August von Wasserman

August von Kotzebue

August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue (May 3, 1761March 23, 1819) was a German dramatist.

One of Kotzebue's books was burned during the Wartburg festival in 1817. He was murdered in 1819 by Karl Ludwig Sand, a militant member of the Burschenschaften. The murder of Kotzebue gave Metternich the pretext to issue the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, which dissolved the Burschenschaften, cracked down against the liberal press, and seriously restricted academic freedom in the states of the German Confederation.


Kotzebue was born in Weimar. After attending school there, he went in his sixteenth year to the University of Jena, and afterwards studied for a year in Duisburg. In 1780 he completed his legal course and became an advocate. Through the influence of Graf Gortz, Prussian ambassador at the Russian court, he became secretary of the governor-general of St Petersburg, In 1783 he received the appointment of assessor to the high court of appeal in Reval, where he married the daughter of a Russian lieutenant-general. He was ennobled in 1785, and became president of the magistracy of the province of Estonia. In Reval he acquired considerable reputation by his novels, Die Leiden der Ortenbergischen Familie (1785) and Geschichte meines Vaters (1788), and still more by the plays Adelheid von Wulfingen (1789), Menschenhass und Reue (1790) and Die Indianer in England (1790). The good impression produced by these works was, however, almost effaced by a dramatic satire, Doktor Bahrdt mit der eisernen Stirn, which appeared in 1790 with the name of Knigge on the title page. Written in response to a polemical feud between J.G. Zimmermann and leaders of Berlin's party of the Enlightenment, it linked each of Zimmermann's opponents to a particular sexual perversion.

Kotzebue continued to deny authorship even when the matter began to be investigated by the police, so that as well as alienating both Zimmermann and Knigge (his former allies), Kotzebue gained a reputation for dishonesty and lasciviousness that he would never shake off.

After the death of his first wife, Kotzebue retired from the Russian service, and lived for a time in Paris and Mainz; he then settled in 1795 on an estate which he had acquired near Reval and devoted himself to writing.

Within a few years, Kotzebue published six volumes of miscellaneous sketches and stories (Die jüngsten Kinder meiner Laune, 1793-1796) and more than twenty plays, the majority of which were translated into several European languages. In 1798 he accepted the office of dramatist to the court theatre in Vienna, but owing to differences with the actors he was soon obliged to resign. He now returned to his native town, but as he was not on good terms with Goethe, and had openly attacked Romanticism, his position in Weimar was not comfortable. He thought of returning to St Petersburg, but on his journey there he was, for some unknown reason, arrested at the frontier and transported to Siberia. Fortunately he had written a comedy which flattered the vanity of Emperor Paul I of Russia; he was quickly brought back, presented with an estate from the crown lands of Livonia, and made director of the German theatre in St Petersburg.

Kotzebue returned to Germany when Paul died, and again settled in Weimar; he then turned to Berlin, where in association with Garlieb Merkel (1769-1850) he edited Der Freimutige (1803-1807) and began his Almanach dramatischer Spiele (1803-1820). Towards the end of 1806, he was once more in Russia, and in the security of his estate in Estonia wrote many satirical articles against Napoleon Bonaparte in his journals Die Biene and Die Grille ("The Cricket"). As councillor of state he was attached in 1816 to the department for foreign affairs in St Petersburg, and in 1817 went to Germany, from where he reported to Russia on German affairs. Some suspected him of being a spy, and this view was long maintained, but in modern times has been shown to have been unfounded: he reported only on matters that were already in the public domain. Nevertheless it is fair to say he was Russia's advocate in Germany.

In a weekly journal (Literarisches Wochenblatt) which he published in Weimar he scoffed at the pretensions of those Germans who demanded free institutions, and became detested by nationalist liberals. One of them, Karl Ludwig Sand, a theology student, plotted to kill him, carrying out the act soon after Kotzebue had moved with his family to Mannheim. Sand was executed, and the government made his crime an excuse for placing the universities under strict supervision.

Though he was unfavourably reviewed by critics - many of whom saw his work as immoral - he was one of the most popular writers of his time. In an essay called 'Why Do I Have So Many Enemies', Kotzebue cited jealousy of his fame as a factor. Though seen as a conservative, he was cosmopolitan in outlook, and spoke out against the antisemitism of student nationalists.

He was approached in 1812 by Beethoven, who suggested Kotzebue write the libretto for an opera about Attila (which was never written). Beethoven did however produce incidental music to Kotzebue's play 'The Ruins Of Athens'.

Besides his plays, Kotzebue wrote several historical works: his 'History of the German Empires' wa burned by nationalsit students at the Wartburg Festival (which Sand attended). Of continuing interest are his autobiographical writings, Meine Flucht nach Paris im Winter 1790 (1791), Über meinen Aufenthalt in Wien (1799), Das merkwürdigste Jahr meines Lebens (1801), Erinnerungen aus Paris (1804), and Erinnerungen von meiner Reise aus Liefland nach Rom und Neapel (1805).

As a dramatist he was extraordinarily prolific, his plays numbering over 200; his popularity, not merely on the German, but on the European stage, was unprecedented. His success, however, was seen as due less to any conspicuous literary or poetic ability than to an extraordinary facility in the invention of effective situations; he possessed, as few German playwrights before or since, the unerring instinct for the theatre; and his influence on the technique of the modern drama from Scribe to Sardou and from Bauernfeld to Sudermann is unmistakable. Kotzebue is to be seen to best advantage in his comedies, such as Der Wildfang, Die beiden Klingsberg and Die deutschen Kleinstädter, which contain admirable genre pictures of German life. These plays held the stage in Germany long after the once famous Menschenhass und Reue (which translates as Misanthropy and Repentance, but was known in England as The Stranger), Graf Benjowsky, or ambitious exotic tragedies like Die Sonnenjungfrau and Die Spanier in Peru (which Sheridan adapted as Pizarro) were forgotten.

Theatre historians usually consider the runaway success of The Stranger, the English version of Menschenhass und Reue, in both England (where it opened in 1798) and the United States as one of the harbingers of the emerging popularity of theatrical melodrama, which dominated European and American stages for the first seventy-five years of the nineteenth century.

Two collections of Kotzebue's dramas were published during his lifetime: Schauspiele (5 vols., 1797); Neue Schauspiele (23 vols., 1798-1820). His Sämtliche dramatische Werke appeared in 44 vols., in 1827-1829, and again, under the title Theater, in 40 vols., in 1840-1841. A selection of his plays in 10 vols. appeared in Leipzig in 1867-1868. See Heinrich Doring, A. von Kotzebues Leben (1830); W. von Kotzebue, A. von Kotzebue (1881); Ch. Rabany, Kotzebue, sa vie et son temps (1893); W. Sellier, Kotzebue in England (1901).

Father of 18 children, among them Otto von Kotzebue, Moritz von Kotzebue, Paul Demetrius Kotzebue.

The street in Põhja-Tallinn, administrative district of Tallinn, Estonia is named after him.


Williamson, G.S.: What Killed August von Kotzebue? The Temptations of Virtue and the Political Theology German Nationalism, 1789-1819. The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 2000), pp. 890-943

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