World Class Drama - The Short Life of Georg Büchner

'Lenz' by Georg Buechner Rehearsal
One of Buechner's great Dramas. Christian Marquardt-Getty Images

Georg Büchner was a lot of things, but he is known best for his dramas such as Danton’s Tod (Danton’s Death), Leonce und Lena and Woyzeck. In his short life of only 23 years, he managed to write a handful of world-class dramas, practiced medicine, did research in the natural sciences, and was a full-blown revolutionary.

In Germany, he is seen as one of the most important writers of the so-called “Vormärz” (pre-March), a historical period referring to the years ahead of the 1848 revolution. One instantly wonders, what he might have become, had he not died at the age of 23.

Age of Revolution

Georg Büchner was born in 1813 in the Grand Duchy of Hesse. In the beginning of the 19th century, Germany was still divided into many autonomous kingdoms and duchies. A few years prior, Napoleon had managed to conquer almost all of Europe. The defeated Germans were demoralized but seeds of nationalism and revolution had been planted deep into the soil. As Napoleon lost his expansionist war against Russia, the nationalist spirits rose in the German territories. His empire began to fall and Germany witnessed the beginning of the long prelude to the revolution of 1848. It was this age of revolution that Georg Büchner was born into –though the social structure in the Grand Duchy of Hesse was very aristocratic and authoritarian.

 He was shaped by his humanistic education and followed in his father’s footsteps to become a physician. During his studies in Strasbourg and Giessen, he became more and more concerned about political freedom and his views radicalized increasingly.

While studying in Strasbourg, he secretly was engaged to Wilhelmine Jaeglé, who remained his fiancé until his death in 1937.

In Giessen, he founded a secret society which had the goal to eventually overthrow the powers that be. Büchner strongly believed that the material inequality and poverty in the rural population were major problems that could not be solved by supporting the ruling class.

His first truly notable publication was a political pamphlet. “Der Hessische  Landbote (The Hessian Courier)” was released and secretly distributed on July 31st, 1934. The illegal flyer carried the famous slogan “Friede den Hütten, Krieg den Palästen! (Peace for the Huts, Wage war on the Palaces!)” and informed the rural population of Hesse that their well-earned money was used to finance the pompous expenditure of the Duchy’s court.

Exile, Death, and High Productivity

As a result of his revolutionary actions, Georg Büchner had to flee the Grand Duchy of Hesse. While under investigation, he swiftly wrote his famous play “Danton’s Tod (Danton’s Death)”. Originally written to finance his escape, the play about the failure of the French Revolution was first published when he had already fled to Strasbourg in March of 1935, financed by his parents. As Büchner didn’t heed a subpoena, he was wanted by law enforcement and had to rush out of Hesse. A few months after his arrival in exile, he translated two plays by Victor Hugo (Lucretia Borgia and Maria Tudor) into German and later wrote the narration “Lenz”.

In this period of enormously high productivity, Büchner also spent time on his science research. He systematically researched the nervous system of the Common Barbel and other fish and finally wrote his dissertation on the topic. He was later accepted into the “Gesellschaft für Naturwissenschaft (Society for Natural Sciences)” in Strasbourg. In the first half of 1936, he created “Leonce und Lena”. He wrote the piece for a literary contest but missed the deadline. The play came back unread and was actually premiered more than 60 years after its creation.

Later that year, Büchner moved to Zurich where he was awarded the doctorate in philosophy and became a private lecturer at the university. He taught the anatomy of fish and amphibious life forms. He had already started his most famous play, “Woyzeck”, in Strasbourg. Büchner brought the manuscript with him to Zurich but never finished his work. In early 1937, he fell ill with typhoid fever and passed away on February 19th.

All of his dramas are still played in German theatres. His work inspired numerous musicians and operas. The most important German literary award is named after Georg Büchner.