Free Market

Goethe on National Greatness

The Free Market

The Free Market 17, no. 10 (October 1999)


This year marks the 250th birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest of all German writers and poets and one of the giants of world literature. In his political outlook, he was also a thorough-going classical liberal, arguing that free trade and free cultural exchange are the keys to authentic national and international integration. He argued and fought against the expansion, centralization, and unification of government on grounds that these trends can only hinder prosperity and true cultural development.

Born in 1749 in the free imperial city of Frankfurt am Main into an upper middle-class family, Goethe studied law in Leipzig and Strassburg. However, upon receiving his doctorate and practicing briefly as a lawyer, he set out on a career that can only be characterized as a spectacular success. A poet, dramatist, novelist, lyricist, artist, and critic of architecture, art, literature, music, and nature; a natural scientist and a student of anatomy, botany, morphology, and optics, Goethe to this day, at least for Germans, defines the meaning of genius, with an oeuvre encompassing more than sixty volumes.

In 1775, at the invitation of Duke Carl August von Saxe-Weimar, Goethe visited Weimar and took up residence there until his death in 1832, interrupted by frequent and extended travels all across Germany, to Switzerland, Italy, and France. It was surely during these travels that he developed his liberal political position.

From 1648 until the Napoleonic wars, Germany consisted of some 234 countries, 51 free cities, and about 1,500 independent knightly manors. Of this multitude of independent political units, only Austria counted as a great power, and only Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Hannover could be considered major political players. Saxe-Weimar was one of the smaller and poorer countries, encompassing just a few dozen villages and small towns.

As a result of the Vienna Congress of 1815 following Napoleon's defeat, the number of independent political territories was reduced to thirty-nine. Owing to the family relationship of its ruling house with the Russian dynasty, Saxe-Weimar grew by about one third of its former size (to a size slightly larger than that of Rhode Island) and became the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Still, it remained one of Germany's smaller, poorer, and politically less significant countries.

Its capital, Weimar, was a small town of less than 6,000 inhabitants when Goethe moved there, and even at the time of his death in 1832 it had only grown to 10,000. Goethe had come to Weimar as Carl-August's favorite, and he continued in the role of Carl-August's closest personal advisor until the Duke's death in 1828. Carl-August and Goethe rode, hunted, and caroused together, and in the year following his arrival in Weimar, Goethe was appointed by Carl-August to his four-member Privy Council, becoming his second most highly paid servant (with a rather modest salary of 1,200 Taler per annum).

At the behest of Carl-August, Goethe was ennobled by the Emperor Joseph II. At various times, Goethe's duties as a member of the Privy Council involved the supervision of the Duchy's six-hundred- strong army (he reduced its size to 293), the construction of its roads and mines, the management of its finances (he cut taxes), the operation of the court theater, and the oversight of its nearby University of Jena, which at that time included among its faculty Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Schiller, Humboldt, and the brothers Schlegel.

Already acclaimed throughout Germany when he settled in Weimar, Goethe's fame grew immensely in the following years. Whether it was on his travels or in Weimar, nearly everyone sought his companionship, from Johann Gottfried Herder, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Madame de Stael, Friedrich von Schiller, Felix Mendelssohn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Freiherr vom Stein, and Empress Maria Ludovica of Austria, to Napoleon. Indeed, by the last decade of Goethe's life, he and Weimar had become synonymous with German culture, and Weimar and the Goethe residence became the objects of veritable pilgrimages by members of the German Bildungsbürgertum (the educated bourgeoisie).

It was during this last phase of his life when Goethe, in a conversation recorded by one of his devotees, Johann Peter Eckermann, made the following remarks concerning the relationship between political particularism (Kleinstaaterei) and culture. At the time these remarks were made, on October 23, 1828, Germany had become increasingly affected by democratic and nationalistic sentiments as a result of the French Revolution and the following Napoleonic era. Most of the German liberals had become democrats and advocates of a unified German nation state.

As a liberal, Goethe, wisely and with remarkable prescience, stood largely alone in firm opposition to this transformation of the liberal creed. In his view, mass democracy was incompatible with liberty. "Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time," he wrote in his Maximen und Reflexionen, "are either psychopaths or mountebanks." And political centralization, as Goethe explained in his conversation with Eckermann, would lead to the destruction of all culture:

"I do not fear that Germany will not be united; our excellent streets and future railroads will do their own. Germany is united in her patriotism and opposition to external enemies. She is united, because the German Taler and Groschen have the same value throughout the entire Empire, and because my suitcase can pass through all thirty-six states without being opened. It is united, because the municipal travel documents of a resident of Weimar are accepted everywhere on a par with the passports of the citizens of her mighty foreign neighbors. With regard to the German states, there is no longer any talk of domestic and foreign lands. Further, Germany is united in the areas of weights and measures, trade and migration, and a hundred similar things which I neither can nor wish to mention.

"One is mistaken, however, if one thinks that Germany's unity should be expressed in the form of one large capital city, and that this great city might benefit the masses in the same way that it might benefit the development of a few outstanding individuals.

"To be sure, the state has been compared to a living body with many parts, and a state's capital thus might be compared to the heart, which supports the life and well-being of its near and distant parts. If the parts are very far from the heart, however, the flow of life will become weaker and weaker. A thoughtful Frenchman, I believe Daupin, has drawn up a map regarding the state of culture in France, indicating the higher or lower level of enlightenment of its various 'Departements' by lighter or darker colors. There we find, especially in the southern provinces, far away from the capital, some `Departements' painted entirely in black, indicating a complete cultural darkness. Would this be the case if the beautiful France had ten centers, instead of just one, from which light and life radiated?

"What makes Germany great is her admirable popular culture, which has penetrated all parts of the Empire evenly. And is it not the many different princely residences from whence this culture springs and which are its bearers and curators? Just assume that for centuries only the two capitals of Vienna and Berlin had existed in Germany, or even only a single one. Then, I am wondering, what would have happened to the German culture and the widespread prosperity that goes hand in hand with culture.

"Germany has twenty universities strewn out across the entire Empire, more than one hundred public libraries, and a similar number of art collections and natural museums; for every prince wanted to attract such beauty and good. Gymnasia, and technical and industrial schools exist in abundance; indeed, there is hardly a German village without its own school. How is it in this regard in France!

"Furthermore, look at the number of German theaters, which exceeds seventy, and which cannot be disregarded as bearers and promoters of higher public education. The appreciation of music and song and their performance is nowhere as prevalent as in Germany, and that counts for something, too.

"Then think about cities such as Dresden, Munich, Stuttgart, Kassel, Braunschweig, Hannover, and similar ones; think about the energy that these cities represent; think about the effect they have on neighboring provinces, and ask yourself, if all of this would exist if such cities had not been the residences of princes for a long time.

"Frankfurt, Bremen, Hamburg, Luebeck are large and brilliant, and their impact on the prosperity of Germany is incalculable. Yet, would they remain what they are if they were to lose their independence and be incorporated as provincial cities into one great German Empire? I have reason to doubt this."

As highly as Germans revered Goethe as a national hero, they did not heed his advice at the end of the Cold War. Nor have most people in Europe paid heed to his warnings on the dangers of political centralization. Pertinent today as they were when written, Goethe's insights regarding the social and political foundations of culture still demand our attention.


Hans-Hermann Hoppe is professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. "Goethe on National Greatness." The Free Market 17, no. 10 (October 1999).

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