Madame de Staél: “Preface to DE L’ALLEMAGNE” Part 3 of 3

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810 in three volumes; this is from the 1813 John Murray translation).


On my return to the estate of my father, the Prefect of Geneva forbad me to go to a greater distance than four leagues from it.

I suffered myself one day to go as far as ten leagues, merely for an airing; the gendarmes immediately pursued me, the postmasters were forbidden to supply me with horses, and it would have appeared as if the safety of the state depended on such a weak being as myself.

However, I still submitted to this imprisonment in all its severity, when a last blow rendered it quite insupportable to me.

Some of my friends were banished, because they had had the generosity to come and see me.  This was too much.

To carry with oneself the contagion of misfortune, not to dare to associate with those one loves, to be afraid to write to them, or pronounce their names.

To be the object by turns, either of affectionate attentions which make one tremble for those who shew them, or of those refinements of baseness which terror inspires, is a situation from which every one, who values life, would withdraw!

I was told, as a means of softening my grief, that these continual persecutions were a proof of the importance that was attached to me.

I could have answered that I had not deserved ‘Neither this excess of honour, nor this unworthy treatment,’ but I never suffered myself to look to consolations addressed to my vanity.

For I knew that there was no one then in France, from the highest to the lowest, who might not have been found worthy of being, made unhappy.

I was tormented in all the concerns of my life, in all the tender points of my character, and power condescended to take the trouble of becoming well acquainted with me, in order the more effectually to enhance my sufferings.

Not being able then to disarm that power by the simple sacrifice of my talents, and resolved not to employ them in its service, I seemed to feel to the bottom of my heart the advice my father had given me, and I left my paternal home.

I think it my duty to make this calumniated book known to the public, this book, the source of so many troubles.

And though General Savary told me in his letter, that my work ‘was not French,’ as I certainly shall not allow him to be the representative of France, it is to Frenchmen such as I have known them, that I should with confidence address a work, in which I have endeavored to the best of my abilities to heighten the glory of the works of the human mind.

Germany may be considered, from its geographical situation, as the heart of Europe, and the great association of the Continent can never recover its independence but by means of that country.

Difference of language, natural boundaries, the recollections of a common history, contribute all together to give birth to those great individual existences of mankind which we call nations.

Certain proportions are necessary to their existence, they are distinguished by certain qualities.

And if Germany were united to France, the consequence would be, that France would also be united to Germany, and the Frenchmen of Hamburg, like the Frenchmen of Rome, would by degrees effect a change in the character of the countrymen of Henry the Fourth.

The vanquished would in time modify the victors, and in the end both would be losers.

I have said in my work that the Germans ‘were not a nation’; assuredly, they are at this moment most heroically disproving that assertion.

But, nevertheless, do we not still see some German countries expose themselves, by fighting against their countrymen, to the contempt even of their allies, the French?

Those auxiliaries (whose names we hesitate to pronounce, as if it were not yet too late to conceal them from posterity); those auxiliaries, I say, are not led either by opinion or even by interest, still less by honour.

But a blind fear has precipitated their governments towards the strongest side, without reflecting that they were themselves the cause of that very strength before which they bowed.

The Spaniards, to whom we may apply Southey’s beautiful lines,

“And those who suffer bravely save mankind.”

The Spaniards have seen themselves reduced to the possession of Cadiz alone; but they were no more ready then to submit to the yoke of strangers, than they are now when they have reached the barrier of the Pyrenees, and are defended by that man of an ancient character and a modern genius, Lord Wellington.

But to accomplish these great things, a perseverance was necessary, which would not be discouraged by events. The Germans have frequently fallen into the error of suffering themselves to be overcome by reverses.

Individuals ought to submit to destiny, but nations never; for it is they who can alone command destiny; with a little more exertion of the will, misfortune would be conquered.

The submission of one people to another is contrary to nature.

Who would now believe in the possibility of subduing Spain, Russia, England, or France?—why should it not be the same with Germany?

If the Germans could be subjugated, their misfortune would rend the heart; but still we should be tempted to say to them as Mlle. De Mancini said to Louis XIV: “You are a king, sire, and you weep—you are a nation and you weep!”

The picture of literature and philosophy seems indeed foreign from the present moment; yet it will be grateful, perhaps, to this poor and noble Germany, to recall the memory of intellectual riches amidst the ravages of war.

It is three years since I designated Prussia, and the countries of the north which surround it, as ‘the country of thought’; into how many noble actions has this thought been transformed!

That to which the systems of Philosophers led the way is coming to pass, and the independence of mind is about to lay the foundation of the independence of nations.