Käte Hamburger

Käte Hamburger

Käte Hamburger, philologist, philosopher and literary theorist, was the first woman to gain a post-doctorate degree in German literary studies. Her paper “The Logic of Literature” became a standard of narratology and gained international acclaim. Käte Hamburger’s work is characterised by its great diversity of methods and themes. Her studies on Goethe, Jean Paul, Novalis, Rahel Varnhagen, Rilke, Tolstoy, Ibsen and Thomas Mann decisively influenced the literary studies of the post-war period. By also engaging across disciplines with philosophical and aesthetic issues, the relationship between literature and ethics, contemporary theatre and the new medium of film, Käte Hamburger repeatedly went beyond the limits of her subject. As a committed humanist and proponent of enlightenment she countered the dehumanisation of Western culture and the political mythification of the “German fate” with reasoned, historically well-founded and at the same time highly sophisticated analyses.
Against this background, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the panel of experts made the decision to name the “International Collegia for Research in the Humanities” after Käte Hamburger.

Käte Hamburger – Her Life

Born on 21 September 1896 to Jewish parents in Hamburg, Käte Hamburger studied philosophy, literature, history and art history in Berlin and Munich. She gained her doctorate in philosophy in 1922 with a thesis entitled “Schillers Analyse des Menschen als Grundlegung seiner Kultur- und Geschichtsphilosophie” under the supervision of Clemens Baeumker. In the following years, her efforts to gain a post-doctorate degree at the University of Hamburg failed due to anti-Semitic opposition. In 1928 she returned to Berlin to work with her fiancé, the philosopher Paul Hofmann. Her paper “Novalis und die Mathematik, eine Studie zur Erkenntnistheorie der Romantik” received widespread attention due to its fundamentally new interpretation of romanticism. In 1932, Käte Hamburger met Thomas Mann. The following year, she published the monograph “Thomas Mann and Romanticism”, which was destroyed by the publishing company just a few months after it had appeared. Käte Hamburger fled to Dijon and a year later emigrated to Göteborg with the help of Swedish friends. Her mother was also able to emigrate to Sweden; her father had died in Hamburg in 1930. During her 22 years of exile, Käte Hamburger worked prolifically as a journalist and published several literary studies on Tolstoy, Schiller, Thomas Mann and others in Swedish. Although she assumed Swedish citizenship in 1945, an academic career was also denied her in her new home country.

At the instigation of philologist and former NSDAP member Fritz Martini, Käte Hamburger returned to Germany in the autumn of 1956; the following year, at the age of 61, she was awarded a post-doctoral degree by the Technische Hochschule Stuttgart for her work “The Logic of Literature”. She herself considered her time in Sweden, and in particular the German lessons she gave during this period, an important prerequisite for her main work: “It seems to me that had I not given those grammar lessons, I might never have written my book The Logic of Literature.” As according to the German Civil Service Act she was too old for a full professorship, in 1959 she was at the age of 63 awarded an extraordinary professorship in Stuttgart with a remuneration that she herself ironically referred to as a “gratuity”. In the course of “Wiedergutmachung”, the German government’s restitution for victims of Nazi persecution, she was also compensated with a “small pension”. She continued teaching until the age of 80. Her final publications include “Das Mitleid” (Stuttgart, 1985) and “Ibsens Drama in seiner Zeit” (Stuttgart, 1989).
Käte Hamburger was awarded the Schiller Memorial Prize (1989), honorary doctorates of the Universities of Siegen (1980) and Göttingen (1989), the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1966), the Verdienstmedaille (Medal of Merit) of the state of Baden-Württemberg (1984), and the Stuttgarter Bürgermedaille (Stuttgart Citizens’ Medal). She died on 8 April 1992 at the age of 96.

Selected works

Schillers Analyse des Menschen als Grundlegung seiner Geschichts- und Kulturphilosophie (Diss. Phil.), Munich 1922.
Leo Tolstoi, Gestalt und Problem, Bern: Francke 1950 (2nd ed. 1963 [Kleine Vandenhoeck-Reihe]).
Die Logik der Dichtung (The Logic of Literature), Stuttgart: Klett 1957.
Philosophie der Dichter. Novalis-Schiller-Rilke, Stuttgart: Kolhammer, 1966.
Kleine Schriften (Stuttgarter Arbeiten zur Germanistik 25), Stuttgart: Heinz, 1976 (2nd ed.: Kleine Schriften zur Literatur- und Geistesgeschichte 1986).
Rilke. Eine Einführung, Stuttgart: Klett 1976.
Wahrheit und Ästhetische Wahrheit, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 1979.
Thomas Manns biblisches Werk: der Joseph-Roman, die Moses-Erzählung “Das Gesetz”, Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer 1984.
Das Mitleid, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 1985.
Ibsens Drama in seiner Zeit, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 1989.

Further reading

Bossinade, Johanna / Schaser, Angelika (eds.), Käte Hamburger. Zur Aktualität einer Klassikerin (Querelles 8), Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2003.
Dane, Gesa, Käte Hamburger (1896–1992), in: Wissenschaftsgeschichte der Germanistik in Porträts (eds. Christoph König / Hans-Harald Müller / Werner Röcke), Berlin, New York: De Gruyter 2000, 189–198.
Domenghino, Caroline, Käte Hamburger’s Logik der Dichtung in Contemporary Narrative Theory, in: Monatshefte für deutschsprachige Literatur 100 (2008), 25–32.
Kreuzer, Helmut / Kühnel Jürgen (eds.), Käte Hamburger Aufsätze und Gedichte zu ihren Themen und Thesen. Zum 90. Geburtstag, Siegen: Universität-Gesamthochschule 1986.
Mayer, Hans, Käte Hamburger, in: ders. Der Widerruf. Über Deutsche und Juden, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1994, 244–269.
Müssener, Helmut, Exil in Schweden. Politische und kulturelle Emigration nach 1933, München: Hanser 1974.
Turk, Horst, Re-Readings – New Readings / (Wieder)Gelesen – Neu Gelesen: Käte Hamburger, in: Monatshefte für deutschsprachige Literatur 100 (2008), 17-24.