On Germany by Madame de StaŽl

Madame de StaŽl's book "On Germany" (De l'Allemagne) was finished in 1810. The manuscript was passed by the censor, and partly printed, when the whole impression was seized by the order of the Emperor and destroyed. Madame de StaŽl herself escaped secretly, and came eventually to London, where, in 1813, the work was published. She did not long survive the fall of her tremendous enemy, Napoleon, but died in her beloved Paris on July 14, 1817. When it is considered that "On Germany" was written by other than an inhabitant of the country, and that Madame de StaŽl did not travel far beyond her own residences at Mainz, Frankfort, Berlin, and Vienna, the work may be reckoned the most remarkable performance of its kind in literature or biography

I.—Germany, Its People and Customs

The multitude and extent of the forests indicate a still new civilisation. Germany still shows traces of uninhabited nature. It is a sad country, and time is needed to discover what there is to love in it. The ruined castles on the hills, the narrow windows of the houses, the long stretches of snow in winter, the silence of nature and men, all contribute towards the sadness. Yet the country and its inhabitants are interesting and poetical. You feel that human souls and imagination have embellished this land.

The only remarkable monuments in Germany are the Gothic ones which recall the age of chivalry. Modern German architecture is not worth mentioning, but the towns are well built, and the people try to make their houses look as cheerful and pleasing as possible. The gardens in some parts of Germany are almost as beautiful as in England, which denotes love of nature. Often, in the midst of the superb gardens of the German princes, śolian harps are placed; the breezes waft sound and scent at once. Thus northern imagination tries to construct Italian nature.

The Germans are generally sincere and faithful; they scarcely ever break their word and are strangers to deception. Power of work and thought is another of their national traits. They are naturally literary and philosophical, but their pride of class affects in some ways their esprit adversely. The nobles are lacking in ideas, and the men of letters know too little about business. The Germans have imagination rather than esprit.

The town dwellers and the country folk, the soldiers and the workmen, nearly all have some knowledge of music. I have been to some poor houses, blackened with tobacco smoke, and not only the mistress, but also the master of the house, improvise on the piano, just as the Italians improvise in verse. Instrumental music is as generally fostered in Germany as vocal music is in Italy. Italy has the advantage, because instrumental music requires work, whilst the southern sky suffices to produce beautiful voices.

Peasant women and servants, who are too poor to put on finery, decorate their hair with a few flowers, so that imagination may at least enter into their attire.

One is constantly struck in Germany with the contrast between sentiment and custom, between talent and taste; civilisation and nature do not seem to have properly amalgamated yet. Enthusiasm for art and poetry goes with very vulgar habits in social life. Nothing could be more bizarre than the combination of the warlike aspect of Germany, where soldiers are met at every step, with the indoor life led by the people. There is a dread of fatigue and change of air, as if the nation were composed only of shopkeepers and men of letters; and yet all the institutions tend towards giving the nation military habits.

Stoves, beer, and tobacco-smoke crate around the German people a kind of heavy and hot atmosphere which they do not like to leave. This atmosphere is injurious to activity, which is at least as necessary in war as in courage; resolutions are slow, discouragement is easy, because a generally sad existence does not engender much confidence in fortune.

Three motive powers lead men to fight: love of the fatherland and of liberty, love of glory, and religious fanaticism. There is not much love of the fatherland in an Empire that has been divided for centuries, where Germans fought against Germans; love of glory is not very lively where there is no centre, no capital, no society. The Germans are much more apt to get roused by abstract ideas than by the interests of life.

The love of liberty is not developed with the Germans; they have learnt neither by enjoyment, nor by privation, the prize that may be attached to it. The very independence enjoyed by Germany in all respects made the Germans indifferent to liberty; independence is a possession, liberty a guarantee, and just because nobody was crossed in Germany either in his rights or in his pleasures, nobody felt the need for an order of things that would maintain this happiness.

The Germans, with few exceptions, are scarcely capable of succeeding in anything that requires cleverness and skill; everything troubles them, makes them nervous, and they need method in action as well as independence in thought.

German women have a charm of their own, a touching quality of voice, fair hair, and brilliant complexion; they are modest, but not as shy as the English. One can see that they have often met men who were superior to them, and that they have less cause to fear the severity of public judgment. They try to please by their sensibility, and to arouse interest by the imagination. The language of poetry and of the fine arts is known to them; they flirt with enthusiasm, just as one flirts in France with esprit and wit.

