Deutsche Menschen

Deutsche Menschen. Eine Folge von Briefen; German Men and Women: A Sequence of Letters (1936)

This is a collection of letters written by various German writers between 1783 and 1883, with short introductions by Benjamin. The series first appeared in 1931-32 in the Frankfurter Zeitung. In 1936 it was published in book form in Switzerland under the pseudonym Detlef Holz, and it sold well in Germany until it was put on the index of banned books in 1938.

Many of these letters affirm the ideas and values of the Enlightenment. These letters are evidence that Benjamin respected and admired the Enlightenment and had studied it intensively, unlike his friend Theodor W. Adorno. The contrast between Benjamin’s engagement with the Enlightenment (and celebration of it) in the mid-1930s, and Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s sweeping condemnation of it in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (published a decade later) is very striking.

It is a pity that this outstanding anthology has not had the critical attention that it deserves.

1. Karl Friedrich Zelter to Chancellor von Müller, Berlin, 31 March 1832

Zelter was a composer and a close friend of Goethe. This letter is written nine days after Goethe’s death on 22 March 1832. Zelter expresses his grief. But he also concludes: ‘Und doch darf ich nicht trauern; ich muß erstaunen über den Reichthum, den er mir zugebracht hat. Solchen Schatz hab’ ich zu bewahren und mir die Zinsen zu Capital zu machen.’ (And yet I must not grieve; I should be astonished at the richness he has brought to me. It falls to me to safeguard this treasure and turn its interest into capital.)

2. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg to G. H. Amelung, Göttingen, beginning of 1783

Lichtenberg describes how he met a teenage girl selling flowers in the street. He fell in love with her. Three years later, in 1780, she moved in with him. He hoped to marry her, but she died on 4 August 1872 – the best doctors could do nothing to prevent it. The letter concludes: ‘Es ist mir unmöglich fortzufahren.’ (It is impossible for me to continue.) The girl was Maria Dorothea Stechard (1765-1782). Lichtenberg called her ‘die kleine Stechardin’. This is also the title of the last novel by Gert Hofmann (1931-1993), published posthumously in 1994.

3. Johann Heinrich Kant to Immanuel Kant, Altrahden, 21 August 1789

Johann had worked as a schoolteacher, but he says that he resigned eight years ago and now makes a small income from farming. Johann says that he is happily married and that he has four children: ‘[ich] freue mich, daß meine vier wohlgebildeten, gutartigen, folgsamen Kinder mir die beinahe untrügliche Erwartung gewähren, daß sie einst brave, rechtschaffene Menschen sein werden.’ (I am pleased that my four well-formed, good-natured, obedient children fill me with the almost infallible expectation that they will one day become fine, upstanding human beings.’ Johann asks his brother to write him a letter, with news of their two sisters, also in Königsberg, and their nephew; he even offers to pay for the postage costs. He explains that the letter is being delivered by a young man called Labowsky, who is the son of a virtuous Polish preacher, who is on his way to study in Frankfurt an der Oder. The letter is signed by Johann’s four children.

4. Georg Forster to his wife, Paris, 8 April 1793

Forster reports on the latest developments of the French Revolution to his wife, two days after the Committee of Public Safety had been set up on 6 April 1793, which was to play a leading role in the Reign of Terror that lasted from September 1793 to the end of July 1794. Forster observes:

‘Auf der einen Seite finde ich Einsicht und Talente, ohne Mut und ohne Kraft; auf der andern eine physische Energie, die, von Unwissenheit geleitet, nur da Gutes wirkt, wo der Knoten wirklich zerhauen werden muß. Oft sollte man ihn aber lösen und zerhaut ihn doch.’

(On the one hand I find insight and talent, without courage and strength; on the other hand physical energy led by ignorance, that only does any good if the knot really needs to be chopped up. Often, however, the knot only needs to be untied, but they still just chop it up.’)

