SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
A little more than thirty years ago, I went to a school run by the military. It was a suffocating place. The school stood within the distance of a rifle shot from the great Baroque palace at Ludwigsburg, built by the autocratic rulers of the duchy of Württemberg as a scaled down version of the French court of Versailles. The Ludwigsburg Schloß was massive and its formal French gardens seem almost endless.
And two hundred years earlier there was another military school in the shadow of the castle, run and named for Duke Karl Eugen, the Karlsschule. The duke brought many of the most promising children of his little realm there to train them for his service, and the school was run with stark military discipline. He presented himself as a harsh father-figure to the students, demanding absolute and unquestioning obedience from them. And what did it mean to serve this sovereign? Karl Eugen maintained a fine army, and he saw it less as a way of keeping his little duchy free and secure and more as a means of making money. He sold his soldiers into mercenary service under his “cousin,” King George III. They traveled across the ocean to fight the colonists in America. And for Karl Eugen, this was an investment in the future, for he saw no menace in the world quite so severe as the notion of the American yeomen rising against their lord and master.
One of the young students was the son of the great eighteenth century poet Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, who then earned his bread as an organist in a near-by church. Schubart was, however, something of a free spirit, and Lutheran church music was not his thing. Parishoners were soon complaining–he had taken to punctuating the church services with passages from Rameau’s operas in the style gallant, the music of the Enlightenment. Schubart found the entire environment oppressive, and he was deeply troubled by what he saw happening at the school. The duke was taking free spirits and breaking them. He made slaves of free men; he was an oppressor. Schubart left and began to publish a newspaper, one of the region’s first, and he began to pursue exposé journalism. And at the same time, his poetry took an increasingly sharp edge. “When Dionysius of Syracuse ceased to be a tyrant/He took up running a military school,” he wrote.
Karl Eugen flew into a rage. He lured Schubart back for a visit with false promises and assurances, and as soon as he was on the duchy’s soil, had him arrested and thrown in the prison at Hohenasperg. There were no charges, nor a trial, nor a dream of habeas corpus. The autocrat’s whim was sufficient and complete. And for Schubart there was no hope. In September 1783, he wrote his wife:
I have been damned to spend my life in misery, as a sacrificial lamb for all of you. My sole consolation lies in the absolute conviction that I did nothing to earn this fate. As of today I have suffered 2,426 days in this dungeon. What did I do to deserve this?
But among the students in the Karlsschule, many followed the fate of Schubart with concern. He was a figure of nobility and respect for them, and his willingness to speak truth to power—to use his poetic talent to openly label a tyrant as a tyrant—was a heroic act.
One of the students, destined to serve as a regimental doctor, took poetic inspiration from Schubart’s suffering and began to write plays. His writings were marked by a revolutionary pathos; they decried the conduct of tyrants and made heroes of those who stood their ground for human dignity and freedom. For this young doctor, the plight of Schubart, rotting away in a fortress prison, and the uprising of the Americans across the ocean were about the same thing: an insatiable cry for freedom.
“As the Americans are gaining their freedom, I have resolved to go there. Something courses in my veins—I am intent in this uneven world to make some leaps which will furnish material of which people will speak in the future,”
he wrote to a friend, also in 1783. The young doctor never made it to America. But it’s clear that something of the spirit of America made it into him. He launched a literary career which had few parallels in European history. He was the philosopher-poet of freedom, the author of the Ode to Joy that inspired Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and went on to become Europe’s official anthem. He was Friedrich Schiller.
And today, much has changed, yet much remains as before. We still have tyrants who throw their enemies in prison indefinitely without charges and trials. We still have simple-minded and paternalistic autocrats. And now they govern where once was the cradle of liberty. But where today is the cry of freedom?
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.
The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.
Percentage of British citizens who say that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom:
In the United Kingdom, a penis-shaped Kentish strawberry was not made by snails.
The Playboy mansion in California was bought by the heir to the Twinkie fortune, and a New Mexico man set fire to his apartment to protest his neighbors’ loud lovemaking.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”