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  • Recasting Cosmopolitanism: German Freemasonry and Regional Identity in the Early Nineteenth Century 1
  • Robert Beachy (bio)

Joy, bright spark of divinity, Daughter from Elysium, Fire-inspired we tread Thy sanctuary. Thy magic power re-unites All that custom has divided, All men become brothers Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

—Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy,” 1786

Immortalized in the chorale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” first appeared in the periodical Thalia in 1786, dedicated to the Leipzig friends who helped him revive his literary career. While a theater director in Mannheim, Schiller had clashed with local censors, jeopardizing his position and undermining his creative confidence. With the financial support of Christian Gottfried Körner, a Leipzig Mason and jurist, Schiller traveled to Leipzig in April 1785 and spent the summer months just outside the city on the Gohlis estate of his new publisher J. G. Göschen. Schiller later praised Leipzig’s vibrant cultural life—enlivened by commerce and a prominent university—and described visiting “Richters Kaffeehaus” as the “most pleasurable recreation” where he enjoyed the company of many Leipzig Masons. 2 Schiller composed his “Ode to Joy” as a paean to the friendship of his patrons and the urban “Elysium” of Leipzig, but the poem became an expression of the late German Enlightenment whose language has been strongly identified with Masonic rhetoric. 3 Although it is unclear whether Schiller ever swore the Masonic oath, his sponsor Körner was an active member of the lodge Minerva in Leipzig. 4

Schiller’s friendship with Körner is emblematic of the relationship between the late German Enlightenment and Freemasonry, which exercised a broad cultural influence in the late eighteenth century. As Rudolf Vierhaus has argued, “[German] Freemasonry penetrated both the world of the courts and that of the educated and propertied burgher classes. The members all came to share a beneficent, cosmopolitan attitude, one that expected an improvement in humanity.” 5 This effect was compounded by the proliferation of the lodges and their increasing popularity. Indeed, by 1800 the number of German lodges (excluding Austria and Switzerland) is estimated to have reached 350 with the participation of up to 20,000 Masons. 6 Because of the lodges’ appeal to a broad spectrum of educated Germans, Masonic rhetoric and sociability formed an important if understated cultural context of the late German Enlightenment. One need only consider Lessing’s explicit encomium to the civic virtues of Freemasonry in his Dialogues between Ernst and Falk (1778) or his call for universal religious toleration in Nathan the Wise (1779). Goethe, who joined the lodge Amalia in Weimar in 1780, directly addressed Freemasonry only rarely in his writing but frequently alluded to Masonic themes of universal brotherhood and human achievement. 7 Mozart’s Magic Flute, first performed in Vienna in 1791, offers perhaps the most popular testament to the influence of Freemasonry on the culture of the late German Enlightenment. 8 [End Page 266]

Enlightenment cosmopolitanism was confounded, however, by the German romanticism and proto-nationalism of the revolutionary era. Though many Germans greeted the French Revolution with euphoria and some German lodges and other secret societies actively supported the Revolution, this enthusiasm soured as the French embarked on wars of conquest. Ironically, some of the most prominent theorists of German nationalism including J. G. Herder and J. G. Fichte were themselves Masons, demonstrating the role of the German lodges as an institution of German cultural life. Herder’s philosophy of cultural nationalism became a manifesto of national identity with an influence reaching far beyond Central Europe. Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (1808) served as a call for national revival during the wars of liberation from 1813–1815. 9

This dramatic transition represents a prominent caesura in German historiography. Demonstrated best by Thomas Nipperdey’s assertion—“In the beginning was Napoleon”—the German Enlightenment and the eighteenth-century urban culture that fostered it are often depicted as little more than a prelude to modern German history. 10 One of the few historians to theorize the revolutionary age in Central Europe is Reinhart Koselleck, who denotes the last decades of the eighteenth and the first years of the...

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