The lesser known sides of Goethe | Books | DW | 12.12.2016
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The lesser known sides of Goethe

He was a lawyer, a scientist and a theater manager, just to name a few of Goethe's hats. On the 70th anniversary of the Goethe dictionary, we look at why Germany's most famous writer was about more than just words.

If you just take a look at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's (1749-1832) literary oeuvre, you'd come to the conclusion that he was a pretty smart guy. After all, he's considered one of the most significant German writers of all time. His repertoire includes everything from plays and poems to autobiographical texts. Even his extensive correspondence is considered to have literary significance.

As was typical for a well-situated family in the 18th century, Goethe had received an extensive education with private teachers. In his social class, the young Goethe wasn't able to freely choose his profession, but had to follow the wishes of his father, so he studied law in Leizpig and Strasbourg. After that, he worked as a lawyer in Wetzlar and Frankfurt.

But little by little, his true calling took over and his passion for poetry became his full-time job. His play "Götz von Berlichingen," published in 1773, became his first big success and he received rave reviews from the literary world.

International success with 'Faust'

Goethe's fame spread across Europe the following year with his novel "Die Leiden des jungen Werthers" (The Sorrows of Young Werther). It is a tragic tale of a man who falls in love with a woman who is already engaged to someone else and ends with the protagonist's suicide. The story was based on the real experiences of a friend of Goethe's in Wetzlar.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's literary talent culminated in his masterpiece, "Faust" (1808). The main character, who Goethe called Heinrich Faust, was based on a respected scholar named Johann Georg Faust, who lived at the beginning of the modern era.

In Goethe's tale, Faust is a deeply unhappy person who makes a deal with the devil - which leads to fatal consequences and surprising realizations. Goethe turned his Faust into a symbol for the trend of aimlessness he observed in the early 19th century.

"Faust" is considered the most significant work in German literature and it brought Goethe international renown even during his lifetime. In the 21st century, Goethe's poems, plays and novels continue to be required reading in schools and are seen as literary pillars.

More than just a writer

Seventy years ago, on December 12, 1946, the first Goethe dictionary was published - a lexicon delineating the ideals of Weimar Classicism and Goethe's extraordinary use of language.

The writer's literary successes are so conspicuous, that his other accomplishments are easily overlooked. Goethe was a man of many talents.

Not only did he make noteworthy contributions to the natural sciences, but he  brought innovations to Weimar during his years as a public administrator. He was fascinated by foreign cultures and passionate about managing, performing in and writing for the theater.

Click through the gallery above for an overview of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's numerous accomplishments and areas of interest.


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