August von Kotzebue

Last updated
August von Kotzebue
August von Kotzebue.png
Born(1761-05-03)3 May 1761
Weimar, Saxe-Weimar, Holy Roman Empire
Died23 March 1819(1819-03-23) (aged 57)
Mannheim, Grand Duchy of Baden, German Confederation
Resting place Mannheim
Alma mater University of Duisburg
Announcement of two pieces by August von Kotzebue performed at the theater of Bruges on 8 August 1813 Theatre Bruges 1813.jpg
Announcement of two pieces by August von Kotzebue performed at the theater of Bruges on 8 August 1813

August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue (German: [ˈaʊɡʊst fɔn ˈkɔtsəbu] ; 3 May [ O.S. 22 April] 176123 March [ O.S. 11 March] 1819) was a German dramatist and writer who also worked as a consul in Russia and Germany.

Old Style and New Style dates 16th-century changes in calendar conventions

Old Style (O.S.) and New Style (N.S.) are terms sometimes used with dates to indicate that the calendar convention used at the time described is different from that in use at the time the document was being written. There were two calendar changes in Great Britain and its colonies, which may sometimes complicate matters: the first was to change the start of the year from Lady Day to 1 January; the second was to discard the Julian calendar in favour of the Gregorian calendar. Closely related is the custom of dual dating, where writers gave two consecutive years to reflect differences in the starting date of the year, or to include both the Julian and Gregorian dates.

Consul (representative) diplomatic rank

A consul is an official representative of the government of one state in the territory of another, normally acting to assist and protect the citizens of the consul's own country, and to facilitate trade and friendship between the people of the two countries.


In 1817, one of Kotzebue's books was burned during the Wartburg festival. He was murdered in 1819 by Karl Ludwig Sand, a militant member of the Burschenschaften . This murder gave Metternich the pretext to issue the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, which dissolved the Burschenschaften, cracked down on the liberal press, and seriously restricted academic freedom in the states of the German Confederation.

Karl Ludwig Sand German murderer

Karl Ludwig Sand was a German university student and member of a liberal Burschenschaft. He was executed in 1820 for the murder of the conservative dramatist August von Kotzebue the previous year in Mannheim. As a result of his execution, Sand became a martyr in the eyes of many German nationalists seeking the creation of a united German national state.


A Burschenschaft is one of the traditional Studentenverbindungen of Germany, Austria and Chile. Burschenschaften were founded in the 19th century as associations of university students inspired by liberal and nationalistic ideas. They were significantly involved in the March Revolution and the unification of Germany. After the formation of the German Empire in 1871, they faced a crisis, as their main political objective had been realized. So-called Reformburschenschaften were established, but these were dissolved by the National Socialist regime in 1935/6. In West Germany, the Burschenschaften were re-established in the 1950s, but they faced a renewed crisis in the 1960s and 1970s, as the mainstream political outlook of the German student movement of that period swerved to the radical left. Roughly 160 Burschenschaften exist today in Germany, Austria and Chile.

Carlsbad Decrees

The Carlsbad Decrees were a set of reactionary restrictions introduced in the states of the German Confederation by resolution of the Bundesversammlung on 20 September 1819 after a conference held in the spa town of Carlsbad, Bohemia. They banned nationalist fraternities ("Burschenschaften"), removed liberal university professors, and expanded the censorship of the press. They were aimed at quelling a growing sentiment for German unification and were passed during ongoing Hep-Hep riots which ended within a month after the resolution was passed.


Kotzebue was born in Weimar to the respected merchant Kotzebue family and was educated at Wilhelm-Ernst-Gymnasium in Weimar, where his uncle, the writer and critic Johann Karl August Musäus was among his teachers. In 1776 the young Kotzebue acted alongside Goethe in the latter's play Die Geschwister when it premiered in Weimar. [1] In 1777, aged sixteen, he enrolled at the University of Jena to study legal science. He continued his studies at the University of Duisburg, graduating in 1780, and practiced initially as a lawyer in Weimar.

