Letter 118

• 118. Caroline to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer in Berlin: Mainz, 27 October 1792

M[ainz], 27 Oct[ober 17]92

|274| If you are perchance under the impression that one cannot write a person here securely, you are quite mistaken — unless in Berlin a letter to Mainz is currently viewed as high treason. [1] I am getting a bit weary waiting so long to learn how your justified wrath made the transition back to a gentler disposition. [2]

I hope it did so as easily as we made the transition into enemies’ hands — if our polite, valiant guests really are to be called “enemies.” — What a change we have had since a week ago — General Custine is living in the castle of the Elector of Mainz [3] — the German Jacobin Club assembles in his banquet hall [4] — the streets are teeming with National Cockades. [5]

The strange voices that once cursed freedom now strike up the tune vivre libre ou mourir. [6] Had I but the patience to write, and you to read, how much could I relate to you! —

We now have over 10,000 men in the town, and calm and order reign. All the nobles have fled — citizens are being treated with extreme consideration — such is politics, but if these people were des gueux et des miserables [7] of the sort some would like to portray them as — if strict discipline were not enforced — if the proud spirit of their cause were not inspiring them and teaching them to be magnanimous, all the excesses and insults would indeed be unavoidable.

|275| Although these people look quite shabby as a result of having been out in the field so long, they are not poor, and soldiers and horses are well-fed. By contrast, the condition of the coalition armies — Goethe, [8] who is not wont to exaggerate, wrote to his mother — that no mouth and no quill can describe the sad state of the army — and one Prussian officer has referred to “la situation imposante de leurs armies, et la deplorable de la notre.” [9]

Custine has calculated his own steps so precisely — nowhere does he encounter resistance — has nothing to fear — ne vous fiés pas à vos armies mourantes, [10] he said during negotiations. France has been vacated, Longwy and Verdun have been returned [11] — the siege of Lille has been suspended [12] — the sieges of Montesquion [13] and Custine successful without bloodshed — and what pleases me more than anything is that the Marrats have been branded in the National Assembly according to their merits. [14]

There, I believe, projects are already in the works — whereas here one cannot fend off the ridicule — everyone harangues — gesticulates to the 4 winds — intent on enlightening the people. One of their instruments is my brother-in-law Georg Böhmer, who gave up his professorship in Worms and has become something like a secretair to Custine. [15]

My heart just sank when I saw him — oh, woe — are you people really sure you want, and really sure you can usehim? But whom can they not “use”? The ones who push their way to the forefront during such times are never the best. —

I cannot praise Forster’s conduct highly enough — he still has not joined any of the organizations — he continues to do honor to his previous disposition and will perhaps clearly articulate and bring it to expression when the time is right. [16]

The middle estate admittedly would like to throw off the yoke — the citizen is not comfortable if he does not feel it on his neck. How far does he yet have to go before attaining the degree of knowledge and self-awareness of even the least sansculotte out in the field. Business |276| ceases to make its profits for a while, and that means everything to him — he misses the so-called gentlemen masters, that is, as many among them who are in concurs and left the tradesmen unpaid. But there is only one opinion concerning the priesthe will surely not see his beautiful town Mainz again even if, as is genuinely in doubt, it were to open its gates to his successor.

Custine is digging in and swears he will not relinquish the key to Germany unless peace itself forces his hand. Scarcely 4 months have passed since the concert des puissances assembled here and resolved on France’s defeat [17] — where now every theater billet carries the words: “With the permission of Citizen Custine.”

I have had a housemate here for 8 days now, my dear Meyer — a compatriot — Madam Forkel. [18] No one forced her on me — I myself first came up with the idea. You may know that she is under the protection of the Forster family. I really hardly knew her at all — but I have absolutely no hatred toward sinners and no fear for myself. What do you have to say about that? She has consistently conducted herself well here — did she ever wholly deserve the kind of judgment contained in Bürger’s letter? [19]

But really, I am hardly interested in finding out — it really is all the same to me — but did you ever find her to be false and inclined to intrigue apart from quarrels involving love? That might trouble me — since I do not really know whether my own straightforward and passive honesty can offer an adequate counter in that regard. I have found her quite pleasing to this point — I get on well with her — and since one can do so without really surrendering oneself, I see no reason why I should not have taken the first steps. But you know her and can throw more light on the matter.

