Germany in the Age of Enlightenment – a summary

Germany, as we might recognise it today, did not come into being until 1871 and since then its borders have been rather prone to change. However, the ideals of the Enlightenment stretched across the many and varied German-speaking lands. This article will analyse the origins of the Enlightenment, its arrival in Germany and its impact on philosophy, literature and society.

Origins and Meaning of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment has no agreed ‘start’ or ‘end’ point. Some argue that it began in the mid seventeenth century, while others maintain that it grew out of the French Revolution. Its ‘end date’ also remains unfixed; the Age of Enlightenment gradually faded away as Romantic ideals came into fashion, but its influence remained through much of the nineteenth century. Regardless of this, the impact which the Enlightenment had on Europe, and for the purposes of this article on the German lands, cannot be disputed.

However, before its impact can be discussed, the actual meaning of the Enlightenment must be uncovered. In many ways, it is a hard concept to pin down because it was all-encompassing. The Enlightenment’s ideals branched upwards and outwards, covering all forms of intellectual endeavour. Yet the fluidity of its nature highlights a fundamental aspect of the Enlightenment: freedom. Freedom to investigate, explore and learn. And if freedom was the heart of the Enlightenment, then a belief in mankind’s potential, a hope for a new and better world and a drive to pursue education were its lifeblood.

The Arrival of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment came to German lands through war and peace. French culture had long been idealised throughout Europe and leaders such as Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786, pictured) were keen to import some of the French style and finesse. Frederick filled his court with French intellectuals, many of whom brought Enlightenment thinking with them. And, where the nobility leads, the middle classes will follow. Soon, the Enlightenment became a core topic of conversation in drawing rooms, libraries and universities up and down the country.

Napoleon’s determination to conquer all of Europe also brought some of the ideals of the Enlightenment by force. As the Napoleonic Wars encroached into German territories, the Napoleonic Code came with them. This Code enshrined the rights and obligations of men, and established the principle of the rule of law. It espoused many Enlightenment ideals, such as the equality of men, regardless of birth or religion.

Enlightenment and the Arts

The German Enlightenment cannot be discussed without reference to the philosopher Immanuel Kant (pictured). His 1784 essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? is one of the defining works on this subject. In it, he summed up the meaning and significance of the Enlightenment, stressing that it was open to all men who had the courage to pursue their own convictions and knowledge. Kant’s work highlights that the Enlightenment was an era of discovery and exploration, not only of the physical world, but also of the capabilities and potential of man.

There were also a number of writers who were influenced by the Enlightenment. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s writings, for example, are known for their appeals for tolerance, freedom and morality. It was also during this time that the German language was recognised as a literary language in its own right.

Enlightenment and Society

The Enlightenment shaped society as well as arts and culture. This is most clearly shown through the concept of Enlightened Despotism. Enlightened Despotism advocated a strong, rational and, therefore, enlightened ruler. It was argued that this was the most effective way to govern a country. Although Enlightened Despotism was not unique to the German lands, and was popular with many European monarchs, Frederick the Great (mentioned previously) took the idea to heart.

In addition, the concept of Bildung grew out of the German Enlightenment. When translated directly, Bildung means education and learning, but its actual meaning is much more comprehensive. Although a well-stocked bookcase was the mark of a gentleman, of a man who was gebildet, he also had to have something more. He had to have a strong moral character and a sense of duty to his country. Bildung was as much about citizenship as it was about books.


The German term for the Enlightenment is Aufklärung. In the German, this word implies not only a lighting up of the world, but also a sense of something becoming clear. To those caught up in the spirit and excitement of the Enlightenment, it was as though a fog was lifted. The world was brighter, clearer. To them, it must have seemed as if the days of darkness, ignorance and superstition, were finally being consigned to the history books. The world was coming alive, mankind was reaching its maturity and the heights of human potential were growing day by day.

Of course, this is not to say that the heights were always reached, that potential was always met, or that these new ideas were accessible to all. For all the free and equal ideals put forward during this age, it must be remembered that the ideals did not always translate into reality. Nevertheless, the Enlightenment – regardless of when it began or when it ended – marks a shift in the social, political, literary and philosophical landscape of the German lands.

And after the Enlightenment, nothing was ever the same again.

Mallory Russell

See also Mallory’s articles on the Spartacus Uprising, the Battle of Cable Street, the German Revolution and the Russian and Soviet concept of the ‘New People’.

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  1. Whereas Marx offered a theory of capitalism, Weber’s work was fundamentally a theory of the process of rationalization. Rationalization is the process whereby universally applied rules, regulations, and laws come to dominate more and more sectors of society on the model of a bureaucracy. Weber argued that in the Western world rational-legal systems of authority squeezed out traditional authority systems, rooted in beliefs, and charismatic authority, systems based on the extraordinary qualities of a leader. His historical studies of religion are dedicated to showing why rational-legal forms took hold in the West but not elsewhere. Weber’s reformist views and academic style were better received than Marx’s radicalism in sociology. Sociologists also appreciated Weber’s well-rounded approach to the social world.

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