Franz Mehring

The Lessing Legend


Franz Mehring was born February 27, 1846, in Pomerania, the most backward, most undeveloped region of Germany, where Prussia is most Prussian. He was the son of a very respectable semi-feudal family, his paternal grandmother being descended from one of the most aristocratic of Pomerania’s noble families. Mehring received the education suited to a young man of his class and studied history and philosophy at the Universities of Berlin and Leipzig, from the latter of which he received a Ph.D. degree.

But like so many of Germany’s best sons at that time, he refused to accept Bismarckism and with it a career as a Prussian bureaucrat. In the early seventies, when he was completing his studies, he entered politics under the democratic banner of Johann Jacoby and Guido Weiss. With their group, and on the basis of international humanitarianism and liberal democracy, he fought first against the Franco-Prussian War and then against Bismarck’s annexationist policy in Alsace and Lorraine. From this political fight he never withdrew until he fell a martyr to the struggle against the World War, this time on the basis of international socialism and proletarian democracy.

Germany after the Franco-Prussian War was very much like America after the Civil War, a bee-hive humming with industrial expansion, speculation, financial and political corruption. Mehring was well aware of this, and for him to be aware of a wrong meant to fight against it. He therefore became a socialist, but because he was still burdened with bourgeois idealism, from elements of which he was never to become entirely free, and because he was, despite his anti-Bismarck position, a nationalist – at that time there were still elements of liberalism in German nationalism – he became a Lassallean socialist. It is this that explains his apparent inconsistency during the next decade, and not, as some of his Revisionist, Menshevik and Trotskyite opponents within and without the pre-war and post-war Second International have asserted, that he was a mercenary and a “turncoat par excellence.”

In 1875 Mehring made his first public appearance as a socialist by publishing the devastating Herr von Treitschke der Sozialistentöter und die Endziele des Liberalismus. Eine sozialistische Replik [Mr. von Treitschke, the Killer of Socialists, and the Goals of Liberalism. A Socialist Reply]. In this he thoroughly demolished the absurd anti-socialist arguments of the great German nationalist historian. But Mehring’s socialism was of the Lassallean brand, and in 1877, when the then Marxist social-democratic party was at its strongest, he began his journalistic campaign against Marxist socialism. However, when Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation went into effect and drove the party underground, Mehring came to its defense, fought the anti-socialist laws, and although he was not himself a Marxian, supplied the Marxist party with a voice in the liberal and democratic papers with which he was connected. This in itself is enough to refute the charge that he was a mercenary and a turncoat, especially since Mehring was then so far from being a Marxist socialist that he tried, during the eighties, to found an effective democratic party in Germany. He soon learned, however, that to be effective a democratic party would have to be a social-democratic party. Mehring therefore took the logical step and in his forties joined the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, which was then still a Marxist party.

But in the meantime Mehring had become involved in a furious journalistic tempest in a teapot. As editor of the democratic Berliner Volkszeitung, his attacks on Bismarck and his defense of the socialists had earned him the hostility of the government, the better classes and the stockholders of his paper. Bismarck threatened to suppress the paper unless Mehring was removed. So when, at the end of the eighties, he defended in the columns of his paper an actress whom he had never met but whom he believed to be mistreated, a furious scandal was created around the affair as an excuse for getting rid of him. The democratic shareholders fired the socialist editor at the demand of the monarchist Junker. Soon thereafter, in 1891, Mehring became co-editor of Die Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ of German social-democracy, to which he had contributed since 1888 and which became, under his leadership, one of the most brilliant periodicals of the time.

From the time he entered the party to the day of his death Franz Mehring, together with Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Klara Zetkin, was the center of the revolutionary nucleus within the Second International.

“They belonged,” wrote Karl Schmückle, “to the left wing of the Second International before the war. Their names represent – together with those of Lenin and the Bolsheviks – an entire epoch of struggle within the pre-war International. Soon after the death of Engels they had already begun the struggle against opportunism, i.e., against the distortion and corruption of Marxism in the spirit of bourgeois liberalism and in the interest of the modern imperialist bourgeoisie, and they never faltered in this struggle against the agents of the bourgeoisie within the camp of the working class itself.”

