Ferdinand Beneke (1774—1848) and His Diaries
Vortrag im Rahmen der German Studies Association Annual Conference
(Milwaukee [USA], 29. Sept.—2. Okt. 2005
1. Communication and Civil Society
There is one thing about communication we are not able to do, that is: not communicate. Paul Watzlawik’s assertion is generally accepted by communication theorists, and everyday life constantly provides us with evidence. Although historians have to accept that certain parametres of communicating are beyond the reach of our sources, nobody would dare to assume that communication was less important in former days. In fact, already a glimpse into the diaries which I want to talk about reveals that communication prevailed in their author’s life, and from time to time he re-structured his days and scheduled his weeks to cope with the constant flow of receiving and paying visits, of getting and sending letters.
In a more specific perspective, communication has been identified as integral to civil society. Jürgen Habermas’s structural analysis of „bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit“ is still inspiring in this respect. In his view ‘bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit’ is basically a ‘political public’ organizing civil society in opposition to the claims of the state. Its institutions, says Habermas, were above all literary ones. But the literary and political public also was closely linked to institutions of oral communication like coffee houses, voluntary societies, clubs and associations, not to mention the theatre as a forum of critique. He defines this public as a sphere of private individuals constituted by reasoning („räsonnieren“) – a reasoning based on subjectivity and moral sentiment and legitimised by referring to „Humanität“ and „Patriotismus“. The particular social structure of civil society was also reflected in the way „Bürger“ resevered parts of their home to the intimacy of family life and opened others to the sociability of a (limited) public.
Although Habermas only developed a typology, we have to admit that most aspects of the emerging modern civil society can already be found in early 18th century Hamburg. The city republic seemingly was a vanguard in the development of a „bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit“ in Germany – next to a few other commercial centres. Newspapers and other periodicals were of more than local importance, for both merchants and diplomates made Hamburg a stock exchange of information, gathering and exporting news and knowledge along the European trade-routes from the Atlantic to the Baltic. The moral weeklies e. g. were imported from England to Hamburg and so was Freemasonry, and both spread all over Germany from here. Quite a number of literary and academic societies existed before 1750 and voluntary associations became even more numerous in late 18th and early 19th centuries. The most important among these was the ‘Patriotic Society’ (est. 1765), which by its membership and welfare projects was able to shape public opinion to an outstanding degree.
However, communication constituting the public sphere was not limited to institutions like periodicals and voluntary societies, pamphlets and clubs. The public sphere rested on a structure which – I believe – can best be described as communication networks. Such networks did not only exist within a city, of course, but also reached beyond its walls. To a large extent the early modern ‘republic of letters’ e. g. was based on correspondence networks both among individuals and increasingly among scientific, economic, or religious societies. Hence, the hall-marks of civil society both functioned as knots within and among networks and as communication networks themselves. They were outstanding, but not unique. For overseas merchants and bankers span their webs likewise, as has recently been exemplified for 18th century Hamburg as well as for other commercial cities.
Yet, it is difficult to find out about communication within an urban society at the level of everyday life, because even in a city as big as Hamburg with its 130,000 inhabitants in 1800 most of it was oral communication, and we rarely have the opportunity to evaluate the social and political importance of networks, to watch them being established and to observe how they worked. Luckily, there are ego-documents that help us to penetrate into the structures of communication and networks beneath the level of institutional „bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit“. Ferdinand Beneke’s diaries are such a source which provides us with abundant material, and I’m going to present you some insights taken from it. But before I proceed to this point, please let me insert some remarks on the diaries and their author.
