Friedrich Schiller was one of the world’s greatest poets and dramatists for liberty. Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek ranked him among the “leading political thinkers.”
Schiller’s work abounds with gems about liberty. For example: “Man must have his freedom to be ready for morality…Surely the man is great who has shaped and created himself…It’s safest to rely upon oneself…Whoever subjects us to compulsion, denies us nothing less than our humanity…The state as at present constituted has been the cause of evil…warfare is a raging horror…We stand here joyously upon the ruins of tyranny.” Schiller celebrated “everlasting rights, which still abide on high, inalienable and indestructible as are the stars.”
German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Schiller’s contemporary, has traditionally been considered a much more important thinker, but Kant opposed the right of revolution against tyranny. Schiller affirmed the right of revolution. His most beloved play, Wilhelm Tell, celebrated a legendary freedom fighter. It inspired Gioacchino Rossini’s opera Guillaume Tell whose famous Overture became the theme of The Lone Ranger, the popular TV series about the pursuit of liberty and justice.
Schiller recognized that political power was the most persistent and serious threat to liberty. “Every one of the figures of power in his dramas is profoundly flawed, and in most cases the flaws are not so much nobly tragic as contemptible,” noted Yale University German literature professor Jeffrey L. Sammons. “Schiller was immune to nationalistic feeling; for him the invader was always in the wrong…”
Schiller had a tolerant, cosmopolitan vision. He wrote one play about liberating the Swiss (Wilhelm Tell), another about liberating the Dutch (Don Carlos) and yet another about liberating the French (The Maid of Orleans). He wrote historical epics because stories about contemporary rebellion would have been banned by censors. In his unfinished poem German Greatness, he urged his compatriots to renounce politics and war.
Schiller was widely revered. The American author Washington Irving was a fan. So was the English novelist Walter Scott and the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The French political thinker Benjamin Constant cherished Schiller’s company. After visiting his home, the French novelist Germaine de Stael remarked that “I found him so modest and so unconcerned about his own successes, so ardent and animated in the defense of what he believed was true, that I vowed him from that moment a friendship full of admiration.” Political thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt called Schiller “the greatest and finest person I have ever known.” Poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe told Schiller: “You have given me a second youth, made me a poet again.” And it was to Schiller that Ludwig van Beethoven turned when he needed inspiring words for the climactic Fourth Movement of his Ninth Symphony.
F.A. Hayek observed that Schiller “did probably as much as any man to spread liberal ideas in Germany.” Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises: “Schiller became the preferred poet of the nation; in his enthusiastic devotion to liberty the Germans found their political ideal.” That’s why Schiller’s work was banned by both Napoleon and Hitler.
He achieved phenomenal eloquence. “No other writer except Martin Luther,” reported Sammons, “has had so enduring an impact on the German language in its common usage. A well-known compendium of…familiar quotations, even in a current edition lists some three hundred lines and phrases from Schiller.”
Historian Hajo Holborn: “Schiller was the true creator of the modern German theater…Schiller had a supreme sense for the possibilities of the stage and dramatic action. Beyond that, he had at his command a language of plastic expression and musical rhythm that gave his plays a poetic beauty of rare quality…to educate a future generation of free men.”
Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann: “He invented a theatrical idiom of his own. Its intonations, gestures, and melodies are unmistakable, instantly recognizable as his; and it is the most brilliant, rhetorically stirring idiom that was ever created in Germany, perhaps in the world….It is not easy to stop, once I have begun to speak of Schiller’s special greatness — a generous, lofty, flaming, inspiring grandeur such as we do not find even in Goethe’s wiser, more natural and elementary majesty…Schiller’s mighty talent…his libertarian sentiments…he is a poet who knows how to bring tears to our eyes while at the same time rousing us to indignation against despotism.”
Bestselling novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, who began her career as a screenwriter, declared: “He is the only classical dramatist in whom I sensed an enormous hero worship.”
Schiller displayed heroics in his personal life, creating his greatest work despite severe asthma, tuberculosis, liver and heart disease. The last nine years of his life, when he was virtually an invalid, were his most productive. A visitor reported in 1796: “his mind, accustomed to never-resting activity, is spurred to still greater efforts by physical suffering.”
Biographer H.B. Garland noted that Schiller “was tall and upright, though with thin, weedy legs and arms, and a tendency to be knock-kneed. His hair, which he always wore long and brushed back from his forehead, was reddish, his eyes blue, his nose thin and slightly hooked, his lips full and well-shaped. He dressed in plain colours, usually grey or dark blue, and normally wore an open-necked shirt…His salient characteristic, remarked by all observers, was his gentleness…warm-hearted kindness.”
Schiller, added Sammons, “drew to himself some of the best and most worthwhile friends and sincere admirers any man has ever had; at times they virtually saved his life. What may seem to a modern sensibility forbidding and moralistic in him must have struck a temper of the late eighteenth century differently, must have met a yearning for a higher and firmer ground beyond that age’s frivolity, cruelty, and injustice. In Schiller, contemporaries encountered a man of high visionary purpose and, though not guileless in personal and business relations, basically incorruptible integrity, free of compromise with evil or petty selfishness. For various reasons such virtues have paled in modern times; but they were significant and magnetic then and continued to inspire subsequent generations, with greater or lesser understanding, for more than a century afterward.”
Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller was born on November 10, 1759, in Marbach, Duchy of Wurtemberg. He was the son of Johann Kaspar Schiller, a military officer serving the petty tyrant Duke Karl Eugen of Wurtemberg. Schiller’s mother was Elisabetha Dorothea Kodweis, an innkeeper’s daughter. In December 1776, at the Duke of Wurtemberg’s palace, young Schiller saw opulent productions of Italian operas, kindling his love for the theater.
But the Duke ordered the 13-year-old boy to study law at the Herzogliche Militr-Akademie [Ducal Military Academy]. Schiller endured regimentation from age 13 to 21 without being permitted to see his father, mother or sister. His graduation was held up a year, until December 1780, because his first dissertation was rejected for being critical of authorities. Outraged, Schiller wrote a poem, The Conqueror, which scorned a tyrant like the Duke.
Schiller moved into a room on Am langen Graben, Stuttgart and finished his first play, Die Rauber [The Robbers], about the futility of violence. After it was performed in Mannheim January 13, 1782, the Duke warned Schiller that he would be imprisoned if he wrote any more plays. Schiller fled, bringing with him a nearly finished manuscript for his next play, Die Verschworung des Fiesco zu Genua [Fiesco’s Conspiracy at Genoa], about the rise and fall of a man who tried to be a dictator. It opened in Mannheim January 11, 1784.
For a while Schiller stayed in the Bauerbach home of Henriette von Wolzogen whose sons had been his classmates. He worked on Kabale und Liebe [Cabal and Love], a tragedy about Ferdinand von Walter who struggles against authority to live his own life. This play opened April 15th, and it was a hit.
He moved to Leipzig where a wealthy admirer named Chrstian Gottfried Korner provided financial support for two years. In November 1785, he wrote An Die Freude [Ode to Joy], the first of his poems to find a popular audience. In its original version, noted music historian Irving Kolodin, this was An Die Freiheit [Ode to Freedom].
In Don Carlos, Schiller transformed the unhappy son of Spain’s mighty King Philip II into a champion of liberty who courageously opposes his father’s repression in the Netherlands. Schiller portrays the Marquis de Posa as even bolder, demanding freedom of speech. That such things never could have occurred under Philip II hardly seemed to matter, because after the play opened on August 29, 1787 in Hamburg, audiences were swept away by this stirring story about a struggle for liberty.
Schiller began work on his Die Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung [The History of the Secession of the United Netherlands from Spanish Rule]. He exulted that “a vigorous resistance can strike down the upraised arm of the despot…” Although he was only able to cover the period 1560 to 1567, the work, published in 1788, was among the most commercially successful things he did.
On a trip to visit Frau von Wolzogen, he stopped in Rudolstadt where her relatives the Lengefeld family lived. He and young Lotte von Lengefeld became enchanted with each other, and they got married in Wenigenjena on February 22, 1790. They were to have four children.
