German Studies

Why German?

The German tradition in literature, thought, art, music, and scientific inquiry plays a crucial role in contemporary research within all fields of the humanities, arts, and the social sciences. For anyone working on the artistic, cultural or intellectual history of Europe, in particular, knowledge of the German tradition is indispensable. Modern philosophy would be unthinkable without figures such as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas; from Karl Marx to Hannah Arendt, German thinkers are at the forefront of modern political thought. In the realm of literature, similarly, German-speaking writers such Goethe, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, Christa Wolf and the recent Nobel laureates Günter Grass and Elfriede Jelinek have probed the questions of European modernity to their limits. 

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The story is similar for music, visual arts, photography and film. German-speaking composers such as Beethoven, Robert and Clara Schumann, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg count among the giants of the modern European musical tradition, and the list of seminal German artists stretches from the Renaissance paintings of Albrecht Dürer to the monumental post-Holocaust work of Anselm Kiefer. As for film history, not only has the German speaking world produced some of the most revered filmmakers of the 20th century – from Fritz Lang to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and a new generation of transnational directors such as Tom Tykwer and Fatih Akin – but German and Austrian filmmakers such as Lang, Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch also helped to shape the history of Hollywood.

Within all of these traditions, German-Jewish artists and intellectuals have played a leading role. In the wake of the Second World War, Germany’s recent cultural history is marked indelibly by the Holocaust and by efforts to come to terms with the past. As a part of these endeavors, scholars in German studies have begun to investigate the long and complex history of cross-cultural transfer in the German-speaking world, which continues to inform European identity today. To take one example, the Vienna of 1900 – the capital of the multi-lingual and multi-cultural Habsburg Empire and a milieu that produced both Freud and Hitler – has been called a laboratory of ethnic relations in the 20th-century. Today, the influence of globalization and migration – particularly the increase in Turkish-German and Afro-German populations – is transforming German culture rapidly, producing a new artistic avant-garde and a fascinating field of scholarly inquiry.

Germany was also the center of the Cold War, and the culture of East Germany is only beginning to be understood in the West as part of a broader German and European legacy. The recent East German film series at the Goethe Institut in Montreal formed part of this effort to reassess the cultures of the East Germany and their continued influence on Germany and Europe, and we encourage our students interested in Contemporary German Studies to probe such questions within the broader context of European integration and the legacy of the Cold War.

Today, within the formation of the new Europe, Germany continues to play a pivotal role both culturally and economically, and the German language is spoken by some 120 million people worldwide. In addition to the advantages of a grounding in German for anyone pursuing academic study in the humanities, it also offers an excellent background for people wishing to pursue jobs within the new European Union. Besides having the most native speakers of any European language, German is the leading language of European commerce next to English. After finishing our program, many of our students are tri- if not quatrilingual and go on to pursue careers in various cultural and economic branches in Europe.

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