“Simplicius Simplicissimus” - The Horrors of War and the first real novel written in German

17 August 1676, the German author Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen died in his mid-fifties in the Baden village of Renchen.

“But my lord himself said, "I hold him for a fool because he telleth every man the truth so shamelessly; yet are his speeches so ordered that they belong to no fool." (Grimmelshausen “Simplicius Simplicissimus”)

Picaresque novels begun to flow from witty Spanish authors’ pens already during the 16th century. These authors, often conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity to be able to remain in Spain after the Reconquista ended in 1492 and all people of another creed were evicted by their Catholic Majesties, had found a way to express their criticism of the conditions in tall tales, resonating in some chapters of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and were, when Baroque dawned on Europe, emulated by writers in all major languages of the West. The most important in the German speaking countries and simultaneously the pivotal prose work in German of the 17th century was Grimmelshausen’s “Simplicius Simplicissimus”, probably the first real novel written in German at all.

Frontispice of the first edition of  
“Simplicius Simplicissimus” from 1669

Grimmelshausen was born around 1620 in Gelnhausen in Hesse, when the Thirty Years’ War, certainly the most terrible conflict the continent had ever seen so far, raged across the territories of the Holy Roman Empire, claiming the lives of at least one third of the population of 16 million that lived within its boundary in 1618 when the war began. The war reached Gelnhausen when Grimmelshausen was a lad, the town was ravaged by the Imperials and young Hans ended up serving in the “Tross”, the train of camp followers of the “Landsknechte”, the mercenary companies that were part of every army in the conflict. He saw the Sack of Magdeburg in 1631, one of the most hideous events of the war, and finally became a soldier and then a scribe in the staff of one of the Imperial warlords until the conflict ended in 1648. He began writing during this time and published besides the “Simplicissimus” a few satires and novels a la mode.

A contemporary depiction of the Sack of Magdeburg - of 30,000 inhabitants only 5,000 managed to survive

The novel, published in 1688, portrays the somewhat fantastic exploits of the anagrammatic titular hero Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim and has quite a few autobiographical traits, amplified into the tall tales of the Spanish model and finally transposed into the plain fantastic. Melchior is abducted by “Landsknechte” as a boy, becomes an unwilling soldier, a reluctant officer, an unsuccessful highwayman, even more a failure as a hermit while trying to atone for his sins and as a slave in the Far East and finally as a castaway. The tale became a huge success, was translated into several European languages and served as a model for other authors, especially of the fantastic genre, while connoisseurs from Brentano to Thomas Mann cherished it even hundreds of years later. The most popular loan on Grimmelshausen’s novel probably was a satirical German weekly, featuring some of the best German authors in its heyday, until it fizzled out during the Third Reich, when the editors tried to toe the Nazi party line.

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and an English translation of “Simplicissimus” can be found here: