The roster of famous Germans is long in most fields of endeavor. The name of Johann Gutenberg (1400?–1468?), who is generally regarded in the Western world as the inventor of movable precision-cast metal type, and therefore as the father of modern book printing, might well head the list of notable Germans. Martin Luther (1483–1546), founder of the Reformation, still exerts profound influence on German religion, society, music, and language.
The earliest major names in German literature were the poets Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170?–1220?), Gottfried von Strassburg (d.1210?), and Sebastian Brant (1457?–1521). Hans Sachs (1494–1576) wrote thousands of plays, poems, stories, and songs. Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1620?–76) created a famous picaresque novel, Simplicissimus. The flowering of German literature began with such renowned 18th-century poets and dramatists as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81), Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1813), and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), and culminated with the greatest German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), and the greatest German dramatist, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805). Leaders of the Romantic movement included Jean Paul (Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763–1825), August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767–1845), Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772–1801), Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), E. T. A. (Ernst Theodor Wilhelm—the A stood for Amadeus, the middle name of Mozart) Hoffmann (1776–1822), and Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (1777–1811). The brothers Jakob Grimm (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859) are world-famous for their collections of folk tales and myths. Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), many of whose poems have become folksongs, is generally regarded as the greatest German poet after Goethe. Other significant poets are Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866), Eduard Mörike (1804–75), Stefan Georg (1868–1933), and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). Playwrights of distinction include Friedrich Hebbel (1813–63), Georg Büchner (1813–37), Georg Kaiser (1878–1945), Ernst Toller (1893–1939), and Bertolt Brecht (1898–1957). Two leading novelists of the 19th century were Gustav Freytag (1816–95) and Theodor Storm (1817–88). Germany's 20th-century novelists include Ernst Wiechert (1887–1950), Anna Seghers (Netty Reiling, 1900–1983), and Nobel Prize winners Gerhart Johann Robert Hauptmann (1862–1946), Thomas Mann (1875–1955), Nelly Sachs (1891–1970), and Heinrich Böll (1917–86). Other major writers of the 20th century include German-born Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970), Günter Grass (b.1927) who won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1999, and Peter Handke (b.1942).
Leading filmmakers include G. W. (Georg Wilhelm) Pabst (b. Czechoslovakia, 1885–1967), F. W. (Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe) Murnau (1888–1931), Fritz Lang (b.Austria, 1890–1976), German-born Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947), Max Ophüls (Oppenheimer, 1902–57), Leni (Helene Bertha Amalie) Riefenstahl (b.1902), Volker Schlöndorff (b.1939), Werner Herzog (b.1942), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946–82). Outstanding performers include Emil Jannings (Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz, b.Switzerland, 1886–1950), Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992), Klaus Kinski (Claus Günther Nakszynski, 1926–91).
The two giants of German church music were Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) and, preeminently, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Significant composers of the 18th century were German-born Georg Friedrich Handel (1685–1759), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–88), and Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714–87). The classical period and music in general were dominated by the titanic figure of Ludwig von Beethoven (1770–1827). Romanticism in music was ushered in by Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826), among others. Outstanding composers of the 19th century were Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–47), Robert Schumann (1810–56), Richard Wagner (1813–83), and Johannes Brahms (1833–97). Major figures of the 20th century are Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), Carl Orff (1895–1982), German-born Kurt Weill (1900–50), Hans Werner Henze (b.1926), and Karlheinz Stockhausen (b.1928). Important symphonic conductors included Otto Klemperer (1885–1973), Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954), Karl Böhm (1894–1981), and Eugen Jochum (1902–87). Among Germany's outstanding musical performers are singers Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (b.1915) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b.1925), and pianists Walter Gieseking (1895–1956) and Wilhelm Kempff (1895–91).
Veit Stoss (1440?–1533) was one of the greatest German sculptors and woodcarvers of the 15th century; another was Tilman Riemenschneider (1460?–1531). Outstanding painters, engravers, and makers of woodcuts were Martin Schongauer (1445?–91), Matthias Grünewald (1460?–1528?), Hans Holbein the Elder (1465?–1524), Lucas Cranach (1472–1553), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497?–1543), and above all, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). More recent artists of renown are the painters Emil Nolde (1867–1956), Franz Marc (1880–1916), Max Beckmann (1884–1950), the US-born Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956), Otto Dix (1891–1969), and Horst Antes (b.1936); the painter and cartoonist George Grosz (1893–1959); the sculptors Ernst Barlach (1870–1938) and Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881–1919); the painter-etcher-sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945); and the architects Walter Gropius (1883–1969), leader of the Bauhaus School of Design, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953), Gottfried Böhm(b.1920), and Helmut Jahn (b.1940).
