Adalbert Stifter






by Meike Dahlström

Adalbert Stifter’s background and education as the basis of his idea of education


Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) grew up as a simple farmer’s son in Oberplan in southern Bohemia, at that time still part of the Habsburg monarchy. The superficially idyllic rural life is characterised by toil and labour. None of the villagers would have predicted a great future for little “Bertl”. When he loses his father at the age of twelve, his fate seems to be determined. From now on it is up to him to get the field work done together with his grandfather. Stifter’s fate lies in the hands of the people, marked by toil and sacrifice, who watch him grow up. Fortunately for young Adalbert, some of them recognise his early talent.

His thirst for knowledge awakens early. The adults try as best they can to satisfy his questions. It will not always have been easy to follow the thoughts of the imaginative and sensitive child. From his earliest childhood, Stifter is influenced by the landscape and the inhabitants of his homeland. They must have become familiar and dear to him, for time and again one will be able to recognise his attachment to his homeland in his later stories. Church festivals also play an important role in the life of the young boy. When he was over forty, he would often return to the vicinity of his birthplace and at times spend the last twenty years of his life there. But first the boy learns about the world playfully in nature and within the family. These first impressions are expanded when his school years begin.

The country schoolmaster Josef Jenne is one of the first to suspect an undreamt-of talent behind the façade of the simple peasant boy. He takes a personal interest in him and becomes the young Adalbert’s great role model. Mentally, Stifter gradually outgrew his rural surroundings. School and home can no longer offer the boy, who is thirsty for knowledge, any new stimulation. Out of this situation, Jenne advocates sending him to secondary school. Added to this is the grandfather’s ambition to enable his eldest grandson to study. Together with the twelve-year-old Adalbert, he travels to the Benedictine monastery of Kremsmünster in Upper Austria in the summer of 1818. Here the boy meets his future teacher Placidus Hall for the first time. After an unorthodox oral exam, the motif of which Stifter records in his 1848 story Die Pechbrenner (later Granit), he is admitted to the grammar school.

Stifters Geburtshaus in Horní Plan, © Meike Dahlström

Kremsmünster became more than just a “teaching institution” for Stifter. It was here that he first became familiar with the thoughts and ideas that would determine his later goals. The foundations of his educational ideas have their roots in the teachings of the Benedictine Order. Here he learns not only to know concepts such as “humanism” and “art”, but also to evaluate and classify them.

After graduating in 1826, he left the grammar school with the best final grade. For the time being, his whole ambition is to study law in Vienna. But his strength was soon exhausted. Although this course of study was supposed to qualify him for the career of a state official, his inclinations took a different path. He took the opportunity to supplement his meagre purse and gave private lessons. In 1831 he finishes his studies without a degree. He is considered a “dawdled student” because he does not take the final exam despite having successfully completed his studies. It would not be the last time that Stifter skipped an important examination date. When he applied for the chair of physics at Prague University, he said he had simply “forgotten” the oral exam date. He found himself in an ambivalent situation. Between 1832 and 1837, he applied five times to the various teaching institutions without success, sometimes deliberately “forgetting” the necessary examinations. How can one reconcile these failures with his above-average achievements at school, in his studies, as well as in his later literary work and in his work as a school inspector? It is rather an unfathomable fear of life that robs him of the necessary energy. Again and again it will surface in his later life and exert a paralysing influence on him.

Meanwhile, Stifter continued to earn his living by giving private lessons. He himself is aware of this incompatibility of profession and vocation. He realises that his heart is less in the imparting of knowledge than in the formation of his entire personality. He devotes himself to this task with all his love:

“Unfortunately, I soon saw that I would not be able to work as a professor in the way I wished and I gave up this idea. I still pursued the matter by giving private lessons and, although not everywhere, I gave them with the greatest love in many places. I also have a few students who love me very much and think back fondly to our learning days.”

Der junge Adalbert Stifter, © Hans

Due to the surprising success of his first stories, Stifter is able to overcome his financial misery. For the first time in his life, he looks forward to a secure future. In the 1840s he publishes twenty-four stories, which not only secure him financially but also make him known to the public.

In these early stories, the poet reveals himself to be deeply rooted in Austrian tradition and culture. Stifter grew up in the Bohemian part of the Danube Monarchy. The small village in what was then southern Bohemia now bears the Czech name Horni Planá. This rootedness is reflected both in his profession as “k.k. Schulrat” and in his life. Schulrat” as well as in his way of life: his affinity with German traditions is linked to the philosophical origins of his work. However, there is little sign of political commitment in these early works.

In contrast, the pedagogical approach is already perceptible when he writes in 1837 and 1838 in the story Feldblumen about a meaningful education for girls. In these years, in addition to his pupils, he also has some schoolgirls to look after, about whose “programme” he expresses the following positive judgement in a letter: “They are by far more than I expected them to be when I first met them.” The same approach is taken up again four years later in Brigitta. Here it is a girl disregarded by her parents because of her outward appearance who finally succeeds in overcoming her loveless childhood and experiencing true love.

Within a few years, the writer is able to break away from the harmlessness of his first attempts at writing. His publisher Gustav Heckenast encourages him to publish his stories. In 1844, the first two volumes of the studies appear. Romantic sentimentality and extensive descriptions are gradually replaced by a simple tone in the narrative. The focus is less on the description of an external blaze of colour than on inner spiritual concerns. Stifter himself sets high standards for his poetic work. In an essay on the status and dignity of the writer from 1848, Stifter states the tasks of this profession:

“It is ultimately the whole inwardness of a man that imprints the seal and the spirit on his work. […] It is therefore the last and deepest condition of the writer that he should develop his character to the greatest possible purity and perfection. If it is already so in the most ordinary things of life that only character brings meaning into them, and that only character leads others to good, it is all the more so in writing.”

The formation of character to “the greatest possible purity and perfection” are goals that also play an important role in his idea of education. Above all, it is the concept of “morality” that appears again and again in Stifter’s vocabulary. Ultimately, his entire educational idea, his pedagogical actions and poetry rest on it. But it was not until the revolution of 1848 that Stifter found the appropriate occasion to put his educational idea into clear words. He formulates his own theory for his work, which he summarises under the term “gentle law”:

“It is the law […] of justice, the law of morality, the law that wants everyone to be respected, honoured, to exist without danger next to the other […]. Thus the moral law works silently and soul-vivifyingly through the infinite intercourse of men […].”

This moral law formulated in the preface becomes the guiding principle of his pedagogical action. For Stifter, education is not only a source of knowledge, but also means the formation of maturity of character: education is equated with the comprehensive development of the personality.

Steindenkmal Adalbert Stifter auf dem Plockenstein im Böhmerwald, © MarkuzaAnna

Furthermore, he recognises the need to restructure the education system in Austria. Not only in theory, but also in practice, he is able to contribute to the reorganisation of the school system. Stifter becomes a “school organiser”. He put all his energy into improving teaching, education and the reputation of teachers. In his essay on the education of the teaching staff, he formulates this objective as follows: “It is our most sacred duty to secure the lives of teachers from want and privation, because it is our most sacred duty to have our children well educated and taught.”

Even though Stifter is not one of the great educators of the 19th century, his principles fulfil the guidelines of a serious approach to education. According to the definition of pedagogy as the “art of education”, it should first and foremost offer suggestions for guidance and accompaniment into adult life. Stifter’s approach fulfils these requirements. It is first and foremost the formation of the personality that is the focus of both his educational and literary work. Through the mediation of art as a symbol of beauty, he wants to develop moral behaviour. Only through knowledge of the value of one’s own moral conduct can a perfect character be formed.

Also as a book: Here Adalbert Stifter’s modern and pioneering pedagogical views are presented in the context of his life story, which are still surprisingly relevant 150 years after his death. Meike Dahlström follows Stifter’s work as an educator, focusing in particular on the years 1852 to 1857: During this period, Adalbert Stifter worked on his reading book to promote humane education and formulated his own theory for his work, the “gentle law”.” He processes his reaction to the 1948 revolution, which he perceives as traumatic, in the Bildungsroman Der Nachsommer, which also incorporates his pedagogical objectives and educational ideas. This new edition is not only aimed at literary circles, but at everyone who wants to learn more about Adalbert Stifter; this headstrong idealist, innovator and, as he described himself, “man of measure and freedom”.


Mathias Mayer: Adalbert Stifter. Erzählen als Erkennen, Stuttgart 2001 (Universal-Bibliothek 17627).

Adalbert Stifter: Die kleinen Dinge schreien drein. 59 Briefe, hg. von Werner Welzig, Frankfurt/M./Leipzig 1991.

Adalbert Stifter. Pädagogische Schriften, hg. von Theodor Rutt, Paderborn 1960.

Adalbert Stifter: Vorrede. In: Bunte Steine. Erzählungen, 6. Aufl., Augsburg 1998.

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