Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Fritz Reuter
REUTER, Fritz (1810-1874), the greatest writer in Platt Deutsch, was born on the 7th November 1810, at Stavenhagen, in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, a small country town which had few means of communication with the rest of the world. His father was burgomaster and sheriff (Stadtrichter), and in addition to his official duties carried on the work of a farmer. Until his fourteenth year Reuter was educated at home by private tutors. He was then sent to the gymnasium at Friedland, in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and afterwards he passed through the higher classes of the gymnasium at Parchim. He had a considerable talent for drawing, and wished to become an artist; but, as his father decided that he should be a lawyer, he began in 1831 to attend lectures on jurisprudence at the university of Rostock. In the following year he went to the university of Jena. The German Governments, alarmed by the revolutionary agitation of 1830, were on the alert to detect symptoms of popular discontent; and a formidable riot at Frankfort in 1833 gave them an excuse for treating the universities with great harshness. Reuter, as a member of the Burschenschaft “Germania” at Jena, was arrested by the Prussian Government; and, although the only charge which could be proved against him was that he had been seen wearing the German colours, he was condemned to death for high treason. This monstrous sentence was commuted by King Frederick William III. of Prussia to imprisonment for thirty years in a Prussian fortress. Reuter accepted his fate calmly, and he had need of all his courage, for during the next few years he was taken from one Prussian fortress to another, in each of which he was kept in close confinement. In 1838, through the personal intervention of the grand-duke of Mecklenburg, he was delivered over to the authorities of his native state, but on condition that he should still be a prisoner. The next two years he spent in the fortress of Dömitz. In 1840 to his great joy was set free, an amnesty having been proclaimed after the accession of Frederick William IV. to the Prussian throne.
Although Reuter was now thirty years of age, he went to Heidelberg to resume his legal studies; but he soon found it necessary to return to Stavenhagen, where he aided in the management of his father's farm. During his imprisonment he had studied many works on agriculture and on the sciences related to it, and he was able make good use of the knowledge he had thus obtained. After his father's death, however, he was compelled by want of capital to abandon farming, and in 1850 settled as a private tutor at the little town of Treptow in Pomerania. Here he married Luise Kunze, the daughter of a Mecklenburg pastor. They had been betrothed when Reuter was at Stavenhagen, and their union proved to be one of uninterrupted happiness.
At Treptow he had to work hard as a private tutor for small pay, but in the evenings he found time to amuse himself by writing, in Platt Deutsch, in prose and verse, a number of tales and anecdotes. This collection of miscellanies was published in 1853 in a volume entitled Läuschen und Riemels. The book contains many lively sketches of manners in North Germany, and it was received with so much favour that Reuter was encouraged to make new ventures in literature. Fortunately he decided to go on writing in Platt Deutsch. There are so many abstract terms in High German that few writers succeed in the attempt to use it as a vehicle for the powerful utterance of simple and natural feeling. Platt Deutsch, on the contrary, although limited in its range, is fresh and vigorous, and in direct contact with the motives which give unfading charm to old popular songs and ballads. All the resources of this strong and expressive dialect were at Reuter's service. He thought in Platt Deutsch, and in his greatest efforts was always able to find the right word for that exquisite blending of humour and pathos which is one of the most characteristic notes of his writings.
The work which succeeded Läuschen und Riemels was Polterabendgedichte, and in the same year (1855) appeared De Reis nach Belligen, a humorous poem describing the adventures of some Mecklenburg peasants who resolve to go to Belgium (which they never reach) to learn the secrets of an advanced civilization. These writings attracted much attention, and Reuter was so confident of success that in 1856 he left Treptow and established himself at Neubrandenburg, resolving to devote his whole time to literary work. His next book (published in 1858) was Kein Hüsung, a poem in which he presents with great force and vividness some of the least attractive aspects of village life in Mecklenburg. This was followed, in 1859, by Hanne Nüte un de lütte Pudel, the best of the works written by Reuter in verse. The qualities of those who have a part to play in the story are brought out with remarkable distinctness, and the action provides the poet with many opportunities of giving free expression to his ardent love of nature.
