J.S. Bach, the most famous dorm parent of all time?

A prosperous J.S. Bach in late middle age

Aside from the fact that I am (at least partly) of German stock, I never thought I had that much in common with renowned composer Johann Sebastian Bach. At least not until I visited the Bach Haus in Leipzig several months ago, where I discovered that we had one  surprising thing in common: Bach, like myself, was a dorm parent at a boarding school.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with American boarding-school terminology:

‘Dorm parents are adults who live in the dorms with students, taking on a parent-like role, or “in loco parentis”‘. [source]

I suppose the nearest equivalent in British English would be ‘boarding house master’.

This doesn’t sound like it has much to do with Bach, you may be thinking; usually we just associate him with fugues, cantatas, concertos and the like. Yet it turns out that as part of his duties as Music Director at the St Thomas Church in Leipzig, Bach had to spend one week in four acting as a dorm parent to the boys in the boarding school attached to the church, the aptly-named St Thomas School, which dates back to 1212.

It was literally part of Bach’s employment contract that, in addition to providing musical training for the boys and composing weekly cantatas for church services, he had to sleep in the school building, supervise the boys, and make sure that they were in bed when they were supposed to be, for one week a month. Not so unlike the duties of many a dorm parent at an American-style boarding school (including, until recently, myself)!

St Thomas’s Church Leipzig, pictured at the time Bach served there as Director of Music

Further reading
The only reference to Bach’s pastoral duties at the school which I could find, other than that in the Bach Haus itself, is on the German-language page bach.de.

WW2 leaflet propaganda: “The way of all flesh”

The use of airborne leaflet propaganda during times of conflict was first seen in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, when the defenders of Paris dropped leaflets over the besieging German troops from a hot air balloon, proclaiming their defiance. However, hot air balloons and the like were slow and unwieldy, and it wasn’t until the First World War that the potential of airborne leaflet propaganda could be properly realised, by dropping leaflets from aeroplanes. Methods of distribution became more sophisticated in the Second World War, with new types of bomb invented specifically to drop thousands of leaflets over enemy territory.

Leaflet propaganda was chiefly designed to break enemy morale, and was used against both civilians and soldiers, though the latter remained the chief target. Writers of propaganda hoped to appeal to the most basic human instincts: fear, self-preservation, love of family, and romantic/sexual jealousy. Both the Germans and the Japanese designed leaflets to appeal to the romantic nostalgia and sexual jealousy of Allied troops far from home, who were missing their sweethearts and quite possibly worried about what they might be getting up to in their absence.

The most basic of these leaflets were designed along the lines of two lovers in a passionate kiss. In the image, typically, the soldier passionately kisses his sweetheart before heading off for Europe or the Pacific. The accompanying text aims to induce nostalgia for peacetime, thus awakening (or encouraging) a desire to have the war end and get back home.

Nazi propaganda for American soldiers...
Nazi propaganda for Americans…
...and the Japanese equivalent
…and the Japanese equivalent











A number of German-produced leaflets resorted to even more desperate tactics to make Allied soldiers wish that the war was at an end so they could go home. They played on the jealous fears of the average British and American soldier that ‘their’ woman might be unfaithful back home while they were out fighting. Obviously the women in these sorts of pictures were especially glamorous, merely serving as a ‘type’ onto which British and American soldiers could project their own wives and girlfriends.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 22.24.43


The text accompanying the above image (one of a series of three) reads:

“When pretty Joan Hopkins was still standing behind the ribbon counter of a 5 & 10 cts. store on 3rd Avenue in New York City, she never dreamed of ever seeing the interior of a duplex Park Avenue apartment. Neither did young Bob Harrison, the man she loves. Bob was drafted and sent to the battlefields in Europe thousands of miles away from her. Through Lazare’s Employment Agency, Joan got a job as private secretary with wily Sam Levy. Sam is piling up big money on war contracts. Should the slaughter end very soon, he would suffer an apoplectic stroke.

Now Joan knows what Bob and his pals are fighting for.

Joan always used to look up to Bob as the guiding star of her life, and she was still a good girl when she started working for Sam Levy. But she often got the blues thinking of Bob, whom she hadn’t seen for over two years. Her boss had an understanding heart and was always very kind to her, so kind indeed, that he often invited her up to his place. He had always wanted to show her his “etchings”. Besides, Sam wasn’t stingy and each time Joan came to see him, he gave her the nicest presents. Now, all women like beautiful and expensive things. But Sam wasn’t the man you could play for a sucker. He wanted something, wanted it very definitely…

Poor little Joan! She is still thinking of Bob, yet she is almost hoping that he’ll never return.

