Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

by Johann Goethe

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Goethe lived through tumultuous times in politics and, consequently, in censorship. He had seen the coronation of Joseph II in 1764, deplored the French Revolution from afar in 1789, witnessed the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1803, met Napoleon in 1808, heard of Napoleon’s defeat in Leipzig in 1813, and witnessed the establishment of the German Confederation of thirty- nine states at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Throughout Goethe’s life censorship varied in extent and degree in each of the many German principalities, city states, and territories (in 1749 several hundred, and in 1832 thirty-nine).

When Napoleon summoned Goethe to Erfurt, Thuringia, in 1808, he wanted to meet the famous author of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). This epistolary novel, Goethe’s first, describes a man madly in love with a woman whom he cannot marry because she is engaged to another man. Out of desperation, he eventually commits suicide. The novel was first published anonymously in Leipzig. Because of its sympathetic description of a suicide, the Roman Catholic as well as the Lutheran churches banned it in several states and cities, including Austria, Denmark, Milan, Hamburg, Dresden, and Leipzig. Despite the suppression of the novel it became the first post-Enlightenment best-seller of German literature throughout Europe.

Goethe’s first play, Götz from Berlichingen (1774), experienced a similar reception. The knight Götz is portrayed as a rebel with a just cause. The play was censored mainly for its coarse and blasphemous language, characteristic of the Sturm und Drang movement. After it was published anonymously, it went through twelve editions in a single year—after its language was “amended.” Goethe later repudiated the language of his Sturm und Drang works and wrote a new version of Götz when it was staged for the first time in 1804 in Weimar, where Goethe was stage director from 1791 to 1817. In Vienna the play could only be staged in censored versions. When Goethe’s Faust I (1808) was performed for the first time—in honor of Goethe’s eightieth birthday in 1829—in Braunschweig, Dresden, Leipzig, and Weimar, its vulgar language and offensive parts regarding religion had to be toned down.

Certain works by Goethe were censored for religious and moral reasons, for example, his Venetian Epigrams (1796) and some of the poems in his Roman Elegies (1795), which were considered too erotic. Goethe’s poem “The Diary” could not be published in the nineteenth century without the risk of confiscation. This poem was even omitted from the “unabridged” Weimar edition of 133 volumes (1887-1919), and is absent from the heavily used modern fourteen-volume Hamburger edition (1948-1964).

Although some of Goethe’s early writings, such as Götz and Egmont (1788) implied political positions that opposed the ancien régime, Goethe was a life-long supporter of enlightened feudalism who advocated not revolutionary but evolutionary change. He favored moderate reforms to enhance humanistic ideals. As a minister of the four small states of Saxony, he wrote two legal drafts (1799, 1816) in which he advocated paternalistic and moderate censorship. When in 1816 Saxony’s constitution abolished censorship, and Professor Oken edited the journal Isis promoting liberal and constitutional rights of a democratic society, Goethe tried to mediate between “press anarchy” and “despotism of censorship.” From Goethe’s elitist point of view freedom of the press seemed “anarchic.” At the same time his works promoted the ideal of a well-educated humanist, and therefore opposed “despotism.”

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