The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


We have as many kinds of honor as social classes. - SUDERMANN, Die Ehre, II, 11

Perhaps the most popular German drama concerning honor was Hermann Sudermann's Die Ehre of 1889, which was first written as a tragedy but later acquired a happy ending. When the play opens, Robert Heinecke has just returned from the East Indies to visit his family, who live in quarters provided them by a wealthy manufacturer named Mühlingk in the rear of his own mansion. Many years earlier Robert's father had been injured at a festival cele­brating the manufacturer's new rank of Commercial Counselor; and Mühlingk, in a public display of generosity, had promised to pension the worker and educate his son. After an apprenticeship in Hamburg, Robert had been sent to the Mühlingk factorage in the Indies, where he performed his duties with grateful diligence for nine years. During his long association with gentlemen, Robert acquired ideas of honor and human dignity quite foreign to his parents, as he discovered soon after returning home.

Because of their humble origins and financial insecurity, his parents are more concerned with material gain than with spiritual values; and Robert soon realizes that he can no longer communicate with them. He is shocked by their subservience and their willingness to accept any charity, even leftovers brought by the servant from the "front-house". Whereas he can pardon them their ignorance and ungrammatical speech, he resents the stuffed furniture and other gifts from their benefactors in the front-house. He has been sending an allowance to enable his dear sister Alma to study accounting; yet he finds that she is studying voice in the city, where she often spends the night with her older sister Auguste. Robert quickly sees that his little sister has become worldly and frivolous and is leading a life incompatible with his sense of honor. Count von Trask, Robert's best friend in the Indies, arrives and tries to persuade him to leave with him; but Robert replies he must remain behind and protect his sister's honor. It is not long before he realizes the terrible truth that Alma has become the mistress of Mühlingk's wastrel son Kurt and that his own sister Auguste has acted as paid procuress while their parents connived at the whole affair. As soon as he has gathered enough evidence, Robert goes to Kurt to demand satisfaction, by which he means either marriage or a duel. Meanwhile he has to protect his fallen sister from her hypocritical father, who now wants to curse her to prove himself a man of honor, and from her mother, who wants to punish her by treating her as a servant. Alma, who feigns penitence, declares she is ready to reform herself on the next day... but not today, because she still wants to go to the masked ball tonight. . .

Realizing his sister is hopelessly corrupted, Robert leaves the room and does not hear Mühlingk come to give satisfaction, in the form of a check for fifty-thousand marks, half to be a dowry for Alma and the rest to go to the parents. The family is so overjoyed by the sum that Mühlingk retracts and offers forty thousand, which they accept just as readily. When Robert rejoins the family, he finds them happily reconciled with their wayward daughter and drinking toasts to the Mühlingk. He is appalled to learn that they have accepted the payment for their daughter's honor; whereas one is not to blame if his honor is taken from him, he is to blame if he willingly sells it. In spite of Robert's eloquent lecture on honor and his promise to support them the rest of their lives, his greedy and shameless parents refuse to return the check, and thus they give further evidence that he and they speak two different languages.

When Robert goes to the front-house to settle business accounts, Trask goes along to restrain him from violence, having seen him take a revolver. While Robert is in the office, Trask tries to prevent him from meeting Kurt, even to the extent of distracting Kurt by attempting to involve him in a duel. In showing his ledgers, Robert is able to prove that he alone saved the Mühlingk investments; and then he returns a check for forty thousand marks to vindicate his family's honor. At this point a tragedy almost occurs; Kurt suggests that perhaps Robert has stolen the money from the Mühlingk accounts, and Robert attacks him, revolver in hand, and almost kills him, as he actually did until the plot was changed during rehearsals. Peace is restored. Mühlingk's virtuous daughter Lenore, Robert's childhood friend, declares her love for him, and Trask announces that Robert will be his associate and heir. Robert and Lenore look forward to building a new home, a new duty, and a new honor abroad.

