Memoirs, letters, accounts, reports–both anonymous and attributed–continued to be published throughout the long nineteenth century and formed part of an increase in the volume of printed materials being produced and made available to the reading public. The educational reforms of the late eighteenth century had fundamentally broadened this category and meant that German speakers were likely to be readers and writers of German too. By 1800, books were fairly widely available with a lending library of some description in almost all major towns. Literacy rates are notoriously tricky to calculate, however, estimates for Germany tend to be high. Around 1800, roughly a quarter of the population of the German states were literate, and by 1870 this had risen to three quarters. In 1871 86% of ten year-olds in Prussia could sign their name. This common marker of literacy suggests that mass literacy came to Germany earlier than to the rest of western Europe. Exact figures are disputed, as is the definition of literacy, however the growing quantities of books, pamphlets and journals being printed had to be consumed (read) by someone. That someone was still more likely to be an urban male with both education and leisure time to read and enough money to buy access to written materials, but measures of literacy rates across the German-speaking areas demonstrate that this was no longer exclusively the case.
Commercial lending libraries were but one part of a diverse infrastructure providing access to books and other written materials. Various reading societies and coffee houses provided access to books, journals, and pamphlets etc. and a place in which to read them, for a modest fee. Novels continued to gain in popularity throughout the century and frequently formed a substantial portion of both library holdings and reading society acquisitions, with the historical novels of Walter Scott and later Karl May as enduring favourites. Indeed, the popularity of novels among young women became a cause of concern for some as part of early debates about the influence of mass media on vulnerable or impressionable social groups. Travel literature and biographies offered a different way to transport the reader to distant times and places and were another popular choice. The movement away from intensive repeated reading of a small selection of books to extensive reading of a broader range of books during the Enlightenment era nurtured a booming trade in books as individuals sought both information and distraction in printed pages.
The returning soldiers writing their accounts of their campaigns did so within generic conventions. This is sometimes signalled in titles and subtitles with terms such as ‘war trip’ (Kriegsfahrt) and ‘war journey’ (Kriegsreise) as well as biographical terms ‘life at war’ (Kriegsleben) and ‘life as a soldier’ (Soldatenleben). The modification of the terms ‘journey’ (Reise) and ‘life’ (Leben) with military words ‘war’ (Krieg) and ‘soldier’ (Soldat) also marks what is distinctive about these volumes, namely that they are personal stories of world/military events. Meanwhile, the professionalization of writing from exclusively the pastime of the independently wealthy to a marketable commodity went hand in hand with the expanding book market. Most of the authors of the early texts state that they do not think of themselves as writers, but as soldiers. They also report that they had been asked by friends to write down their experiences, or that the importance of the events required that they be recorded for future generations, specifically the immediate next generation who were too young to have experienced the conflicts directly.
Johann Gottlieb Haars was no exception. The Apologia (Vorerinnerung) with which his volume opens contains many of the caveats and requests common to other soldiers’ memoirs. Among them, a hope that despite only relating the events he experienced directly, his account might offer something greater, carrying value for those whose husbands, sons and brothers had not returned. The titular mention of his identity as ‘a Braunschweiger’ also hints at this greater function: by describing the tale as one of a man of Braunschweig, Haars leaves open the possibility that it could be that of any man of Braunschweig. In the same passage he also acknowledges his lack of professional literary training and apologises for the unadorned nature of his prose, referring to his book as ‘the following unsophisticated narrative’ (die nachfolgende ungekünstelte Erzählung). It has been argued that it is precisely this ‘ungekünstelte’ (unsophisticated), direct language which appealed to readers eager both to understand the disastrous campaign and to learn more about their eastern neighbours in Russia and elsewhere. Before sending his ‘poor effort’ (geringes Machwerk) out into the world, he offers a final apology. Returning to the theme of truth he describes his style as ‘entirely without ornament’ (ganz ohne Schmuck) and shared in ‘in raw, naked truth’ (roher, nackter Wahrheit). He remarks that ‘the soldier does not easily learn the beauty of style’ (Der Soldat lernt nicht leicht die Schönheit des Styls) thus reminding readers that this is a story defined not by the ‘style’ with which it is written, but rather by its author’s identity as a soldier, again positioning the author first and foremost as a soldier rather than a writer.
Accounts such as that of Haars continue to appear throughout the nineteenth century, with their publication dates clustering around anniversaries. Like Haars, Christoph C. Zimmermann was in his early twenties when he joined the army to fight with the French. Zimmermann was one of nine children and as such his father could not afford the 3000 Thaler required by the authorities to keep all his sons away from military service and as Zimmermann spoke some French he thought he might make a career in military service. Writing half a century later, Christoph Zimmermann’s preamble is punctuated by thoughts of the passing of time and the decreasing number of people who remember Germany’s humiliation. In To Siberia: Memories from the Campaign to Russia and from Captivity, 1812-1814 (Bis nach Sibirien. Erinnerungen aus dem Feldzuge nach Rußland und aus der Gefangenschaft, 1812-1814), he seeks to supplement ‘the shadow of memory’ with ‘short sketches’. He identifies his main audience as his family, and notes that it was God’s care that brought him back, from among the thousands who left for the campaign, of whom only returned. He then writes of the need for the ‘manly power’ (die mannhafte Kraft) which alone can resist the humiliations of earlier times, and finally closes with a reference to a ‘united’ Fatherland. In this manner Zimmermann positions his personal memories as a call for present political unity. The closing sentence of the whole book returns to this theme referencing a future ‘father’s house’ with no more separation and where ‘peace is no more disturbed through the war lust of a conqueror’ (Eroberers Kriegslust).