From the piety of Klopstock and the tenderness of Gessner the Romantic movement surged on to the irreverent individualism, the “storming and striving” of German youth in the ecstasy of moral and social revolt. The stiff aristocracy of the courts, the fading dogmas of the preachers, the dreary money-grubbing of the business class, the dulling routine of bureaucrats, the pompous pedantry of pundits—all aroused the resentment of young Germans conscious of ability and deprived of place. They listened to Rousseau’s cry for naturalness and freedom, but took no stock in his apotheosis of the “general will.” They agreed with him in rejecting materialism, rationalism, and determinism, and with Lessing in preferring the lusty irregularity of Shakespeare to the cramping classicism of Corneille and Racine. They relished Voltaire’s wit, but thought they found a desert where he had passed. They were thrilled by the rebellion of the American colonies against England. “We wished the Americans all success,” Goethe recalled; “the names of Franklin and Washington began to shine and sparkle in the firmament of politics and war.”87 These Stürmer und Dränger felt the intoxication of physical adolescence and mental awakening, and bemoaned the incubus of the old upon the young, of the state upon the soul. They were all for originality, for direct experience and unhindered expression, and some of them believed that their genius exempted them from the law. They felt that time was on their side, that the near future would see their victory. “Oh,” exclaimed Goethe, “that was a good time when Merck and I were young!”88
Some rebels expressed their philosophy by defying the conventions of dress and replacing them with conventions of their own; so Christoph Kauf-mann went about with head uncovered, hair uncombed, and shirt open to the navel.89 But this was exceptional; most of the protagonists, barring a suicide or two, avoided such inverted sartorial display; and some of them were well-to-do. Goethe himself was one of the progenitors of Sturm und Drang with his play Götz von Berlichingen (1773); and in the following year hisWerther became the triumphant standard of Romanticism; Schiller joined the movement with Die Räuber (1781); but these complex and evolving spirits soon left the campaign to more impassioned and weakly-rooted youths.
Johann Merck was one of the founding fathers. To all appearances he was sane and strong; he had gone through university, was persona grata at the court of Hesse-Darmstadt, became paymaster general of the army, and had a reputation for both sharp intelligence and practical ability. Goethe, meeting him in 1771, was favorably impressed, and shared with him and Herder in maintaining a critical review, the Frankfurter gelehrte Anzeigen; hence the rebels were at first called “Frankfurters.”90 Familiar with business and politics, traveling through Germany and into Russia, Merck saw and satirized the vanities of wealth, the tedium of courts, and the exploitation of the peasantry. Finding himself powerless to reform these conditions, he became bitter and cynical. Goethe called him “Mephistopheles Merck,” and took himself and Merck as part models for the protagonists in Faust. Reverses in business and misery in marriage unsettled Merck’s mind. He sank into debt, from which the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, at Goethe’s request, rescued him. He fell a prey to persistent melancholy, and killed himself at the age of fifty (1791).
Even more tragic was the career of Reinhold Lenz. Son of a Lutheran pastor in Livonia, his weak nerves and excitable temperament were affected in childhood by stress on the doctrines of sin and hell.91 He was helped for a time by hearing Kant’s lectures in Königsberg; Kant introduced him to Rousseau’s writings, and soon Lenz spoke of La Nouvelle Héloïse as the best book ever printed in France. At Strasbourg he met Goethe, was fascinated by his positive character, imitated him in thought and style, wrote lyrics so much like Goethe’s that they were included in some editions of Goethe’s works. He went on to Sesenheim, fell in love (after Goethe) with Friederike Brion, and composed fervent poems in her praise. He assured her that unless she returned his love he would kill himself; she did not and he did not. He moved to Weimar, was befriended by Goethe, envied Goethe’s success, mocked Goethe’s relation with Charlotte von Stein, and was invited by the Duke to leave the duchy. He had considerable talent as poet and dramatist. One of his plays, Die Soldaten, sharply satirized class distinctions and bourgeois life; its central character is a middle-class girl who, aspiring in vain to marry an officer, becomes a prostitute and solicits her unrecognized father in the streets. Himself too unstable to find a firm footing in life, Lenz wandered from post to post and failure to failure, suffered spells of madness, repeatedly tried suicide, and died insane (1792).
Maximilian von Klinger was the cleverest of the Stürmer. He denounced the world and rose to high place in it; he indulged in violent speech in his plays, and became curator of the University of Dorpat; he enjoyed all the oats and follies of youth and lived to be seventy-nine. It was of him that Goethe wrote the perceptive line, “In girls we love what they are, but in young men what they promise to be.” Klinger’s most famous play, Sturm und Drang (1776), written at the age of twenty-four, gave its name and mood to the movement. It showed European rebels expatriating themselves to America in the hope of finding free outlets for their individualities; its language was that of passion run wild; its gospel was that of genius liberated from all rules. Klinger served in the Austrian and Russian armies, married a natural daughter of Catherine the Great, subsided into a professorship, and congealed into a pillar of the state.
Wilhelm Heinse capped Sturm und Drang with a novel, Ardinghello (1787), which united anarchism, nihilism, communism, fascism, amoralism, and will to power in a revel of sensuality and crime. Crime is not crime, says the hero, if it is brave; the only real crime is weakness; the truest virtues are strength and courage of body and will. Life is the manifestation of elemental instincts, and we miss the mark if we brand these as immoral. So Ardinghello seduces and murders at opportunity or whim, and sees in his unshackled passions nature’s highest law. He describes the exploits of Hannibal, honors him as a superman, and asks: “What are millions of men—who all their lives have not had a single hour like his—compared with this one man?”92 He founds a communistic society with communism of women, woman suffrage, and the worship of the elements as the only religion.
In the confused whirlwind of Sturm und Drang some dominating ideas gave the movement character and influence. Most of its leaders came from the middle class, and began their revolt as a protest against the privileges of birth, the insolence of office, and the luxury of prelates feasting on peasants’ tithes. They all agreed in commiserating the lot, and idealizing the character, of the peasant, serf or free. They challenged women to discard their fashions and farthingales, their sentiment and swooning and submissive piety, and summoned them to come and share the exciting life of the emancipated mind and the roaming male. They redefined religion as a divine afflatus in a soul whose genius is part of the creative urge and mystery of the world. They identified nature with God, and concluded that to be natural was to be divine. They took the medieval legend of Faust as a symbol for the intellectual hunger and burning ambition that breaks through all barriers of tradition, convention, morals, or laws. So “Maler Müller,” long before Goethe, wrote a drama, Fausts Leben, “because I early recognized him as a great fellow … who feels all his power, feels the bridle that fate has put upon him, and tries to throw it off, who has the courage to hurl everything down that steps in his way.”93
The enthusiasm and exaggerations of Sturm und Drang marked it as an expression of intellectual adolescence, the voice of a minority condemned to grow up and simmer down. The movement won no popular support, for tradition and the people have always supported each other. Finding themselves without a base in the structure of German life, the Stormers made their peace with the princes, and, like the philosophes, trusted that enlightened rulers would lead the way to intellectual liberation and social reform. Herder, Goethe, and Schiller touched the movement in their youth, withdrew from the consuming fire, clipped their claws and folded their wings, and gratefully accepted the protection of Weimar’s genial dukes.