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Sturm und Drang

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, 1752-1831

This is another post that explores new territory for me. I have not yet posted anything about relatives who did not immigrate to America. However, in this case, I am making an exception and introducing you to a member of the family that had decided to stay in Europe and try to make his way.

Friedrich Maximilian Klinger was born 17 February 1752 in Frankfurt, an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire at that time. His father Johann, the son of a farmer, was a cannoneer in the municipal artillery who died when Friedrich was eight years old, making his early years a hard struggle. His mother, Cornelia Fuchs Klinger, the daughter of a sergeant of the same artillery unit, was forced to support her son and two daughters by washing laundry from the Frankfurt elite—including, perhaps, Friedrich's future friends and patrons, the Goethes of Hirschgrabenallee. In spite of this misfortune, Friedrich excelled in his studies and won a scholarship to study at the gymnasium, where he also worked as a tutor to earn money for his family. Of his parents, Friedrich wrote: "My father was a wonderful, fiery man...of noble mind," and "I had a good, honest, sensible mother."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Though there is little documentation of Friedrich's earliest interactions with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe during their Frankfurt years, they appear to have made their acquaintance by 1773, as Friedrich had begun work on his first dramas. They soon became fast friends.

Friedrich enrolled in the University of Giessen in 1774 with the little money he had been able to save. Goethe had urged him to let him pay for his studies, but Friedrich steadfastly refused. However, his money was soon gone and he was compelled to accept Goethe's generosity for over a year and possibly until the break with him in 1776. Friedrich began to study the law, with the intention of entering civil service in Frankfurt after his graduation.

However, he spent as little time as possible studying. He read poetry, practiced riding, shooting and fencing, as well as working on his own literary productions. He was a handsome young man and had great success with the ladies. He loved one girl after the other, or even several at a time, with light-hearted amorality.

In 1775, he published his first dramas: Otto, a "Ritterdrama" (knight's tale) in the style of Goethe's Götz, and Das leidende Weib (The Suffering Wife), a tale of tragic love, modeled after Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz's Hofmeister. Both appeared anonymously and at first it was thought that Goethe and Lenz were the authors. The truth was soon revealed.

Friedrich submitted his tragedy Die Zwillinge (The Twins) to a contest in 1776 hosted by the Hamburg theatre under the auspices of the actress Sophie Charlotte Ackermann and her son, the famous actor and playwright Friedrich Ludwig Schröder. The play took first prize, earning Friedrich enough critical acclaim to have it successfully performed in Hamburg on one of the most famous stages in Germany.

Dissatisfaction with his law studies reached a peak in June 1776 when he left school just a few months before graduation. He went to Weimar in the hope that Goethe, who had just entered the service of Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, would be able to secure a government position for him. Goethe greeted him joyfully at first, but very soon tired of him. Friedrich later blamed the split on their mutual friend Christoph Kaufmann, who supposedly undermined Goethe's opinion of Friedrich. Friedrich then tried to become an army officer. It mattered little to him which army, whether that of Prussia, Russia, or even England.

In this time of inner turmoil and indecision, Friedrich produced Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress). He had originally intended to call it Der Wirrwarr (Turmoil), but Kaufmann suggested Sturm und Drang and Friedrich agreed that it was a better title.

The setting of the play is the unfolding American Revolution, in which the author gives violent expression to difficult emotions and extols individuality and subjectivity over the prevailing order of rationalism. Though it is argued that literature and music associated with the Sturm und Drang movement predate this work, it was from this point that German artists became distinctly self-conscious of a new aesthetic. It came to be associated with works aimed at shocking the audience or imbuing them with extremes of emotion. This seemingly spontaneous movement became associated with a wide array of German authors and composers of the mid-to-late Classical period. The movement soon gave way to Weimar Classicism and and early Romanticism, whereupon a socio-political concern for greater human freedom from despotism was incorporated along with a religious treatment of all things natural.

When his hopes for a military career also failed, Friedrich took Sturm und Drang to Leipzig and offered it to Abel Seyler, the leader of one of Germany's chief theatrical companies. Seyler liked the play and its author, hiring Friedrich as a permanent playwright at a respectable salary.

Seyler produced Sturm und Drang several times with moderate success, but soon things were looking bad again for Friedrich. He had taken the job mainly for the money, but it quickly became apparent that Seyler was unable to pay the good salary that he had offered. Friedrich was also unsuited to the task of writing objectively for the stage. All his writings to date had been "thrown down" on paper in a few days time, giving vent to whatever feelings were within him. However, Friedrich stayed in the position for a year and a half, mainly because there was nothing else for him to do.

In February of 1778, after having wandered over all Germany with Seyler's troop, Friedrich finally could stand it no longer and left to go to Switzerland to stay with some friends, since he had no prospects for another job. On the way he visited an old friend, Georg Schlosser, who was caring for Lenz, now a raving madman.

Friedrich announced that he would cure Lenz and carried him to a river where he threw him into the water and then dunked his head repeatedly. The next morning, Lenz was actually cured, but unfortunately he was mad again within a month.

