Franz Mehring

The Lessing Legend

6. Lessing and the Proletariat

In the year of Lessing’s death there appeared three sharply contrasting publications.

Frederick the Great’s pamphlet on German literature [1] made clear to all what an insurmountable barrier lay between German intellectual life and Prussian despotism ... Frederick’s ignorance serves to excuse him, to a certain extent – he had not the slightest conception of the development of the middle class; nor is it possible to deny that his “omniscient despotism” thereby demonstrated its impotence. But it is equally undeniable that in a mood of despotic megalomania his intention was to pour abuse on German literature. In all dutiful humility, but still candidly enough, the minister Hertzberg had pointed out to the king the most serious errors of the pamphlet, but he had answered “ungraciously” enough: “I shall make no such trifling alterations.” It is no wonder that the champions of the middle class regarded the pamphlet as a de-liberate insult. Herder spoke contemptuously of a “ghost that walks in broad daylight,” and Klopstock attacked the despot in angry odes. Goethe’s answer to the king’s insult was, unfortunately, influenced by considerations regarding his position at court. We know nothing about Lessing’s opinion of the pamphlet except that a few days before his death he read the shallow reply of the abbot Jerusalem. The king, about whose despotism Lessing had no illusions left, could no longer take him by surprise; he found it quite in order that the Muse of Germany went unhonored and defenceless from Frederick’s throne, as Schiller later wrote. It was largely due to Lessing that German literature acquired its worth by its own efforts. In vain are attempts to draw the loyal conclusion from a rather apocryphal remark made by Frederick to Mirabeau some five years later to the effect that the king had decided to leave German literature to itself so that it might develop more vigorously. The conclusion of this pamphlet can have no other meaning but that literature can reach its highest development only through the patronage of the court. “Give us Medicis and we shall see geniuses flourishing. An Augustus will produce a Virgil.” And a despot like Frederick could hardly think otherwise.

One must not be deceived on this point by the byzantinism with which present-day literary historians try to cast a better light upon it. Scherer calls it “indescribably touching,” and Suphan curtsies like a debutante: “Against the stubbornness of the king nothing could be done. It belonged to his greatness.” The lack of intelligence that stares out of every page of the pamphlet may belong to the greatness of despotism! Yet no one can deny that there was an irreconcilable contradiction between despotism and our classical literature, and that Frederick’s booklet destroys the Lessing legend. One has to be more of an idiot than a patriot to be touched to tears by Frederick’s sentimental talk on the future flourishing of German literature.

In the year of Lessing’s death Schiller’s Bandits was also published. With his first work – and it was a work of genius – Schiller took up Lessing’s life work: the struggle against tyrants. Soon Fiesco and Luise Millerin [2] followed, inspired by Lessing’s spirit and borne on the wings of a much more powerful talent. But the middle class had no ear for this voice that spoke of such great things; after a short but brilliant beginning Schiller had to exchange the “narrow circle” of middle class life for a so-called “higher plane” which was in reality a much lower one. [3]

The reconciliation with German philistinism was fatal to German literature. Its decline was slow, but steady. The sword of a foreign conqueror achieved what the middle class could not: the domination of Napoleon swept away the worst feudal debris from German soil. But this foreign ruler was himself an intolerable burden for all classes of the nation. And Romanticism mirrored this curiously ambiguous situation. The national and social interests of the German middle class found themselves in opposition to each other, in irreconcilable antagonism. This class could not throw off the foreign yoke without submitting again to the heavy yoke of native despotism. In vain did the leaders of Romanticism try to bridge the abyss by artificial imitation of the ways of genius, and by their famous “romantic irony”; in vain did they search the literature of all nations and all times for ground in which to gain a footing. Romanticism had to seek this ground in the “magic night” [4] of the middle ages; only in this tradition were national ideals to be found for Germany. But the middle ages had been the epoch of the most blatant class-domination by the Junkers and priests. There was no escape from this antagonism between national and social interests. The most gifted writer of Romanticism, Heinrich von Kleist, perished in madness and suicide.

