Mieszkiowski, "Patriot Acts: The Political Language of Henrich von Kleist"
Romanticism and Patriotism:
Nation, Empire, Bodies, Rhetoric
Patriot Acts: The Political Language of Heinrich von Kleist
Jan Mieszkowski, Reed College
Near the close of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel declares, “Patriotism is frequently understood to mean . . . a willingness to perform extraordinary sacrifices and actions. But in essence, it is that disposition which, in the normal conditions and circumstances of life, habitually knows that the community is the substantial basis and end” (288-89). It is safe to say that contemporary discussions of patriotism in the United States share nothing of Hegel's phlegmatic tone. Since September of 2001, loyalty to country has been celebrated and condemned in equally vociferous tones. On the one hand, it is argued that a refusal to affirm one's devotion to the community by being prepared to protect it with force amounts to the abandonment of the most basic of social duties. On the other hand, it is maintained that the desire to fortify “ourselves” against “them” reveals only the pernicious triumph of xenophobia and the military industrial complex. In this charged landscape, “I love my country” alternately means, “I am someone who is willing to fulfill the minimal obligations of citizenship,” and, “I am a pathetic pawn of state or corporate interests.”
For a political theorist, the level of vitriol may be new, but the terms of the disputes are not. The belief that patriotism is essentially a form of nationalism and thus an obstacle to a cosmopolitan or internationalist ethos has routinely been debated since the eighteenth century. The question of whether liberal conceptions of personal freedom are inherently at odds with communitarian ideals is a similarly traditional topos of inquiry. From this perspective, our contemporary polemics—vicious though they may be—are merely one moment in a longstanding discussion about the intersecting dialectics of the public and private and the general and the particular.
If there is nonetheless something peculiarly unsettling about loving the terra patria, it may lie in the suggestion that politics is partly grounded in affects rather than rights and principles. Patriotism reminds us that a subjective, even whimsical element plagues an arena in which we hope that due process and the rigor of formal systems will hold sway. A politics of affect is threatening because it highlights forces that do not readily permit of quantification, forces that garner their authority from the singularity of their expression rather than from the degree to which they can be communicated or compared with one another. More specifically, it could be argued that the unease inspired by patriotism is a factor of the specific affect it privileges, namely, love. As the Ciceronian model of republicanism made explicit, the goal in adoring one’s civic order is to assume a posture vis-à-vis the state like that of a dutiful child to a parent. This would appear to indicate that patriotism is just one form of celebrating the patriarchy, or more bluntly: Loving your country is a semi-covert way of indulging your infantile narcissism and its aggressive impulses. Cast in this light, one does not have to be of the opinion that the United States is governed by a plutocracy to want to avoid grounding the relationship between individuals and their rulers in a murky notion of amor.
Given the anxieties patriotism invokes on the Left and the Right alike, one cannot help but notice that there is a widespread reluctance to give up on the concept—even, and perhaps especially, if preserving it necessitates re-crafting the term so that we can speak of a cosmopolitan or global patriot rather than a national one. Like its obverse, hate, love can be a troubling commodity for policymakers, but it proves to be extremely useful when it can be harnessed for specific ends. The question, then, is whether modern political theory offers us a model with which to understand these affective dynamics. In proposing to explore these issues by looking at German writers from the turn of the nineteenth century, I may appear to be making an odd choice. Germany is not typically held up as an example of a country that has come to terms with the problem of patriotism in a salutary fashion. Even if one looks to the Enlightenment as a moment when the concept of the European nation-state was being forged—hence, as a point in time at which certain progressive possibilities may not yet have been foreclosed on—the study may feel more like the investigation of the aetiology of a disease than an excavation of laudable principles that have hithertofore been neglected.
