"Peace to the hovels! Death to the palaces!" (Büchner)
Hugh Rank writes on Georg Büchner and Danton's Death
Karl Georg Büchner was born at Goddelau, a village near Darmstadt in the Grand Duchy of Hesse, on 17 October 1813, into a medical family of long tradition, the oldest of six children, one of whom — Ludwig — became the world famous author of the materialistic Kraft und Stoff (Strength and Matter). When Georg was three years old the family moved to Darmstadt where he spent a happy childhood, influenced by the energy and scientific precision of his father and by his mother's love of poetry, fairy tales and Volkslieder. He was an undistinguished pupil, the natural sciences being his main interest. At the age of 14 to 15 he wrote some imitative poetry, but nothing to suggest his later genius. The educational system stifled him: "Oh for something alive! What's the good of this deadwood!" he wrote in one of his schoolbooks. His burgeoning preoccupation with the ideal of freedom broke through in an essay in 1830, the year of the July revolution, where the 16-year-old referred to the French Revolution as the "just war of extirpation revenging the abominations which infamous despots have inflicted on suffering mankind for centuries".
Six months after leaving school he began his medical studies at Strassburg, then a French city, where he made many friends and led a very active social life. He fell in love with Wilhelmine (Minna) Jaegle, daughter of his clergyman-landlord. During his two happy years in Strassburg (1831 to 33) he became secretly engaged to Minna who remained the only woman in his life and, after his premature death, stayed single.
In April 1833 an abortive coup took place in Frankfurt on Maine with which Büchner was in entire sympathy, being convinced that only force could advance the progressive cause. The spark that had been ignited in Frankfurt was nurtured in Giessen, the small university town where Büchner was obliged to complete his studies in order to qualify as a doctor. He tried to assuage the anxieties of his father, a staunch monarchist, who feared Georg would become involved in revolutionary activities in Giessen; a fear that proved only too justified in spite of Georg's soothing words. After the freedom and colour of Strassburg, Büchner felt very hamstrung and frustrated at Giessen. To shut out the prevailing social and political conditions he "read medicine by day and history and philosophy by night". Due to illness, probably of a psychosomatic nature, he went home to Darmstadt in November 1833 from where he wrote to a friend: "The political state of affairs drives me mad. The poor people patiently pull the cart on top of which the princes and the educated act out their bizarre comedy."
Büchner suffered greatly. Prevailing conditions among the peasantry were shocking indeed. Absolutism was still in full swing, in spite of promises of constitutional reform made earlier. Hunger was rife. The peasants received less and less for their corn while taxation was steadily rising. Local rebellions were brutally put down by the military: "With their drums the soldiers drown the sound of your sighs, with their rifle butts they smash your skulls. ..They are the lawful murderers who protect the lawful robbers" (Büchner). Emigration depended on the permission of the Grand Duke. Luckily for many, Hesse was surrounded by no less than ten separate German yet "foreign" states so that escape was not too difficult.
On his early return to Giessen Büchner was introduced to Ludwig Weidig, an active progressive, but also a devout Christian, a concept for which the atheistic Büchner had no sympathy. However, a secret printing press which Weidig owned proved an irresistible attraction for Büchner in his passionate attempt to bring about a revolution "from below" which he thought could be best advanced by pamphleteering among the peasantry. In March 1834 he wrote Der Hessische Landbote (The Hesse Country Messenger), a brilliant pamphlet in bold, impassioned but simple language, aimed at the peasantry, which opened with the inflammatory words: "Peace to the hovels! Death to the palaces!" The campaign failed: the peasants were too frightened to hold on to the pamphlets and handed them over to the police, for penalties for subversive activities often led to ruin. Büchner's room was searched in his absence and he narrowly escaped arrest. In addition to the "high treason" of the Messenger; Büchner founded in the same month the Society for Human Rights: in semi-feudal Giessen, a very dangerous conspiratorial enterprise and bound to fail. Deeply disappointed, Büchner returned home, not without having arrived at some realistic evaluation of the peasantry, their "vile mentality" and their exclusive concern for the "money bag."
Back in Darmstadt, he wrote Dantons Death under great pressure in less than five weeks while he was under close police surveillance for his political activities. He wrote it in haste and secrecy, his dissection table serving him as a writing desk, which he quickly covered with medical papers in order to hide the manuscript from his father. On completion in February 1835 he sent it to the well-known litterateur Karl Gutzkow, who immediately recognised Büchner's genius and arranged publication as early as July 1835, although for fear of censorship, in a bowdlerised version. Dantons Death is Büchner's only work that was published in his life time.
Whilst writing it, he had repeatedly to appear as a "witness" before the police, a sign of mounting political danger. Rather than face auest, he fled to Strassburg (9 March 1835). On 13 June the Darmstadt police issued a warrant for his arrest and from then on he was in constant danger of being forced back to Germany. He lived on the proceeds from the translation of two plays by Victor Hugo and some financial support from his father, who was deeply worried at the direction which his son had taken. In the autumn of 1835 Büchner wrote his (fragmentary) novel Lenz and in the winter the scientist came to the fore again: he investigated the nervous system offish, on which subject he delivered a series of three lectures at the Association of Natural Sciences in Strassburg. For these he was awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy by the University of Zurich where he moved in October 1836 to take up an appointment as a Privatdozent (unestablished University lecturer). In November he lectured On the Nerves of the Cranium.
In the spring of 1836 he had written his fairy-tale play Leonce and Lena, to be followed in the winter months by the composition of Woyzeck (which remained unfinished and upon which Alban Berg based his opera Wozzeck).
On 27 January 1837 he wrote a happy letter to Minna:
He died the following day, 19 February 1837, aged 23 years and four months: youngest of immortals.
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