Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote tragedies about Europe’s wars of religion that serve as Europe’s epitaph. “History brought forth a great moment,” the German poet, philosopher, historian and playwright wrote of the French Revolution, the defining event of his lifetime, “but the moment found a mediocre people.”

The 250th anniversary of his birth came and went on November 10 with less attention than it deserved. Schiller created a new kind of tragedy, in which the flaw applies to the people as much as to the protagonists. The hand of destiny is revealed as the tramp of boots on the ground worn by human beings with real needs and passions. The Chorus itself becomes a tragic actor.

English-speakers mainly know Schiller through bad translations of one of his poorer poems, the first stanzas of the Ode to Joy that Ludwig van Beethoven set in the Ninth Symphony. It was not always so. The English Romantic poets drank Schiller with their mother’s milk. His apostle to the Anglo-Saxons was the great Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who read his first play The Robbers in 1794 and wrote to Robert Southey: “My God! Southey! Who is this Schiller? This Convulser of the Heart? Did he write his Tragedy amid the yelling of Fiends?” Coleridge penned a rapturous sonnet to Schiller which may not rank among his best work:

Ah! Bard tremendous in sublimity!
Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood,
Wand’ring at eve, with finely frenzied eye,
Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood!
Awhile, with mute awe gazing, I would brood,
Then weep aloud in a wild ecstasy.

Coleridge visited Germany in 1797 to drink Teutonic wisdom from the source, and went on to translate two of the three plays in Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy and write incomprehensibly about Schiller’s aesthetic theories. Some of this filtered into John Keats’ equivalence of truth and beauty at the close of Ode on a Grecian Urn, and such-like sources.

The Weimar Classic of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schiller, Johann Gottfried von Herder and Christoph Martin Wieland proposed to substitute art for religion long before the Victorian schoolmaster, Matthew Arnold. Victorian aesthetics, like Victorian parlor verse, is to a great extent second-hand Schiller.

Schiller’s aesthetic philosophy is a period curiosity – academic scholarship treats it as a minor commentary on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. I am not sure whether this is correct, but I doubt it is worth the trouble to find out. The best reason to read it today is so as not to have to read Matthew Arnold. As a pedagogical insight, Schiller’s notion of Spieltrieb, the play-impulse that unifies form and substance through artistic beauty, still has some influence through such currents as Waldorf education.

Like Kant’s categorical imperative and schemes for universal peace, Schiller’s hopes for social improvement through aesthetic education seem quaint to us. Schiller the philosopher of art is much less interesting than Schiller the artist, though. His best work still convulses the heart, as Coleridge said.

“Only through the morning-gate of the Beautiful do you make your way into the land of cognition,” Schiller wrote in one of his most famous (and worst) poems, The Artists (1789). As a playwright, though, Schiller felicitously ignored his own aesthetic doctrine, which advanced the conceit of the “beautiful soul,” the perfected human personality who can integrate life through a Hellenistic appreciation of beauty. But the characters that still convulse the hearts of theater audiences are not “beautiful souls” but desperately flawed human beings whose residual capacity for good makes their predicament tragic rather than sordid.

Coleridge responded to the bandit Karl Moor in The Robbers, who took to a life of crime after calumny caused his disinheritance. The Catholic queen Mary Stuart, an adulteress and mariticide, becomes a figure of pathos and sympathy in his eponymous 1801 drama, which ran for months last year in London and New York in Peter Oswald’s English version.

There are few moments in theater more chilling than the concluding chorus sung in Wallenstein’s Camp, the first of the Wallenstein trilogy by the Soldateska, the “new people” whom the imperial field-marshal of the Thirty Years’ War has summoned together from every corner of Europe. A minor Bohemian noble, Wallenstein crushed the Protestant revolt against the Austrian empire by raising a mercenary army that was large enough to live off the land. But his success ruined civil society and turned the Thirty Years’ War into a horror that killed more than a third of the population of Central Europe. In Chinese terms of reference, imagine that the emperor had elevated a bandit rebel to commander of all imperial forces in order to defeat a rival.

