Supplementary Appendix 328b.1

Wilhelm Schlegel to Fichte on 13 December 1808
concerning the latter’s testimony against Sophie Bernhardi [*]

Geneva, 13 December 1808

I hear that in connection with the divorce proceedings of my excellent lady friend, Madam Sophie Tieck, against Bernhardi in Berlin, you have officially testified and confirmed under oath a highly defamatory and insulting accusation concerning both this honorable woman and myself. [1]

Although I have never lived in more intimate contact with you, something already precluded by the considerable disparity in our education, lifestyle, and tastes, [2] a cordial relationship between us has nonetheless obtained in the past. Moreover, I have on occasion, e.g., in connection with the accusation of atheism raised against you, taken your side in an unequivocally resolute fashion. At my own risk I published a piece by you whose publication the Prussian government had denied in its own territories, and with respect to which moderate and intelligent people found worthy of at least some criticism.

Although my convictions never concurred with your own, I never said as much publicly, always speaking about you instead with unequivocal respect. Hence I had no reason to anticipate such extreme hostility from you of the sort that now wounds me in the person of such an admired lady friend.

As far as Madam Bernhardi is concerned, you yourself assiduously sought her company during your initial stay in Berlin, [3] also showing her considerable trust and high respect. In your eyes she can hardly have any other shortcoming than that she too clearly saw through your weaknesses and ludicrousness, albeit without ever making any malicious use of it, withholding such instead, as it were, in the belief that a man who so confidently stepped forward as someone who would reestablish humankind, and who was also recognized as such by several of his contemporaries, must nonetheless possess some inner worth despite the fact that when viewed up close he often appeared regrettably petty.

Quite apart from such personal considerations, however, you had an extremely good reason not to get involved in this quarrel in any way, namely, that Madam Bernhardi herself can quite legitimately adduce in her complaint Herr Bernhardi’s contact with you yourself as one demonstration of his ill behavior. While leaving his wife and children to live in want, he squandered his last coins getting drunk with you and frequenting the most dissolute houses.


I can attest as much myself insofar as psychological curiosity — which behaves like a metaphysician whose excessive consumption of wine has robbed him of precisely the consciousness he has previously demonstrated as well as the use of the moral freedom he has asserted — prompted me to make the third on several occasions, though disgust at the attendant vulgarity soon similarly prompted me to distance myself from these orgies.


But what above all else should have kept you, a teacher of morality who has nattered on so excessively about truthfulness, from testifying that you noticed anything between Madam Bernhardi and myself that might allow the conclusion of an illicit relationship, is this, namely, that it is a lie, a flagrant, disgraceful, irresponsible lie. You saw nothing more, indeed you could have seen nothing more, since nothing more took place, than the expression of the most deferential, brotherly affection toward this woman who is as characterized by her intellect and character as by her misfortune.

Nor did I ever find any reason to conceal that disposition, since one should not, after all, be ashamed of the good; I consistently demonstrated such in Herr Bernhardi’s own presence, who will likely not be particularly inclined to admit that he harbored any suspicions against me for that reason while at the same time he was willing enough to live from my charity. I had entered into an alliance with the upright brother of my friend, the sculptor Tieck, an alliance that was strengthened at the deathbed of his parents, to rescue his sister from the unspeakable suffering in which she was mired quite without any culpability on her part, and to do so regardless of the sacrifice and effort required.

Since Herr Bernhardi’s circumstances were in such shabby condition that he had to use the entirety of his meager income to pay the inordinate usurious interest he had incurred, and for his own needs, and since he was also otherwise so lethargic and incapable that he neither could nor wanted to acquire anything, and apart from his few hours at school did nothing but eat and sleep, we enabled her not only to take care of the household financially, but also gradually to pay off all the debts he had incurred. I think I may say that I saved the life of her children, who, because my friend’s good parents were already dead at that time, would inevitably, for lack of the bare necessities, have gone to ruin amid illness, indeed, the youngest even at birth, had their care been left to Herr Bernhardi.

But I consider it a small matter to have made these advances to my friend for his sister, even though such was possible for me only through engaging all my powers; I was richly rewarded by the thought that I had contributed to rescuing a being of such rare worth. But that of which in this world I am proud is the patience with which for several years I endured the repugnant company of Herr Bernhardi and was party to his outrageous behavior; and it is the courage with which I entered this purgatory of bestial vulgarity in order to free my friend. I saw that her health was succumbing, that it could not but be ruined the longer things continued.