Thanks to the immaturity of the middle class in Central Europe, feudal legitimacy won in the struggle against the modern era which began to dawn over Europe in 1789. There were good reasons for Byron’s burning hatred of the victors of Waterloo, for Heine’s enthusiastic cult of Napoleon, and Platen’s biting question: “Wars of liberation, indeed! Was Miltiades allied to the barbarian Tartars when he defeated the Persians?”

The greatest sacrifices had proved fruitless; the bitterest struggles had won neither political freedom nor national unity; a dull, stupid, petty reaction, that would have liked to set a bailiff on the track of every thought, oppressed men’s minds. Romanticism lost itself in a ridiculous cul de sac. It was in the struggle against these unbearable conditions that Platen learned to use his shining weapons; in his Romantic Edipus he made fun of “the last of the romantic whining we have been hearing for decades.” But Heine sang “this last free song of Romanticism” in “the fanciful dreamy manner of that romantic school in which I whiled away my happiest years of youth, and then wound up by thrashing the schoolmaster.” [5]

German literature received new impetus when the middle class stirred again after its deepest wounds had healed. But the confusion that still reigned is apparent from the ugly quarrel between Heine and Platen, who failed to understand each other – not to mention the mass of middle class philistines who did not understand either of them. Heine was buried in Paris and Platen in Syracuse; and the brilliant men who followed them in the Thirties and Forties had to go into exile. In the end the German philistine proved incorrigible, and so he was defeated in 1848 after all.

After that he no longer thought of fighting for the advancement of his class by means of thought or literature or the sword, but only by means of the winged angels of Prussian banknotes. He devoted himself completely to his material interests. Middle class literature ceased to be the intellectual leader of the nation; instead it became the obedient servant of the bourgeoisie ...

In his most famous novel, Debit and Credit, Gustav Freytag showed the self-satisfied and solvent morality of the German philistine in glittering contrast to bankrupt Polish aristocrats and unscrupulous Jewish usurers. The respectable youth, sitting for countless years in his office chair, writing letters and invoices in quiet servility, became the ideal embodiment of the German “worker.” The fiery songs of Platen, Lenau and Herwegh addressed to the Poles were forgotten; instead the middle class novelist calculated how many bales of merchandise might be lost in the useless disturbances of the Polish rebellions. In Freytag’s novel Mr. Anton Wohlfahrt, clerk to the firm, demonstrated how amidst the desperate death struggle of a nation the German as “worker,” hero and patriot knew no higher task than to recover outstanding debts to the last cent.

The same spirit inspired the drama. Otto Ludwig’s Forester [6] comes to his tragic end because he does not understand that being an employee he may be thrown out into the street by his employer at any moment. But dirty scoundrels express the ideology of the bourgeois revolution in the words:

Now men know that those who are in prisons are martyrs worthy of veneration, and that the noblemen are rascals, be they ever so honest. And the industrious people are rascals, for it is their fault that honest people who do not like to work are poor. [7]

In 1866 and 1870 the possessing classes and especially the German bourgeoisie found their refuge in the protection of Prussian bayonets. In all corners of the German Reich it was said that the political advance could now be followed by an unparalleled literary advance. As if great thinkers and writers could have been produced by a class which was proud of having for a backbone the sabre of the Prussian officer! Instead of the expected giants there appeared an inane mob the like of which has never dishonored and corrupted the literature of a great nation. Capitalist business enterprise brought under its rule all branches of literature, and the theatre was not the last. The proscenium of Lessing and Voltaire became a speculative investment, if it did not fall to the level of a brothel ...