Notwithstanding its lack of subtlety, the leaflet above actually has several interesting features. Firstly, we can see Nazi anti-Semitism creeping in in the form of the corrupt and obviously Jewish ‘Sam Levy’ character. Disturbingly interwoven with the basic appeal to sexual jealousy is a narrative of a Jewish capitalist conspiracy to keep the war going because of profitable arms contracts, regardless of how many young and wholesome ‘Bob Harrison’ types die on the battlefield.

Secondly, the leaflet is surprisingly well-written and well-researched. The author went to the trouble of researching topics like ‘5 & 10 cents stores’, where the most desirable property in New York was to be had, and so on. As far as I can tell, the writer has captured the colloquial American English of the time rather well. The colloquial language on the leaflets aimed at British troops is also pretty good – only the odd whiff of German sentence structure gives away that fact that it was probably written by a German.

The British were also subject to this sort of propaganda, aimed at arousing romantic and sexual jealousy, and thus a desire for the war to end. The leaflets play on a familiar complaint among British troops: that American soldiers with lots of disposable income were coming over to Britain and seducing British women with their money and easygoing charm. Unlike the ridiculous anti-Semitic caricature of the Wall Street Jew seducing his secretary, the leaflets aimed at making British soldiers jealous of their American comrades actually contained an element of truth.

GIs flooded into Britain in their thousands in the latter part of the war, and many British women (both single and married) responded positively to their advances, whether out of affection, loneliness, or the desire for a few cigarettes and a pair of real silk stockings. However, these leaflets alone were hardly enough to make the British army rise up in a rage against their American allies. We can never say just how effective leaflet propaganda was, but it does seem likely that it would have played at least some part in dampening enemy morale, especially if it was already low.



The Münster rebellion: the creation of a 16th-century theocracy

Today, Münster is a small and unassuming city in the northwest of Germany, hardly the first place one would think of when asked to identify historical hotbeds of sedition and rebellion. Yet for several surreal months in 1535-6, Münster was the scene of a radical religious and political experiment, an attempt by a small group of radical Protestants to create a totalitarian communist theocracy, a ‘New Jerusalem’ located not in the deserts of Palestine, but in the fertile region of Münsterland.

It all started in Strasbourg, which had become an unofficial headquarters of the Anabaptist movement following the German Peasants’ War of 1525. The Anabaptists formed a radical sect which had sprung up in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. In Strasbourg, an Anabaptist leader named Melchior Hoffmann declared himself the ultimate interpreter of prophecy, and a divinely appointed leader. He claimed that he was one of the “two witnesses” of the Book of Revelation, that the end of the world was nigh, and that Strasbourg was about to become the new Jerusalem, ruling the entire world. Crucially, Hoffmann also suggested that violence could be used with impunity against enemies of the faith (i.e. those who opposed his teachings).

Melchior Hoffmann
Melchior Hoffmann

This heady invocation of prophecy and millenarian visions, combined with more than a whiff of rebellion, proved attractive to quite a few contemporaries, especially to Anabaptists and members of similar religious sects. Hoffmann travelled throughout Germany preaching his gospel, spreading it to particularly great effect in northwest Germany and the Netherlands. His followers called themselves “Melchiorites”, a name which reveals the centrality of his charismatic personality to the movement.

Sensing a threat to the political, social and religious status quo, a group of German rulers had managed to get Hoffmann thrown into prison by 1533. Yet the Anabaptist movement was hydra-headed thanks to its egalitarian  nature; where one leader fell, another quickly rose to take his place. It was therefore difficult for the authorities to entirely crush Anabaptist unrest. In the event, it was a lowly baker from Strasbourg, Jan Matthys, who took up Melchior Hoffmann’s mantle. He claimed to be the second witness of the coming apocalypse, but transferred the soon-to-be capital of the saints from Strasbourg to Münster. In order to pave the way for his arrival in Münster, Matthys sent four ‘apostles’ ahead of him to convert the ordinary folk and sound out the religious sympathies of the town’s leaders.

Jan Matthys
Jan Matthys

Matthys’ apostles found the town council full of Anabaptist sympathisers, who would be a great help and source of support in the coming months. Matthys arrived in Münster, staged a rebellion, and managed to throw out the erstwhile ruler, the Prince Bishop Franz von Waldeck. Matthys and his disciples entered the city in triumph and soon got to work re-baptising thousands of the inhabitants. As part of his program of spiritual purification, Matthys expelled all the Catholics from the city, outlawed money, and forbade anyone from owning property. All goods were now supposed to be held in common.