In 1861 Renter's popularity was largely increased by Schurr-Murr, a collection of tales, some of which are in High German, but this work is of slight importance in comparison with the series of stories which he had already begun, and by which he was to establish his fame as one of the foremost writers of his age. To this series he gave the general title Olle Kamellen. The first volume, Zwei Lustige Geschichte, published in 1860, contained Woans ik tau 'ne Fru kamm and Ut de Franzosentid. Ut mine Festungstid (1861) formed the second volume; Ut Mine Stromtid (1864) the third, fourth, and fifth volumes; and Dörchläuchting (1866) the sixth volume. Woans ik tau 'ne Fru kamm is a bright little tale, in which Reuter tells, in a half serious half bantering tone, how he wooed the lady who became his wife. In Ut de Franzosentid he undertook a more difficult task, which enabled him for the first time to do full justice to his genius. The scene is laid in and near Stavenhagen (Platt Deutsch, Stemhagen) in the year 1813, and the principal complications spring from the disappearance of a Frenchman, which gives rise to suspicions of foul play. In this powerful tale the characters are depicted by means of a few bold and rapid strokes, and our interest in them is heightened by the fact that their personal fortunes are associated with the great events which at the beginning of the 19th century stirred the heart of Germany to its depths. Ut mine Festungstid is of less general interest than Ut de Franzosentid, but it is not less vigorous either in conception or in style. It contains a narrative of Reuter's hardships during the term of his imprisonment, and it awakens sympathy all the more effectually because it is brightened by many a gleam of kindly and humorous feeling. Ut mine Stromtid is by far the greatest of Reuter's writings, and ranks with the most famous masterpieces of modern fiction. He records few incidents which might not happen in the lives of ordinary men and women, yet he never loses his hold over the imagination of his readers, so full of vitality are the characters of his story, and so deep is his insight into the enduring facts of human nature. The most original character in the book is Bräsig, an eccentric old bachelor, fond of gossip and apt to interfere too much in the affairs of his neighbours, but humorous, loyal to the core, and coming out most brightly when his good qualities are put to the severest test. There is a touch of romance, too, in this simple and genial nature, for he retains to the last his love for the woman who had fascinated him in his youth, and is always at hand to serve her when she needs his help. Another powerfully conceived character is Havermann, a man of solid and serious judgment, calm and undemonstrative, of sterling rectitude, and revealing at the great crises of life infinite depths of love and pity. Equally attractive in their own way are the good pastor and his wife, who bring up Havermann's daughter, Louise, in their quiet parsonage; and we come to know intimately every member of the pleasant household in which Havermann's frank and comely sister (whom Bräsig secretly loves) is the central figure. In this great book Reuter displays imaginative power of the highest order in the expression of every mood and passion within the proper range of his art; and he fails, or at least does not perfectly succeed, only when he deals with characters belonging to classes he had never had an opportunity of studying closely. As in Ut de Franzosentid he describes the deep national impulse in obedience to which Germany rose against Napoleon, so in Ut mine Stromtid he presents many aspects of the revolutionary movement of 1848. He shows little sympathy with some of the most characteristic aspirations of the period, but in many passages he indicates by slight but significant touches the strength of the forces which had begun to make for social as distinguished from merely political reorganization.
In 1863 Reuter transferred his residence from Neubrandenburg to Eisenach; and here he died on the 12th June 1874. In the works produced at Eisenach he did not maintain the high level of his earlier writings. Dörchläuchting, although it contains some striking passages, lacks the freshness and spontaneity of the other tales of the series to which it belongs; and admirers of his genius found little to interest them in Die Montechi und Capuleti in Konstantinopel, which he wrote after a visit to the Turkish capital.
Reuter is the most realistic of the great German writers. To the dreamers of the romantic school he has not the faintest resemblance, nor does he ever attempt to describe ideally perfect characters. The men and women of his stories are the men and women he knew in the villages and farmhouses of Mecklenburg, and the circumstances in which he places them are the circumstances by which they were surrounded in actual life. His fidelity to facts is as exact as that of the Dutch school of painters, and, like them, he thinks nothing too minute for his use, if by small details he can give variety and animation to his pictures. But he does not merely glide over the surface of life; he penetrates to the inmost springs of feeling, and in simple peasant folk finds characteristics which in his hands become types of universal qualities. The sources of tears and the sources of laughter he touches with equal ease; but, while his humour is sometimes rather extravagant, his pathetic passages are always marked by perfect truth and delicacy. His description of the death of the old pastor in Ut mine Stromtid is one of the gems of modern literature, and the scene in which Bräsig dies, holding the hand of the woman he has loved all his life, is in a different way not less impressive. Reuter's only serious defect as an artist is that he fails to maintain the due proportion between the different parts of his stories. If an idea attracts him, he cannot resist the temptation to unfold its full significance, whether or not it is in organic relation with his scheme as a whole. To some extent, however, the reader is compensated for these interruptions by happy strokes of humour which would have been rendered impossible had Reuter forced himself to adopt a more rigid method.
Reuter's Sämmtliche Werke in thirteen volumes (edited by Ad. Wildbrandt) were published in 1863-68. To these were added in 1875 two volumes of Nachgelassene Schriften, with a biography; and in 1878 a comedy, Die drei Langhänse. See Glagau, Fritz Reuter und Seine Dichtungen, 1866; Ebert, Fritz Reuter, 1874; and Zeil, “Fritz Reuter,” in Unsere Zeit, 1875. (J. SI.)