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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: August 2018

4 - Dictatorial Megalomania: Lèse Majesté and Plötzensee Prison (1896–1898)


IN 1894 LUDWIG QUIDDE, editor of the Imperial Reichstagsakten (Reichstag Record) in Munich and former head of the Royal Prussian Historical Institute in Rome, published in Die Gesellschaft an article titled “Caligula: A Study of Roman Dictatorial Megalomania.” It was reprinted the same year by Wilhelm Friedrich of Leipzig, Eisner's publisher, as a twenty-page pamphlet. Although the article purported to portray the notorious Roman despot in his madness, the reader readily recognized it as a deftly veiled tract against the “personal regime” of Wilhelm II. Convicted of Majestätsbeleidigung, or lèse majesté, Quidde lost his position as editor and was jailed for three months in 1896. Typically, however, the law was brought to bear on less prominent critics of princes. In the 1 February 1896 issue of Die Kritik, a review of news items of the past week compiled by Mephisto deplored that a twenty-year-old worker had been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for shouting “Hurrah for anarchy!” while Wilhelm made an inspection tour of a warship under construction at the Hamburg shipyard of Blohm and Voß.

The attorney Max Falkenfeld of Fürstenwalde wrote in the 13 September issue that the concept of lèse majesté was a product of the late Roman Empire, which had also endowed the word “Byzantine” with its modern, negative connotation. He looked back to when the great Friedrich II ordered that handbills against him posted at riders’ eye level be lowered that the populace might better read them. Friedrich's Berlin was a capital of the Enlightenment; in the present, Falkenfeld lamented, a “mystical twilight rules the minds.” Every German citizen except the sovereign, he observed, could choose whether or not to seek legal redress for defamation. The sovereign alone had no say in the matter; the law and the state prosecutor relieved him of that right. Even more ironically, in cases of lèse majesté the accused was forbidden from arguing the merit his assertion before a judge, on the premise that ‘every deprecating assault on the inviolability of the sovereign is necessarily illegal.’ Since the well-educated critic—by far the most dangerous—usually masked his criticism well enough to avoid prosecution, whereas the poor fool venting his spleen went to jail, Falkenfeld concluded that justice would be best served by striking lèse majesté from the code.

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