1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gervinus, Georg Gottfried

GERVINUS, GEORG GOTTFRIED (1805–1871), German literary and political historian, was born on the 20th of May 1805 at Darmstadt. He was educated at the gymnasium of the town, and intended for a commercial career, but in 1825 he became a student of the university of Giessen. In 1826 he went to Heidelberg, where he attended the lectures of the historian Schlosser, who became henceforth his guide and his model. In 1828 he was appointed teacher in a private school at Frankfort-on-Main, and in 1830 Privatdozent at Heidelberg. A volume of his collected Historische Schriften procured him the appointment of professor extraordinarius; while the first volume of his Geschichte der poëtischen Nationallitteratur der Deutschen (1835–1842, 5 vols., subsequently entitled Geschichte der deutschen Dichtung; 5th edition, by K. Bartsch, 1871–1874) brought him the appointment to a regular professorship of history and literature at Göttingen. This work is the first comprehensive history of German literature written both with scholarly erudition and literary skill. In the following year he wrote his Grundzüge der Historik, which is perhaps the most thoughtful of his philosophico-historical productions. The same year brought his expulsion from Göttingen in consequence of his manly protest, in conjunction with six of his colleagues, against the unscrupulous violation of the constitution by Ernest Augustus, king of Hanover and duke of Cumberland. After several years in Heidelberg, Darmstadt and Rome, he settled permanently in Heidelberg, where, in 1844, he was appointed honorary professor. He zealously took up in the following year the cause of the German Catholics, hoping it would lead to a union of all the Christian confessions, and to the establishment of a national church. He also came forward in 1846 as a patriotic champion of the Schleswig-Holsteiners, and when, in 1847, King Frederick William IV. promulgated the royal decree for summoning the so-called “United Diet” (Vereinigter Landtag), Gervinus hoped that this event would form the basis of the constitutional development of the largest German state. He founded, together with some other patriotic scholars, the Deutsche Zeitung, which certainly was one of the best-written political journals ever published in Germany. His appearance in the political arena secured his election as deputy for the Prussian province of Saxony to the National Assembly sitting in 1848 at Frankfort. Disgusted with the failure of that body, he retired from all active political life.

Gervinus now devoted himself to literary and historical studies, and between 1849 and 1852 published his work on Shakespeare (4 vols., 4th ed. 2 vols., 1872; Eng. trans. by F. E. Bunnett, 1863, new ed. 1877). He also revised his History of German Literature, for a fourth edition (1853), and began at the same time to plan his Geschichte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (8 vols., 1854–1860), which was preceded by an Einleitung in die Geschichte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (1853). The latter caused some stir in the literary and political world, owing to the circumstance that the government of Baden imprudently instituted a prosecution against the author for high treason. In 1868 appeared Händel und Shakespeare, zur Ästhetik der Tonkunst, in which he drew an ingenious parallel between his favourite poet and his favourite composer, showing that their intellectual affinity was based on the Teutonic origin common to both, on their analogous intellectual development and character. The ill-success of this publication, and the indifference with which the latter volumes of his History of the 19th Century were received by his countrymen, together with the feeling of disappointment that the unity of Germany had been brought about in another fashion and by other means than he wished to see employed, embittered his later years. He died at Heidelberg on the 18th of March 1871.

Gervinus’s autobiography (G. G. Gervinus’ Leben, von ihm selbst) was published by his widow in 1893. It does not, however, go beyond the year 1836. See E. Lehmann, Gervinus, Versuch einer Charakteristik (1871); R. Gosche, Gervinus (1871); J. Dörfel, Gervinus als historischer Denker (1904).