In 1914, when the social-chauvinists forgot and betrayed the finely phrased resolutions and promises they had made at Stuttgart in 1907 and Basel in 1912, Franz Mehring, almost seventy years old, was among the first to go against the current and denounce the war.

“He was a real man,” wrote Klara Zetkin after his death, “who in his old age still added to his other imperishable services to the cause of the struggling proletariat the further immortal service that without hesitation and without fear he held high the banner of international socialism when the majority of socialists in Germany lowered it before the black-red-gold flag of the imperialists, greedy for power, and when the opposing minority did not yet dare to raise it again among the masses.”

Mehring fought against the war on every front. With Rosa Luxemburg he issued on April 15, 1915 the first and only number of Die Internationale, which was immediately suppressed by the government. He was among the first to greet and support the October Revolution, and he was a founder of the Spartacist League and the Communist Party of Germany.

Franz Mehring was one of the greatest scholars of nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, a country which until recently has always been proud of the honors it heaped upon scholarship. But the only academic honor Mehring ever received was his election to the Moscow Academy of Sciences by the government of the Soviet Union. From the government of his own country he received an honor of another sort. Because of his opposition to the war the old man spent many months in prison under “protective arrest.” His imprisonment could not break his spirit, however. As soon as he was released he wrote his prison memoirs for Die Rote Fahne, the last periodical to which he contributed.

What prison could break was his health. On January 29, 1919, after a long illness brought on by imprisonment, he died. His death was no doubt hastened by the news, brought to him shortly before, that his old friends Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had been murdered by that maniacal, sadistic crew which now calls itself the German people.

“Except for his personal friends,” writes Eduard Fuchs, Mehring’s literary executor, “his coffin was followed to the grave only by a group of revolutionary workers. From the bourgeois world came only his closest relatives. Not a single official representative of German literature stood at his grave to speak of Mehring’s great services as a writer.”

In the Soviet Union the flags flew at half-mast.

Important as Mehring’s political activity was, his major importance for us here is his work as a historian and critic of culture. In this field the finest tribute to Franz Mehring is the letter written to him on his seventieth birthday by Rosa Luxemburg whom, with Klara Zetkin, he used to call “the only real men in the social-democratic movement.” On February 27, 1916 she wrote to him:

“Very dear friend:
“You must allow me to repeat here the few words in which I attempted to tell you why your personality and your work are and will be always especially dear to me. For decades you have been occupying among us a unique position which none but you could fill, you are the representative of true intellect and culture in all their glory and splendor. If, according to Marx and Engels, the German proletariat is the historic heir of classic German philosophy, then you have been the executor of the estate. You have saved from the camp of the bourgeoisie and brought to us, into the camp of the socially disinherited, whatever was still left to the bourgeoisie of the golden treasure of its former intellect and culture. Through your books, as through your articles, you have inseparably united the German proletariat not only with classic German philosophy, but with classic literature as well, not only with Kant and Hegel, but with Lessing, Schiller and Goethe. You taught our workers, by every line from your splendid pen, that socialism is not a mere knife-and-fork problem, but a cultural movement, a great and proud attitude toward life. And to defend it, to guard it, has been your duty for more than a generation. Now, to be sure, the heirs of classic philosophy – since the horrible debacle in the World War – look like miserable beggars being devoured by vermin. But the iron laws of historical dialectics which you so masterfully interpreted for the proletariat day after day will bring it to pass that the beggars, the gueux of today, will again stand up straight and will tomorrow be proud and rugged fighters. And as soon as the spirit of socialism once more takes its place in the ranks of the German proletariat, their first gesture will be to reach for your writings, for the fruits of your life’s work, the value of which is imperishable and from which there always rises the same fragrance of a noble and strong attitude towards life. Today, when intellectuals of bourgeois origin betray us in hordes in order to return to the fleshpots of the rulers, we can smile in contempt as we watch them go. We have taken from the German bourgeoisie the last and best that was still left to it of intellect, talent and character – Franz Mehring. I remain always most cordially your
R. Luxemburg

