The History Woman's Blog

Meeting Jacob Boehme in Dresden

Posted in exhibitions, History, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on October 21, 2017
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Pieter van Gunst, Bildnis Jacob Böhme, 1686/1715, engraving, Kupferstich-Kabinett 
© SKD

I had a few days off work and went on a spontaneous trip to Dresden for some quiet writing time. Naturally, once I got there I spent more time wandering around the city and enjoying the sights in the last rays of the autumn sun than actually writing, and so I stumbled upon this little gem: an exhibition on the German mystical philosopher Jacob Boehme (1575-1624).

I was initially surprised to find a tribute to Boehme in Dresden. But, of course, he spent most of his life some 100 kilometres east of the city, first at Alt Seidenberg where he was born and at Seidenberg where he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and later in the town of Goerlitz where he set up shop in the 1590s.

The ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz

Boehme was a remarkable man. He rose from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most important German thinkers. His first and principal work, Aurora, the 1612 manuscript of which is currently on display at the Palace Chapel in Dresden set out his view of the world. According to Boehme, the unfinished tract was the product of a divine inspiration going back to around 1600 when the young shoemaker contemplated on a ray of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish which revealed to him the relationship between God and man and the mysteries of the universe. Copies of the manuscript circulated among his friends and acquaintances and finally fell into the hands of the chief pastor of Goerlitz, Gregor Richter, who confiscated the work, considered it heretical and got the local council to issue a writing ban on Boehme.

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‘ALL IN ALL. The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme’ , exhibition at the Palace Chapel in Dresden, Royal Palace. © SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig

Its author subsequently came to be known as the ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz. The humble shoemaker had clearly risen above his station, and the authorities tried to keep him under control. However, Boehme resumed his writing in 1618 on the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, which he considered as a sign of the dark powers of evil at work in the world, and outlined his ideas in On the Three Principles of Divine Being. He was to write another thirty-odd works before his death in 1624 dealing with a large number of subjects from readings of the Old Testament to disputes within the Protestant community.

Boheme’s work was well received at the court in Dresden

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The manuscript of Jacob Böhme’s first work, ‘Aurora’ of 1612 at the Palace Chapel in Dresden.
© SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig

Only one of his works, The Way to Christ (1624), was published during his lifetime. Yet, his other writings circulated in manuscript among his followers and Boehme managed to establish a considerable reputation during his lifetime and beyond. In the year of his death, he travelled to Dresden and reported in a letter that his Way to Christ was well received at the Elector of Saxony’s court. Nevertheless, the publication of his book caused controversy and he had to defend himself before the local authorities. He only walked free because he was able to prove that while he might have been the author of this work, he had not been responsible for its publication.

The current exhibition at Dresden engages both with Boehme’s life and work and with the broader context of his time. It is structured around key concepts of his writings, such as nature, darkness, creation, cosmos, rebirth, light and freedom, and it displays both manuscripts and editions of his works as well as later engagements with his thought by artists and thinkers. Alas, it is a very small exhibition. But it comes with excellent accompanying materials, including an exhibition catalogue (on which this blog post is based) and a collection of scholarly essays in English and German well worthwhile reading.

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All in All – The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme, 26 August to 19 November 2017. Palace Chapel of the Dresden Royal Palace.

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The eloquent ideologists of Germany’s New Right

Posted in History, Political Thought, Politics, Reviews, Twentieth Century by thehistorywoman on April 2, 2017

Weiß_imageThugs in combat boots they’re certainly not. The people Volker Weiss writes about are more of the nerdy variety, he told me over the phone a while back. They know their Greek and Latin, but that doesn’t necessarily make them harmless. It’s their words and their ideas we should be wary of.

Weiss is a historian of Germany’s New Right – a subject he has been working on for some fifteen years or more. However, what once used to be the niche interest of a select few scholars has suddenly become a hot topic as right-wing populists are making their voices heard across Europe and the US.

In his new book “Die Autoritäre Revolte“ (“The Authoritarian Revolt“), Weiss outlines a set of New Right ideas that can be found among the representatives of a variety of contemporary political groups and movements, including the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) party.

Proponents of this rightist thought draw on the conservatism of 1920s’ Germany, while rejecting the “Third Reich” and some of the old-style nationalist ideas. Yet, Weiss cautions that the critical distance with which some contemporary New Right authors and politicians claim to approach National Socialism is not always entirely convincing. (more…)

The British view of a nation that never was

Posted in History, Politics, Reviews by thehistorywoman on October 16, 2016
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Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros (1515). © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Kupferstichkabinett.

