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Coordination team Heidelberg UNESCO City of Literature
Dr. Andrea Edel, Phillip Koban, Claudia Kramatschek, Stefan Kaumkötter
Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Heidelberg
Haspelgasse 12
69117 Heidelberg
Phone +49 6221 58-33000


Romantic Heidelberg. (Photo: Diemer)

Heidelberg’s literary legacy

A brief historical outline

One strong part of Heidelberg’s identity today consists of its literary heritage. The following timetable gives a brief overview of the climaxes and turning points, covering the last five hundred years. Literature has always played a large role in this city, just as it does today and will do in the future.

20th and 21st century

  • 2004: Hilde Domin is made honorary citizen of Heidelberg.
  • 1995: The German American Institute organizes the first poetry slam in Heidelberg.
  • 1992: Heidelberg Hip Hop group Advanced Chemistry releases its first disc.
  • 1970s: The left alternative scene in the Heidelberg student movement during the 1970s also sees a potential in literary creativity for social change. They want a “counter-public” instead of the middle class establishment, forged by a free, independent, alternative culture.
  • 1960s: The protest movement in the late sixties appears to deconstruct the “Myth of Heidelberg”.
  • 1949: Hans-Georg Gadamer is appointed Karl Jaspers’ successor in Heidelberg.
  • 1933-1945: The enforced ideological conformity that is swiftly imposed on the university by the National Socialists soon brings it the name of a “Nazi university”. Numerous students and lecturers are expelled for their political opinions or Jewish origins. Heidelberg also looks on as books are burned without compunction on 17 May 1933 on University Square. A plaque at the site now serves as a grave reminder.
  • 1926: The “Heidelberg Schlossfestspiele” opens for the first time.
  • 1920s: The operetta version, "The Student Prince" by Sigmund Romberg, becomes a sweeping success on Broadway in the 1920s and still enjoys great popularity. The myth of "old Heidelberg" had been invented—and however much it smells of kitsch it is also a facet of Heidelberg’s literary past.
  • 1918-1933: Heidelberg University is regarded as a stronghold of liberal, cosmopolitan thought, not least on account of professors such as Karl Jaspers, Gustav Radbruch and Alfred Weber, and becomes an intellectual magnet for scholars and students alike.
  • 1912 onwards: The much vaunted “Heidelberg spirit” is strongly connected in these years with another intellectual giant: the cultural sociologist Max Weber and his wife, the women’s rights campaigner Marianne Weber, open their doors each Sunday for open discussions between academics, writers and artists.
  • 1901: Wilhelm Meyer-Förster works the material into his play "Old Heidelberg", a bitter-sweet romance set in the Heidelberg student milieu which is premiered in November 1901 in Berlin.

19th century

  • 19th century: During the second half of the nineteenth century, the city is a Mecca for Russian learning and culture. Heidelberg becomes an intellectual centre for Russians abroad.
  • 1880: Heidelberg is discovered in the nineteenth century as a tourist destination. Mark Twain`s enthusiasm is reflected in his work "A Tramp Abroad".
  • 1855: Scarcely a poet did more to shape the current picture of Heidelberg as the City of Romanticism than Joseph von Eichendorff in his late work: looking back over the passage of space and time with an idealizing gaze, in 1855 Eichendorff conjured up the feelings of bygone days in the opening and closing lines of his narrative poem “Robert und Guiscard”. Heidelberg is elevated to a fairytale place of Romantic longings and untrammeled youth. 
  • 1851/52: Joseph Viktor von Scheffel (1826–1886) writes his poem “Alt-Heidelberg, Du feine”
  • 1849: In his poem “Alte Brücke”, Gottfried Keller interweaves a painful personal experience with the visual impressions of Heidelberg’s famous old bridge.
  • 1817: Jean Paul visits. He is awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Heidelberg.
  • 1814/1815: Goethe visits Heidelberg on the invitation of the Boisserée brothers to view their collection of German and Netherlandish panel paintings from the late Middle Ages.
  • 1804-1808: Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim arrive in Heidelberg. The Romantics take over Heidelberg as a city of literature in the broadest sense.
  • 1800: Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Ode to Heidelberg”, a literary monument to the city. His eye cast on both the city and the landscape, Hölderlin conjures up an artfully structured poetic space in which topography and inner world fit harmoniously together. The myth of Heidelberg seems already to have found a poetic high point at the time of its writing. 

15th to 18th century

  • 1783-1787: Adolph Freiherr Knigge, one of the foremost writers of the Enlightenment, lives as a theater critic in Heidelberg.
  • 1764: Castle burns down once again after being struck twice by lightning, and from then on—at first subliminally—it colors the city’s image as a ruin.
  • 1693: War of the Palatine Succession, the walls and tower of Heidelberg Castle are blown up in 1693 by French troops.
  • 1619/1620: Martin Opitz dedicates a number of sonnets to Heidelberg and writes the preface to his "Buch von der deutschen Poeterey" (1624)—the first German book of poetry, which set the direction for the Baroque.
  • 1563: Heidelberg becomes a centre of Calvinism. The Heidelberg Catechism is written.
  • 1458: Early humanist Peter Luder delivers a panegyric of Heidelberg in Latin - which is regarded today as the oldest description of the town.