Franz von Waldeck, meanwhile, was busy getting together an army with which to take back his city. He managed to obtain material help from neighbouring princes, as the presence of such a politically and religiously radical community was not in the interests of any of the naturally conservative local rulers. Once assembled, Waldeck’s troops besieged the city and proceeded to starve out the city’s inhabitants.

This fledgling New Jerusalem suffered the misfortune of losing its leader on Easter Sunday in April 1534. Ever mindful of messages and visions from God, Matthys had prophesied that on that very day, God’s judgement was going to fall upon the wicked (i.e. Waldeck and his supporters). Matthys therefore thought it a good idea to make a sally against Waldeck’s troops with only thirty men. He believed that he was destined to be a second Gideon, imitating Gideon’s slaughter of the Mideonites in the Bible. Whatever the truth of God’s supposed judgement on that day, Matthys’ own judgement proved distinctly abysmal. He and his small band of men were soon cut off by Waldeck’s troops and Matthys was killed, his head severed and placed on a pole for everyone in the city to see. His genitals were also nailed to the city gate, in case the point needed stressing.

A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster
A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster

As already mentioned, however, the Anabaptist movement was hydra-headed, so another obscure man soon rose to take Matthys’ place. John of Leiden, one of Matthys’ core disciples, was recognised as Matthys’ religious and political successor. He justified his authority and actions by the apparent receipt of visions from heaven. As Leiden’s authority grew, he proclaimed himself the successor to King David, and adopted royal regalia, honours and absolute power in this ‘new Zion’. Leiden legalised polygamy (he himself took sixteen wives) and reaffirmed the community of goods. Leiden managed to keep most of the townspeople on his side by the sheer force of his charisma, and also by making frequent promises of eternal salvation for those citizens who held out against the besieging forces. His motto for the defence of the city was “Gottes Macht ist mein Kraft” (God’s power is my strength).

Meanwhile, people inside the city were starving due to the siege blockade. After a surprisingly lengthy resistance, Münster was eventually taken by the besiegers in June 1535. John of Leiden and other prominent Anabaptist leaders were captured and imprisoned. Several of them were tortured and finally executed in the city marketplace; after the initial burning, their tongues were pulled out with tongs, before each was killed with a burning dagger thrust through the heart. Their bodies were placed in three cages and hung from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, and the remains left to be picked at by carrion birds. The bones were removed about fifty years later, but the cages still remain on the church tower.

*   *   *   *

The problem with this story is that we don’t really know how much of it is actually true. If the story reads like sensational reporting, it could be because it really was. Much of what we know about the Münster Rebellion, specifically about what went on in the city, comes from hostile sources who would of course play up the scandalous and sensational aspects, in order to discredit Anabaptists and similar groups. In fact, the Münster Rebellion really did mark a turning point for the Anabaptist movement in Germany. It would never again assume such political significance; rulers, both Lutheran and Catholic, adopted stringent measures to suppress them and similar religious groups. Matthys and Leiden had tried their best to create a New Jerusalem, but it was never to be.

The original cages still hang on the steeple of St. Lambert's Church in Münster
The original cages still hang on the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church in Münster


The Mitford sisters: the fascists

This is the one of two posts on the notorious Mitford sisters. I have written about Jessica, Deborah and Nancy here, and this post is about Unity and Diana (Lady Mosley), the two dedicated fascists of the family.

Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah and their brother Tom were born between 1904 and 1920 to the politician David Freeman-Mitford, the future Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles. The children grew up in a cold and reserved family atmosphere. Nancy would later describe her mother as “abnormally detached” and their father was a formidable man prone to raging at everyone. He once remarked that each child was sillier than the last, and one of his favourite pastimes was chasing his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds. Lord Redesdale was rude to all of Nancy’s friends who came to stay and would shout “don’t these people have homes to go to?” at the dinner table.  According to Jessica, their father wouldn’t receive any “outsiders” as guests; that meant that “Huns”, “Frogs”, Americans and Asians were definitely out. Another point of contention was that whilst he sent their brother Tom to Eton and Oxford, he refused to let the girls attend school, maintaining that they would develop thick calves from playing hockey. There was also strife between the siblings. Nancy would torment Deborah; the latter mused in a recent interview, “I should think the social services would be called in now”.