The spectre of a war arising from the French Revolution evoked the horrors of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) which had devastated Germany, and Schiller started a history of it. The first part of Die Geschichte des dreissigjahrigen Krieges, covering the story up to 1631, was published in 1790 and sold out the press run of 7,000 copies.
On January 3, 1791, Schiller suffered a fever and chest pains, and he coughed up blood — tuberculosis. He needed prolonged rest. He and his wife moved to Rudolstadt where better air might help relieve his symptoms, but he was soon suffering from asthmatic breathing spasms, too. By December, he improved somewhat, and he got heartening news: two Danish noblemen, Prince Friedrich Christian von Augustenburg and Count Schimmelmann offered him a pension of 1,000 talers a year for three years, providing some financial security.
Schiller wrote a series of essays on aesthetics which included comments about achieving inner freedom. The best-known include Uber Anmut und Wurde [On Grace and Dignity, 1793], Briefe uber die asthetische Erziehung des Menschen [On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1794] and Uber naive und sentimentalisch Dichtung [On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, 1796]. As Jeffrey L. Sammons observed, “ultimately their principal object is not the nature of art, nor even the definition of beauty, but the achievement of human freedom.”
In Jena, Schiller got to know the man of letters and political thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) who had just written Ideen zu einem Versuch die Grenzen der Wirkamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen [The Limits of State Action], a book which was to influence John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). A friend of Humboldt reported he was “regularly with Schiller every evening from eight till ten…He lives only in his ideas, in a continual intellectual activity. Thinking and writing are all he needs; everything else he respects or likes only in so far as it is connected with this, his real life. Humboldt is therefore very valuable to him. These hours Schiller regards as his hours of recreation and he talks of everything…With Schiller he is without any strain and is just as funny as we have ever seen him.”
Thomas Mann called the blossoming of Schiller’s relationship with Goethe “the most famous of intellectual alliances.” The two had met at Schiller’s in-laws’ house on September 7, 1788 when Schiller was 28 and Goethe 39. Schiller and Goethe shared a passion for literature. They believed they were defenders of civilization against ignorance. They wrote each other more than a thousand letters. Goethe invited Schiller to his house in Weimar, and Goethe regularly visited Schiller and his family in Jena.
Schiller reflected that Goethe’s “is of middle height, and carries himself rather stiffly…he has a very expressive and lively look, and it is a great pleasure to look into his eyes…His voice is exceedingly pleasing and his conversation flowing, lively and amusing.” Born in Frankfurt on August 28, 1749, Goethe was the reigning genius of German literature. He had written a number of widely-regarded poems and dramas before Die Leiden des jungen Werther [The Sorrows of Young Werther] captivated German readers in 1774. Goethe went on to write satires about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among other subjects. He wrote some serene nature poems. He embraced classical ideals of beauty. His Egmont (1788) is about a man who led a Dutch revolt against Spanish tyranny. Some scholars believe Goethe became more productive — and, among other things, finished Faust, Part I — because Schiller spurred him on.
“When Goethe wishes to apply his full powers, I do not measure myself against him,” Schiller wrote. “He has a far greater wealth of knowledge, a surer sensuousness, and with all this an artistic sense refined and purified by acquaintance with all types of art. This I lack to a degree that amounts to sheer ignorance. If I did not have a few other talents, and if I had not been clever enough to apply these talents and abilities to the field of the drama, I would have made no showing at all beside him in this profession.” Goethe remarked, “The Germans are always bickering about who is greater. They ought to be glad they have two such boys to bicker with.”
As Napoleon menaced Europe, Schiller remarked that the general “is completely repugnant to me.” In 1797, he made notes for a poem, Deutsche Grosse [German Greatness] asserting that individual improvement, not political power, is the key to making the world better.
As Schiller focused on producing more plays, it became clear he must join Weimar’s theatrical community, and he moved there in 1799. Schiller worked on Wallenstein, a 10-act tragedy about the general who played a major role in the Thirty Years War. Schiller showed how power corrupts the mighty and how war devastates ordinary people. The first part of Schiller’s new play, Wallensteins Lager [Wallenstein’s Camp], opened on October 12, 1798 in the Weimar Court Theatre; the second part, Die Piccolomini [The Piccolomini], January 30, 1799; and the third part, Wallensteins Tod [Wallenstein’s Death], April 20, 1799.