This is only one of the tributes paid to Mehring for a generation of work as theoretician and critic. August Bebel, speaking before the Dresden convention of the socialist party in 1903, said of Mehring’s articles in Die Neue Zeit that “many of them belong among the gems of German journalism.” Mehring’s work is remarkable not only for its consistently high quality, but for its volume. Besides the Lessing-Legende he wrote the classic Marx biography, a German history, a three-volume history of German social-democracy, and a book-length Schiller biography. He edited not only periodicals, but the works and letters of Marx, Engels, Lassalle and other socialists. In addition to all this he wrote hundreds of criticisms, reviews and articles on literature, history, socialism, philosophy, military science and politics. A collected edition of the most important of these articles has been begun and so far six large volumes have appeared, one on the history of philosophy, one on German history, two on Prussian history and two on literature. These last two contain a list of more than a hundred articles not reprinted in the two volumes. One of these is the Lessing-Legende, which was omitted because of its great length and because it was still in print.

Valuable as was his work in all these fields, in most of them Mehring was only a continuer of what others had begun. In literature, however, his work has a peculiar importance, for in this he was a pioneer. Marx and Engels had discussed the application of the historical materialist method to the history and criticism of culture and had even planned such an application in practice in the book on Balzac which Marx intended to write. But neither made this application, and they left only scattered and fragmentary, although numerous, references. It was Mehring who first cultivated intensively the field of historical materialist research in literature and art.

Mehring wrote mostly for the periodical press, sometimes hastily, for “occasions,” and therefore his work, seen as a whole, is marked by signs of the necessities under which it was written, by repetition, fragmentariness and incompleteness. But despite these shortcomings, his articles are always worth reading for the new and stimulating light they cast upon the material he discusses. Hence while from the point of view of systematization it is to be regretted that he was never able to carry out his plan to write a history of German literature, what he did write comes close to being a complete history. There is almost no important writer or movement in German literature from the beginning; of the classical period in the middle of the eighteenth century to the end of naturalism in the twentieth century that Mehring hasn’t treated with more or less completeness, although it was only rarely, to be sure, that he was able to treat any one movement or writer as a unified whole.

The most important problem which Mehring had to solve as the originator of historical materialist criticism was the problem of developing a Marxist aesthetics. This the conditions of the time and his own background made it impossible for him to do. Mehring came to socialism in his forties, with the mature equipment of a bourgeois revolutionist strongly influenced by German classical philosophy and literature. His aesthetic theory was derived from Kant, whose idealist conception made literature a pure art, free of all interest or purpose, something that approaches perfection to the extent that it approaches a timeless ideal and a pure form. The implications of this theory are, of course, that art and propaganda are two mutually exclusive categories, that the two are in conflict, and that in this conflict aesthetics must take the side of art against propaganda.

As a socialist whose weapon was the pen, Mehring could not accept completely Kant’s formulation and its implications. He felt that since propaganda can serve the interests of the working class, it was a legitimate element in art. But instead of examining the premise which led to a conclusion he could not accept, Mehring granted that Kant was correct, and at the same time insisted that content, or propaganda, had a place in art equal to that held by form. In this Mehring was paralleling the progressive bourgeois critics of the nineteenth century who were also compelled to defend the validity of propaganda in art.

The application of this undialectic aesthetic dualism forced Mehring into a number of strange positions. This was necessarily so, for if one accepts Kant’s pure art, which is a contradiction and negation of propaganda, and at the same time tries to defend the validity of propaganda in that same pure art, one finds oneself in the unpleasant position of trying to introduce foreign matter into something that must by definition remain pure. And if art is to be considered as existing in and for itself, without purpose other than to be art, it is no solution of the problem to say that propaganda should be introduced artistically. From the Kantian point of view artistic propaganda is a contradiction in terms.

How irreconcilable are pure art and propaganda, and how inconsistent an eclecticism which attempts to accept both, is apparent from what Mehring wrote of naturalism.

“The rebirth of German drama,” he wrote, “does not depend on the revision of dramatic form, or at most only to the extent that this revision serves as a means to an end.” (My emphasis)

Here we have a Kantian, who accepts the statement that art is pure and purposeless form, taking the position that form is of no importance unless it serves an external purpose. This error of Mehring’s was not an individual shortcoming, but a reflection in literary criticism of an error in Marxist methodology as a whole at a certain stage of its development. Indeed, it is only recently that the dilemma of art vs. propaganda has been solved through the recognition that art, a description of nature in action, is possible only when the artist truly and objectively, dialectically, describes the conflicts and fluxes of reality. Pure, ideal art is rejected because art must describe reality. Propaganda is rejected because the artist should make no external demands that his material itself does not make. He should come to no conclusions which are not inherent in that material. But this does not mean that the artist remains an impartial Kantian.