Adieu, dear Meyer. Please write soon. How do you like Forster’s Erinnerungen? [20] Reichard has published a Revolutions-Allmanach that will be useless next year. [21]


[1] High treason in English in original. Concerning Caroline’s views on the events in Mainz as expressed in letters she allegedly wrote from Mainz to Luise Michaelis in Hamburg and to her mother, see Friedrich Schlegel’s letter to Wilhelm Schlegel on 23 October 1793 (letter 135e). Back.

[2] The reference is to Meyer’s reaction to Caroline’s erroneous suspicions in her letter to him on 22 September 1792 (letter 115). Back.

[3] General Adam Philippe Comte de Custine occupied Mainz without a fight on 21 October 1792. Friedrich Karl Joseph von Erthal, Prince Elector and Archbishop of Mainz, had fled earlier (see Caroline’s letter to Meyer on 6 October 1792 [letter 116]). Here illustrations of (1) the French entering the town and (2) Custine meeting with town representatives ([1] Friedrich Bülau, Die deutsche Geschichte in Bildern : nach Originalzeichnungen deutscher Künstler, vol. 2 [Dresden 1862], plate following p. 99; [2] Samuel-Jean-Joseph Cholet after Victor-Jean Vincent Adam; Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz):




[4] The Jacobin Club — the “Society of the Friends of Liberty and Equality,” or the “Club,” as it was called — was established in Mainz on 23 October 1792. The parent club was founded in 1789 in Versailles, then moved to Paris later that year, where it held its meetings in the Dominican monastery, whose initial residence in the rue Saint-Jacques prompted the nickname “Jacobins.”

After the end of the monarchy in 1793, the name changed from Club Breton to Société des Jacobins, amis de la liberté et de l’égalité, whence also the name of the club in Mainz. The club was known for advocating extreme democratic views based on equality and liberty; Robespierre was one of its early leaders.

Here a meeting of the Jacobin Club in Paris during the Revolution (anonymous, Le club des Jacobins pendant la Revolution; Musée de la Ville de Paris) and in 1792 (Geschichte der nachtheiligen Folgen der Staatsrevolutionen alter und neuer Zeiten [Hohenzollern 1793]; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung; a pirated copy of the Revolutions-Almanach [1793]):



Here a satirical illustration of a typical Jacobin (L. Massard, A Gentleman of Paris [1789]):


When Caroline wrote this letter, Georg Forster was not yet a member. Here an official meeting of the Mainz club itself in late 1792 and a heated tavern discussion among its members (Johann Jacob Hoch, Der Mainzer Jakobinerklub; Bong after V. St-Lerche, Die Clubbisten von Mainz [1888]):




[5] The tricolor cockade mentioned in Caroline’s letters to Meyer on 6 and 16 October 1792 (letters 116, 117). Back.

[6] Fr., “Live free or die”; a popular slogan during the French Revolution, esp. among the Jacobins, many of whom had uniforms whose buttons were inscribed with this motto (Jasperware Revolutionary Button, ca. 1791–93; “Franks.395” grouping):



[7] Fr., “knaves/scoundrels and bums”; Caroline reports use of the word gueux in her letter to Meyer on 16 October 1792 as well (letter 117). Back.

[8] Goethe had visited Georg and Therese Forster in Mainz on 21 August 1792, encountering Caroline there as well. See also Caroline’s letter to Meyer on 12 August 1792 (letter 114) with note 12. Back.

[9] Fr., “the imposing condition of their armies and the deplorable one of ours.” Back.

[10] Fr., “do not trust in your faltering [lit. dying] armies.” Back.

[11] See note 10 to Caroline’s letter to Meyer on 12 August 1792 (letter 114). Although Longwy had been taken on 23 August and Verdun on 2 September, the retreating Prussians had since abandoned both (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795]):



[12] Thirty-five thousand Austrian forces had besieged the city of Lille during late September 1792, bombarding the city for nine days and nights but ultimately having to lift the siege on 7 October in the face of the citizens’ determined resistance (Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch [Augsburg 1795]):



[13] Schmidt (1913), 1:275, reads Montesquion, though the manuscript might also allow the reading “Montesquiou.” Back.

[14] The National Convention had convened on 24 September 1792 with Armand de Kersaint’s protest against the September massacres in Paris (2–7 September) and a motion to pass a law against its instigators. Here a representative illustration of the massacres (“Septembrisirung,” plate xi, Almanach der Revolutions Opfer für das Jahr 1795; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):


In defense of his position, Kersaint, who was guillotined in December 1793, later singled out especially Marat. Caroline, of course, could not anticipate that outcome. Back.

