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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 374-375
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German Enlightenment from the Bottom Up
Martyn P. Thompson
These splendid books are very different from one another but they are connected both by subject matter and by parallel scholarly ambitions. Their respective subjects, Carl Friedrich Bahrdt (1740-92) and Friedrich Justin Bertuch (1747-1822), knew one another slightly and corresponded at least once about the reform of German freemasonry. They were popularizers of Enlightenment thinking and partly for this reason their more famous contemporaries disapproved of them. Still, they were enormously prolific writers on an astounding range of subjects, yet neither man features at all prominently in most studies of Enlightenment ideas in late eighteenth-century Germany. The editors of these books would persuade us that they should feature prominently. They do not claim that Bahrdt's and Bertuch's intellectual achievements were any match for those of Lessing, Wieland, Kant, Herder, Schiller or Goethe. Rather they claim that their intellectual and practical engagements were significant, integral, indeed indispensable, parts of the literary-cultural world that manifested itself most memorably in Weimar in the late eighteenth century and beyond.
Bahrdt, a theologian turned innkeeper and hack writer, is the lesser of the two men on almost all counts. Laursen and van der Zanda offer new translations of just two of his 140 or so published works. The first is a satirical, closet drama aimed against the Counter-Enlightenment ministers of Frederick William II who had just issued the anti-tolerationist Edict of Religion of 1788. The second is an autobiographical account of the main consequences of the publication of this satire: Bahrdt's seizure, trial and imprisonment in Halle and Magdeburg. There is little of aesthetic interest in the unfinished drama. The editors argue that its main significance lies in the history of ideas. It is a pre-French revolutionary assertion, in the face of gathering repression, of human rights to religious freedom, intellectual freedom and freedom of the press. Somewhat less persuasively, they also suggest that it is significant in the history of feminism, since the two main female characters in the satire are the only ones with any sense. Thirdly, they note that despite several contemporary judgments of the satire as vulgar and aesthetically worthless, it is still funny and it is written with considerable vigor. It displays, then, some kind of artistry that is worth examination.
This is all well taken. But there is something more that the editors just take for granted. Bahrdt's satire is not a pièce à clef, as they suggest. It is much more audacious. Readers had no need for a key. The characters satirized as louts (pompous or obsequious, drunken or power-hungry) are given their real names. What may have begun as a courageous attempt to defend freedom against oppression ended up as a reckless provocation of current officeholders, hence the hue and cry. This was the story of Bahrdt's colorful life. Whenever he was up, he managed in short order to instigate his own downfall. Whenever he was down, he [End Page 374] was self-pitying and prepared to exploit whomsoever he could. But he remained puffily self-important to the end. The Story and Diary of My Imprisonment is a delight to read in these rather odd respects. Bahrdt was a peculiar character but he was far from alone in some of his peculiarities. This book admirably represents many of the odd, impetuous, even irrational, underpinnings of much that passed for Enlightenment rationalism. As such, it offers a valuable antidote to the idea that mankind's emancipation from self-imposed immaturity was always rational, always mature or always...