GUSTAV FREYTAG 1855 NOVEL “SOLL UND HABEN” & THE RISE OF ANTISEMITIC LITERATUREOctober 8, 2007 at 5:11 pm | Posted in Books, Financial, Germany, Globalization, History, Literary | Leave a comment
Freytag was born in Kreuzburg (Kluczbork) in Silesia. After attending the gymnasium at Oels (Oels), he studied philology at the universities of Breslau (Wroclaw) and Berlin, and in 1838 received his degree with a remarkable dissertation, De initiis poeseos scenicae apud Germanos. In 1839, he settled at Breslau, as Privatdozent in German language and literature, but devoted his principal attention to writing for the stage, achieving considerable success with the comedy Die Brautfahrt, oder Kunz von der Rosen (1844). This was followed by a volume of unimportant poems, In Breslau (1845), and the dramas Die Valentine (1846) and Graf Waldemar (1847). He at last attained a prominent position by his comedy, Die Journalisten (1853), one of the best German comedies of the 19th century.
In 1847, Freytag migrated to Berlin, and in the following year took over, in conjunction with Julian Schmidt, the editorship of Die Grenzboten, a weekly journal which, founded in 1841, now became the leading organ of German and Austrian liberalism. Freytag helped to conduct it until 1861, and again from 1867 till 1870, when for a short time he edited a new periodical, Im neuen Reich.
Freytag died in 1895 in Wiesbaden.
Modern scholarship on Freytag in English focuses on the contrast between his success in his own time and his almost complete obscurity today. Most criticism concentrates on the novel Soll und Haben, which was enormously popular at the time it was written and for many decades afterward. It received mixed reviews by critics; Schmidt praised it, but English reviewers panned it as an imitation of Dickens, and many German critics regarded it as “too prosaic.” Many critics found that the novels emphasized concerns that were quickly losing relevance in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet Soll und Haben‘s phenomenal success with the German public is well documented as it went through printing after printing and was often presented as a confirmation gift to young German boys. Curiously, despite its anti-Semitism, it was also given to young Jewish boys as a bar mitzvah gift throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The book has been derided and neglected since World War II, as its overt anti-Semitism has become an embarrassment for modern Germans. Jeffrey L. Sammons denies that Freytag was anti-Semitic in that “he did not hate the Jews, nor would he have advocated persecution of them.” But Freytag is today known as an anti-Semitic writer in part because, as Sammons points out, he was “a liberal individualist who placed the responsibility for the condition of the Jews not on the society that oppressed them but squarely on the Jews themselves.” Freytag’s record on Jews is mixed since he had many Jewish friends and, in fact, was married to a Jew.He wrote in defense of Jews in his literary journal and joined a group opposing anti-Semitism in 1890. Still, Soll und Haben has a “justly deserved reputation as a major document in the history of anti-Semitism in Germany,” largely based on the negative stereotypes associated with virtually every Jewish character in the novel.
Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit)
Plot of Soll und Haben
(Debit and Credit)
The story reflects the coming-of-age, as in a Bildungsroman, of the young Anton Wohlfart. After the death of his parents, Anton begins an apprenticeship in the office of the merchant T. O. Schröter. Anton quickly succeeds through honest and diligent work, achieving a proper bourgeois existence. He has a variety of experiences with the Schröter family and also with the noble family of the Rothsattels. He later becomes involved with the liquidation of the estate of the Rothsattel family, an obvious symbol of the decline of the nobility and the clash with budding capitalist forces. He also has repeated interactions with another young man, the Jew Veitel Itzig, whom he knew from his home town.
Significance and interpretation
The novel’s characters are divided into three basic categories: capitalist/bourgeois, noble, and Jewish:
- The bourgeois Schröter family represents Freytag’s view of the ideal bourgeois type, invested in order, honesty, and solid virtue.
- The Jewish merchant Ehrenthal family represents a dishonest and greedy group, interested in wealth without actual creative work.
- The Rothsattel family represents the unadapted nobility which attempts to preserve its privileges in a changing world. Their threatening financial ruin personifies this process.
Anton Wohlfahrt is the emerging hero. He is free to examine and experience the social strata personified by these families, and he gradually develops his own sober and virtuous outlook.
Criticism and anti-Semitism
Soll und Haben is full of blatantly anti-semitic stereotypes. Moreover, there is also hostility toward Slavs and Poles, who are described as lazy and culturally deficient. How to approach this work, which was so dramatically popular in the 19th century, has confounded German educators in the post-war period.
Soll und Haben
Freytag’s literary fame was made universal by the publication in 1855 of his novel, Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit), which was translated into almost all the languages of Europe. It was hailed as one the best German novels of its day, noted for its sturdy but unexaggerated realism, and in many parts highly humorous. Its main purpose is the recommendation of the German middle class as the soundest element in the nation, but it also has a more directly patriotic intention in tile contrast which it draws between the homely virtues of the German, the shiftlessness of the Pole and the rapacity of the Jew. As a Silesian, Freytag had no great love for his Slavic neighbors, and being a native of a province which in his mind owed everything to the Kingdom of Prussia, he was naturally an earnest champion of Prussian hegemony over Germany. His powerful advocacy of this idea in his Grenzboten gained him the friendship of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, whose neighbor he had become, on acquiring the estate of Siebleben near Gotha.
Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit), 1855