Von Kotzewho?

Lars Kotzebue header 2

The playwright, the murder, and….. well, one of his plays

Every student of German history knows the name of the playwright August Von Kotzebue. Not because his plays were especially good, but because he was stabbed to death in 1819 by the radicalist theology student Karl Ludwig Sand. Back in 1800 all people in Germany must have known August van Kotzebue as well. It caused the romantic poet August Wilhelm von Schlegel to write: “Von Kotzebue. Bu, Buh, Bu!” And Goethe spoke of “a zero entity, but with a good talent to entertain the audiences and being of good use to any theatre register.”1 Reason enough to take a closer look at Von Kotzebue and his work.

Come forth, ye enchanting images of youth

August Friedrich Ferdinand Kotzebue was born in 1761 in the city of Weimar into a family of wealthy merchants. His last name sounds like the German word for vomiting (Kotzen), which inspires jokes with German school pupils up to this day, but is actually derived from the town where the distinctive family was rooted. August’s father died a couple of months after his birth and he and his sister were raised by his mother and his uncle Musäus, who was an active writer. In 1791 August looked back on his youth with the sentimental exaltation that was rather typical for his style:

Let me catch this last glitter! See there that boy who hangs with fixed eyes upon his mother’s lips, while on a winter’s evening she reads in one good book to him and his sister.2

The tutors that were engaged to provide the education deemed necessary for a boy from a wealthy merchant family he later described as:

Young divines, who while anxiously waiting, till in quality of their godly vocation, they should be called to the care of a flock, made me feel most heavily the weight of their shepherd’s crook.3

The young August developed a vein for poetry at a young age. He wrote a passionate love-letter to an “amiable young lady” at the age of seven. When his mother found the letter she was delighted and read it out to everyone visiting the family.4 The visitors had a good laugh at the exalted expressions of love from the seven year old boy, which gave August “a deeply tormenting sensation.”5 As we shall see August would have trouble coping with criticism for the rest of his life.

“Undisturbed in my devotions”

After studying law at the universities of Jena and Duisburg, one of his family connections produced a job in the Russian empire where the young jurist made a steady career in government. In his leisure time he started producing plays to be played in the theaters of the town where he was residing. He had a steady production, sometimes writing a play in the time of a mere two weeks. This was all made possible by a rigid discipline. The author got up every day well before his regular workday started to retreat in his garden and lock himself “in a place, which delicacy forbids me to mention, that I might be perfectly retired and undisturbed in my devotions.”6 And to be honest, the fact that the plays were not too ambitious in content might have helped as well.

A burlesque for the indigestion

The play Der Wildfang (The Catching of Game) that appeared in 1811 was one of the most popular pieces he produced. Its subtitle “a burlesque for the indigestion” I cannot but interpret as being lighthearted enough to enjoy even with a stuffed stomach. The play is set in a guest house. In one room resides the young baron Fritz with his tutor Felix and in the other room the lady Von Brumbach with her maid, coachman, and daughter Nantchen. Fritz has fallen spontaneously in love with Nantchen after seeing her leaving church with her mother.

When learning her name Fritz is a bit in shock:

So, her name is Lady Von Brumbach? That name makes me shudder with cold. But the beautiful girl can’t help having such an awful name. And it is in my power to re-baptize her today or tomorrow.7

Fritz is set on marrying Nantchen but Nantchen’s mother proves to be an obstacle. The mother is searching for a husband herself. Her first husband committed suicide and the second ran away from her. No way is her daughter going to marry anyone:

Love is a good servant, but a bad master. Marriage is an awful custom that one has to adapt to, like the Siesta in Spain.8

And another one of her priceless wisdoms:

Early marriage, late repentance. When the daughters feel, the mothers must think. Cupid’s hand is a monster to which I won’t sacrifice my daughter.9

From there on burlesque scenes with young Fritz trying to deceive the mother follow each other at a raging speed. For me, as a modern reader, only one of them could be considered as funny. It is the one in which Fritz, in the disguise of a barber, tries to deliver a love-letter to Nantchen. Old mother intercepts the letter and Fritz makes her believe that he, in his turn, found the letter at the house of Frau von Hengstberg, an old spinster who is residing in the town. Fritz reads the letter out for Nantchen (already in on the conspiracy) and her mother to hear:

Fritz: Beautiful, adorable creature!

Fr. von Brumbach: Beautiful!? She has grey eyes and freckles!


Fritz: I have seen you only once but my heart is forever yours. I saw you leave church with your ugly mother yesterday.

Fr. von Brumbach: That is true. That mother is an ugly old hag and more spiteful than a cat!10

I liked this scene, it genuinely made me laugh, but after this it is just a high speed burlesque again: Fritz elopes with Nantchen, mother sends her coachman and a potential lover she met after them, and the hunters get fooled by Fritz in a frenzy that reminded me of the frantic chasing scenes in old Benny Hill sketches.

In the end Fritz’s tutor turns out to have been Frau von Brumbach’s second husband and Fritz and Nantchen can get married. Curtain closes.

August Von Kotzebue (artist unknown) - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
August Von Kotzebue (artist unknown) – Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smearing Goethe

Von Kotzebue’s plays (he was allowed the “Von” after Catharina the Great knighted him for his services) were hugely popular. The 18th century was the age of increasing literacy among the bourgeois society and these people did not want to struggle through the epic works of the German romantic poets, they wanted to be amused. But Kotzebue’s popularity was not to everyone’s liking. The prince-poet Goethe, who was director of the theatre in Weimar, had Kotzebue’s plays regularly performed since they were sure ticket sellers, but was also publicly belittling their literary qualities. This touched Kotzebue’s sensitive spot and he embarked on a public smearing campaign against the old Goethe, depicting him as a vain old man of the past.11 But that was not the reason Von Kotzebue was stabbed to death.

To explain why Von Kotzebue was murdered we have to take a short look at the Germany of 1819. Napoleon was beaten just a few years earlier. His French armies marching through the various jurisdictions that made up Germany in that time left a sense of nationalism in the country. Students from all the territories were beginning to demand German unity. But the authorities that took over after Napoleon made a different decision. Under the leadership of the Austrian chancellor Von Metternich the European monarchies decided that everything should go back to normal, with not even slightest room for modern ways as liberalism or nationalism.

A sickly nature under the influence of a demonic teacher

Von Kotzebue returned to Weimar in 1817 but was known to still send reports about the situation in Germany to the most conservative man alive at that age: the Russian tsar. That was enough to arouse the suspicions of the nationalist students. In 1817, students from all over the German territories met at the Wartburg to commemorate Luther’s reformation. Several books written by conservatives were being burned, including the works of Von Kotzebue.12

The student Karl Ludwig Sand, who in the words of historian Golo Mann “was of a sickly nature and under the influence of a demonic private teacher”, decided to end the career of the “traitor and denunciator.”13 The demonic private teacher Golo Mann talks about was Friedrich Jahn, the father of modern gymnastics but also an ardent nationalist who saw physical exercise as a way to breed a generation of strong men that would build a new nation. In his letters Sand indeed leaves a worrying impression of an idealistic but also troubled young man:

We will always have victory at our side when we just stay strenuous and fresh. A death at young age will not break our course of victory, as long as we die as heroes.14

Sand stabbed Von Kotzebue to death on March 23rd 1819 and was himself sentenced to death by beheading. Just before his execution Sand stated “I take God as a witness that I die for Germany’s freedom!”15

Sand was considered a saint and a martyr by the nationalists of Germany. This signaled to Von Metternich that measures had to be taken to procure that things would stay just as they were. In cooperation with the governments on German territory he designed the Carlsbad decrees which would put severe restrictions on freedom of press and universities. In general a period of political persecution was unleashed. It is for this reason that Von Kotzebue is still present in every book that deals with German history. It is the only thing for which he is remembered. It is to the reader to decide whether this is justified.


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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. Kindlers Neues Literaturlexikon. Band 9 KA-LA (München 1990) 703 

  2. A. von Kotzebue, Sketch of the Life and Literary Career of Augustus von Kotzebue (London 1800) 6 

  3. Ibidem, 7 

  4. Ibidem, 8/9 

  5. Ibidem, 9 

  6. Ibidem, 16 

  7. A.Von Kotzebue, Der Wildfang (Wien 1811) 6 

  8. Ibidem. 25 

  9. Ibidem, 27 

  10. Ibidem, 41 

  11. G.Stenger, Goethe und August von Kotzebue (Breslau 1910) 129 

  12. R.Friedenthal, Goethe. Sein Leben und seine Zeit (München 1963) 627 

  13. G.Mann, Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt 1958) 126 

  14. Karl Ludwig Sand dargestellt durch seine Tagebücher und Briefe. Dargestellt von seinen Freunden (Altenburg 1821) 164 

  15. Ibidem, 222