TELOS: Critical Theory of the Contemporary
Theodor Fontane, the master of German realist fiction, published his first novel, Before the Storm, in 1876. Set during the winter of 1812–13, in and around Berlin, it explores the decisive historical moment when Prussia changed sides—breaking out of its forced alliance with France in order to side with Russia in the anti-Napoleonic war. Yet the dialectic of the moment was such that Germans could join in the rout of the French while nonetheless embracing aspects of the French revolutionary legacy. Thus near the conclusion of the novel, the Prussian General von Bamme, commenting on social changes around him, a reduction in traditional structures of hierarchy, speculates, “And where does all this come from? From over yonder, borne on the west wind. I can make nothing of these windbags of Frenchmen, but in all the rubbish they talk there is none the less a pinch of wisdom. Nothing much is going to come of their Fraternity, nor of their Liberty: but there is something to be said for what they have put between them. For what, after all, does it mean but: a man is a man.” Mensch ist mensch.