Supplementary Appendix 436.1

Napoleon in Erfurt 1808:
the experiences of Johanna Schopenhauer and Goethe

In her letter to Pauline Gotter on 23 November 1808 (letter 436), Caroline responds to a letter from Pauline (not extant) in which Pauline had related experiences in Erfurt during September-October 1808, when Napoleon, arguably at the height of his power, hosted a grand assemblage of European leaders, regaling them as well with performances by a select group of actors from Paris.

Concerning Johanna Schopenhauer’s experiences at one of those same theater performances, see The Parterre of Fiction, Poetry, History, and General Literature 3 (1835), 293–95 (orig.: Johanna Schopenhauer, “Rückblick,” Ausflug an den Niederrhein und nach Belgien im Jahr 1828, 2 vols. [Leipzig 1830], 1:1–18; repr. “Napoleon im Jahre 1808 zu Erfurt,” Feierstunden der edleren vaterländischen Jugend, für ihre Freunde und jeden Gebildeten [etc.] 4 (1831) 122 [Monday, 11 July 1831], 967–74) (illustration of Erfurt from Meyer’s Universum oder Abbildung und Beschreibung des Sehenswerthesten und Merkwürdigsten der Natur und Kunst auf der ganzen Erde, vol. 7 [Hildburghausen 1840], plate following p. 92):

The French Theatre
as Represented Before the Emperors and Kings at Erfurt
Translated from Madame J. Schopenhauer.

What an extraordinary movement existed in the year 1808, in the contracted limits of this ancient city of Erfurt, which is now so dull and deserted! What a period was that, when the omnipotent will of the wonderful man, who has now for many years reposed on the rock of St. Helena from the astonishing dream of his life, concentrated in this spot, as by the stroke of a magician’s wand, emperors, kings, and all that was renowned and illustrious among mankind!


What a tumult of brilliant equipages with six and eight horses, among which thronged the crowd of spectators, eager to indulge their curiosity, although at the imminent peril of being crushed or trodden under foot! Citizens and rustics, strangers from all countries, courtiers in their richly-embroidered costumes, whose antique form, now recalled into use, appeared almost ridiculous to the children of a new generation. Polish Jews, statesmen, and officers covered with ribbons and crosses, the wives of citizens, and ladies exquisitely apparelled, porters, and female peasants with their paniers at their backs, all crowded together, and endeavoured to make their way through the motley group. From time to time the French soldiers, marching to exercise with military music, added to the confusion of the thoroughfares.

Erfurt, like Würzburg earlier (see Caroline’s letter to Schelling on 30 April–1 May 1806 [letter 405]) likely resembled the scenes below with virtually every window filled with spectators (anonymous, illustration of the procession of the oath of homage for Joseph I in Vienna [1705]):



Johanna Schopenhauer continues:

The street of Anger, however extensive, all the other streets, in fact the entire city, was insufficient to accommodate the strangers who had flocked to Erfurt. The principal inhabitants were driven out of their apartments, and took refuge in the garrets of their domestics, to make room for the train of the emperor of the French; and in the streets which were remote from the centre of the city, the proprietors of houses were rejoiced at the harvest of gold which they reaped from the letting of their lodgings. The hotels were crowded to the very roofs.

Napoleon had brought in his train to Erfurt, the principal performers of the French theatre. Talma, Mademoiselle Duchenois, Mademoiselle Mars, the exquisite Georges, and the beautiful Burgoing, appeared several times each week to play their finest pieces before the august assemblage; and for this purpose, a small theatre, which was discovered in the old college of the Jesuits, had been arranged with a truly French promptitude and elegance.

For each representation tickets of admission to the boxes were distributed among the foreign and native ladies; but it was no easy matter to obtain them. It was necessary to enter into a long, tedious and ceremonious correspondence with our friends, who were in the suite of the grand-duke of Weimar; it occasioned them much trouble, and they had to make interest with the state footman up to M. de Champagny, before my fair friends and myself could obtain tickets to witness the representation of the tragedy of Oedipus, in which Talma and Mademoiselle Raucourt were to play.

Our party arrived at Erfurt, from Weimar, separated in several carriages; we deposited our precious tickets in the apartments which we had engaged at the hotel, and made an attempt to walk in the streets; but the shocking confusion and crowd in every part of the city, compelled us to return to our rooms.

We counted our tickets, and were thunderstruck, when we perceived that two of them were missing. It was in vain that we searched everywhere in the room, had the carpets taken up, and examined every piece of furniture — the tickets had disappeared. One of the waiters had, most probably, made something by them; for these tickets of admission were great articles of traffic at that time, and strangers arriving at Erfurt, without any acquaintances there, frequently paid more than a louis d’or for one.

“Ah! had we but one or two young officers with us now,” sighed the youngest and fairest of our party; “for an epaulet or a decoration [order insignia] are equivalent to a ticket here.” The idea was an excellent one. Among our friends at Erfurt, we soon discovered some cavaliers of the right sort, and it was under their escort and protection that we bent our steps toward the theatre, through the awful crowd by which its avenues were besieged.

