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

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) is regarded by many as the most important (and most enduring) German-language realist writer of the nineteenth century. Fontane’s novel The Stechlin [Der Stechlin] was published in 1899, a year after his death. That the novel is Fontane’s testament – both literally and figuratively – is somewhat remarkable, for the author himself admitted that nothing extraordinary happens in it. At the end, an old fellow dies, and two young ones get married. It is not the plot that makes the novel special but the conversations, which are characterized by Fontane’s trademark lightness and flow. The excerpt below includes one such conversation between Pastor Lorenzen and Melusine. Lorenzen identifies the central theme of the novel when he declares, “The primary difference between everything that is modern and the old lies in the fact that people are no longer put in their accorded places by virtue of their birth.” The novel reflects Fontane’s awareness of the fact that the German Empire had already become a modern industrialized state in which the ossified values of the aristocracy were being challenged by bourgeois and working-class claims to economic, cultural, and political ascendancy. Lorenzen is a Protestant clergyman, but he is young and liberal and represents the modern world. The self-effacing, down-to-earth Prussian Junker Dubslav von Stechlin represents the old world, while Melusine – one of Fontane’s most enigmatic female characters – functions as a kind of oracle in the work.

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[ . . . ]

I respect what’s been passed down to us. Along with it, of course, what is emerging too, because the very thing that’s emerging will sooner or later itself be something passed down. We should love everything that’s old, as far as it has a claim to our respect, but it’s for the new that we should really and truly live. And above all, as the Stechlin teaches us, never should we forget the great interrelatedness of things. To cut one’s self off is to wall one’s self in, and to wall one’s self in is death. It’s vital that we keep that constantly in mind.”

[ . . . ]

“If only I could tell you how joyfully I put myself at your service, my dearest Countess. And I can do so all the more easily since, as you know, your ideals are the same as mine. I live for them, and I feel it a gift of Providence to immerse myself wholly in the new where the old fails to measure up. And it’s a new thing of that kind that’s at stake here. Whether such a new thing should be – because it must be – or whether it should not be, that’s the question around which everything revolves. Everywhere around us here there are a great number of excellent people, who in all seriousness believe, that whatever has been handed down to us ought to be defended like the temple of Solomon – above all whatever has to do with the church, but not, unfortunately, with what is truly Christian. In our upper classes, moreover, there prevails a naive tendency to consider everything ‘Prussian’ to be a higher cultural form.”

“It’s precisely as you say. And yet to give it its due, permit me to ask if this naive belief doesn’t have a certain justification?”

“At one time it did. But that’s in the past. And that can’t be changed. The primary difference between everything that is modern and the old lies in the fact that people are no longer put in their accorded places by virtue of their birth. They now have the freedom to put their capabilities to use in every direction and in every field. Time was, when people were lords of the manor or linen weavers for three-hundred years. Now any linen weaver has the chance to be the lord of the manor some day.”

“And practically the reverse,” laughed Melusine. “But let’s put that rather delicate topic aside. I’d much, much rather hear what you have to say regarding the value of our way of life and our social forms, about our way of viewing things in general, the permissibility of which, as it seems to me, you so emphatically place in doubt.”

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