Fantasies of the Origin and Dreams of Breeding: Darwinism in German and Austrian Literature around 19001

Peter Sprengel


A reckoning with Darwin’s theory of evolution and the conclusions derived from it by the Jena biologist Ernst Haeckel, left significant traces in the writings of several generations of German-language authors around 1900. While the milieu of Bourgeois Realism is primarily shocked at the thesis of the “struggle of existence” and the newly asserted “ape kinship,” representatives of naturalism foreground their satisfaction with the connectedness of the human with the entire world—under the sign of monism—and with the valorization of natural sexuality. The teleological view of evolutionary history cultivated here also leads to different perspectives on the “breeding” of a “new-” or “superman,” as was formulated philosophically primarily by Nietzsche, and in literature most markedly by Lasswitz (and in 1933 by Benn). Yet such optimistic hopes for the future are later met with profound skepticism: already in Nietzsche’s thought, in the poetry of later modernism, and even in the late works of Hauptmann. This skepticism clarifies the longing, dominant in Expressionism, for regression back to early stages of development, as well as the vision of a new barbarism, which is related in Döblin’s novel Mountains, Seas and Giants to horrific ideas of new forms of breeding and hybrid beings. (PS; in German)

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