Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXII, chapter 5
The Campaign in Saxony, or the Campaign of The Poets

The battles of 1813 have been referred to as the Campaign in Saxony: they would be better named the Campaign of Young Germany or the Campaign of the Poets. To what despair had Bonaparte not reduced us by his oppression, that while watching our own blood flow, we could yet deny a gesture of support for generous youth taking up the sword in the name of freedom? Each of those battles was a protest on behalf of national rights.

In one of his proclamations, dated from Kalisz on the 25th of March 1813, Alexander called the people of Germany to arms, promising them, in the name of his royal ‘brothers’, free institutions. This was the signal for open activity by the Burschenschaft, which had already been formed in secret. The German universities re-opened; they set aside sorrow in order to think only of reparation for their injuries: ‘Let mourning and tears be brief, grief and distress long-lasting.’ said the ancient Germans, ‘it is right for women to weep, for men to remember: ‘Lamenta ac lacrymas cito, dolorem et tristitiam tarde ponunt. Feminis lugere honestum est, viris meminisse.’ Then the young Germans hastened to free their country; then they were in a hurry, those Germans, allies of the Empire, whom ancient Rome aided, in supplying them with armour and spears, velut tela atque arma.

In Berlin, in 1813, Professor Fichte gave a lecture on duty; he spoke of the disasters which afflicted Germany, and finished his lecture with these words: ‘This course will be suspended until the end of the Campaign. We will continue it when our country is free, or we will die regaining our freedom.’ His young audience rise to their feet in acclamation: Fichte descends from his seat, passes through the crowd, and goes to enrol in a corps leaving for the army.

All Bonaparte has scorned and insulted becomes a danger to him: intellect enters the lists against brute force; Moscow is the flame by whose light Germany dons its harness: ‘To arms!’ the Muse cries. ‘The Phoenix of Russia has soared from its pyre!’ That Queen of Prussia, so defenceless and so beautiful, whom Napoleon showered his clever insults upon, is transformed into an implored and imploring shade: ‘How softly she sleeps!’ sing the bards, ‘Ah, may you sleep until that day when your people wash away the rust of their swords with blood! Wake, then! Wake! Be our angel of liberty and vengeance!’

Körner had only one fear, that of dying in prose: ‘Poesy! Poesy!’ he exclaimed, ‘bring me death at the break of day!’

He composed, in camp, the hymn of The Lyre and the Sword.

‘Tell me fine sword, sword at my side, why the light of your glance is so ardent today? You glance at me with the gaze of love, fine sword, sword that is my joy. Huzza!’
‘It’s because a brave knight bears me along: that is what inflames my glance; for I am the strength of a free man. Huzza!’
‘Yes, my blade, yes, I am a free man, and I love you from the depths of my heart: I love you as if you were my betrothed; I love you like a dear mistress.’
‘And I, I give myself to you! To you my life, to you my soul of steel! Oh! If we are betrothed, when will you say: Come to me, come my dear mistress?’

Might one not believe one is listening to one of those Northern warriors, one of those men of battle and solitude, of whom Saxo Grammaticus wrote: ‘He fell, smiling: and died.’

It is not the cool enthusiasm of a Skald certainly: Körner had his sword by his side; handsome, fair, young, an Apollo on horseback, he sang of the darkness like an Arab in the saddle; his maoual (chant), while charging the enemy, was accompanied by the sound of his galloping mount. Wounded at Lützen, he dragged himself into the woods, where some peasants found him; he emerged to die on the plains of Mecklenburg, at the age of twenty-one: he fled the arms of a woman he loved, and forsook all the delights of life. ‘Women take pleasure,’ said Tyrtaeus, ‘in contemplating the radiant and upright man: he is no less handsome if he falls in the front ranks.’

The new followers of Arminius, raised in the school of Greece, had a common national anthem: when these students abandoned the peaceful avenues of science for the field of battle, the silent joys of study for the noisy perils of war, Homer and the Niebelungenlied for the sword, with what did they counter our hymn of blood, our Revolutionary canticle? These stanzas full of religious feeling, and human sincerity:

‘Where is Germany? Name that great land to me! Wherever the German language sounds, and our German song is heard praising God: there is Germany.

Germany is the land where a shake of the hand suffices as a pledge, where simple honesty shines in every glance, where affection glows in every heart.

O God, in Heaven, cast your eyes on us: grant us that purity of spirit, truly German, so that we may be loyal and true. There, is a German’s country, all that land is his land.’

These college friends, now companions in arms, do not join clubs where Septembrists vow to murder with the knife: loyal to their poetic imaginings, to historical tradition, to the cult of the past, they make an old castle, an ancient forest, a defensive sanctuary of the Burschenschaft. The Queen of Prussia becomes their patroness, instead of the Queen of Night.

At the summit of a hill, among the ruins, the soldier-scholars, with their officer-professors, see revealed the pinnacle of their beloved university halls: moved by memories of their learned past, and by this sight of the sanctuary of their studies and the games of their youth, they swear to free their country, as Melchthal, Fürst and Stauffacher had pronounced their triple oath in sight of the Alps, immortalised by them, and depicted by them. The German spirit has something mystical about it; Schiller’s Thekla for example is a Teutonic daughter gifted with second-sight and imbued with a divine element. The Germans today worship liberty with an indefinable mysticism, just as they once designated the secret depths of the forests as God: Deorumque nominibus appellant secretum illud…The man whose life was a dithyramb of action only fell when the poets of Young Germany had sung, and taken up the sword, against their rival Napoleon, the armed poet.

Alexander was worthy of being the herald sent to the young Germans: he shared their elevated feelings, and he was in a position of power which made their plans achievable; but he let himself be made fearful by the fears of the monarchs who surrounded him. Those monarchs had never kept their promises; they gave their people nothing in the way of benevolent political institutions. The children of the Muse (the flame by whom the inert mass of soldiers had been animated) were thrust into dungeons in recompense for their devotion and their noble beliefs. Alas, the generation that brought the Teutons freedom had vanished; there were only old worn out political incumbents in Germany. They praised Napoleon as a great man at every opportunity, so that their present admiration might excuse their past abasement. In that foolish enthusiasm for the man which made governments continue to grovel when they been whipped, they barely remembered Körner: ‘Arminius, Germany’s liberator,’ says Tacitus, ‘was unknown to the Greeks who only admired themselves, and little celebrated among the Romans whom he had vanquished; but the barbarous nations still sing of him, caniturque barbaras apud gentes.’