Thursday, 03 February 2011 15:15

Louis, Max and Freddy

The French, not the Greeks, invented today's Europe and did so through bloodshed and tragedy. Rejecting the feudal-absolutist class society, realising the ideas and values of the enlightenment, 1789 was the birth of what would become a commonly shared notion of democracy and human rights throughout Europe. Yet 1789 also proved how dramatically a supreme moral vision can turn into its opposite through its very implementation – likewise a dilemma of persistent relevance. A German poet was early in grasping that, and tried to lead France on his alternative path to democracy: Friedrich Schiller.

Friedrich Schiller lived in Weimar. This sleepy little town was never a place for revolutions. On a court building of the little duchy of Schiller's time, a bon-mot of Kurt Tucholsky now reads: "Due to bad weather conditions the German revolution took place in music." And even that was still a far cry from 1789: when in France human rights were proclaimed in the name of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality and brotherhood), it would still take almost a century for any German sense of "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit" (unity and justice and freedom) to become reality.

At the time when the Bastille fell, many prominent intellectuals in all the German territories and duchies were enthusiastic about what was happening in neighbouring Paris. Close friends of Schiller's were among them, and he himself had been counted as one of the most progressive thinkers of the enlightenment era and an uncompromising critic of feudalist despotism. But he also seemed to be uncertain; especially when the prison's governor, who had been granted a free pardon, was murdered and his head carried through the streets of Paris. When Schiller's colleague Körner explicitly inquired about his opinion on the revolution in a letter, he left the question unanswered in his reply.

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Friedrich Schiller, 1793

Then the French revolutionaries appointed Schiller honorary citizen of France, in acknowledgement of his novel Die Räuber. That was on the 26th of August 1792. One week later 1,500 royalist prisoners were massacred in Paris. King Louis, degraded to common citizen Louis Capet, was put in jail. Soon Maximilien de Robespierre, president of the National Assembly, would proclaim "the despotism of freedom in the struggle against tyranny", and his ally Antoine St.-Just would state: "a republic is based on the complete extermination of anything opposed to it." Now Schiller was not just unenthusiastic, he was sincerely worried.

In the early days of 1793, he seriously planned to travel to Paris and make a fiery speech in front of his new fellow citizens. His plan was to stop the execution of the imprisoned monarch by convincing the members of the National Assembly of his vision on how their revolutionary goals could become reality; that only the aesthetic education of man could create a society that could implement the ideals of enlightenment on a non-violent basis!

Abandon the guillotine, rush to the theatre, experience how the lovely and the sublime catapult your mind into a free play between reason and the senses, within a state of disinterested pleasure! Watch and behold the beautiful and become a freer, better human being!

He wrote that in 1799, and his Letters on the aesthetic education of man can be considered a bright antithesis to the bloody rebirth of European democracy in France. Instead of Tucholsky's teasing of the Germans, Schiller envisioned a revolution not in the arts but through the arts.

But Friedrich Schiller was not there to save Louis Capet. The King's head rolled on the 21st of January 1793, a "measure of welfare", as Robespierre had called it. Robespierre's own head followed on 28th of July 1794. Schiller stopped reading French newspapers because these "slaves of the brutes" disgusted him.

Still I remain curious about what Robespierre's reaction would have been had Schiller really shown up at the National Assembly. The passionate poet spoke in a strong Swabian dialect.

Published in Culturopolia
IN -1774 DAYS