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The Childhood and Youth of a Prussian Nobleman in the Late 18th Century. From the Memoirs of Friedrich August Ludwig von der Marwitz (Retrospective Account)

Friedrich August Ludwig von der Marwitz (1777-1837) gained fame as a soldier in the years 1806-1815. During that same period, he also emerged as a leader of the conservative opposition, centered among the landed nobility, to the Stein-Hardenberg reforms in Prussia. In this brilliantly drawn portrait of his family, childhood, and youth, Marwitz evokes the lives and spirit of the eighteenth-century Prussian military aristocracy. As his memoirs show, he struggled to prove himself as a soldier worthy of his eminent forebears, but his intellectual formation was by no means neglected. His account of his education points to the complexity of the German nobility’s cultural identity.

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a. Autobiography (1832-37)


I, Friedrich August Ludwig v. der Marwitz, was born on May 29, 1777, on Wilhelmstraße in Berlin, in what used to be the Voss house and is now the palace of Prince August of Prussia. I was baptized by the famous provost Spalding at Nikolaikirche. My father was Behrend (or Bernd) Friedrich August v. der Marwitz, Royal Chamberlain, former Lord Stewart to Prince Ferdinand, brother of King Frederick II., and since 1786 Lord Stewart to King Frederick William II. My mother was Susanne Sophie Marie Louise v. Dorville, only daughter of Royal Minister of State Johann Ludwig v. Dorville from his second marriage to Charlotte Friederike v. Béville.

The House of Marwitz is among the oldest in the march of Brandenburg and originally hailed from Neumark and Pomerania. [ . . . ]


I was born to the aforementioned house on May 29, 1777. I spent my earliest childhood with my two sisters, whose births followed shortly after mine. More than in other German cities at the time, French was the general language at court and among the nobility in Berlin. [ . . . ]

Thus, from my earliest years, I learned French and German at the same time, and I was as fluent in one as the other. French was spoken throughout in my parents’ house as in all others with whom we kept company. Yet even when I was still a child, a change occurred and German came to dominate, so that my youngest siblings, who were ten to fifteen years younger than me, didn’t learn French simply by practicing as children but instead had to be taught.

When I was four years old, in 1781 or early 1782, my sisters and I got a governess from the colony, or as one used to say back then, “a French Mademoiselle”. Her name was Mlle Bénézet and she was a very mean woman who cuffed our ears a lot, locked us in a cold corner in the winter and made us stand at the window in the summer, with our back to it so that the sun burned onto our heads through the glass. Yet she was industrious, taught us tidiness, reading, writing, arithmetic, and also a little geography.

[ . . . ]

Generally speaking, the aim of our education was for us never to see, hear or let alone think or do anything evil, but instead always to do our duty; it was impossible for one of us to secretly get up to something, be a lazy student or not do what we were supposed to. Thankfully the more recent aspiration to emphasize mere knowledge and cram children’s heads to the extent that they get a skewered view of God and the world did not exist back then. It was unheard of to make noise in front of our parents, to roll around on sofas and armchairs or to eat in a messy and unclean manner at the table, etc., as many children do today. When we entered the room our parents were in, we paid our respects at the door, approached and kissed their hand as well as that of any stranger who was present. [ . . . ]

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