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The spell of the poet führer

Thomas Karlauf has written an impressive biography of the charismatic poet Stefan George, a feverish figure in a nervous epoch. By Alexander Cammann

Don't believe anyone who tells you that Stefan George is not forgotten. And don't only agree just because you've heard of the deed of one of his devotees: Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944, currently being rendered for Hollywood by Tom Cruise. George goes Hollywood? The master, to whose circle the young Stauffenberg belonged from 1923 on, would undoubtedly have loathed the thought of popcorn-munching ignoramuses. But nothing is more misleading than to declare George the "great undead in the collective German unconsciousness," as Der Spiegel did. No, nobody learns Stefan George's hymns by heart. No poet refers to him as they would Gottfried Benn, who is still evoked with adoration. George has shrunk to an object of interest to a handful of literary academics and even fewer esoterics. At most you will hear the odd scornful whisper or murmur, long since emptied of reverence, about his retinue of beautiful young men, the George Circle. What remains are the stylised photographs; the Literature Museum in Marbach has kept two silver-grey locks of his hair as relics. George is gone.

Thomas Karlauf: "Stefan George. Die Entdeckung des Charisma". Karl Blessing Verlag

So to present to the modern world the life and work of Stefan Anton George, born on July 12, 1868 in Büdesheim near Bingen on the Rhein is in many ways a heroic deed. For one thing, the aforementioned alienness of this far-off, deeply historical figure precludes the possibility of wide public interest. And the biographer must fight his way through the jungle of German cultural history, its stylisations and deceptions, mystifications and buried secrets that George and those around him systematically created over time. "The master has no private life", decreed Karl Wolfskehl in the 1930s, an early follower of this "priest of the spirit," as he had extolled George in 1896. And several empty envelopes in the George estate bear the words "contents destroyed."

But none of this cowed Thomas Karlauf. This Berlin literary agent, born 1955, worked seven years on his 800-page biography. And the publishers who normally bring out German bestsellers such as the biography of Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit decided to humour him. So cheers from the sidelines were more than welcome. "A breathless thriller of a read," wrote Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung publisher, Frank Schirrmacher, that had "switched on an electric current."

Understatement is Karlauf's great strength. Having worked for for ten years after he left school in Amsterdam on the Castrum Peregrini, a magazine dedicated to the spirit of George, he leaves lofty extremes to his hero. And his stylistic asceticism has spawned an impressive creative achievement.

Even during his lifetime, opinions were divided on Stefan George and his poems. Georg Lukacs spoke of his "imperialistic park poetry". Countess Franziska zu Reventlow, who blew a breeze of erotic uncertainty through turn-century-of-the-century Munich, insisted on referring to George in her bare-all novel simply as "the gesture". Count Harry Kessler noted in his diary: "He speaks so insistently and monumentally and with such Dante-esque craning of the neck that his silliness goes almost unnoticed, almost." Ricarda Huch found him abhorrent: "He looks revolting and ugly, like the very principle of evil or a poisonous toadstool." Adorno who had a lifelong fascination for George and set a number of George's poems to music, saw in him a model for the transformation from progressive to reactionary cultural criticism. Thomas Mann, who in 1920, had a chance and "uncanny meeting with HIM" in front of George's publisher Bondi, professed: "The imperious and enslaving elements so characteristic of the theatricality that George demanded, were always alien to me."

Karlauf reconstructs this theatricality in minute detail. Much of it is hilariously funny. As when the French Symbolists Verlaine and Mallarme praise George's verse during his sojourn in Paris in 1889, without understanding a word of German. This 21-year-old son of a wine merchant from Bingen was allowed into Mallarme's Tuesday soiree without ever having published a line. In his magazine, Blätter für die Kunst, he perfected the art of self marketing, having himself permanently celebrated as the greatest living poet and then hacking up the manuscripts and poems of others, until he felt they had been suitably improved – naturally without the consent of the authors.

What was to become the legendary and key meeting of his life with Hugo von Hofmannsthal took place in the Viennese winter of 1891/92. George, in a state of excitation, was bent on bringing the 17-year-old schoolboy under his spell. Hofmannsthal gave a chilling description of his impressions in his poem, "Der Prophet": "His words, unremarkable, spoken softly / Emit a power and a seduction / He makes the empty air circle oppressively / And can kill without touching." Hofmannsthal was able to escape, but years of conflict and rapprochement followed.

