Stefan George (1868-1933) was one of the foremost German poets around the turn of the 20th century. George himself and the circles of people around him exerted considerable influence over the German intellectual scene of their time. While some credit him with the renewal of German as a literary language, others criticize him for his alleged intolerance in interpersonal relations and his ambiguous politics. As mentor of the brothers Stauffenberg, George had a decisive influence on the most remarkable act of resistance against National Socialism, the coup attempt of 20 July 1944.
Perhaps George’s most unusual work is Der Stern des Bundes. The book appeared only weeks before the beginning of World War I and was taken by many soldiers onto the battlefield. A powerful, personal, decisive encounter with an extraordinary figure serves as the starting point for subsequent critiques of lethargy and stubborn isolation in personal life and of a society characterized by excess and the absence of gratitude and humility. An alternative sphere is established in the dialogue between two friends who enter a mystical union. Their covenant makes them see wonders of the world that had been obstructed before. The third section of the volume concerns itself with ways in which the covenant can be extended to encompass ever more people without being codified and thus turned into a system. The volume concludes in an optimistic vein and with a sense of a community successfully established.
Throughout his life, George’s poetic ambition and achievements led him to be a dedicated mentor of his friends and of people who sought his proximity. George also encouraged or supervised the publication of seminal works by members of his circle, such as Gundolf’s best-selling Goethe biography and Ernst Kantorowicz’s groundbreaking study of the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II. George’s ambition was to educate and to consciously continue a German and European intellectual tradition. At the heart of these attempts is his poetic oeuvre. Hardly any of his interpersonal relationships can be comprehended without close examination of the poetry that precedes, accompanies, or follows it. George’s critical attitude towards key aspects of social, intellectual, economic and literary modernity is anchored in, and legitimized by, his creative efforts.
In 2007, an international, inter-disciplinary group was formed with the aim of examining Stefan George’s poetry and other aspects of his legacy in light of contemporary aesthetic, social, and philosophical challenges. The group sought to establish a basis for an exploration of wider political implications of George’s works. In order to assess them, various sub-groups of the George circle and later incarnations thereof were also studied, an endeavor which in many cases involved substantial archival research. Four conferences and smaller meetings were held, the results of which were made available in two book publications comprising a total of 30 essays. The group was convened by Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Bertram Schefold and Bruno Pieger. Characteristic of the group’s work was the unusual scope of disciplines represented, ranging from Philosophy through Literary Studies of various languages, Classics, Economics, Political Science, Sociology, and History to Constitutional Law. At their meetings, considerable time was devoted to discussion. Vertical integration was an ongoing concern of the group, and students regularly received opportunities to present their work, and were encouraged to contribute to discussions.
Among the important results of the groups works are a study of George’s influences on economic theory, a study of the reception of George’s poetics by constitutional lawyers, a re-evaluation of George’s relationship with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, studies on Martin Heidegger’s and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s reception of George, new insights into George’s contribution to German-Jewish dialogue, comprehensive analyses of some of George’s seminal poems, and archival work on the papers of various members or associates of the George circle.
The present project comprised a similar range of disciplines. The scholarly backdrop against which the group carried out its work program is characterised by decades of controversy around George’s works. Acknowledging the contributions made by successive generations of scholars, the study group focused on only one of Stefan George’s books, his Stern des Bundes. The book explicitly invites the reader to consider the status of a poem as poem, thus establishing a clear frame for a discussion of its own relevance and implications. Quite exceptionally for a volume of poetry, it addresses, in considerable detail, both erotic encounters between two friends and issues related to the constitutional basis of a larger community. The book provides differentiated answers to what are, evidently, very different problems while still viewing them – their implications as much as their limitations – from the single vantage point. In light of the intense contemporary disuccions about both the possibility of a stable union of friends and the foundations of our European polity, George’s work as poetic project – as unorthodox as it is sophisticated – received the Study Group’s careful scrutiny.
Members of the study group first identified poems that, from the perspective of their own discipline, seemed the most pertinent, and offered an in-depth analysis in light of their own field’s key concepts. In a second step these findings were brought to bear on larger groups of poems and the whole volume. Thereby, the less-than-obvious substantive coherence of the volume came into focus, in readings that called into question the boundaries of individual disciplines. Exploring the various possible relationships between poetry, philosophy and human action and interaction became the focal point of the group’s research.
The group’s work resulted in a comprehensive collection of essays and interpretations, published by Klostermann and widely reviewed.