In 1841, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine felt induced to send a poem to his German colleague Nikolaus Becker. The poem, consisting of twenty-four strophes, was called the “Marseillaise of Peace”. Its phrasing was idealistic to say the least:
Nations, pompous words, barbarity I say.
Does love stop at a border?
Shred the banners! Follow the better voice:
Egocentricity and hate are the only things that have a Fatherland.1
The answer by Nikolaus Becker followed suit. Becker was lazy enough to just send a copy of his earlier published poem that had provoked Lamartine to begin with. Its words might sound less idealistic for the modern reader:
They will never possess it
The free German Rhine
Even when like greedy Ravens
They scream they want it.2
What caused this 1841 poetry slam?
Lost in France
The aftermath of the French revolution gave rise to one ideology that would alter the course of world history unto this very day. It´s not liberalism, it´s not socialism. So which one is it? It´s nationalism. Ever since the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder stated in a kind tone that every people possesses unique traits, a lot has been made out of this idea. While Herder still stated that every people were part of “a big and courageous family of the Almighty Father”,3 less inspired thinkers that followed Herder soon began to trumpet that their own people were not only unique, but also the greatest people in the world.
Rulers of nations had to cope with these sentiments that arose among their people. Louis-Philippe, king of France since 1830, tried to soothe them as best he could, but not with a lot of success.
Louis-Philippe had become King of France after the previous king, Charles X, had fled to England in order to escape angry mobs swarming Paris in 1830. His army had refused to shoot them, so Charles was on his way. With the king gone, the protesters were a bit at a loss about what to do. The working people wanting this, the intellectuals wanting that, and the liberals wanting something completely different. And then the elderly marquise de Lafayette sprang out of the hat as the man of compromise. He would rule as the “bourgeois-king” Louis-Phillipe until 1848. Then he, in his turn, would abdicate because of political upheaval.4
But in 1840 Louis-Philippe was still the bourgeois king of France. And the problem with a bourgeois king is: he is bourgeois. Too bourgeois to satisfy the insurrectionists that had elevated him to power in the first place. It made his entire reign a precarious one. Louis-Philippe was no nationalist revolutionary but still he owed his power to nationalist revolutionaries. The king did his best to appease the nationalists, but did not meet with a lot of success.
In 1840 he conspired with the Pasha of Egypt to rise against the Ottoman Sultan and in that way gain Syria. England was not amused by this ambition to say the least. In no time England and its allies Russia, Prussia, and Austria were ready to wage war with France. Louis-Philippe got scared shit now and backed off. Now he had to face the problem of channelling French nationalist sentiment into other directions.5
Our natural border
Our courageous king did not have to wait long for an opportunity to do that. French nationalist newspapers published raging pleas now that the Rhine was the natural border of France, and as long as the river was not flowing through French instead of German territory, there would be no lasting peace in Europe. The minister of foreign affairs Adolphe Thiers soon followed up on this lead.6 Napoleon had conquered the Rhine for France in 1801, and lost it again in 1813, and Thiers was an admirer of Napoleon so it is not very strange that he backed the pleas made by the newspapers.7
On the other side of the Rhine, Germany was not a nation yet. In 1840 it still consisted of numerous sovereign territories. But Thiers’ provocation was able to stir nationalist feelings all over these territories. The result: a wave of nationalist poems.8
Max Schneckenburger, the 22 year old owner of an ironworks in the locality of Bugdorf, wrote the infamous:
A calling sounding like thunder
Like the rattling of swords and the clashing of waves
“To the Rhine, the Rhine, the German Rhine!”
Who will be the guardian of this stream?!
Dear Fatherland, you can stay calm.
The guard on the Rhine is loyal and standing firm.9
The publicist and historian Robert Eduard Prutz from the city of Stettin provided the world with another poetic gem:
The German Rhine, mighty sound the words!
We already see it, with its golden green water
With merry cities and proud citizens.10
I will spare you the next nine pages of it. And then of course there was the lawyer from Hünshoven, Nikolaus Becker, with his “they will never possess it”. Nowadays Becker is considered a literary nobody, but in his days his poem had quite some impact.11 Becker’s poem and the ones provided by his confrères would provide a “poetic field kit for German soldiers” in later years.12 But for now they of course provoked a reaction from France.
The French romantic poet and playwright Alfred de Musset responded to Becker:
We once had it, the German Rhine
In our glass, we saw it shine
With your boasting you want to darken its trace
That the hoofs of our horses left in your blood.13
The king saves the day
In the end it was King Louis- Philippe who ended this poetic battle by sending Adolphe Thiers packing. Our bourgeois king got tired of warmongering and wanted to enjoy his peace. He had his peace until 1848.
The poems by Becker, Prutz and Schneckenburger are now largely forgotten. They are only remembered by people feeling nostalgia where they absolutely shouldn’t. Becker’s poem lives on in another way though. Heinrich Heine was one of the most brilliant poets Germany ever produced and is widely read until this day. In his poem “Father Rhine” from 1844, he lets the Rhine itself speak up about Nikolaus Becker:
That stupid song and that stupid bloke
He has disgraced me in a most disrespectable way
In a certain sense
He has also compromised me politically.14
For the sake of neutrality the Rhine also mentions de Musset:
This Alfred de Musset, that street knave
Comes at the forefront
Maybe as the drummer, and drums me
His tasteless jokes.15
If this article stimulates you to read some of the mentioned German poetry: please pick Heinrich Heine.
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You may also like:
G. Mann, Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (1958, Frankfurt 1996) 174, I know I cite Golo Mann a lot, I can’t help it. I adore this book. ↩
H.Kluge, Auswahl Deutscher Gedichte (Altenburg 1905) 13 ↩
J.H. Herder, Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit (Riga 1774) 5 ↩
R.R Palmer and J.Colton, A History of the Modern World (1950, New York 1995) 485-487 ↩
G.Mann, Deutsche Geschichte, 153 ↩
P.Herminghouse and M.Mueller, Gender and Germanness. Cultural productions of Nation (1997) 4 ↩
H.Kluge, Deutsche Gedichte, 569 ↩
R.E Prutz, Der Rhein (Leipzig 1840) 1 ↩
E.U. Pinkert, Differenz und Identität. Krieger und Sänger: Zu Rheinsymbolik bei Heine und in der Deutschen Lyriki im 19. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt 1998) no page numbers provided ↩
E.U. Pinkert, Differenz und Identität. ↩
H.Heine, Werke. Band 2 (Dreieich No Year) 620 ↩