The Mitford family in 1921
The Mitford family in 1921

Diana was considered by many contemporaries to be the most beautiful of the Mitford sisters; Evelyn Waugh wrote gushingly that her beauty “ran through the room like a peal of bells”. No-one could foresee the scandal which would go on to envelop her. She married Bryan Guinness, the heir to the huge brewing fortune, and seemed destined for a life of ease and society gatherings. This all changed when she met Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, in 1932. Something about this man, 14 years her senior with a Hitler-inspired moustache, fascinated her. So much, in fact, that she ran away from her husband at the age of 22.

At the time, Mosley was married with children and he made it clear to Diana that he had no plans to leave his long-suffering family. Diana did not let this deter her, however, and installed herself in a flat where Mosley might visit her whenever he could spare time from his work and family duties. Conveniently for Diana, Mosley’s wife died in 1933. Bryan Guinness divorced Diana and three years later, she married Mosley in a civil ceremony attended by Hitler, held in – of all places – Joseph Goebbel’s drawing room in Berlin. Of course, her misconduct didn’t endear Diana to her strict parents. After she ran away from her husband, she was utterly disgraced and Unity was forbidden from visiting her.

Diana Mitford, later Lady Diana Mosley
Diana Mitford, later Lady Diana Mosley
Oswald Mosley











Since Mosley’s position necessitated links to Nazi Germany, Diana soon met Hitler and they became friends. She attended the 1937 Nuremberg Rally with Unity and their brother Tom. This friendship, and her fascist principles, led to her and Mosley being interned in Holloway prison for three years during the war. MI5 wrote of Diana, “[she] is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions”. Nancy, motivated by her strong anti-fascist sentiments, actually managed to lengthen Diana’s internment by testifying that she was a “ruthless and shrewd egotist, a devoted fascist and admirer of Hitler and sincerely desires the downfall of England and democracy in general”.

After the war, Mosley was arguably one of the most hated men in Britain. His attempts to revive his political career failed miserably, and the couple moved to Paris. Diana spent her time writing reviews for various newspapers and published an acclaimed biography of her close friend, the Duchess of Windsor. She tried to hide her antisemitism, which the downfall of the Third Reich had not weakened, but she could not help exposing it on occasion. When a a journalist interviewing Oswald let slip that he was Jewish, Diana reportedly “went ashen, snapped a crimson nail, and left the room”. Afterwards she wrote to a friend, saying, “a nice, polite reporter came to interview Tom [as Oswald was known] but he turned out to be Jewish and was sitting there at our table. They are a very clever race and come in all shapes and sizes”.

Diana with her brother Tom at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally
Diana with her brother Tom at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally

Yet if Diana was a devoted fascist, her sister Unity took it one step further and became truly infatuated with Hitler, spending years at his side. Unity was a wilful and moody teenager and, disappointingly, ended her first season without a husband. When she expressed a wish to learn German, her parents agreed to let her move to Munich at the tender age of 19, perhaps glad that she was showing any sign of purposefulness. The truth was that she was intent upon meeting Hitler after having seen him from afar at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally.

Once in Munich, she set about trying to encounter her idol. She spent her days stalking him, which was made rather easy by the fact that he tended to frequent certain cafes and restaurants at specific times. She started sitting nonchalantly at tables wherever he happened to be, and after around ten months, her strategies paid off. Perhaps intrigued by her Aryan good looks, Hitler invited Unity to his table where they spent half an hour talking. Unity wrote to her father describing the incident, saying “it was the most wonderful and beautiful [day] of my life. I am so happy that I wouldn’t mind a bit, dying. I’d suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world. For he is the greatest man of all time”.

Hitler and Unity in a casual setting
Hitler and Unity in a casual setting

She gradually became part of Hitler’s inner circle. Biographers have suggested that Hitler was attracted to Unity because it amused him to see this member of the British aristocracy worshipping at his feet. He praised her as “a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood”, and seemed to see strange coincidences which bound them together. He was struck by Unity’s connections to Germanic culture; her middle name was Valkyrie and her grandfather, Algernon Freeman-Mitford, had been a friend of Richard Wagner and translated the works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain; both men were Hitler’s idols.

Unity used to stride around Munich and Berlin in a black uniform, pictured with Hitler in both formal and casual settings. Rumours flew thick and fast about what Unity got up to with Hitler. Was she his lover? Various biographers have argued that she actually bore his child. David Litchfield claims that she participated in sadomasochistic orgies with SS officers, which she would recount in detail to Hitler. However, there is no good evidence to support any of this. Her family also denied such rumours.

