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German Expressionism Collection

This guide provides a listing of materials available in the Maryland Room relating to the German Expressionism movement.

German Expressionism

German Expressionism is a cultural movement that is challenging to define as it is not distinguished by a singular style or method of creation, but rather is better described by both the mindset of the artist creating the work and the generation he or she lived in. The German Expressionists were artists, writers, and thinkers who were of age in Germany prior to World War II, and lived during Wilhelm II’s reign. German Expressionism developed as a result of the younger generation’s reaction against the bourgeois culture of Germany during this time period.

While German Expressionism is generally considered to be a pre-World War II movement, it came back into fashion in some circles after the war ended. The German Expressionist movement was more than just a style of creating works of art or of telling a story, rather it was more of a mindset that had social, cultural, and political aspects. German Expressionism can be understood as a means of approaching life and, in particular, change. A number of Expressionists shared the “belief that literature was capable of effecting profound changes in society.”[1] German Expressionist literature frequently focused on the individual and his or her role in the story being told. The Expressionists sought to “arouse man against his temporal masters by constantly reminding him of his inalienable humanity.”[2] German Expressionism was an all-encompassing movement that “extended into more areas of human intellectual endeavor, its adherents participating in agitation for and implementation of change in politics, economics, social structures, publishing, music, film, theatre, architecture, painting and literature.”[3]

The significance of German Expression is in its ephemeral nature. Many of the publications that resulted from the movement were serials printed on cheap paper or items that were burned in the later half of the 1930s. The movement as a whole was transitional, and it reflected German culture in that moment of change. The movement did not last an especially long time, and started to fade out as its artists and writers aged. Expressionism has been described as a “movement of young people.”[4] This is supported in that as the people who created Expressionist works grew older, a good number of them “ceased to write.”[5] Expressionism was a movement that bridged the time between Wilhelm II’s reign and the start of World War II. As the National Socialists gained power in Germany, Expressionism was rejected and condemned, and many of the works produced in the style of the movement were burned and destroyed.

Even though Expressionism is frequently considered to be an art movement, German Expressionists included novelists, poets, and playwrights in addition to artists. The German Expressionist collection housed in Hornbake Library’s great strength is the literary aspect of the movement. The collection is a mix of serials and monographs of arts journals, political journals, novels, and plays.

German Expressionism is linked to a number of other contemporary movements whose goals were overturning traditional society. These movements all shared a desire to bring about changes in society, frequently with a focus on overcoming the bourgeois class and the strength of the individual. Expressionism itself, especially since it has been placed within the context of Modernism, is hard to specifically differentiate and so it does have a number of connections to other movements of its time. The Expressionists from the beginning “were divided into two groups: one which was metaphysically inclined and one in which political action and expediency predominated.”[6] These two groupings were widespread enough that over time, German Expression has been grouped in with German Modernism.[7] This form of Expressionism also shared ideas with and was influenced by Futurism, Dada, and other Expressionist movements.


[1] Gruber, Helmut, “The Political-Ethical Mission of German Expressionism,” The German Quarterly, 40:2 (1967), 187.

[2] Klarmann, Adolf D. "Expressionism In German Literature: A Retrospect of a Half Century." Modern Language Quarterly 26.1 (1965): 70.

[3] Boorman, Helen, “Rethinking the Expressionist Era; Willhelmine Cultural Debates and Prussian Elements in German Expressionism,” Oxford Art Journal, 9:2 (1986), 3.

[4] Klarmann, Adolf D. "Expressionism In German Literature: A Retrospect of a Half Century." Modern Language Quarterly 26.1 (1965): 79.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Klarmann, Adolf D. "Expressionism In German Literature: A Retrospect of a Half Century." Modern Language Quarterly 26.1 (1965): 74.

[7] Donahue, Neil H., “Introduction,” A Companion to the Literature of German Expressionism, Camden House: New York, 2005, 9.