Danton’s Tod; Danton's Death

Danton’s Tod; Danton’s Death (1835; first publ. 1835; first performed in 1902 in Berlin)

Danton’s Tod; Danton’s Death is a dramatisation of the events leading to the guillotining of Georges Jacques Danton on 4 April 1794. The manuscript title is Danton’s Tod, although many later editions modernize the spelling by omitting the apostrophe.

Büchner already knew the history of the French Revolution well from a progressive publication called Unsere Zeit (Our Time), which his father used to read aloud (see Maurice B. Benn, reading list below, p. 104). Approximately one sixth of the play is lifted directly from historical sources (see reading list below). The play contains several crowd scenes which explore Büchner's idea that the individual is only 'foam on the wave' (in Act 2, Scene 5; and in his letter to Minna Jaeglé, 9-12 March 1834; see Büchner main page).

In Act One, Danton seems more concerned with his wife Julie and his mistress Marion than with politics. Robespierre gives a menacing speech at the Jacobins’ Club. The next day Danton confornts Robespierre and mocks his virtue.

In Act Two, Danton’s friends urge him to flee but Danton is convinced that his opponents won’t dare to execute him. Camille visits his wife Lucile. In Act Two, Scene 5, Danton visits Julie, and makes speech to her which draws on the famous ‘Fatalismus-Brief’; ‘Fatalism Letter’ which Büchner wrote to his fiancée Minna Jaeglé (circa. 9-12 March 1834). Robespierre makes a speech calling for Danton to be executed.

In Act Three, political prisoners including Thomas Payne discuss atheism. Danton and Camille are led into prison. Danton is interrogated by the Revolutionary Tribunal. St. Just insists that Danton must be forbidden to speak any longer in his defence. The Revolutionary Tribunal meets again. Danton is defiant and prophecies dictatorship. He is taken away.

In Act Four, Lucile stands outside the prison and calls to Camille. Julie commits suicide. Danton, Camille and their friends are guillotined. Lucile sits on the steps of the guillotine, mourning Camille. She defies the revolutionary guards, and they take her away.

Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Büchner’s Danton is doomed by his hesitation. But while Hamlet is haunted by his father’s ghost and the horror of his own family drama, Danton sees himself as part of a greater human family, and he is tormented by his insights into human nature, including himself and his role in the September Massacres of 1792, in which over a thousand people were murdered. As Danton says in Act 2, Scene 1:

Es wurde ein Fehler gemacht, wie wir geschaffen wurden; es fehlt uns etwas, ich habe keinen Namen dafür […] Geht, wir sind elende Alchymisten!


A mistake was made when we were created; we are lacking something, I don’t have a name for it […] Get away, we are miserable alchemists!

In other words: given the way that human beings are, the idealistic attempt to turn then into ‘gold’ is ridiculous.

Danton sees clearly that Robespierre’s virtue enables him to feel superior to other people and compares Robespierre’s virtue to thick shoe heels (in Act 1, Scene 6), implying that virtue is a physical prop, an accessory which Robespierre uses to look down on others. In contrast, Danton’s shoes seem to have very thin soles; in other words he is painfully conscious of the dirt and grime of being human. In Act 2, Scene 1 he refers to the soil of the fatherland beneath his feet, and in Act 2, Scene 4 he feels as if the soles of his shoes are burning.

The sense of human inadequacy and idiocy is also expressed by Camille in Act 4, Scene 5:

wir sollten einmal die Masken abnehmen, wir sähen dann, wie in einem Zimmer mit Spiegeln, überall nur den einen uralten, zahllosen, unverwüstlichen Schafskopf, nichts mehr, nichts weniger. Die Unterschiede sind so groß nicht, wir alle sind Schurken und Engel, Dummköpfe und Genies, und zwar das alles in einem


for once we should take off the masks, and then we would see, everywhere, like in a mirrored room, just that age-old, countless, everlasting sheep’s head, nothing more, nothing less. The differences are not so great, we are all scoundrels and angels, idiots and geniuses, and all at once

As Reinhold Grimm has pointed out (see below, pp. 139-75), Dantons Tod can be seen as a ‘counter conception’ to Goethe's Egmont.

Other major dramas about the French Revolution include Grabbe, Napoleon oder die 100 Tage; Napoleon or the 100 Days (1829-30); Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Marie Roland (1867); Stanisława Przybyszewska, The Danton Case (1929); Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade (1964) and Heiner Müller, Der Auftrag; The Task/The Mission (1978).

Further Reading

Maurice R. Benn, The Drama of Revolt: A Critical Study of Georg Büchner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)

Steffan Davies, ‘Danton’s Tod, II.5: Language, Guilt and Memory’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 208-22

Nicholas Fenech, ‘Transfusions of Sovereignty: Büchner’s Danton’s Tod, Political Theology, and the Afterlife of Language’, German Quarterly 91:1 (2018)

Laura Ginters, ‘Es lebe die Revolution? Danton’s Tod on Stage in the Twenty-First Century’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 223-43

Reinhold Grimm, Love, Lust, and Rebellion: New Approaches to Georg Büchner (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985)

T. M. Holmes, ‘The Ideology of the Moderates in Büchner’s Dantons Tod’, German Life and Letters 27:2 (1974), 93-100

T. M. Holmes, The Rehearsal of Revolution: Georg Büchner’s Politics and his Drama ‘Dantons Tod’ (Berne: Peter Lang, 1995)

André Lefevere, ‘Salvation through Mutilation: Büchner’s Danton’s Death’, in André Lefevere, Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame [1992] (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), pp. 112-19

Paul Levesque, ‘The Sentence of Death and the Execution of Wit in Georg Büchner's Dantons Tod’, German Quarterly 62:1 (1989), 85-95

Dorothy James, Georg Büchner’s ‘Dantons Tod’: A Reappraisal (Leeds: Maney/MHRA, 1982)

John Reddick, ‘Mosaic and Flux: Georg Büchner and the Marion Episode in Dantons Tod’, Oxford German Studies 11 (1980), 40-67

Rodney Taylor, History and the Paradoxes of Metaphysics in “Dantons Tod” (New York: Peter Lang, 1990)

Martin Wagner, ‘Why Danton Doesn’t Die’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 173-91

Silke-Maria Weineck, ‘Sex and History, or Is There an Erotic Utopia in Dantons Tod?’, German Quarterly 73:3 (2000), 351-65

Editions showing historical sources used by Büchner for Dantons Tod:

Peter von Becker, Georg Büchner, Dantons Tod. Kritische Studienausgabe des Originals mit Quellen, Aufsätzen und Materialien (Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat, 1985)

Richard Thieberger, Georg Büchner, La mort de Danton. Publiée avec le texte des sources et des corrections manuscrites de l'auteur (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1953)

Further Reading in German

Ulrike Dedner, Deutsche Widerspiele der Französischen Revolution. Reflexionen des Revolutionsmythos im selbstbezüglichen Spiel von Goethe bis Dürrenmatt (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2003), Chapter 4 on Dantons Tod

Elke Dubbels, ‘Gerüchte: Politik und kollektiv-anonyme Kommunication in Büchners Danton’s Tod’, in Georg Büchner: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Robert Gillett, Ernest Schonfield and Daniel Steuer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 192-207

Bodo Morawe, Faszinosum Saint-Just. Zur programmatischen Bedeutung der Konventsrede in Danton’s Tod (II,7) von Georg Büchner (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2012)

Web Link


Dantons Tod in German; click on a word for the English translation