“Correct dialectical portrayal and literary re-creation of reality,” says Lukacs, “presupposes partisan-ship on the writer’s part ... partisanship on the side of the class that is the instrument of historical progress in our time – the proletariat.

“This partisanship differs from ‘propaganda’ and ‘tendentious’ portrayal in that it is not inconsistent with objectivity in reproducing and re-creating reality. Quite the contrary, it is the necessary prerequisite for true – dialectical – objectivity. Contrary to ‘propaganda’ (in which support of something means its idealist glorification, while opposition to it involves its distortion) and to ‘impartiality’ (whose motto – never practiced – is: ‘to understand all means to forgive all,’ which involves taking an unconscious and hence almost always hypocritical stand), this sort of partisanship achieves the standpoint that makes possible the cognition and creative portrayal of the entire process as the summed-up totality of its real motive forces, as the perpetual, ever-higher reproduction of its underlying dialectical contradictions. This objectivity is based upon the correct – dialectical – determination of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, of the subjective factor to objective development. It is founded upon the dialectical unity of theory and practice... .

“Partisanship in this sense, therefore, is not a new term for an old idea. It is not a matter of substituting the word ‘partisanship’ for ‘tendency’ [‘propaganda’] and leaving everything else unchanged. For terminology is never fortuitous. Our adoption of the term ‘tendency’ from the literary theory and practice of the oppositional bourgeoisie (and not even from the epic period of its revolutionary history) signified, as we have shown, that we took over a not inconsiderable ideological aggregate together with the word.”

Mehring, of course, had not reached this conclusion. On the basis of his Kantian aesthetics, and despite his acceptance of propaganda, he was compelled to take the position that as long as the proletariat uses art as a weapon in its struggle for power, the proletariat would not be able to create a great art. At the same time, however, the bourgeoisie, which is also using art as a weapon – against the proletariat – or which produces an art divorced from reality, is equally unable to create great art. “If the declining bourgeois class can no longer create a great art,” wrote Mehring, “the rising working class can not yet create a great art, regardless of the passionate longing for art that burns in the depths of its soul.” To be sure, “it is certain that the victory of the proletariat will introduce a new epoch in art, greater, more noble, more splendid than the human eye has ever seen,” but meanwhile the hunger of the proletariat for art must be satisfied with the finest art available. That art, Mehring believed, was the art of Germany’s classical period. For that reason he so often and so thoroughly interpreted Germany’s classic authors for the German workers. One such interpretation is Die Lessing-Legende.

With this translation of excerpts from the Lessing-Legende Mehring’s major work in literary criticism is made available to the English reader for the first time. Previously only the Marx biography (Covici, Friede, 1935), an essay on Ibsen (Critics Group, 1937) and A Note on Taste (Critics Group Dialectics, No.4, 1937) have been published in English translation. Material about Mehring in English is even less available. These is a short biographical sketch prefaced to the Marx biography, and an analysis of Mehring’s aesthetics in Lukacs’ essay, Propaganda or Partisanship? (Partisan Review, Vol.I, No.2, April-May 1934).

Die Lessing-Legende first appeared in serial form in Die Neue Zeit for 1892. The following year it was published as a book, and a number of editions have since appeared. This study is Mehring’s masterpiece, the work which won him his position as a recognized master of Marxist criticism, and his best piece of work. “It opened a new epoch,” writes Jan Romein in the introduction to the Dutch edition of the Marx biography, “both in the life of the almost fifty year-old Mehring and in the writing of history. In the life of Mehring because it was his first important work in the service of the movement, in the writing of history because it applies the Marxist method for the first time both in the field of biography and in the field of literature.” While the essay was appearing in Die Neue Zeit Engels wrote to Kautsky, then the editor, that each installment made him impatient to receive the next issue of the magazine. Plekhanov wrote of the Lessing-Legende that Mehring had translated Lessing from the language of literature into the language of society and so had interpreted the social spirit that inspired Lessing’s individual art. And the book is important not only as literary criticism, which it was intended to be, it is equally good as history. It is “the only history of Prussia during the Frederickian age that can be taken seriously,” says Fuchs in his preface to Mehring’s collected works.