Weimar Place in Thuringia, Germany

Weimar is a city in the federal state of Thuringia, Germany. It is located in Central Germany between Erfurt in the west and Jena in the east, approximately 80 kilometres southwest of Leipzig, 170 kilometres north of Nuremberg and 170 kilometres west of Dresden. Together with the neighbour-cities Erfurt and Jena it forms the central metropolitan area of Thuringia with approximately 500,000 inhabitants, whereas the city itself counts a population of 65,000. Weimar is well known because of its large cultural heritage and its importance in German history.

Kotzebue (noble family) noble family

Kotzebue was a Baltic German noble family of Brandenburgish origin, tracing its origin back to Kossebau in Altmark. They held nobility status in the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Bavaria.

Gymnasium (school) type of school providing advanced secondary education in Europe

A gymnasium is a type of school with a strong emphasis on academic learning, and providing advanced secondary education in some parts of Europe comparable to British grammar schools, sixth form colleges and US preparatory high schools. In its current meaning, it usually refers to secondary schools focused on preparing students to enter a university for advanced academic study. Before the 20th century, the system of gymnasiums was a widespread feature of educational system throughout many countries of central, north, eastern and southern Europe.

Through his association with Graf Goertz, Prussian ambassador at the Russian court, Kotzebue became secretary to the Governor General of Saint Petersburg. In 1783 he was appointed assessor to the high court of appeals in Reval, where he married the daughter of a Russian lieutenant general. He was ennobled in 1785 and became president of the Magistrat of the Governorate of Estonia, a province of the Russian Empire. [2]

Prussia state in Central Europe between 1525–1947

Prussia was a historically prominent German state that originated in 1525 with a duchy centred on the region of Prussia on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea. It was de facto dissolved by an emergency decree transferring powers of the Prussian government to German Chancellor Franz von Papen in 1932 and de jure by an Allied decree in 1947. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organised and effective army. Prussia, with its capital first in Königsberg and then, in 1701, in Berlin, decisively shaped the history of Germany.

Saint Petersburg Federal city in the Northwestern federal district, Russia

Saint Petersburg is Russia's second-largest city after Moscow, with 5 million inhabitants in 2012, part of the Saint Petersburg agglomeration with a population of 6.2 million (2015). An important Russian port on the Baltic Sea, it has a status of a federal subject.

Tallinn City in Harju, Estonia

Tallinn is the capital, primate and the most populous city of Estonia. Located in the northern part of the country, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland of the Baltic Sea, it has a population of 434,562. Administratively a part of Harju maakond (county), Tallinn is a major financial, industrial, cultural, educational and research centre of Estonia. Tallinn is located 80 kilometres (50 mi) south of Helsinki, Finland, 320 kilometres (200 mi) west of Saint Petersburg, Russia, and 380 kilometres (240 mi) east of Stockholm, Sweden. It has close historical ties with these three cities. From the 13th century until the first half of the 20th century Tallinn was known in most of the world by its historical German name Reval.

In Reval his first literary works were favourably received. His novels Die Leiden der Ortenbergischen Familie (The Sorrows of the Ortenberg Family) (1785) and Geschichte meines Vaters (History of my Father) (1788) met with appreciation; even more so did his plays Adelheid von Wulfingen (1789), Menschenhass und Reue (Misanthropy and Repentance) (1790) and Die Indianer in England (The Indians in England) (1790). [2]

The good reputation of these works was, however, almost destroyed by a controversial dramatic satire, Doktor Bahrdt mit der eisernen Stirn (Doctor Bahrdt with the Iron Brow), which appeared in 1790 with the name of Knigge on the title page. [2] Written in response to contention between J.G. Zimmermann and leaders of Berlin's party of the Enlightenment, it linked each of Zimmermann's opponents to a particular sexual perversion. Kotzebue denied authorship, even when the police began to investigate the matter. This alienated both Zimmermann and Knigge, formerly his allies, and also gained Kotzebue a reputation for dishonesty and lasciviousness that he would never shake off.

Adolph Freiherr Knigge German writer and Freemason

Freiherr Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge was a German writer, Freemason, and a leading member of the Order of the Illuminati.

Johann Georg Ritter von Zimmermann Swiss philosophical writer, naturalist, and physician

Johann Georg Ritter von Zimmermann / Johann Georg Zimmermann was a Swiss philosophical writer, naturalist, and physician.

Age of Enlightenment European cultural movement of the 18th century

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, the "Century of Philosophy".

After the death of his first wife in 1790, Kotzebue retired from the Russian service and lived for a time in Paris and Mainz. In 1795 he settled on an estate which he had acquired near Reval and devoted himself to writing. In the space of only a few years, he published six volumes of miscellaneous sketches and stories (Die jüngsten Kinder meiner Laune, 1793–1796) and more than twenty plays, many of which were translated into several European languages. [2]

In 1798 he was appointed dramatist to the court theatre in Vienna, but differences with the actors soon obliged him to resign. He then returned to his native town, but as he was not on good terms with the powerful Goethe and had openly attacked the romantic style for which Goethe was known, his position in Weimar was uncomfortable. [3]

In April 1800 he decided to return to Saint Petersburg, but on his journey there he was arrested at the border on suspicion of being a Jacobin and was escorted to Tobolsk in Siberia. However, he had written a comedy which flattered the vanity of Emperor Paul I of Russia; he was soon brought back, presented with an estate in Vooru from the crown lands of Livonia, and appointed director of the German theatre in Saint Petersburg. [4] Kotzebue wrote about this period in his life in the autobiographical Das merkwürdigste Jahr meines Lebens (The strangest Year of my Life).

Kotzebue returned to Germany in 1801, after the assassination of the Emperor Paul I. Failing to establish himself in Weimar's literary circles, he moved to Berlin, where he edited Der Freimutige in collaboration with Garlieb Merkel from 1803 to 1807. In 1803 he began his Almanach dramatischer Spiele (Almanac of the Dramatic Arts), which was published posthumously in 1820.

In 1806, after Napoleon's victory in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, Kotzebue fled to Russia and, in the safety of his estate in Jerlep, Estonia, wrote many satirical articles against Napoleon Bonaparte, published in his journals Die Biene (The Bee) and Die Grille (The Cricket). [4]

He started working for the department of foreign affairs in Saint Petersburg in 1816 and was sent to Germany as consul general for Russia a year later. Some suspected him of being a spy, and this view persisted for a long time, but in modern times it has been shown to be unfounded: he reported only on matters that were already public knowledge. Nevertheless, it is fair to say he was Russia's advocate in Germany. [5]


Stabbing of Kotzebue Ermordung August von Kotzebues.jpg
Stabbing of Kotzebue

In a weekly journal (Literarisches Wochenblatt) which he published in Weimar, he scoffed at the pretensions of those Germans who demanded free institutions, and soon became detested by nationalist liberals. One of them, Karl Ludwig Sand, a theology student, plotted to kill him. On 18 March 1819, soon after Kotzebue had moved with his family to Mannheim, Sand attacked Kotzebue at his house. [4] According to Alexandre Dumas, père, when one of Kotzebue's children appeared and started to cry, Sand became overwrought and stabbed himself.

Sand was arrested and carefully nursed back to health. At his trial, he protested that Kotzebue was an enemy of the German people, [6] but he was convicted of the murder and executed later that year.

The assassination of Kotzebue provided Prince Metternich with arguments to convince the Confederation to enact the Carlsbad Decrees, imposing greater restrictions on universities and the press.


Portrait of Kotzebue in Weimar AugustVonKotzebueS135.jpg
Portrait of Kotzebue in Weimar

Though he was unfavourably reviewed by critics  many of whom saw his work as immoral  Kotzebue was one of the most popular writers of his time. In his essay "Why Do I Have So Many Enemies?", he blamed jealousy of his fame. He was politically conservative and cosmopolitan in outlook and spoke out against the antisemitism of student nationalists.

He was approached in 1812 by Beethoven, who suggested that Kotzebue write the libretto for an opera about Attila, which was never written. Beethoven did, however, produce incidental music for two of Kotzebue's plays, The Ruins of Athens (Beethoven's opus 113) and King Stephen (opus 117).

