Society and Politics

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did not do research and collect various kinds of texts for the sake of doing so. Academic knowledge and social responsibility were mutually connected for them and they were also politically active with this view.

This did not work without inner contradictions and breaks, though: On the one hand, Jacob Grimm worked as a royal librarian and state auditor in the administration offices of Napoleon’s brother, Jerôme Bonaparte, for whom Napoleon founded the so called “Kingdom of Westphalia”; on the other hand, in those days of French foreign rule, the Brothers Grimm were trying to find new ways to the German cultural identity in Kassel by rediscovering the Old High German language and literature and the folk literature.

“The ambition with which the old studies were carried out helped overcome the pressing aspects of those times.” Wilhelm Grimm writes in his autobiography and continues: “Without a doubt, the things happening in the world and the need to seek shelter in the peace provided by science contributed to the rediscovery of this long forgotten literature. One did not just work for consolation in the past, there was naturally also the hope this direction could also contribute to the return of another time.”

The French Revolution’s intercultural principle of „liberty, equality, and brotherliness“ was rather foreign to the Brothers Grimm. Their political thinking was more or less based on the Romantic concept of the spirit of language and people, i.e. a people’s inner substance given by the understanding of the connection between the cultural and political units. Jacob and Wilhelm did not think in national categories, even though their Hessian home and their native country was the centre of their attention; they often anticipated European thinking in their academic and political statements. In the debate about the rearrangement of the European states during the Viennese Congress, which Jacob took part in as the Hessian legation secretary, the Brothers Grimm stated their opinion regarding the constitution and the future of the German states in letters and anonymous newspaper articles. Here, they connected the terms people and nation with language and culture, upon which they based
their demand for new frontiers.

“ I think that having a lively voice that represents the value of traditions and constitutions is always worthwhile…! “ Wilhelm wrote in 1814. And Jacob wrote with regard to the new constitution: “1. every German is free, 2. every German is connected to his motherland”

On the one hand, the Brothers Grimm called for Germany’s re-annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. On the other hand, they granted their European neighbours the right to their own national and cultural identity, e.g. when they spoke up for the re- establishment of the Polish state. They also took a critical position concerning the politics of their Hessian home by overtly discussing political issues in the circle of electress Auguste, who was separated from her husband, and consequently opposed the government of the Hessian elector Wilhelm II.

To the best of their ability, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm always attempted to base their work upon historically rooted and explainable laws as well as on the liberty of the individual.
In their opinion, politics should always be adapted to the rights of man and never vice versa. This attitude was the guiding principle of their activities when they joined the professorial protest in Göttingen, the so called “The Göttingen Seven”, in which they firmly objected to the break of the constitution by the new King in Hanover, regardless of the consequences for themselves and their families. Without legitimating, the King dismissed the Constituent Assembly and rejected the newly introduced constitution. Through their courageous claim for liberty and justice Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm not only lost their jobs, they also had to leave the Kingdom of Hanover. The attitude towards the constitution and nationhood was of crucial significance in Germany, which was politically riven by inner strife and ruled in a predominantly restorative manner. Unity, right and liberty seemed to be reachable by means of the awareness of a common language and culture alone, to which the Brothers Grimm made a contribution with their ethnic collections and research in language and literature. They gleaned all of the “German” that could be captured linguistically with their academic work, and, consequently, they played a major role as philologists in the German Unification. So it was no accident that one of them, Jacob Grimm, was appointed delegate of the Constituent Assembly in the first German national Parliament, which took place in St. Paul’s Church in 1848. Even though his motion to Article 1 concerning the fundamental rights was defeated, it has yet to loose its relevancy: “The German people are free people, German soil does not tolerate servitude. It frees foreign servants who remain on its soil.”

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