In 1784, a twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schiller, then Germany’s most famous playwright, published a notice announcing his new journal, the Rheinische Thalia. “It was a strange misunderstanding of nature that condemned me to the calling of poet in the place where I was born,” he wrote, reflecting on his path to fame. “To be inclined towards poetry was strictly against the laws of the institute where I was educated, and ran counter to the plan of its creator. For eight years, my enthusiasm struggled against the military rules, but passion for poetry is fiery and strong, like first love. What those rules should have smothered, they only fanned.”
These bitter words were written in memory of the Hohe Carlsschule, the military academy founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, where Schiller spent his teenage years and young adulthood. In Germany the duke was known for his autocratic rule, wasteful spending, and eleven illegitimate children. At the same time, Carl-Eugen was deeply interested in statecraft and, above all, in educational reform. Decades into his rule, he decided to found an academy whose goal was to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties. The only criterion for entrance was merit. Accordingly, students from bourgeois backgrounds (like Schiller) vastly outnumbered the noble-born.
Schiller was fourteen when he was sent to the Carlsschule, and he was not happy to be there. Visits from family were strictly regulated; female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely. Worse, Élève 447, as he was now known, had to wear a uniform, march in formation to meals, and sleep in a dormitory that was kept lit even at night to make sure the students weren’t masturbating. Any violation of the rules or attempt to flee resulted in the student’s having to write out his crime on a red card, which he wore pinned to his chest at mealtimes. As the students ate, the duke would work his way around the tables, read each card aloud, and give the student a slap. Serious offenses were punished by imprisonment or caning.
What distinguished the Hohe Carlsschule from other European military academies was its founder’s deep fascination with the progressive pedagogical ideas of the French Enlightenment. From a young age, the students learned Greek, Latin, French, philosophy, and were set on a professional path as doctors, lawyers, or civil servants—all extremely enviable positions. They studied rhetoric and contemporary literature and learned, through style exercises, to write poetry. The teachers were scarcely older than the students, and instead of lecturing held informal chats in which the students were invited to participate. The Carlsschulers were encouraged to look on them as their friends and confidants, to whom closely guarded secrets could be trusted. Schiller enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Jakob Friedrich Abel, a philosophy teacher only seven years his senior. He credited Abel with the deep moral and aesthetic convictions that would run through his plays and his poetry, even as Abel reported on Schiller to the duke.
Despite the school’s professional emphasis, Carl-Eugen stressed that students’ primary area of study was the knowledge of man, the most cherished of Enlightenment values. To that end, classes were given regular essay assignments like “Which student among you has the worst moral character?” Time was set aside for the students to write detailed studies of another’s characters and habits. The first existing piece of Schiller’s writing is one such essay, written when the poet was fifteen years old. Asked to analyze an older student named Karl Kempff, the young Schiller pulls no punches. With an astonishing mix of eloquence, astuteness, and coldness for a fifteen-year-old, Schiller accuses Kempff of mediocrity, egotism, crudeness, envy, malice, and false modesty. Schiller’s brutal honesty is particularly shocking in light of the fact that students could be punished for infractions revealed in the studies. Practically, the reports had the effect of undermining the students’ sense that they were victims of authority by turning them into co-perpetrators. The duke would stand by as the essays were read aloud and chide the students if he felt that they were being insufficiently specific.
Making the Carlsschule experience still more oppressive was the suffocating Oedipal atmosphere that reigned there. Separated from their families—and all contact with women—the students were encouraged to look on the sixty-year-old duke as their adoptive father, while for a mother they had his twenty-three-year-old mistress, Franziska von Hohenheim. Difficult as it is to imagine now, this too accorded with Enlightenment ideas about pedagogy. In her unattainability, Franziska was to serve as an ideal, intended to help the boys realize that pure love is more important than immediate sexual gratification. As a reward for good behavior, they could ride with her in her coach, or eat a meal with her in her English park. Predictably, she loomed large in the students’ imaginations. Schiller’s first known poetic effort is a poem written for a graduation ceremony, equating Franziska with virtue itself. Peter-André Alt observes that the poem’s meter, cadence, and rhyme scheme prefigure “Ode to Joy,” now the unofficial anthem of the European Union.
After several years at the Carlsschule, the medical profession was chosen for Schiller, much to his chagrin. Late one evening, while Schiller was manning the infirmary, his friend Joseph Friedrich Grammont showed up and asked for some sleeping pills. Sensing that something was wrong, Schiller prodded Grammont until his friend confessed that he planned to kill himself. Schiller was able to dissuade him and dutifully reported the incident to the duke, who assigned Schiller to cure his friend—effectively, Schiller was to be Grammont’s psychoanalyst. Schiller’s diagnosis, which he tuned in several weeks later, was that the painful headaches and stomach pains plaguing Grammont were psychosomatic symptoms of a psychic disturbance brought on by his deep hatred of the school. (Later studies of the case attribute Grammont’s condition to depression brought on by compulsive masturbating.) Displeased with the results, the duke told Schiller to convince Grammont that staying at the academy was his only chance of being cured, a task Schiller went about with understandably little enthusiasm. Eventually the case had to be given up and Grammont was discharged from the academy.
Schiller’s time at the Carlsschule was a trauma he would reflect on for the rest of his life. Rape, patricide, the abuse of power, betrayal, imprisonment, and suicide would remain themes in his work until he died of tuberculosis in 1805. His characters seem most themselves either in prison or under surveillance, as in Mary Stuart or Don Carlos. In those, his best plays, the tightly metered verse conveys not so much the desired sensation of dignity and grace but of speech straitjacketed by tyrannical authority. Even his personal life reflected the extent to which he was never able to move on. Remembering the strict hygienic rules of the institute, Schiller rarely shaved as an adult, hated wigs, and would receive guests in his bathrobe. The crowds at the Mannheim Theater could never understand why he wore such a shabby coat. Several friends commented on its likeness to a military uniform.
Later critics of Schiller like Theodor Adorno and Friedrich Kittler, who knew how easily his works had been repurposed by the Nazis, never tired of pointing out that Schiller’s passionate pleas for human dignity were at heart totalitarian. Someone who presumes to speak for humanity secretly wants to subjugate it, writes Adorno: someone who sees people for what they can be will inevitably hate them for what they actually are. Knowing the details of his time at the Carlsschule, the least that might be said for Schiller is that his evocations of freedom are so unconvincing because he never knew what it was to be free, a painful fact he would reflect on again and again. He might have had his young self in mind when, in a letter defending Don Carlos to a critic who found it improbable that a Spanish nobleman would have openly criticized the Inquisition to King Phillip II, Schiller answered that, though the scene was probably historically inaccurate, it was not so improbable as it seemed. “After all,” he wrote, “it’s in the deepest dungeons that the most beautiful dreams of freedom are dreamt.”
Michael Lipkin is a student who lives in New York City.