Modern critics wonder why Sudermann's play was so sensationally successful, since neither its form nor its content was original. In general it employed traditional dramatic techniques, with a fair dose of realism, which was then the vogue. Even the attitudes toward honor were not particularly revolutionary; most of them had been expressed by Schopenhauer, to say nothing of ancient writers. Even Count von Trask, with his ideas on the relativity of honor, was not a new creation, having been based on Prosper Courament, the eccentric traveler in Victorien Sardou's Les Pattes de Mouche of 1860, which was popular on German stages under the title Der letzte Brief .

At first glance this play seems to be one of social protest, like Schiller's Love and Intrigue . In it too we find poor people oppressed by the rich, and in the next to last scene Robert lectures against the wealthy classes who seduce the sisters and daughters of the poor and then compensate them for their disgrace with money earned for them by the poor. Actually, this is not the chief argument, in fact it almost runs counter to the main argument, namely, that honor is a relative thing.

Count Trask, the deus ex machina of the play, was once a carefree young cavalry officer who gambled away in one evening a fortune he did not own. When he was dismissed from his regiment, his friends brought him a loaded and cocked pistol to help him end his shame, as any man of honor was expected to do. Upon feeling the barrel against his temple, he realized the stupidity of the custom and went abroad to earn money to repay his debts. By the time the play begins, he has learned that true honor is not public esteem but faithful performance of duty, as Cicero could have told him two millennia earlier.

Because of his financial power and inner resources, Trask can ignore other people's opinions and even ridicule their outmoded concepts of honor, particularly in regard to duels, which he questions as much as Lenore does. In answering Lothar Brandt, a young reserve officer who champions the prevailing military-aristocratic concept of honor, Trask claims that there is no honor. "What we generally call honor," he says "is nothing more than the shadow that we cast when the sun of public esteem shines on us. But the worst of it all is that we have as many different kinds of honor as social groups and strata.. ."1

1 "Was wir gemeinhin Ehre nennen, das ist wohl nichts weiter, als der Schatten, den wir werfen, wenn die Sonne der öffentlichen Achtung uns bescheint. - Aber das Schlimmste bei allem ist, dass wir so viel verschiedene Sorten von 'Ehre' besitzen als gesellschaftliche Kreise und Schichten" (Die Ehre, II, 11). When von Trask says that honor is a shadow, he is echoing both Cicero and Seneca. Cf. "Gloria virtutem tamquam umbra sequitur" (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, I, 45, 110); "Gloria umbra virtutis est" (Seneca, Epistle to Lucilius, 79, 13); and "Yf as the shadow followeth the body so prayse and reverence followeth him, then he ys called honorable" (Ashley, Of Honour, p. 34). The relativistic view on honor was censured in the German parliament in 1896 by Deputy Lenzmann: "Ich kann nicht zugeben, dass der Offiziersstand eine besondere Ehre habe, der Begriff Ehre ist ein absoluter, keiner Steigerung fähiger, die Ehre des Arbeiters, Handwerkers, Kauf­mannes, Juristen ist dieselbe wie die des Offiziers." (cited from Lipperheide, p.134).

When Lothar objects sharply that there is only one honor, just as there is only one sun or one God, Trask illustrates his argument with an experience he once had in Central Asia, where he inad­vertently impugned the honor of his noble host by refusing to sleep with his wife. He then goes on to argue that honor, as it is generally understood, is a luxury permitted only to the privileged few and not readily accorded to even the most virtuous "rear-house" dweller, by which he is of course referring to his friend Robert.1

Trask's next illustration is even more to the point, and more of a warning. He tells of a mestizo who, returning to his South American home after many years in Spain, finds his sister involved with a young gentleman. Because he has imbibed the honor code of the hidalgos, he is unable to realize that such a liaison is the normal relationship between Spanish aristocrats and their mixed-breed inferiors; and he therefore demands satisfaction. Satisfaction being refused him, he shoots the aristocrat and is executed, maintaining to the end that he has defended his honor. Robert, who arrives in time to hear the story, asserts that the mestizo was right and that he would have done the same thing himself. Fortunately he does not yet know that Kurt has seduced Alma. When Lothar then asks Trask what men of honor should put in honor's place after he has removed it from the world, Trask suggests that duty would be a good substitute.2

1 "sie ist ein Luxusgefühl, das in demselben Masse an Wert verliert, in dem der Pöbel wagt, es sich anzueignen" - "Es ist doch jedem erlaubt, ein Mann von Ehre zu sein?" - "Im Gegenteil. Dann könnte ja der erstbeste arme Teufel aus dem Hinterhause kommen und die Kavaliersehre für sich bean­spruchen” (Die Ehre, II, 11).

