Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel


Famous scholars from Kiel:

Carl Friedrich Cramer


The Kiel scholar and passionate supporter of the French Revolution is regarded as a pioneer of the European idea. Dr Rüdiger Schütt provides a brief summary of his life.


Kiel, late on a December night in 1789. Festivities are in full swing in the house of a young professor as 18 gentlemen celebrate the new epoch. On the table is a piece of the destroyed Bastille and around it are four large goblets filled with red wine, symbolizing the dungeon towers of the Paris fortress stormed by the people on 14 July. Nearby is a stack of books: the writings of Luther, Montesquieu, Rousseau and other radical thinkers. There are lively debates and laughter. Poems are recited. In the early hours the host gets up and seizes one of the cups. All the guests stand up, enthralled, raise their glasses and drink to freedom.

The master of ceremonies on this evening is Carl Friedrich Cramer, professor of Greek and oriental literature in Kiel since 1775. The young academic was adept at attracting attention. He loved grand gestures and lofty rhetoric. With youthful enthusiasm he went far beyond the boundaries of ancient literature and lectured on the poetry of living authors, which was highly unusual for his day. He also wrote the first biography of his friend Klopstock. He wrote essays on music, translated opera libretti and published a music magazine. But then matters became political. In 1792 he published the first articles of his journal "Menschliches Leben" (Human Life), which ran to 20 volumes and was used by Cramer as a vehicle for attacking conservative and reactionary ideas. He presented protagonists of the revolution such as Mirabeau and Sieyès. Cramer wanted to propagate their ideas and make them current in Germany.

Cramer campaigned ever more stridently for the ideals of the French Revolution, so stridently that it ultimately cost him his job. The minister responsible in Copenhagen, Andreas Peter Bernstorff, felt compelled to set an example. On 10 May 1794 the pro-chancellor of the university, who by a twist of fate happened to be Cramer's brother Andreas Wilhelm at this time, announced before the assembled professors that the agitator had been dismissed and expelled from the country. He also had to refrain from the dissemination of any principles inimical to the constitution of the state.

But Cramer managed to get back on his feet. After an interlude as a private teacher in Hamburg he moved to Paris in 1795. Here he was the beneficiary of almost unbelievable good fortune, winning a large house in the state lottery not far from the Palais Royal, the centre of power in revolutionary Paris. He also found a patron, the liberal Hamburg merchant Georg Heinrich Sieveking. Sieveking financed Cramer's establishment of a print shop with its own bookshop. This marked the beginning of Cramer's work as a cultural intermediary between Germany and France. He translated Rousseau and Diderot into German and Schiller and Klopstock into French and organized a whole network of German translators and printers in Paris. His house became a meeting place for the avant garde.

It seemed as if Cramer had made it. But the money, the money! All his income was immediately invested in projects which enhanced his renown but brought little financial gain. The bankruptcy of a Parisian bank finally sealed Cramer's financial ruin and forced him to sell the house and print shop in 1805. His energy began to wane. The many blows of fate had sapped his motivation and led him to question the purpose of his work. His friend, advisor and financial backer Sieveking had already died in 1799; his distant master Klopstock followed in March 1803. Two months earlier Cramer had been hit by an even worse blow, when his only son Hermann died at a young age. Cramer was grief-stricken and asked himself: "What do I have to work for now?"

Cramer died penniless on 9 December 1807 of a "consumptive fever", as the newspapers reported. His burial place was quickly forgotten and his papers scattered, except for a small portion that ended up in the library of Kiel University, where it is archived to this day.


Dr. Rüdiger Schütt



Surrounded by poets

Born in Quedlinburg on 7 March 1752, Carl Friedrich Cramer grew up near Copenhagen in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. His father Johann Andreas Cramer was a respected court preacher and professor of theology. Through his father the boy met leading writers of the day in person, including Matthias Claudius, for whose "Wandsbecker Bothen" he later wrote and Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg, the author of the first Sturm-und-Drang play "Ugolino". First and foremost he met the idol of his youth, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. During his studies of theology in Göttingen Cramer joined the legendary poetic league or "Hainbund", which was known for its cult of Klopstock. He published his first romantic poems in the almanachs of this young poets' society before coming to Kiel as a professor in 1775 at the age of only 23.

Further reading: Rüdiger Schütt (ed.): Ein Mann von Feuer und Talenten. Leben und Werk von Carl Friedrich Cramer, Göttingen, 2005 (biography of Cramer)

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