By the age of thirty, George had finally made it. His breakthrough came in 1897 in the salons of Berlin where his exotic demeanour satisfied the needs of Wilhelminian intellectuals for originality. The philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel lauded him in essays. At night George fed his desires by cruising young men around the Nollendorfplatz: "the birth of poetry from the spirit of male eroticism" (Karlauf). The Georgian "state" with its hand-picked disciples and pretty boys who were brought his way, was rooted in the homosexual secret – and the fear of paragraph 175. The case is clear cut for Karlauf. He decodes the internally used abbreviation "s.S" as "sehr Süßer" (sweetest boy), and declares George's poetry as "the outrageous attempt to explain, with pedagogical zeal, paedophilia as the highest form of intellectual being".

In Heidelberg, where George regularly spent his days from 1910 onwards, he inspired another master with his "wild harping on": Max Weber developed his concept of charismatic authority from first-hand experience; the George Circle as sect with a totalitarian leader. Joachim Radkaus' biography of Max Weber (see article) from 2005, a sort of twin book, also convincingly teased out sexual power as the hidden engine for a life's work. George did not allow himself get carried away by the First World War. In his war poem of 1917 he prophesies "There will be no triumph / Only much doom without."

In the twenties George completed his transformation from poet to führer: He produced ever less. In 1928 he published his song with the sparkling title: "Geheimes Deutschland" (secret Germany) which he concludes with the hope that the "miracle uninterpretable today / will be the fortune of the day to come". His followers by contrast produced many books, most importantly Ernst Kantorowicz's biography of the Hohenstaufen Kaiser Frederick II (1928) which the ageing George diligently edited. But the George Circle or "pile of cringers" as Rudolf Borchardt christened it, counted numerous victims: close companionships fell asunder, suicides mounted up – and the master increasingly lashed out with condemnations when disobeyed. Take the erotically vulnerable Friedrich Gundolf, who having been George's most ardent propagandist for 20 years, was cast out of the circle in 1922 because he wanted to get married. Once again the poet führer bares his crazed and rebarbative hubris, his delusions of grandeur.

Stefan George died in Minusio, Switzerland, at 1.15 in the morning of September 4, 1933. Disciples were hurried in from all corners of the earth to pay their farewells. The scenario is familiar from history books about the death of Lenin and Stalin: coffin bearers, death vigils – and the schism the moment the crypt closes. The swastika on the official wreath laid by the German envoy Ernst von Weizsäcker was secretly removed and then replaced by a self-made version from the Nazi followers among George's disciples. The legacy of the führer was as divided as it was controversial; both Jews and Nazis were among the faithful.

Only in the epilogue does the biographer, incorruptible to the last, succumb to George's influence. Addressing the old question as to whether before his execution command was issued in 1944 Stauffenberg called out "Long live holy Germany!" or in reminiscence of the George circle, "Long live secret Germany!", Karlauf opts nonchalantly for the latter and in so doing, for the enduring power of the master. As George knew only too well; "only through magic does life stay awake." Yet Karlauf's conclusion is unequivocal. The Stefan George chapter, he writes, "deals with the final intoxicated soaring of the German spirit on the eve of catastrophe, but also with eccentricity, darkness and delusion." Having become an "accessory" this spirit disappeared forever "in the abyss of history."

Karlauf's mythological probing is not some pseudo attempt to yank George into the present day. Much more is is an historicisation of a feverish figure in a nervous epoch. Stefan George heralded in the age of extremes. In January 1914, after reading a book about George by Friedrich Gundolf, Thomas Mann said, "It was understandable that Gundolf felt that the moment had come to speak to the world about George. But it is reasonable to doubt that this will ever be possible – that the day will come when this precipitous, crass, and – in the most noble and recent sense of the word - grotesque apparition can be popularised among Germans." For Gundolf as for Karlauf: this doubt remains, thank goodness.

And yet it is worth cruising the "park they say is dead" that is Stefan George. Karlauf's biography also calls to mind its "formations of immortal beauty" (Thomas Mann). In 1897 George's best cycle of poems was published, "Das Jahr der Seele" (the year of souls), which begins with a seduction: Come to the park they say is dead, and view / the shimmer of the smiling shores beyond / the stainless clouds with unexpected blue / diffuse a light on motley path and pond. And ends with: The purple on the twists of wilding vine / the last of asters you shall not forget / and what of living verdure lingers yet / around the autumn vision lightly twine."


This article originally appeared in the Tageszeitung on August 28, 2007.

Alexander Cammann is a freelance journalist.

translation: nb, lp - let's talk european