The Assassination Of August Von Kotzebue (1819)

After the downfall of Napoleon the monarchs of Europe had a very difficult task to perform. Not only were the domestic institutions of their states, which had been overthrown by the French conquest and in many cases altered by French decrees, to be regulated anew or reinstated on a firm footing, but the relations between governments and subjects were to be reorganized on a new basis, in conformity with the liberal principles which had spread from France and been adopted readily by the intelligent and educated classes in Germany.

Solemn promises had been made by the German princes to their peoples in order to enlist their sympathies in their final efforts against Napoleon, and after the Corsican had been dethroned, they were expected to carry out these promises. Especially was this true of Prussia and the smaller German states, whose inhabitants had been promised a system of representative government and a constitution limiting the powers of the executive. Such promises were very inconvenient to some of these governments, and they were rather inclined to forget and abandon them than to carry them out in good faith. Moreover Russia and Austria, the representatives of autocratic power in Europe, exerted their influence on the German governments in a direction opposite to the popular aspirations, and encouraged them to ignore their pledges given under the stress of invasion. It should be remembered that the Holy Alliance, of which Metternich was the inspiring genius, had been formed not only against Napoleon, but also against the freedom and the popular rights of the nations of Europe. In spite of its high-sounding and sanctimonious title, the Holy Alliance was the curse of nations, and it would have extended its nefarious influence even beyond the Atlantic Ocean, and would have crushed the national aspirations for independence and self-government in the states of Central and South America but for the timely issue of the Monroe Doctrine, which saved the Western hemisphere from “Holy Alliance” interference.

It was only after the united efforts of the nations culminated in the final dethronement of Napoleon, and after the Vienna Congress had apportioned the heritage of the Empire among the victorious monarchs that the nations became aware that the liberal promises they had received while these monarchs were in distress were either not to be redeemed at all, or redeemed only in part. The sagacity of the statesmen of continental Europe was bent on defrauding the people of those civil and political rights which had been held out to them as part of the reward to be won by repelling the attacks of Napoleon, and the sovereigns were only too willing to assist them in carrying out this deception.

Unfortunately some of these sovereigns were of inferior mental calibre and not at all fitted for the great work of reconstructing their shattered monarchies after the tremendous convulsions of the preceding twenty years, and they were perfectly dwarfed by a comparison with the colossus who had moulded Europe so long solely according to the inspirations of his genius or ambition. Alexander of Russia had the reputation of being a man of ability; but this reputation was without solid foundation. At the period immediately following the overthrow of Napoleon he was entirely under the influence of Madame Krüdener, a religious enthusiast and visionary, who skilfully concealed her immorality under pietistic propagandism. She filled Alexander’s mind with vague and mystic ideas of his divine mission as a ruler, in which the human rights of his subjects had no place. Frederick William the Third, King of Prussia, was a weakling of the worst sort. He had actually been forced into the anti-Napoleonic movement by the enthusiasm of his people, and after national independence had been accomplished he trembled lest anything might occur to endanger the public order and tranquillity so dearly purchased. It was therefore comparatively easy for the reactionary elements to get full control of the Prussian government and to prevent any bold reform in a democratic direction. All they had to do was to fill the mind of the timid King with a vague fear that the scenes of the French Revolution might be renewed by inviting the people to coöperation in the government. Even less reliable was the Emperor of Austria, Francis the First, a man naturally distrustful and suspicious, who knew how to conceal his cunning and his antagonism to liberal ideas under the appearance of great personal kindness and bonhomie. These were the three men of whom Europe expected a great political reform, and never perhaps, in political history, were hopes and expectations so woefully misplaced and doomed to more cruel disappointment than in this case.

It would be unjust to assert that the great mass of the German people felt a deep interest in the introduction of those measures of political reform which the sovereigns had promised when they appealed to the patriotism of their subjects. Most of the Germans, even those belonging to the educated classes, had up to that time paid but little attention to politics, and their political indifference had survived the war for national independence. The nobility, with a few noble exceptions, were not at all anxious to see measures of political reform introduced, because they knew that such measures would curtail their aristocratic privileges and prerogatives.

