Franz Mehring

The Lessing Legend

3. Minna von Barnhelm:
A Satire on the Prussian State

Earlier than any Frenchman, Lessing so to speak discovered the English bourgeois tragedy. Lessing, however, merely remained subject to its immediate influence. In the meantime Diderot had further developed and popularized this tendency in France. He was the first to show that the serious conflicts of honorable characters arising from the circumstances of bourgeois life – even if they are not tragic – provide a new and rich source for dramatic subjects. Lessing was further stimulated by the practice as well as the theory of Diderot. Already in 1760 he had translated in two volumes the Theatre of Monsieur Diderot, containing Le Fils Naturel, Le Pere de Familie and the essay on dramatic poetry. While Minna leans aesthetically on a French model, and her “plagiarisms” are generally believed to be borrowed from English comedies, nevertheless it is an out-and-out German play. What could be more German than that the classical bourgeois comedy should deal with military life?

This is not only meant satirically, it touches the very essence of Minna. One should not be mystified by the bourgeois critics of literature who allege that Minna glorifies king Frederick or the Seven Years War. Even Goethe in a weak moment succumbed to this absurd idea; but the same Goethe later said:

When people compare the pieces of Lessing with those of the ancients, and call them paltry and miserable, what do they mean? Let them rather pity the extraordinary man who lived in a time too poor to afford him better materials; pity him because he found nothing better to do than to meddle with Saxon and Prussian transactions in his Minna. [1]

Again Lessing is too badly judged. Lessing was really capable of finding better subject matter than the quarrels between Saxons and Prussians, or even the glorification of Frederick. But in order to portray serious conflicts of honorable characters he was forced by the meanness of German affairs to deal with army life; yet he saw the social aspect of this life, and here too waged the struggle against social oppression. Lessing’s comedy is so little a glorification of Frederick that it scourged his despotism precisely where it was most mortal.

It is in the very nature of despotism to take revenge upon every insurmountable resistance to its tyranny by inflicting malicious vexations upon the individual resister. Thus Frederick, unable to shake the economic basis of the Prussian army, and forced to exalt an officer caste, tormented and tortured the individual officer. The length to which he would go in this respect is almost incredible, as can be seen from his cabinet-orders, to quote only one example. If he was obliged to grant leave to an officer because of serious illness, he would least satisfy his despotic temper to the extent of ordering a different cure or a different bath than that ordered by the doctor. Or, he just drove him out of the service. Frederick in a bad mood would use the least occasion to dismiss an officer. At every inspection the individual officer had to fear immediate dismissal, and once dismissed it was rarely possible for him to enter the army again. It was one of the inviolable principles of Frederickian despotism that the king could never be wrong, and Frederick clung to this principle even in those cases where he himself was afterwards forced to recognize his injustice. “My army is no brothel” was his standing answer to all petitions of dismissed officers for re-entry into the army, and his refusals increased in scorn the more the personal feelings of honor and justice of the individual officers had been the cause of dismissal, as in the case of Blücher and of Yorck.

The king never tortured his Prussian officers more subtly than before and after the peace of Hubertusburg. It was at this time that Lessing lived with the army. The king kept his winter-quarters during 1761-62 in Breslau, in monk-like solitude, in gloomy despair, for the last ray of hope seemed to have vanished; but suddenly, in January 1762, the death of the Czarina Elizabeth brought redemption. However, Frederick’s feeling of relief was mingled with shame that chance rather than his own might had been his saviour, by bringing a fool to the Russian throne. It is easy to understand that in reaction to this he behaved more than ever like a despot and conqueror, as far as his power reached. By holding superfluous parades he spoiled the recreation of the harassed troops at winter-quarters. He deprived the officers of the so-called douceur-money, which in reality was no present, but rather an indispensable aid towards equipping them for the new campaign. He demanded such enormous contributions from the town of Leipzig, already drained of the last penny, that the major and adjutant von Dyherrn, charged with enforcement, felt impelled to make serious objections; these objections being unavailing, the major awaited only the peace to throw his sword before the king’s feet. When in February 1763 peace was made, Frederick inflicted anothur judgment on the army: he turned away all the troops he could no longer use during peace-time and pitilessly threw all the bourgeois officers on the street, although their courage and loyalty had just saved him his crown. In their place he put foreign adventurers of noble extraction – their nobility being often as dubious as that of Riccaut de la Marlinière. [2]