The Lessing-Legende, like so many Marxist classics, was written as a polemic. The immediate occasion is said to have been a particularly crude misinterpretation of Lessing on the part of the bourgeois critic Erich Schmidt. Actually, however, the book is directed against the entire patriotic school of German literary historians who tried to prove, and still try to prove, that the renaissance of German literature in the eighteenth century was due to the rise of Prussia as a European power, and that there was a close connection between the despotism of the Prussian king Frederick II and the birth of classical German literature. Mehring made the falsity of these contentions obvious to all those interested in the truth about Lessing and the classics of German literature, but the acknowledged authorities of the academy who find it to their advantage to preserve the Lessing legend in order to preserve the – to them – more important Frederick legend, have deliberately ignored Mehring’s work. Thus we find in the introduction to a popular edition of Lessing’s works the following account of Lessing’s refusal to accept a professorship of eloquence offered him by the University of Königsberg:

“It is said that Lessing is supposed to have refused it because the position would have obligated him to deliver an annual lecture in praise of the king. It is more probable that his refusal was dictated by his dislike for ‘professing’ which he once expressed in a letter to his brother Karl.”

When we remember Lessing’s perennial poverty (to a young lady who wrote complaining of his small handwriting he replied that if he wrote larger the receipts from his writing would not pay for the paper and ink), the poverty that engulfed all independent writers in this period of patronage, and when we remember that he accepted a position as librarian in a provincial capital, it seems very probable that his dislike for “professing” was largely a dislike for the annual lecture.

But this was the “Lessing legend” which the bourgeoisie and its critics had developed, and Mehring points out that the germ of it is already to be found in Goethe, who wrote:

“The fact that Frederick the Great wanted no part of them grieved the Germans, and they did their best to show him that they did amount to something.”

To this Mehring replied:

“According to which, our classical literature is nothing but the resentment of the limited intelligence of his subjects to bad treatment on the part of the king of Prussia.”

Amazing as this interpretation seems, it is by no means rare. Friche, whose treatment of Mehring is on the whole unsatisfactory, is, however, correct when he points out that the destruction of legends was one of Mehring’s most important tasks as a Marxist critic. These legends take two forms. One accepts a writer but perverts the ideas for which he stood. An example of this is Lessing who, Friche writes,

“... was not a Prussian patriot [1], ... but, since after its compromise with Prussianism in 1866 the bourgeoisie found it necessary to belie its past, ‘Lessing was sacrificed to the ideological requirements of the bourgeoisie.’ He, who was anything but a lackey of Frederick, was portrayed as one by the bourgeois critics. But Lessing’s writings were revolutionary in character, and it was therefore necessary to make of him not only a patriot, but also a liberal. After these bourgeois interpretations of Lessing in the thirties ... Lessing appears as a ‘reformer’ and a ‘liberal,’ even as a ‘destroyer of socialists.’ ... Lessing became in German literature the symbol of the historical mission of the Hohenzollerns.”

This is the type of legend which the bourgeoisie weaves around the authors it needs.

“Entirely different,” Friche continues, “are the legends the bourgeoisie weaves around the writers it does not need. It puts on a hypocritcial mask of moral indignation and insists that while these writers may have had talent, they had no character. Heine, with his frank opposition to the Prussian rulers, with his internationalism, with his occasional vacillating inclination to communism, was naturally condemned by the bourgeoisie. After his death all sorts of rumors about him were spread, and he was cast out of the ‘pantheon of truly German’ writers and thinkers as a man without a country, immoral, devoid of character and sincerity.”

The fact is, of course, that they did not wait for his death. The very irrelevant criticism that he had ‘“talent, but no character” was frequently made while Heine was alive, and he took occasion to reply to it in his satire on the “true” German philistine who boasted that he had “character, but no talent.”

In the first edition of the Lessing-Legende the book was called a “Rettung,” which means both a rescue and a vindication. And the book is both. It rescues Lessing’s work for the proletariat from the fog of bourgeois misinterpretation, and at the same time it vindicates Lessing and reestablishes him as the progressive fighter for truth and justice that he was.