As the play opens in 1634, the Austrian court has decided to excise the cancer; Wallenstein meanwhile is negotiating secretly to betray the Imperial army to the Protestant Swedes; and imperial agents in his own camp are preparing his ruin. His soldier-folk, a diabolical caricature of the “new people” of Christendom, prepare to assert themselves against the civil society and imperial authority. Die Freiheit ist bei der Macht allein – “You get freedom only with power,” declares a cuirassier. “I’ll live and die with Wallenstein!”

The empire pawned its moral authority by calling Wallenstein and his monstrous army to its service, bringing more misery to its own people than ever did the invading Protestants. Schiller has the soldiers sing:

Aus der Welt die Freiheit verschwunden ist,
Man sieht nur die Herren und Knechte;
Die Falschheit herrscht, die Hinterlist
Bei dem feigen Menschengeschlechte.
Der dem Tod ins Angesicht schauen kann,
Der Soldat allein ist der freie Mann!

[Freedom has disappeared from the world,
And you only see masters and slaves;
And perfidy reigns, and deceitfulness,
Among the cowardly human race.
He who can look death in the face,
The soldier alone, is a free man!]

The superstitious Wallenstein imagines that he is the captive of his stars; in fact, his destiny is the terrible army he has brought into being, and whose ambitions he must fulfill or perish. He has grown too great for civil society to bear. The Swedes offer him only servitude and humiliation; the empire plots his ruin. Loosely following the events that Schiller had chronicled in his earlier History of the Thirty Years’ War, the play concludes with Wallenstein’s assassination at Eger (Cheb, the Czech Republic) by imperial officers.

Schiller wrote the trilogy in 1799, and his audience know that the protagonist was not so much Wallenstein as Napoleon Bonaparte, who again would summon the freebooters and malcontents of Europe into a multinational army that threatened to eradicate civil society. Europe strains for universality, and in the absence of universal Christian empire, a different and dire species of universality would arise. Wallenstein, Napoleon, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler would send the rough hordes raging cross Europe again and again until only a moral ruin remained of Christendom.

Schiller convulses the heart because he so well discerns the humanity even in the most despicable characters. Heinrich Heine remarks that there are no minor characters in William Shakespeare or Goethe, because, like gods, when they direct their attention to a character, it cannot be minor, simply because Shakespeare or Goethe are looking at it.

By contrast, there are no unsympathetic characters in Schiller. Unlike his friend Goethe, Schiller has nothing of the Olympian about him, but his sympathy for humanity in all of its expressions gives us unparalleled portraits of individuals, even “amid the yelling of fiends.” Goethe observes his characters like a Greek god, with a preternatural combination of intensity and detachment: he has the miserable Gretchen tear our hearts out at the end of the first part of Faust, and discards her when her services to the drama no longer are required. For all his faux Hellenism, Schiller lives with his characters in their sorrow and terror; if our response does not seem as overwrought as that of Coleridge, it is because Coleridge saw and felt more deeply than we do.

There is no tragedy in literature quite like that of Wallenstein, the greatest man of 17th-century Germany, but also the most destructive. The drama has some dreadful weaknesses, including a cloying Romantic subplot, but it illuminates European history like few other works of literature. The first of the Wallenstein plays depicts the soldiers in their Bohemian winter camp. We never learn their names – they are introduced only by rank and regiment – but their nerve, craftiness and raw courage make us like them, despite the fact that their self-recognition as a new people frightens us. Wallenstein’s army stands opposed to civil society – indeed, it is consuming civil society – but its soldier-citizens will risk their lives to perpetuate it. They swear to support their generalissimo against the intrigues of the Austrian court, and conclude the first play of the trilogy in chorus:

Drum frisch, Kameraden, den Rappen gezaumt,
Die Brust im Gefechte geluftet!
Die Jugend brauset, das Leben schaumt,
Frisch auf! eh’ der Geist noch verduftet.
Und setzet ihr nicht das Leben ein,
Nie wird euch das Leben gewonnen sein.

[Let’s go, comrades, bridle your steeds.
And lift your breasts in combat!
Youth roars and life foams,
Let’s go before the spirit fades.
If you don’t stake your life on it,
You will never win life for yourself.]

