Education History: More Notes from Dwight’s Travels in the North of Germany in 1825-26

Plan was to just skim this book. Oh, well…

In Dwight’s Travels in the North of Germany in 1825-26 he mentions a couple of times an odd thing, or, at least, something I was unaware of: the reticence of Germans throughout the German Confederation to talk about politics or religion:

An American, mingling in society in this country, is much surprised at the difference he observes in the topics of conversation prevalent here, and with us. The strict censorship which has for so long a period governed the press, as well as the dread produced by the daily sight of gendarmes, and by a consciousness of the accurate and extensive information which the government possesses through its system of espionage, prevents all appearance of political discussion in a mixed circle. The numerous diversities of creeds which exist in this country, as well as the very great indifference which most persons feel respecting the dogmas of the Lutheran Church, have excluded religion from among the topics of conversation in society. In conversing with a gentleman, if you introduce a political subject, he looks around him cautiously to see who may be near, and then replies to you in a whisper, conveying but an imperfect idea of his real sentiments. So accustomed are they to a restricted press, that there seems to be but one general feeling on this subject ; the necessity of silence. When alone with them, they will sometimes partially banish their fears, and inform you that every thing is not exactly as they would wish ; but there are then so many explanations and suggestions added before the conversation ends, that you are left in doubt as to their real sentiments. It makes my American blood boil when I see this cowardly spirit ; but I should probably feel very differently had my neck been galled by the yoke of submission, and were my fears ever alive lest my fate might become as mysteriously dark as that of some of their friends or acquaintances on whom suspicion has rested. Not only in Prussia, but in every country which I have visited, has it been my constant habit to express my thoughts on all political subjects, except as to the administration of the government under whose protection I happened to be at the time, with the same freedom as in my own country. I knew that my passport would protect me from personal outrage, and that the only inconvenience that could befal me, would be an order to leave the country ; a punishment less disagreeable to me than that of putting fetters on my mouth. When thus conversing, the Prussians look at me with surprise at my boldness, and by a continued silence, leave me in doubt as to their real sentiments, or give a whispered acquiescence.

So the Germans, at the time von Humboldt reformed their schools, were cowed into silence about political issues by threat of punishment. Since church, state, and school were all one, headed up by state, of course, religious or political discussions, insofar as those were substantively different, were carefully monitored and controlled in the universities and the gymnasia that fed student to them.

Boundaries of the German Confederation with Prussia in blue, Austria in yellow, and the rest in grey. Via Wikipedia

In my near complete ignorance of German history, I was unaware of what shook out after that whole getting conquered by Napoleon thing. The Holy Roman Empire was ended in 1806, the same year Napoleon won the Battle of Jena and humbled Prussia. After Napoleon was finally defeated and driven out in 1815, the German Confederation was founded by the Congress of Vienna, where representatives of the European powers tried to divvy up the mess left by the collapse of Napoleon’s French Empire. These were hard-headed politicians with no use for all that revolutionary republican claptrap – they wanted order, and a balance of power that would prevent more of the major wars Europe had just been through. This made for an awkward situation between Protestant Prussia and Catholic Austria, both lumped together in the Confederation even though they were competitors for German loyalty. Their inability to compromise crippled the Confederacy, making it hard to do anything. (Perhaps, to the rest of Europe, having Prussia and Austria unable to unite and get anything done might seem a positive?)

The European powers, having gotten a good close look at the results of the French Revolution, were not interested in progress and enlightenment, since, practically speaking, those ideals took the form of murder and mayhem. Yet, then as now, the Universities were hotbeds of the Latest Thinking. So when a liberal student named Sands murdered a famous conservative playwright Kotzebue in 1819, the government took the opportunity to crush anti-government sentiments and organizations in the universities and gymnasia:

