In a world descending into the chaos brought about by the French Revolution, German culture was on the ascendency at the same time that the German Lands were declining politically. The decentralized nature of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation necessitated the organic, bottom-up, growth of local centers. Each duchy, principality, and bishopric had to have its own palace, theater, university, and library. A decentralized cosmopolitanism emerged strong enough to weather the tumult of over two decades of French invasions and meddling. Germany was an idea — an ideal, developed to its greatest cultural extent by liberal (in the classical sense) thinkers. Germany became the ‘land of poets and thinkers’ before Germany became a nation-state. One could write numerous books on the many towering figures who lived during the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries in the German Lands, but two people stand above the rest when it comes to literature: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805). Goethe and Schiller first met in 1788 and remained friends until the latter’s untimely death in 1805 — a friendship which was to prove among the most important in the history of literature for any time and place.
Reflecting on the nature of German political development in the 1820s, Goethe compared the German Lands to France, finding the latter lacking considerably.
“A clever Frenchmen, I think Dupin, has sketched a chart of the state of culture in France, and has exhibited the greater or less enlightenment of the different departments by a lighter or darker colour. Now, some departments, particularly in the southern provinces remote from the capital, are represented by a perfectly black colour, as a sign of the great darkness prevailing there. But, would that be so if la belle France, instead of one great focus, had ten foci, whence life and light might proceed?
Whence is Germany great, but by the admirable culture of the people, which equally pervades all parts of the kingdom? But does not this proceed form the various seats of government? and do not these foster and support it? Suppose, for centuries past, we had had in Germany only the two capitals, Vienna and Berlin, or only one of these: I should like to see how it would have fared with German culture, or even with generally diffused opulence that goes hand in hand with culture. Germany has about twenty universities distributed about the while empire, and about a hundred public libraries similarly distributed. There are also a great many collections of art and collections of objects belonging to all the kingdoms of nature; for every prince has taken care to bring around him thee useful and beautiful objects. There are gymnasia and schools for arts and industry in abundance — nay, there is scarcely a German village without its school…..Then look at the German theatres, exceeding seventy, and not to be despised as supporters and promoters of a higher cultivation of the people. In no country are the taste for and the practice of music and singing so widely spread as in Germany; and even that is something…..Frankfort, Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck, are great and brilliant; their effect on the prosperity of Germany is incalculable. But would they remain what they are, if they lost their own sovereignty and became incorporated with any great German kingdom as provincial towns? I see reason to doubt.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann (22 October 1828)
The period between 1788–1805 saw the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (which was finally dissolved in 1806). Decentralization also proved an antifragile bulwark against the French war machine in the long term as the competing interest of several major German kingdoms could unite for common defense but remain independent in many other ways (economically and politically).
Goethe came to Weimar, the capital of a rather small but later significant duchy, in the 1770s. He achieved fame as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which he wrote in his 20s. Apart from a few trips (most notably to Italy), Goethe would spend the rest of his life working at the court of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Schiller, a decade younger than Goethe, did not come to the author’s attention until 1788 (and even that early meeting was not particularly promising). It wasn’t until the 1790s that Goethe and Schiller really connected as friends and literary influences on each other. While Goethe was based in Weimar, Schiller gained a foothold in the intellectual world in the city of Jena (another great center for innovative thought at the time). He would later move to Weimar in the final years of his life.
Literary Collaboration and Influence
Goethe and Schiller embarked on the most impactful periods in their respective careers during the time they collaborated. Admittedly, Schiller was more productive in the short term — though he died prematurely in his 40s in 1805. Goethe’s famous closet drama Faust took years to complete and it was Friedrich Schiller who encouraged Goethe to continue work on it in the 1790s. A fragment of it had appeared at the time but Faust Part I was not published in its entirety until 1808 (Faust Part II was finished in 1831 and published posthumously the following year).
In Goethe: Life as a Work of Art (2017), biographer Rüdiger Safranski recounts Goethe’s appealing to Schiller for help and Schiller’s response. Goethe, distrustful of large abstract systems, developed Faust in a way which combined many elements of stage plays, closet drama, folklore, and metaphysics. In short, there was a need for more structure so that a coherent narrative could be better developed.
“One consequence, for Schiller, was that the work could get out of hand, turning into either slapstick comedy or solemn abstraction. Both extremes had to be avoided. Of course, life should be presented as bursting with powerful sensuality, but it must also submit “to the service of a rational idea.” Schiller’s momentous suggestion was that Faust should not just appear as a learned man and seducer but also be “led to a life of activity.” Famously, Goethe would seize on this and make Faust into an industrious globetrotter in the second part of the play” -Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art (2017)
While Friedrich Schiller’s artistic output surged at the turn of the nineteenth century, Goethe experienced an inability to write much. Politics weighed heavily on his mind — the French Revolution was spreading discord throughout the European continent. Goethe was rather aloof from particulars of political ideologies but, according to Rüdiger Safranski, blamed the excesses of the revolution on the excesses of the nobility. While he was not sympathetic to aristocratic short sightedness, Goethe was certainly no friend of the Jacobins — a gang of murderous thugs who initiated the Reign of Terror. He distrusted the rise in nationalism of the early-nineteenth century, came to loathe Napoleon after initially seeing him as a stabilizing force for France. Both Goethe and Schiller can be construed of as liberals in the classical sense of the term — an emphasis on individuality and civil liberties under the rule of law. Schiller’s political leanings though dynamic and shifting over time, were dominated by the themes of his historical research and plays set during the Thirty Years’ War. Schiller was initially supportive of the French Revolution but turned against it when it became more violent and zealously ideological. This disillusionment with the French Revolution partially inspired his On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters (1794).
“The attempt by the French people to realize themselves in their sacred rights of man and thereby achieve political freedom has merely revealed their own incapacity and unworthiness, casting not only this unhappy people, but also, with them, a considerable part of Europe, back a whole century in barbarism and servitude…Political and civil freedom remains eternally the most sacred of all things, the most deserving aim of all effort, the great centre of all culture; but this wondrous structure can only be built on the solid foundation of an ennobled character. One has to begin with the creation o the citizens for a constitution, before these citizens can be granted a constitution.” -Friedrich Schiller, as quoted by Alexander Schmidt in the beginning of the Penguin edition of On the Aesthetic Education of Man
Friedrich Schiller was developing his own nuanced understanding of political events which differentiated him from the aristocratic order which dominated Europe for centuries as well as the foundations of modern conservatism being articulated by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, written around the same time. Schiller was a liberal but certainly not a far-leftist.
Friedrich Schiller died of tuberculosis in Weimar in 1805 at the age of 45, devastating Goethe. Among the last thing the two of them were involved in at the time was a study of Diderot’s work Rameau’s Nephew, which Goethe was translating from French into German. Biographer Rüdiger Safranski recounts this and the couple bouts of shingles Goethe suffered from at the time. Such was the tragic end of one of the most important friendships in the history of literature. Goethe would go on to live and work for a couple more decades, until his death in 1832 (outliving his initial patron Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach).
The friendship between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, commemorated by a much-copied and photographed statue in the city of Weimar, proved to be one of the most important developments in the whole of German history. Goethe ranks up there with Martin Luther in terms of the size of his impact on the German language while Schiller is probably second only to William Shakespeare in terms of dramatic genius. Both of these men lived and worked during one of the most tumultuous times in European history — the decades of unrest and political strife which emerged out of the French Revolution. Both lived to see French imperial expansion, militarism, looting, and occupation during the 1790s and early 1800s. Only Goethe lived to see the final defeat of the French and full liberation of the European continent.
Both of these authors dominated the intellectual landscape in an age of many great minds — Klopstock, Lessing, Kant, Herder, Wieland, Novalis, Hegel, Fichte, Madame de Staël and the Brothers Grimm, just to name a few. Goethe and Schiller constitute a bridge — a bridge between the early modern and the modern, a bridge between the Enlightenment and the Romantic, and the two central nodes in vast, decentralized networks which stretched beyond mere national borders. Perhaps the best way to end this very short piece on the legacy of Goethe and Schiller is with a quote from the latter:
“The dignity of mankind is in your hands; protect it! It sinks with you! With you it will ascend.” -Friedrich Schiller, ‘The Artists’