It is peculiarly appropriate that Mehring’s first and finest Marxist work, a pioneer achievement in dialectical materialist literary criticism, should have been concerned with the legends that have been built around Lessing and Frederick. In the introduction to a late edition of the Lessing-Legende Mehring explains that these two were his childhood heroes. Having been educated in Prussian schools Mehring was, of course, stuffed full of the patriotic Frederick legend. His admiration for Lessing was no doubt due in part to the Lessing legend, but it must also have been due in part to the similarity between them. Both were ardent defenders of the truth as they saw it, and both came close to seeing the truth as it was. Both could be depended upon to defend the underdog even when they did not entirely agree with what he represented. Even Mehring’s Rettung of Lessing was modeled on Rettungen of other authors which Lessing had written.

Romein writes of Mehring that

“defending was his passion. He defended whatever he saw oppressed, whomever he believed unjustly treated, regardless of the opponent, whom he preferred to kill rather than to wound. He spares the rod not even for his friends. He defended the poet Platen against Heine, Lassalle and Bakunin against Marx and Engels, Schweitzer against Bebel, and the man Bernstein against Liebknecht. Innumerable are the ‘vindications of honor’ in his works ...”

The same was true of Lessing. Himself often in a feeble minority, he never refrained from defending even more feeble minorities, even when he recognized that they had faults with which he disagreed. Mehring knew this, and when Lessing was accused of not having seen the faults of the Jews whom he constantly defended, Mehring replied that “to be sure he had seen them, but with the political tact of a real fighter he knew that one does not criticize the oppressed as long as one must fight the oppressors.”

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the first critic of his time, the pioneer of the German literary renaissance of the eighteenth century, a constant fighter for freedom and against prejudice, and one of the greatest representatives of revolutionary middle class ideology, was born in Kamenz, Saxony, January 22, 1729, the descendant of a long line of educated, liberal pastors. In 1669, one hundred and ten years before Lessing wrote Nathan der Weise, his grandfather had won his degree at the University of Leipzig by defending the thesis De religionum tolerantia.

Little is known of Lessing’s childhood except his love of books. The first picture that we have of him is with his younger brother Theophilus. Theophilus is playing with a lamb, but Gotthold Ephraim is surrounded by books, and the six-year-old is said to have chosen this attribute himself.

From 1746 to 1748 he was a student in the theological faculty at Leipzig. At first he was an industrious bookworm, but soon he decided that men are more important than books and that education includes an interest in society. As his guide in society Lessing chose his cousin, Christlob Mylius. Mylius was seven years older than Lessing, a journalist and student of science, and was nicknamed “The Atheist.” When Lessing’s family learned that the young theologian was associated not only with Mylius, but also with actors and, even worse, actresses, they were horrified. Besides, he was getting into debt. The last straw came at Christmas, 1747, when Lessing shared the Christmas Stollen that his mother had sent him with his friends in the theatre. When his family heard of this, Lessing’s father wrote the first letter to Lessing that we have. “As soon as you receive this,” he wrote, “get into a stagecoach and come to us. Your mother is deathly ill and wishes to speak to you once more before she dies.” Lessing, of course, followed orders, and since the weather was particularly severe that winter, he arrived home thoroughly frozen – only to find his mother quite well. The motive for his father’s letter is obvious from his rebuke for Lessing’s “despicable association with comedians and godless friendship with the atheist Mylius,” as well as from his mother’s penitent remark when she saw him on his return that “it would have been better to let him continue associating with atheists and comedians rather than have him freeze to death in the stagecoach.”

Lessing spent several months at home, convinced his family that he had not wasted his time, and returned to Leipzig. There he found his friends gone. Mylius was in Berlin. The theatre had gone bankrupt and the actors had scattered. Since Lessing was responsible for the debts of some of the players, he found it advisable to leave town secretly on his way to Berlin to join Mylius. In Wittenburg he fell ill and thereupon promptly enrolled as a student in the medical faculty of the local university. But after a few months he left and finally reached Berlin where he lived from 1748 to 1760 as a free lance writer.