The murder of Kotzebue furnished the governments with an admirable pretext for declaring that a conspiracy existed in the universities of Germany. Professors and students were arraigned before the tribunals, and the Central Untcrsuchungs Commission, which had been established some time before, was constantly occupied. Many on whom suspicion rested, were arraigned before it, and one Professor after another was displaced. Many of the students were imprisoned, and at the subsequent trials in Prussia, not a small number were sent to the penitentiaries ; some for life, and others from two to ten years. The governments were very glad of an opportunity of exhibiting their lower, in order to strike terror into the minds of the students. They pretended that these conspiracies existed all over Germany, and that the monarchs and the existing governments were in danger of being overthrown. The censorship was made much more severe ; the gymnastic establishments connected with the universities, which were believed to be one of the principal sources of this spirit of disorganisation [interesting choice of words – ed.], were abolished ; and the societies among the students were crushed by the strong arm of power. The number of the sufferers and the severity of their punishment, proved a most effectual lesson to those who had escaped, and the feeling which had been seen at the Wartburg festival, entirely disappeared. Instead of talking about their Fatherland, union, and liberty, the students found barely time enough to reorganise their Landsmannschaften, and fight the duels which according to their ideas, necessarily grew out of these institutions. On the subject of politics, not a mouth whispered, unless in the confidence of intimacy ; and a traveller passing at that time through Germany, might not have discovered that a single individual was dissatisfied with the governments. The Germans now speak more openly on the subject, and many of them do not hesitate to say, that the young men who were imprisoned, suffered most unjustly ; that the pretended conspiracy never existed ; and that the governments only availed themselves of this pretence to diminish the liberties of the people. They dreaded, say they, to have their conduct pass the scrutiny of the press, or of conversation ; and under a pretext of danger, they have seized this occasion to fetter our minds, and throw us back into the despotism of the last century.

The governments within the German Confederation succeeded, it seems, for a generation or two at least, in suppressing demands for a more democratic and republican form of government.

Yet the idea of revolutionaries in the universities and gymnasia is at odds with Dwight’s general observation on German government:

The Germans are doubtless the easiest people in Europe to be governed. They are much less ardent than the French or the other nations of the South of Europe, and it requires far greater aggression to rouse them to a public expression of their feelings. So long have they been accustomed to submit to a foreign or native master, that they appear to have no thoughts of making an effort to improve their condition. It is true that this subject made some noise in the universities a few years since ; but that excitement ceased with the abolition of the secret societies ; and at the present time, no one thinks of opening his mouth upon it. A powerful cause will produce no greater effect here, than one of a feeble character in France. Such a burst of national feeling as has recently been seen there, at the death of General Foy, will probably never be witnessed in this country, unless some great event should agitate the public mind. French blood is too hot, and too rapid in its movements to allow them to remain tranquil; and if they do not act, they will at least talk. This too they do in a manner which often excited my surprise. At table d’hotcs, in diligences, and in private circles, the proceedings of government are discussed with a freedom not surpassed by any thing in our political debates. The only latitude we enjoy that the French do not, is our liberty of speaking and writing as we please of the President of the United States, while they are compelled publicly to speak and write respectfully of the king. In private circles, however, they call him a bete, and a cochon. Nothing of this kind is heard here. If the monarch is ever alluded to, it is to pass an eulogium on some act of his life, or at the most to express a hope that he would pursue a different course.

This seems to be yet another case where elites want people who can easily be lead, without considering that such people may be lead anywhere. A goal of the schools, both in their Prussian origins and as adopted by Americans and the rest of Europe, is a certain uniformity of thought, framed up as training in the morality needed to be a ‘good’ German or a ‘patriotic’ American. The machinery thus established to this end can then be used by whoever controls it to whatever end the new masters want. In Germany, the Nazis eventually got to drive; in 2020 America, it is Critical Theorist and their useful idiots.

Perhaps having the schools cultivate, or at least not actively undermine, the natural loyalty of children to their family, village, and faith could help prevent battles over the reins of state schooling and the subsequent destruction of society.