 Love is a religion in Germany, but a poetic religion, which willingly tolerates all that may be excused by sensibility. The facility of divorce in the Protestant provinces certainly affects the sanctity of marriage. Husbands are changed as peacefully as if it were merely a question of arranging the incidents of a play. The good-nature of men and women prevents any bitterness entering these easy ruptures.

Some German women are ever in a state of exaltation that amounts to affectation, and the sweet expressions of which efface whatever there may be piquant or pronounced in their mind and character. They are not frank, and yet not false either; but they see and judge nothing with truth, and the real events pass before their eyes like phantasmagoria.

But these women are the exception. Many German women have true sentiment and simple manners. Their careful education and natural purity of soul renders their dominion gentle and moderate; every day they inspire you with increased interest for all that is great and noble, with increased confidence in every kind of hope. What is rare among German women is real esprit and quick repartee. Conversation, as a talent, exists only in France; in other countries it only serves for polite intercourse, for discussion and for friendship; in France it is an art.

II.—On Southern Germany and Austria

Franconia, Suabia, and Bavaria were, before the foundation of the Munich Academy, strangely heavy and monotonous countries; no arts except music, little literature; an accent that did not lend itself well to the pronunciation of the Latin languages, no society; great parties that resembled ceremonies rather than amusement; obsequious politeness towards an unelegant aristocracy; kindness and loyalty in all classes, but a certain smiling stiffness which is neither ease nor dignity. In a country where society counts for nothing, and nature for little, only the literary towns can be really interesting.

A temperate climate is not favourable for poetry. Where the climate is neither severe nor beautiful, one lives without fearing or hoping anything from heaven, and one only takes interest in the positive facts of existence. Southern Germany, temperate in every respect, keeps up a state of monotonous well-being which is as bad for business activity as it is for the activity of the mind. The keenest wish of the inhabitants of that peaceful and fertile country is to continue the same existence. And what can one do with that one desire? It is not even enough to preserve that with which one is contented.

There are many excellent things in Austria, but few really superior men, because in that country it is not much use to excel one's neighbour; one is not envied for it, but forgotten, which is still more discouraging. Ambition turns in the direction of obtaining good posts.

Austria, embracing so many different peoples, Bohemians, Hungarians, etc., has not the unity necessary for a monarchy. Yet the great moderation of the heads of the state has for a long time constituted a strong link.

Industry, good living and domestic pleasures are Austria's principal interests. In spite of the glory she gained by the perseverance and valour of her troops, the military spirit has really never got hold of all classes of the nation.

In a country where every movement is difficult, and where everything inspires tranquility, the slightest obstacle is an excuse for complete idleness of action and thought. One might say that this is real happiness; but does happiness consist of the faculties which one develops, or of those which one chokes?

Vienna is situated in a plain amid picturesque hills. It is an old town, very small, but surrounded by very spacious suburbs. It is said that the city proper within the fortifications is no larger than it was when Richard Cúur-de-Lion was put into prison not far from its gates. The streets are as narrow as in Italy; the palaces recall a little those of Florence; in fine, nothing here resembles the rest of Germany except a few Gothic buildings, which bring back the Middle Ages to the imagination. First among these is the tower of St. Stephen's, around which somehow centres the whole history of Austria. No building can be as patriotic as a church—the only one in which all classes of the population meet, the only one which recalls not only the public events, but also the secret thoughts, the intimate affections which the rulers and the citizens have brought within its precincts.

Every great city has some building, or promenade, some work of art or nature, to which the recollections of childhood are attached. It seems to me that the Prater should have this charm for the Viennese. No other city can match this splendid promenade through woods and deer-stocked meadows. The daily promenade at a fixed hour is an Italian custom. Such regularity would be impossible in a country where the pleasures are as varied as in Paris; but the Viennese could never do without it. Society folk in their carriages and the people on their feet assemble here every evening. It is in the Prater that one is most struck with the easy life and the prosperity of the Viennese. Vienna has the uncontested reputation of consuming more food than any other equally populous city. You can see whole families of citizens and artisans starting for the Prater at five o'clock for a rustic meal as substantial as dinner in any other country, and the money they are able to spend on it proves their industry and kindly rule.

At night thousands of people return, without disorder, without quarrel. You can scarcely hear a voice, so silently do they take their pleasures. It is not due to sadness, but to laziness and physical well-being. Society is here with magnificent horses and carriages. Their whole amusement is to recognise in a Prater avenue the friends they have just left in a drawing-room. The emperor and his brothers take their place in the long row of carriages, and prefer to be considered just as ordinary private people. They only use their rights when they are performing their duties. You never see a beggar: the charity institutions are admirably managed. And there are very few mortal crimes in Austria. Everything in this country bears the impress of a paternal, wise, and religious government.

