Works of Frederick Engels
Materials on the History of France and Germany

Language and Literature


Source: Marx Engels On Art and Literature, Progress Publishers 1976;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

The clumsiness of the German language in everyday usage, combined with its enormous facility in dealing with the most difficult subjects is a cause — or symptom? — of the fact that the Germans have the greatest men in most fields, but that, at the same time, the mass productions are the most terrible trash. Literature: the numerous respectable second-rank poets in England and the brilliant mediocrity which makes up almost the whole of French literature are almost completely lacking in Germany. Our second-rank poets are scarcely readable after one generation. The same is true of philosophy: beside Kant and Hegel we find Herbart, Krug, Fries and finally Schopenhauer and Hartmann. The genius of the great is complemented by an absence of ideas among the educated masses and consequently no description is less apt than that of “a nation of thinkers.” The same is true of millions of literati. Only in matters more or less independent of language is the position different and people of the second rank, too, are of significance in Ger many; this applies to natural science and in ‘particular to music. Our historical writings are unreadable.


The Chanson de Roland


The oldest Provençal poems extant date from circa 1100, but there is no doubt that there were earlier experiments too. With the aid of a steadily growing number of documents, Paulin Paris has demonstrated that, contrary to Fauriel, epic poetry first originated in northern France and spread from there to southern France (p. 342); la date est certaine, since Taillefer sang the “Chanson de Roland” near Hastings; it has been established that its surviving, probably somewhat expanded text was in existence before the first Crusade. Edit. Francisque Michel, Paris 1837, and F. Génin, Paris 1850. The author is Théroulde (Turoldus). The unity of France, represented in the person of Charlemagne, an imaginary, ideal feudal monarchy, is celebrated in this chanson, while later poets of the Carolingian group of legends at the time of the monarchy’s real resurgence celebrate local heroes and, particularly in “Fils Aymon,” resistance to the central power, the feudal monarchy (pp. 345-46).


Historical Significance of the Reformation


When Protestantism was finally crushed in France, it was no misfortune for France — teste Bayle, Voltaire and Diderot, but its suppression in Germany would have been a calamity not for Germany, but indeed for the world. It would have forced the Catholic form of development of the Romance countries on Germany and, since the English form of development was also semi-Catholic and medieval (Universities, etc., colleges, public schools are all Protestant monasteries), all the free Protestant German forms of education (education at home or in private institutions, students living out of college and choosing their own courses) would have ceased to exist and Europe’s spiritual development would have become infinitely monotonous. France and England have smashed prejudices in essence, while Germany has done away with prejudices as far as the form is concerned, has done away with the set patterns. From this stems in part the formlessness of everything German, which, up to the present day, has been connected with such great disadvantages as the plethora of small states, but which is an enormous advantage as regards the nation’s capacity for development. This will bear its full fruit only in the future, when this stage, in itself one-sided, has been overcome.