Krieg und Aufklärung: Studien zum Kriegsdiskurs in der deutschsprachigen Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts by Johannes Birgfeld (review)
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Reviewed by
Johannes Birgfeld, Krieg und Aufklärung: Studien zum Kriegsdiskurs in der deutschsprachigen Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts. 2 vols. Hannover: Wehrhahn, 2012. xiv + 937 pp.

Johannes Birgfeld’s book constitutes the first major monograph on war, literature, and the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century German literary culture in the political public sphere. (It nicely complements Enlightened War, edited by Elisabeth Krimmer and Patricia Simpson.) Birgfeld reveals how the numerous wars in that century left indelible imprints on the work of an astounding number of German-speaking authors from all social strata, many of whom actively participated in war. To a much greater extent than recognized heretofore, the eighteenth century was a war-filled cultural field that formed both political and literary landscapes.

Birgfeld reexamines the work of writers such as Gleim, Lessing, Nicolai, and Schiller and women authors like Anna Louisa Karsch, Therese Huber, and the Hungarian Therese von Artner. In addition to many other lesser-known works, he analyzes Friedrich II’s poem “Kriegskunst,” Johann Gottlieb Schummel’s novel Spitzbart (“eine scharfe, mitunter stark polemische Satire auf die Flut pädagogischer Reformvorschläge,” 2:526), and Gottlieb Stephanie der Jüngere’s drama Die Kriegsgefangenen. Birgfeld’s treatment of the latter “Soldatenstück” is indicative of his approach: “Nicht die Ordnung selbst, sondern das Ausbleiben der staatlichen Gegenleistung für die Unterwerfungs- and Dienstbereitschaft der Untertanen, das Fehlen von Rechtssicherheit und guter Regierung sind es, die das zentrale Problem des Stückes ausmachen und die Figuren an den Rand der Auswanderung und Rebellion treiben” (2:547).

Birgfeld reminds us that the German Enlightenment was marked by no fewer than sixty years of war. With very few exceptions (e.g., Hamburg), the eighteenth century constitutes “ein nachhaltig kriegerisches, mit Kriegsgeschehen lebendes Jahrhundert” (1:7) in which the topic of war became a central object of communication (“Kommunikationsgegenstand,” 1:10). Sensitive to other sources of communication as well, Birgfeld focuses on lyric poetry, dramas, and novels and rightly concludes: “Die deutschsprachige Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts bildete eine [End Page 274] erstens sich kontinuierlich entfaltende und zweitens bemerkenswert vielschichtige, vielgestaltige und vielstimmige Kriegsliteratur aus” (1:3).

The first chapter of the book describes weaponry, strategies, and war tactics in the eighteenth century. Although Birgfeld relies very heavily on only a few, albeit important, secondary sources (also in English), he reminds us of many interesting and helpful facts. For example, numerous fourteen- to sixteen-year-old officers were in need of both combat experience and continuing education (Bildung). Also, rifles were untrustworthy, and because soldiers would often not hit their marks, they had to fire in groups. Furthermore, a number of women dressed up as men so they could fight on the battlefield.

Therese Huber’s protagonist Sara in the novel Familie Seldorf (late 1793–96) dons men’s clothing and fights in the most intense battles in the Vendée, where she is seriously wounded. Huber’s accurate reconstruction of the French civil war and its brutal consequences shows clearly that literature and war are inextricably bound. Although Birgfeld does not believe that Huber contributed to women’s emancipation, he sees her novel, which appeared under her second husband’s name, as an emancipatory text (2:873): here, a female writer makes a conscious decision to interpret, analyze, evaluate, and comment on actual warfare. Huber portrays a protagonist who, consumed by the desire for revenge, hatred, and political fanaticism, recognizes her own inhumanity and undergoes a profound change (“Wandel”) when she reaffirms her original values of (moral) freedom, trust, and ethical action (2:674), so that, in the end, politics and morality reconverge.

In Birgfeld’s view, Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm, oder das Soldatenglück is a decidedly postwar work (“Nachkriegsstück”), in which the middle classes critically reflect on their actions during the Seven Years’ War and its aftermath (2:874). Birgfeld identifies aspects of Lessing’s drama that have not been appreciated until now. He argues that Tellheim’s concern about his honor (“Ehre”) is not the result of an unjust financial mistake but part of an identity crisis that originates in his relationship to the state. Importantly, Tellheim speaks not of his frustration but of...


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