It was under these conditions that Lessing lived, and out of them arose his Minna von Barnhelm. Here he glorifies a spirit by no means military, but very bourgeois; a spirit that even in the face of royal despotism clings inflexibly to its sense of justice. It is in this spirit that Tellheim [3] thinks and acts. For Tellheim, “the service of the great is dangerous, does not repay the trouble, the restraint, the humiliation which it costs.” He does for the great little by inclination, not much more by duty, but all for his own honor’s sake; and at best he cannot regret having become a soldier. “I became a soldier for party-feeling – I do not myself know on what political principles – and from the whim that it is good for every honorable man to try the profession of arms for a time, to make himself familiar with danger, and to learn coolness and determination. Extreme necessity alone could have compelled me to make this trial a fixed mode of life, this temporary occupation a profession.” (V, 9, Vol.II, p.404.) To go soldiering for its own sake, “is only travelling about like a butcher’s apprentice, nothing more.” Certainly in Tellheim the Frederickian officer is much idealized, and a good portion of Lessing is contained in him. Yet no other German has been able to present on the stage such a finished and solid personality. What does it matter then if Lessing for the theme of his comedy did borrow this or that small feature from foreign models?

Have the bourgeois historians of literature at all understood the story of Minna? On the basis of shadowy analogies they look for its origin in Shakespeare, in the Spanish plays of cape and sword and even in Plautus; yet in fact the truth was near at hand for these patriots! The story of Minna is nothing else but a sharp satire on the regime of Frederick. Tellheim, the major, has been discharged after the peace, and subjected to a painful inquiry. He had been required to enforce with the utmost severity a contribution in cash from some Thuringian estates; but as they could not pay, he had advanced the sum from his own pocket. When peace was signed he intended to have this bill entered “amongst the debts to be rectified”: but it is alleged that he was bribed by the estates to accept the lowest possible contribution. Frederick learns from his brother that Tellheim is “more than innocent” of bribery, and informs him that the court’s treasury has ordered that the bill in question be tendered and the money refunded to Tellheim. Tellheim is asked to re-enter the service.

Lessing could not have satirized more grimly the real practice of Frederick’s regime than by this innocent idyll. The reference to “the debts to be rectified” is pure irony; for out of Saxony alone Frederick had squeezed during the Seven Years War more than 50 million thalers, of which, of course, not one penny was “rectified.” Far from making “advances” from the court’s treasury, Frederick in reality refused every petition for compensation of war damages with the notorious stereotype remark: “Perhaps next the petitioner would like to have his damages from the Great Flood refunded as well.” No less ironical is the king’s spontaneous invitation to a discharged officer to re-enter the army!

Friedrich Schlegel has already referred to the fact that the characters in Minna speak rather “Lessingish.” This is just as true of Emilia and Nathan. Lessing as a dramatist was all reason; he lacked the poetical imagination from which image after image arises independent of its creator. The heroine of his comedy, too, is infused with his spirit, and, as Goethe says, the “subalterns” make the poet; and as Lessing made classical a petty despot in Emilia and an orthodox zealot in Nathan, so in Minna he immortalized two despicable types of Frederickian despotism: the shallow foreign-aristocrat adventurer, for whose sake bourgeois blood is ill-treated by the sovereign, and the spying innkeeper. The inn-keepers and the managers and proprietors of the restaurants in the big towns were Frederick’s informers. He paid all or half their rent, in return for which they had daily to report to the police all conversations and meetings held in their rooms, and to deliver “as reliable as possible a protocol-summary” of the “papers carried” by suspicious personalities.

Lessing’s contemporaries of course understood the comedy differently from the bourgeois critics of today. Nicolai complained, “as a Prussian subject,” of “the many pricks against the Prussian government”; but when Döbbelin put Minna on the stage in Berlin in 1768 it received loud applause and was played ten times in succession. In Hamburg the Prussian Consul General Hecht at first objected to the production, and Herr Erich Schmidt therefore called him “a narrow man.” Frederick fortunately was still narrower, for if he had read the play, or even understood its implications, he would have bestowed upon it the same “simple eloquence” which he bestowed upon Voltaire’s Akakia [4], and it would have been burned by the executioner on the Gendarmen-Market! [5]



1. J.P. Eckermann: Gespräche mit Goethe [7 February, 1827], Vol. I, p.243, Leipzig: Reclam: 1884. In S.M. Fuller’s translation, Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, p.208, Boston 1852.

2. Character of Lessing’s play Minna von Barnhelm.

3. Leading character of Minna. Quotations following from Act V, Scene 9, and Act III, Scene 9, in the translation of Ernest Bell, The Dramatic Works of G.E. Lessing, Vol.II, pp.404 and 374, London 1909.

4. Doctor Akakia, a satire by Voltaire on Frederick II and his protege Maupertuis.

5. Square in Berlin.


Last updated on 9.2.2006