These concerns notwithstanding, my argument in this essay is that the Continental thinkers who follow Immanuel Kant offer some crucial alternatives to the familiar liberal positions on citizenship, the individual, and the state. To appreciate this dimension of their work, we will have to break with some of the most well established clichés of European intellectual history. A dynamic of autonomous subjectivity is customarily presumed to have absolute priority in the tradition that runs from Fichte through Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) to Schelling and Hegel. In considering the individual’s relationship to the state, however, these authors elaborate ethical and political dynamics that are not simply based on a model of a rational, active self—whether it is the self understood as the source of absolute authority, as monarchial sovereignty might have it, or the self viewed as the bearer of interests and responsibilities, as the liberal paradigm would maintain. For example, in their analysis of the polity Schlegel and Novalis are first and foremost concerned not with figures of self-positing (self-creation and self-destruction), but with the potentially more fundamental notion of self-affection. The elementary event whereby the mind impacts itself before there is, properly speaking, anything to impact is described in the Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant writes of a form of intuition, “the mode in which the mind is affected through its own activity . . . and so is affected by itself (87). Kant’s reflexive “to affect oneself” (sich affizieren) comes from the Latin afficere: “to affect,” “to act upon,” “to excite.” Neither active nor passive, neither a model of self-positing nor self-reflection, self-affection—the mind’s capacity to “touch” itself—is the posture that facilitates all other mental activities even as it is indifferent to them.
In an overtly paradoxical fashion, the state of mind Kant describes exists only insofar as it corresponds with itself before it is there; it is a subjective mode of being that emerges only to the extent that it constantly handles itself as a determined entity that it has not already become. Only in virtue of this self-misrecognition—this mistaken touching of the self by a self, “itself,” that is not yet there to touch or be touched—is there a self at all. Governed by a movement that is anything but self-contained or self-grounding, such a being never presents itself to itself as something it can know as its own creation, which means that self-relation is no longer the distinguishing characteristic of the subject. This radically calls into question any effort to base political morphology in the reflexive praxis of an individual agent—a point that has enormous implications for the Romantic reception of Rousseau’s theory of the general will, the modern understanding of the body politic, and the very notion of political representation as such.
What does it mean, then, to be a patriot in an intellectual climate in which the figure of the self-determining individual is no longer the principal avatar of political agency? What implications does the concept of self-affection have for a theory of citizenship and for our ideas about being a member of a community, that is, what are the measures of loyalty or responsibility if self-rule is no longer the standard of subjective praxis? Perhaps most importantly, how does the Kantian dynamic of self-affection come to be understood as an explicitly linguistic problem? To explore these questions, I want to turn to a play that is primarily known for its celebration of the pleasures of hating and killing one’s enemies. Die Hermannsschlacht, The Battle of Hermann, was written in 1808 by Heinrich von Kleist, who, like his contemporaries, spent his career laboring in the long shadow of Kant’s first Critique. Biographically speaking, Kleist stands out among the intellectuals of his day for his vigorous patriotism. Coming from a long line of Prussian nobility and military officers, he served in the wars against the French revolutionary army in the 1790s, ultimately quitting when he decided that his courageous endeavors against the foes of the Fatherland were being cheapened by the King’s decision to hire mercenaries with no real partisan convictions. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Kleist was no longer a combatant, but in his personal correspondence, he constantly bemoaned the evils of Napoleon and the French threat to Prussian autonomy, and he spent some time as a prisoner of war, probably because he had been caught spying on the enemy. 
Where his literary productions were concerned, Kleist maintained that two of his plays were especially patriotic in intent and design: The Battle of Hermann and Prince Friedrich von Homburg. At first glance, this common thematic ground would seem to be the only similarity between these works. If Prince Friedrich is dreamy, bloodless, and overtly self-parodic, The Battle of Hermann has struck many as a crude, not to mention extremely violent, piece of propaganda. For most of the twentieth century, its jingoistic dimension was thought to overwhelm any moral or aesthetic content it might have, an assessment typified by Walter Müller-Seidel’s claim that it is only with great reservation that one can even grant the text a place (presumably “last” place) among Kleist’s other poetic works (53). Indeed, Hermann has been dismissed as ill-conceived or immature with such regularity that one could be forgiven for supposing that Kleist had written it as a schoolboy, whereas in fact it was composed around the same time as Penthesilea, usually regarded as his dramatic masterpiece.
The Battle of Hermann is based on Tacitus’s account of the victory of the Germanic tribes and their leader Hermann over the Roman general Quintilius Varus in 9 A. D., an event that at least temporarily halted the Roman conquest of Northern Europe. In the course of five acts, we are presented with a variety of negotiations, intrigues, and battlefield clashes between the invaders and the various German rulers, some of whom have allied themselves with the Romans, some against them, and some somewhere in-between. In the culmination of the military action, the forces of Hermann and his fellow chieftain Marbod ambush the enemy and defeat them. The Roman General is killed by a one-time German ally, and Hermann is hailed as the savior of Germania.