But there was one class of citizens which had hailed the promises of the sovereigns with unbounded enthusiasm, for they had hoped from their realization a political renaissance for the whole Fatherland and a new era of greatness and world-wide influence recalling the days of the Hohenstaufen,—the glorious days when the German Empire was the first power in the world, and when all civilized nations from the Baltic Sea to the southern shores of the Mediterranean bowed their necks in obedience to the demands of its rulers. This class was the students of the many German universities, scattered over Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, and the smaller German states. Inspired by Schiller, Körner, Arndt, and other poets, these young men had flocked to the standards of Blücher, Scharnhorst, York, and Bülow, and had fought with the courage of lions on the battle-fields of Germany and France for the holy cause of German independence. The hope and dream of another Germany, greater, nobler, more progressive and worthier of being the leader of nations than they had known it before the war, had fanned their enthusiasm into a flame which nothing could extinguish, and which after their return from the war burst forth, here and there, in great patriotic demonstrations.

Dreamers and idealists though they were, they began to transform some of their dreams into reality. They formed a great association embracing the students of all the German universities, north and south,—the German Burschenschaft, in whose organization they embodied the noblest principles of manhood, patriotism, and civic devotion. The ancient German colors, black, red and gold, were revived to adorn their banners, their caps, their sashes and badges. Quite a literature of patriotic and students’ songs suddenly sprang into existence, in which the dream of a great united Germany appeared in the mind’s eye as a living reality. Many of the professors of the universities, who had also been volunteers in the war and had shared the enthusiasm of the students, joined them in their patriotic devotion and lent the authority of their names and writings to their aspirations of national political revival. Arndt’s famous national song, “Where is the German’s Fatherland?” with the reply, that the German fatherland embraces all the countries in which the German tongue is heard and in which German song rises heavenward, is the typical expression of that most enthusiastic period of German student-life.

The Burschenschaft became an organization of national importance. It had its admirers, but it had also its enemies; and unfortunately the latter were mostly to be found among the nobility. The feeling prevailing against the Burschenschaft in the government circles of the different German states was therefore decidedly hostile, and waited only for an opportunity to show that hostility. This opportunity soon presented itself and, it must be admitted, was brought about by the reckless audacity of the members of the association. In the year 1817 the tercentenary of the great German Reformation was to be celebrated with unusual splendor, and the Burschenschaft profited by this occasion to make a public demonstration in behalf of its patriotic principles. It selected as the place of its convention the Wartburg, where Martin Luther resided upon his return from the Diet of Worms and, to make the convention especially noteworthy and solemn, had chosen the eighteenth of October, the anniversary of the battle of Leipsic, as the principal day for the celebration.

An immense number of visitors from all parts of Germany came to Eisenach, situated at the foot of the Wartburg, and delegations of students from all German universities, adorned with their German colors and carrying black, red and gold banners with patriotic inscriptions, assembled on the historic ground and participated in the festivities, for which an elaborate programme had been arranged. The greatest enthusiasm prevailed, and for the time being all those petty jealousies which had so often disturbed the cordial fellowship of the inhabitants of different German states had disappeared, and all those present revelled in the exuberance of patriotic sentiment; they were all the children of one great fatherland, a great united nation! The songs and the speeches repeated and echoed this one thought. It lived uppermost in the hearts of those young enthusiasts, but presented itself to their minds rather as a vague poetic ideal than as a stern political reality. Among the thousands of visitors there was, perhaps, not one who had seriously thought of the political realization of the dream. Imprudent as these too boisterous demonstrations had been during the day, there was enacted late in the evening, when most of the guests had already left the famous castle, a sort of theatrical performance, which irritated the conservative and reactionary classes exceedingly and resulted disastrously for the Burschenschaft. This performance was gotten up in imitation of a famous scene in Luther’s life—the burning of the papal bull. Massmann, a student of the university of Jena, represented the Luther of the nineteenth century. A large bonfire was built, and amidst boundless enthusiasm a number of books and other materials, odious to the students, were thrown into the flames and destroyed. Among the books was Kotzebue’s “History of the German Empire,” Haller’s “Restoration of Political Science,” Section 13 of the Federal Constitution, etc. Besides the books, a corset such as used to be worn by the officers of the Prussian guards, a Hessian queue, and an Austrian corporal’s mace were also thrown into the fire.

