Gestures of Community: Reading Hölderlin with Benjamin, Landauer, and Rosenzweig

Walter Benjamin, Gustav Landauer, and Franz Rosenzweig’s engagement with Friedrich Hölderlin contains striking reflections on what might be meant by political community—especially during the last years of the German Kaiserreich, the upheavals of the First World War, and the volatile Weimar years. These reformulations are nourished by a unique confluence of social and historical factors. Hölderlin’s own so-called Hesperian turn has long been read as an expression of a certain national self-consciousness; a fact that garnered renewed importance during the first half of the 20th century (for instance in the praise that Hölderlin received by members of the George circle in the context of the late Wilhelmine ‘Augusterlebnis,’ or in the National-Socialist valorisation of the poet, which included vulgarised readings of Martin Heidegger’s formative seminars on Hölderlin from the 1930s). For Benjamin, Landauer, and Rosenzweig, by contrast, Hölderlin as a prophet of national renewal stands in tension with the dissolution of traditional poetic forms in his late writings. This dissolution gestures towards new forms of community beyond conventional conceptions of Volk and Nation—be it for the young Benjamin, whose 1915 essay Two Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin marked a break with the pro-war German student movement; or the mature Landauer, who cited Hölderlin even during his involvement in the short-lived 1919 Munich Council Republic; or Rosenzweig, who referenced Hölderlin in his expressions of disappointment with the political developments during the Weimar era.

Hölderlin—who had himself written at a time when the concept of ‘Germanien’ was being renegotiated—became an opportunity for Benjamin, Landauer, and Rosenzweig to confront their own political present. Moreover, their readings were decisively shaped by differing, yet highly singular relationships to Judaism—a Judaism that, for its part, was characterized by an estrangement from traditional religious practices as well as a deep knowledge of German culture in the period around 1800.

By drawing on the reception of the poet Friedrich Hölderlin by German-Jewish commentators during the ‘short’ 20th century, the project thus considers the role of literature within the reimagination of political community.


Fig. above: Franz Karl Hiemer: Friedrich Hölderlin, Pastel 1792 (original image). Source: Wikimedia.

Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2021–2023
Head researcher(s): Sebastian Truskolaski