Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Gervinus, Georg Gottfried
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Gervinus, Georg Gottfried
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GERVINUS, Georg Gottfried, (1805-1871), one of the most eminent literary and political historians of Germany, was born on May 20, 1805, at Darmstadt. His well-to-do parents, belonging to the middle classes, had him educated at the gymnasium of the town, where he studied with great success. At the age of fourteen they chose for him a commercial career, but Gervinus continued his classical studies privately, and made himself fully acquainted with the polite literature of Germany and other countries. He also cultivated his literary and musical taste by frequenting the theatre of the Hessian capital, which was then in an excellent condition. In 1825 he relinquished the uncongenial commercial life, and repaired, after a brief preparation, to the university of Giessen to study philology. The short interruption in his school education helped to develop in him, in an eminent degree, his social qualities, and taught him to employ methodically and usefully every hour of his life. In 1820 he went to Heidelberg, where he attended the lectures of the great historian Schlosser, who became henceforth his guide and his model. From 1828 to 1830 he held a mastership in a private institution at Frankfort-on-the-Main, issuing at the same time, in conjunction with Morstadt and Hertlein, a comprehensive edition of Thucydides, and writing an essay on Bloomfield's English translation of the Greek historian. In 1830 he returned to Heidelberg, and wrote among other essays one on Probert's Ancient Laws of Cambria. The year 1832 he spent in Italy as travelling tutor to a young Englishman, and on his return to Heidelberg he wrote several historical treatises, which he issued in 1833, in a collected form, as the first volume of his Historische Schriften. This publication procured him the appointment of professor extraordinarius; and the first volume of his Geschichte der poetischen Nationalliteratur der Deutschen brought him, through the special recommendation of the historian Dahlmann, the appointment to a regular professorship of history and literature at Göttingen. He settled there at Easter 1836, and married a wealthy young lady, who proved a true “companion to his intellect.” In the following year he wrote his Grundzüge der Historik, which is perhaps the most thoughtful of his philosophico-historical productions. The same year brought his expulsion from Göttingen in consequence of his manly protest, in conjunction with six of his colleagues, against the unscrupulous violation of the constitution by Ernest Augustus, king of Hanover and duke of Cumberland. After applying himself to his literary and artistic studies at Heidelberg, Darmstadt, and Rome, he returned once more to Heidelberg, where he continued, among other works, his history of German literature, and was appointed in 1844 honorary professor. He zealously took up in the following year the cause of the German Catholics, hoping it would lead to a union of all the Christian confessions, and to the establishment of a national church. He also came forward in 1846 as a patriotic champion of the Schleswig-Holsteiners, and when, in 1847, King Frederick William IV. promulgated the royal decree for summoning the so-called “United Diet” (Vereinigte Landtag), Gervinus hoped that this event would form the basis of the constitutional development of the largest German state; and, thinking that the hour of publicistic activity had arrived, he founded, in common with some other patriotic scholars, the Deutsche Zeitung, which certainly was one of the best-written political journals ever published in Germany. His appearance in the political arena secured his election as deputy for the Prussian province of Saxony to the National Assembly sitting in 1848 at Frankfort. The weight of his name and his journalistic activity were of considerable advantage to the liberals in that short-lived parliament; but when he saw that all their endeavours were frustrated by the indecision of the king of Prussia, who declined accepting the imperial crown of Germany, he retired in gloomy disappointment from all active political life. So embittered was he against the royal house of Hohenzollern that neither the formation of the North German Confederation in 1866, which in former years he would have hailed with the greatest satisfaction, nor the glorious establishment in 1870 of an united German empire, could reconcile him to a dynasty one sickly scion of which had foiled the national aspirations of Germany. Gervinus now took refuge among his literary and historical studies, more especially devoting himself to the study of Shakespeare, the result of which was his great work Shakespeare (1849, 1850), in four volumes. He also revised his magnum opus, the History of German Literature, for a fourth edition (1853), and began at the same time to plan his History of the 19th Century, which was to be a continuation of the History of the 18th Century by his guide and teacher, Schlosser. He heralded that voluminous work by a programme or manifesto entitled Einleitung in die Geschichte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, which was issued in 1853, and made a great stir in the literary and political world, chiefly owing to the circumstance that the Government of Baden imprudently instituted a prosecution against the author for high treason. Gervinus had prophesied in his famous pamphlet the final victory of democracy, and based his prediction on the theory that all the great revolutionary outbreaks follow each other in a kind of geometrical progression, — to wit, 1820, 1830, and 1848. Hence he concluded that the next great revolutionary shock would take place about 1888-1890, and that it would insure the final victory to democracy, just as the same decade brought in former centuries freedom and independence to the Americans, the French, the English, and the inhabitants of the Netherlands. Arraigned before a tribunal, he defended himself with a great display of ability and manly courage, but was nevertheless condemned to an imprisonment of two months, and all