. Lessing formulated, and in the late 1760’s published, what would become Sturm und Drang’s principles. [kw]Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement (1773) [kw]Movement, Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang (1773) [kw]Drang Movement, Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und (1773) [kw]Sturm und Drang Movement, Goethe Inaugurates the (1773) Sturm und Drang [g]Germany;1773: Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement[2020] [c]Literature;1773: Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement[2020] [c]Theater;1773: Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement[2020] [c]Art;1773: Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement[2020] [c]Music;1773: Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement[2020] [c]Philosophy;1773: Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement[2020] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Schiller, Friedrich Klinger, Friedrich Maximilian Herder, Johann Gottfried Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim Hamann, Johann Georg Gerstenberg, Heinrich Wilhelm von Klopstock, Friedrich Gottlieb Lenz, Jakob Michael Reinhold Moritz, Karl Philipp Berlichingen, Götz von Shakespeare, William Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Macpherson, James

Another influence on Sturm und Drang was the literary forger James Macpherson, who wrote Fingal (1762) and Temora (1763), collected as The Works of Ossian, the Son of Fingal Works of Ossian, the Son of Fingal, The (Macpherson) (1765). These works were both supposedly written by the ancient Gaelic poet Ossian Ossian and merely translated into English by Macpherson. They were tremendously popular, and the epics were translated into German between 1764 and 1769. Macpherson fooled almost everyone except Samuel Johnson and David Hume, and the general belief that these works were artifacts of primitive culture added to their appeal and made them fountainheads of not only Sturm und Drang but also Romanticism Romanticism;literature Literature;Romanticism on both sides of the English Channel. Ossian’s supposed works were revealed as fakes only at the end of the nineteenth century. Among the Stürmer und Dränger, as the writers in this movement were called, the Ossian poems particularly affected Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder. Goethe’s seventy-odd Sturm und Drang poems derive mainly from Macpherson and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.

Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (pb. 1773, pr. 1774; Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand (Goethe)[Gotz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand] 1799), his first play, was the work that made him nationally famous at the age of only twenty-four. It tells the story of an idealistic military leader who rebelled against Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and led peasant forays against various German cities. The real Götz von Berlichingen was both an opportunistic mercenary and a popular hero like Robin Hood. Götz’s own memoirs were the basis of Goethe’s play, but Goethe took many liberties with this text, making Götz into more of a hero than he actually was. The iron hand of the title is a reference to the prosthesis that he wore after losing his right hand in the Siege of Landshut in 1504, as well as a metaphor for the strength of his will.

Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand was not the first work of Sturm und Drang, but it was the work that brought attention to the movement and therefore can legitimately be said to have inaugurated it. Sturm und Drang was immensely popular throughout the German-speaking world for the rest of the 1770’s, especially after Goethe published the movement’s most acclaimed work, the novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, Sorrows of Young Werther, The (Goethe) 1779). The Sorrows of Young Werther was so popular that it set the fashion for young German men—blue frock coat and yellow vest—but also had dire and unforeseen social consequences, as lovesick young men committed suicide in imitation of the title character.

The span of Sturm und Drang is disputed. All scholars agree that it encompassed the period between Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand in 1773 and Friedrich Schiller’s Die Räuber (pb. 1781, pr. 1782; The Robbers, Robbers, The (Schiller) 1792), but some would see these two works as endpoints, while others would mark the beginning in the 1760’s with Johann Georg Hamann’s Aesthetica in nuce Aesthetica in nuce (Hamann) (1762; aesthetics in a nutshell), Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg’s Gedicht eines Skalden Gedicht eines Skalden (Gerstenberg) (1766; poem of a skald), Gerstenberg’s Briefe über Merkwürdigkeiten der Literatur Briefe über Merkwürdigkeiten der Literatur (Gerstenberg)[Briefe uber Merkwurdigkeiten der Literatur] (1766-1767; letters about the peculiarities of literature), or Herder’s Über die neuere deutsche Literatur: Fragmente Über die neuere deutsche Literatur (Herder)[Uber die neuere deutsche Literatur] (1767; on recent German literature: fragments), and mark the end with Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe (pr., pb. 1784; Cabal and Love, Cabal and Love (Schiller) 1795) or Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser Anton Reiser (Moritz) (1785-1794). There is universal agreement that the most important works in the movement are Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Robbers, and the poems of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz.

The most prominent theme of Sturm und Drang was “the decayed world” (die verderbte Welt). Verderbte Welt (the decayed world) Other typical features Social criticism Literature;social criticism were emphasis on childhood and youth, exaltation of individual genius, and exploration of the themes of death, imprisonment, social disruption, religious conflict, homelessness, loss of parents, grieving, and the social position of women. Women;in literature[literature] Literature;women Sturm und Drang gave more important roles to female characters than did previous kinds of literature. The death Death in literature Literature;death motif was perhaps its most poignant and included murder, suicide, patricide, fratricide, regicide, infanticide, and the deaths of heroes.