2. Communication in Beneke‘s Diaries
Ferdinand Beneke started with his diary in 1792 – the year when the ‘Marseillaise’ was composed – and continuously kept it until his death in 1848 – actually two weeks before the German revolution began. So it covers 56 years on approximately 5,000 pages in manuscript. Of course, in the first place it was meant to support Beneke’s memory and it served the communication with himself. But secondly it was a medium of communication with others. For he sent parts of it to friends in order to inform them about what happened to him, what moved him emotionally etc. Moreover, when Beneke was out of town, he asked his wife to keep a separate diary, which he eventually attached to his own. In his 50s and 60s Beneke also read from his early diaries to his family when they convened around the tea table on Saturday evenings. Consequently, notes which he wanted to keep secret were written on extra sheets.
His life was a fundamentally communicative one. This becomes evident when considering the structure of his diaries. Each year contains a supplement of documents enclosed by Beneke himself, and the majority of these documents are letters – in total an estimated additional 6,000 pages. They comprise letters from people at other places, but also notes which had been sent to and fro within Hamburg. The brief and ephemerical notes bear a character which is comparable to e-mails nowadays, and they give us a clue of how much even of the written communication of those days is lost. At the peak of his professional career as an advocate Beneke mentioned that he was writing more than 50 letters per week on behalf of his clients only and receiving visits of more than 30 clients per day. Unfortunately, he kept his professional correspondence in a separate archive, which has not been preserved. His private correspondence, however, he regarded as an integral part of his diary
Most of the volumes bear the title „My Life“ or – after his marriage – „Our Lives“. And this denotes the scope of subjects Beneke dealt with fairly well. From family life to political matters, from travelling to sociability, from diseases to warfare, from religion to meteorological observations, there are few aspects of a middle class life that are not mentioned and commented on.
3. Beneke‘s Biographical Background
Ferdinand Beneke was born in 1774 at Bremen and attended school there. After his father’s first bancruptcy the family moved to Westfalia. He studied law at the university of Halle, took a doctor’s degree at Göttingen and started his career in the provincial administration of Prussian Westfalia. Infected by the revolutionary republicanism of his day, he disliked serving the Prussian state and detested the aristocratic arrogance of civil and military superiors. In this situation he considered leaving for the United States (he even wrote to George Washington to obtain an adequate position in the American administration), but eventually went to Hamburg in 1796 in order to become a „good and useful citizen amongst Hamburg’s free people“, as he put it in his diary. Since he was not a man of independent means, he had to struggle hard to establish himself as a lawyer and advocate, but did so quite successfully. In 1800 he was elected as a judge at the Lower Court („Niedergericht“) for a customary three-year term. This position used to be an important step towards being elected to one of the high-ranking bodies of self-governance in the city republic. In fact, in 1816 Beneke was appointed as „Oberaltensekretär“ – one of the most influential positions in Hamburg, and a position Beneke kept almost until his death in 1848.
Like Beethoven and so many others, Beneke turned his back on the ideals of the French Revolution, after Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, and the French occupation of Northern Germany (including Hamburg) from 1806 to 1814 filled him with an utter hatred against France, which was still aggravated when Beneke was forced into exile in 1813. Though he never gave up his republicanist convictions, he increasingly cherished a moderate nationalism. In his eyes national unity should rather be achieved on the basis of moral and cultural values than by power politics. No wonder that his literary interests shifted from Jean Paul (with whom he had corresponded) to Schiller and since 1814 to the romanticist writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, whom he knew personally. The change in his political attitudes and reading list was paralleled in a powerfully developing religious revivalism. Influenced by his wife Karoline, whom he married in 1807, he gradually turned to a protestant piety which can easiest be characterized as Evangelicalism. This background also shaped his rather conservative, paternalistic conception of society, social reform, and the practice of private charity.
To sum up, Ferdinand Beneke can be portrayed as a typical „Bildungsbürger“, who in many respects represented middle class culture. In certain aspects, he was even more typical of early 19th century „Bürgertum“ in general than of Hamburg’s bourgeoisie, who in their majority were neither as national nor as pious as Beneke. However, he participated in the political and literary public both of Hamburg and of Germany, and he did so not only as a private person, but also as a member of the urban elite and their networks.