Besides his plays, Kotzebue wrote several historical works: his History of the German Empires was burned by nationalist students at the 1817 Wartburg Festival (which Sand attended).

Still read are his autobiographical writings, Meine Flucht nach Paris im Winter 1790 (1791), Über meinen Aufenthalt in Wien (1799), Das merkwürdigste Jahr meines Lebens (1801), Erinnerungen aus Paris (1804), and Erinnerungen von meiner Reise aus Liefland nach Rom und Neapel (1805). [4]

As a dramatist he was extremely prolific: his plays numbered over 200 and were highly popular, not only in Germany but throughout Europe. His success, however, was seen[ by whom? ] as due less to any conspicuous literary or poetic ability than to his great facility in the invention of effective situations. He is at his best in comedies such as Der Wildfang, Die beiden Klingsberg and Die deutschen Kleinstädter, which contain cameos of German life. These plays held the stage in Germany long after the once-famous Menschenhass und Reue (Misanthropy and Repentance, but known in England as The Stranger), Graf Benjowsky, and ambitious exotic tragedies like Die Sonnenjungfrau and Die Spanier in Peru (which Sheridan adapted as Pizarro ) were forgotten. [4]

Theatre historians usually consider the runaway success of The Stranger, the English version of Menschenhass und Reue, in both England (where it opened in 1798) and the United States as one of the harbingers of the emerging popularity of theatrical melodrama, which dominated European and American stages for the first seventy-five years of the nineteenth century. [7] [8]

Two collections of Kotzebue's dramas were published during his lifetime: Schauspiele (5 vols., 1797); Neue Schauspiele (23 vols., 1798–1820). His Sämtliche dramatische Werke appeared in 44 volumes in 1827–1829, and again, under the title Theater, in 40 volumes in 1840–1841. A selection of his plays in 10 volumes appeared in Leipzig in 1867–1868. See Heinrich Doring, A. von Kotzebues Leben (1830); W. von Kotzebue, A. von Kotzebue (1881); Ch. Rabany, Kotzebue, sa vie et son temps (1893); W. Sellier, Kotzebue in England (1901). [4]


The tomb of August von Kotzebue in Mannheim Grabmal August von Kotzebue.JPG
The tomb of August von Kotzebue in Mannheim

Kotzebue was the father of 18 children, among them Karl von Kotzebue (diplomat), Moritz von Kotzebue, Paul Demetrius Kotzebue, Alexander Kotzebue and the explorer Otto von Kotzebue.

Kotzebue Street in Kalamaja, Tallinn, Estonia, is named after him and other family members who lived on the street, especially his son Otto.

Beethoven's "Turkish March", originally written as part of the incidental music to von Kotzebue's The Ruins of Athens , became one of this composer's most well-known pieces.

Jane Austen saw a Kotzebue play, The Birthday, at Bath in 1799. She later used a translated version of another of his plays, Das Kind der Liebe (1780), known in England as Lover's Vows, in her novel Mansfield Park . [9]

Related Research Articles

Friedrich Schiller German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was a German poet, philosopher, physician, historian, and playwright. During the last seventeen years of his life (1788–1805), Schiller developed a productive, if complicated, friendship with the already famous and influential Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. They frequently discussed issues concerning aesthetics, and Schiller encouraged Goethe to finish works he left as sketches. This relationship and these discussions led to a period now referred to as Weimar Classicism. They also worked together on Xenien, a collection of short satirical poems in which both Schiller and Goethe challenge opponents of their philosophical vision.

August Wilhelm Schlegel German poet, translator, critic, and writer

August WilhelmSchlegel, usually cited as August Schlegel, was a German poet, translator and critic, and with his brother Friedrich Schlegel the leading influence within Jena Romanticism. His translations of Shakespeare turned the English dramatist's works into German classics. Schlegel was also the first professor of Sanskrit in Continental Europe and produced a translation of the Bhagavad Gita.

Jakob Friedrich Fries German philosopher & scholar

Jakob Friedrich Fries was a German post-Kantian philosopher.

Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette German theologian and biblical scholar

Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette was a German theologian and biblical scholar.

