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Georg Büchner was recently proposed as a topic challenge for Lit.SE, and both that proposal and his Wikipedia page concur that he is considered an important figure in the history of German literature, despite living for less than 24 years.

Why is he considered so important? Is it because of social commentary in his works (I notice some of them concern social injustice, satirise the nobility, or examine the working classes) that had some influence in real society, or his writing style inspiring many other authors in a particular way of writing, or what? Neither the meta answer nor Wikipedia really explain this.

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Büchner died when he was not even twenty-three and a half years old, at an age when Goethe hadn't written any of his famous works (not even Götz von Berlichingen or Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) and Shakespeare had probably not yet written his first plays. In the three years during which he was active as an author, he created works that were ahead of their time and that didn't begin to be appreciated until five decades later.

His first work, the political pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote (1834), combined Biblical language with statistical data in a way that had not been done before [Seidel 69]. (Both Biblical language and statistics had been used before in pamphlets, but the way in which Büchner combined them was new.) It is the most significant [Knapp 88] and most famous German political pamphlet of the early 19th century and the only example that many works on German history cite. It was published during a period in which the freedom of the press had been almost entirely eliminated and political associations prohibited as a response to the Hambacher Fest of May 1832 [Hauschild 35, Seidel 48]. The political pamphlet led to a wave of arrests of people who had been involved in its production and circulation. (Due to the presence of informers, around 50 people were arrested [Hauschild 79, Seidel 84].) Friedrich Ludwig Weidig (1797–1837), who edited and printed the pamphlet, died in prison in 1837 [Seidel 84, 108]. August Becker, who had circulated it, was in prison until he received a pardon in 1839 [Knapp 23]. Karl Minnigerode was released from prison for health reasons in 1837 and received a pardon in 1839 on the condition he emigrated to the USA [Knapp 23]. Merely being in the possession of the pamphlet was enough to warrant arrest; in fact, most copies were directly handed over to the police [Johann 71]. Büchner himself barely escaped arrest and went into exile in Strasbourg in France. Even though Weidig softened the language, the pamphlet still went beyond other pamphlets from Hesse and southern Germany from the same period [Knapp 77].

One of Büchner's literary creeds, which he expressed in a letter dated 28 July 1835, was that authors should present history as it actually happened and should not present the facts as neither more nor less decent / morally acceptable than they were. The poet is not a moralist. [Johann 111–112] Büchner rejected the idealism that he found in Schiller's work for example, and considered Shakespeare a much better example. He was also convinced of the "fatalism of history", which he expressed in the so-called "fatalism letter" from January 1834. Individuals could support to attempt to slow down historical events such as the French Revolution (about which Büchner read a lot) but could not determine its outcomes. As Danton says in Büchner's first play, people hadn't made the French Revolution, the Revolution had made them. For this reason, Büchner rejected all hero worship. Even great historical figures were also just flesh and blood and not an incarnation of what Hegel called the Weltgeist. [Johann 86–88, Seidel 70–71]

Danton's Tod, written in early 1835, is one of the most controversially evaluated plays in world literature [Hauschild 68, Seidel 106]. According to Hauschild, it is not so much individual innovations that constitute the play's originality but the way in which Büchner combines various traditions [Hauschild 66]. The play does not have a plot in the conventional sense; instead, the characters are fully formed from the outset and represent various political and psychological positions [Seidel 95]. From the beginning of the play, Danton expresses Büchner's fatalistic view of history; in act 2, scene 5 he says that people are puppets on a string and moved by unknown forces. According to Joachim Hagner, Danton's Tod was ahead of its time and it is exactly those features that contemporaries couldn't handle that ensure its later success. One of Büchner's techniques is the centon or cento, i.e. the reuse of quotations and linguistic resources from other historical sources that are not necessarily related with each other [Knapp 100, 102]. Büchner does not simply copy and paste; the way he uses his sources always constitutes critique [Knapp 91]. Due to the way Büchner uses quotations and allusions, Danton's Tod is his least accessible play for modern audiences [Knapp 93]. Another characteristic is the dismantling of the traditional concept of the "scene" as means of developing action, a process that had started in German literature with Lenz and Goethe [Knapp 102]. It is also the first work in German literature in which a prostitute (Marion) is presented without moral prejudice [Johann 96]. The play was first performed in Germany in 1902 [Hauschild 77]

Lenz was published posthumously in 1839, but readers did not know what to do with this prose text from an author they knew only as a dramatist [Johann 135]. Büchner looked for new ways to represent states of mind. Its style deviates so strongly from contemporary conventions that scholars debated for a long time to what extent the prose text was finished and wondered what the sources was of the characteristics that seemed to announce impressionism, naturalism and expressionism [Seidel 116]. It wasn't until the beginning of expressionism around 1890 that authors began to see that Büchner had written one of the most important prose texts of modern literature [Seidel 120]. Arnold Zweig wrote in 1923 that Lenz was the beginning of "modern European prose" [quoted in Knapp 134]. Ernst Johann describes it as the most matter-of-fact and meticulous description of a person's decline into madness in German literature [Johann 139; see also Dedner 105–108 quoting the author Arnold Zweig]. The matter-of-fact description has been praised also by others, e.g. in Gerhard Irle's Der psychiatrische Roman (1965, cited in Hauschild 92). Irle described Lenz as an early study of schizophrenia [see excerpt from Der psychiatrische Roman in Dedner 110–120]. Büchner's prose text went well beyond the contemporary discourse about mental health, both the literary discourse (in works such as Goethe's Werther and Wilhelm Waiblinger's Friedrich Hölderlin’s Leben) and the academic literature. Büchner rejected the contemporary academic view that regarded mental illness as a moral issue [Knapp 141–142, who points out that torturing mental patients was still common in the 19th century].

