During the early modern period, in Germany rhetoric was taught at grammar schools (Gymnasien), both Protestant and Jesuit, and at Protestant universities. Rhetorical theory provided a basis for writing, especially in Latin, serving as a means of communication for scholars throughout Europe. It influenced the theory of poetics as well as art, each of which relied heavily on rhetorical theory.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the “golden age” of rhetoric in Germany. A significant number of textbooks were published, mostly in Latin, by authors like Philipp Melanchthon (Elementa rhetorices, 1531), the Dutch Latinist G. J. Vossius (Rhetorice contracta, 1621), and C. Soarez (De arte rhetorica, 1560), to name just a few. Some of these treatises were still being reprinted and used in teaching during the eighteenth century. A small number of textbooks were written in German, for example by J. M. Meyfart and especially Christian Weise (Politischer Redner, 1677), one of the most important figures of late-baroque rhetoric.
With the rise of German as the language of instruction in the Enlightenment, this changed dramatically. The most influential handbook was composed by Johann Christoph Gottsched, a professor of philosophy at Leipzig University. His Vernünftige Redekunst (1736) combines both humanist and modern traditions. Rhetoric is viewed as a mere supplement to philosophy; it is an instrument to communicate truth, not to find it. The orator seeks to persuade his audience with rhetorical devices (e.g., figures and tropes; appeal to the emotions), whereas the philosopher aims to convince his audience with syllogisms and logical conclusions.
Another important work is Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s two-volume Aesthetica (1750, 1758). While he was still deeply committed to ancient rhetorical theory, Baumgarten’s founding of this new discipline clearly indicates the decline of rhetoric. During the second half of the eighteenth century, rhetoric was replaced by aesthetics (and other disciplines, e.g., psychology, pedagogy, philology), conceived as a general theory of the fine arts (Theorie der schönen Künste). Rhetoric and architecture are classified as practical arts, not as schöne Künste (i.e., arts and letters). As a consequence, rhetoric was marginalized, thereby losing its place within aesthetic theory.This marks the beginning of a long animosity toward rhetoric that is particularly strong in Germany (Barner 1970), most prominent in works like Kant’s severe criticism of rhetoric in his Critique of judgement (1790) and Hegel’s Lectures on aesthetics (published 1835). The most important exception to this anti-rhetorical movement is Nietzsche’s lectures on rhetoric, held at Basel University (Switzerland) during the 1872–1873 term and unpublished during his lifetime. They were rediscovered in the early 1970s in France by postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida and influenced the deconstructivist movement (e.g., Paul de Man).
It was not until the 1960s that rhetoric was rediscovered by historians of German literature (although there has been a continuous interest in rhetoric among classical philologists). Still of major importance is Heinrich Lausberg’s (1960) reconstruction of the rhetorical system, designed as a handbook for text analysis. Social history provided a basis for a fundamental re-evaluation of the seminal role of rhetoric during the Baroque period (Barner 1970). Books by Dyck (1991), Fischer (1968), Sinemus (1977), and Carrdus (1996) have demonstrated how early modern literary theory was based entirely on rhetoric; Grimm’s substantial study (1983) is devoted to the connection between erudite literature and rhetoric from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.
Less attention has been directed to the eighteenth century. Dyck and Sandstede (1996) have published a two-volume bibliography of printed sources on rhetorical theory. Preceding works focused on the relationship of logic and rhetoric and the fate of rhetorical topics in the early Enlightenment (Beetz 1980; Grimm 1983; Petrus 1994). Only a few studies deal with pre-Romanticism, Romanticism/Classicism, and beyond (Schanze 1996; Riedl 1997; Goldberg 1998; Kopperschmidt 2003). In general, we still have insufficient knowledge of applied rhetoric. Till (2004) provided a new model for writing histories of rhetoric: he distinguishes between two different approaches, a systematic and an anthropological concept of rhetoric, which preceding studies have constantly mingled. Reconstructing the history of rhetoric on a “systematic” basis means writing the history of the system of rhetoric (i.e., the five canons), whereas the anthropological approach contextualizes rhetoric within a larger philosophical framework (on rhetorical anthropology, see Gross 2006).
Unlike other countries, there is no strong tradition of rhetorical research in Germany. Only one Department of Rhetoric (founded in 1967 by W. Jens), situated at the University of Tübingen, exists. Therefore, most research is currently conducted in adjacent disciplines, i.e., German philology, communication studies, philosophy, or classics. The multi-volume Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik, the most important interdisciplinary research project on the history of rhetoric in Germany, is also edited at the University of Tübingen (an English translation is in preparation).
- Barner, W. (1970). Barockrhetorik: Untersuchungen zu ihren geschichtlichen Grundlagen. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
- Beetz, M. (1980). Rhetorische Logik: Prämissen der deutschen Lyrik im Übergang vom 17. zum 18. Jahrhundert. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
- Carrdus, A. (1996). Classical rhetoric and the German poet: 1620 to the present: A study of Opitz, Bürger and Eichendorff. Oxford: European Humanities Research Centre.
- Dyck, J. (1991). Ticht-Kunst. Deutsche Barockpoetik und rhetorische Tradition, 3rd edn. Tübingen: Niemeyer. (Original work published 1966).
- Dyck, J., & Sandstede, J. (1996). Quellenbibliographie zur Rhetorik, Homiletik und Epistolographie des 18. Jahrhunderts im deutschsprachigen Raum, 3 vols. Stuttgart: Fromann-Holzboog.
- Fischer, L. (1968). Gebundene Rede: Dichtung und Rhetorik in der literarischen Theorie des Barock in Deutschland. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
- Goldberg, H.-P. (1998). Bismarck und seine Gegner: Die politische Rhetorik im kaiserlichen Reichstag. Düsseldorf: Droste.
- Gross, D. M. (2006). Rhetorische Anthropologie (book review). Rhetorica, 24, 436–440.
- Grimm, G. E. (1983). Literatur und Gelehrtentum: Untersuchungen zum Wandel ihres Verhältnisses vom Humanismus bis zur Frühaufklärung. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
- Knape, J. (2000). Was ist Rhetorik? Stuttgart: Reclam.
- Kopperschmidt, J. (ed.) (2003). Hitler der Redner. Munich: Fink.
- Lausberg, H. (1960). Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik: Eine Grundlegung der Literaturwissenschaft, vols 2. Munich: Hueber.
- Petrus, K. (1994). Convictio oder persuasio? Etappen einer Debatte in der ersten Hälfte des 18. Jahrhunderts (Rüdiger–Fabricius–Gottsched). Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie, 113, 481– 495.
- Riedl, P. Ph. (1997). Öffentliche Rede in der Zeitenwende: deutsche Literatur und Geschichte um 1800. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
- Schanze, H. (1966). Romantik und Aufklärung: Untersuchungen zu Friedrich Schlegel und Novalis. Nuremberg: Carl.
- Sinemus, V. (1977). Poetik und Rhetorik im frühmodernen deutschen Staat. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.
- Till, D. (2004). Transformationen der Rhetorik: Untersuchungen zum Wandel der Rhetoriktheorie im und 18. Jahrhundert. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
- Ueding, G. (ed.) (1992–). Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik, 7 vols. Tübingen: Niemeyer.