In the course of the drama, the patriotic fervor of the German people is fanned through a host of devious and sometimes grizzly tactics. At one point, Hermann has some soldiers dress as Romans and plunder their own land in order to enrage the inhabitants against the invaders; in another scene, the corpse of a German maid who has been raped by Romans and then murdered by her father is chopped into enough pieces so that a part of the body can be sent to each of the German tribes. Both of these acts exemplify the broader structure of a play in which efforts to confirm the boundaries between us and them, between friend and foe, inevitably introduce duplicitous signifying logics that no one controls.
Following Kleist’s own suggestions, The Battle of Hermann is typically treated as a thinly-veiled allegory of the Europe of 1809: the Romans stand in for the French aggressors, while Hermann and his allies represent the Prussians, or possibly the Austrians, who at the time were preparing for an invasion of France. In these terms, Kleist was hardly innovative. A number of eighteenth-century German literary works present the quasi-historical figure of Hermann as a rallying point for contemporary partisan passions. At the same time, one should not underestimate the uniquely programmatic pretensions of Kleist’s play. Wolf Kittler has heralded it as a primer on guerrilla warfare, a kind of counterpart before the fact to Carl von Clausewitz’s famous treatise on conventional combat (“Concept” 508-510). Indeed, Kittler has even gone so far as to argue that the drama expresses Kleist’s heart-felt desire to incite insurrection among the German people (Geburt 342).
The ideological stakes of such an ambition are anything but self-evident. Accordingly, as is typical for almost all of Kleist’s works, suggestions abound as to the real target of the attacks the play invites or effects. Among other things, Hermann has been described as a critique of Christian morality, of the incompatibility of aristocratic and bourgeois social theory, and, perhaps most conventionally, of Enlightenment subjectivity. It is the central role of violence in the text, however, that has inspired the greatest interpretive anxieties. In a positive vein, Seán Allan has written that “Die Hermannsschlacht explores the nature of the acts of violent retribution committed in the struggle to overthrow the oppressive regime of a colonial power” (235). Against this affirmation of the value of armed resistance, Georg Lukács famously accused Kleist of emotional anarchy, identifying his œuvre as a forerunner to the aesthetics of National Socialism because Kleist’s anti-humanism—unlike that of, for instance, Karl Marx—never goes beyond the level of mere revolt (7: 217ff.) Taking these same concerns in the opposite direction, it can be argued that The Battle of Hermann is as much a warning about the politics of “strong” leadership as it is a celebration of an indigenous people’s self-assertion in the face of imperialist aggression. With Kleist’s much-vaunted antipathy for Napoleon as a background, the story of Hermann can thus be read as a prime example of why a polity based in the cult status of an individual is fated to endure chaos and disaster. After all, at the close of the play, having just been denounced as a tyrant by a countryman he has casually sent for execution, the German leader uses his final speech to paint a graphic picture of a bellicose future, suggesting that if a Pax Germanica is to replace the Pax Romana, it will be no more faithful to the title of peace than its predecessor.
Yet what are the real stakes of this nationalist war, a war that at the end of The Battle of Hermann, as at the end of Prince Friedrich von Homburg, seems more perpetual than winnable? From its opening scenes, The Battle of Hermann depicts a struggle over the possibility, or impossibility, of a figure such as Hermann functioning as a truly historical agent. Unsurprisingly, this battle over Hermann is largely fought by Hermann himself, but it is not waged in the terms one might expect. In an early discussion with the other German rulers who are trying to recruit him to the resistance, Hermann gives voice to a number of curious positions. With great eloquence, he insists that he strives not to win but to be defeated by the Roman Emperor, that he aims to lose everything, and that he must stand alone, bound with no one but God, staking everything to forfeit it all in death as Germany goes up in flames. Needless to say, Hermann’s compatriots are confused, but they are soon somehow reassured of his support. By the close of their conversation, Hermann is talking about his progeny marching on Rome, and his fellow chieftains have switched from calling him incomprehensible to deciding that he stands with them in their struggle against the Romans. Most interpretations of this scene and its relationship to the ensuing story treat Hermann’s various quirky declarations as part of a program of persuasion and reverse-psychological brinkmanship with which he intends to put himself, his associates, and the German populace in the best position to achieve liberation. Once this figure of Hermann the Machiavellian Magician is introduced, it can be used to explain his or any other character’s behavior—however odd or out of place. Deferring to Hermann’s omnipotence considerably simplifies the task of working through the plot of the later acts, since at any given moment it is hard to decide whether a particular combatant is being operationally shrewd or if he or she is simply getting lucky. A clever ruse may be a serendipitous blunder or vice versa, and it is not obvious that any of the characters are terribly concerned with telling the difference.