2 (Die Ehre . IV, 2). A few years later Otto von Leixner repeated this thought, as: "Deine echte innere Ehre ist unverletzbar. Will einer dich in ihr beleidigen so kannst du ruhig lächeln. Befleckt werden kann nur die äussere. bürgerliche Ehren (cited from Lipperheide, p. 134).

Later, when Robert goes to the Mühlingk house to demand satisfaction for his lost honor, Trask tries to convince him that he cannot have lost his honor, since no one in the world can take away another man's honor. He says, "What you call your honor, this mixture of shame or tact or integrity and pride, that which you have acquired through a life of good breeding and strict sense of duty can't be taken from you by any rascally deed any more than the goodness of your heart or your power of judgment. Either it is a piece of you, or it is nothing... You have nothing in common with that kind of honor that can be destroyed by the carelessly thrown glove of just any fashionable rowdy. That's only good as a mirror for fops, a toy for idlers, and a perfume for reprobates."1

Trask then defends Robert's family, saying that he should not expect them to understand or feel all the sentiments and values he has acquired during nine years of association with gentlemen. Whereas the honor of the front-house can perhaps be paid for in blood, the honor of the rear-house is better restored with a small capital. Even Robert's sister is actually better off in her marriage market with a dowry than she would be with her virginity.2 Having lost his "honor" a full quarter of a century earlier, Trask is able to theorize objectively on the subject; and he clearly sees that inner integrity is of more value than public esteem. As a result he uses the word Ehre only in a moral sense, except when purposely paro­dying the champions of the other code. Robert, who is just as moral and righteous as he, is confused on the point, just as Major von Tellheim had been. Consequently he uses Ehre almost exclusively in its objective sense, for example, when he tells Trask that it would be better for Lenore to remember him as the slayer of her brother than as a man without honor or when he asks Trask if a word of honor is not valid between two men without honor.3 Fortunately Trask is able to clarify his thinking, just as Minna did for Tellheim; and Robert can renounce revenge and thus be worthy of Lenore, who has also been estranged from her family by her more advanced ideas on honor.

1 "Deine Ehre hat niemand angetastet... Weil niemand auf der Welt dazu im stande ist.. .. Das, was du deine Ehre nennst, dieses Gemisch aus - Scham, aus - Taktgefühl, aus - Rechtlichkeit und Stolz, das, was du dir durch ein Leben voll guter Gesittung und strenger Pflichttreue anerzogen hast, kann dir durch eine Bubentat ebensowenig genommen werden, wie etwa deine Herzensgüte oder deine Urteilskraft. Entweder sie ist ein Stück von dir selbst, oder sie ist gar nicht. .. Mit jener Sorte von Ehre, die schon der lässig geworfene Handschuh irgend eines fashionablen Rowdys zu zerschmettern vermag, hast du nichts gemein... die ist gerade gut als Spiegel für die Laffen, als Spielzeug für die Müssigänger und als Parfüm für die Anrüchigen" (Die Ehre, IV, 2).

2 Die Ehre, IV, 2.

3 "Besser, als class sie an einen Ehrlosen denkt!" (Die Ehre, IV, 2); "Soli ein Ehrenwort zwischen uns Ehrlosen keine Geltung haben?" (IV, 3).

Whereas Sudermann devotes his argument chiefly to combating outmoded views about duels and vicarious sexual dishonor, he also attacks the validity of "debts of honor". As we have seen, Tacitus mentioned the Teutons' strange obsession with paying gambling debts, even to the extent of sacrificing wives, children, and personal liberty. What Tacitus termed tides, later generations called the "debt of honor", as if honor did not require one to pay any other debts. Perhaps gambling debts remained in honor's bailiwick merely because they were not guaranteed by law or contract. Made sociably and often spurred on by pride and alcohol, they were seldom reinforced by written pledges; and therefore only the danger of losing status could make a man honor his promises or take his life in default thereof. Sudermann shows that it was morally better for Trask to refuse to take his life, in spite of his default, and thus be able to pay back his debts.

