Ernst Haeckel: My Favourite German

Talking Animal

An awful lot of very nice Germans have crossed my path recently and it got me thinking, as these things do, just who is my all-time favourite German? I reached the conclusion that Friedrich Nietzsche and his moustache were certainly quite interesting but, at the moment at least, Ernst Haeckel definitely has to be my most favourite German ever.

Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel (1834—1919) was a polymath and a pick-and-choose champion of Darwinism (he also dug Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, one of the most famous wrong people ever, and my favourite Frenchman) and was hugely excited about the theory of recapitulation which, whilst being logic-light to the extent of being a tad crazy, is pretty damned cool nonetheless. A bit like God.

Most immediately impressive, however, is Haeckel’s body of natural history illustrations, exemplified by Kunstformen der Natur (1904), almost certainly my favourite German book of all time. Having said that, I don’t know an awful lot about German literature beyond Mein Kampf being a bit naughty and The Communist Manifesto not having enough pictures in it.

Kunstformen der Natur
Original book cover

It is the combination of science, in examining, understanding and exposing the complexity of organisms, and art, so wonderfully echoing the beauty of nature and showing an undoubted passion for his subjects in their glorious presentation, that makes Haeckel’s illustrations stand out.


In a historical context, at a time when it wasn’t unusual for natural history illustrations to be either speculative and wildly inaccurate, considerably more conservative, or both, they are all the more impressive.

Pitcher plants
Nepenthaceae (a family of pitcher plants)

OK, so, truth be told, the primary reason for the existence of this piece is an excuse to continue to slap Haeckel’s artwork on these pages. The background to the site, right there behind every article, near the top, is an illustration of his of a brittle star. And the thing at the bottom that looks like a mutant human female’s reproductive system? A flatworm. A beautiful flatworm.


When I was a jugendliche, I had a German teacher, a fool, who hooked me up with a German penpal, an imbecile. A subsequent German exchange lead to an encounter with a whole host of German miscreants. But my recent exposure to Germans, lovely Germans, decent Germans, OK-your-language-isn’t-the-most-attractive-in-the-world-but-at-least-it’s-not-Urdu Germans, has dispelled any notion, any suspicion I might have had, that all Germans are somehow inherently horrible.

Was Ernst Haeckel nice? I don’t know. But look at his face. Look at that beard. I’m pretty sure that’s the picture of a lovely man. He certainly contributed a great deal to the progression of natural history and he drew some damned pretty pictures along the way. And that’s why he is my favourite German. Ever.

Discomedusae (a subclass of jellyfish)

Written by Patrick Griffiths on .

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