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  • Sasha Durakov Warren

Madness Between Revolution and Failure: Georg Büchner and the Vormärz Generation

Updated: Mar 28

This was written after I talked with Dan and Max about Büchner's play Dantons Tod on The Unseen Book Club podcast found here. We had a great time. Go listen! The following is intended to be readable on its own.

Georg Büchner completed his entire literary output in less than three years (1834–1837) and in extreme haste between the ages of 20 and 23 when he died of typhus. In those three years, he managed to produce three plays, a novella, and a lecture series on anatomy all while on the run from the authorities for his involvement in writing his first text, the revolutionary tract called Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Messenger) inciting the Hessian peasants to revolt against the urban ruling class in Darmstadt and the Grand Ducal government. Revolutionary dreams marked his entry into the world of literature, and their failure to appear was the shadow cast over the rest of his short life. Few other writers of fiction can be said to have been so completely determined by the question of revolution, and few others immersed themselves so completely in how to grapple with their failures.

Büchner was born in 1813 near the city of Darmstadt in Hessen. Not unlike the Rheinland—Hessen’s neighbor to the West where Karl Marx would be born just a few years later—Hessen was at the crossroads between a stubborn old order and the destabilizing influences of liberalism, Napoleon, and capital. In 1806, Hessen became a Grand Duchy and left the Holy Roman Empire. By October, Napoleon had incorporated Hessen into the Confederacy of the Rhein, created a secular constitution, took the first steps to liberating the serfs (granted freedom in 1820), established Jewish residents as nominally equal citizens, and granted some male citizens the right to vote for an emperor. Hessen remained a weak agrarian state past Büchner’s death, but these reforms made it more liberal (at least temporarily) than most other German-speaking polities to the East.

Even so, the bourgeoisie of Darmstadt and Frankfurt were small and weak and did not mount a real attempt at revolution. Nor did they put up much of a fight in the years of reaction following Napoleon’s defeats in Europe in 1813. A first pass at a new constitution was put forth in March of 1820, but, following protests and some armed resistance, a new one was drafted in December. This latter constitution included democratizing reforms, but was still extremely weak: only 965 citizens were allowed to vote out of 700,000; and the Grand Duke could abolish the assembly at any point.

Like Marx, Büchner grew up in a world broadly divided between French liberalism and Prussian authoritarianism—a combination especially conducive for radical agitation. When he was 16, the July Revolution erupted in Paris, followed by revolts in Belgium and Poland. Fearful of radical ideas taking hold, the authorities in Hessen began cracking down on political clubs, imposing restrictions on publishing or meeting, and exercised other blunt mechanisms of censorship. Upper Hessen, which had been suffering under the weight of exorbitant taxes, finally snapped when “peasants revolted, destroying several customshouses, ransacking offices, and burning documents. They dispersed as soon as they heard that government troops—including a large number of university students, their supposed allies—were approaching. The troops entered the village of Södel, where they found only onlookers. but a disturbance occurred and two people were shot. This was the ‘bloodbath at Södel,’ a bitter memory for the Hessians.” (Schmidt, 243) August Becker estimated that between 15,000-20,000 peasants were involved in the revolt.

It was during his anatomy studies in Strasbourg the following year that Büchner developed his revolutionary ideas amongst liberal and socialist student sects. His letters to his parents and fiancée from this period make frequent references to student demonstrations and protests. From early on, one can already sense an intense distance from student radicalism in his descriptions from Strasbourg, heightened by his growing frustration with the slow pace of change in Germany. Out of frustration with the students’ optimism that their ideas would prove persuasive, he begins to sketch a political theory of revolution based on force: “My opinion is this: if anything can help in this age of ours, it is violence. We know what to expect from our princes. Every concession they have made they were driven to by necessity. [...] Only a German could have the ineptitude to play at toy soldiers with a tin gun and a wooden sword. Our parliamentary assemblies are a mockery of common sense; even if we lumbered on with them for another whole age and then totted up the results, the people would end up paying more dearly for the fine speeches of its representatives than the Roman emperor that paid 20,000 gulden to his court poet for a couple of unfinished lines.”[1]

Büchner evidently did not believe that the revolutionaries of the urban Burschenschaften in Germany were capable of this necessary violence, though not on account of will, but because they could not muster a sufficient force. In reference to the failed Frankfurter Wachensturm (storm of the guard station in Frankfurt by a small group of student militants in 1833), he wrote to his parents:

These young people are condemned for using violence. But are we not constantly subjected to violence? Because we are born and bred in a dungeon we no longer even notice that we are stuck in a hell-hole chained hand and foot and with gags in our mouths. What on earth do you mean by ‘lawful state of affairs’? A ‘law’ that turns the great mass of citizens into beast-like slaves in order to satisfy the unnatural requirements of an insignificant and degenerate minority? And this law, sustained by brute force through the military and by the mindless cunning of its spies – this law is violence, constantly and brutally perpetrated against justice and common sense, and I shall fight it with word and deed wherever I can. If I have taken no part in what has happened so far, and take no part in what might happen in the future, this is out of neither disapproval nor fear, but only because I consider revolutionary activity of any kind to be a futile undertaking in present circumstances, and because I do not share the delusion of those who see in the Germans a people ready to fight for their rights.

Despite his dismissal of radical action from the vanguard, Büchner did not for all that turn away from the possibility of radical action completely. Instead, it marked the culmination of his disillusionment with liberal ideals, which fundamentally misunderstood the real fulcrum of social change. When he was forced to return to Giessen (the law required students to return after two years abroad) that same year, he was still optimistic enough to start a socialist youth cadre for students, Die Gesellschaft der Menschenrechte (The Society of the Rights of Man) and spend his evenings in the company of socialists like August Becker.

By 1835, he was less than hopeful about the usefulness of literary or political groups: from Strasbourg, he wrote to his brother Wilhelm that he didn’t believe there “was even the remotest chance at present of a political revolution. I have been completely convinced for six months now that nothing can be done, and that anyone who sacrifices himself in present circumstances is throwing himself away like an idiot. I can’t go into details, but I know how things are, I know how weak, how insignificant, how fragmented the liberal party is, I know that appropriate, co-ordinated action is impossible, and that any attempts at such action can have not the slightest effect.” And hopes to effect change through literature were similarly misguided in his eyes: “I don’t by any means belong to Young Germany, the literary party led by Gutzkow and Heine. Only a total misunderstanding of our social conditions could make people believe that a total restructuring of our religious and social ideas could be achieved through the medium of topical literature.” It was becoming increasingly apparent to him that “[t]he relationship between the poor and the rich is the only revolutionary element in the world, hunger alone can be the goddess of freedom, and only a new Moses inflicting the Seven Plagues of Egypt upon us could be our Messiah. Fatten the peasants, and the revolution will die of apoplexy.” This attitude didn’t win him any friends and a contemporary described him as a comedic try-hard: “He constantly had a disdainful expression like a cat in a thunderstorm, held himself completely apart, had dealings only with a ragged genius fallen on evil days. It often happened on our way home from a tavern that we stopped in front of his lodging and gave him an ironic cheer. ‘Long live Georg Büchner, preserver of the balance of powers in Europe and the man who abolished the slave trade.’ Although his burning lamp proved that he was in, he pretended not to hear.”

After his disappointment with the Burschenschaften and an intense period of studying the course of the French Revolution, he was convinced that there were “only two levers [of revolution]: material poverty and religious fanaticism.” If “only the imperative needs of the great mass of the people can bring about change, and that all the beavering and bellowing of individuals is futile and foolish,” his subsequent actions prove he clearly thought that agitation still played a role by exposing or intensifying those two conditions in fomenting revolution amongst those masses. In 1834, while in Giessen, he met the pastor and local leader of liberal political intrigue, Friedrich Ludwig Weidig. Within the year, he sent him a draft of the text that would become Der Hessische Landbote, which was distributed by a small group in July, 1834 in Upper Hesse, still populated in large part by peasants. Büchner was not pleased with the changes Weidig had made, which included blurring the broad scope of his attack on the rich by focusing on the aristocracy alone, but by the time he could’ve expressed his discontent, it was already being distributed.

The text as we have it begins with a preface advising the reader on how best to conceal the pamphlet from the authorities and what to do if caught with it. What follows is a dramatic tabulation of the injustices and exploitation borne by the peasantry couched at times in biblical exegesis and at times in the enumeration of tax appropriations punctuated by exhortations to remember the bloodbath of Södel and the heroics of the French Revolution. An exemplary section reads: “In the Grand Duchy you pay six million to a handful of people whose arbitrary rule controls your life and your property, and it is the same too for all the others in this torn and abject land of Germany. You are nothing, you have nothing! You have no rights. You must give whatever your insatiable oppressors demand, bear whatever burden they place on your shoulders.” With a passage that might remind one of the Communist Manifesto were it not for the religiosity, they end their own manifesto by writing: “You have laboured all your life at digging the soil, now you shall dig your tyrants’ grave. You built their fortresses, now you shall destroy them and build the house of freedom. You shall be able to baptize your children in freedom with the water of life. And until the Lord calls you through His messengers and His signs, be watchful and prepare in spirit for the battle, saying this prayer and teaching it to your children: ‘Lord, destroy the rods of our oppressors and let Thy kingdom come unto us, the kingdom of justice. Amen.’” To his great disappointment, the manifesto did not spark a revolt; to his dismay, he and his comrades became wanted men after a co-conspirator was caught the next day with copies stuffed in his boots.

His comrades were arrested. Weidig was tortured, kept in solitary confinement, and eventually took his own life a few days after Georg Büchner died. Büchner wrote the rest of his works while on the run, hoping in part to raise money to fund his flight. Dantons Tod was written in his father's garden in a matter of weeks with a ladder leaned against the fence in case he had to make a sudden getaway. This is the context for his rich, though small, body of work where madness so often appears as the human experience that mediates between the appearance of the vivid horizon of revolution and the cloudy gloom of reaction and failure. This takes many shapes and forms throughout his work. “Madness” has no single or simple meaning, but appears in the guise of three interconnected motifs: madness as/of history, the anti-social madness of the exploited, and phenomenological madness. I will discuss only the first of these here, and save the other two for a future piece.

The madness of history in Dantons Tod

In Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death), the madness of history as a torrent of unstoppable events threatens the protagonists as a pervading sense of claustrophobia and doom. In some ways, the central drama is merely watching the walls slowly but surely close in until the characters are crushed.

We follow Georges Danton for his final week in April 1794 when he was a marked man—the next martyr up for the Jacobin chopping block. From the jump, he, unlike his comrades who challenge their fates, mostly keeps hold of his sanity by maintaining a morbid serenity about death through contemplation to the point that it begins to color even his well-known promiscuity: “No, Julie, I love you like the grave” he says, “The people say that there is peace in the grave and that the grave and peace are one. If that’s so, then, in your lap, I already lie in the grave. You sweet grave, your lips are my death knell, your voice is the grave chiming, your breast my burial mound, and your heart my coffin.”[2] His fateful death is announced early and the drama arises not so much from what will happen, but rather from how each person situates themselves in the unfolding of history: Robespierre and St. Just see the Revolution as akin to a natural disaster or a geological event, but imagine themselves to be the agents of this natural law; Danton feels as though “We are nothing but puppets, our strings are pulled by unknown forces. we ourselves are nothing, nothing!” In the end, it seems Danton was in the right for St. Just and Robespierre would soon be even more ignobly consumed by the tide of history.

Don Freeman, poster for the 1938 production of Danton's Death featuring Orson Welles

In a 1937 essay entitled “The Real Georg Büchner and his Fascist Misrepresentation” György Lukács sought to salvage the revolutionary Büchner from a Nazi caricature that was in circulation in the 1930s. Anyone familiar with Büchner’s trajectory would share Lukács’ incredulity with the attempt by Nazi authors to claim Büchner as a thinker of the mood of “tragic despair” and disillusionment with revolution in general, citing both his moody revolutionary dramatis personae and his own distance from the students organizations. Lukács is entirely right to point out that Büchner never expressed a despair about revolution in general, but only about the elitist politicos in the student movement. In Büchner’s eyes, they overestimated the persuasiveness of their progressive political ideas and underestimated the immediacy of the economic questions of hunger and need. More precisely, they lacked any method of connecting the two, and were therefore doomed. In Lukács’ account, this attention to economic reality makes Büchner a “plebian revolutionary” in the tradition of Babeuf and Blanqui.

Unaware of the “moody” tragedy taking place amongst Jacobins in Dantons Tod in hotel rooms and prison cells, the sans-culotte are represented throughout as apathetic to party drama and ready to kill even the most sacred heroes of the revolution if it might mean more bread for all. In every scene they appear, they appear ready for bloodshed. And yet, even as he portrays these citizens as thirsting for violence, he immediately rebukes the reader for imagining this violence as monstrous or incomprehensible. As one citizen put it in Act I: “It's only a little game with a bit of hemp around your neck. It'll only take a second–we're more merciful than the likes of you. Our life is murdered by work. We hang on the rope for sixty years and twitch, but we'll cut ourselves loose. String him up on the lamppost!” The revolutionary process, and the revolutionary violence motivated by pervasive hunger and bitter resentment towards leaders who failed to deliver bread, is depicted as brutal and unforgiving, but never as simply wrong.

All the same, Lukács is perhaps too anxious in his push against the appropriations of his work to downplay the theme of “despair.” It is undoubtedly correct to discount the idea that Büchner staged a subjective act of discovery through the despairing confrontation between Danton and Robespierre, but the former nevertheless did fall into a deep despair at the course of events and one must ask why Büchner chose to make this the central drama of the play. Lukács offers a convincing corrective to the primary interpretive mistake made in studies of Büchner’s work, which is to identify the meaning of the drama with a single character. Lukács still flirts with this approach by suggesting that Büchner emotionally identified with Danton, but politically with St. Just (85), but claims that, in the end, what makes his work unique is that large masses (there are over 30 individual characters in the play and a few crowds) confront each other in ambivalent circumstances that don’t favor any one particular person’s perspective over another. His theater is a theater of history, not characters.

If we follow his insight, Dantons Tod follows the public heroes of the revolution in their various struggles to make sense of the historical events occurring around him where Danton's case is simply the most illustrative of the contradictory positions such a reconciliation brings about. The tragedy resides in the “despairing inability to understand history” (85) as it unfolds. Whether this means that, as an underlying through line, “Büchner's personal uniqueness [...] consists in his having gone all the way down a contradictory path unwaveringly, in a straight line and without being troubled by the contradictions, instead of vacillating to and fro between the contradictory extremes” (86) seems dubious to me. Büchner suggests instead that no single individual can ever walk the path of history without wavering. Events may appear to cut a straight line in retrospect, but the people involved are, like Büchner or Danton, very much troubled. Every time they try to grasp history, his characters either simplify it, generalize, and sublimate it into a formal structure as do St. Just and Robespierre in their “natural history” of the revolution or they try to take it all in as their consciousness fractures and threatens to fall into madness.

Danton wavers between the two poles and finds an uneasy peace only when he veers towards the first. This wavering is sometimes dramatized in a single scene. In Act 2, Scene 5, Danton is shown shaking and muttering that the walls speak to him of the September massacres of 1792. He suddenly becomes conscious of “the earth’s whole sphere, roaring and snorting in headlong flight, with me astride it like on a wild stallion, clutching its mane and gripping its flanks with giant limbs, my head bent low, my hair streaming out above the infinite abyss.” All his “horrible sins” confront him at once and all say simply “September!” He consoles himself by yielding to an image of unwavering fatalism: “It was self-defense, we had to. The man on the cross, how easily it tripped off his tongue: ‘It must needs be that offenses come, but woe unto him through whom they must come.’ It must needs be—it’s this ‘must’ that did it. Who’d ever curse the hand on who the curse of ‘must’ has fallen? Who spoke the curse, who? What is it in us that whores, lies, steals, murders? Puppets, that’s all we are, made to dance on strings by unknown forces; ourselves we are nothing, nothing! [...] That’s it, I'm happy now.” As the most traditionally mad character, Lucille, puts it as she waits for her husband Camille Desmoulins to be executed, madness emerges from the impossibility of bearing the fact that “the clocks tick, bells ring, folk pass, water flows, everything continues just as before, for ever and for ever.” It is the desire to “sit on the ground and scream, so everything stops, shocked into stillness, not a flicker of movement.”

It’s not history that’s mad in any simple sense; there’s plenty of reasons for any single event of the revolution. Büchner suggests that Danton and Lucille's experience of madness mediates between the moral actor and the historical process they find themself swept up in not as a consolation—for Büchner, the consolatory gesture is the abandonment to fatalism—but as an unconscious protest against time that's neither collective nor of the individual. Lucille suggests that it’s an utterly futile gesture, since “things are just as they were. The houses, the street. The wind blows, the clouds drift.—Perhaps we just have to bear it.” The play ends with this terrible, irresolvable realism that follows madness. The guillotine separates the next set of heads from their bodies. Time goes on, and time itself is tragic when nothing is as it should be.


1. I consulted the original German along with the Price and Reddick English translations. I found the latter to be smoother and less anxious to cover up the vulgar, brash language of the original, so all quotations from his letters and plays are from the Reddick translation in the Penguin edition unless otherwise noted.

2. This is my own translation. I wanted to emphasize here how often he uses the word "Grab" or "grave." There are two more uses in the same speech, but there was no way to maintain the word "grave" without it sounding terribly awkward. Reddick, Schmidt, and Price (for good reason!) chose to change most of the iterations into more common English phrases, like "knell" for "Grabgeläute."


Büchner, Georg, John Reddick (tr). Complete Plays, Lenz, and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1993.

Büchner, Georg. Gesammelte Werke. Wien: Verlag Kurt Desch, 1947.

Lukács, György. German Realists in the 19th Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

Riazanov, David. "Chapter II: The Early Revolutionary Movement in Germany." In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Work.

Robertson, Ritchie. "War on the Palaces!" London Review of Books 17, no. 20 (19 October 1995):

Schmidt, Henry J. "Notes and Documentary Material: The Hessian Messenger." In Büchner, Georg. The Complete Collected Works. New York: Avon Books, 1977.

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