The troubles of the main characters portrayed by the movement, many of whom were outlaws as well as heroes, became metaphors for the political and social ills of the world. Sturm und Drang was strikingly nationalistic, Nationalism;literature Literature;nationalism not regarding the state, because Germany did not come into existence as a nation until 1871, but regarding the common German people and their culture. The champions of the people were often at odds Antiauthoritarianism in literature Literature;antiauthoritarianism with the Kingdom of Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, the many German principalities and dukedoms, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches, and other political authorities.

The Goethe Monument, Goethe Square, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Created by Ludwig von Schwanthaler, 1844.

(Library of Congress)

Almost all Sturm und Drang stories were tragedies. Tragedy in literature Literature;tragedy Oppressive social and psychological norms often overwhelmed and destroyed the hero. Sometimes, the tragedy was the main character’s own fault, as in The Sorrows of Young Werther, but sometimes no fault of the main character at all, as in Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand. Also, most of these works showed a curious mixture of hopefulness and defeatism. Götz’s dying words were “Freedom! Freedom!,” to which his faithful wife replied, “The world is a prison.”


The mid-eighteenth century was marked by several important, inventive, and complex turning points in German literature that constituted the beginnings of a strong German influence on world literature. From the rather stiff and mannered works of the Baroque period and the overly dry, objective, and didactic works of the Enlightenment, a new vitality broke forth in the 1760’s that first became Sturm und Drang and then evolved into the clashing opposites of neoclassicism Neoclassicism;literature Literature;neoclassicism and Romanticism. Sturm und Drang was as much a product of the Enlightenment Enlightenment;Germany as a reaction against it. It upheld the Enlightenment belief in the value of the individual Individualism but pushed for action, extolled passion, Emotion;and reason[reason] Reason;and emotion[emotion] and rejected the primacy of reason.

The movement lasted only about a decade, but the other two new developments, especially Romanticism, persisted into the nineteenth century. Romanticism, like Sturm und Drang, emphasized emotion over reason. Neoclassicism followed the Enlightenment in emphasizing reason over emotion, but, against the Enlightenment, grounded itself in ancient history and literature rather than in modern science and philosophy. In Germany, the bridge between neoclassicism and Romanticism was embodied in just one person, Goethe. His remarkable, six-decade career began with Sturm und Drang, defined all three eras, and made him the most important German writer of all time.

Sturm und Drang was a precursor of the psychological realism Psychological realism Literature;realism that became popular in the late nineteenth century. Themes of death and decay from the 1770’s gave way to nineteenth century obsessions with guilt about these same themes. The idea of the decayed world was also a major aspect of the nineteenth century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich idea of an inverted, or topsy-turvy, world, where everything is the opposite from what is expected, where common sense is no longer reliable, and where individuals think they are doing one thing but in fact are doing another.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berlichingen, Götz von. Autobiography. Edited by Hannah Stephanie Marguerita Stuart. London: Duckworth, 1956. Goethe’s source for his play.
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    xlink:type="simple">Brunschwig, Henri. Enlightenment and Romanticism in Eighteenth-Century Prussia. Translated by Frank Jellinek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. A frequently cited standard work.
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    xlink:type="simple">Duncan, Bruce. Lovers, Parricides, and Highwaymen: Aspects of Sturm und Drang Drama. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 1999. A basic introduction.
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    xlink:type="simple">Elliott, Rosemarie. Wilhelm Heinse in Relation to Wieland, Winckelmann, and Goethe: Heinse’s Sturm und Drang Aesthetic and New Literary Language. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1996. A clear study of a minor figure in the movement.
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    xlink:type="simple">Hill, David, ed. Literature of the Sturm und Drang. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2003. A collection of thirteen essays exploring the broad spectrum of the movement.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kistler, Mark Oliver. Drama of the Storm and Stress. New York: Twayne, 1969. A comprehensive analysis.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ottewell, Karen. Lessing and the Sturm und Drang: A Reappraisal Revisited. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 2002. A revision of the author’s doctoral thesis at the University of Cambridge, England.
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    xlink:type="simple">Pascal, Roy. The German Sturm und Drang. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1967. Appears in most bibliographies of eighteenth century German literature.
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    xlink:type="simple">Runge, Edith Amelia. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Sturm und Drang Literature. New York: Russell & Russell, 1972. The author’s doctoral thesis at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland.
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    xlink:type="simple">Vaughan, Larry. The Historical Constellation of the Sturm und Drang. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. An analysis of the times out of which Sturm und Drang arose.

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Categories: History