Johann Peter Hebel and his Legacy

“Das Talent zu forcieren, lag Hebel nicht, er besass den Sinn für Proportionen, Augenmass, Instinkt für das, was nötig und möglich ist und was nicht” (Robert Minder, Hebel, der erasmische Geist oder nützliche Anleitung zu seiner Lektüre, (Leipzig, 1959. (He had a sense of proportion, an eye for detail, an instinct for what is necessary and possible and what is not).

Johann Peter Hebel. Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe. Hebelhaus Hausen

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) is one of the most admired and well-known poets and prose writers in the German-speaking world, admired even by his contemporaries, including Johann Georg Jacobi, Jean Paul, Jeremias Gotthelf, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and, much later, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke, Martin Heidegger, Heinrich Böll, Bertolt Brecht and Botho Strauß.

Hebel was born in Basel. His parents were immigrants from the Kurpfalz (his father) and Hausen (his mother) in the former margravate of Baden, now part of Baden-Württemberg.

Emanuel Büchel (1705-1775), Totentanz 2, Hebel’s house of birth in Basel, around 1770. Private collection

Hebel’s house of birth today

Johann Peter Hebel. Dreyland Dichterweg

After his father’s death, Johann Jakob Hebel, in 1761, Hebel and his mother lived in Hausen in the winter and in Basel in the summer. In the winter, he attended the Latin school in Schopfheim, a village near Hausen. In the summer, he was a pupil at the town school near St Peter’s Church (where he was also baptised) and the Gymnasium in the Münsterplatz in Basel. His homeland (Heimat) was the area between the Feldberg, the source of the Wiese, and Basel, where the Wiese flows into the Rhine at Kleinhüningen.

Gustav Gebhardt (1821-1896), Schopfheim, Innerer Marktgraben and the Lateinschule, 1885.  Stadtarchiv Schopfheim

After his mother died in 1773, he went to Karlsruhe, the residence of the Margrave of Baden. He became a teacher at a grammar school, an associate professor of theology and Hebrew, and a deacon at the court church in Karlsruhe.

Hebelhaus and -museum, Hausen

His Alemannic poetry

He published his first Alemannic poems in this period, which caused a stir among literary luminaries and scholars after their first publication in 1803. How could a “peasant dialect” produce such beautiful poems? After this publication and reprints, his fame was established. The Alemannic language, Basel and the Wiesental were Hebel’s main sources of inspiration.

The Wiese and the Wiesental

Hebel knew (classical) poetry and applied it in his Alemannic poems, a unique feature. Most writers, politicians and scholars had never seen (or heard) Alemannic written (or spoken).

Although he wrote his poems in Alemannic, his titles were in High German, and he included up to 30 pages of word explanations because the Alemannic dialect was not spoken outside his region.

Lörrach, Rötteln Castle

Jetzt goht’s wieder witers und alliwil aben und abe!

Siehsch dört vorne ’s Röttler Schloss – verfalleni Mure?

In vertäfelte Stube mit goldene Liiste verbendlet

hen sust Fürste gwohnt und schöni fürstligi Fraue,

Heren und Heregsind, und d’Freud isch z’Röttle deheim gsi.

(Johann Peter Hebel,  ‘Die Wiese’, 1801)

His Alemannic poems soon became known far beyond the German-speaking world. A Russian translation appeared as early as 1818, soon followed by Dutch, Japanese and French translations.

In the 20th century, the German writer Rainer Maria Rilke (who also found his “home” in Switzerland and is buried in Raron in the canton of Valais) put it this way:

“”Nicht daß dieser Mann im Dialekt gedichtet hat, sondern daß der Dialekt in ihm poetisch geworden ist, das ist das Entscheidende“. (Not that this man wrote in dialect, but that the dialect became poetic, that is the decisive issue).

Ötlingen, St. Gallus Church

The calendar stories

The calendar was a medium with a large circulation (up to 50,000 copies per year in the Margraviate of Baden), containing practical information (months, days, markets, holidays, phases of the moon, sunrise, sowing and harvesting dates, etc.) supplemented by short, mainly dramatised and exciting stories from everyday life. Hebel took over the publication of this calendar in 1808.

His calendar stories in “Der Rheinländische Hausfreund oder neuer Kalender” and the volume “Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes“, published in 1811 and containing the best stories from the “Rheinländer Hausfreund”, contributed significantly to his fame.

He wrote in High German. He drew inspiration from a variety of written and oral sources. He developed a style for the short story that is still imitated today.

His career

Hebel always had another profession besides writing. During the Napoleonic era, Baden was elevated to a grand duchy in 1806. In 1819 Grand Duke Ludwig I (1763-1830) appointed him prelate of the Evangelical Church of Baden, the highest ecclesiastical office in the Grand Duchy, with the membership of the First Chamber of the Landtag and the Evangelical Church Synod.

Hebel’s grave in Schwetzingen. Foto: Hebelhaus Hausen

Literary legacy

Hebel died and was buried in Schwetzingen on 22 September 1826. He inspired many writers, both during his lifetime and after his death. The Wiesental and Basel honour the writer in many ways: the Hebel Prize for Literature, commemorative plaques, Hebel fountains, Hebel walks, Hebel cafés, the annual Hebel Day and the Hebel “mähli” on 10 May, as well as the Hebel House (Hebelhause)in Hausen, Hebel associations, Hebel pavilions, the Basel Hebel Foundation, Hebel streets, Hebel squares, statues and busts, (academic) publications and tributes in many other forms.

Hebeltag, Hausen, 10 May 2023 

His greatest gift to Basel is his poem “Z’Basel an mim Rhi” with the Allemannic title “Erinnerung an Basel”:

Z’Basel an mim Rhy,

Jo, dert möcht i sy!

Weiht nit d’Luft so mild und lau

Und der Himmel isch so blau

An mym liebe, an mym liebe Rhy

It was also his last Alemannic poem, which ties in nicely with his first. His first poem under the title ‘Die Wiese’ is about the source of the Wiese near Feldberg and ends in Basel:

Feldbergs liebligi daughter, o Wiese, bis mer Gottwilche!….’s Gotthard’s grosse Bueb (the Rhine), ………doch wie ne Rotsher vo Basel stolz in sine Schritte und schön in sine Giberde.

(Source: B. Trachsler, Johann Peter Hebel. Werkauswahl, Basel 2010, Hebelhaus Hausen)

Johann Peter Hebel Gesellschaft, Basel Tattoo Parade, 15 July 2023



Lörrach, Hebelpark

Hebelbrunnen, Hausen

Basel, St. Peterskirche and Hebelbuste