5. Samuel Collenbusch to Immanuel Kant, Gemarke, 23 January 1795

Collenbusch, a doctor by profession, was one of the leaders of the Pietist movement in Wuppertal. Pietism was a strict devotional movement within Lutheranism that emphasized the study of the Bible in private meetings. Collenbusch was an exact contemporary of Immanuel Kant, born men being born in 1724. Collenbusch has been sampling Kant’s writings on religion and morality, and he is not impressed. Collenbusch writes: ‘Ein von aller Hoffnung ganz reiner Glaube und eine von aller Liebe reine Moral, das ist eine seltsame Erscheinung in der Republik der Gelehrten.’ (Faith that is entirely free from hope, and morality that is entirely free of love, that is a strange phenomenon in the republic of letters.) Collenbusch reminds Kant of the importance of love, quoting John 4:16: ‘Gott ist die Liebe’ (God is love). He adds: ‘Gott ist die seine vernünftige Kreaturen bessernde Liebe’ (God is love, by means of which he improves his rational creatures). Collenbusch concludes his letter wishing that Kant will once again hope for God’s goodness, and in a postscript he recommends that Kant reads Holy Scripture, particularly its promise of resurrection.

6. Heinrich Pestalozzi to Anna Schulthess

Pestalozzi was Swiss educational reformer, who, according to Benjamin, was way ahead of his time: ‘denn wenn Rousseau die Natur als das Höchste preist und lehrt, durch sie aufs Neue die Gesellschaft einzurichten, so schreibt ihr Pestalozzi Selbstsucht zu, die die Gesellschaft zugrunde richtet’. (Unlike Rousseau, who praises nature as the highest virtue and teaches that society should be adapted in accordance with nature, Pestalozzi attributes egoism to nature, egoism that has a destructive effect on society). The letter included here (to Anna Schulthess, whom he married in 1769) gives a concrete example of this attitude: Pestalozzi argues that city life has a more positive effect on young lovers than country walks. He thinks that young lovers are much more likely to restrain themselves and act decently in a city, than they are in a forest when there is no one around to disturb them.

7. Johann Gottfried Seume to the husband of his fomer fiancée

Benjamin describes Seume as the epitome of an ‘ehrlicher Mann’ (honest man), comparing him to the character of Tellheim in Lessing’s play Minna von Barnhelm.

In this unusual letter, Seume writes to a man whom he has never met, the husband of the woman he was once engaged to. The husband must know that his wife was once very close to Seume. Seume explains: ‘ich störe Niemandes Glück’ (I don’t want to disturb anyone’s happiness). On the contrary, he wishes them both happiness and assures the man:

‘Ihre Frau ist gut, ich habe sie tief beobachtet, und ich würde nicht im Stande gewesen sein, mein Herz an eine unwürdige zu verlieren. […] Sie müssen ihr manchen Fehler vergeben und selbst keinen begehen. Es ist mir daran gelegen, daß sie Beide glücklich sind’

(Your wife is good, I have observed her in depth, and I would not have been capable of losing my heart to someone unworthy of it. […] You will have to forgive her some errors, and you must not commit an error yourself. It matters a great deal to me that both of you are happy’).

And because their happiness matters so much to him, this justifies the advice that he is now giving to the husband, to be faithful, generous and kind to his wife, for all their sakes.

8. Friedrich Hölderlin to his friend Casimir Böhlendorf, 2 December 1802

Hölderlin’s friend Böhlendorf (1775-1825) was another poet, who, like Hölderlin, suffered from mental illness. In this letter Hölderlin describes his stay in the Vendée region of France and the powerful impressions it has made on him. He suggests that ancient Greek culture could inspire German poets to sing more naturally and originally. For a translation of this letter, click here.