Finally, and tangentially to our purposes here, Dwight visited Strasburg’s Gothic Cathedral. His description is interesting:

It surpasses, however, all Gothic edifices I have seen, in the solemnity of its interior. No other structure presents windows of such colouring, where light is thrown into hues so brilliant and so variegated, or where they blend and are contrasted with so intense beauty. It is the only edifice which ever made me feel the solemn gloom I had anticipated, on entering a Gothic cathedral of the old world. Here I found it more than realised, and felt how admirably such edifices are fitted to excite the passions of a superstitious age. The monuments which you meet in these structures, remind you not only that you will ere long be numbered with the dead, but, in the images and bas reliefs which adorn them, they tell you of the virtues of those who are there reposing. The paintings which rise above the altars, often relate the miracles of the great founder of our religion, or of some of the saints who imitated his example, in all the power of poetry ; a poetry, too, which more than the “poet’s pen, bodies forth the forms of things unknown,” and gives them a reality. Others delineate that awful day, when the graves shall open, and the Judge shall condemn the wicked, or present a view of that world of anguish whose gates are barred for ever. This art has done more for the Catholic religion, than the Inquisition with all its racks and tortures. It is more concise than logic or even mathematics, as it reveals at a glance all that the soul dreads or hopes for ; and not unfrequently carries a conviction to the heart, which no arguments can efface. Such paintings are doubly powerful from the gloomy light by which they are seen* which corresponds so admirably with the subjects delineated. To the ignorant, they reveal the future, and around it they throw a solemnity as awful as eternity. I could easily realize, that in the zenith of the Catholic religion, before the light of Protestantism had in some measure penetrated the gloom of these edifices, that no one could enter them without becoming still more superstitious, and without finding his reason at times overpowered by feeling, as through their almost holy light, he saw the solemn ceremonies of the Catholic church, when at the height of its power.

Dwight is doing his darndest not to let this whole Catholicism thing get to him:

Europe does not present a greater contrast than an Italian and a Protestant metropolis. Here the churches are the only constant external objects which remind you that you are in a religious country. South of the Alps the Catholic religion meets you wherever you turn your eyes. In the morning, when you awake, it appears in the consecrated wax candle, with a painted representation of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove ; in the crucifix ; or in the picture of Santa Maria, or of some one of the saints, which is suspended near your bed. Having left your couch to take a ramble, you perceive it in the hundreds of triangular hats and black and purple stockings of Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, and Novitiates. At the corners it presents itself in the form of a Madonna, with the infant Jesus in painting or in sculpture ; again in the crucifix carried through street after street, succeeded by a long procession of the clergy ; in men or women, with dominos covering their faces, and soliciting money for the mother of God; in a multitude of dirty, bare-footed, lazy monks, with faces as round as the moon, begging you to give something to a poor capuchin, or to one of some other order. At the next turn it appears in the sister of charity, arrayed in garments as black as Tarturus ; or in a prostrate multitude kneeling bareheaded to the host, and looking at you as you pass by them, with your head covered, as if, with the expression, “you will burn for this.” You hear it in the matin and vesper bell, and from every beggar who accosts you, smoothing his petition with the names of a dozen saints, to give more force to his entreaty. You hear it again in the devotee who stands under a picture or crucifix and counts his beads, while lie repeats and re-repcats his Pater Noster and Ave Maria, calling upon la Virgine beatissima as his greatest protector ; and in the music which precedes a procession in honour, not of God, but of the patron saint of the city through which you are passing. You taste it in the meagre fish dinners which you get on Friday. You smell it in the incense which you inhale as you enter one of the churches ; and your nose perceives its effects in the dirty priest or monk who happens to be near you. Sometimes you even feel it in the jog of the devotee, who reminds you that you must kneel, for Christ (viz. a wafer) approaching. In one word, it occupies all your senses ; being seen, felt, heard, smelt, or tasted, by every traveller who crosses the Alps.

He thinks, of course, that all this all Catholic, all the time stuff this is a bad thing. Huh.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Education History: More Notes from Dwight’s Travels in the North of Germany in 1825-26”

  1. Barbara W Tuchman remarked the Germanies would’ve been better off under Austrian/Southern German rule.
    Given the subsequent history I concour.
    Prussia was a dour, humourless country ever since Fredrick the great’s dad kidnapped European men 2 m tall for his army. It also didn’t help it was a crusader kingdom but far more efficient and less corrupt than Castile.


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