Our approach to the text changes somewhat once we realize that the fact that Hermann does go on to lead his people to victory does not in any respect contradict his opening statement that he aims only to lose. To the contrary, it is precisely because this strange stance is Hermann’s position throughout that he is able to do something worthy of the name “patriotic.” Following Hermann’s own hints when he mocks his fellow German leaders because their conception of freedom amounts to protecting their property from alien marauders rather than exercising autonomy, it is tempting to argue that Hermann strives to embody a Kantian ideal of freedom—a pure spontaneity of agency that corresponds with nothing, not even itself. When Hermann avers that in this struggle he must stand alone, allied with no one, he is merely spelling out the basic requirements of genuine independence. A truly free, and thus admirable, demonstration of one’s commitment to one’s people or nation must take the form of an act that eludes any calculus, standard, or guide that would pre-exist it as its cause or condition of possibility. Such an act must therefore appear as a kind of misstep, a mis-act; indeed, it can scarcely be recognizable as an act at all, or it is at risk of being treated as the effect of something other than itself. What this play calls “history,” then, is an activity that explodes any continuum between a present, a past that would make the present possible, and a future that the present proleptically (and later retrospectively) grounds. Hermann strives to be defeated because he strives to realize a praxis that is not an inevitable consequence of what is, has been, or might conceivably be the case. He strives to do something that will tear itself free of any smooth modulation from potentiality to actuality. As a result, Hermann’s actions must be as impossible as they are possible, as liable to be worthless as vital, as likely to be missed opportunities as well-chosen maneuvers. If this bizarre historical agency cannot be realized, then there can be no difference between what happens and what could happen, and all events will be equally inevitable or random. In other words, without Hermann’s embrace of pure loss, there is no possibility of a divide between what might take place and what does take place, no one can take credit for having said or done anything truly on their own, and there is certainly no way to envision something that could genuinely be called an act of resistance.
Ironically, then, a play that ostensibly offers an ancient insurrection as a model for modern insurrection begins by rejecting the authority of repetition as the quintessential historical force. Whatever Hermann represents—the will of the people, the future of his tribe, the last hope for Germany—he can play his role only insofar as he stands outside of any continuum of possibility and actuality that would seamlessly shape the future on the basis of the resources of the past. In fact, something very similar happens in Prince Friedrich von Homburg, the text Kleist designated as his other patriotic drama. There, the eponymous Prince Friedrich cannot be heralded as a true soldier until he has become so fearful and abject that he is said to have fallen out of an historical logic in which his actions could constitute the fame of a hero, articulating the present with the future. Only at the point at which it is impossible to view the Prince as an agent of the Fatherland—the point at which his behavior is literally an impossibility—can he become a real patriot. In Kleist, we might say, one fights not in order that Germany may rise again, but rather to show that Germany may rise again only insofar as we prove that there is no way for Germany to rise again.
The movement of such a patriotic agency is not the self-positing or self-negating of an absolute subject, but the self-affecting discourse of a language that no individual hero can call his own. Strife in The Battle of Hermann does not fundamentally take the form of a clash between peoples, cultures, or ideals. It is manifested rather in the exercise of a familiar yet unique utterance, an interjection that emerges at the limits of grammar and reference: the word heil, as in “Heil Caesar,” or perhaps in this case, “Heil the conqueror of Caesar.” At the end of the play, the Romans defeated, Hermann speaks to his ally: “Heil Marbod, my magnanimous friend! / And if Germania hears my voice: / Heil its overlord and king” (l. 2569-2571). For better or worse, Marbod responds in kind: “Heil, I call you Hermann, the savior of Germania. / And when [Germania] hears my voice: / Heil its overlord and king” (l.2578-2580). To some degree, the expostulation heil is obviously a hailing; but it is hardly an unequivocal one. More than a mere address to or announcement of the appearance of an individual, it is a performative utterance: “You are our ruler, our leader, our savior, because you are the one to whom we say ‘heil.’” Heil is also a kind of command. It orders you to be greeted, and to be greeted as the one worthy of, or in need of, greeting: “Be the Hermann, be he who is the King of Germania, a country that should be there to hear us say that you are to be its ruler.” In this sense, heil is a demand to be heard, a demand to be recognized as a voice that can speak a political language, a language that can call leaders and lands into existence.
Somewhere among these many orders and entreaties, we can begin to detect an element of uncertainty, as if the various stipulations of heil are not or cannot always be met to perfection. The grammar of the interjection heil hovers between the indicative and the subjunctive: Heil dem König says, “Long Live the King!” or “God Save the King!” It does not say: “The King will live a long life,” or “God will save the King.” Moreover, Heil dem König is not primarily directed to the object it ostensibly names as the target of its “greeting.” On the contrary, with “Long Live (or God Save) the King!” God or fate is being asked to preserve the monarch as he or she makes an entrance, while the sovereign’s role in the situation remains decidedly uncertain. In other words, “Heil Hermann” may be uttered “to” or “in the presence of” someone named Hermann, but it can never be entirely to, for, or about him. Whatever proper noun or title we insert after heil, the word inexorably reasserts its relative independence vis-à-vis the declarations that enlist its services. In this sense, the utterance heil is as much an attempt at a salutation, acclamation, or blessing of itself as of anything else. Heil heil, we might say, heil the power of heil to signify, posit, or demand. Underscoring the repetition that heil seems to require, the Grimm Brothers note that in the eighteenth century the word appears in a number of overtly redundant expressions, including Heil und Segen (“Bless you, bless you”) and Heil und Glück (“Good luck, good luck”). The curious relation of heil to its own iterability is very much in evidence at the end of Kleist’s other patriotic play, when the impossibly abject Prince Friedrich is welcomed back into Prussian respectability in a bizarre ceremony that culminates with the Colonel’s declaration: “Heil, Heil the Prince of Homburg” (l. 1854). The accolade is ordinary, and certainly respectful, but it remains incomplete until the accompanying officers add: “Heil, heil, heil!” (1855). Order is restored and everyone goes off to fight (in this case, the Swedes rather than the Romans), but all of this can happen only because it has supposedly been shown that it is possible to say heil to heil. Patriotism takes place, then, not when the characters salute the King or the Fatherland, but when they salute the language of salute, or rather, when they yield to language’s own salute to itself. What heil first and foremost attempts to acclaim is the power of language to acclaim. Heil is the affirmation language seeks to offer language; it is language’s greeting to itself as that which should be able to greet, confirm, or at least give voice to the hope that something will be the case—for instance, that Hermann, or Marbod, will be the King of Germania.
The problem is that the very need to say heil seems to contravene its stated intent. Like the English hail (as in “Hail to the Chief”), the German interjection comes from the Old Norse word for whole (“complete”), a meaning that is obvious in modern German in which the adjective heil means “undamaged” and the verb heilen is “to heal.” Yet precisely because it is neither simply prescriptive nor descriptive, neither purely constative nor performative, heil risks rendering the “whole” incomplete by revealing that, as with the exchange between Hermann and Marbod, the ruler is not the ruler unless he is hailed, confirmed or better, called out—challenged to show that he can dare to rule with reference and deference to the authority of heil. For aspiring politicians, the lesson could not be clearer: The only safe answer to heil is heil. No other utterance can “perform” the operation expressed with heil; no other utterance can refer to what heil does; and most importantly, no other utterance can pretend to get along without it.