[15] Georg Wilhelm Böhmer, the youngest of the Böhmer sons, had resigned his position as corector of the Gymnasium in Worms. Although Caroline ignored him in Mainz as being essentially “crazy” (Caroline’s letter to Meyer on 15 June 1793 [letter 129]), to her great misfortune he was sometimes mistaken for her spouse.

After the catastrophe of the fall of Mainz, he was possibly horribly beaten as an “arch-Clubbist.” Goethe speaks about the days following the city’s surrender on 23 July 1793 (Weimarer Ausgabe 33:309–11; trans. Miscellaneous Travels of J. W. Goethe, trans. L. Dora Schmitz [London 1884], 275–76; that Goethe is definitely referring to Georg Wilhelm Böhmer is not documented here, but Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring writes from Frankfurt to Christian Gottlob Heyne in Göttingen on 27 July 1793 [Forster’s Briefwechsel mit Sömmerring 634]: “Böhmer was arrested outside the city gates disguised as a sans-culotte, beaten, and his wife pulled from the carriage by her hair”):

The 25th of July [1793]. On the morning of this day, I remarked that no preparations had yet been made to prevent confusion, either upon the high-road, or in the neighbourhood of it. This seemed more necessary to-day than ever, as the poor Mainz people, who had left the town during the siege, and had since been suffering boundless misery, had now collected from distance places, and were beleaguering the road in crowds, relieving their overburdened hearts with oaths and threats of vengeance. The stratagems by which some had succeeded in getting off the day before were of no use now. Single travelling-carriages at times again rattled along the road; but the Mainz people had stationed themselves in the ditches by the side of the road, and if the fugitives managed to escape one ambuscade, they soon afterwards fell into another.

Every carriage was stopped; if the occupants were Frenchmen or Frenchwomen, they were allowed to proceed, but Clubbists on no condition whatever. A very handsome travelling-carriage, with a team of three horses, came rolling along, a pretty young girl looked out of the window, and bowed to everybody right and left but the people seized hold of the reins, the hood was thrown back, and one of the chief Clubbists [Georg Wilhelm Böhmer?] found seated by her side.

There could be no mistake about him; he was a short, thick man, with a big face marked with the small-pox. They dragged him out by the heels, pulled up the hood, and wished the beauty a pleasant journey.

The man they took into the nearest field, and kicked and beat him unmercifully; every bone of his body must have been bruised, and his face disfigured. One of the sentries took pity on him, and got him carried into a cottage, where he was laid upon straw, and saved from the violence of his fellow-townsmen, but still exposed to the sneers, deridings, and contempt of the bystanders.

This, however, was carried so far, that in the end the officer would allow no one to enter; and begged me, whom, as an aquaintance [sic], he would not have refused, to give up all thoughts of witnessing this most melancholy and disgusting of spectacles.

Sömmerring writes to Heyne again from Frankfurt on 18 February 1793 (Rudolph Wagner, Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring’s Leben und Verkehr mit seinen Zeitgenossen [Leipzig 1844] 2:194–95; also in Forster’s Briefwechsel mit Sömmerring 610):

I cannot imagine that the French constitution will make much headway in Germany, considering it is being proclaimed by apostles as pathetic as Wedekind and Böhmer, who serve only as objects of mockery both for the French and for the citizens of Mainz and before whom — hard to believe — even someone like Forster bows.

Meyer himself, an opponent of the revolution in any case, writes to Gottfried August Bürger from Berlin on 9 July 1793 (Strodtmann 4:225):

You and I will never agree on either politics or metaphysics. You always demand and indeed organize everything a priori, while I know of absolutely nothing that might even modestly sway my own unconquerable doubts apart from experience itself. That said, however, if all demagogues were like you, I would doubtless have little problem seeing them at the helm. As it is, however, just consider that such pathetic fellows as Georg Böhmer and Wedekind are controlling Mainz with an iron rod, and then consider whether you would like to have them as colleagues.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg gave this assessment of Georg Böhmer on 16 November 1792 (not 1782 as in Schmidt [1913], 1:700) in a letter to his cousin Friedrich August Lichtenberg from Göttingen (Lichtenberg, Briefe 3:58–59):

I do not think you ever really knew Georg Wilhelm Böhmer, the 5th of Böhmer’s 7 sons, nos. 3 and 4 and 6 now being deceased . . . He initially studied theology here, then law after having already preached quite often, then became conrector in Worms. He attended all my collegia and also often visited me. He is not without talent.