9. Clemens Brentano to the Bookseller Reimer, Heidelberg, 19 December 1806

Brentano wrote this letter in a state of intense grief: his wife, Sophie Mereau, had died on 31 October 1806 after delivering her sixth child. This was shortly after Napoleon’s armies had defeated the Prussians at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt on 14 Octobr 1806. As a result, Brentano’s close friend Achim von Arnim had been forced to follow the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, to East Prussia. Brentano begs Riemer to find out if Arnim is still alive, and, if he is, the name of the city where he is staying: ‘es ist ihnen dann so leicht, mir durch eine Nachricht davon in wenigen Zeilen, wenigstens den Namen einer Stadt zu nennen, wohin ich denken kann, ach so wie mir jetzt ist, da ich schwebe mitten in tiefem Gram, ist es mir unendlich viel, in dieser Endlichkeit, nur zu wissen, ob jemand noch lebt, der mich liebte.’ (it would be so easy for you then to send me a message in a few lines, at least the name of a town where I can think he is. O, the way I feel now, I am hovering in the midst of deep sorrow, it would mean the world to me, in this mortality, just to know that someone who has loved me is still alive).

10. Johann Wilhelm Ritter to Franz von Baader, 4 Januar 1808

Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) was a physicist who belonged to the group Romantic writers at the University of Jena. He was the first person to discover ultraviolet radiation; he died in poverty aged 33. After his death, his writings were published as Fragmente aus dem Nachlasse eines jungen Physikers. Ein Taschenbuch für Freunde der Natur (Heidelberg, 1810; Fragments from the Written Legacy of a Young Physicist. A Pocketbook for Friends of Nature), which Benjamin here describes as ‘die bedeutendste Bekenntnisprosa der deutschen Romantik’ (the most significant confessional prose of German Romanticism). In this letter Ritter confesses his financial problems to his friend: ‘meine ökonomischen Verhältnisse drücken mich’ (my financial circumstances oppress me). But he also affirms that few men have gone further than he has in terms of researching natural history and human life: ‘Auch halte ich es von größerem Lohn, “gelebt” als bloß gewußt zu haben.’ (And I also think it is a greater reward to have ‘lived’ than to have merely known).

11. Bertram to Sulpiz Boisserée, Heidelberg, 11 May 1811

12. Christian August Heinrich Clodius to Elisa von der Recke, 2 December 1811

13. Johann Heinrich Voss to Jean Paul, Heidelberg, 25 December 1817

14. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff to Anton Matthias Sprickmann, Hülshoff, 8 February 1819

In this letter, Droste-Hülshoff explains that she yearns to travel, but admits that she cannot stand travelling either. ‘Entfernte Länder, große interessante Menschen, von denen ich habe reden hören, entfernte Kunstwerke und dergleichen mehr, haben alle diese traurige Gewalt über mich. Ich bin keinen Augenblick mit meinen Gedanken zu Hause, wo es mir doch so sehr wohl geht.’ (Distant lands, great, interesting people I have heard about, distant artworks and suchlike, all have an unhappy power over me. I am never at home in my thoughts, despite the fact that things are going well for me here). She fears for her own reason; and yet, by the end of the letter she says that writing has made her feel more courageous again.

15. Joseph Görres to Pastor Aloys Vock in Aarau, Strasbourg, 26 June 1822

16. Justus Liebig to August von Platen, Paris, 16 May 1823

Justus Liebig (1803-1873) was a German chemist who became close friends with the poet August von Platen when they were students at the University of Erlangen. Platen was seven years older than Liebig, and their friendship was close and exclusive. Liebig left Erlangen and moved to Paris in the spring of 1822 in order to escape the repressive measures (‘Demagogenverfolgungen’) which were enforced in German universities: students suspected of political activity could be expelled immediately. Benjamin observes that Platen’s letters contain not only sonnets and ghazals, but also reproaches, outbursts and threats, and this makes Liebig’s ‘Entgegenkommen’ (goodwill) towards Platen all the more winning. In Paris, Liebig has been attending Gay-Lussac’s lectures on the behaviour of gases, and he adds: ‘und doch wünschte ich ein Gas zu sein, das sich ins Unendliche ausdehnen könnte […] und würde mich nur bis Erlangen expandieren und Dich dorten als Atmosphäre umgeben, […] so würde ich vielleicht ein Gas sein, das Dir Lust zum Briefschreiben und Freude und Lust am Leben erwecken könnte.’ (I wish I could be a gas that could expand indefinitely, and then I would expand only as far as Erlangen and surround you like an atmosphere, and maybe I would be a gas that awakened your enjoyment of letter writing, and your joy and lust for life). And Liebig concludes: ‘ich fühle wohl, daß wir zwei Pole sind, die in ihrem Wesen unendlich verscheiden, allein auch eben dieser Verschiedenheit halber sich anziehen müssen, denn Gleichartiges stößt sich ab’ (I feel that we are two opposite poles, endlessly different existences, and precisely because of this we must attract each other, for identical things repel each other).

