The Charms of Theodore Fontane

Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich

by Gordon A. Craig
Uber Fontane, Munich: C.H. Beck, 294 pp., DM38.00 (to be published in English by Oxford University Press in 1999)


Two elderly gentlemen look out benignly from the dust jacket of the German edition of Gordon A. Craig’s critical biography of Fontane. Both wear bow ties, moustaches, and mutton-chop whiskers. One is Theodor Fontane, the German writer who lived from 1819 to 1889. The other is Craig himself, Emeritus Professor of History at Stanford University. They could be brothers, and I think the impression is intentional. A sense of affectionate affinity with his subject emanates from Professor Craig’s book and explains its peculiar charm. Charm, incidentally, was Fontane’s outstanding characteristic, both as a man and as a writer. It wasn’t glittery charm—though he could be very funny and even witty in a Wildean way—but charm springing from a laid-back sweetness and goodness.

Apart from the novel Effi Briest, which became better known through Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s beautiful film, Fontane’s work is not much read outside German-speaking countries. His fans compare him to Turgenev and Trollope, and Professor Craig says it surprises him that he himself did not discover Fontane until he was twenty-four, in 1938. He announces that being a historian, he will emphasize Fontane’s historical achievements. Amateur historians (like Fontane), he says, are often the best; most academic historians are bores. This is a cheering thought, but all the same, I doubt whether his chapters on Fontane as a war correspondent and military historian, on Fontane’s attitude toward Bismarck, and even on the history in his historical novels will persuade many newcomers to read the original texts; not at all because Professor Craig suffers from what he sees as the professional historian’s déformation professionnelle, but because it is Fontane’s “novels of society” that are his ticket into world literature. They are what Germans read: especially if they are Prussians, because Fontane was a Prussian to the core, as were most members of the group he belonged to, i.e., the descendants of Huguenot refugees from France, known in Berlin as “the colony.” But you don’t have to be Prussian to admire Fontane and we can hope that Professor Craig’s book when it is published in English next year will help attract the attention Fontane should rightly have.

In The Hitler of History, John Lukacs cites George Orwell’s distinction between patriotism and nationalism: “Patriotism…is defensive, while nationalism is aggressive; patriotism is rooted in the land, in a particular country, while nationalism is applied to the myth of a people…; patriotism is traditionalist, while nationalism is populist. Populism is folkish; patriotism is not…. One can be a patriot and, at least culturally, cosmopolitan.” In those terms, Fontane is the perfect example of a patriotic writer. Everything he wrote was, in a sense, an explication of Prussianism, but he hated insularity. Toward the end of his life he told a friend: “In spite of their colossal faults, the Junkers and country parsons of the Mark Brandenburg are my ideal, my secret love.” He didn’t mention the Berlin working classes, whose famous streetwise humor and wit and whose decency and tolerance are…

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