Only the rapidly rising star of the working class movement threw light on bourgeois literature. Such bourgeois writers as had some talent began to revolt against all this unspeakable meretriciousness and falsity. They wanted to get back to nature and truth, but since in bourgeois society nothing but sham is to be found, the new naturalist movement fell a victim to hopeless pessimism. Everywhere they seek for decadence and rottenness; a younger writer, Kurt Eisner, who himself approaches the naturalist school, has rightly jeered at the “disciples of decadence and pirates of decay, sniffing for rottenness and boasting of syphilis to prove their virility.” Apart from the skilled literary artisans who follow naturalism because it is fashionable and piquant, the few naturalists who are better and more vigorous only know how to describe things that are dying down, and never those that are rising. Their future depends on whether they are able to cross the broad moat between the capitalist and the proletarian world. Bourgeois society cannot and will not produce a new hey-day of literature ...

Also in the year of Lessing’s death, Kant’s epochmaking magnum opus, the Critique of Pure Reason was published. With this book “there begins in Germany an intellectual revolution which offers the most striking analogies to the material revolution in France ... It developed itself in the same phases, and between both revolutions there exists the most remarkable parallelism.” [8] Strangely enough, all the great German philosophical revolutionaries, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, have done their work in that same Prussian state which the classical authors of the German middle class loathed so intensely. The Prussian state persecuted Kant “for distorting and disparaging some of the fundamental teachings of the Holy Scripture and of Christianity,” it categorically ordered him “not to publish any more such writings and teachings,” and was pleased by the wise man’s wise answer:

“Disavowal and renunciation of one’s convictions is despicable, but silence is the duty of the subject in a case like the present. Everything one says must be true, yet duty does not force us to speak every truth in public.”

Classical philosophy did not speak the truth so publicly that the Prussian officer’s sabre would have understood it. When it culminated in Hegel’s philosophy it even became the official Prussian religion, with which, for example, candidates for the teaching profession had to be thoroughly acquainted, while the Ministry of Education warned them expressly against other “shallow systems of philosophy.” Whatever was real, was reasonable [9]; and since the Prussian state with its fortresses and dungeons was real, it was reasonable as well; whoever doubted this was converted to reason and reality by the methods applied against “demagogues.”

But what Hegel had said of the French Revolution was also true of his own philosophy: it turned everything upside down. It had to be turned back again, to show its core of reason and revolution under its husk of reaction and realism. Out of the Prussian state philosophy was born revolutionary socialism. Marx concluded the epoch of classical philosophy with the hopeful struggle of the working class, while Lessing had begun this epoch after the hopeless struggle of the bourgeois class. Engels says rightly that the German working-class movement is the heir of classical philosophy. With the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, German middle class philosophy was dead. Its representatives as the universities continued dishing up eclectic soups that became more and more indigestible from decade to decade. The philosophical needs of the bourgeoisie were supplied by a succession of fashionable philosophers who came one after another according to the changing development of capitalism.

From the beginning of the Fifties to the middle of the Sixties, the man of the day was Schopenhauer, the philosopher of the frightened philistine, the furious hater of Hegel, the man who denied any historical development, a writer not without paradoxical wit and not without his share in the splendor of classical literature. But in his sneaking, egoistic and slandering manner he was the true intellectual representative of the middle class, which, frightened by the clash of weapons, had withdrawn trembling to its private income and passionately disavowed the ideals of its greatest period.

From the middle of the Sixties to the beginning of the Eighties, his place was taken by Eduard von Hartmann, who taught that liberal ideas were but a nineteenth century rash. He discovered that the boom of industrial enterprise – and financial swindling following 1871 paved the way to higher forms of economic life and constituted a step towards the solution of the social question. He praised Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws as an excellent way of educating the working class. Finally he declared that he “followed in the footsteps of those three philosophers whose greatness had inspired the historic world mission of Prussianism: Kant, Fichte and Hegel.”