We do know that the two certainly enjoyed a close relationship. Unity’s diary shows that they met at least 140 times between 1935 and September 1939, which is approximately once a fortnight. They were also intimate enough to make Eva Braun jealous, who wrote in her diary, of Unity, “She is known as the Valkyrie and looks the part, including her legs. I, the mistress of the greatest man in Germany and the whole world, I sit here waiting while the sun mocks me through the window panes”. Eva only managed to regain Hitler’s attention after a suicide attempt.

Unity and Diana performing a Hitler salute
Unity and Diana saluting Hitler
Diana and Unity surrounded by SS officers at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally
Diana and Unity surrounded by SS officers at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally



Unity entered fully into Nazi sentiments (a British government report from 1936 described her as “more Nazi than the Nazis”) and was not shy about expressing her antisemitism. In a letter to a German newspaper, she wrote: “The English have no notion of the Jewish danger. Our worst Jews work only behind the scenes. We think with joy of the day when we will be able to say England for the English! Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler! P.S. please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater”.

The letter sparked outrage in Britain, but Hitler rewarded Unity with an engraved golden swastika badge, a private box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and a ride in a party Mercedes to the Bayreuth Festival. Hitler bestowed other gifts on her. In 1938 he offered her an apartment in Munich which belonged to a Jewish couple. She is reported to have visited the apartment to discuss her decoration and design plans, while the soon-to-be-evicted couple sat crying in the kitchen.

Unity was devastated when war was declared in 1938. Despite her closeness to Hitler and love for Germany, she always maintained that she was loyal to Britain, notwithstanding the assertions of MI5 chief Guy Liddell that her actions had come “perilously close to high treason”. She had always hoped for a peace between the two countries, but torn between loyalties to England and Germany, she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. The attempt failed and left her brain-damaged. Unity was taken to hospital at Hitler’s expense, and collected from Berne by Sydney and Debo at Christmas 1939. She was permanently changed and died in 1948 after an infection in the head turned to meningitis.

Unity Mitford in Nazi uniform
Unity Mitford in Nazi uniform

The wicked waltz

In her 1771 novel Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche, writing no doubt for an audience of genteel ladies, portrayed the waltz as a “shameless, indecent whirling-dance [which] broke all the bounds of good breeding”. The early version of the German waltz which she was describing was a variant of the Ländler, a peasant dance dating from the 16th century. The Ländler was notorious for its closed position where men and women embraced each other round the waist and shoulders, and for its rapid turns which made dancers dizzy, breathless and (allegedly) open to all sorts of lustful abominations.

Notwithstanding such criticism, by the end of the 18th century, waltzing was all the rage in polite society in Germany and Austria. In England it was received with suspicion by the self-proclaimed arbiters of morality, as were most foreign innovations at the time. Until the introduction of the waltz, the most popular dances were the country square dances which involved very limited contact between the sexes. Therefore, one of the most criticised aspects of the waltz was its couples-only nature, with men and women dancing in a closed position. The Oxford English Dictionary called the dance riotous and indecent, and it was frequently satirised by caricaturists. Even Lord Byron condemned the waltz, though less for its alleged indecency than its antisocial nature, saying that it was “like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin”.

Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)
Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)

When the waltz appeared at the Prince Regent’s grand ball in 1816, the Times of London wrote:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last…it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it our duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”

It’s hard to tell how “voluptuous” the “intertwining of the limbs” really was. It could well be that, influenced by wine and a heated, packed ballroom, the dancers did hold each other very close in an immodest fashion. Yet the most popular instruction manuals of the day suggest that the Regency era waltz was a relatively decorous dance which does not fit the Times of London‘s description. In the illustrated frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s 1816 Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (see below), the men and women are dancing at arm’s length in quite a dignified manner.

Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance
Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance

Perhaps the waltz was not always as raucous and indecent as its critics maintained. At any rate, it was given one seal of respectability when the patronesses of Almack’s gave married women and those debutantes “whose deportment was impeccable” the permission to waltz in 1814. This was no unimportant decree; Almack’s was the most respectable and socially exclusive dancing assembly in Regency England. Primarily designed for debutantes, one of its main functions was as a marriage mart; the young women were expected to be on their best behaviour. The fact that waltzing was gradually allowed indicates a slow acceptance of the dance among the higher classes, at least.

Over the course of the 19th century, though, it seems that the waltz became less decorous. Paintings from the late Victorian era portray a very fast and energetic dance sure to leave dancers breathless. There were evidently plenty of opportunities for amorous expression, with some couples shown in a very close embrace. This was partly due to greater acceptance of the dance, and partly due to to a change in the dance itself. Around 1830, the Austrian composers Lanner and Strauss composed a series of waltzes which set the tradition for the later ‘Viennese Waltz’. These were very fast, played at 165-180 beats a minute; certainly a contrast to the early waltz, which was generally danced at an andante con moto: a sedate walking pace. The fast waltz did not replace the slower, but it became wildly popular among younger dancers who wanted to show off their athletic prowess. Since then, the waltz has of course become the best-known and most respectable ballroom dance around; a far cry from its initial reception in polite society.

