In the German literature of Romanticism, which begins around 1800 and extends in its offshoots well into the 19th century parallel to other cultural-historical currents, the complex of topics of economics and wealth is discussed for the first time on a noteworthy scale. Previously, discussions on the meaning and function of wealth and fortune and the representation of economic knowledge had little to no space. This changed in German Romanticism, in which, among other things, the antithesis of art and economy was raised. The functions of monetary wealth and questions of economy and prosperity can be exemplified by three exemplary texts by Joseph von Eichendorff, Ludwig Tieck, and Richard Wagner.
Joseph von Eichendorff: From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing
is one of the best-known and most valuable texts of German Romanticism. The good-for-nothing is the rather work-shy son of a miller who is sent out into the world. He stands out as a romantic and (life) artist who looks optimistically and courageously into the future, lets life come to him wandering and adventurous, and still finds happiness in the end. He shares this attitude with other figures of Romanticism, striving for individuality and freedom and distancing himself from the prescribed patterns of behavior of working bourgeois society. He tries to implement his ‘romantic’ attitude in everyday life and to free himself from the shackles of a society focused on acquisitiveness, economization, and the safeguarding of a bourgeois lifestyle (cf. Peters, 2020, 106).
Although the good-for-nothing dreams of bourgeois existence, “to save money like the others, and in time certainly to bring it to something great in the world” (Eichendorff, 2007, p. 469), his character disposition is not suitable for this. The good-for-nothing reveals glaring weaknesses in dealing with numbers and the responsibility entrusted to him; a lack of commercial or economic competence makes it difficult for him to enter the bourgeois world of gainful employment in the long term. His basic romantic attitude is in complete contrast to the expectations and demands of an economizing society; economic knowledge cannot be reconciled with the character of the romantic.
What functions, then, are attributed to economic property and knowledge? First of all, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that these qualities are regarded as original to the bourgeois sphere. The good-for-nothing, as a romantic character, seems to be overwhelmed by even the simplest calculations, because he is all too easily distracted by numbers. He ascribes to these completely different properties than they have in mathematical-commercial terms. The signs for certain values and economic quantities are turned into funny symbols and personifications to make things bearable. They have completely lost their original meaning, their significance for economic and commercial processes is completely taken away. The de-economization of numbers stands for the romantic basic attitude of the good-for-nothing and his impossibility to find his way in the bourgeois world. Dealing with numbers and possessions is perceived as incompatible with the romantic way of life.
Ludwig Tieck: The Rune Mountain
In Der Runenberg (1812) by Eichendorff’s contemporary Ludwig Tieck, a young man is corrupted by foreign gold and falls into madness and paranoia. At first, the main character Christian succeeds in everything in the investment of money (economic competence!), the family becomes rich and respected. But Christian increasingly falls into a negative vortex. He talks “crazy, especially at night, he dreams hard, often walks around the room in his sleep for a long time without knowing it, and tells wonderful things”, always talks about the “stranger” and no longer dares to go out into the field and garden. Christian’s only worry is that the stranger who left him the gold might reclaim his money, and in search of more wealth Christian disappears into the titular Rune Mountain. Although he returns later, his trail is lost after the final goodbye. His family and fortune perish as a result.
The Rune Mountain is very interesting from the point of view of economic psychology or economic psychiatry. As Othmar Hill (2011, p. 182) writes: “It is said that money does not make people happy, but it calms them down. But we know from happiness research that this is not so at all. Many among us are confused about is cause and effect of this issue. Who possesses money, loses by no means its existence fears, but vice versa: Who accumulates fears, whose life greed increases and he/she requires ever more money. This does not calm down, because money has no therapeutic effect, but acts only as a symptom plaster. From this point of view, it simply cannot be true that a lack of money should be the cause of all our unhappiness.”
One finds this assessment again in Ludwig Tieck’s Runenberg. Great fears of loss arise from the acquisition of gold so that Christian strives for more and more gold to counter these worries. The fairy tale impressively shows that this does not succeed, but leads the hero and family to ruin. Christian appears as a pathological case who completely perishes from his “greed for life” (Hill, 2011, p. 189)!
The function of money is thus that of psychological shock. Tieck makes the newly acquired gold the cause of all evil, which shakes a friendly, petty-bourgeois family to its foundations and, after a brief phase at the top of society, leads it to the abyss. Wealth has no positive role, it does not promise happiness, but is the catalyst of bad, as Christian’s character, which is romantic, becomes a completely broken one, but intoxicated by gold until the end. The romantic world of life is completely unhinged by the acquired fortune. As in the good-for-nothing, material possessions are the contradiction par excellence to the romantic ideal.
Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy combines the medieval Saga of the Nibelungs with the Norse collection of myths, the Edda, and has turned the Saga of the Nibelungs into a German national epic. In the first part, Das Rheingold, Wagner opens the discourse on the corrupting power of wealth: the Ring of the Nibelungs is part of a legendary treasure that brings only disaster and ruin to all involved and ultimately determines the entire plot.
