The code had rested upon belief in a god good and terrible, encouraging every humble appeal, watching every act and thought of every soul, forgetting nothing, and never abdicating the right and power to judge and punish or forgive, a god of love and vengeance, master, in his medieval form, of heaven and hell. This somber and perhaps indispensable creed still survived among the masses, and helped the clergy, the Junkers, the generals, and the patres familias to manage their flocks, peasants, troops, and homes. Periodic war, commercial competition, and the need for family discipline required the formation of habits of obedience and application in the youth, of winsome modesty and domestic arts in the girl, of patient dedication in the wife, of stern ability to command in the husband and father.
The common German male was basically good-humored, at least in the tavern; but he found it wise to put on a solemn front before wife, children, competitors, and employees. He worked hard, and required the same of those under his responsibility. He honored tradition as the well of wisdom and the pillar of authority; old customs enabled him to meet his daily tasks and contacts with a saving and comfortable economy of thought. He held his religion as a sacred heritage, and was grateful for its help in training his children to courtesy, system, and steadiness. He repudiated the Revolution that had disordered France, and the Sturm und Drang of German youth, as the reckless dissolution of established relations vital to order and sanity in the home and the state. He kept his wife and children in subordination, but he could be humane and loving in his homely way, and he labored uncomplainingly to meet their needs of body and mind.
His wife accepted the situation without much resistance, for she agreed that a large family in an insecure country surrounded by potential foes called for a stern and steady hand. In the home, subject to her husband and the law, she was accepted as the guiding authority, and was almost always rewarded with lifelong love from her children. She was content to be the “justified mother of children,”9 consumed in the conquest of the soil and the continuity of the race.
But there were other voices. In 1774 Theodore von Hippel, anticipating Mary Wollstonecraft by eighteen years, published On Marriage, a male defense of woman’s liberation. He objected to the bride’s vow of obedience; marriage should be a partnership, not a subjection. He demanded the full emancipation of women—not only the vote but also eligibility to office, even the highest; he noted some great women rulers of the age—Christina of Sweden, Catherine of Russia, Maria Theresa of Austria. If full emancipation is not made into law the “Rights of Man” should be more honestly called the “Rights of Men.”10
Germany did not listen to him, but—under the stimulus of the French Revolution and the spread of radical literature in Germany—the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century saw such a flurry of emancipated women as only our time could match in number, and only eighteenth-century France could match in brilliance, and none surpassed in deviltry. The Romantic movement in literature, echoing medieval troubadours, idealized woman no longer as a mother like Demeter, nor as a virgin like Mary, but as an intoxicating bouquet of physical beauty and intellectual vivacity, with a touch of scandal to complete the lure. We have noted Henrietta Herz and Dorothea Mendelssohn; add Caroline Michaelis (daughter of a Göttingen Orientalist), who, a revolutionary widow, married August von Schlegel, and divorced him and wed philosopher Schelling. Add Therese Forster, who rivaled her husband in republican ardor, left him to live with a Saxon diplomat, and wrote a political novel, The Seldorf Family, which made a stir in the Rhineland; “in intellectual power,” wrote Wilhelm von Humboldt, “she was one of the most remarkable women of her time.”11 Add Rachel Levin Varnhagen von Ense, whose salon was frequented by diplomats and intellectuals in Berlin. Add Bettina von Arnim, whom we have seen fluttering around Beethoven and Goethe. And those cultured, not quite revolutionary, women who outshone Goethe in Weimar: the Duchess Luise, Charlotte von Kalb, Charlotte von Stein.
In the larger cities of Germany this liberation of women was naturally accompanied by a loosening of moral restraints. King Frederick William II had set a fashion in mistresses, and in the next reign Prince Louis Ferdinand outrivaled him. Love marriages were multiplying as youngsters forsook the charms of property for the ecstasy of romance. Goethe, aging, looked askance from Weimar upon the gay life of the upper echelons in Berlin, but he adopted the new morality when he took the waters at Karlsbad. There the women displayed themselves proudly in the new fashions that Mesdames Tallien and de Beauharnais had set in Paris in 1795.
Political immorality competed with sexual laxity. Bribery was a favorite instrument of diplomacy, and an eager venality lubricated the bureaucracy in Catholic and Protestant states alike. Business seems to have been more honest than politics; the bourgeoisie, even when it married relaxed women, kept apart from the frolics along the River Spree. Meanwhile, however, the universities were pouring into German life and morals the disturbing catabolism of partly educated youth.