German influence on Western thought can be traced back at least as far as the 13th century, to the great scholastic philosopher, naturalist, and theologian Albertus Magnus (Albert von Bollstädt, d.1280) and the mystic philosopher Meister Eckhart (1260?–1327?). Philipp Melanchthon (Schwartzerd, 1497–1560) was a scholar and religious reformer. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716) was an outstanding philosopher, theologian, mathematician, and natural scientist. The next two centuries were dominated by the ideas of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), Friedrich Ernst Daniel Schleiermacher (1768–1834), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804–72), Karl Marx (1818–83), Friedrich Engels (1820–95), and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900). In the 20th century, Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) are highly regarded. One of the founders of modern Biblical scholarship was Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918).
Among the most famous German scientists are Johann Rudolf Glauber (1694–1768), Justus von Liebig (1803–73), Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (1811–99), and Nobel Prize winners Fritz Haber (1868–1934), Carl Bosch (1874–1940), Otto Hahn (1879–1968), Friedrich Bergius (1884–1949), Georg Wittig (1897–1987), Kurt Alder (1902–58), and Ernst Otto Fischer (b.1918) in chemistry; Karl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855), Georg Simon Ohm (1787–1854), Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821–94), Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857–1894), and Nobel Prize winners Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen (1845–1923), Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck (1858–1947), Albert Einstein (1879–1955), Gustav Ludwig Hertz (1887–1975), Werner Heisenberg (1901–76), Walter Bothe (1891–1957), Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker(b.1912), and Rudolf Mössbauer (b.1929) in physics; Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902), August von Wassermann (1866–1925), and Nobel Prize winners Robert Koch (1843–1910), Paul Ehrlich (1854–1915), Emil von Behring (1854–1917), Otto H. Warburg (1883–1970), and Konrad Lorenz (Austria, 1903–89) in physiology and medicine; earth scientists Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and Karl Ernst Richter (1795–1863); and mathematician Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann (1826–66). Notable among German inventors and engineers are Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit (1686–1736), developer of the thermometer; Gottlieb Daimler (1834–1900), Rudolf Diesel (b.Paris, 1858–1913), and Felix Wankel (1902–88), developers of the internal combustion engine; airship builder Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838–1917); and rocketry pioneer Wernher von Braun (1912–77). Leading social scientists, in addition to Marx and Engels, were the historians Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) and Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), Nobel Prize winner in literature; the political economist Georg Friedrich List (1789–1846); the sociologists Georg Simmel (1858–1918) and Max Weber (1864–1920); and the German-born anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942). Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68) founded the scientific study of classical art and archaeology. Heinrich Schliemann (1822–90) uncovered the remains of ancient Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns; Wilhelm Dörpfeld (1853–1940) continued his work.
Outstanding figures in German political history are the Holy Roman emperors Otto I (the Great, 912–973), Frederick I (Barbarossa, 1123–90), Frederick II (1194–1250), and Spanish-born Charles V (1500–58); Frederick William (1620–88), the "great elector" of Brandenburg; his great-grandson Frederick II (the Great, 1712–86), regarded as the most brilliant soldier and statesman of his age; Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck (1815–98), the Prussian statesman who made German unity possible; Austrian-born Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), founder of Nazism and dictator of Germany (1933–45); and Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967), FRG chancellor (1948–63). Walter Ernst Karl Ulbricht (1893–1973), chairman of the Council of State (1960–73), and leader of the SED from 1950 to 1971, was the dominant political figure in the GDR until his death in 1973. Erich Honecker (1912–94) became first secretary of the SED in 1971 and was chairman of the Council of State and SED general secretary from 1976 until the FRG and GDR merged in 1990. Willi Stoph (1914–1999), a member of the Politburo since 1953, served as chairman of the Council of Ministers in 1964–73 and again from 1976 on. Willy Brandt (1913–1992), FRG chancellor (1969–74) won the Nobel Peace Prize for his policy of Ostpolitik. Other Nobel Peace Prize winners were Ludwig Quidde (1858–1941), Gustav Stresemann (1878–1929), and Carl von Ossietzky (1889–1938).
Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben (1730–94) was a general in the American Revolution. Karl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) is one of the great names connected with the science of war. Important military leaders were Hellmuth von Moltke (1800–1891); Gen. Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934), who also served as president of the German Reich (1925–34); and Gen. Erwin Rommel (1891–1944).