Anders Zorn, Valsen. 1891
Anders Zorn, Valsen (1891)
Dance at Bougival, Renoir, 1882-3
Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1882-83)

Johann Struensee, the German doctor who ruled Denmark

Following several festivethemed posts, a three week Christmas break and the latest installment of Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, now for something completely different. For most people in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, Danish history is a blank, perhaps filled in only by vague memories of Hamlet’s line “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. I’m going to write about one of the most significant figures in 18th century Danish history and possibly one of the most intriguing political figures I have ever come across: Johann Friedrich Struensee. Struensee was a man of contradictions; an intelligent and witty German doctor who believed passionately in Enlightenment ideals, yet an arrogant man who ruled Denmark as a dictator, supplanting a mentally ill king whilst having an affair with his queen.

Before I talk about Struensee in particular, here is some background. Denmark in the 1760s was a backward country. The rest of Western Europe was creaking its way towards Enlightenment. England had an emerging parliamentary democracy, and even in absolutist France writers and thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were changing the way people viewed the world around them. Denmark was still a feudal state marked by oppression of the peasants and strict censorship. Denmark’s problems were compounded by the fact that its king, Christian VII, was not fit to rule. It’s not clear exactly what was wrong with him; probably he suffered from mental illness. His physical and mental health had been damaged by the brutal treatment meted out to him by his childhood custodian Count Reventlow, who had him cruelly beaten and debauched until he was so sunk into depravity that he was scarcely responsible for his own actions.


King Christian VII of Denmark
King Christian VII of Denmark

In the hope that a wife might be a good influence on the unstable king, Danish ministers married him off in 1766 to the 15-year old Caroline Mathilde, the youngest sister of George III. During the short honeymoon it seemed that their hope might be realised; Christian was attentive to his new wife and on his return evidence of his natural good nature showed in a desire to better the lot of the peasant both on his own estates and in the rest of Denmark. The recovery was, however, shortlived. He soon plunged once more into the wildest excesses, giving himself up to drunken orgies and visiting the taverns and brothels of Copenhagen. Christian and his drinking companions would go around smashing windows and creating disturbances, to the disgust of the inhabitants and the despair of the ministers. Meanwhile, the queen was left in lonely confinement, neglected and cruelly treated by the king. After the sickly crown prince Frederick was born in 1768, the king grew even worse; his periods of lucidity became less frequent, and he developed a fierce hatred towards his wife.

Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark
Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark
Scene from the marriage of Christian and Caroline, November 1766
Scene from the marriage of Christian and Caroline, November 1766











It was at this point that Johann Struensee entered Danish history. Struensee was a German doctor who in the late 1760s was working as a public physician in Altona, near Hamburg. His pitiful income wasn’t enough to support his lifestyle expectations, so he had to supplement it with private practice. It was in ministering to the rich and powerful that Struensee came into contact with a circle of aristocrats living in Altona in exile from the Danish court at Copenhagen. His sparkling wit, elegant manners and Enlightenment principles commended him particularly to two exiled Danish courtiers, Enevold Brandt and Count Rantzau. In Struensee, Brandt and Rantzau saw not only a fellow idealist, but the perfect means of getting themselves back into favour at court. At the time, the court was looking for a physician to attend Christian on his forthcoming tour of Europe. Rantzau saw his chance, and recommended Struensee for the post. When Struensee received the appointment in April 1768 (somewhat surprisingly considering his unconventional methods and suspicious political views), Brandt and Rantzau expected that he would use his new influence to get them once more promoted into court circles.


During the 8-month tour, Struensee gained Christian’s confidence and affection. The two of them discussed literature, philosophy and art, and went out drinking and whoring (unobtrusively). Danish ministers were pleased with Struensee’s influence on Christian, who began making fewer embarrassing scenes. In fact, the tour was a resounding success. The young king showed himself a charming and amusing guest; at parties and functions he was the centre of gaiety. What lay behind this improvement? Struensee had been in constant attendance during the entire tour. He seems to have made sure that the king was only seen in his best moods; his dark depressions and manic episodes were confined to the private sphere. There has been much conjecture about how Struensee achieved this apparent miracle; historians have suggested the use of anything from magnetism to concentrated doses of coca bean (i.e. cocaine).

