Grandmasters: a meeting of great minds

Goethe grasped that Napoleon was a midwife in the birth of the German nation

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Chess is, among other things, a wargame. Indeed, its enduring popularity is only explicable by the fact that the wooden board and men are a simulacrum of the clash of flesh and blood. It is human to delight in re-enacting in symbolic form what we most dread in reality. And so monarchs and marshals alike have always been partial to chess.

Napoleon and Goethe: The Touchstone of Genius
Raymond Keene

From the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, at whose court in Baghdad the first grandmasters of chess flourished in the ninth century, to Tamburlaine the Great, who favoured an expanded “Great Chess” on a larger board to reflect his conquests, and Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who died while playing chess.

But the prime example of a warrior statesman who honed his intellectual and martial skills at the chessboard was Napoleon Bonaparte. As a young man he frequented the Café de la Régence, the celebrated haunt of the philosophes and Encyclopédistes on the Rue Saint-Honoré. There he describes the “rare pleasure” of watching the grandmasters of the day, Légal and Philidor, observed by “good-for-nothings” with “nothing better to do”.

The games ascribed to the young Bonaparte are almost certainly later concoctions. But as Emperor, Napoleon visited the Palace of Schönbrunn in Vienna in 1809, where he was invited to play against the Turk, the celebrated chess automaton, by its owner, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, inventor of the metronome.

Bonaparte, playing chess on St Helena, 1816 (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The automaton was not an early form of AI, but an ingenious contraption that concealed a human player inside. Four decades before, the Turk had been created for the Empress Maria Theresa by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. One version of this encounter has Napoleon deliberately making illegal moves to test the Turk, which eventually loses patience and knocks over the pieces. He also supposedly lost a game of just 19 moves against the machine. Perhaps its defiance persuaded the Emperor, then at his zenith, that it must indeed be a mechanical device; no human would have dared to risk humiliating the most powerful man on earth.

This story, along with others, is told by Raymond Keene in his remarkable new book Napoleon and Goethe: The Touchstone of Genius. The author is himself a phenomenon: a chess grandmaster and promoter of mind sports, this is his 207th book.

It runs to fewer than 200 pages and inevitably ignores much well-trodden extraneous biographical material. But where Keene’s book breaks new ground is in the inclusion of a series of chess games to illustrate the evolution of military history. Some of these are by Grandmaster Keene himself, including one played while he was still a schoolboy at Dulwich College.

Even more originally, he includes his own translation of Faust, Goethe’s most famous play. This “performing version” is abridged to a fraction of its original length, but it includes both Parts I and II, on which Goethe worked for most of his long life.

Keene sees the drama as a game of cosmic chess between the eponymous protagonist and his nemesis, Mephistopheles. I have some sympathy with this idea, yet chess is not the obvious metaphor for the Faustian contract. The closest it comes to that is in the sacrifice of material (e.g. a Queen) as part of a “combination” of moves leading to checkmate or a decisive advantage.

Like Faust, however, a game of chess ends when “the King is dead” (the literal meaning of “checkmate”, from the Persian shah mat). Faust ages in the course of the play and it ends with his death. As in The Seventh Seal, the Ingmar Bergman film in which Death plays a game of chess with the Knight for his life and those of his entourage, Faust can use his ingenuity to buy time, but his ultimate fate is inescapable.

Goethe had grasped that Napoleon was acting as a midwife in the birth of the German nation

Goethe had a high regard for chess. In his breakthrough drama, Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand, it is described as der Probierstein des Gehirns, “the touchstone of the intellect”. Keene regards this phrase as the highest approbation ever accorded to chess. Significantly, the epithet is given to a noblewoman, Adelheid von Walldorf, as she defeats a male opponent who cannot match her intense concentration.

Adelheid is a brilliant but transgressive, even daemonic figure, who is finally condemned to death for adultery and murder. In the patriarchal world of late-medieval Germany, a woman cannot legitimately triumph over men — except at the chessboard.

Keene is the first to devote a book to Napoleon and Goethe. Why, though, bring them together? The two did actually meet in 1808. At their first encounter in Erfurt, Goethe recalled that they discussed his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther in detail, Napoleon having evidently studied it carefully (he invariably took a copy with him on campaign).

But the main focus of the conversation was on tragedy, and “how far French theatre had strayed from nature and truth”, as the Emperor thought. He disapproved of “fatalistic plays”, adding: “Destiny is politics.”

Napoleon treated Goethe respectfully, as an equal. But the national destiny that mattered to him was that of France, whose role was to dominate Europe and especially the mainly German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire. At this point in its history, the only thing that united Germany was its culture.

Days later, emperor and author met again in Weimar, the tiny grand duchy where Goethe was effectively prime minister. Together with Wieland, the Nestor of German letters, Goethe was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur, the senior class of the order established by Napoleon six years previously.

Goethe was a patriot. But he had grasped that Napoleon was acting as a midwife in the birth of the German nation. As the intellectual leader of the Germans, he disapproved of French domination of his homeland, but he saw Napoleon as an enlightened despot who was dismantling the feudal system and preparing the way for a more prosperous future.

In Faust Part II, finished just before his death in 1832, Goethe offers a vision of industry and commerce to be realised by posterity. Modern Germany is in part a legacy of Napoleon the reformer and lawgiver, no less than of Goethe the poet and thinker.

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