(Illustration: “Ein schönes, sehr schönes Kind,” Frauenzimmer Almanach zum Nutzen u. Vergnügen für das Jahr 1801; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:)


At the top of the staircase we were received by an officer of the guard, who distributed our party into several boxes of the theatre, which was still almost empty.

I was fortunate enough, with two of my friends, to be placed in the front seat of a box close to the stage, from whence we could observe everything that took place in the house. We congratulated ourselves on being so comfortably accommodated, but our joy did not continue long. The boxes near ours were soon filled to overflowing, and the door of the one we occupied was hastily opened.

“What!” said the soldier or gendarme, I know not which, under whose superintendence we were placed — “what! three women occupying three chairs! There’s room for six, at least!” and so saying, he introduced between us two ladies, with whom fortunately we were well acquainted.

All the boxes, as well as ours, became more and more crowded; we were mercilessly squeezed; we could scarcely move, and almost fainted with the heat, but we had no time to be ill; the importance of the grand spectacle, which was beginning to arrange itself under our eyes in the pit, so absorbed our attention, to the exclusion of everything else, that we forgot all the inconveniences of our position.

Immediately in front of the stage, two arm-chairs were placed for the two emperors, and on each side of these were ranged common chairs for the kings and reigning princes. The space behind these seats began to be filled. We saw the statesmen and generals of the greatest powers of Europe enter — men with whose names the world then rang, and which have now become a part and parcel of history. Their uniforms stiffened with gold-lace, and their air of vivacity and assurance distinguished the French from the more staid and serious Germans.

There were Berthier, Soult, Caulaincourt, Savary, Lannes, Duroc, and many others equally illustrious; and it seemed as if the grandeur of their master was reflected upon the features of each. We saw Goethe, with his calm and dignified physiognomy; and the venerable Wieland, whom the grand-duke of Weimar had brought with him to Erfurt. The duke of Gotha, and many German princes, who were either sovereigns or allied to reigning houses, were grouped around the two patriarchs of German literature.

The rolling of drums was now heard outside.

“It is the emperor!” exclaimed every voice in the theatre.

“Fools and imbeciles! what are you about?” shouted forth the commanding officer in a rage to the drummers. “It is only a king!”

And in fact a German king was ushered into the theatre; and three other monarchs appeared shortly afterward. Without ceremony, and without salute, the kings of Saxony, Bavaria, and Wirtemburgh made their appearance. The king of Westphalia, who arrived later, eclipsed them all by the splendour of his rich embroidery, and the brilliancy of his jewels. The emperor Alexander, distinguished by his majestic stature, next seated himself in his arm-chair.

The large box exactly opposite the centre of the stage dazzled all eyes, by the bursts of splendour which it flung around. The queen of Westphalia, covered with diamonds, sat in the middle; close to her, the charming Stephanie, grandduchess of Baden, was more remarkable for her grace and beauty than for her dress. Some German princesses were seated near the two sovereign ladies; while the gentlemen and ladies of their court occupied the back of the box.

At this moment, Talleyrand made his appearance in a small box, constructed expressly for him, on a level with the pit, and close to the stage, because the weakness of his feet would not allow of his standing in the pit among the men. The emperor and the kings stood in front of his box, to converse with the minister, who was seated comfortably and at his ease. Everybody was at the rendezvous, except Him who had brought all these grandees together; he was still absent, and he made them wait a long time.

At length a deeper and more prolonged roll on the drums was heard, and all eyes were turned with anxious curiosity to the place of entrance — and then he was seen, this most incomprehensible man, of this most inconceivable epoch. He was dressed in the plainest manner possible, which he always preferred; and, slightly saluting the assembled sovereigns whom he had caused to wait so long, he took possession of his arm-chair at the right of the emperor of Russia. His compact and rather short figure, contrasted with the elegant shape of Alexander. The four kings seated themselves on their chairs without arms, and the play began; but it was in vain that Talma displayed all his art; and that Raucourt, whose beauty and talent had preserved their attractions for half a century, lamented the ravages which Jocasta’s weak charms had caused — for we had no eyes or attention for anything but the spectacle which the pit presented. Nevertheless, the gendarmes at the door of our box did their best to complete our deficient education, and to inculcate upon us, between the acts, the etiquette which we should observe in the presence of the master of the world!

“Take away that opera-glass! The emperor does not like to be looked at in that way!” said one of them, leaning over the heads of all the ladies who were seated behind us.

“Sit upright, and don’t stretch your neck so!” said another — ” the emperor dislikes it!”

We were rather impatient at this schooling; but we took an example from the kings and princes before us, and we endured philosophically from the French what it was not in our power to avoid.

Immediately after the commencement of the tragedy, which he had witnessed, perhaps, a hundred times, Napoleon settled himself comfortably in his armchair, and was soon in a profound sleep. It is well known that he could sleep whenever he pleased both day and night; and eye-witnesses have assured us, that in the very middle of a decisive battle, he purposely slept for an hour or two, in order to recruit himself and to collect new energy, and that he always awoke at the hour he had fixed. On this very day he had fatigued himself in manoeuvring his troops for many hours over a great extent of country.

