looking back

Looking Back: Goethe and Schiller

The Economist, for their February 2015 article on German-Americans, chose the title “America’s largest ethnic group has assimilated so well that people barely notice it.”

How could unveiling a monument of two German writers in San Francisco have drawn thousands of attendees?

This monument honoring German writers and collaborators Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (left) and Friedrich von Schiller is located in Golden Gate Park at the eastern end of the Music Councourse, just west of the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell. Photos by Michael Durand.

The inscription on the base of the monument reads: “Dedicated to the City of San Francisco by Citizens of German Descent of California in the Year Nineteen Hundred and One.

Renovated and Rededicated in the Year 2001 by the United German-American Societies of San Francisco & Vicinity”

The “geg. Lauchhammer” inscribed on the northeast corner of base refers to the German foundry town that made the monument.

The San Francisco monument is a copy of a 1857 original sculpture by Ernst Rietschel in Weimar, the German city where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) famously collaborated. For example, William Jones, a writer for the Schiller Institute’s Fidelio Magazine, wrote that Goethe went over the meter and staging of the play “Wallenstein” while Schiller composed it.

The monument was unveiled on Aug. 11, 1901 before a crowd of more than 30,000 people, according to the San Francisco Examiner’s article. Noteworthy attendees at the unveiling included San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan and Park Superintendent John McLaren. A biography of sculptor Rietschel by Andreas Oppermann describes both men’s statues as 9-feet and 3-inches tall with the more established Goethe wearing court dress and grasping a laurel wreath with one hand while resting the other hand on Schiller’s shoulder. Schiller is wearing the ordinary dress of his burgher social class and only lightly touches the laurel wreath.

Dr. C. M. Richter, chairman of the executive committee of the Goethe-Schiller Monument Association, said: “Whenever a German emigrates, Goethe and Schiller emigrate with him,” emphasizing the importance of Goethe and Schiller to German culture.

In his speech, Phelan emphasized the cosmopolitan atmosphere of San Francisco, and said that Goethe and Schiller are not only “master minds of Germany” but also “they are ours because we make them ours,” as reported in the San Francisco Examiner.

Professor Julius Goebel of Stanford University included in his speech the line: 

“May this statue, for all time to come, suggest to us that the Anglo-Saxon and the German clasp hands to make on the free soil of America highest human reality!”

But not even 20 years later, Britain and the U.S. fought a world war against Germany. Anti-German sentiment even drove Nebraska to pass a law criminalizing teaching foreign languages to school children, although that law was overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court case Meyer v. Nebraska in 1923.

The San Francisco monument is a copy. The San Francisco 1894 Midwinter Fair passed a resolution on its “German Day” for a monument to celebrate German contributions to the U.S. The 1894 fair took place in the same Music Concourse where the statue stands today. 

Jones wrote the article “Friedrich Schiller and His Friends” in Fidelio Magazine on the 200th anniversary of Schiller’s death in 2005. He observed that the Duke of Weimar was a patron of the arts and awarded positions in the local government to both Goethe and Schiller.

The American Revolution even influenced Schiller’s 1787 play “Don Carlos,” with a Marquise de Posa character demanding liberty of thought and stating he cannot be the servant of a king. This character was inspired by the real-life Marquis de Lafayette who travelled from France to join the American Revolution on the side of the American colonists, according to Jones.

The monument is located on the east end of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park, behind the SkyStar Observation Wheel.

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