GHDI logo

Theodor Fontane on Germany’s Historical Epochs and Aristocratic Decline: The Stechlin (1899)

page 2 of 3    print version    return to list previous document      next document

“Not absolutely. If I do doubt, my doubts are directed not so much at the things in themselves, as at the huge measure of faith that is placed in them. That all these mediocre things are viewed as something special and superior, and therefore as something, if can be, to be preserved for all time, that’s what’s bad about it all. What once had validity, should go on being valid, what once was good, should go on being good or even be the best. But that’s impossible, even if all those things, which is by no means the case, either, really did measure up to an ideal concept of power and glory . . . “We’ve had, when we look back on it, three great epochs. That’s something we have to keep in mind. The greatest, perhaps, and at the same time the first, was the one we had under the Soldier King. There was a man who can’t be praised enough; marvelously suited to his times, and at the same time ahead of them. He not only stabilized the kingdom, but what’s even far more important, he created the foundations for a new era, and in place of disorderliness, and self-serving individualism and capricious despotism, he set up order and justice. Justice, there was his best ‘rocher de bronce’.”

“And then?”

“And then came epoch number two. After the first, it was not very long in coming, and this country of ours, so completely without brilliance in its nature and history, suddenly found itself illuminated by the lightning of true genius.”

“That must have elicited quite a bit of amazement.”

“Indeed it did. But more in the world outside than at home. Admiration is an art too, you know. It takes a certain something to recognize greatness for what it is . . . And then came the third era. Not great, but yet rather great after all. That was when this poor, miserable land, that had half fallen into ruin, was lit through, not by genius, but instead by enthusiasm, by faith in the higher power of the spirit, of knowledge, and freedom.”

“Good, Lorenzen. But do go on.”

“And all of what I’ve just recounted covered a century in time. We were ahead of the others in those days, now and then on an intellectual plane and morally for sure. But our Non-soli-cedo eagle, with its bundle of lightning bolts in its claws, doesn’t make lightning any more, and the enthusiasm is dead. A retrograde motion has taken over; something long since dead and buried, I’ve got to say it again, is supposed to bloom anew. But it won’t. In a certain sense, of course, everything does return, but with returns of that sort millennia are passed over; the Roman imperial ages, good or bad, those we can have back again, but not that bamboo cane from Friedrich Wilhelm’s ‘tobacco cabinet.’ Not even the walking stick of Sanssouci. That sort of thing is all over and done with. And a good thing it is. What was once progress has long since become just the opposite. The old-fashioned battles with all their battalions – even though they still keep on multiplying – they’re disappearing from modern history. From real history, I mean, the kind that’s worth reading about. And if they themselves aren’t disappearing, interest in them is in any case. And along with interest, prestige. In their place it’s inventors and discoverers, and James Watt and Siemens mean more to us than du Guesclin and Bayard. Heroism hasn’t exactly run its course yet, and it won’t have run its course for a long time yet, but it has already passed its own particular high point. Yet instead of coming to terms with this fact, our regime keeps trying to revive artificially something completely on the decline.”

first page < previous   |   next > last page