Franz Mehring

The Lessing Legend

1. Lessing’s Origins

The idea that Lessing was a second Luther must be avoided. Traces of this idea can be found even in Heine and Lassalle; and even Lessing himself in his theological discussions once referred to the authority of Luther. Unless he did so for tactical reasons, he demonstrated in a curious way that even the clearest minds may not be clear as to the motives that determine their actions. As a matter of fact, from the beginning to the end of his career Lessing directed his hardest blows against Luther and Lutheranism. Luther fought for the class of the princes, while Lessing fought for the middle classes; the two constitute the most direct opposites known to German history from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Lessing was by no means a Luther on a higher scale. The parson Goeze, Luther’s genuine successor, called Lessing the Anti-Luther, and rightly so. In Lassalle’s excellent words: “The great fault of the Goezes past and present consists in – being right.”

Yet the fact that Luther and Lessing came from the same state is not unimportant. In that part of Germany which shook off the domination of the Hapsburgs and the Pope, Saxony was by far the most developed economically, and consequently the most civilized. The returns from her mines gave the Saxon princes a great advantage in the beginning of capitalist development. In the first decades of the sixteenth century, there was no more powerful German territorial prince than the Saxon Elector Friedrich. The production of commodities advanced rapidly in Saxony; the great trade route from the South to the North of Europe passed through Erfurt. The Lutheran movement was born of the struggle for this important commercial centre, which at the same time possessed the most important German university and was the main centre of German humanism. The city of Erfurt, which itself strove for independence from any princely power, had for long been an object of contention between Mayence and Saxony. When the Hohenzollern Albrecht was elected Archbishop of Mayence, the quarrel began again. Under these circumstances it could not be expected that the Saxon Elector Friedrich should allow “indulgences” to be sold in his state by a commissar of Albrecht; half of the revenues of the sale were intended to pay the 25,000 ducats which Albrecht owed to Rome for his election.

The Elector Friedrich was a peace-loving gentleman. And more, he was an extremely bigoted Catholic, a believer to the same degree that his adversary Albrecht was an unbeliever. His highest ambition was to receive the Golden Rose from the Pope; he undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and bought for the Wittenberg Palace Church five thousand questionable bones of saints from all over the world. This was the same church on whose doors Luther had nailed his theses against the indulgences – and here these relics were exhibited on a certain day every year for the people to adore. When Luther, just before publishing his theses, had preached against indulgences, he lost the favor of the Elector, who feared that such preaching might lessen the attractions of his relics. However his most peace-loving attitude disappeared when money was at stake. For a long time the Elector had observed to his annoyance that the Roman vendors of indulgences gathered like a swarm of bees in his state, and for very good reasons. However much money he might have spent on the bones of dead saints, he was not inclined to use the money of his state to present the Roman Church with a new living saint in the person of Archbishop Albrecht, who intended to rob him of the rich city of Erfurt. Therefore he allowed Luther to continue, not as a “man of God” but as a tool of his financial policy. Nothing is more unfounded than to see a “world historical action” in Luther’s theses against indulgences and to date the beginning of the Reformation from them. The Anti-Roman movement had been in existence for decades in all classes of the German nation, and the fight against the abuses of the church had already found literary expression, for instance in the writings of the humanists. They were much more scathing than the rather tame theses of Luther. who did not even blame the indulgences themselves, but only their “abuses.” It is equally wrong to say that Luther dealt with the questions in a straightforward, vigorous, popular manner, while the culture of the humanists was beyond the reach of the people. Luther’s theses, too, were drafted in Latin, and written in the peculiar mysterious style of scholastic theology, which was absolutely incomprehensible to the masses. Luther himself often expressed his surprise at the tremendous consequences of his step. What he did not grasp, and what the bourgeois historians can explain only by some fantastic ideological assumption, is very simply explained by the economic situation of Luther’s time. Of the intellectual leaders of the Reformation, Luther, the narrowest mind among them, survived, while the more important intellects, Hutten, Münzer, Wendel Hipler perished. Behind Luther stood the power which was economically the most important – the princes. Behind the others stood the barons, the proletariat, the peasants and the burghers – classes which were either economically declining or just beginning to rise. Because their economic interests were mutually opposed, they could not unite in a common action against the princes. After the rebellion of the barons and especially after the Peasants’ War, Luther understood his role very well, as this glorious sentence alone demonstrates:

“That two and five equal seven you can understand with your reason; but if your rulers say two and five are eight, you must believe it, against your own knowledge and instinct.”