He was behaving with a bit of rapturous enthusiasm even while he was here and has always had a predilection for powerful slogans. The opinion here of him and of his prosaic bravour “Ode to the Landgrave of Kassel,” and of our sauvegarde [Fr. “safeguard, protector”], is precisely the same as your own.

I feel sorry for his father, a good, upright man who doubtless shares the same opinion. People here found the threat against the Landgrave of Kassel [Wilhelm I. von Hessen-Kassel (1743–1821)] repugnant, and Herr Böhmer is quite mistaken if he thinks this will make some grand impression.

The Hessians speak freely and yet still love their princes. Anyone who wants to foment rebellion among such subjects should avoid speaking like an excited schoolboy or a candidatus sanctae theologiae. Back.

[16] Forster would join the Mainz Jacobin Club on 7 November 1792, delivering a speech there on 15 November, “On the Relationship of the People of Mainz to the Franks,” and declaring that Mainz would now be a permanent part of the new France. The speech, in which he recognized the Rhine River as France’s natural boundary, prompted considerable ire in Germany toward him. Back.

[17] Fr., “concert of the powers”; Caroline is referring to the July meeting in Mainz of certain allied commanders after the election of Emperor Franz II.

After the Girondins had arranged for France to declare war on Austria on 20 April 1792, Emperor Leopold II and the king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, had combined armies and put them under the command of the Duke of Braunschweig. In the early summer of 1792, the duke was poised with military forces at Koblenz. On 25 July 1792, he issued the Brunswick Manifesto (or Proclamation) to the population of Paris, threatening that if the French royal family was harmed, French civilians would be harmed as well.

Although intended to intimidate Paris, it instead further enflamed the increasingly radical French Revolution. On 30 July, Austria and Prussia invaded France, intending to occupy Paris. By the time Caroline is writing, the allied armies were in retreat, and, as she points out, the French in control of Mainz itself. Back.

[18] Meta Forkel was a native of Göttingen — whence the reference to her as Caroline’s “compatriot” — and the sister of Georg Christian Gottlieb von Wedekind. She had arrived in Mainz on approximately 19 October 1793, having given birth out of wedlock on 2 October to her and Johann Heinrich Liebeskind’s son, Adalbert, in Frensdorf, 15 km south of Bamberg (Monika Siegel, “Ich hatte einen Hang zur Schwärmerey,” 108; map: J. Walch, Neueste Post-Karte von Deutschland und dessen angrenzenden Laendern [Augsburg 1813 ]):



[19] In addition to Meta Forkel’s biogram, see also the section on her in “Erich Schmidt’s Introduction to Caroline’s Stay in Mainz” with footnotes 3 and 4 there. Obviously unknown to Caroline, Meyer had a contemptuous and essentially smutty opinion of Meta Forkel. Back.

[20] Georg Forster, Erinnerungen aus dem Jahr 1790 (Berlin 1793). One accompanying illustration depicts the dubbing of a knight at the crowning of the new emperor in Frankurt:


Another illustration depicts the fête de la fédération, or “festival of the federation,” on 14 July 1790, which celebrates the French Revolution; this illustration accompanies Forster’s chapter on “French Enthusiasm on the Champs de Mars or Field of Federation,” where he writes (44–45, 57):


In the history of our age, the enthusiasm with which twenty-five million people became keenly interested in their new political organization will forever remain a noteworthy phenomenon; and to the extent human nature can be known and analyzed solely a posteriori, we may also add that the French Revolution and its accompanying enthusiasm has revealed a completely new aspect of human nature to us. . . .

Just how the French Revolution will influence the entire fate of humankind, and in what fashion that influence will continue even unto the end of the world — who can know at this early date? Back.

[21] Heinrich August Ottokar Reichard’s reactionary Revolutions-Almanach was published between 1793 and 1802 by Johann Christian Dieterich in Göttingen. One of its illustrations in the initial issue of 1793 — which appeared in the autumn of 1792, whence Caroline’s acquaintance with it — depicts alleged revolutionary “atrocities” in Avignon (Geschichte der nachtheiligen Folgen der Staatsrevolutionen alter und neuer Zeiten [Hohenzollern 1793]; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung; a pirated copy of Reichard’s Revolutions-Almanach [1793]):


Another depicts the French king being forced to wear Phrygian cap on 20 April 1792:



Translation © 2011 Doug Stott