But at the beginning of the Eighties Hartmann was superseded by Nietzsche, the philosopher of the grande bourgeoisie. “The historic world mission of Prussianism” had done its duty. In its essence this bourgeois slogan expressed the satisfaction felt by the German bourgeoisie on the elimination of bonds which had hampered the expansion of capitalism, namely the small German states with their outdated institutions. But in the course of a development proceeding with unparalleled speed and vigor, the “national idea” became a fetter which the expanding power of capitalism sought to shake off. In the age of cartels and trusts on the one hand and class movements on the other, the national colors on the national boundary posts grew paler. Capital bred a new caste ruling Europe, and this caste is the same in London as in Rome, in Madrid as in Moscow. Nietzsche became the German philosopher of this caste. He saw in the “historic world mission of Prussianism” nothing but “entr’acte policy.” He scorned the so-called “greatness” of statesmen, who made the spirit of a nation “narrow” and its taste “national.” He made fun of the politicians “of short sight” and “rash hand” who set the barrier of “nationalist madness” between nations. But he did not care for the people, for “the herd creatures of Europe” who pretended to be the “only legitimate kind of human being,” who praised as virtues their own attributes: “social sense, benevolence, consideration, industry, moderation, modesty, indulgence.” He praised the lonely minds, the supermen, the free spirits, the noble souls to whom the “exploiter nature” belongs as the organic functions belong to life. They live “beyond good and evil,” they consider it “pure justice” if others must be sacrificed for them. It is corruption if an aristocracy sacrifices its privileges out of an extravagance of moral feelings. The “essential thing in a good and healthy aristocracy is this: with good conscience they receive the sacrifices of an immense number of people who for their sake have to be degraded to stunted creatures, to slaves, to tools.” And so on. Nietzsche was not only the herald but the victim of capitalism. A fine and rich mind like his felt horror and loathing for the immense misery created by capitalism. But grown up in wealth, spoiled by women, he was unable to discover the hope for tomorrow in the misery of to-day. Therefore he searched feverishly for the inherent reason of capitalist society. It only caused him to lose his own reason, in the saddest sense of the word. But the mad talk of this pitiable man is praised as final wisdom by the hacks of the same bourgeoisie which could once call Lessing its first representative.

The work of Lessing’s life does not belong to the bourgeoisie, but to the proletariat. In the middle class of the eighteenth century both classes were still united. But the nature and the aim of Lessing’s struggle have been relinquished by the bourgeoisie and taken up by the proletariat; the bourgeois class struggle for which Lessing found the refuge of philosophy was taken out of this sphere by Marx and became the proletarian class struggle. As the bourgeoisie rejected the intellectual work of its representatives, this precious inheritance had to become the arsenal from which the working class took their first keen and shining weapons. This world is not so devoid of all sense that the Lessings fight and suffer only for the amusement of the philistines. Lessing belongs among the intellectual patrons of the proletariat, his life and work has gone over into the flesh and blood of the fighting and suffering workers, little as they may know of Lessing’s work – thanks to our “magnificent” popular education.

But all this will change. When Gervinus wanted to stir the political consciousness of the bourgeoisie, he concluded his work with the words: “The contest of art is finished; now we must set ourselves another target, never yet hit in our country. We must see whether Apollo will grant in this sphere the glory he did not refuse us in another.” [10] The target to which Gervinus alluded has not yet been hit and the glory which Apollo granted “in another sphere” has also waned. In the rough and difficult days of conflict the Muses are silent, but for all that their wreaths will not be denied. Those will be the gifts for their day to come, and then Lessing, too, will be vindicated of every sin committed by his contemporaries and posterity against this noble fighter for the freedom of humanity.


1. De la Litterature Allemande, 1780.

2. The earliest title of the play later known as Kabale und Liebe.

3. Schiller turned from writing middle class plays to writing historical tragedies.

4. Quotation from a play by one of the leaders of German Romanticism, Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853).

5. H. Heine: Atta Troll (Preface), translated by H. Scheffauer, p.30, London 1913.

6. Christian Ulrich, chief character of The Hereditary Forester, translated by A. Remy in The German Classics, Vol.IX, pp.280-376. New York 1914

7. Ibid., p.327 (Act III, Scene 2).

8. H. Heine: Religion and Philosophy in Germany, translated by J. Snodgrass, p.102. London 1882.

9. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

10. Allusion to the necessity of a democratic revolution in Germany.


Last updated on 9.2.2006