Political turmoil spread across Europe after the outbreak of the French Revolution. Riding a wave of ideological zeal, the French unleashed a wave of invasion and warfare. Under Napoleon, portions of Germany were annexed, much of the area reorganized politically, his brother foisted on the throne of the concocted ‘Kingdom of Westphalia,’ and Prussia defeated. The Confederation of the Rhine was established in 1807 with Napoleon as ‘protector.’ French military expansion, however,did not destroy the culture. The 1810s were a decade of cultural flowering in the midst of political uncertainty and foreign rule. This was also the time in which the Coalition Powers, Prussia among them, were able to decisively defeat the French. German culture, grounded in the folklore, language, and forests, provided an antifragile, populist, and grounded context in which a people could survive and thrive. Whereas Revolutionary and Napoleonic nationalism and twentieth century-German nationalism were deeply ideological and pathologically middle class, nineteenth-century German nationalism was a force of liberation, grounded in the culture and beliefs of the common people.
The painting atop this article depicts the artist, author Theodor Körner, and another artist Ferdinand Hartmann — all of whom served in the Lützow Free Corps, a group of volunteers in the Prussian army. Many of these volunteers were craftsmen, laborers, and some students. Kersting joined in 1813 and painted the picture two years later. Theodor Körner had been killed in action by this time, memorialized in the painting. Weeks before he was killed by the French, he wrote a prophetic poem:
“The wound is burning; — the pale lips quiver. -
I feel it in my heart a dull beat,
Here I stand at the brands of my day -
God, how you want! I have surrendered to you. -
I saw many golden pictures floating around me;
The beautiful dream image becomes a death suit. —
courage! Muth! — What I carry so faithfully in my heart,
That must live there forever with me! —
And what I recognized here as a sanctuary,
What I burned quickly and youthfully,
Whether I call it freedom, whether I call it love:
I see it as light Seraph in front of me; —
And as the senses slowly pass me by,
a touch carries me to morning-red heights.”
-Theodor Körner, 1813
The three men stand guard in the forest — an environment which has had special meaning for the German people since at least the time of Arminius (or Hermann, to give him his Germanic name) in the first century. The forest aided the Germanic tribes as the defeated Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 and aided these modern volunteers as they prepare for the arrival of enemy forces in the area. Kersting was a friend of painter Caspar David Friedrich, who influenced Kersting’s own art significantly.
The forest features prominently in German fairy tales as well. One gets a feel for this reading Hansel and Gretel or Snow White. Forested kingdoms of centuries past, wisdom, precautionary tales, customs, and beliefs all passed down through the generations in popular (oral) culture before being recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early nineteenth century. The Brothers Grimm were scholars interested in language, mythology, and folk customs of the German people. Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) was the more scholarly of the two. As their famous Fairy Tales (1812) went through later editions, Wilhelm Grimm had the tales altered to appeal to a middle class readership. This did not sit well with Jacob Grimm, who preferred to maintain the integrity of the originals. However, he was busy with other projects.
A storyteller named Dorothea Viehmann (1755–1816) provided many of the tales for the Brothers Grimm. She was able to recite them from memory and it was from her that these timeless stories passed from oral tradition to written history. Intriguingly, it was only soon after they were written down, that they were edited to conform to the delicate sensibilities of the domesticated middle class. The earthiness of the original tales speaks to the best and worst aspects of human nature. They are tales informed by often dark realities of peasant life down the centuries. While there is speculation about how far back the tales go, there are historians who trace portions of Hansel and Gretel to the Great Famine of the fourteenth century. The idea of a poor family leading children into the woods to abandon them or the poor resulting to cannibalism (hence, the witch), might have come out of that time period. They could have also come out of the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which ravaged much of present-day Germany, destroyed swaths of farmland, saw the destruction of many towns, and led to the deaths of eight million people.
Jacob Grimm’s studied language intensively. He was interested in the origin of the German language at a time when the idea of Indo-European languages was being developed. This linguistic inquiry was increasingly linked to nationalism in the context of the French invasions.
“The first thing a righteous mind can learn from the contemplation of old fable and legend is that behind them there is no vain reason, no fiction, but true poetry” -Jacob Grimm, 1813
Jacob Grimm was also librarian and a professor at several locations during this decade. He published a book on German grammar in 1819. The Fairy Tales was the beginning of Grimm’s long research career. He began with fairy tales, then focused (heavily) on language before turning to mythology.
“The more they began gathering tales, the more they became totally devoted to uncovering the “natural poetry” (Naturpoesie) of the German people, and all their research was geared toward exploring the epics, sagas, and tales that contained what they thought were essential truths about the German cultural heritage. Underlying their work was a pronounced romantic urge to excavate and preserve German cultural contributions made by the common people before the stories became extinct…What fascinated or compelled the Grimms to concentrate on ancient German literature was a belief that the most natural and pure forms of culture — those that held communities together like the close-knit ones in Hesse and northern Germany — were linguistic and were to be located in the past.” — from Jack Zipes’ introduction to ‘The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2014)
German culture in the 1810s gave us the pioneering work of the Brothers Grimm, balances of power in the wake of the French defeat, the decisive defeat of the invaders themselves in a British-Prussian coalition, the reassertion of the cultural importance of the forest, and the paintings of people like Caspar David Friedrich. The time has come to revive this rich cultural legacy, grounded in the customs, folklore, and views of the common people so long tainted by association with pathological deviations in Germany during the course of the twentieth century. The fascist and communist authoritarian perspectives were born out of decadent bourgeois contexts. Failure to integrate the shadow has lead superficial decadent individuals to wholeheartedly embrace these kinds of identity politics of the time. Grounding in a populist culture, with eyes cast upward in respect for those values which transcend space and time (and, with the accompanying humility) coupled with an understanding and incorporation of human nature’s dark side stand as a bulwark against such radical ideologies. The culture of Germany in the 1810s offers such a bulwark, conceived in a fight for liberation.