Herr Hufeland, a wise and humane physician, came to the same assessment of her condition. He often told me that the decimation of her health derived largely from her disposition, and that he knew of no other advice for her than to remove herself from her domestic surrounding and go to a milder climate, a step she was more than justified in making after having reestablished Herr Bernhardi’s circumstances to the point that, since their marriage, it was sooner she who supported him than he her and her children. He could not make any further claims on the company of this delicate and noble-minded woman, to whom he consistently preferred the company of his coarse drinking companions; in Herr Hufeland’s opinion, the condition of her health made impossible the continuation of marital life of the sort he demanded. Herr Bernhardi, moreover, could consider himself quite lucky indeed that, without any contribution on his part, his children — hitherto so ill-provided because of his behavior — were accorded the most prudent care and the most advantageous upbringing.

So little did my friend think about asserting her own rights that, had he merely left her undisturbed amid these new life plans, his past depravities would have remained quite uncensured. It was only in self-defense that she filed suit against him.

It should not, of course, surprise me that people like your drinking mate and you yourself are unable to comprehend a relationship such as that which between my lady friend and myself provided the foundation for my respect for her and my efforts to assist her by assuming the position of her absent brother and the vacated position of father to her children, and that such people of necessity misinterpret such a relationship in the most despicable and contemptuous fashion. At the time, however, it was admittedly the farthest thing from Herr Bernhardi’s mind to allude to such things, since he trembled at the mere thought of inciting my ill will, expecting as he did to be supported by my own generosity.

Consider for a moment, standing over against one another as we are here, and ask yourself whether I must not profoundly blush in your soul. I with the upright and selfless effort to ameliorate unmerited misfortune. You as the persecutor of two innocent children who, if surrendered to Herr Bernhardi, would without fail fall into misery and ruin through his own depravity and example; as the persecutor of a woman who has finally tried to save herself after such protracted oppression, after the peace of her soul and her health unfortunately have already been ruined forever by what she has suffered.

I in alliance with her deceased parents, with her loyal brother, with a helpful physician, with many excellent and important persons abroad whose respect has been elicited by my friend’s integrity, a friend whose fate has also prompted their sincere concern. You as the accomplice and companion of a coarse, worthless human being who has made himself utterly unworthy of the sacred name of spouse and father, a human being against whom public contempt has long been decided, and about whose real transgression we know through his own admission.

Your testimony against Madam Bernhardi belongs with that of a dissolute maidservant; my own testimony, on her behalf with respect to the loving and excellent upbringing she has accorded her children, belongs with that of a sublime princess renowned for her virtue and piety, to wit, with that of Archduchess Marie Anne of Austria.

Let me repeat once more that your accusation against Madam Bernhardi and myself is a lie, a shameless and malicious lie, and I will be declaring as much everywhere this quarrel is discussed, and mention you with the names appropriate to the inventor of such a lie, and wheresoever I might meet you again, I will greet you before the eyes of all the world in the manner you deserve.

A W Schlegel


[*] Source: Krisenjahre 1:654–57; copy in Wilhelm’s hand.

This letter concerning Sophie’s divorce proceedings was, however, never sent, since, as Sophie herself wrote to Wilhelm on 4 January 1809 (Krisenjahre 2:5), developments in her child-custody case made it imprudent to do so.

Illustrations (in order): Göttinger Taschen Calendar Für das Iahr 1797; Genealogischer Calender auf das Jahr 1774; both: Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung. Back.

[1] See supplementary appendix 327d.2 concerning Sophie Bernhardi’s marital situation at the time: “The venerable Fichte testified at the behest of the court that once, upon unexpectedly entering Madam Bernhardi’s sleeping chamber, he came upon the elder Schlegel [i.e., Wilhelm] and Madam Bernhardi in the most peculiar situation, and similar vexing things.” Back.

[2] A malicious, intentionally insulting dig from the son of a high cleric of the church in Hannover to the son from the proletarian class. Back.

[3] Fichte had moved to Berlin from Jena in early July 1799, albeit without his family, whom he then brought from Jena in March 1800. Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott