Biographies of people from the German-speaking countries who have played a significant role in German and world history in the areas of politics, science, the arts, and technology.
Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
Schiele was an unconventional Austrian painter heavily influenced by Gustav Klimt. Schiele and his wife died in the influenza pandemic of 1918 (when Klimt also died). That same year the Wiener Sezessionsausstellung (Vienna Secessionist Exhibit) became a great success, displaying 50 of Schiele’s works. Also see his Art Directory bio and The Art of Egon Schiele (Web Museum).
Claudia Schiffer (1971- )
Known as one of fashion’s top models, the tall, Teutonically blonde Mannekin from Düsseldorf is also one of the world’s richest. Discovered by German designer Karl Lagerfeld in 1988, Schiffer announced in October 1998 that she would retire from the fashion runway. She continues to do photo and ad work, and make TV appearances.
Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)
Second only to Goethe, one of Germany’s greatest dramatists and poets. Schiller was forced by Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg to study law and medicine for eight years. It comes as no surprise then to discover the theme of rebellion and protest in many of Schiller’s works. His dramas include Die Räuber (1781), Kabale und Liebe (1784), Don Carlos (1787), Wallenstein (1800, considered his greatest drama and translated into English by Coleridge), and Wilhelm Tell (1804).
Max Schmeling (1905-2005)
A noted German boxer best known for his two bouts with the American Joe Louis. In 1999, Schmeling and German tennis star Steffi Graf (1969- ) were named “Athletes of the Century” by German sports jounalists. More about Schmeling from About.com – Max Schmeling.
Helmut Schmidt (1918-2015)
Schmidt was Willy Brandt’s successor in 1974 and West German chancellor (SPD) for the next seven years (before the “other” Helmut, Helmut Kohl). One of the most intellectual of all German chancellors, Schmidt spoke eloquently in both German and English and wrote several books. He remained popular after his retirement from politics, appearing regularly on TV, smoking cigarette in hand, as a somewhat cranky but sharp commentator. He was also the publisher of Die Zeit, one of Germany’s most respected weeklies. Schmidt died of complications from a blood clot operation on November 10, 2015, aged 96.
Gerhard Schröder (1944- )
Elected German chancellor in September 1998, Schröder (spelled Schroeder in English) is the former governor (Ministerpräsident) of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). He succeeded Helmut Kohl, who had set the new German record for time in office as chancellor: 16 years (1982-1998).
Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961)
The Austrian physicist best known for his work in quantum mechanics and his famous “cat paradox.” Born in Vienna, Schrödinger grew up bilingually in German and English, since his mother was half-English. Schrödinger studied in Vienna and in Germany (Jena). In 1933 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his “Schrödinger equation.”
Carl Schurz (1829-1906)
Born near Cologne, Germany, Schurz fled to America by way of England from the German revolution of 1848. Schurz was a Union general in the American Civil War, became a US Senator (R, Missouri, 1869-1875), Secretary of the Interior in the Rutherford B. Hayes administration, and confidant of Abraham Lincoln (for whom he campaigned). He also edited several newspapers and wrote two biographies. As US interior secretary, Schurz promoted civil service reform and was sympathetic to Native Americans. The small reservation town of Schurz, Nevada honors his name.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (1947- )
Arnold is the most famous of the many Austrian film people who have worked in Hollywood. He was born in Thal bei Graz, Austria on July 30, 1947. He went to the US in September 1968 to continue his bodybuilding career. After a very successful movie career, Schwarzenegger served as California’s 38th governor from 2003 to 2011.
