Alex Jordan on the Göttingen Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle & Paul de Lagarde

Alex Jordan on the Göttingen Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle & Paul de Lagarde

Thanks to my fellowship at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, I have been able to unearth some previously unpublished correspondence between the great Scottish man of letters Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) and Professor Paul de Lagarde (1827–1891), a Göttingen Orientalist and notorious German nationalist.


Conducted over the course of 1874–5 and conserved in the Lagarde Nachlass of the Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, this correspondence was referred to in passing by the German-born American scholar Fritz Stern in his seminal work The Politics Of Cultural Despair: A Study In The Rise Of The Germanic Ideology (1961), which is how I originally learned of its existence. Upon closer investigation, it transpires that Carlyle’s letter to Lagarde has already been published, albeit in a highly obscure venue (the 1941 issue of the Mitteilungen des Universitätsbundes Göttingen), in German translation, and with a stridently National Socialist editorial commentary (unbeknownst to Stern). However, it has never been published in full in the original English, while Lagarde’s letters to Carlyle have never been published at all. Moreover, several other items in the Lagarde Nachlass that elucidate Lagarde and Carlyle’s elective affinities have also been overlooked.


At the end of 1874, Lagarde sent Carlyle a copy of his recently published Politische Aufsätze (“Political Essays”), which, despite its title, dealt overwhelmingly with theological and religious topics. Above all, the essays condemned all existing religious denominations in Germany as worn-out and obsolete, amounting to mere tissues of implausibilities, absurdities, superstitions and hypocrisies. Although Lagarde reserved the largest part of his abuse for contemporary Protestants, he also scolded contemporary Catholics and Jews. Instead, he called for a new Germanic religion that would transcend and overcome all existing religions, binding all Germans (defined in a spiritual and cultural sense) together in pursuit of a divinely ordained mission, namely the colonisation and Germanisation of Mitteleuropa. Carlyle expressed hearty agreement with these proposals, asking Lagarde to send him any subsequent publications, which Lagarde indeed did.


My presentation of the correspondence will be published in a forthcoming number of the Carlyle Studies Annual (Saint Joseph’s University Press) and the letters themselves will appear in a forthcoming volume of the Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (Duke University Press).

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