When Lothar Brandt asks von Trask what he would put in the place of honor, von Trask says he would put duty. The late nine­teenth century had another surrogate for individual personal honor, namely national honor. When the ,Stoic view had finally undermined individual pride and superiority as virtuous goals, people could still strive for these goals by associating themselves with a larger entity such as their nation; because this un-Christian ambition then became confused with performance of duty. This peculiar reasoning can be seen in the present day sense of sportsman­ship. It is considered bad taste today for an athlete to boast of his own ability or to bet on his own victory; yet he is still permitted to boast about his team and to bet on its success. Whereas most Englishmen can engage in sports for the love of the game, most Germans, like other Europeans and Americans, usually play through a will to superiority. This generalization is indicated in America by the fact that the games imported from England, such as golf and tennis, are more gentlemanly than home-grown sports like baseball and football. It would be in poor taste to boo the putter or throw beer bottles at the server, nor would it be in order to hold a victory rally before a golf or tennis tournament. Whereas Germans do not go to such excesses as Americans, they often show injured pride when defeated. In comparison with their British counterparts, German individuals and teams often give an excuse for losing.

The virtues and vices of team-spirit reach their peak in nationalism. Naturally the Germans had little nationalism as long as they had no true nation; yet some thirteenth-century poets like Walther expressed pride in lands of the German tongue, and men like Celtis and Hutten revived such sentiments in the period of humanism and Reformation.l National pride in Germany was usually defensive: poets merely seemed to deny that they were ashamed of their country. Because Italian and French poets praised their fatherlands, the German poets felt compelled to do so too. The Holy Roman Empire was too intangible to love, and the territorial divisions were even less lovable, it being difficult to feel great ardor for a myriad of haphazardly scattered pieces of real estate fortuitously joined by the wars and marriages of some successful but not necessarily admirable dynasty. At best one could feel a devotion to his feudal lord.

1 The best expression of Walther's patriotism is in his song beginning, "I have seen many lands" (Walther, 56,30 - 57,14). For Conrad Celtis as a patriot, see L. W. Spitz, Conrad Celtis, Cambridge, 1957, pp. 93-105.


Long before they had a real nation of their own, the Germans yearned for a sense of national pride and honor, which they were quick to admire in other more fortunate lands. Schiller expressed this ideal in his Maid of Orleans with the words, "Unworthy is the nation that does not gladly risk its all for its honor."1 This senti­ment, which he expressed in 1799, was probably inspired by the patriotism then evident in the new French republic. During the wars of liberation against Napoleon a spate of patriotic songs and poems appeared in Germany and contributed greatly to the liberation and eventual unification of the country. Perhaps Germany's best known song of patriotism, or at least of military devotion, was Heinrich Heine's "The Two Grenadiers", which, ironically enough, glorifies two French soldiers.

1 "Nichtswürdig ist die Nation, die nicht Ihr Alles freudig setzt an ihre Ehre" (Die Jungfrau von Orléans, I, 5, vv. 847-848).

National honor in Germany was largely borrowed from the French concept of gloire, a human delusion that justified any injustice. Aggression and oppression, which are crimes when committed by an individual, become glorious deeds when perpetrated in the name of the fatherland. As an American later expressed this primitive in-group loyalty, "My country - right or wrong." It was poetic justice that France's apotheosis of national glory backfired by spreading to Germany and uniting the various German states in 1870. After 1871, nationalism took on new meaning for the Germans; yet it still meant little to many great thinkers like Nietzsche. On the other hand, it filled a need for those whose Christian - Stoic training inhibited their innate drive for self-aggrandizement and for those petty people who basked in national honor because they could not achieve honor on their own individual merits. National honor, in the primitive sense, became completely dishonorable, in the Christian-Stoic sense, when associated with unscientific racial theories and mystic concepts of blood and soil. During the National Socialist regime there was a conscious attempt to restrict honor to the tribal community, as it had been before the advent of St. Boniface.