Dürer’s rhino, Luther’s Bible, Bismarck dressed as a blacksmith, a VW Beetle and a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp – the exhibits of the ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ show seem both somewhat random and predictable.

What I was missing most of all was a grand narrative guiding me through the exhibition, directing my view from one item to the next with that inevitable logic with which A leads to B leads to C, although, as a historian, I should really know better.

I was probably expecting the museum counterpart of the undergraduate introduction to modern German history, ‘From Bismarck to Hitler’, or, if we want to start in the early modern period, ‘From Luther to Hitler’. And this being a British exhibition originally created for a British audience about its World War II enemy, some of that was certainly there. But it seems that the collaboration between curator Barrie Cook of the British Museum, and his former boss, Neil MacGregor, also tried to avoid too much coherence and inevitability, and that was probably a good thing.

Yes, there was the Reformation with the invention of the printing press and Luther’s Bible translation, there was the Thirty Years’ War, there were references to the nationalist movements of the early nineteenth century with their romanticised depictions of the German countryside, and space dedicated to Bismarck’s German unification of 1871. Yet, none of those movements settled the national question in any sort of definite or satisfactory way. The Reformation left Germany divided into Catholic and Protestant states and any subsequent attempts at German unity were overshadowed by the question who should or should not belong to the club.

There was surprisingly little about World War I, but a broad selection of bank notes illustrating the hyperinflation of the Great Depression, while World War II was represented more through images of suffering in concentration camps or destroyed cities like Dresden rather than by the standard narrative of Hitler’s rise and fall. Post-war German history was represented by the new division of East and West, a labyrinthine model of Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station as a central border crossing and the rather unexpected wetsuit worn by an East German in his attempt to defect to the West by swimming across the Baltic Sea. You need a lot of imagination to fill the gaps. (more…)

Selling French books in Enlightenment Germany*

Posted in Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Reviews by thehistorywoman on July 21, 2013

Books_without_bordersJeffrey Freedman’s engaging Books without borders in Enlightenment Europe (2012) looks at the French book trade in the German-speaking territories during a pivotal period in the European history of ideas. This French book trade did not just cater for a small elite of princes and courtiers, it was absorbed by a variety of well-educated German speakers from scholars to doctors and lawyers and a variety of other professionals and thus played an important role in spreading and popularising the Enlightenment. By the 1770s, the French segment accounted for some ten per cent of all books sold on the German market.

Among the works sold by the German agents of French-language printers and booksellers were also many unlicensed and prohibited books. But thanks to the political fragmentation and the many administrative quirks of the German lands, censorship laws were virtually unenforceable, so that heterodox and libertine works could reach their readers relatively easily. The ban of a work often only served to make it more popular and more desirable to ‘procure the forbidden pleasure’ (118) as no one less than the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked recalling the burning of a French book in his native Frankfurt.

Following in Darnton’s footsteps

Books without borders feels in many ways like a sequel to Robert Darnton’s seminal Business of Enlightenment (1979), not just because Freedman draws on the same depository of sources of the Swiss Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), which here represents ‘a slice of the French book trade in Germany’ (11) but also because he, like Darnton (who was his PhD supervisor at Princeton), offers the reader a carefully researched and well-informed book history intermixed with numerous little personal stories of the STN’s correspondents in the German lands, zooming in and out of the bigger picture.

Some of these personal stories are quite detailed, and readers might be inclined to skim read them. But this would mean to miss the colourful picture Freedman paints of the lives, successes and struggles of eighteenth-century printers and their agents. Occasionally, we even get a rare glimpse of their political inclinations and the convictions that might have driven the latter to get involved in the business of books.

Censorship and self-censorship

There is, for instance, the ‘native Parisian and Freemason’ François Mettra, who had his shop in Münz, near Cologne, and moonlighted as a ‘radical journalist’ (63); or Charles Fontaine in Mannheim, the semi-educated ‘son of a fisherman’ who is unlikely to ‘have read many of the books in his own bookshop’ (75); and finally Johann Conrad Deinet in Frankfurt, who ended up as the Empire’s book commissioner (or chief censor) despite having had various run-ins with the authorities himself for dealing in prohibited books. But as Freedman points out, ‘it would be a mistake to assume that in the eighteenth century, censors and booksellers were always on opposite sides of the ideological barricades and that if booksellers obeyed the law, it was only because they feared the consequences of transgressing it.’ (110) Many exercised a certain amount of self-censorship too, selling prohibited material, but drawing the line, say, at ‘atheism and pornography’. (110) (more…)