The Wartburg celebration produced tremendous excitement throughout Germany. The reactionary elements were wild with indignation. They accused not only the managers of the festivity and the Burschenschaft of revolutionary tendencies, but they included in this charge all the young men of the Empire, averring that they had grown up under the influence of the pernicious doctrines of the French Revolution and French armies of occupation, and wanted now to apply those doctrines to the reorganization of German institutions. They also demanded that the organizers of the Wartburg celebration should be prosecuted and punished as traitors. All the conservative and government papers opened a regular war upon the seditious and revolutionary tendencies of the universities, and the agitation reached its climax by the publication of a memorandum addressed by Baron Stourdza, a Russian councillor of state, to the Emperor Alexander, in which he predicted that a bloody revolution would result unless these seditious tendencies were speedily repressed. The Stourdza memorandum had originally been intended for the use of the governments only. The Czar had sent a copy to each European government, but one copy of it had found its way to the office of a Paris newspaper and had been published. The excitement among the German students rose to the boiling-point, and their wrath was concentrated against Russia. It was only too well known that Russia had in her employ a number of spies scattered throughout the German states, who kept her government well posted on the political and social currents. The most prominent of these spies was August von Kotzebue, a man of great literary talent and distinguished as the author of many comedies and dramas, but politically of extreme conservative views. The attacks of the liberal press were therefore mainly directed against Kotzebue, whose reports to the Russian government were supposed to have inspired Stourdza’s memorandum.

At that time there was at Jena a student of the University, of irreproachable character, excellent conduct, not especially distinguished by eminent ability or talent, but inclined to religious and patriotic exaltation. His name was Carl Ludwig Sand; he came from Wunsiedel, the birthplace of the famous German humorist, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter. He had been a volunteer in the war against France and had embraced the doctrines of the Burschenschaft with the greatest enthusiasm. The denunciations of the German students in Stourdza’s memorandum filled him with profound indignation, especially against Kotzebue, whom he blamed as the principal sinner. Moreover the frivolous, half indecent character of many of Kotzebue’s plays had often revolted Sand’s moral sentiment. He considered him a source of corruption for the young men and women of the nation, and when to this wrong the charge of political treason and espionage was added, Sand thought that nothing but death was an adequate punishment for Kotzebue. He considered also that it was not only a moral, but a patriotic duty to inflict upon him that punishment. He knew that the act would cost him his life, but that consideration did not for a moment deter him from undertaking it. He did not consult with anybody about it, but he conceived, planned, and executed it all alone.

On the ninth of March, 1819, Sand left Jena and proceeded to Mannheim, where Kotzebue lived. Two weeks later, on the twenty-third of March, 1819, a young stranger appeared at the Kotzebue residence, and said that he wished to see the councillor in order to hand him personally a letter of introduction. The servant delivered the message, and after a few minutes Kotzebue himself appeared in the hall and invited Sand—for it was he—to come in. Sand handed him the letter; but no sooner had Kotzebue opened it and begun to read it than Sand plunged a long dirk-knife into his breast with the words, “Take this as your reward, traitor to your country!” And he stabbed him again and again with fatal effect. Thereupon he thrust the knife into his own breast, but had strength enough to run out into the hall, where he handed the astounded servant a sealed document containing a well-written justification of his murderous act, and inscribed: “Death Punishment for August von Kotzebue in the name of virtue.” Running out into the street, where a crowd of people assembled, attracted by the screams of the servant, he called out in a loud voice: “Long live my German fatherland!” and kneeling down he forcibly plunged the knife into his breast once more, exclaiming: “Great God, I thank thee for this victory.”

Sand’s wound was serious, but a skilful operation saved his life. On the twentieth of May, 1820, he was executed at Mannheim, after a lengthy trial and a painstaking investigation, in the course of which the German and the Russian police made great efforts to discover accessories to his crime. All these efforts failed, however, and the murder of Kotzebue could be accounted only an individual act of patriotic exaltation. The result of Sand’s self-sacrifice was very different from what he had expected. In fact, Kotzebue’s assassination proved disastrous to the liberal movement throughout Germany; it furnished a welcome pretext for the most repressive measures against the press, against the universities, against the Burschenschaft, against liberty in whatever shape or form it might manifest itself. That long era of political reaction was inaugurated against which the German people rebelled with only partial success in 1848 and 1849, and from which only the ejection of Austria and the reorganization of a new German Empire on a more liberal basis in 1871 gave them permanent relief.


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