In his sarcastic tirade against dueling, Schopenhauer wrote something which very likely bore the germ of Lieutenant Gustl, an amusing tale written a half century later by the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler. Concerning the "point of honor" the pessimistic philosopher remarked, "How wicked the tyranny of that state within a state and how great the power of that superstition is can be judged by the fact that people have often taken their lives, and thus found a tragi-comic end, out of despair at being unable to restore their injured chivalrous honor because their offender was socially too high or too low or otherwise unqualified."1 During the first year of this century, Schnitzler wrote a satire describing the dilem­ma of such a man of honor, but without a fatal outcome.

This story, an early example of the "stream of consciousness" technique, takes place entirely in the head of Lieutenant Gustl, a conceited and superficial young Austrian officer; for the outside events of the story are revealed only as they are perceived, remembered, or cogitated by the hero. When the story opens, Gustl is waiting impatiently for the end of a choral recital, which he is attending only because a colleague has given him the ticket and because his current girl friend is spending the evening with a wealthier rival. Instead of listening to the music, which he cannot appreciate, he reflects about past and future erotic conquests and about the saber duel he is to have the next day with a doctor by whom he feels insulted. When the performance is at last over, he hurries to get his coat from the cloakroom and thoughtlessly pushes into an older civilian, who is patiently awaiting his turn. An altercation ensues and Gustl speaks rudely to the civilian, who is a master baker. Instead of creating a scene, the baker inconspicuously grasps Gustl's saber hilt and tells him to keep quiet if he does not want his saber shattered and the pieces sent to his regimental commander. Unable to budge the hand of his muscular opponent, Gustl has to submit to the affront until the baker, not wishing to ruin his career, takes a respectful leave as if they had just had a most cordial meeting.

Although the baker has made it quite clear that he intends to keep the insult a secret, Gustl fears he will report it. Leaving the theater in a daze, he wanders for hours while reliving the insult and much of his previous life. He realizes that he will have to resign his commission in disgrace (mit Schimpf und Schande) if the colonel ever hears of his humiliation. For a moment he reminds himself that this is nonsense, because no one knows of the affair. Then his nobler nature shows itself and he reflects, "Holy Heavens! It is all the same whether or not anyone else knows it. I know it, and that is the main thing!"2 And thus he spends the entire night vacillating between inner shame and fear that people will learn of his dishonor, in which case he will no longer be satisfaktionsfähig for the doctor. "Honor lost, everything lost," he says,3 and therefore he resolves that he must take his life.

Except for a nap on a bench, he spends the whole night walking through the park, his brain fermenting with self-pity, gallows ­humor, vanity, self-debasement, and self-justification, with oc­casional reminiscences of glamorous or sordid love affairs. Because of his frivolous values, the reader is never really convinced that he will take his life. The next morning, when he goes to his favorite restaurant to eat his hangman's meal, he learns that the baker has dropped dead of a heart attack on his way home from the theater, without having breathed a word about the affair. Relieved of all his inner moral qualms, the punctilious young officer eats heartily and makes plans for his afternoon bout with the doctor.

1 "Wie arg die Tyrannei jenes Staates im Staat und wie gross die Macht jenes Aberglaubens sei, lässt sich daran ermessen, class schon öfter Leute, denen die Wiederherstellung ihrer verwundeten ritterlichen Ehre, wegen zu hohen oder zu niedrigen Standes, oder sonst unangemessener Beschaffenheit des Beleidigers unmöglich war, aus Verzweiflung darüber sich selbst das Leben genommen und so ein tragikomisches Ende gefunden haben" (Schopenhauer, IV, pp. 427-428).

2 "Heiliger Himmel, es ist doch ganz egal, ob ein anderer was weiss!... ich weiss es doch, und das ist die Hauptsache" (Leutnant Gustl, p. 274). Cf. "nihil differt, si nemo videat, cum ipse illos videas" (St. Martin, Formula, 4,53).

3 "Ehre verloren, alles verloren" (Leutnant Gustl, p. 278).

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