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

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“Things are as you say. But against whom is it directed? You spoke of a ‘regime.’ Who is this regime? A person, or a thing? Is it the machine that’s been taken over from the old times, with its cogs and gears clacking along as if dead, or is it he, who is standing at the machine? Or in the end, is it a certain clearly defined group, who are striving to control, to direct the hand of the man at the machine? In everything you’re saying there resounds a rebellious voice. Are you against the aristocracy? Against the ‘old families?’”

“First off, no. I love the old families, and I’ve got good cause to do so. And I’d almost like to believe everybody loves them. The old families are still popular, even today. But they are wasting and throwing away this empathy, which everybody has need of, every individual and every caste. Our old families are afflicted through and through with the misconception that ‘things can’t go on without them.’ But nothing is further from the truth because things surely will go on without them. They’re no longer the pillars holding everything up, they’re the old stone and moss roof that still goes on straining and pushing down on things, but can’t offer protection against storms any longer. It’s well possible that the days of the aristocracy may come back again some day, but right now wherever we look, the sign of these times is a democratic world view. A new age is dawning. I believe a better and a happier one. But even if it’s not a happier one, at least it’s an age with more oxygen in the air, an age where we can breathe better. And the more freely one can breathe, the more one lives.”

[ . . . ]

“That’s what everyone says. And we’re vain enough to believe it. But that leads us to completely new realms. For the time being, your hand to seal the bargain. And now, after this revolutionary discourse of ours, permit me to make my way back to the cottages of peaceful folk.”

Source of English translation: Theodor Fontane, The Stechlin, translated with an introduction and notes by William L. Zwiebel. Rochester, NY: Camden House (, 1995, pp. 226-29.

Original German text reprinted in Theodor Fontane, Werke, Schriften und Briefe [Works, Writings, and Letters], edited by Walter Keitel and Helmuth Nürnberger. Twenty-one volumes in four sections. Section I, Sämtliche Romane, Erzählungen, Gedichte, Nachgelassenes [Complete Novels, Stories, Poems, Posthumously Published Pieces], vol. 5. © 1980 Carl Hanser Verlag: Munich, pp. 270-74.

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