In 1755, at the age of 26, he wrote his first important play, Miss Sara Sampson, in which he created the character of Arabella, the most awkward, most unrealistic and most impossible figure in world literature. Nevertheless, this play was Germany’s first middle class tragedy, and as such it had a profound influence in Germany and German literature. Miss Sara Sampson represents the victory of the contemporary and the usual, the triumph of the burgher over the aristocrat, not only in literature but in life. That the bourgeoisie did not carry on what Lessing had started was not his fault.

In 1760 Lessing went to Breslau where he served as secretary to a general in the Prussian army. Here he wrote Minna von Barnhelm (1763) and his book on aesthetics, Laokoon, or the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766).

In 1766 he was called to Hamburg to be play-reader, dramatist and critic for the newly founded German National Theatre there. From 1767 to 1769 he wrote and published Die Hamburgische Dramaturgie, a collection of dramatic criticism of vital importance for the German theatre. The theatre soon failed and in 1770 Lessing went to Wolfenbüttel to take a job as librarian to a petty princeling. Here he lived, ill and unhappy, until his death in 1781, and in this period he wrote Emilia Galotti (1772), Nathan der Weise (1779) a poetic drama pleading for tolerance, and a number of other works on tolerance, religion and education.

The writing of Nathan was almost an accident. Lessing was a friend of the Reimarus family in Leipzig, and after the death of the rationalist scholar H.S. Reimarus, he was asked to publish some papers Reimarus had left defending rationalist religion and attacking revealed religion and the inspiration of the Bible. While Lessing did not agree with Reimarus’ arguments and conclusions, he thought the fragments should be published. In 1774 he began to publish them in magazines, and finally published a book of Reimarus’ writings under the title Von dem Zwecke Jesu and seiner Jünger (On the Purpose of Jesus and His Disciples), explaining that he was publishing these papers in order to bring life into the study of theology and thus further the cause of truth.

The entire community of the pious, however, rose in defense of their own particular brand of orthodoxy, the pastor Johann Melchior Goeze being the most zealous. Lessing’s replies to these attacks were moderate and rational. He pointed out that it does not matter whether the scriptures are inspired in fact. If they are true and inspire the men who believe in them, then they are divine whether written by God or by men. The important element in religion is to love your neighbor, said Lessing, and in Das Testament Johannis (1777) he told how John reduced his sermons to the words, “Children, love one another.” Those to whom he preached complained: “‘But, master, why do you always keep saying the same thing?’ ... John answered: ‘Because the Lord commanded it. Because this alone, this alone, if it happens, is enough, is quite enough.’” Twenty years earlier he had expressed the same idea when he wrote in a letter to his father that only he who forgives his enemies is a Christian.

The controversy continued until Lessing thoroughly destroyed Goeze and his supporters. Thereupon, the orthodox became frightened and saw to it that Lessing’s freedom from censorship was revoked and that his princely patron and employer forbade him to continue the controversy. Lessing therefore determined to have the last word on the stage. To Elise Reimarus he wrote: “I must see whether they will still allow me at least to preach undisturbed from my old pulpit, the stage.” The result was Nathan der Weise, his last great attack against intolerance. In this play he did not intend to satirize his opponents, he wanted only to express his ideas in an atmosphere free of the storms of controversy. The theme, the story of the three rings, he took from the Decameron, but he changed it so that it emphasized “Children, love one another.” “It is action, not dogma, that counts. The best religion is the one that best knows how to produce good people.” About the play he wrote to his brother Karl that “the theologians of all the revealed religions will probably swear at it in secret, but they won’t dare to come out against it in public.”

There can be no better conclusion to a discussion of either Lessing or Mehring than the following passage from Lessing, which might stand as an epitaph over both:

“Not the truth that a man knows or thinks he knows, but rather the honest effort he makes to reach the truth is what determines the worth of a man.”

Joseph Kresh



1. How little an orthodox Prussian patriot Lessing was he himself made clear in two letters he wrote to Gleim. In 1758 he wrote: “The reputation for zealous patriotism is, in my opinion, the very last thing for which I am ambitious; the sort of patriotism, that is, that requires me to forget that I should be a citizen of the world.” And several months later: “In general, I have no conception of the love of fatherland, and it seems to me at best a heroic weakness which I am very happy to do without.”


Last updated on 9.2.2006