In 1784, a twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schiller, then Germany’s most famous playwright, published a notice announcing his new journal, the Rheinische Thalia. “It was a strange misunderstanding of nature that condemned me to the calling of poet in the place where I was born,” he wrote, reflecting on his path to fame. “To be inclined towards poetry was strictly against the laws of the institute where I was educated, and ran counter to the plan of its creator. For eight years, my enthusiasm struggled against the military rules, but passion for poetry is fiery and strong, like first love. What those rules should have smothered, they only fanned.”
These bitter words were written in memory of the Hohe Carlsschule, the military academy founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, where Schiller spent his teenage years and young adulthood. In Germany the duke was known for his autocratic rule, wasteful spending, and eleven illegitimate children. At the same time, Carl-Eugen was deeply interested in statecraft and, above all, in educational reform. Decades into his rule, he decided to found an academy whose goal was to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties. The only criterion for entrance was merit. Accordingly, students from bourgeois backgrounds (like Schiller) vastly outnumbered the noble-born.
Schiller was fourteen when he was sent to the Carlsschule, and he was not happy to be there. Visits from family were strictly regulated; female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely. Worse, Élève 447, as he was now known, had to wear a uniform, march in formation to meals, and sleep in a dormitory that was kept lit even at night to make sure the students weren’t masturbating. Any violation of the rules or attempt to flee resulted in the student’s having to write out his crime on a red card, which he wore pinned to his chest at mealtimes. As the students ate, the duke would work his way around the tables, read each card aloud, and give the student a slap. Serious offenses were punished by imprisonment or caning.
What distinguished the Hohe Carlsschule from other European military academies was its founder’s deep fascination with the progressive pedagogical ideas of the French Enlightenment. From a young age, the students learned Greek, Latin, French, philosophy, and were set on a professional path as doctors, lawyers, or civil servants—all extremely enviable positions. They studied rhetoric and contemporary literature and learned, through style exercises, to write poetry. The teachers were scarcely older than the students, and instead of lecturing held informal chats in which the students were invited to participate. The Carlsschulers were encouraged to look on them as their friends and confidants, to whom closely guarded secrets could be trusted. Schiller enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Jakob Friedrich Abel, a philosophy teacher only seven years his senior. He credited Abel with the deep moral and aesthetic convictions that would run through his plays and his poetry, even as Abel reported on Schiller to the duke.
Despite the school’s professional emphasis, Carl-Eugen stressed that students’ primary area of study was the knowledge of man, the most cherished of Enlightenment values. To that end, classes were given regular essay assignments like “Which student among you has the worst moral character?” Time was set aside for the students to write detailed studies of another’s characters and habits. The first existing piece of Schiller’s writing is one such essay, written when the poet was fifteen years old. Asked to analyze an older student named Karl Kempff, the young Schiller pulls no punches. With an astonishing mix of eloquence, astuteness, and coldness for a fifteen-year-old, Schiller accuses Kempff of mediocrity, egotism, crudeness, envy, malice, and false modesty. Schiller’s brutal honesty is particularly shocking in light of the fact that students could be punished for infractions revealed in the studies. Practically, the reports had the effect of undermining the students’ sense that they were victims of authority by turning them into co-perpetrators. The duke would stand by as the essays were read aloud and chide the students if he felt that they were being insufficiently specific.