Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Gender of Terror: War as (Im)Moral Institution in Kleist's Hermannsschlacht and Penthesilea

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Gender of Terror: War as (Im)Moral Institution in Kleist's Hermannsschlacht and Penthesilea

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

When we think of German enthusiasm for war, the eighteenth century does not spring to mind. After all, the Enlightenment is the Age of Reason whereas war represents the failure of reason. Tellingly, the foremost philosopher of the time, Immanuel Kant, theorized not only man's release from self-inflicted immaturity but also the possibility of eternal peace. And yet, as I will show, World War I authors such as Ernst Jünger are not the first to use war as a springboard to what Christine Baumgartner calls "fantasies of transcendence" (146). Side by side with the debate on eternal peace existed another eighteenth-century tradition that considered war a moral institution and lavished praise on its ennobling features.1 In the following, I will sketch the contours of these positive valuations of warfare and highlight the intimate link between war and the concept of the sublime. I will then focus on two works by Heinrich von Kleist, Hermannsschlacht (1808) and Penthesilea (1807) because both perform striking critiques of the recuperative approach to warfare.

Although there are a number of excellent studies about Kleist and warfare (Kittler, Samuel, Stephens), Kleist is usually situated with respect to the military reformers of the period, in particular Freiherr vom Stein, August von Gneisenau, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and Carl August Freiherr von Hardenberg. In contrast, this article reads Kleist's works as responses to the recuperative war discourses of fellow writers and philosophers. I will show that Hermannsschlacht engages with the notion of war as a transcendental endeavor and presents the concept of terror as the dark "Other" of the nexus of war and the sublime. Similarly, Penthesika's imaginary investment in savagery and inhuman cruelty is designed to deconstruct the notion of war as a rational and political act. However, to read Kleist's plays as critiques of recuperative war discourses is not to say that we can draw on them to lend support to a pacifist agenda. First, although Kleist's plays paint a vivid portrait of the terror of war, they also show that war is not the "Other" of civil society, but integrated into its very core. In Kleist's texts, wars are all but inevitable because society is itself the continuation of war by other means.2 Secondly, both Hermannsschlacht and Penthesilea are highly ambiguous constructs permeated by a spiral of competing subtexts. In particular, I will show that Kleist's representation of gender confounds and undercuts his critique of war even if it cannot ultimately contain it. In doing so, this article seeks to link two strains of scholarship that do not frequently commune with each other: traditional studies of war, which are often unconcerned with questions of gender, and gender studies, which often remains uninterested in the finer details of military theory and practice.3 Since overt and hidden gender messages shape our perception of war in significant ways, a combination of the two is likely to produce new and intriguing insights.

In the late eighteenth century, Germany witnessed a lively debate about the possibility of eternal peace, to which many of the greatest literary and philosophical minds, including Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and Johann Gottfried Herder, contributed thought-provoking essays.4 In this debate, peace is often conceptualized as the natural consequence of Enlightenment values. It flows from rationality and mastery over passions and base instincts, is conducive to trade and material well-being, and forms a complement of democratic forms of government and cooperation between sovereign states. In spite of this high regard for peace, however, there are also dissenting voices concerned about the supposed effects of peace on man's character. For example, in his response to Kant's "Zum ewigen Frieden," published in 1796, Ludwig Heinrich Jacob, a professor of philosophy in Halle, claimed that peace makes a nation weak whereas "der Krieg die gute Folge hat, daß der Geist erhoben wird, daß» er rüstige Affekte erzeugt und allenthalben Gelegenheit schafft, daß sich die schönsten Tugenden zeigen können" (209-10). …

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