Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

7
GEORG FORSTER, THE GERMAN JACOBIN

7.1. Forster and the Liberal Tradition

One of the most radical figures in German political philosophy in the 1790s was Georg Forster ( 1754-1794). He was one of the few political theorists of the decade to ally himself with the Jacobins in France. Of all the major political thinkers of the 1790s, only the young Fichte was as radical. Moreover, Forster not only professed but acted on his radical principles. When the French invaded the Rhineland in the autumn of 1792, Forster joined the efforts to establish a republic in Mainz. He played a prominent role in the fledgling republic, becoming its vice president in March 1792. To his contemporaries Forster became the very symbol of German Jacobinism, the personification of the Mainz republic.

Such radicalism made Forster also one of the most controversial figures of the 1790s. In the late 1770s he had established a reputation as one of the foremost travelers, naturalists, and writers of his age. Yet, because of his activities in Mainz, a shadow was later cast over his name. Forster was denounced for his Jacobinism and branded a traitor for his attempt to annex Mainz to the French republic. 1 The only figure to speak out on behalf of Forster in the 1790s was Friedrich Schlegel, who regarded him as one of the classical figures of German letters. 2 But Schlegel was a voice crying in the wilderness.

The first attempts to rescue Forster from obscurity were made by liberal writers in the 1840s and 1850s. C. G. Gervinus wrote an appreciative essay on Forster for his edition of the collected works, 3 and Hermann Hettner devoted a substantial chapter to him in Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im 18. Jahrhundert. 4 Yet these early efforts to revive Forster did not meet with general acceptance; and they were sharply attacked by the local Mainz historian Karl Klein, who uncovered archival material to discredit Forster's "traitorous" activities in Mainz. 5 Forster again fell into neglect, if not disrepute, during the reemergence of German nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Only two scholars, Albert Leitzmann and Paul Zincke, 6 recognized Forster's importance for German letters and produced

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