It was a singular sight for us to behold that terrible man wrapped in gentle slumber, whose gigantic plans were to cause the happiness or misery of half the earth. Twenty years have since [1828] glided away — it is scarcely a third part of the life of man—and yet how many changes have taken place in this short interval? What a powerful upward flight the world has taken in this fifth part of a century!

What exists now, could not then have been guessed. How curiously has Time brandished his scythe in this fraction of space, and what a terrible harvest has he gathered! Where are the kings, the mighty and the great, who were assembled in that hall? Where is he who called them together? He reposes for ever on the rock round which the waves of the ocean are mourning. The short and beautiful existence of Alexander has closed. The kings of Saxony, Bavaria and Wirtemburgh sleep in their marble sepulchres. There is not one who has survived them but King Jerome; and his celebrity, like a morning dream, has evaporated with his whimsical royalty.

The grand-duchess of Baden, the beautiful Stephanie, has long wept over the grave of her husband, who was snatched from her arms in the flower of his age; the duke of Gotha, who needed not his title of prince to charm the world, is dead, and in him his race was extinguished; and Duke Charles Augustus of Weimar no longer lives but in the memory of his subjects. Alas! with how many illustrious names might not this melancholy obituary-list be swelled! J. P.

It was in Erfurt during these events that the famous encounter between Napoleon and Goethe also took place. See Heinrich Düntzer, Life of Goethe, trans. Thomas W. Lyster (London 1908), 578–79:

Almost at the same time with the news of his mother’s death, Goethe had heard of the approaching meeting of the Emperors Napoleon and Alexander at Erfurt, which was now a French city. Poor little Weimar, already groaning beneath its burthens, was to be the Emperor Alexander’s headquarters, and had to meet huge additional expenses. On the evening of September 25 Alexander came, many other royal personages having arrived before him. Karl August had gone to meet Napoleon at Eisenach, to invite him to Weimar, and to shoot deer at the Ettersburg; Napoleon, intending the bitterest humiliation to Prussia, ordered that there should also be an inspection of the battlefield of Jena, and a — hare-hunt!

(Neueste Post. Karte von Deutschland und den angrenzenden Laendern, ed. T. Molls [Vienna 1805]; Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans:)


On September 27 Alexander left Weimar for Erfurt. Napoleon met him midway, at a little hamlet called Münchenholzen [Mönchenholzhausen], and they embraced; in the evening they entered Erfurt together.

[Illustrations: (1) “Napoleon and Alexander at Erfurt,” in William Milligan Sloan, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, 3 vols. (New York 1901), plate following 3:134; (2) Marie-Joseph-Louis-Adolphe Thiers, “Conférences d’Erfurt,” Collection de 350 gravures, dessins de Philippoteaux, etc. pour l’histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire, 2 vols. (Paris 1870), vol. 1, 144no. ]



On September 29, 1808, Karl August summoned Goethe to Erfurt. Here he saw the Andromaque of Racine played by the actors of the Théâtre Français. On September 30 Karl August gave a great dinner, and in the evening Goethe saw Racine’s Britannicus. On October 1 Napoleon held a levée [reception; Goethe attends]. On the morning of October 2, 1808, at about eleven, Goethe was summoned to an audience with Napoleon. He found the Emperor at breakfast, in the cabinet so familiar to Goethe in old Dalberg times. Napoleon looked at Goethe attentively, and then spoke in just and memorable words the full impression: “Voila un homme!”

[Goethe and Napoleon in Erfurt; early postcard:]


After Goethe’s age and health and tragedies had been touched on, Daru mentioned that Goethe had translated Voltaire’s Mahomet. Napoleon said: “It is not a good piece,” and proceeded to explain his view. Then the conversation turned upon Werther. After several just remarks, Napoleon found fault with the mixture of motives in Werther; the suicide is not prompted by unhappy love alone, disappointed ambition is another motive. On this Goethe ventured to remark that he had a certain effect to produce, and needed a special agency. (The same objection had been raised before by Herder and by Madame de Stael; but Goethe had removed all that could be justly blamed when revising Werther, in 1786, for publication in Göschen’s edition.

After this Napoleon spoke with impatience of the Fate Tragedies of the day. “What would they with Fate now?” he said; “Policy is Fate!” Then Napoleon talked with Daru for a time. Then Marshal Soult entered, and the Emperor asked him about the troubles in Poland. Meanwhile Goethe observed the changes in the familiar room.

Then Napoleon came towards him, and by a kind of manoeuvre excluded the other persons in the room from the conversation between Goethe and himself. He asked Goethe sympathetically, in a lowered voice, about his personal circumstances. During the whole interview, the variety of Napoleon’s expressions of assent was admirable; for he seldom listened without nodding or saying “Oui,” or “C’est bien,” or something to that effect When he had himself made any remarks, he would usually add: “Q’en dit Mr. Göt?” [“What does Monsieur Goet(he) have to say about that?”] Goethe at length, having consulted the chamberlain by signs, slipped away without further ceremony.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott