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The Goethe Case

To the Editors:

It is difficult to find a statement about my book Das Goethe-Tabu in Gordon Craig’s review [NYR, April 13] that is not misleading or simply wrong. As an example of how my “charges against Goethe are often overdrawn or inaccurate,” he says that Goethe “did not vote for execution” of Anna Catharina Höhne—I never claimed that he did—but rather that he expressed the view that the death penalty should be retained, which is exactly how I presented it, in the first lines of my book. Of course, this decision in principle meant the execution of Höhne, whose case had triggered the deliberations, so it is difficult to see what Craig’s point is. Certainly, he somehow misses my point, the previously unknown end of the story: that extraordinary security measures were ordered for the execution—by Goethe and the other Privy Councillors—apparently because protest was feared. I do not “shake my head” over Goethe’s supposed “moral delinquency,” since my questions are not primarily moral, but political, involving human rights and protest.

Craig then claims wrongly, “Neither Goethe nor the duke approved of recruiting for the American war; the documents I cite in footnotes 15 and 20 of the relevant chapter prove quite the opposite. Goethe was involved in the selling (“recruiting” is a euphemism used in the documents) of men to the Hanover agent1 even more than the other Privy Councillors, since he was also head of Weimar’s War Commission. Craig then says that “Goethe tended to be unsympathetic toward university intellectuals with liberal views, but this was because he feared that their activities would lead neighboring princes to withdraw their subjects from the university….” This is (partly) true of Fichte, but there is little evidence for it generally; any serious student of the political Goethe knows that he did not need to be forced to fight “liberal views,” which were anathema to him.

Craig’s general point—stressed by claiming that I am intent on showing that Weimar’s government is a “dictatorship,” an anachronistic term that I never use—is that I “criticize the poet for having failed to base his behavior on standards prevalent in America two hundred years after his own time.” It takes considerable disingenuity to ignore my extensive analysis of human rights concepts in Goethe’s day (in my introduction), and to gloss over completely the many cited examples of criticism of Goethe’s political activities by his contemporaries, including respected jurists. Was it values from “Wilson’s Berkeley” that moved the Weimar government’s own judicial authority in 1781 to condemn the Privy Council (including Goethe) for infringing on principles of “law and justice,” on the “freedom” of peasants, whom the Council wished to prevent from instigating perfectly legal actions against excessive federal duties?2 Is it a purely twentieth-century concept of human rights when Jena professors objected to the government’s use of spies, arguing on both moral and legal grounds? The professors wrote that the students’ hearts were poisoned when they were employed as spies, and that defendants could not be fairly convicted if their accusers remained anonymous.3

These are, to be sure, modern-sounding arguments, but they were made in 1786. Goethe ignored them, instead weighing proposals for better financing of the spies. In the words of Wolfgang Rothe, “The banal excuse, that [Goethe] was only a child of his times and cannot be measured with today’s yardstick, is historically inaccurate: Goethe was not representative of his time, but rather a nonconformist. He did not conform to the liberal and constitutional tendencies of the early nineteenth century, and he alienated himself from the intellectuals of Germany and in the end found himself completely isolated.4 My work shows that he was outside the mainstream of political thought even at the beginning of his public service. And Craig’s old canard that it was “the duke’s growing resistance to reform” that alienated Goethe is simply wrong; my findings confirm earlier scholarship, which showed that in most cases, the duke pushed for reform while Goethe opposed it.

I not only lay blame at the feet of “professional students of German literature” for failing to uncover the uncomfortable facts, but also of historians. Many in both groups were embarrassed when entire areas of Goethe’s official activities became known only at the end of the twentieth century, though the thousands of relevant unpublished documents lay under the noses of the Goethe establishment in Weimar and the fact of their existence has been accessible in print for half a century. Craig himself wrote a chapter on “Goethe as statesman” in his 1993 book Die Politik der Unpolitischen, relying for the most important facts on an outdated 1923 work and—astonishingly—not even bothering to look at Goethe’s own official writings (published 1950-1972), much less to venture into the Weimar state archive to find something new on the topic. When the authors of such whitewashings read about the shadowy side of Germany’s Classical heritage and of its autocratic, but supposedly benevolent governments, their discomfort is palpable.

W. Daniel Wilson
Professor and Chair of German
University of California at Berkeley

Gordon Craig replies:

Professor Wilson’s refusal to see any distinction between a declaration on the state of the law and an application of the law in a particular case enables him to portray Goethe in the worst possible light from the outset. Thus, on the first page of his book, he can write, concerning the case of the child-murderess Anna Catharina Höhne, “Goethe’s vote [on the question of whether the existing law should be changed or not]…had hands and feet, and it also had a head, which on 28 November 1783 in full public view was separated from the body by the executioner’s sword.” In his letter, he now implies that the poet and his colleagues were worried about the reaction to what they had done and ordered special security measures “apparently because protest was feared.” This is not corroborated by his book, where he writes that we cannot be sure why the extra security was ordered (p. 8) and adds, “We do not know with assurance whether there were protests in the public at large” (p. 11).

Other examples of overstatement and inaccuracy can be cited. The footnotes that Professor Wilson says contradict what I wrote in my review about the opposition of Goethe and the duke to recruiting do not do so, being no more than references to two letters that are not quoted. He dismisses as an “old canard” my references to Goethe’s concern about the duke’s growing resistance to reform, although this is well known, particularly in military affairs, and played an important role in Goethe’s decision to go to Italy in 1786.

Finally, rather curiously, he describes an article of mine as a “whitewashing,” apparently less because of its contents, with which I should have thought he would have been sympathetic, since they dealt with the poet’s increasing conservatism from the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution onward and his growing distrust of intellectuals who busied themselves with politics, than because it showed no indication of being based on archival research.

These may seem to be small points. More distressing is the fact that the incoherent quotation from Wolfgang Rothe apparently indicates that Professor Wilson has no intention of ceasing to judge historical figures by present-day standards.

  1. 1

    A misprint on p. 50 might lead the reader to believe that C.F. von Wangenheim was (still) a Prussian officer, but in all other instances he is correctly referred to as a Hanoverian agent.

  2. 2

    Das Goethe-Tabu, pp. 88ff.

  3. 3

    Das Goethe-Tabu, pp. 190-192.

  4. 4

    Wolfgang Rothe, Der politische Goethe: Dichter und Staatsdiener im deutschen Spätabsolutismus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), p. 132.

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