The comedy Leonce und Lena is a critique both of the late absolutist political situation in Germany and of Romantic literary conventions [Seidel 128]. For a long time, scholars were uncertain in their judgement of the play, which did not fit into the realism of Büchner's other works. It was not until the 1970s that scholars realised that Büchner combined Romantic motifs and patterns in a highly original way, e.g. Weltschmerz, the search of one's self, travel, romantic love and Todessehnsucht (longing for death). It also contains literary citations and allusions, so much so that citation and allusion are constitutive elements in the play [Knapp 155].

Woyzeck The main character is the first plebeian or proletarian main character in a German play (outside comedy) [Hauschild 112, Seidel 135], Knapp 178]; previously, proleterians had at best been supporting parts in comedies. The proletarians Woyzeck and Marie are not presented as grotesque or ridiculous but as victims of those who are social superior to them and who exploit them. For Henri Poschmann, this constitutes a "Copernican revolution" in literature which did not influence other authors for several decades [Poschmann 129]. For Gerhard Knapp, the combined effect of language, gaze and physical actions goes beyond naturalism and is already modernist. Woyzeck was first performed on stage in 1913. Elias Canetti considered Woyzeck "the greatest play in German literature" [quoted in Poschmann 151]. Other authors who admired Büchner's work include Rainer Maria Rilke, Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Adamov (a representative of the theatre of the absurd), Gerhart Hauptmann (naturalism), Frank Wedekind, Ernst Toller (expressionism), Ödön von Horváth and Heiner Müller [Poschman 151–152].


References

  • Büchner, Georg: Danton's Tod. Mit einem Kommentar und Anhang von Joachim Hagner. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007.
  • Büchner, Georg: Lenz. Neu hergestellt, kommentiert und mit zahlreichen Materialien versehen von Burghard Dedner. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998.
  • Büchner, Georg: Leonce und Lena. Mit einem Kommentar von Barbara Potthast und Alexander Reck. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2011.
  • Büchner, Georg: Woyzeck. Mit einem Kommentar von Henri Poschmann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008.
  • Hauschild, Jan-Christoph: Georg Büchner mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1992. (Short biography)
  • Johann, Ernst: Georg Büchner in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1958. (Short biography)
  • Knapp, Gerhard: Georg Büchner. Third, revised edition. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2000. (Academic introduction into the state of research on Büchner.)
  • Martini, Fritz: Deutsche Literaturgeschichte. Sixteenth edition. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1972.
  • Seidel, Jürgen: Georg Büchner. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998. (Short biography)

Wikipedia articles referenced in the text were not used as sources.

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I will base this answer on what I remember from school - we discussed Büchner extensively, but then this was more than 30 years ago. So this will be a stand-in until somebody more knowledgable gives a better answer.

Politically, Büchner is important because he lived, and actively took part in, auspicious times. This is now known as the "Vormärz" (pre-march), the time before the abortive March revolution of 1848. Despite the reforms forced by the Napoleonic occupation Germany was not a unified state. Politically interested Germans, who had come to learn about the ideals of the French revolution, started to dream of a united German national state. The main factions where the Liberals, who imagined a constitutional monarchy with a strong middle class, and the Democrats, who placed a lot more emphasis on equality for all the state's subjects. Either way, this was a direct challenge to the power of regional potentates, and the would-be revolutionaries suffered political persecution.

Büchner belonged to the Democratic faction. His "Hessischer Landbote" was not nilly-willy social criticism, even in the heavily edited form it was eventually published in it was quite literally a declaration of war upon feudal power (after all it proclaimed "war upon the palaces"). The idea of a united German state with its citizens as sovereign was progressive to a point where basically every established German power tried to stop it, and Büchner was a preeiminent voice of that idea (which, incidentally, is now enshrined as a founding principle in the German constitution).

As far as form is concerned, he was important because he dispensed with the romanticism of his time in favor of social realism, replaced stylized with colloquial language and featured lower-class characters (supporting in "Danton's Death", main character in "Woyzeck") who where not comic relief, but psychologically fully fleshed out (Büchner was, after all, a trained scientist, although in anatomy and medicine rather than psychology; still, I guess that is how he honed his observational skills).

Having said that, there is a certain romantic aura that surrounds the person of Büchner himself. He was, after all, a brave, youthful rebel who eloquently took on the ruling powers, and had nothing but an early death to show for it - a sort of Kurt Cobain of his time, even if that was obviously not a sentiment from his contemporaries. He has also the rare advantage (for a writer who is taught in schools) that he is quite appealing to young people - "I feel crushed under the horrible fatalism of history" is a sentiment every teenager can relate to who ever thought that they could build a better world by next Tuesday, if those pesky old people would not get in the way all the time.

His work is also accessible because it is short (you can read all of the collected Büchner in a couple of days) and internally consistent - Büchner did not live long enough to revise any of his opinions, and there are not two diametrically opposed phases (no "Sturm und Drang" vs. "classic Büchner") that are hardly reconcilable.

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