the copies of the “seditious publication” were to be destroyed. Fortunately for Germany, this disgrace was spared her, the verdict having been rescinded by a higher tribunal. This occurrence, which would have aroused a more elastic temper to greater political activity, had the contrary effect upon the sensitive mind of Gervinus. He buried himself still more among his books, and even forebore to deliver lectures. With unwearied energy he now devoted himself to his above-mentioned great historical work, Geschichte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts seit den Wiener Verträgen, which he issued in eight volumes, the first in 1855 and the last in 1866. In the midst of his historical studies he found relief in his devotion to the works of his favourite musician Handel. He founded, and liberally supported, the Handel Society in Germany, whose object it was to restore the compositions of the great master in an authentic form, and to issue German versions of the texts suitable to the compositions. The result of his Handel studies was his critical and æsthetical work Händel und Shakespeare, zur Æsthetik der Tonkunst (1868), in which he drew an ingenious parallel between his favourite poet and his favourite composer, showing that their intellectual affinity was based on the Teutonic origin common to both, on the same healthiness of their mental capacities, on their analogous intellectual development, and even on a similarity of their inclinations and fates. This philosophical treatise fell flat on the German public, who could not forgive the author for having extolled Handel above the great national masters, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The ill-success of that publication, and the indifference with which the latter volumes of his History of the 19th Century were received by his countrymen, together with the feeling of disappointment that the unity of Germany had been brought about in another fashion and by other means than he wished to see employed, combined to embitter in the highest degree the writer and the politician, but it could not sour in him his kindly and humane disposition, nor did it in the least affect his sociable temper, and he cultivated refined society to the last. He died rather suddenly, on the 18th of March 1871.
The works which will, above all others, insure to Gervinus a lasting fame, are his Geschichte der Deutschen Dichtung, and his work on Shakespeare. The former, a fifth edition of which was edited (1871-74) by the eminent literary historian and philologist, Professor Karl Bartsch of Heidelberg, was the first comprehensive history of German poetry in a connected form, and was executed with a literary skill, a profound erudition, and a lofty enthusiasm for the subject, which imprinted upon it the stamp of a national work of permanent value. The author represented the literary activity of Germany in its successive stages as it grew out of her political life, thus making political history the foil and basis of literary history. His judgment was sincere and independent, and although his criticism often assumed a censorious and pedantic tone against the most prominent poets of Germany, the German people, without allowing themselves to be misguided in their judgment regarding the merits of Goethe, Schiller, Jean Paul, &c., gratefully accepted his work as a national homage to that subject of which they have most reason to be proud. The object of Gervinus in writing his literary history was, besides, a patriotic one. He endeavoured to show that Germany, having already attained great eminence in literature, should henceforth exclusively devote herself to political activity, and surpass other nations also in this respect. He had a no less patriotic object in view in writing his commentary on Shakespeare, which has been made popular in England by an excellent translation. This work is not so much a philological or æsthetical commentary as a treatise pointing out the ethical or moral precepts which may be deduced from his productions, and this circumstance makes it of considerable value and interest also to English readers. Gervinus, who considered Shakespeare the intellectual property of Germany, in the same way as he considered Handel the artistic property of England, wished above all to inculcate on his countrymen the teachings of healthy practical activity to be found in the works of the English dramatist. The object for which he wrote, viz., the moral improvement of his readers from a practical point of view, seemed to him the easier to be accomplished through the productions of Shakespeare, because the poet was descended from a kindred race, and the fructifying seeds of his thoughts and sentiments, falling upon a congenial soil, would be sure to take root there kindly. As a political historian, Gervinus was the antipode of Ranke. Following the principles of F. C. Schlosser, he slighted all documentary history. He had such a deep distrust of all state papers and diplomatic documents that he considered them as most untrustworthy sources for any historical record. He confined himself, therefore, chiefly to taking into account the political events and their results just as they lay on the surface; and, not consulting the state archives for the secret springs which set them in motion, he based his historical narratives almost entirely on his subjective judgment. Many brilliant passages will be found in his general History of the 19th Century, such as the accounts of the South American and Greek revolutions, and of the July revolution in 1830; and his Historische Schriften also contain a number of valuable treatises and essays, which may be said to have paved the way to a new era in the art of writing history. Gervinus entertained a kindly feeling towards England, which he called the land of political mastery; and though he was, what is both the bane and the glory of so many Germans, rather a cosmopolitan, he nevertheless remained a German patriot to the core. He was, besides, distinguished by a rare nobleness and manliness of character, and considering that he was a powerful factor in the literary and political progress of modern times, we may fully agree with Ranke's opinion “that he will never be forgotten.” (C. A. B.)