Scottish travel writer and physician John Moore, who visited the city in 1775, wrote about this exceptionally liberal atmosphere: Nothing surprised me more, when I first came to Berlin, than the freedom with which many people speak of the measure of government, and the conduct of the King. I have heard political map of Berlin topics, and others which I should have thought still more ticklish, discussed here with as little ceremony as at a London coffee house. The same freedom appears in the book sellers’ shops, where literary productions of all kinds are sold openly. The pamphlet lately published on the division of Poland, wherein the King is very roughly treated, is to be had without difficulty, as well as other performances, which attack some of the most conspicuous characters with all the bitterness of satire.
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By the end of the eighteenth century there were some 200 clubs and societies throughout Prussia dedicated to reading and writing, not to mention a burgeoning selection of bookshops and literary cafés. Berlin’s own literary scene spanned societies like the Wednesday Club, a private club for highprofile society members, prominent local print publications like the Berlin Monthly (Berlinische Monatsschrift), and poets and writers such as Karl Wilhelm Ramler, Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn. Much of this literary activity was initially connected to the Prussian state in that the writing published and ideas discussed tended to come from noblemen, professors and civil servants.
In this sense it was not particularly anti-establishment, but as the reading public grew and as more nuanced social strata began to emerge, different types of literature developed, ranging from more upper-class and critical (so called ‘autonomous’) publications to more egalitarian formats for the masses, often described as Trivialliteratur. Another major literary network of the time, though, consisted of the more independent literary salons that brought together an array of writers, artists, scientists and thinkers.
The Berlin salons emulated the established French formats – both the aristocratic and more modest bourgeois versions – and were similarly instigated and hosted by female intellectuals, often of Jewish heritage, such as Rahel Levin Varnhagen (1771–1833), Sara Levy (1761– 1854) and Henriette Herz (1764–1847), as well as non-Jewish intellectuals and artists like Bettina von Arnim (1785–1859) and court lady Karoline Friederike von Berg (1760–1826). Usually held in private homes, the salons became intimate forums for discussing the artistic and social issues of the day, facilitating new forms of literature such as cultural and travel works inspired by German Romanticism to politically charged poems and writings (for example, Heinrich Heine’s anti-establishment poems of the 1840s).
Many of these republican ideals directly informed the demands fought for in the German revolutions of 1848– 9, as an 1847 Prussian surveillance report on von Arnim demonstrates: Social questions were discussed even at tea parties. The Political leaning at these tea parties is socialist, in that members of the gathering prefer to talk and debate how the substance and form of life could be improved. The female sex especially long for liberations from the bonds of tradition, fashion, convention. Among all the women of this type in Berlin who enjoy a public reputation, Bettina von Arnim is indisputably the chief and most prominent. It is generally known, even to the court, that her soirees have the character I just described. She is left in peace because she is held in universally high regard here, and no fault can rightly be found in her.