While studying history, Schiller became fascinated with the exploits of Joan of Arc who, near the climax of the Hundred Years War, helped drive the English out of Orleans and Rheims. She was wounded in the struggle for Paris and burned by the English on May 30, 1431. Schiller determined to rescue Joan of Arc from Voltaire who had ridiculed her as a religious fanatic. Schiller wrote Jungfrau von Orleans [The Maid of Orleans], a hymn for independence. If some people objected to Schiller’s departure from historical fact, having Joan die gloriously in battle, the play was a hit with the public after it opened on September 11, 1801.
In December 1803, Schiller welcomed the French novelist and friend of liberty Germaine de Stael who had eluded the guillotine during the French Revolution. She seemed like a whirlwind. “She wants to explain everything, apprehend everything, measure everything,” Schiller remarked. They spoke in French, since she didn’t know German. She wrote of him: “I was much struck by this simplicity of character.” The conversations figured in her book, De l’Allemagne [On Germany] which helped put German ideas before French readers.
After Goethe dropped the idea of doing an epic poem about Wilhelm Tell, Schiller began reading about Swiss history and vowed that “if the gods are kind to me and let me carry out what I have in my head, it will be a mighty work which will shake the theatres of Germany…My Tell, I think, is going to warm people’s blood again.”
He presented Wilhelm Tell as a man whose plain talk sparkled with aphorisms about individualism. For example: “A real hunter helps himself…Whoever wants to make his way through life must be prepared…The strong man will be strongest when alone…I am free and master of my strength…No one shall go uncomforted from Tell…I do what’s right and fear no enemy…The weak are also furnished with a sting…This house of freedom God himself created.”
The play opens after a Swiss countryman named Baumgarten killed the Habsburg emperor’s bailiff who had threatened his wife. To elude the emperor’s soldiers who were rushing to avenge the killing, Baumgarten had to get away across Lake Lucerne, and Wilhelm Tell offered to take him. Tell ran afoul of authorities by refusing to bow before a hat mounted on a pole, symbolizing the tyrannical governor Gessler. The outraged governor forced Tell to try shooting an arrow off his son’s head. Tell hit the apple, of course, but he didn’t forgive Gessler for putting his son’s life at risk, and he later assassinated the tyrant. This enabled Swiss patriots to overrun their oppressors and secure their liberty. Wilhelm Tell opened March 17, 1804, and it was more popular than anything else he had done.
The winter of 1804 and 1805 was the worst he had experienced, and Schiller couldn’t get beyond the second act of his next play, Demetrius, about a struggle for power in 17th century Russia. “If only I can reach my fiftieth year with unimpaired intellectual powers,” he wrote, “I hope to be able to save enough so that my children will be independent.”
He suffered high fevers and pain. On April 29, 1805, he chatted with Goethe for the last time. As his condition worsened, his wife brought in their nine-month-old daughter Emilie, and Schiller seemed to realize he would never see her again. About four o’clock in the afternoon, Monday, May 9, 1805, his body convulsed and then was still. His wife held his hand. He was just 45. He had requested the simplest possible burial, and his coffin was carried to the St. James Church cemetery. There was a memorial service the following day.
When Napoleon marched through Central Europe after 1805, he banned Schiller’s Jungfrau von Orleans which was seen as a patriotic battle cry against any foreign invader. Goethe, always aloof from politics, expressed the view that the French might be a civilizing influence. German-speaking people turned their back on Goethe and revered Schiller.
One of Schiller’s ardent admirers was composer Ludwig van Beethoven who as early as 1793 thought about doing something with the poem An Die Freude (1785). Nothing came of this at the time, but Beethoven continued to read Schiller’s writings. In a journal, he wrote down some words from Schiller’s Don Carlos. Beethoven swore “to love liberty above all else, never to deny the truth, even before the throne.” In May 1817, Beethoven honored a friend who had died by setting to music some passages from Wilhelm Tell. In mid-1823, Beethoven decided to finish his D-minor Symphony with a chorale movement and to draw the words from Schiller’s An Die Freude. As the deaf composer wrote in his notebook to associate Anton Schindler — “Lass uns das Lied des unsterblichen Schiller singen” [“Let us sing the song of the Immortal Schiller”].
