The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Take honour from me, and my life is done. - SHAKESPEARE, King Richard II, I, 1.

As long as honor was more important than life itself, loss of honor was life's greatest tragedy; and therefore loss of honor has been a favorite motif in German literature from its very beginnings. We have seen the plight of Cain in ancient vernacular versions of Scripture, in which he is deprived of his honor because he has slain his brother. Likewise, we have seen the overwhelming grief experienced by Iwein, Rüdeger, and other heroes threatened with loss of honor, and we have learned to appreciate the apprehensions of unwed girls who felt their shame growing in their bodies. In reading ancient tales in which honor makes cruel demands, as when Hilde­brand must fight his son or Rüdeger must fight his Burgundian friends, we sometimes feel that the poet is questioning, or at least deploring, the bitter code. As defenders of traditional values, medieval secular poets could not openly attack the sanctity of the code of honor; but, when Christian-Stoic values finally prevailed among intellectuals of the Enlightenment, even secular poets began to change sides and question this questionable tradition.

In 1787 Schiller wrote a short story, Criminal through Lost Honor,l to prove that histories of violent actions are often written wrongly and therefore not understood. A tranquil reader is so far removed from the violent emotions of a criminal that he cannot grasp the meaning of his act and is estranged rather than moved by it; for he can be moved only if he feels himself imperiled by the criminal's misfortune. Thus, instead of giving us moral instruction, history serves only to satisfy our curiosity. To profit from history, we should see not only what the criminal does, but why he does it. We must see his thoughts and their causes, not just his acts and their conse­quences. Only in this way can we understand and sympathize with the criminal instead of scorning and damning him. Schiller illustrates his argument as follows:

1. Schillers Werke, National Ausgabe, ed. H. H. Borcherdt, Weimar, l951, XVI, pp. 7-29.

Wolf Sonnenwirt, the son of a poor tavern-keeper's widow, becomes a juvenile delinquent as a result of poverty and physical unattractiveness. Because his ugliness repulses the girls, he tries to compensate for it by dressing elegantly and giving gifts beyond his means. When his funds are exhausted, he becomes a poacher in order to give his winnings to his sweetheart. Finally his rival, the forester, guesses the source of his money and catches him in the act of poaching; and Sonnenwirt avoids prison only by paying a large fine, which so impoverishes him that he must sell his tavern.

Driven by shame, jealousy, and hunger, he resumes his poaching until the forester catches him again; and this time he must serve a year in prison. Upon returning home he tries to find employment as a laborer or even as town swineherd, even though it is a dishonorable status. Even this is refused him, and he is again forced to poach for a living. Once more his rival catches him; and he is convicted, branded, and sentenced to three years of hard labor in a fortress. There he is completely corrupted by the other inmates who are hardened criminals and delight in degrading him morally. Released and back at home, he finds himself ostracised; but by now he has forgotten how to feel shame and no longer minds other people's scorn. He needs no good qualities, since no one expects them of him. Despair and shame have robbed him of all ambition to go elsewhere and try to pass as a man of honor.

Reverting to his life as poacher, he soon has a chance to kill the forester who has caused his misery. Fleeing from the scene of the crime, he meets a gang of robbers and other outcasts, who im­mediately choose him as their leader because of his notoriety as a poacher. At first he is happy to be among peers and welcomes the honor proverbially found among thieves. After a year of successful theft and robbery, however, he tires of his life and companions and he begins to fear that one of them will betray him for the reward and pardon promised by the authorities. He tries to win a pardon in order to enlist in the Seven Years War; but his requests are not acknowledged even though he reminds the authorities that his crimes began only after he was deprived of his honor. Receiving no answer, he decides to leave the country and join the Prussian army. When detained en route by a customs official, he admits his identity and is later executed.

It is significant that this story was first called Criminal through Infamy (Verbrecher aus Infamie) and later changed to Criminal through Lost Honor (Verbrecker aus verlorener Ehre); for this shows that Schiller, like the ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans, realized that sense of honor and sense of shame are merely two aspects of a single motivating force. Although he claimed that his story served to illustrate a literary-historical and psychological point, it is clear that it also served as social protest, much as his juvenile drama The Robbers had done. He himself admits that, even if the reader's leniency will not help this particular criminal, a post mortem of his crime will perhaps instruct mankind and, possibly, even justice. Thus his work more or less follows the tradition of medieval sermons, in which the moral lesson is illustrated by an exemplum .

Schiller's advice that a narrator should describe not only a criminal's act but also his prior thoughts and feelings was best followed by Heinrich von Kleist in his story Michael Kohlhaas which appeared in 1810. In this story Kleist succeeded in depicting the psychological factors that changed a righteous man into the most terrifying man of his time. Kohlhaas, a sixteenth-century Brandenburg horse-dealer, is offended by a Saxon nobleman, Squire Wenzel von Tronka, who wrongfully detains two of his horses and then allows them to be maltreated and worked nearly to death in his own service. Righteously indignant, Kohlhaas seeks justice via all possible legal channels and finally, when it is refused, resorts to self-help by arming his employees and attacking and burning the Tronka castle. Discovering that the guilty party has escaped, he declares a feud against any individual or city that gives him refuge: and soon his band, reinforced by many adventurers, wages successful and destructive war against all the neighboring authorities. Martin Luther persuades the outlaw to submit his case to due process of law; but again justice is corrupted by Tronka's kinsmen, until finally the Elector of Brandenburg appeals to the Emperor and demands that a fair trial be given.

Kleist attributed Kohlhaas's actions to his love of justice, as one might expect in the early nineteenth century; for Kleist disregarded anachronisms, as one can see in Kohlhaas's use of paper money. Nevertheless, the older motivation occasionally shows through, especially in the action itself; and it is apparent that the historic Kohlhaas was fighting not so much to establish justice (das Recht) as to assert his own rights (sein Recht).l In the sixteenth century there was still no one recht for all men, but rather a special recht for each social order. As a free landholder, Kohlhaas has certain inherited privileges that the nobleman violates, and thus his honor as a free man is impugned. He writes to his wife that he has not been protected in his rights; and Luther sees that he has shed much blood because his prince has not defended his right. Although his sense of justice is often mentioned,2

1 The historical account given in C. Burkardt's Der historische Hans Kohlhase und Heinrich von Kleists Michael Kohlhaas, Leipzig, 1864, tells how Kohlhaas wished to defend his honor and good name, as became a man of honor (p. 22).

2 Michael Kohlhaas, pp. 1, 162, 180, 141, 147, 157.

Kohlhaas seems chiefly concerned with restoring his own prestige, or else he would have accepted compensation rather than insist that the nobleman fatten the starved horses himself. Like the ancient Germanic heroes of old, Kohlhaas was indignant in the sense that he felt his dignatio threatened.

An interesting motif, which is not found in Kleist's principal sources,l is the dishonorable status of the skinner. After the assault on the Tronka castle, one loses sight of the two horses that have caused the whole tragedy. Later it is discovered that, having little else but skin left on their bones, they had found their way to the skinner and have thus become just as "dishonorable" as he is. When a noble relative of the guilty squire, wishing to fatten the horses himself, orders his servant to lead the horses from the skinner, the servant prefers a blow from his master and summary dismissal, rather than a taint on his honor. Because the nobleman has tried to transgress the traditional tabu against the dishonorable skinner, he is set upon by the populace and severely beaten. Before his execution, Kohlhaas has the satisfaction of seeing his horses made "honorable" again by having a flag waved over their heads.2

1 No mention is made of the skinner in any of the chronicles reproduced by Rudolf Schlösser, Die Quellen zu Hr. v. Kleists Michael Kohlhaas, Bonn, 1913, or in C. A. H. Burkhardt, Der historische Hans Kohlhase, Leipzig, 1864.

2 Michael Kohlhaas, pp. 148, 197, 202, 246.

After Minna von Barnhelm, Emilia Galotti, and Criminal through Lost Honor, the next important German work consciously devoted to discussing honor was Kasperl and Annerl, a short-story or Novelle written by Clemens Brentano in 1817. This is a frame-story within a frame-story: the chief action is told by a man whom we shall call the narrator; and all preceding events are told by an aged peasant woman whom the narrator finds spending the night on the steps of the ducal palace in a small German city. When asked why she wishes to speak to the duke, the old woman tells a long story about her grandson, who was the unfortunate victim of an ex­aggerated sense of honor.

Her grandson, Kasperl, had always been deeply concerned with honor and had always enjoyed stories with honor as a theme. He was greatly impressed, for example, by the story of a French corporal who, when commanded to whip one of his soldiers, did so because it was his duty then shot himself with the soldier's gun to end his disgrace. Kasperl's father and brother, who lack honor, laugh at such stories; and the father, with Falstaffian scorn for that virtue, suggests that he eat his honor if he is hungry. Kasperl has so indoctrinated his sweetheart, Annerl, in his code of honor that she distinguishes herself in manner and appearance from the other village maids and is greatly offended if any young man tries to do anything that might hurt her good name.

After serving as a cavalryman for some time in France, Kasperl is promoted to corporal and requests a leave to return home to impress family and fiancée with his new honor. Because of his exceptional reliability, his superiors even lend him the horse assigned to him. On the last leg of the journey his horse developes a saddle sore. 'When a tavern-keeper says "it does a rider no honor" to ride a horse in that condition, Kasperl dismounts and leads the horse the rest of the way home. Consequently, he has to spend another night en route, namely at a mill not far from home. During the night robbers break into the mill and bind the miller, but Kasperl drives them off before they get the miller's money, but not before they have stolen his own horse and knapsack. When the miller offers to pay for the horse, Kasperl refuses on the grounds that it would be against his honor. He then proceeds home on foot without money or papers with which to prove that he has been honored with a promotion.

Reaching home, he discovers that his father and brother are the thieves who stole his horse and knapsack; and, upon discovering that he is the son of a dishonorable thief, he knows his honor is irretrievably gone. Although his father and brother beg him not to report them, his sense of honor and duty require him to sound the alarm. He then goes out and shoots himself on his mother's grave, leaving a letter stating that he could not survive his disgrace and requesting that he be given an honorable grave. He also asks Annerl never to marry a man worse than himself. Kasperl's sense of shame would have been even greater if he had known that Annerl was then awaiting execution for killing the baby she had borne after being led astray by the ambition (Ehrgeiz) he had inculcated in her. In her quest for prestige and status she had been seduced by a nobleman, who had promised marriage and told her that Kasperl had died in France. Deserted by her lover, she had killed his child and surrendered herself to justice without revealing the name of her seducer.

Learning that it is only an hour before the girl is to be executed, the narrator determines to wake the duke and ask for a pardon: but Ensign Grossinger, the captain of the guard, will not let him pass, since his honor is at stake. The word Ehre overwhelms the narrator, who, remembering Kasperl's and Annerl's honor, damns the sense of honor that has caused the tragedy. In spite of Gros­singer's attempt to interfere, the narrator gets the duke's attention and wins a pardon. He and Grossinger then rush at full gallop to the scaffold but arrive just after the sword has fallen. Grossinger confesses to being the seducer and is nearly killed by the crowd before being rescued by the duke. The duke reads Kasperl's testa­ment and orders that he and Annerl be given an honorable burial; and he further declares that Annerl has been pardoned and has died honorably. Later he commemorates the two victims of honor by erecting two statues representing false and true honor.

Although the duke's two statues represent true and false honor, Brentano has actually presented only false honor. Using Aristotelian terminology, one might argue that Kasperl's honor was a vice only because he had an excess of virtue; but it almost appears that honor is intrinsically bad, as it had been in monastic literature of past centuries. The old grandmother seems to express Brentano's true feelings when she says of Annerl, "If the child just hadn't always been chasing after honor but had only clung to God and had never let Him go in her plight and had borne shame and contempt (Schande und Verachtung) for His sake instead of the honor of men, the Lord would surely have had mercy on her."

The grandmother had already expressed this pious view more concisely by saying "Give honor to God alone," an admonition that served as the theme of Kasperl's and Annerl's funeral oration. 1 In spite of the old grandmother's disregard for worldly honor, she takes pride in her grandson's inordinate sense of honor; and she never stops requesting an honorable grave for her loved ones. The grand­mother once asks the narrator whether he has an honorable calling, or whether he might be a hangman or a spy; and this is the only allusion to the "dishonorable" professions.2

1 "Gib Gott allein die Ehre" (Kasperl und Annerl, p. 98); "Gebt Gott allein die Ehre" (p. 123). Cf. "Soli Deo honor et gloria in saecula" (1 Timothy, 1, 17).

2 "Er ist doch nicht etwa Henker oder Spion..." (Kasperl und Annerl, p.100).

Schiller's advice about portraying a criminal's motives as well as his deed was also heeded by the Westphalian authoress Annette von Droste-Hülshoff in her short story The Jews' Beechtree . This story, written in 1842, tells the fate of a village lad named Frederick Mergel, who, like Sonnenwirt, kills a man for taking his honor. Like

Sonnenwirt, Frederick has little honor to lose and therefore zealously guards what little he has. His father, a depraved drunk, had driven his first wife to her death and would have succeeded likewise with Frederick's long-suffering mother, if he had not died first in a drunken stupor. Before dying he had let the house and garden run down and the debts run up, and his widow inherited only bitter memories and pressing mortgages. Because of his violent and contentious nature, he was reported after death to have become an evil ghost that haunted the nearby forest. Thus little Frederick was persecuted first as the son of a drunken sot and then as the son of an evil spook.

