Academic journal article Journal of Politics and Law

Repressive Politics and Satire in E. T. A. Hoffmann's Fairy-Tales, "Little Zaches Acclaimed as Zinnober" and "Master Flea"

Academic journal article Journal of Politics and Law

Repressive Politics and Satire in E. T. A. Hoffmann's Fairy-Tales, "Little Zaches Acclaimed as Zinnober" and "Master Flea"

Article excerpt


This article sets two of Hoffmann's satiric fairy-tales, "Little Zaches acclaimed as Zinnober" (1819) and "Master Flea" (1822), in their socio-political context of post-Napoleonic Europe. It identifies them as political allegories through which Hoffmann comments on the instability of western European politics in the early nineteenth century. We demonstrate how Hoffmann's position as a Prussian state judge informed his propensity for satirical observation couched in the gerne of fairy-tale and variations thereof. We explore his scrutiny of hypocrisy, pride and nepotism, together with his particular focus on received ideas, such as Enlightenment rationalist principles. Concomitantly, we examine how he reworks familiar fairy-tale motifs in order to expose the effects of political repression. We compare the lampoon of his contemporary, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (founder of the Open Air Gymnasium Movement) in "Little Zaches", with his satirization of Privy Councillor von Kamptz (Director of Prussian Military Police) as Councillor Knarrpanti in "Master Flea", the first fairy-tale causing wry amusement, but the second leading to a high profile libel case. We align with Zipes's argument that Hoffmann's fairy-tales demonstrate connections between history, politics and the fairy-tale, and we show how Hoffmann's revisioning of fairy-tale motifs mediates political satire. We extend Zipes by emphasizing Hoffmann's use of the increasingly popular Oriental, and especially Arabian, tale. This article concludes that Hoffmann contributed significantly to the critical acclaim of the satiric fairy-tale, and that his loss of literary judgement in "Master Flea" accounts for the legal consequences which he suffered.

Keywords: satire, politics, fairy-tale, motif, Oriental, Jahn, Kamptz, Knarrpanti

1. Introduction

1.1 Hoffmann in Prussia 1809

In August 1809, while struggling to establish his musical career in Bamberg, southern Pmssia (Germany), Hoffmann wrote to a music publishing company: "This odious [Napoleonic] war has once more destroyed all my prospects and hopes" (Sahlin, 1977: 157). He was referring to the precarious state of the theatres in Bamberg, Dresden and Leipzig, where he worked variously as a conductor, composer and theatre factotum. Constant troop movements caused genteel families to leave the city for their own safety, thus depriving him of supplementary income as a singing and piano teacher, principally for their marriageable daughters. By borrowing money from friends and writing musical reviews for the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, he saved himself and his wife from starvation.

1.2 Prussia 1806-16

Upheaval in Europe had caused widespread displacement, suffering and death to civilians and soldiers alike. In November 1806, when Hoffmann was a civil servant and lawyer in Warsaw, the occupying French régime dissolved the Prussian Government. In 1807 all Germans remaining in Warsaw were required to take an oath of allegiance to the French, which Hoffmann refused to do, and consequently lost his position. Despite petitioning the Lord High Chancellor in Berlin and the Pmssian King Friedrich III, he did not receive back pay due to him (126). Destitution, together with the illness of his wife and death of his two-year-old daughter, rendered his personal situation truly desperate. In May 1808 he remarked in a letter sent from Berlin to his boyhood friend, Hippel, that "Bread, currently priced beyond the means of the poor and often not to be had at all, was the cause of disorderly uprisings here for a few days" (136). His livelihood between 1813 and 1814, when he worked in the theatres in Dresden and Leipzig, was haphazard as French and German theatre-goers braved the perilous streets. The citizens of Dresden endured the collateral damage of explosions from advancing and retreating forces throughout August 1813. Graphic descriptions in his letters from Dresden at that time give an indication of how vividly he could write. …

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