To return to the Kantian terms with which we began, heil is linguistic self-affection. It heralds not a discourse of positing and reflection, but a movement of obedience to a language whose very condition of possibility does not yet exist. All language is affected by heil, which is also to say that all language must seek to assert its radical independence from heil, i.e., all language must aim to fulfill the impossible task of being “whole” without it. For Kleist, the name for the effort to effect a discourse that could be based on something other than a dynamic of self-affection is “patriotism.” In this way, The Battle of Hermann shows us that real devotion to the community rests not on our capacity to serve our government or to acknowledge the primacy of the public over the private, but on our ability to intervene in the acts by which language seeks to correspond with a form, structure, or law that is, strictly speaking, inconceivable. It is from this perspective that we can begin to reread the liberal tradition and its understanding of citizenship, focusing less on clashes between individual and state interests and more on the forms of linguistic violence that give shape to subjective praxis.
1. On Roman notions of the patria, see Kantorowicz (243-247).
2. Kant writes about "[d]ie Form der Anschauung, welche, da sie nichts vorstellt, außer so fern etwas im Gemüte gesetzt wird, nichts anders sein kann, als die Art, wie das Gemüte durch eigene Tätigkeit, nämlich dieses Setzen ihrer Vorstellung, mithin durch sich selbst affiziert wird" (Kritik 92).
3. In Schlegel, the consequences of this transformation are perhaps most evident in the notion of political representation as a melancholic fiction of surrogacy that he develops in his "Essay on the Concept of Republicanism." The extent to which Kantian self-affection invites an explicit consideration of political affect is even clearer in Novalis's "Faith and Love," where Liebe names the condition of possibility and impossibility of a relationship between a monarch and his or her subjects.
4. See in particular Kleist's note to his friend Adolfine von Werdeck in November of 1801 (2: 700).
5. In one typical letter, Kleist marvels that nobody has put a bullet in the head of the "evil world spirit," Napoleon (1: 761). Unsurprisingly, discussions of Kleist's personal history and his remarks in his private correspondence have led to a wide range of contradictory conclusions about his positions on militarism, nationalism, and patriotism. These issues become more complicated if we ask whether his literary texts and his life are in some sense "consistent" on these points. For one of the most far-reaching considerations of these issues, see Wolf Kittler, Die Geburt des Partisanen aus dem Geist der Poesie.
6. In his In Pursuit of Power: Heinrich von Kleist's Machiavellian Protagonists, William C. Reeve offers a detailed overview of the critical reception of the play. Working against the tendency among commentators to highlight the differences between Hermann and the later Prince Friedrich, Reeve has also argued that the former text is a crucial forerunner to the latter. (see "Die Hermannsschlacht: A Prelude to Prinze Friedrich von Homburg.")
7. "We are the people subjugated by the Romans. The plundering of Europe in order to enrich France is anticipated," wrote Kleist to his sister Ulrike on October 24, 1806, ten days after the Prussian army was crushed in the battle of Jena and Auerstädt (2:771).
8. For an excellent analysis of the rhetorical structure of the play and the difficulties that arise in trying to take any given character "at his or her word," see Jan Plug, "The Borders of a Lip: Kleist, language, and politics."
9. Citations from the play (Sämtliche Werke 1:533-628-709) are referenced by line number. All translations are my own.
10. Citations from Prince Friedrich von Homburg (Sämtliche Werke 1:629-709) are referenced by line number. All translations are my own.
11. More than half a century after the fall of Nazi Germany, it is still impossible to discuss the German word heil without immediately conjuring up thoughts of the infamous Hitergruß. It could be argued that the structure of this salute, whereby "Heil Hitler" is supplemented with a movement of the arm and hand, aims to mime the iterability internal to any utterance of heil. This may be an effort to stabilize the dynamics we have been describing, an attempt to reconfirm the authority of the verbal utterance by complimenting it with a physical manifestation of "tribute." From the perspective of Walter Benjamin's reading of Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theater as a Theater of Gestus, one could take this notorious Nazi greeting as an opportunity to explore the political significance of the body as an explicitly linguistic problematic. On the asesthetics and poetics of gesture, see Nägele, esp. 151-158.
12. In German, heilen means to heal or to cure, not "to hail," as in English. ("To hail" is zujubeln, bejubeln, or zurufen.) The German adjective heil means "unhurt," "uninjured," "undamaged"; wieder heil werden is "to get better"; heil nach Hause is "to get home safe and sound"; and heil machen is "to make better" (reparieren). The noun Heil means "well-being," "good," or "salvation."
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