With regard to his really fine achievement – that he, as a poor and unknown monk, recognized and fought the vices of the exploiting Roman Church – Luther neither stood alone among the proletarian part of the clergy of his time, nor in the front rank. Many of those priests honorably bore witness to their hatred of Rome and their faithfulness to their class by dying on the battlefield or on the scaffold. But as a “peasant’s son risen high,” a “leader of the nation,” Luther was the Great Man of usual stamp: the exponent of historical evolution tried to master and to check it. Luther could organize the new church according to the needs of German petty despotism; he could make the very worldly territorial princes bishops of their states, and could attribute to them the right of disposing of the church and monastery demesne. But he could do all this only as a fanatical servant of the princes, as an intellectual champion of the irresistible decay which befell Germany, and at the price of making his name the symbol of the narrowest reaction as early as the middle of the sixteenth century.

The high economic development of Saxony was the most important factor in Luther’s rise, yet it imposed certain limits on the omnipotence of the princes which Luther advocated. In a still half-barbarian state like Brandenburg where – as a learned priest said, an educated man was as rare as a white raven – the Elector Joachim could half change over to the cause of the Reformation, in order to spend the revenue of the whole church demesne on his pleasures. In a civilized country like Saxony such a summary method was impossible. Here a more or less important part of the loot had to be devoted to the cultural tasks which the Roman Church had fulfilled, as well as it could up to that time. So the Saxon schools were founded, in Innaberg and Freiberg, in Dresden and Leipzig, in Naumberg and Merseburg, all of them famous in their way, but the most famous of them were the so-called “princes” schools of Grimma, Meissen and Pforta, which had grown out of monasteries.

In Saxony a school system was born that might be called classical, for German conditions. It did not maintain this standard, however, but shared the fate of Saxony’s economic prosperity that had brought about these institutions. Through Germany’s exclusion from the world market, through the discoveries of inexhaustible supplies of gold and silver in the New World, through the Thirty Years War, and so on, the middle classes in Saxony, as in the whole of Germany, declined economically and grew appallingly servile. The further this decline continued, the more fanatically the Saxon schools – and above all the universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg defended the ideological reflection of their wretched condition, that rigid and fossilized Lutheranism in whose shadow free scientific research could not possibly flourish. Nevertheless Saxony still remained superior to the rest of Germany in education and economic wealth. Dull mirrors as the Saxon schools had become, they were able to receive the first rays of a new culture which was reflected on Germany from abroad.

Lassalle has sharply repudiated Julian Schmidt’s assertion that Germany was temporarily struck off the register of European civilization by the Thirty Years War; and he has enumerated the surprisingly large number of outstanding men which Germany nevertheless produced during and after that war. This argument against a remark inspired by shallow ignorance is quite justified, but it must not be extended to the statement that in the seventeenth century Germany was on the same level as other civilized European nations. A great, if not the greatest, part of those important intellects had to go abroad, permanently or at least for a time, in order to have the necessary scope for their talents; those remaining at home were intellectually dependent on foreign influence, obedient disciples of greater masters, as Thomasius, one of the most important of them, candidly said. This fact is again explained by Germany’s economic decay. The great advance in mathematics and the natural sciences which mark the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the result of an international traffic which conquered more and more the whole earth.

This advance could have its real roots only in those nations which had an important part in this traffic, above all England and the Netherlands. The fundamental condition of this progress was a high development of the middle classes, and its consequence was the awakening of a political self-consciousness in these classes. But in Germany there was no middle class as an independent force, since the trade routes had moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean; the ruling classes in Germany were the princes, and they certainly could not produce a national scientific life.

If one is to believe the patriotic Milites Gloriosi who set the fashion in Germany today, the German worship of foreign culture so predominant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is something which a real patriot can remember only with horror. But the scientific conception which sees in the intellectual life of nations the reflection of class struggles, must distinguish between two quite different aspects of the question. Certainly the imitation of foreign manners by the German princes and aristocracy was a brutal denial of the extremely modest national consciousness; it will always remain a stain on German history. It meant aping the foreigners, and was born of the vilest interests of petty despotism. But this shameless aping of foreigners did not have to wait for the patriots of today to condemn it, it was denounced already by serious contemporaries, to mention only Klopstock and Lessing. Logau wrote in the seventeenth century:

Servants wear their masters’ livery.
France as master, Germany as servant shall it be?
Free Germany, be ashamed of this vile slavery!

