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...
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