The gold theme influences all the characters in Das Rheingold directly or indirectly. The Rhine daughters Wellgunde, Woglinde and Floßhild guard the legendary Rheingold. They reject the dwarf Alberich, who courts them so that Alberich renounces love and wants to use the Rhinegold to forge a ring to subjugate the world. Only those who renounce love can possess the treasure. Therefore, the Rhinemaidens feel completely safe. After all, “Well secure we are / and carefree: / for what only lives wants to love; / no one wants to shun the Minne.” (Wagner, 1997, v. 269ff.) This is not true in the special case of Alberich: the greed for gold outweighs the feeling of love.
And so Alberich robs the treasure and subjugates the Nibelungs, who dwell underground, to gather great treasures for him, and does violence to them through the power of the ring. The fantasies of subjugation and domination originate solely from his power of disposal over the ring; the gold has immediately put him under its spell and made him completely morally depraved. Alberich is concerned in the sense of the “greed for life” with the continuous increase of power, and his greed knows no limits.
In this cocky way (motivated by power and wealth) Alberich also confronts the prince of the gods Wotan, who finally binds him by a trick of the devious god Loge (Loki in Norse mythology) and steals the ring and all treasures from him. Wotan, in turn, needs the Nibelungen hoard because he has broken his word to the giants Fafner and Fasolt, who built his palace of the gods. He does not want to give them their agreed reward in the form of the goddess Freia, but wants to trick them and promises them the treasure of Alberich, while the Rhinemaidens had asked Loge to retrieve it. Wotan, however, wants to keep the ring of power for himself – with far-reaching consequences: Wotan’s lust for power, which is hardly inferior to that of Alberich, has already set in motion the twilight of the gods. Finally, Wotan hands over the entire treasure and the ring to the giants. The giants quarrel about this, and Fafner kills his brother Fasolt.
The curse of the ring has thus not only put the Germanic father of the gods, Wotan, under its spell and almost made him give a goddess to the giants as payment for the construction of the gods’ castle. It also led to Fafner’s fratricide of Fasolt, the worst crime imaginable since the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Richard Wagner functionalizes the Ring (and the Nibelungen hoard) as the catalyst for the entire plot. Except for Wotan’s breach of contract (who, against better legal and economic knowledge, suddenly no longer intends to keep his part of the agreement), all evil deeds result from the seduction by the Ring, originating from the Rhinegold. The will to power and subjugation manifests itself in the ring, whereby the ring as a piece of jewelry and central asset of the Nibelungen hoard is hardly attested a positive aspect. The ring is a great evil that sparks greed and motivates fratricide.
Summary and conclusion
The basic finding is that money and wealth do not find a positive cast. Whereas in Joseph von Eichendorff material possessions and economic knowledge are ultimately only mildly ridiculed as bourgeois concepts without any negative consequences for a character, this is different in Ludwig Tieck and Richard Wagner. Wealth becomes the engine of disaster in both texts. The functionalization of wealth and economic knowledge is used in all three texts to exemplify negative patterns of action and attitudes and thereby to criticize certain behaviors. Tieck and Wagner use material possessions to show how humans, dwarfs, giants, and gods can break because they do not have the strength to defend themselves against the corrupting effects of possessions.
The texts belong to a cultural-historical epoch that is fundamentally characterized by a concern for progress, melancholy, and conservatism. The Romantics want to withdraw statistically from social life to a large extent or turn to a small-town idyll. Their themes primarily love and nature. Economy and economic development are viewed critically. Rational thought and action had come to the fore in politics, economics, science, and art. The emotional world of the people, however, had fallen behind, especially against the backdrop of the slow onset of industrialization and the resulting economic tensions. In a romantic, often rapturously melancholy world of thought, this practical economic thinking and action had no place and was seen as a danger to the romantic idea.
Eichendorff, Joseph von (2007): Ahnung und Gegenwart. Sämtliche Erzählungen I. Edited by Wolfgang Frühwald and Brigitte Schillbach. Frankfurt am Main: Insel.
Hill, Othmar (2011): “Money or Life! Grundzüge der Wirtschaftspsychiatrie,” in Thomas Druyen (ed.): Wealth Culture. Responsibility in the 21st century. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, pp. 181-196.
Peters, Patrick (2020): Romanticism. Introduction. Essen: Oldib Verlag.
Tieck, Ludwig (1963): Werke in vier Bänden. Edited by Marianne Thalmann. Munich: Winkler, vol. 2, pp. 59-83.
Wagner, Richard (1999): Das Rheingold. Textbook with variants of the score. Edited by Egon Voss. Stuttgart: Reclam.
About the Author
Dr. Patrick Peters is a professor of PR, communication, and digital media at Allensbach University. A business journalist and publicist, he received his doctorate in modern German literary studies in 2014, regularly publishes essays and books on topics related to strategy, communication, and literary studies, and supports professional service firms and companies in the construction, cleantech, and security industries as a corporate communications consultant. This article is the abridged version of the essay: “Money and Wealth in German Romantic Literature: Functions of Monetary Wealth in Eichendorff, Tieck, and Wagner.” In Journal of Interdisciplinary Economic Research (2020). S. 30-37
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