The worship of foreign culture by German scholars calls for quite another and really a contrary judgment. It was the first attempt of intelligent middle class elements to drag their class out of a bottomless swamp. There was no other way to accomplish this aim; the fruit borne by the native plant of orthodox Lutheranism was indigestible. But it is a difficult and ungrateful task to attempt to revive a dead stem, one that no longer receives any nourishment from its roots by grafting on it branches from foreign trees. Only when the old stem itself returned to life, only when the German middle classes began to recover a little economically, that is, after the middle of the eighteenth century, did the foreign branches grow on the native tree. Until then, no other course was open to German scholars save to seek their intellectual nourishment and even their motherland abroad. The more so as the princes who ruled Germany were either hostile or indifferent to German culture, or else regarded it with a very questionable interest, namely, to make it serve their petty despotism. The princes either allowed German scholars to starve or forced them to go abroad, or attached them to their courts. It is difficult to say which of the three was more disastrous to those concerned. Therefore it is easy to understand why the German scholars who stayed in Germany became rather peculiar characters, and why German enlightenment had such a half-hearted and ambiguous character, so repulsive to a man like Lessing. English and French philosophy were rooted in the middle classes of the English and French nations; this origin was at once their fetter and their protection. German enlightenment had no such roots and floated in the air; nothing prevented it from going as far as the “light of reason” shone, but nothing protected it either, when a ray of this light fell too revealingly on the cesspool of despotism; hence the hypocritical mixture of smiling condescension and pious horror with which the German exponents of enlightenment thought to ridicule the English and French “materialists and naturalists, atheists and Spinozists.” But they made only themselves ridiculous. Bourgeois science has never wholly recovered from this ugly disease, because the German middle classes never dared to stand on their own feet. And since the German bourgeoisie has taken refuge behind Prussian bayonets, this illness has returned, and in an even worse form than ever.

Under such circumstances Saxony had to become the principal country for the intellectual awakening of the German middle classes. The Saxon schools were the only institutions or, at least, the most suitable ones for acquiring the middle class culture of foreign countries. They had fallen very far from their old level through orthodox Lutheranism. The ancient languages were taught only to enable the pupils to discuss endlessly every letter in the Bible. For all this, these languages were no less the keys to the treasury of European science, and from the end of the 17th century until far into the 18th, most exponents of German culture were Saxons, or came from Saxon schools, from Leibnitz, Pufendorf and Thomasius to Gellert, Klopstock, Lessing. Even more: with the entrance of Goethe and Schiller into Saxon culture a new period began in the lives of these Southern Germans. Weimar did not belong to the sphere of military Prussia but to the cultural sphere of Saxony, and Karl August, the duke of Weimar, was not a Hohenzollern, but came of the Wettin dynasty.

But this is already beyond the frame of this essay. Yet part of our task is to indicate briefly the social progress represented by these two groups of names. Leibnitz, Pufendorf, Thomasius stood already on bourgeois ground. It was in the interest of the middle classes that they tried to liberate science from the chains of theology. Leibnitz’s philosophical optimism, much as can be said against it, weakened the influence of the orthodox concept of the world as a vale of tears. Pufendorf and Thomasius taught the doctrine that all society was derived from a contract and that the individual had the right to resist against obvious injustice. They denied the divine origin of monarchical power and applauded the pamphlets published in the Netherlands against the despotism of King James II. And it was Thomasius who brought the German language back to the lecture hall of the universities. But the work of these men found no support nor echo in the middle classes. Leibnitz in his lasting achievements was more of a European than a German scholar; Pufendorf and Thomasius themselves confessed to having taken their ideas from Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. All of them were still dependent on the courts. During his lifetime Leibnitz already became famous for being able to prove anything that princes wanted to have proved. Pufendorf ended his life as a Brandenburgian and Swedish court historian; Thomasius made the most incredible concessions to monarchical despotism in his later years, when he was a Prussian professor in Halle.

But about the middle of the eighteenth century, Gellert, Klopstock and Lessing not only stood on bourgeois ground, but were already rooted in it. Gellert was a very small figure compared with the other two, but his Fables gave the middle classes their first literary banner, and humble and loyal as Gellert was personally, the first faint sound of middle class opposition can be discovered in his harmless rhymes. Much prouder and more outspoken is this class-consciousness in Klopstock who, later on, was to be the bard of the French Revolution, and above all in Lessing, who disdained the fetters of an office in the service of any court or state, and tried to live for his literary calling in social liberty. It was an enormously bold venture in Germany, and its tragic outcome taught the lesson that the middle classes were not ripe for the boldness of their representative, and this self-confidence, half nonchalant, half defiant, showed the whole Lessing. It was the same whether he wrote as a twenty-year-old youth: “What do I care if I live in wealth or not, as long as I do live!” or as a fifty-year-old man: “I am too proud to think myself unhappy, and gnash my teeth and let the boat drive, as wind and water will; let it suffice that I myself don’t want to overturn it!” It formed the strongest contrast to the anxious and greedy philistine worry about a `”good life,” so obviously displayed in the correspondence of the contemporaries, and something of this frank and free attitude was probably given to Lessing by his school.


Last updated on 9.2.2006