17. Wilhelm Grimm to Jenny von Droste-Hülshoff, Kassel, 9 January 1825

18. Karl Friedrich Zelter to Goethe, Weimar, 16 October 1827

19. David Friedrich Strauss to Christian Märklin, Berlin, 15 November 1831

20. Goethe to Moritz Seeback, 3 January 1832

This is a letter of condolence. On 10 December 1831 the physicist Thomas Johann Seebeck had died; he was the discoverer of the thermoelectric effect. Goethe writes to the man’s son to tell him that his father’s death is a great personal loss to him. He regrets that he has not been in contact for many years, and he admits that in his life he has often failed in such a way. That is one of the strange things about life:

‘daß wir in Thätigkeit so bestrebsam, auf Genuß so begierig, selten die angebotenen Einzelheiten des Augenblicks zu schätzen und festhalten wissen’

(that we are so zealous in our activities, and so eager for pleasure, that we seldom know how to appreciate and hold on to the things that each moment offers).

21. Georg Büchner to Karl Gutzkow, Darmstadt, end of February 1835

Büchner’s letter accompanies the manuscript of his play Danton’s Tod (Danton’s Death); he asks Gutzkow to recommend it to the publisher Johann David Sauerländer for publication. Büchner knew that the police were closing in on him because of his political activism; he had been interrogated twice and released, and the street on which his parents lived was under police watch. Büchner was planning to flee to France and he urgently needed to raise some money. He hints that his situation is desperate, and that he has even considered suicide. This explains the urgency of this begging letter. Luckily for Büchner, Gutzkow sent him an advance and Büchner was able to escape to Strasbourg. As for the play itself, Büchner writes:

‘nur das weiß ich, daß ich alle Ursache habe, der Geschichte gegenüber rot zu werden; doch tröste ich mich mit dem Gedanken, daß, Shakespeare ausgenommen, alle Dichter vor ihr und der Natur wie Schulknaben dastehen’

(I only know that I have every reason to blush before history, but I console myself by thinking that, with the exception of Shakespeare, all poets are like schoolboys compared to history and nature).

22. Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach to an unknown person, Potsdam, 19 October 1847

23. Jacob Grimm to Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann

24. Clemens von Metternich to Count Anton von Prokesch-Osten, Vienna, 21 December 1854

Metternich, the Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire from 1821-1848, lost his position in the Revolutions of 1848, when he and his family were forced to flee to England, later moving to Brussels, and only returning to his family estate in 1851. In this letter he describes contemporary European politics as the same old theatrical production, only a few of the roles have changed. The only thing that is genuinely new is the military technology – an ‘enterprise’ like the Crimean War (1853-1856) would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

25. Gottfried Keller to Theodor Storm, Zurich, 26 February 1879

26. Franz Overbeck to Friedrich Nietzsche, Basel, 25 March 1883

27. Friedrich Schlegel to Friedrich Schleiermacher

German Edition

Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. IV.1, ed. by Tillman Rexroth (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), pp. 141-233

English Edition

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings volume 3, 1935-1938, trans. by Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland, and others (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 167-235

Further Reading in English

Daniel H. Magilow, The Photography of Crisis: The photo essays of Weimar Germany (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), pp. 109-18

Further Reading in German

Barbara Hahn and Erdmut Wizisla (eds.), Walter Benjamins »Deutsche Menschen« (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2008)

Peter Villwock, ‘Walter Benjamins Feuilleton-Reihe in der „Frankfurter Zeitung“: „Briefe“ (1931/32)’, Zeitschrift für Germanistik, Neue Folge, 22:3 (2012), 599-613