Erfurt 1808. The Emperor honours German literature

Author(s) : GENGEMBRE Gerard
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The Jena was also an important year for Goethe. He had been living in Weimar since 1775, having been summoned there by the young duke Karl August von Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Indeed the duchess Anna Amalia had already brought the famous German author Christoph Martin Wieland to live there, and Goethe himself was later to attract both Herder and then Schiller to the town, thus creating a sort of intellectual capital city. It was here that Goethe was to complete perhaps his best known work, Faust, and it was to be published in the year in which he met Napoleon there in 1808. He was also to marry there Christiane Vulpius (1765-1816), his partner since 1788. 

At Weimar in 1806

One anecdote regarding Goethe and the French is particularly interesting. It is said that when the French were pillaging Weimar after the double victory of Jena Auerstedt in 1806, Christiane Vulpius threw herself before Goethe's door in order to prevent the soldiers from sacking his house. This protection was later reinforced when Maréchal Augereau took his quarters there. Legend has it that it was this act of courage on the part of Christiane which led directly to her marriage to Goethe which took place on the following day, 19 October.
Goethe is well-known for his opinion that the battle of Valmy (the iconic battle of the early French Revolution) as the beginning of a new era. Indeed, if we believe reports, he pronounced the words on the day of the battle itself (Goethe was later to recount this period in his book entitled Campaign in France, published in 1822), but similar opinions can be seen in Conversations of German refugees of 1795. Here some German nobles who have fled the battle discourse in a château on the subject. The same sentiments appear also in Hermann and Dorothea, a play written in 1798, which portrays two shepherds caught in the torment of the French Revolution, and in Eugenie or the natural daughter (Natürliche Tochter), a play written in 1803, the first in an unfinished trilogy which was to chart the development of the French Revolution.
He was however soon to distance himself from the Revolution, criticising the violence associated with it, and particularly the attempts at revolution in Germany: «I hate violent upheavals», he was later to say to his amanuensis and companion Eckermann (27 April, 1825), «because more is destroyed than is gained though it; I hate those who bring about revolutions, and also those who make them inevitable»; « I repeat, all that is violent and hasty disgusts my soul, because it does not match nature.» At first Goethe thought that there would soon be a restoration of the monarchy, but soon realised that this was not going to happen. He did not however look on Napoleon negatively, but thought of him as the incarnation of individual energy taken to its highest degree.
As for the French, he had no hate for them: «I do not hate the French; how could I hate a nation which is one of the most civilised on earth?» (to Eckermann, 14 March, 1830). Just after Napoleon's 1806 victory over the Prussian army, Goethe was to be visited by Vivant Denon who was in charge of artistic requisitions. The Duke of Weimar's collections were to a large extent spare. Also amongst Goethe's visitors at that time was a certain Henri Beyle, who had not yet become Stendhal. But Goethe's great Napoleonic moment was yet to come. 

The meeting in Erfurt

The event painted by Paul Delaroche is well known (see here the sketch): at Erfurt, on Sunday 2 October, 1808, in the governor of Mainz's residence, a building which since 1699 had been the governor of Erfurt's palace, and which had become after the victorious French troops' entry into the town on 17 October, 1806, the French imperial governor's palace, Goethe, who had been present at the emperor's ‘lever' the day before, was summoned by Napoleon at about 11am. Goethe was received by Napoléon while he was taking his lunch, in the presence of Daru and Talleyrand. On 6 October, after a performance by the Comédie-Française, a second Weimar interview took place, and at the same time Wieland was introduced to the emperor by the Swiss historian Jean de Müller (whom Napoleon had met in Berlin in 1807), lasting two hours. The two writers were to receive the Légion d'honneur (according to Goethe, this took place on the 14th). Talleyrand records the meetings in hie Memoirs, although his memoirs should be read with caution.
Napoleon's famous greeting of the author Werther on 2 October, «Voilà un homme!» (‘Now here is a real man!'), is not mentioned by the French diplomat. The emperor had however read the novel and Goethe was very proud of it: «Take your hat off to me and bow down; do you know which book Bonaparte took with him in his luggage to Egypt? My Werther!» (Conversations with Eckermann, 7 April, 1829). The remark is quoted in Mélanges de Goethe, as follows: «The emperor made a sign for me to come close. – I remained standing before him at a suitable difference. – After looking at me for a moment, he said: “You are a man.” I bow. » («Annals from 1749 to 1822″, year 1808, «Sketch», in Complete works (French trans.), vol. 10, 1863, p. 307 – Eckermann was to request in vain that Goethe complete this sketch). Goethe was to return the compliment, if we are to believe Eckermann, when two years after having pronounced the famous remark, «that man, he is the distillation of the world!» (16 February, 1826), he affirmed that «that man there was one which we cannot, of course, match!» (11 March, 1828). The other famous remark was that made by Wieland about Napoleon, Wieland who Napoleon called «Germany's Voltaire». Wieland himself reported the expression, having written an account of his interview with Napoleon the same evening and having reported the event at a dinner with the Prince Primat. He concluded with the words: «It seemed to me when it [the interview] was over that I had conversed with a man of bronze.»
The main subject of conversation between Napoleon and Goethe was Goethe's Werther. With the two authors together the exchange was about Tacitus, the «critic of mankind» to use Napoleon's words (Talleyrand, Mémoires, tome I, p. 442) – but whom Wieland defended, giving rise to a high powered debate. The conversation then moved to the theatre, a subject which greatly interested the emperor. Talleyrand cites a perfectly plausible remark (bearing in mind Napoleon's opinions on the dramatic art, a genre in some respects «higher than history»: «A good tragedy should be seen as the worthiest school for superior men» (ibid.). It is worth noting that for his part Goethe thought that «a great dramatic poet […] could bring about that the soul of his dramas becomes that of the people » (Conversations with Eckermann, 1 April, 1827). Whilst it is clear that the remarks are strongly redolent of writing after the event, nevetherless the conversation between the greatest politician of the period and two of the greatest intellectuals of the time was without doubt very elevated.
Talleyrand recounts how Napoleon asked Goethe to come to see some theatre performances in Erfurt – these were carefully chosen putting the emphasis on heroic times and the great deeds in history which of course paralleled contemporary events: «It will do you no harm to see a performance of some good French tragedies » (ibid., pp. 426- 427). According to Wieland, Napoleon criticised the hybrid genre of «drama» defended by Weiland. Goethe records how the emperor disapproved of «fatalistic plays» and spoke the famous words: «What point is there these days in talking about destiny? He said. “Politics is today's destiny » («Sketch», op. cit., p. 308).

The double aim, literary and political

This policy of imperial seduction was an attempt to rally great German intellectuals to the French in Germany and to give Napoleon a literary and cultural guarantee on a European scale. It was very important for Napoleon to have the support of great writers, especially since he had alienated some of France's greatest, namely, Mme de Staël and Chateaubriand. Hence the awards of the Légion d'honneur. This was not so much a consacration of Romanticism but rather the honouring of great men in a century upon which Napoleon wished to leave his mark.
We know how much both Goethe and Wieland admired the emperor. According to Talleyrand, Wieland declared to Napoléon, whom he considered first and foremost a «man of letters», that he had had made him «the happiest man on earth ». Eckermann trasmits us many Goethian remarks, each more enthusiastic than the last: «Mankind was certain to reach its goals under his direction» (6 April, 1829); «You could say of him that he his career was so brilliant that the world has never seen anything like it before him, and probably will never see thereafter» (11 March, 1828).
The meeting in 1808 left a deep impression on Goethe. There story goes that he wore his Légion d'honneur with great show when he was receiving at home, after the fall of the empire, a delegate from the Holy Alliance. In a sort of reply to those who criticised his wearing of the decoration, he wore it on a decoration broach on a chain with other honours. When asked which honour he preferred, he pointed to the Légion d'honneur with a smile. In fact, beyond the anecdote, it is important to understand that for Goethe, Napoleon was the embodiment of genius, the triumph of the will and vision of the individual. In short, he was the quintessence of the hero as seen by the Romantic movement, although Goethe was to distance himself from the ideas and aesthetics of this movement. And Romanticism was to seize on the figure of Napoleon as a sort of Prometheus for modern times. At Erfurt and Weimar, Goethe and Wieland came to an understanding of the historical dimension of the genius beloved of German Romanticism from the end of the 18th century.


– «Goethe et Napoléon à l'exposition de la Bibliothèque nationale,
28 octobre – 17 décembre 1932» in Revue des études napoléoniennes, n° 36, XXIIe année, tome XXXVI, janv.-juin 1933, «Chronique napoléonienne», pp. 46-50. Consultable online at Gallica.
– Andreas Fischer, Goethe und Napoleon, Frauenfeld, 1900.
– Ch. Florange et Mme A. Wunsch, Entrevue de Napoléon Ier et de Goethe (1808) suivi de l'entretien avec Wieland, Paris, Florange, 1932.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Conversations de Goethe pendant les dernières années de sa vie, 1822-1832, recueillies par Eckermann, trad. par Émile Delerot, précédées d'une introduction par Sainte-Beuve, Paris, Charpentier, 1883, 2 vol.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Entrevue de Napoléon Ier et de Goethe, suivie de notes et commentaire par S. Sklower, Paris, Vanackère, 1853.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, OEuvres complètes, vol. 10, Mélanges, « Annales de 1749 à 1822 », trad. Porchat, Paris, Hachette, 1863.
– Gustav Stresemann, Goethe et Napoléon, Paris, Éditions Attinger, 1929.
– Bernhard Suphan, Napoleons Unterhaltungen mit Goethe und Wieland in Goethe-Jahrbuch, XV. Band, Frankfurt am Main, 1894.
– Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Mémoires, Paris, Garnier, t. I, 1891.

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