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)
Schweitzer was born in Kaysersberg in German Alsace (Elsaß), now in France. (His German surname means “Swiss person.”) His father, a Lutheran minister, taught him music. Following theological training, he was 30 when he began his medical studies and shifted his interest to medicine, getting his medical degree in 1912. In June 1912 he married Helene Bresslau before the couple set off for Africa. Schweitzer became a generous doctor to the natives in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon), where he lived off and on from 1913 until his death there in 1965. He established a hospital for the natives in Lambarene and worked tirelessly to improve the living conditions there. During the early years Helene served as an anaesthetist for surgical operations. Schweitzer became an accomplished musician (notably on the organ) and theologian/philosopher who wrote several books on religious, humanitarian themes, as well as a classic work on J.S. Bach. During his time in Africa, Schweitzer often traveled abroad to lecture and give organ recitals. In 1923 the Schweitzer family (now with daughter Rhena) moved to Königsfeld im Schwarzwald, Baden-Württemberg. The family house there is now a Schweitzer museum. His 1931 autobiography is entitled Aus meinem Leben und Denken (My Life and Thought). Albert Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. WEB > www.schweitzer.org (bio and other info)
Robert Schwentke (1968- )
Schwentke is a German film director and screenwriter born in Stuttgart. He studied film at AFI and Columbia College in Los Angeles. His Hollywood films include: Flightplan (2005, writer/director), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009, director), Red (2010, director) and R.I.P.D. (2013, director). Schwentke’s first big film was Tattoo (2002, Germany), a police mystery. – Wikipedia (in German): Robert Schwentke.
The Scorpions are a famous German rock band comprised of Rudolf Schenker (guitarist and founder), Klaus Meine, Matthias Jabs, James Kottak, and Pawel Maciwoda. This legendary German group, formed in 1965 in Hanover (as “Nameless”; first recordings in 1971), performs in English. The Scorpions are known for these and other hit songs: “Wind of Change” (1990, Russian and Spanish versions 1991), “Send Me an Angel” (1990), “Rock You Like a Hurricane” (1984), “Still Loving You” (1984). In January 2010, after 46 years of performing, the band members announced they would retire after a farewell tour to promote their new album “Sting in the Tail.” The band has sold over 150 million albums worldwide. Official website: www.the-scorpions.com.
Heidi Simonis (1943- )
Simonis was the first woman to become governor (Ministerpräsidentin) of any of the 16 German states (Bundesländer). Simonis was elected governor/prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein in 1993, serving until 2005. Before that she served as the German Finanz-Ministerin (treasury minister). In 2005 she became chair of UNICEF in Germany, but was forced to resign after a funding scandal in 2008. An investigation into the matter was later dropped.
Alexander Spoerl (1917-1978)
Spoerl was a master of that rarity in German literature: witty, ironic humor. One of his classic works, the semi-autobiographical Memoiren eines mittelmässigen Schülers (Memoirs of a Mediocre Student, 1950), pokes fun at what might seem to be an unfunny subject, describing in hilarious detail what it was like growing up in Germany just as the Nazis were coming to power. In addition to other humorous novels, Spoerl wrote entertaining manuals on coping with everyday equipment and tools in Mit dem Auto auf du (On Familiar Terms with the Car) and Mit der Kamera auf du (On Familiar Terms with the Camera). His father, Heinrich Spoerl (1887-1955), was also a humorist, whose best known novel, Die Feuerzangenbowle (1933), was made into a movie with Heinz Rühmann.
Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923)
Professor, mathematical genius, and theorist, Steinmetz died with about 200 practical patents to his credit. His inventions and improvements were primarily in the area of electrical devices and the transmission of electricity. Steinmetz was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). He studied there, in Berlin, and in Zurich before coming to the US in 1889.
Rita Süssmuth (Rita Kickuth, 1937- )
University professor and member of parliament Süssmuth (Suessmuth) was a member of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party. She served from 1985 to 1988 as Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth under Chancellor Helmut Kohl. She later held the office of president of the German lower house of parliament (Bundestag) from 1988 to 1998.
Edward Teller (1908-2003)
Born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, Teller went to Germany in 1926, where he studied in Karlsruhe and Leipzig. The Jewish physicist came to the US in 1935 after working in Göttingen and spending time in England and Denmark. Known as the “father of the H-bomb,” Teller worked on the wartime Manhattan project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Teller accused American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer of blocking progress on the H-bomb during hearings in 1954.
Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935)
Tucholsky was a German satirist best known for his biting humor and critical views of the human species. He committed suicide after his books were burned and he was exiled from Germany by the Nazis.
More on The German Way
Famous Graves in Germany
Where are they buried?
“No one has any intention of building a wall.”
– Walter Ulbricht in 1961
Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973)
Became one of the world’s biggest liars as East German General Secretary when he said only months before he ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961: “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.” (“No one has any intention of building a wall.”) On August 13, 1961 Ulbricht ordered Erich Honecker to begin construction of the infamous Wall that would fall 38 years later when Honecker was the leader of the soon-to-be-extinct GDR.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)
(Surname: Mies van der Rohe) Born in Aachen, Germany, van der Rohe was known for his trend-setting architecture and the phrase “less is more.” He was associated with the Bauhaus and later headed the school that became the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He designed classic skyscrapers like the Seagram building (1958) in New York City, which pioneered the use of open space around such mid-city structures. (Also see Helmut Jahn, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus.)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Wagner revolutionized classical music with his “Tristan und Isolde.” His tremendous influence on opera came from popular works such as his “Ring Cycle” and the “Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” Wagner built his famous music hall in Bayreuth, now the home of the annual Richard Wagner Festival (Festspiele). Fortunately, Wagner’s music transcends his dark side as an anti-Semite and a philanderer. His life was also intertwined with that of “Mad King Ludwig” of Bavaria, who supported Wagner financially for a time. – Web: See pictures of Wagner’s grave in Bayreuth.
August von Wassermann (1866-1925)
Best known as the German pathologist who invented a widely-used test for the diagnosis of syphilis in 1906. Born in Bamberg, Wassermann studied in Vienna, Munich, Strassburg, and Berlin, where he was a student of bacteriologist Robert Koch. Wassermann also developed a treatment for diphtheria and vaccinations for cholera, tetanus, and typhoid fever.
More on The German Way
Germans in Hollywood
German film director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) and Austrian director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity), are just two of the famous film people who have worked in Hollywood.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
An Austrian-British philosopher of Jewish descent born in Vienna, Wittgenstein had much of his work published posthumously — although his main work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, considered a masterwork of philosophical thought (logical positivism), was first published in England in German and English in 1922. Tractatus dealt with the question of human language and thinking. Ironically, Wittgenstein claimed that his ideas were misunderstood by those claiming to be his followers.
“I remember mentioning to friends back in 1938 that the world chess champion would be beaten by a computer in 50 years time. Today we know computers are not far from this goal.” – Konrad Zuse
Carl Zeiss (1816-1888)
Zeiss opened a workshop in 1846 for constructing microscopes and other optical instruments. The Carl Zeiss firm in Jena became famous for its quality glass and optical products. After World War II it was split into a western and an eastern firm.
Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838-1917)
Graf (Count) Zeppelin invented the rigid-frame airship near Lake Constance (der Bodensee in German). Born in Konstanz on the shores of Lake Constance, Zeppelin first attended the Polytechnikum in Stuttgart and later studied military science in Ludwigsburg. As a young military officer, Zeppelin visited America in the midst of the Civil War to brush up on his military knowledge. His airship LZ3 first flew successfully in 1908. Long after his death, the Zepplin airship became one of Germany’s greatest icons – until the Hindenburg (LZ 129) disaster in New Jersey in 1937.
Zeppelin’s Grave | Famous Graves
Hans Zimmer (1957- )
Zimmer is a noted composer of film music for The Lion King, Gladiator, and many other Hollywood pictures — just one of the famous Germans in Hollywood.
Konrad Zuse (1910-1995)
Zuse invented the world’s first mechanical binary digital computer, the Z1 (1936-1938), in Berlin. Zuse’s Z2 (1940) was the first fully functioning electro-mechanical computer. A more advanced Z3 followed the next year. The Z4, completed in 1945, is considered the world’s first programmable computer and predates the ENIAC in the US by several years.
Featured Bio | Konrad Zuse
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