Sophie in the gardens of Balliol College

Philanthropy Report 2020/21

Advancing our understanding of German culture


The study of German language, literature and culture is thriving at Oxford thanks to support from the Dieter Schwarz Foundation and Lidl GB.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Munich, Sophie Forst became fascinated with the Enlightenment: the period of rigorous scientific, political and philosophical discourse that characterised European culture in the late 17th and 18th centuries. As her course drew to a close, she knew she wanted to continue exploring the subject at graduate level and so applied to study for an MSt in Modern Languages (German) at Oxford.

‘Central to the Enlightenment is the notion of reason, because, by its public use – as the philosopher Immanuel Kant argues – humanity can progress. It’s the idea that humans can overcome errors in their thinking by identifying them, and by using reason in the right way,’ explains native German speaker Sophie. ‘It’s a very inspiring epoch that led to major social innovations, and Oxford has a great European Enlightenment programme, so it just seemed like it fitted perfectly.’

Sophie took up her place in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages in September 2020, and in doing so joined one of the world’s leading centres for the study of German language, literature and culture. German studies have long been an important part of intellectual life at Oxford, with the language first taught at the University more than 100 years ago. Today, the sub-faculty of German provides students with an extensive grounding in German culture, covering medieval writing through to contemporary literature, language and film.

Sophie Forst stands in the gardens of Balliol College
 Lidl Graduate Scholar 2020–21 Sophie Forst in the gardens of Balliol College, Oxford. Photo by John Cairns

Over the past year, Sophie has chosen to focus her own research on the aesthetic theory of the European Enlightenment, which she describes as ‘a philosophical reflection on literature’. This saw her primarily study dramatic texts from the period, including those of German playwright, poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805). ‘Schiller has an anthropological approach and asks what we can learn about human beings and their moral potentials. He looks closely at how people act and why and reflects on it in his theoretical writings and in his dramatic oeuvre,’ explains Sophie.

As well as being of great historical importance, Sophie says that the Enlightenment also has relevance in the present day. ‘The claims that Enlightenment makes and the virtues it wants us to have, like to be moral according to universal norms, to be tolerant… we still have to live up to them today. Enlightenment hasn’t stopped; it’s a project that is not finished – including criticising its own limitations. Studying it has definitely taught me a lot about people and made me more reflective in thinking about the core questions of the world.’

Thinking deeply about German language, literature and philosophy, and what it can tell us about German culture and its global impacts, is a core component of studying the subject at graduate level. However, German language studies are currently under threat in universities across Europe, with many departments having closed in the UK in the last ten years.

Recent philanthropic support has been crucial in enabling Oxford to work towards stemming this rapid decline, and in doing so, helping the discipline to thrive once again. Earlier this year, a donation from the Dieter Schwarz Foundation secured the future of the Taylor Chair of the German Language and Literature: a prestigious academic position that plays a leading role in international German studies.

Another significant source of support for German at Oxford has been Lidl GB. In 2018, to enhance German language teaching and provide opportunities for talented young linguists, the supermarket chain funded a series of scholarships and prizes for students studying German in the faculty. Sophie was awarded a fully funded Lidl Graduate Scholarship for her master’s degree, which she describes as ‘essential’ in enabling her to take up her place at the University.

‘Lidl’s support is very important for the future of German studies,’ says Sophie, who recently completed her MSt course with a Distinction. ‘It’s been a privilege to have had this scholarship and I’m incredibly thankful for it.’

‘I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to come here to pursue my master’s degree. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it’

Sophie Forst

Sophie’s experience of studying German at Oxford has been eye opening. Particularly notable, she says, is the way in which she was encouraged to think more broadly about the subject she had come to love as an undergraduate. ‘This is a great place to work in an interdisciplinary way. The professors encourage us to look beyond our subject. And they support us with our ideas, even if they are risky and we don’t know if they will work out.’

Sophie also greatly valued the academic community she encountered at her college, Balliol, as well as the high level of interdisciplinary exchange between fellows and students there.

Studying German literature from the perspective of another language is something that Sophie relished, having not done it before coming to Oxford. ‘I feel like it has made me more reflective,’ she says. ‘The structure of the English language is different from German, so I think it changes your argument. I think it even changes the structure of your thinking. It’s very exciting, and I only discovered it when I got here.’

Sophie enjoyed her time as a master’s student so much that she decided to apply for a DPhil in the faculty. She began her doctoral studies in October, focusing on moral and social progress in the philosophical, literary and aesthetic discourse of the Enlightenment. ‘I think Oxford is the best place for this project so I’m very happy to be able to do it here,’ she says. ‘It’s really inspiring: the people, the place and the institution. I’m so glad to have had the Lidl Graduate Scholarship, which has made everything possible.’


Read the full report

Download a printable PDF below.

Download PDF

Support Oxford

Philanthropy makes a significant difference to what we are able to achieve across Oxford – for students, for academics and for the world at large.

Donate now