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A German Classic: Kleist's Die Verlobung in St. Domingo

A German Classic 2021: 
Heinrich von Kleist, Die Verlobung in St. Domingo

Foto © H.-P.Haack


Our set text in 2021 was Die Verlobung in St. Domingo by Heinrich von Kleist. The story is set in the Caribbean, in what is today the Republic of Haiti, at the time of the insurrection of self-liberated slaves against French colonial rule that led to the country's independence in 1804. Against this dramatic historical background develops an ill-fated love story between Toni, a mixed-race teenage girl, and Gustav, a white traveller from Europe. Kleist's take on race relations, civil unrest, and the power imbalance inherent in both colonial structures and gender dynamics has clear resonances in the twenty-first century. Told in Kleist's signature narrative style, which has influenced countless writers since the nineteenth century, Die Verlobung in St. Domingo is an excellent introduction to German literature.

We are pleased to announce the following prizes:

First Prize (£500):            Anna Cumming (Emmanuel College)
Second Prize (£300):       Alexander Archer (Eton College)
Third Prize (£100):          Alastair McLelland (Wyke College)

The essays by Rufus Hall (King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys), Kate de Putter (Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar School), and Sam Woodroff (Dr Challoner's Grammar School) were awarded Highly Commended by the judges, and the essays by Amelia Bell (The Sixth Form College, Colchester) and Alexander Strigo (Dulwich College) were awarded Commended by the judges.

More than 150 students signed up to receive our competition study packs this year, which led to over 50 essay submissions from across the school sector. Not only are these numbers encouraging, but the quality of the essays was also impressive. Head Judge Professor Ritchie Robertson commented that the essays were of a particularly high standard this year and contained many insightful observations about Kleist’s story, which made for very engaging reading. Congratulations to all the winners and to all the entrants! 


As in the past, we'll continue to make the resources on Die Verlobung in St. Domingo prepared for the competition freely accessible on our website. This year we recorded a series of four video podcasts with a number of professors and students at Oxford. Together with our earlier videos, they have already gathered more than 15,000 views on YouTube. This year's videos are:

Episode 1: Race and Colonialism  
Episode 2: Literature and Philosophy 
Episode 3: Gender and Narration 

In the fourth bonus episode, Prof. Ritchie Robertson, the Head Judge of the German Classic Prize, gives some advice on essay writing. 

Episode 4: How to Write a Literature Essay 

We also recommended several other free online resources to our participants. The German version of Kleist's story is freely available online as a text and as an audiobook

A series of audio podcasts on Kleist by Dr Seán Allan from the University of Warwick, recorded with Professor Ricarda Schmidt and Dr Steven Howe from the University of Exeter, including an episode on Die Verlobung in St. Domingo, is available here.

Have a look at Black Central Europe, a database of resources about Black history in the German-speaking lands, including Jeff Bowersox's short introduction to Kleist's story, and the documentation of Die Verlobung in St. Domingo – Ein Widerspruch, Necati Öziri's recent creative response to the story staged at the Maxim Gorky Theater Berlin and Schauspielhaus Zürich

For all details about eligibility, study packs, essay questions, submission, judging criteria, and more to do with the 2021 edition of this competition, see the participation guidelines

'A German Classic', Oxford German Network's essay competition for sixth formers, was created through the generous sponsorship of Jonathan Gaisman, QC, and aims to stimulate interest in great German writers and influential literary works in German. To access resources on our previous set texts, see here.