Schiller’s ideal of liberty inspired the greatest composers of Italian opera. Gioacchino Rossini based his last opera, Guillaume Tell (1829), on Schiller’s last play. It opened in Paris and played 500 performances there. It played to audiences in Brussels, Frankfurt, London, New Orleans and New York (in English, French, German and Italian). “In Italy,” reported Rossini biographer Francis Toye, “there was trouble with the Austrian censorship…All references to patriotism, liberty, or tyranny were suppressed, and the scene of the apple was omitted altogether. In Rome the Papal censorship…thought it well to sprinkle the opera with pious references to God, heaven, and the saints.”
Inspired by Schiller’s story of Tell, Giuseppe Verdi went to see “William Tell’s Chapel and the house where he lived, the place where he killed Gessler, the man who oppressed the Swiss.” Verdi drew on Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans for Giovanna d’Arco which opened on February 15, 1845; he drew on Die Rauber for I Masnadieri, July 22, 1847; on Kabale und Liebe for his opera Luisa Miller, December 8, 1849; on Don Carlos for Don Carlo, March 11, 1867. According to Sammons, two dozen more operas were based on Schiller’s plays.
The English writer Thomas Carlyle helped popularize Schiller in the English-speaking world by writing a biography (1824). Goethe helped get it translated into German and wrote an introduction for it. According to biographer John Morley, philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) “Greatly prefers Schiller in all respects; turning to him from Goethe is like going into the fresh air from a hothouse.”
The hundredth anniversary of Schiller’s birth, November 1859, inspired what Ludwig von Mises described as “the most impressive political demonstration that ever took place in Germany…The German nation was united in its adherence to the ideas of Schiller, to the liberal ideas.” Although churches banned the use of their property for Schiller celebrations, and government schools banned his writings, there were readings, performances and torch light parades in just about every German city. Some 1,600 speeches were given on Schiller, and about 300 were subsequently published in commemorative volumes.
The centennial was celebrated around the world. Eighty-nine celebrations were reported in 23 of the 33 United States. In New York, festivities went on for four days. There were celebrations in St. Petersburg, Moscow and other capitals as well. There were more celebrations on the 150th anniversary of Schiller’s birth in 1909. At Harvard Stadium, a performance of Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans had some 1,500 actors — and 15,000 people in the audience.
Schiller remained a great name in German literature until after World War I. Then he was rejected by writers like the Marxist Bertold Brecht who wrote a Schiller parody, St. Joan of the Stockyards. But Thomas Mann recalled: “I saw Love and Intrigue in Munich after the First World War…the performance was mediocre. And yet the fire of the play threw this…audience into a kind of revolutionary frenzy. The audience became Schiller fanatics, like every audience that has ever witnessed his plays.”
When Adolf Hitler heard that Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell justified the toppling of tyrants, he banned the work. From Schiller’s Don Carlos, Nazi censors cut the famous line, “Give freedom of thought!” which always inspired a burst of applause from the audience. But on subsequent performances, as the action got to that point in the play, audiences applauded the missing line, and further performances were banned. In 1946, the defeat of the Nazis was celebrated by 26 theatrical companies which produced Don Carlos throughout Germany.
People yearned to rediscover what was decent in German culture, especially Goethe and Schiller. Scholar John Bednall remarked that “without Schiller, German letters, poetry, historical and aesthetic thought, and, above all, the living theatere in the German-speaking countries would be disastrously impoverished.” On the bicentennial of Schiller’s birth in 1959, Thomas Mann wrote: “let divided Germany feel united in his name…May it stand under the sign of universal sympathy, true to the spirit of his own noble-minded greatness…May something of his heroic will enter into us through this celebration of his interment and resurrection, some small part of his will to achieve beauty, truth, and goodness, moral excellence, inner freedom, art, love, peace…”
Schiller hasn’t had a presence on the American stage since World War I when jingoism banished German culture. Knowledge of his work has been limited to students of German literature. For most people, Schiller remains one of the greatest treasures yet to be rediscovered.
Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.