Like Sonnenwirt, Frederick tries to offset his lowly status by dressing well, even though his mother is in rags. His craving for honor makes him brag and show off; and he makes every effort to avoid being shamed. Lacking true ambition, he works only as a cow-herd, a poorly paid position considered dishonorable for an adult; yet he can afford his pretences because his uncle pays him to keep watch and warn him and his notorious band of timber thieves when the foresters approach. On one occasion the uncle causes Frederick to become involved in the murder of a forester; but he shames his nephew into missing confession and overcoming his guilty conscience.

Frederick finds the greatest balm to his ego in patronizing and protecting Johannes Niemand (John Nobody), a nameless and slow-witted child who resembles him and is obviously the bastard son of Frederick's woodstealing uncle. It is this friendship that causes Frederick's downfall. There is a wedding in the village and, because many outside guests are expected, the villagers strive to uphold their community honor. In the midst of the festivities, while Frederick is dancing and acting ostentatiously, Johannes shames himself by trying to steal some butter. Feeling his dignity injured by his protégé's disgrace, Frederick tries to regain his status by showing off his gold watch, which is the envy of his colleagues. To his great humiliation, Aaron, a Jewish huckster, arrives at the wedding and demands payment for the watch; and Frederick leaves the party pursued by his creditor and by the laughter of the guests. Soon afterwards the Jew is found murdered in the forest, and it is discovered that Frederick and Johannes have disappeared. The local Jews buy the beech tree under which Aaron was murdered and carve into it a Hebrew inscription, a curse damning the murderer to die when he returns to the tree.

Twenty-eight years later Johannes returns to the village, broken in body and spirit from hard labor in Turkish slavery, which had begun within a year after he had run away with Frederick and joined the Austrian army. The lord of the manor, who had known him as a child, takes care of him and sees to his physical needs; yet the old derelict remains morose and forlorn. Eventually he disappears while on an errand, and extensive search fails to find him. Some days later his rotting body is found hanging to the Jews' beechtree, and only then do people realize that it is Frederick, not Johannes, who has returned.

Although Droste-Hülshoff does not explain it as such, her story discusses the conflict between shame culture and guilt culture. During his youth Frederick was free of any ideas of moral guilt or duty and was concerned only with his relative social status. This is understandable in view of his unfortunate heritage. When his father caused the death of his first wife, he sought solace in drink; but the authoress questions whether he was driven to it by remorse or by shame.1 Frederick learns religious and social prejudice even from his unhappy mother.2 As a result of his unwholesome background, he is frivolous, excitable, and arrogant; and he keeps up appearances to avoid censure and prefers inner shame to public disgrace.3 His touchy sense of honor makes him act aggressively toward other people's disapproval,4 as when his dignity is injured by Johannes's theft of the butter. It is no wonder that Aaron's accusation is an unbearable ignominy that causes him to commit murder.

Although Frederick had been morally delinquent in his youth, his terrible ordeal in Turkey made him recognize his guilt. Perhaps his long slavery made him forget how to feel shame or to desire honor. Perhaps his long suffering in life made him fear even greater suffering after death. Perhaps his isolation among heathens made him long for the comfort of his own religion. In any case, he did not consider more than a quarter century of back-breaking and de­forming labor sufficient expiation for his crime.

1 "Ob nun den Mergel Reue qüalte oder Scham... (Judenbuche, p. 7).

2 'When Frederick tells his mother that a neighbor named Hülsmeyer has beaten and robbed Aaron, she says that Hülsmeyer is a man of established residence (angesessener Mann, cf. angesessene, unverdächtige Leute, p. 30) and that all Jews are rascals (die Juden sind alle Schelme). She also explains that it is all right to steal wood and game from the forest (p. 11).

3 "... während in Friedrichs Zügen der Wechsel eines offen bar mehr selb­stischen als gutmütigen Mitgefühls spielte und sein Auge in fast glasartiger Klarheit zum erstenmale bestimmt den Ausdruck jenes ungebändigten Ehrgeizes und Hanges zum Grosstun zeigte, der nachher als so starkes Motiv seiner meisten Handlungen hervortrat" (p. 18). "er gewöhnte sich, die innere Schande der äusseren vorzuziehen" (p. 33).

4 "und da ein sehr empfindliches Ehrgefühl ihn die geheime Missbilligung mancher nicht übersehen liess, war er gleichsam immer unter Waffen, der öffentlichen Meinung nicht sowohl Trotz zu bieten, als sie den Weg zu leiten, der ihm gefiel" (p. 33).

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