We are horrified, but we want to join the song. These are the outcasts of Europe to whom Wallenstein has given hope and purpose, and we are drawn into their enthusiasm even when we know that their hope is perverse and their purpose is malignant. In the assemblage of mercenary adventurers that comprised Wallenstein’s camp, we hear a humanity that draws us near to it. It is all the more poignant because we know that everyone we see on stage will die, and die soon.

By the same token, Schiller finds greatness of soul in the unfortunate Mary Stuart, the Catholic antagonist of Elizabeth I, and makes Elizabeth into a monster. No stricter apologist of the Protestant cause set pen to paper than Schiller, who saw in the Protestant revolt against Spain and in the revolt against the Empire in the Thirty Years’ War the first stirrings of European freedom. In his unpublished poem “German greatness” he wrote,

Schwere Ketten druckten alle
Volker auf dem Erdenballe
Als der Deutsche sie zerbrach
Fehde bot dem Vatikane
Krieg ankundigte dem Wahne
Der die ganze Welt bestach.

[Heavy chains oppressed
All the peoples of the earth
When the German (Luther) smashed them,
Declared a feud against the Vatican,
And War against the insanity
That corrupted the entire world. ]

Schiller’s histories (written in the early 1790s when he taught at the University of Jena) are almost as dreadful. As an historian, Schiller prefigures the Whig interpretation of history, in which enlightened Protestantism gradually triumphs over the medieval obscurantism of the Catholic Church. But as a dramatist he abandons the Enlightenment notion of progress in favor of a much darker view.

He understands European history not as the shift of power from obscurantist Catholicism to enlightened Protestantism, but rather as the death-tragedy of Catholicism and of Europe itself. And what guides him is a surprising sympathy for the great Catholic personages of the Religious Wars.

His two book-length histories are unabashed Protestant polemics and far inferior to the dramas. The first is a sympathetic portrayal of the Netherlands’ revolt against Catholic Spain, whence came the materials for his “black legend” drama about Philip II and the Inquisition, Don Carlos. The unspeakably evil Grand Inquisitor in Schiller’s drama is said to have inspired Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s character in The Brothers Karamazov. The second is a history of the Thirty Years War, which makes the astonishing claim that “Europe came out of this frightful war unoppressed and free” because it destroyed forever the principle of Catholic universal empire. And his novella The Spiritualist (Der Geisterseher) is a Gothic tale of Catholic intrigue against a Protestant ruler.

All the more striking, then, is Schiller’s fictional account of Mary Stuart’s last confession. As Mary faces execution on false charges of conspiring against Elizabeth I, she despairs that her captors have prevented her from making her final confession and receiving the sacraments. A former servant, Melville, arrives to reveal that he secretly has become a priest and has brought a host blessed by the pope to administer her final communion.

Mary confesses her sins, including her complicity in the murder of her first husband, takes communion, and goes to the scaffold to expiate her youthful misdeeds with her own death, in a state that Schiller portrays as beatific. The scene surely is one of the most touching representations of Catholic ritual ever to be shown on the stage.

Schiller, despite his partisan Protestant stance, displays an intuitive sympathy for the key Catholic personages of the Wars of Religion: Mary Stuart, Joan of Arc, and above all Wallenstein. He juxtaposes the pettiness of Elizabeth and the narrow ambition of the Swedes to the expansiveness of their Catholic antagonists. Even in the aberrant ambitions of the Soldateska, Schiller perceived the possibility of a European universalism. Wallenstein, like Napoleon, was a tragic figure. Europe had the capacity to bring forth a new people and instead it gave rise to a murderous horde. The tragedy in the wars of religion was the death of Catholic universalism, and the tragedy of a mediocre people that could find nothing which which to replace it – until the American Revolution.

As the Napoleonic Wars wore on, Schiller’s hopes turned away from the great European states and their leaders. The Swiss burghers rising against foreign oppressors in his last play, William Tell, recognizably are American revolutionaries. The character of Tell drives the drama less than that of the ordinary people who find the means to become extraordinary. The mediocrity of the Europeans is redeemed in American circumstances, and the peoples emerge as heroic protagonist rather than as tragic hero.

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