Johann Struensee
Johann Struensee

Upon the court’s return to Copenhagen in January 1769, Struensee was appointed personal physician to the king and in May he was given the honorary title of State Councillor, which advanced him to the class of the third rank at court. Perhaps it was now that he started to envisage his role as a political advisor leading Denmark towards enlightenment. However, if he wanted to climb to the top of the greasy pole and have real influence on policy, he had to overcome two major obstacles. Queen Caroline and the long-serving chancellor Bernstoff were both opposed to Struensee. Bernstoff was worried by the German doctor’s radical ideas, and the Queen mistrusted him and his influence on her husband.

Bernstoff would prove impossible to placate, so Struensee turned his attentions to the queen. She was neglected and lonely and he now seemed to be one of the few people who paid her attention and tried to help alleviate her troubles. Struensee effected a partially successful reconciliation between Caroline and Christian; under his influence, the king ceased to treat Caroline with his previous contempt. A successful inoculation of the sickly crown prince in May 1770 against the smallpox epidemic ravaging Copenhagen further increased Struensee’s influence, and around this time he began a a clandestine relationship with the queen.

Now that the king and queen were both on his side, Struensee had the necessary political leverage to climb even higher. He kept on gaining promotions but generally kept a low profile as he started to take over the political machine. Once the king had dismissed Bernstoff in September, Struensee’s second obstacle was eliminated. However, by the end of 1770 he had grown impatient with the slow and conservative workings of the Danish government, and abolished the Council of State. He then appointed himself privy counsellor, thereby consolidating his power and starting the period generally referred to as the “Time of Struensee”. His official duty, which was to present reports from the various departments of state to the king, was much more influential than it may seem.

Struensee in 1771
Struensee in 1771

As King Christian was hardly responsible for his actions, Struensee was able to dictate whatever answers he pleased. Struensee really became Denmark’s king in all but name in July 1771 when he was appointed a “Geheimekabinetsminister” with the authority to issue orders which were to have the force of royal ordinances, even if unprovided with the royal sign-manual. The king was now effectively sidelined and was discouraged from interfering in state affairs. Between December 1770 and January 1772 Struensee pushed ahead with his Enlightenment project and issued no fewer than 1069 cabinet orders; a rate of more than three a day. Reforms initiated by Struensee during this period included:

  • Abolition of torture
  • Abolition of unfree labour
  • Abolition of the censorship of the press
  • Abolition of capital punishment
  • Abolition of the practice of preferring nobles for state office
  • Introduction of a tax on gambling and luxury horses to fund the nursing of foundlings
  • Ban of the slave trade in the Danish colonies
  • Removal of penalties against those who produced illegitimate children
  • Criminalisation and punishment of bribery
  • Re-organisation of judicial institutions to minimise corruption
  • Re-organisation and reduction of the army
  • Reform of the state-owned medical institutions

Struensee’s reforms were undoubtedly very forward looking; Voltaire himself sent a letter to congratulate Struensee and the king on their progressive. He seems to have genuinely believed in the vision of an enlightened Denmark where serfdom could be abolished and the tyrannous partnership of the church and the aristocracy broken in order to make way for the ‘free-thinking’ bourgeoisie. Yet however laudable his aims, his style of governance left much to be desired. Struensee simply didn’t seem to care that he offended the very people who he needed on his side. He rode roughshod over Danish customs and traditions, and insisted on conducting all his business in German. In order to ensure obedience, Struensee would dismiss entire staffs of public departments without pensions or compensation, and substitute them with nominees of his own who in many cases were inexperienced men who knew little or nothing of the country they were supposed to govern.

An 1873 depiction of the court in the "Time of Struensee". The intimacy between Caroline and Struensee is unmistakeable, whilst the king's alienation from state affairs is symbolised by his lounging in the background playing idly with a parrot; like him, it is a captive creature. Dowager Juliana Maria stalks in the background, observing the affair and perhaps already planning her coup
An 1873 depiction of the court in the “Time of Struensee”. The intimacy between Caroline and Struensee is unmistakeable, whilst the king’s alienation from state affairs is symbolised by his lounging in the background playing idly with a parrot. Queen Dowager Juliana Maria stalks in the background, observing the affair and perhaps already planning her coup

Public opinion began to turn against Struensee in the autumn of 1771, spurred on by the flood of anti-Struensee pamphlets (an ironic result of his abolition of censorship). The populace resented the intrusion of this foreigner into the highest levels of government and disapproved of his affair with the queen. Anger on the last count came to a head  in July 1771 when the Queen gave birth to Louisa Augusta, who was clearly Struensee’s child (portrait comparisons show a strong resemblance). At first the king refused to recognise the girl as his own, but Caroline and Struensee overcame this effort to show a will of his own. Rumours began to spread that Struensee had the king locked up and even that he had murdered him in order to maintain his own power. Opposition was growing from both inside and outside the palace.