Adelbert von Chamisso German poet and botanist

Adelbert von Chamisso was a German poet and botanist, author of Peter Schlemihl, a famous story about a man who sold his shadow. He was commonly known in French as Adelbert de Chamissode Boncourt, a name referring to the family estate at Boncourt.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel Austrian composer and pianist

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was an Austrian composer and virtuoso pianist. His music reflects the transition from the Classical to the Romantic musical era.

Karl Freiherr von Müffling German general and cartographer

Friedrich Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Müffling, called Weiss was a Prussian Generalfeldmarschall and military theorist. He served as Blücher's liaison officer in Wellington's headquarters during the Battle of Waterloo and was one of the organizers of the final victory over Napoleon. After the wars he served a diplomatic role at the Congress of Aix-la-Chappelle and was a major contributor to the development of the Prussian General Staff as Chief. Müffling also specialized in military topography and cartography.

Karl Philipp Moritz German author, editor and essayist

Karl Philipp Moritz was a German author, editor and essayist of the Sturm und Drang, late enlightenment, and classicist periods, influencing early German Romanticism as well. He led a life as a hatter's apprentice, teacher, journalist, literary critic, professor of art and linguistics, and member of both of Berlin's academies.

Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach German noble

Karl August, sometimes anglicised as Charles Augustus, was the sovereign Duke of Saxe-Weimar and of Saxe-Eisenach from 1758, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach from its creation in 1809, and grand duke from 1815 until his death. He is noted for the intellectual brilliance of his court.

Christian August Vulpius German writer

Christian August Vulpius was a German novelist and dramatist. His sister married the noted German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Wartburg Festival Student demonstration in 1817

The first Wartburg Festival was a convention of about 500 Protestant German students, held on 18 October 1817 at the Wartburg castle near Eisenach in Thuringia. The former refuge of reformator Martin Luther was considered a national symbol and the assembly a protest against reactionary politics and Kleinstaaterei.

Heinrich Leo German historian and politician

Heinrich Leo was a Prussian historian born in Rudolstadt, his father being chaplain to the garrison there.

Gottfried Osann German chemist and physicist

Gottfried Wilhelm Osann was a German chemist and physicist. He is known for his work on the chemistry of platinum metals.

Paul Wranitzky Czech violinist and composer

Paul Wranitzky was a Moravian-Austrian classical composer. His half brother, Antonín, was also a composer.

Nike Wagner German opera director

Nike Wagner is a German dramaturge, arts administrator and author. She directed the festival Kunstfest Weimar, and has been the director of the Beethovenfest from 2014. The daughter of Wieland Wagner, she is a great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner, and a great-great‑granddaughter of Franz Liszt. She devoted books to the Wagner family and its cultural and political influence.

Karl Friedrich Heinrich Marx German physician

Karl Friedrich Heinrich Marx was a German physician and college lecturer. He is not related to Karl Marx, the founder of Marxism.

Friedrich Ludwig Lindner was a German writer, journalist and physician.


  1. Gerhard Schulz, Die deutsche Literatur zwischen Französischer Revolution und Restauration/ Teil 1 Geschichte der deutschen Literatur von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart / begr. von Helmut de Boor .... Bd. 7, Teil 1, Das Zeitalter der Französischen Revolution : 1789 – 1806, 2., neubearb. Aufl., München, Beck, 2000, S. 472
  2. 1 2 3 4 Chisholm 1911, p. 919.
  3. Chisholm 1911, pp. 919-920.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Chisholm 1911, p. 920.
  5. Williamson, G.S. (2000). "What Killed August von Kotzebue? The Temptations of Virtue and the Political Theology German Nationalism, 1789–1819". The Journal of Modern History. 72 (4): 890–943. doi:10.1086/318549.
  6. Dumas père, Alexandre. "Karl Ludwig Sand". Celebrated Crimes. Volume IV. Wildside Classics. pp. 13–76.
  7. Booth, Michael (1965). English Melodrama. London: Herbert James. p. 46.
  8. Grimsted, David (1968). Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800-1850. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 12–15.
  9. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-04-26. Retrieved 2012-12-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)