Schlosser had connections with Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador in Paris at that time. He tried to use his influence to get Friedrich a commission in the American army. Friedrich was probably more enthusiastic about fighting for the Colonies now than he was in 1776 when he considered fighting against them, but he he was more interested in making his fortune as a soldier rather than in political ideals. He might have finally been accepted and we can only wonder what the rest of his life would have been like if he had become the soldier and statesman for America that he later was for Russia.

Friedrich in his Uniform

However, a nearer opportunity to fight presented itself in July 1778 when the War of Bavarian Succession broke out. Friedrich seized the chance to become a lieutenant with a corps of volunteers in the service of the Holy Roman Empire. The war started when the ruling dynasty of Bavaria came to an end in 1777 with the death of its elector, Maximilian Joseph. The new ruler, the elector of the Palatinate Karl Theodor, without a legitimate heir and with little interest in his newly acquired territory, agreed to a plan proposed by Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who wished to strengthen imperial and Austrian influence in Germany. It involved ceding Lower Bavaria to Austria, land Joseph claimed it had formerly controlled. Joseph then sent in troops to occupy the territory. This claim brought him into conflict with Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was anxious to restrict the power of the Habsburgs. Supporting the rival claim to these land put forward by Duke Charles of Zweibrücken, Frederick declared war on Austria in July 1778. No serious engagements took place, only a series of skirmishes; none of which proved decisive. Eventually Maria Theresa, who had initially agreed to her son's actions with reluctance, went over his head, and wrote directly to Frederick, suing for peace. With France and Russia acting as mediators, an agreement was reached at the Treaty of Teschen in May 1779. Austria renounced its claims but retained the Inn quarter, a small but fertile and densely populated triangle of land along the border between Bavaria and Austria and the Duke of Zweibrücken secured his succession to the throne of Bavaria. Friedrich enjoyed the army life, but when peace was made, he was immediately released.

Grand Duke Paul (1754-1801)

After a year of uncertainly, Friedrich finally received a commission as a lieutenant in the personal service of Grand Duke Paul of Russia, the only son of Peter III and Catherine the Great. Again, Schlosser had the necessary connections for this appointment. So, in 1780, Friedrich went to St. Petersburg. His position was not what he had expected. It was more literary than military, but he accepted it with the condition that he would be put into the army at the first sign of war, which, in Russia of that time, could not be far off.

In 1782-82, Friedrich accompanied Grand Duke Paul and his wife on their tour of Europe, which included Germany. The trip gave Friedrich an opportunity to see his friends and family, most of them for the last time, since he would never return to Germany.

War came very close in 1783 and Friedrich was transferred into the army. By 1785, however, the war still had not broken out and he was attached to the Infantry Cadet Corps for the Nobility in St. Petersburg, Russia's chief military school. This was the real beginning of Friedrich's long sought after career.

He was well established in the school by 1788 when he married Elizabeth Alexandrovna Alexeeva (1761-1844) (rumored to be a natural daughter of Catherine the Great and court favorite Prince Grigory Orlov). Of their three children, only one son, Alexander, born on 7 May 1791, survived past infancy.

During his first years in Russia, Friedrich was very dissatisfied. He longed to return home and considered his position as only a means to raise enough money to go back to Germany. His patron, Grand Duke Paul, became emperor in 1796, but his despotic regime only increased Friedrich's determination to leave. For some reason, he enjoyed Paul's favor to the end, although he never felt safe as he saw friends and fellow officers killed or sent to Siberia for the most insignificant utterances that could possibly be construed as dissatisfaction with the government. Except for Paul's personal trust in him, Friedrich might well have suffered a similar fate for the ideas in his novels.

He steadily rose in rank at the school and in 1801, shortly before the assassination of Paul, he became its commander, with the rank of major general. Although he had no part in the plot to murder Paul, and indeed felt a high sense of duty and gratitude toward him, Friedrich rejoiced with all of Russia at the end of the reign of terror.

Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825)

Now, under Alexander I, Friedrich reached the height of his career. Besides being in charge of the military school, he took over the leadership of the "Corps of Pages," a school that trained young noblemen for service either at court or in the army. The next year, in 1802, he also became the economic supervisor of two girls' schools, a member of a committee set up by Alexander to reorganize the entire Russian educational system, and government overseer at the Universität Dorpat. Friedrich took such an interest in all of these activities that he gave up, at least temporarily, his dream of returning home. Also, it was at this time that his writing ceased. For a few years, Friedrich was entirely happy. His efforts to reestablish his friendship with his childhood friend Goethe were finally successful and the two corresponded until Friedrich's death.

Alexander's rule then changed from idealism to imperialism and the resulting wars and inflation, caused Friedrich's happiness to begin to suffer, although he reached the rank of lieutenant general in 1811.

In 1812 the blow came that shattered his life and severed the only real connection he had with Russia. His young son Alexander, a captain in the Russian army, was killed in the war against Napoleon on 24 September 1812 at the age of 21. Thereafter, Friedrich's main concern again was his dream of returning to Germany, a dream that he never gave up until shortly before his death. His wife's health gave way completely with the shock of losing her only child and Friedrich was never able to leave her long enough to visit Germany alone.

Friedrich's last years were peaceful. He gradually gave up his many offices and was publicly honored by the emperor in 1830, when he retired completely. On 25 February 1831, in the imperial city of Dorpat in present-day Estonia, he died unexpectedly of a cold that was too much for his failing strength.


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