Aristocrats who had been summarily dismissed from lucrative state offices, and whose property and influence were hard-hit by Struensee’s egalitarian-minded reforms, were fuming with resentment. Even Brandt, Struensee’s closest political ally, was becoming disaffected. In a letter asking Struensee either for a greater salary or a resignation from court, Brandt was scathing: “No despot ever arrogated such power as yourself, or exercised it in such a way. The King’s pages and domestics tremble at the slightest occurrence: all are seized with terror. They talk, they eat, they drink, but they tremble as they do so. Fear has seized on all who surround the minister, even on the Queen.”. The general ill-will which had been smouldering throughout the autumn of 1771 at last found its expression in a secret conspiracy headed by Count Rantzau, whom Struensee had neglected, and the Queen Dowager Juliana Maria, who wished to wrest power away from both the king and Struensee and divert it to herself and her son.

The Queen-Dowager showing the portrait of her only son hereditary prince Frederick
The Queen-Dowager showing off the portrait of her only son hereditary prince Frederick

The palace coup took place on 16th January 1772 in the early hours of the morning, during a masquerade ball. Struensee, Brandt and the Queen were arrested in their respective bedrooms and charged with plotting to murder the king, who was the next morning driven around Copenhagen in order to prove his ‘rescue’, to great public rejoicing. In the ensuing trial, Struensee defended himself with considerable ability, but the authorities were determined to make an example of him; he was executed on 28th April together with his long-time supporter Brandt. They were beheaded, drawn and quartered in front of a crowd of 30,000. Caroline was separated from her children and sent to live in exile.

Struensee is arrested in his bedchamber
Struensee is arrested in his bedchamber
Struensee's execution: he was beheaded, drawn and quartered
Struensee’s execution: he was beheaded, drawn and quartered









Fearing for her life, she appealed to her brother King George III of Great Britain for help. The nature of her disgrace was such that she could not receive asylum in England, but he did offer the castle at Celle, in the Hanoverian territories, for her use. Caroline lived only a few years, dying aged just 24. Back in Copenhagen, King Christian was as powerless as before, and the government reverted to a regency led by the Queen Dowager. Under her leadership Struensee’s reforms were rolled back, which proved just as unpopular with the Danish populace as Struensee had been. However, in 1784 Caroline’s son Frederick was able to regain power for his father, and the Queen Dowager’s faction was overthrown. Struensee’s early educational influence on Frederick showed itself when he succeeded to throne in 1808 and reinstated many of Struensee’s reforms, even doing what Struensee had not managed to do – abolish serfdom.

Princess Louisa Augusta in 1791: she bears a striking resemblance to Struensee
Princess Louisa Augusta in 1791: she bears a striking resemblance to Struensee
A drawing made by King Christian after the deaths of Brandt and Struensee, on which he writes "Ich hätte beide gern gerettet" ("I would have liked to have saved them both")
A drawing made by King Christian after the deaths of Brandt and Struensee, on which he writes “Ich hätte beide gern gerettet” (“I would have liked to have saved them both”)


The Heidelberg Rapunzel

Two lovers. From the Codex Manesse, c.1305-1315
Two lovers. From the Codex Manesse, c.1305-1315

This illustration is from the Codex Manesse, or Großer Heidelberger Handschrift, a 14th century anthology of Middle High German poetry. The Codex contains 140 texts including works by the famous poets Wolfram von Eschenbach (the author of Parzival), Heinrich von Morungen and Walther von der Vogelweide. The manuscript was produced in Zürich for the wealthy Manesse family, passing in 1607 to the renowned Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg. After being in French hands for around 170 years, the Codex Manesse was bought back by Heidelberg University in 1888 through a public subscription headed by none other than Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck.

The illustration does not in fact have anything to do with the fairytale Rapunzel, but it appears to tell a very similar story; a lady hoisting up her secret lover for a tête-à-tête in her isolated tower. I find this illustration very amusing as a comparison; this ‘Rapunzel’ figure is much more sensible and proactive than the princess we are all used to. Building a type of winch attached to a basket may not be as romantic as making a rope out of one’s own hair, but it is certainly safer and a lot more practical. I leave you to draw what conclusions you like about the fabled German efficiency…