III.—On the German Language

Germany is better suited for prose than for poetry, and the prose is better written than spoken; it is an excellent instrument if you wish to describe or to say everything; but you cannot playfully pass from subject to subject as you can in French. If you would adapt the German words to the French style of conversation you would rob them altogether of grace and dignity. The merit of the Germans is to fill their time well; the talent of the French is to make us forget time.

Although the sense of German sentences is frequently only revealed at the very end, the construction does not always permit to close a phrase with the most piquant expression, which is one of the great means to make conversation effective. You rarely hear among the Germans what is known as a bon-mot; you have to admire the thought and not the brilliant way in which it is expressed.

Brilliant expression is considered a kind of charlatanism by the Germans, who take to abstract expression because it is more conscientious and approaches more closely to the very essence of truth. But conversation ought not to cause any trouble either to the listener or to the speaker. As soon as conversation in Germany departs from the ordinary interests of life it becomes too metaphysical; there is nothing between the common and the sublime; and it is just this intermediate region that is the proper sphere for the art of conversation.


Of all the German principalities, Weimar makes one best realise the advantages of a small country, if the ruler is a man of fine intellect who may try to please his subjects without losing their obedience. The Duchess Louise of Saxe-Weimar is the true model of a woman destined for high rank. The duke's military talents are highly esteemed; his conversation is pointed and well considered; his intellect and his mother's have attracted the most distinguished men of letters to Weimar. Germany had for the first time a literary capital.

Herder had just died when I arrived at Weimar, but Wieland, Goethe, and Schiller were still there. They can be judged from their works, for their books bear a striking resemblance to their character and conversation.

Life in small towns has never appealed to me. Man's intellect seems to become narrow and woman's heart cold. One feels oppressed by the close proximity of one's equals. All the actions of your life are minutely examined in detail, until the ensemble of your character is no longer understood. And the more your spirit is independent and elevated, the less you can breathe within the narrow confines. This disagreeable discomfort did not exist at Weimar, which was not a little town, but a large castle. A chosen circle took a lively interest in every new art production. Imagination, constantly stimulated by the conversation of the poets, felt less need for those outside distractions which lighten the burden of existence but often dissipates its forces. Weimar has been called the Athens of Germany, and rightly so. It was the only place where interest in the fine arts was, so to speak, rational and served as fraternal link between the different ranks.


To know Prussia, one has to study the character of Frederick II. A man has created this empire which had not been favoured by nature, and which has only become a power because a soldier has been its master. There are two distinct men in Frederick II.: a German by nature, and a Frenchman by education. All that the German did in a German kingdom has left lasting traces; all that the Frenchman tried has been fruitless.

Frederick's great misfortune was that he had not enough respect for religion and customs. His tastes were cynical. Frederick, in liberating his subjects of what he called prejudices, stifled in them their patriotism, for in order to get attached to a naturally sombre and sterile country one must be ruled by very stern opinions and principles. Frederick's predilection for war may be excused on political grounds. His realm, as he took it over from his father, could not exist, and aggrandisement was necessary for its preservation. He had two and a half million subjects when he ascended the throne, and he left six millions on his death.

One of his greatest wrongs was his share in the division of Poland. Silesia was acquired by force of arms. Poland by Macchiavellian conquest, "and one could never hope that subjects thus robbed should be faithful to the juggler who called himself their sovereign."

Frederick II. wanted French literature to rule alone in his country, and had no consideration for German literature, which, no doubt, was then not as remarkable as it is to-day; but a German prince should encourage all that is German. Frederick wanted to make Berlin resemble Paris, and he flattered himself to have found among the French refugees some writers of sufficient distinction to have a French literature. Such hope was bound to be deceptive. Artificial culture never prospers; a few individuals may fight against the natural difficulties, but the masses will always follow their natural leaning. Frederick did a real wrong to his country when he professed to despise German genius.


Berlin is a large town, with wide, long, straight streets, beautiful houses, and an orderly aspect; but as it has only recently been rebuilt, it contains nothing to recall the past. No Gothic monument exists among the modern dwellings, and this newly-formed country is in no way interfered with by the past. But modern Berlin, with all its beauty, does not impress me seriously. It tells nothing of the history of the country or the character of its inhabitants; and these beautiful new houses seem to be destined only for the comfortable gatherings of business or industry. The most beautiful palaces of Berlin are built of brick. Prussia's capital resembles Prussia herself; its buildings and institutions have the age of one generation, and no more, because one man alone is their creator.