The Birmingham Lenz Project

  Reform in the Sturm und Drang: 
The Social and Political Writings of J. M. R. Lenz

Project description

The project seeks to fill the largest gap currently existing in our knowledge of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-92).  One of the leading members of the Sturm und Drang movement and much admired by his friend Goethe, Lenz has probably had a greater influence on creative writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than any other author of his time, principally because he developed, both in theory and practice, a kind of drama that was dedicated to the discussion of social, political and psychological problems of everyday life.  In 1771 Lenz broke off his studies at KŲnigsberg and travelled to Alsace where, as servant and companion to two Prussian noblemen who had joined the French army, he was able to observe the practices of the army at close quarters.  One result of his experiences was his play Die Soldaten (completed 1775), which analyses the relationship between the military and the civilian population.  Lenzís interest was not merely literary, however, and over the next two years he invested considerable time and energy in analysing the organisation of the army and developing possible solutions to the problem of its integration into society.

Lenzís investigations drew him into arguments concerning such matters as the manning of garrisons, the organisation of military assaults, and the proper social conduct of soldiers and their wives.  His proposals are not without their eccentricities, but they reveal a detailed knowledge of the subject matter and a grasp of the nation as an organic whole.  From this followed his concern with conflicts between the army and civil society and with the lack of cohesion in the army, two symptoms of the fragmentation of society which Lenz believed had to be prevented by institutional reform.  Lenzís work in this area is especially significant as it is the only known example of sustained political analysis in the Sturm und Drang.  Furthermore, it represents one of the first examples in Germany of what was to become the Napoleonic conception of the army as defender of the fatherland, and it is thus an important document of the development of ideas of nationhood in Germany.

These writings, composed shortly before, during and immediately after Lenzís stay as Goetheís guest in Weimar in 1776, survive in the form of about 600 sides of manuscript mostly lodged in the Biblioteka Jagiellonska in Krakůw, Poland.  One section was published in 1913 by Karl Freye under the title Ď‹ber die Soldatenehení, and this remains the only section that appears in any of the editions of Lenzís works. 

The current project, which is supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, aims to make the whole complex available to scholars for the first time.  The manuscripts consist of a mass of drafts and jottings, which are difficult to decipher and to interpret.  Most are written in (faulty) French.  Several of them belong to drafts addressed to the French Minister of War, which degenerate in the course of their composition into apparently disconnected notes or mathematical calculations scribbled in odd corners of sheets of paper, sometimes even on top of each other.  Lenzís drafts show that he was also considering other formats, such as attempts at a letter-novel or a proposal for a set of laws governing marriage and divorce, but there are also loose sheets, and it is yet not clear how many distinct versions of the project are reflected in these papers.  

A small sample of Lenz's work, a fragment from a fictional letter addressed to the French Minister of War Saint-Germain can be viewed on this website.

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These pages are maintained by Elystan Griffiths.