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Friedrich Schiller is often classified as “Germany’s Shakespeare,” but he is in fact a son of the Enlightenment. Born in 1759, Schiller grew up reading Rousseau in school, at the same time as figures such as Maximilien de Robespierre and Thomas Jefferson. All agreed, at pretty much the same moment in history, that man was free and yet born in chains, as Rousseau writes and as Schiller underlined in his notebooks.
Jefferson and Robespierre, however, sought to bring about this freedom through constitutions and government. Schiller, on the other hand, wrote poetry and plays, along with philosophical tracts and history books. His thinking has a romantic, rather than a revolutionary cast. He is concerned above all with aesthetic freedoms, man’s quest for inner enlightenment. He was terrified of mob rule and the untrammeled potential of democracy.
In Schiller’s case, geography was destiny. Schiller had the misfortune of being born in the Holy Roman Empire. Consisting of 400-plus petty principalities in an area the size of Texas, the Empire was ungovernable, a geopolitical Humpty Dumpty that resisted any attempts to put it together into a unitary whole. (You can fill in your jokes about German reunification and walls here.)
Many territories were ruled by despots. In Schiller’s case, he grew up in the prison-like duchy of Württemberg, where Duke Karl Eugen personally oversaw beatings, canings and imprisonments of young students, including Schiller himself. After risking life and limb to escape the Duke’s school, and choosing the outlaw profession of playwriting, Schiller met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1794, in the small Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. They had both been brought there by Duke Karl August, another despot but an enlightened one who wished to foster a German literary culture. Unlike Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, masters of their own eminent domains, Goethe and Schiller were caged birds. Liberty was so remote from their everyday lives that it could exist only as an aesthetic abstraction.
Wallenstein, directed by Goethe at the opening of the Weimar Court Theater in 1799, is Schiller’s attempt to examine the political failings of German culture. Sprawling to an epic length of 11 hours, it is his most pessimistic work. Set during the Thirty Years’ War, a national trauma that left nearly two-thirds of central Europe’s population dead, the play depicts a failed revolution in Germany on the American model. Schiller posits the war’s central figure, the general Albrecht von Wallenstein, as a would-be George Washington. Wallenstein speaks of crossing the Rubicon and betraying the Emperor, much as Washington crossed the Delaware and vanquished George III.
But idealism in this play is thwarted by realpolitik. Wallenstein negotiates with the Swedes in secret, while tricking his loyal generals into signing a drunken proviso that would see the Emperor lop off their heads. General Octavio remains loyal to the Emperor, but he appeals to the vanity and greed of the generals in order to betray Wallenstein. The most heroic figure is Max, Octavio’s son, who chooses the freedom of the grave, a darkly absolutist view of self-determination. The most idealistic character is the Irish general Bailey. The son of a servant, Bailey sees in Wallenstein (and in poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s new translation) something like the Enlightenment dream of liberty:
It seems that this is a great historic moment:
The sons of ancient lines are disappearing,
Cities and castles passing from hand to hand.
New names are rising, they have new coats of arms.
At the end of the play, this complicated tangle of divided self-interests produces a cataclysmic scene of tragedy. It is a libertarian’s nightmare, as self-rule loses out to big government and the industrial war machine marches on. Bailey sets out to give his sword to the Emperor and resign his commission, a free man. I would like to think he emigrates to the new world. There is no democracy to be found in Deutschland.