Georg Herwegh: The Poet Who Loved to Hate

Lars Herwegh 800x500

A while ago I talked about the countess and poet Annette Droste Hülshoff, who became an unlikely feminist role-model more than a century after her passing away. I bumped into her again when doing my research for this article about the German poet Georg Herwegh. Droste Hülshoff’s dry comment on Herwegh was that he should be flogged. A century later the German historian Golo Mann demeaningly described Herwegh as a “champagne drinking literary revolutionary.”1

Georg Herwegh got to fame in Germany with his 1841 book “Poems by Someone Alive” (Gedichte eines Lebendigen), which contains a poem with the seemingly unpoetic title “An Ode to Hate”. It ends with the following lines:

Fight it without pause
The tyranny on earth
Our hate will thus be sanctified
Until our hand swirls up the ashes
Let us not release the sword
We have loved long enough
Now we want to hate!2

What else can we expect than this poet to be controversial until this day? Let’s have a closer look at Georg Herwegh…

Wine, tobacco, and political ideals

Georg Herwegh was born in Stuttgart in 1817 as the child of a cook (or “traiteur” as the profession was called back then) and a solid housewife. The marriage of his parents was not very harmonious. When he was twelve years old, his mother fled her husband for good and took the young Georg to the little town of Balingen. She had set a goal for him: to become a pastor. One reason for that was that, at a young age, Georg made the impression of being a moralist; the other that his mother was determined that her son should become something better than her husband.3

Thus young Georg entered the gymnasium to get prepared for a future as a man of the cloth. And it did not last long before he got into trouble. When something was spread amongst classmates from underneath the class tables in my own high school days, it was usually something of a visual erotic nature that caused red cheeks. But in Georg’s days it was poetry by idealistic poets like Heinrich Heine that made the blood of youngsters boil. Classroom stirs were not caused by naughty pictures, but by the ideals of the French revolution: freedom, equality and brotherhood. And it was these ideals that the German authorities of the day did their best to suppress.

It is hard to imagine for the Facebook and Twitter generation that two hundred years ago the best way to give voice to one’s political ideas was poetry. But reading the wrong poet was actually a punishable offence back then. That being said, it also should be mentioned that Georg did not only get in trouble for studying forbidden poetry, but also for experiencing the joys of wine and tobacco in a way considered far to sumptuous.

From the age of seventeen, Georg was subdued to the even sterner discipline of the protestant seminary at Tübingen. Before entering he was obligated to sign a form in which he declared to agree with the political system that then was in existence. It was the system of congress-Europe that took shape after the defeat of Napoleon. It was designed by the Austrian minister of foreign affairs Clemens von Metternich, and its main goal was to provide peace and harmony for Europe. One of the means to achieve this was hosting regular congresses where the nations of Europe would solve their conflicts diplomatically. But other means were suppressing any ideology which would endanger the present circumstances, which meant any ideology but conservatism.

Georg signed the form but certainly did not intend to adhere to its content.4 His school record mentions him getting grounded more than once. Although it must be said that his increasing enthusiasm for political ideals was not the only reason for that: drunkenness and wearing filthy clothes were motivations of a different kind to take disciplinary measures against the young seminarian. When one disciplinary measure was answered by Georg in an aggressive manner (unfortunately the details of this confrontation were not recorded), the schoolboard had enough and sent Georg packing. Packed with debts he started a law study, mostly to appease his mother. But Georg had other plans than studying jurisprudence: he wanted to become an author. He found a position at the periodical Europa, but then the authorities messed up his plans: military duty.

The chief editor of Europa appealed to the authorities to release Georg of his military service. But when the duke of Baden Württemberg decided in his favour, Georg was already in military confinement for insubordination. He got discharged after sitting that out but not a lot later, probably fired up with wine consumption, he insulted a military officer and military confinement gloomed once again. Georg did not regard that as an enticing prospect and fled to Switzerland.5

Poems of Someone Alive

In Switzerland Georg found himself among thousands of other idealistic Germans who fled the restrictions of the Metternich system. His poems, packed with yearnings for freedom, met with great enthusiasm among fellow exiled Germans. In 1841 his admirers decided to publish a collection of his poems called “The Poems of Someone Alive”. Although the book was illegal in Germany, it was sold from underneath the counters of bookstores and became very successful. This to the great shock of the conservative part of German society, who amongst the romantics were disgracefully called “Philistines”. The German philosopher Arnold Ruge wrote about the success of Herwegh’s poetry:

This was considered such a disgrace, the Philistines stood in shock: this human being does not yearn for the applause off the masses or the favour of the elites. Long forgotten dreams appeared in the soul of the people again. This mixture of the old chimes of freedom and the sound of the Marseillaise caused poetic excitement which caught the people.6

Georg became a superstar poet: Herwegh-clubs were founded in many German cities and Franz Liszt set his poetry to music. The music still finds favour with militant political idealists in Germany:

Georg was now out of financial sorrows, and in Berlin a young lady got enchanted by his work. This young lady, Emma Siegmund, as a young girl once wrote in her diary:

When I read about the French revolution I feel like being driven by a volcanic glow: soon glowing, soon half stiffened7

Emma was pretty and from a good family. But till then no husband could be found for the girl that could handle pistols, discussed politics, and made irreverent remarks about most of the gentlemen asking for her hand. But she was inclined to meet Georg as soon as she read his work. And she got her chance in 1842 when the superstar poet started a journey through the kingdoms that constituted Germany. During his travels he was closely watched by the secret services of the day, but that did not prevent him getting warm welcomes in every city where he arrived. In Berlin he received a note: a young Berlin lady yearned to meet him and Georg decided to give it a go. As soon as he and Emma met they were in love. They got engaged almost immediately and from that point on Emma was Georg’s companion. Georg wrote:

I announce my engagement with a republican comme il faut, a girl that can teach us all a lesson in freedom.8

Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, 1847 (by Hermann Biow) - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, 1847 (by Hermann Biow) – Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In Berlin another special date awaited the young poet. The king of Prussia was interested enough to meet the man who wrote that he should be sent packing, and invited him for an audience. Great expectations abounded now. The king, Frederic William IV, thought he could provide Herwegh with “a day of Damascus”: a sudden conversion to monarchism. The public on the contrary expected the king to receive a showdown. In the end almost nothing happened however. Georg was received in the palace and got extremely bored by the king’s monologues. But when it was time to say goodbye, Georg ignored all protocol and instead of bowing his head he uttered some final words: “Sire, I am not able to serve a king”.9 This was an affront to the vain king. Not soon after that his publications were forbidden in the kingdom of Prussia, and a smearing campaign against the poet was started. This also aroused the authorities in Switzerland, and thus the freshly married couple needed to seek an exile from exile and settled in Paris.

Words and weapons: real weapons

In Paris Georg and Emma saw their dream come through in 1848: revolution! King Louis Philippe of France was sent packing and a republic was proclaimed. The revolutionary tide swept over to the independent kingdoms of Germany where an entire collection of kings, counts, and dukes fled their thrones when the streets filled with revolutionary mobs. Georg and Emma were not of the procrastinated type and wanted to do something to help the revolution in Germany. Georg wrote:

In the conviction that only a democratic state is reasonable and only a republic can be democratic, we seek to establish a republic in Germany. With words and deeds we shall work and when the time for action comes, and that time will come soon, we shall take action; we shall take action with arms in our hand.10

Emma Herwegh (artist unknown) - upload by Adrian Michael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Emma Herwegh (artist unknown) – upload by Adrian Michael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Under the leadership of Georg an army of German exiles was trained. But being a passionate lover of freedom while enforcing military discipline at the same time quickly proved to be a difficult balance. The plan was to march to the duchy of Baden and support the uprising there. The habgrab army set out and was direly defeated: lack of discipline and coordination made the troops an easy target for the state troops that had regained their strength. Georg and Emma, who had joined Georg on his adventure, barely managed to flee to Switzerland.

Laughing stock of literature

It was the end of Georg Herwegh’s poetical career. After the failed attempt of military action he had become the laughing stock of literature. And, after an unfortunate affair with another girl, his marriage with Emma also came to an end. Georg himself now considered his life wasted: “I do not appreciate my life, I shall not have to convince you of that, the only thing I can do is get rid of it in a noble manner”.11 It would however take him until the year 1875 to die of pneumonia at the age of 58. The revolution in Germany had failed, and in 1871 the German states were unified under the leadership of an emperor who was the brother of Frederick William IV. The poet who was alive was dead.

Georg Herwegh was a poet who hated out of love. Because he loved freedom he hated tyranny. And that hate induced him to write his poems. Nowadays we seem to live in times full of hate and grudge. The internet is full of trolls and people that scream their heart out. Maybe they should question themselves whether their hate is the result of the love for something else or is just useless.

Recently a hate poetry night was organised in Berlin. The German journalist Hasnan Kazim, amongst others, read to the public some of the diatribes that clog his mailbox every day: “I have nothing against Muslims as long as the only place they are staying is at the local cemetery”.12 People who write this kind of stuff are the real laughing stocks of literature. Poetry should get more standing again.


Toen de wereld jong was
Paper Towns
Extreem luid & ongelooflijk dichtbij
Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. G.Mann, Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt 1958) 245 

  2. G.Herwegh, Das Lied vom Hasse in Herweghs Werke in einem Band (Berlin/Weimar 1977) 42-43, translation by the author 

  3. M. Krausnick, Die Eiserne Lerche (Baden-Baden 1990) 10 

  4. M. Krausnick, Die Eiserne Lerche, 15 

  5. Ibidem, 25 

  6. M. Krausnick, Die Eiserne Lerche, 33 

  7. Ibidem, 46 

  8. Ibidem, 51 

  9. Ibidem, 55 

  10. M. Krausnick, Die Eiserne Lerche, 98 

  11. Ibidem, 151 

  12. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/mar/02/hate-poetry-germany-islamophobia, last seen March 14th 2015