George, Stefan (1868–1933)

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GEORGE, STEFAN (1868–1933)


German poet and intellectual.

The life and career of Stefan George are an especially acute example of the fickleness of fame. At his death on 4 December 1933 he was not only the most famous poet in Germany, but he was also revered as the leader of a cultural and quasi-political movement—what he called his "Secret Germany"—that, some believed, had presaged and even prepared the way for the regime that had come into power ten months earlier. Indeed, the minister for propaganda, Josef Goebbels, inaugurated that year the Stefan George Prize to be awarded annually to the best book by a German author. After the end of World War II, George's star had dimmed so low that it seemed all but extinguished. Even in the early twenty-first century, although there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest in George since the 1990s, Stefan George and the "Secret Germany" he created have been largely forgotten.

George began as a gifted, but fairly typical representative of European symbolism. Born in 1868 to a Catholic Rhineland family with close ties to France, he quickly assimilated the poetic ambition and gestures of Charles Baudelaire and particularly Stéphane Mallarmé, whom George met on his first trip to Paris in 1889. Unsure at first whether he would return to a Prussian-led, belligerently Protestant imperial Germany that he detested—he even considered emigrating to Mexico—George eventually made the compromise of staying in Germany but leading an itinerant life, constantly moving from city to town, staying with friends, lovers, benefactors. In this way he could—almost—deny the reality of the actual Germany while setting about the task constructing his own alternative.

This he did in a number of ways. First, there was his poetry. His first published volumes, the Hymnen (1890; Hymns), Pilgerfahrten (1891; Pilgrimages), and Algabal (1892) were all privately published in editions numbering only one or two hundred, and all evoked an alternative world of exquisite artifice and high gloss, all conveyed in a language of equally choice fabrication. In 1892 George also founded a journal, Blätter für die Kunst (Pages for art), that continued to appear until 1919 and formed the center of his activities during most of that period. The journal was not only a showcase for his own poetry and that of his friends, but it was also a place where his artistic, and increasingly his cultural, goals were articulated. As time went on, George's personal antipathy toward Wilhelminian Germany—with its glorification of material success and bourgeois comfort—turned into the official and explicit creed of the Blätter für die Kunst and thus of the group of people associated with it, and thus with George. This was the origin of George's "circle," which soon grew to include some extraordinary minds, including the literary critics Friedrich Gundolf and Max Kommerell, the historian Ernst Kantorowicz, the Nietzsche scholar Ernst Bertram, and many others who promulgated his vision in works of their own.

George published three more volumes of poetry in the 1890s, each one lavishly illustrated by the graphic designer Melchior Lechter, including Das Jahr der Seele (1897; The year of the soul), which contains some of George's best known poems. But it was his seventh book, called Der siebente Ring (1907; The seventh ring), that marks the turning point in his understanding of himself as not only a poet but also as a prophet and spiritual leader of his people. Corresponding to this shift in his self-perception is a change in the way those closest to him perceive him as well: they are no longer equal collaborators but rather disciples who refer to George as their "Master." In 1910 George initiated a new journal, called Jahrbuch für die geistige Bewegung (The yearbook for the spiritual movement), which published essays codifying and amplifying on these ideas, providing among other things one of the earliest and most compelling descriptions of the principle of the "Führer." Several of the contributions are likewise filled with contempt for the modern, democratic, bourgeois world and call for a holy war to end it.

In early 1914, a few months before the outbreak of the First World War, George published Der Stern des Bundes (The star of the covenant), which includes poems that seem prescient in their depictions of mass death and destruction. Indeed, one of his closest collaborators and followers wrote in the Frankfurter Zeitung that September that "our poet … saw and predicted this war and its necessity and its virtues."

While George was gratified that the war caused the downfall of the German Empire, he hated the Weimar Republic no less and eagerly greeted its disintegration. His last book, Das neue Reich (1928; The new reich), seemed in its very title no less clairvoyant than the previous one. Although he refused to accept honors offered to him when the National Socialists assumed control, he did so by saying that he had already done all he could do. He died, unexpectedly, while spending the winter on Lake Maggiore in southern Switzerland. Contrary to a persistent myth, however, George had not gone there in exile: he regarded Switzerland as part of the larger, "secret" Germany, that had been his true home all along.

See alsoGoebbels, Josef; Nazism.


Boehringer, Robert. Mein Bild von Stefan George. 2nd expanded ed. Düsseldorf and Munich, 1967.

Norton, Robert E. Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle. Ithaca, N.Y., 2002.

Robert Norton

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George, Stefan (1868–1933)

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