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Band of Brothers in History and Literature

Friedrich Schiller - Band of Brothers

Friedrich Schiller, born in Germany in 1759, came to adulthood during a time of great ferment in German arts, letters and philosophy. He was a contemporary and associate of such resounding names as Fichte, Goethe and Kant. It is not surprising then that he dabbled in philosophy, history, and drama.

Friedrich SchillerHe began life as the son of a captain in the employ of the Duke of Werttemberg. Friedrich, then, was obligated to also join the service. He did so as an army surgeon, where undoubtedly he formed some ideas about military life. Yet he had ambitions beyond military service. He published his first play at the age of 23, Die Rauber. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy reports that his early production was of uneven quality, yet many of the plays are still produced, especially his Wilhelm Tell which is less a drama about a famous legendary-historical figure than it is about a struggle for freedom of a great nation.

In this work we find his reference to a "band of brothers":

By this fair light which greeteth us, before
Those other nations, that, beneath us far,
In noisome cities pent, draw painful breath,
Swear we the oath of our confederacy!
A band of brothers true we swear to be,
Never to part in danger or in death! [They repeat his words with three fingers raised.]
We swear we will be free as were our sires,
And sooner die than live in slavery! [All repeat as before.]
We swear, to put our trust in God Most High,
And not to quail before the might of man!

Here we find the idea of the "band of brothers" expanded not merely to a small group of men fighting together, but all men of the nation fighting for freedom. The essence of the idea for Schiller is not just self-protection or a brotherhood of interest, but an even higher calling, a brotherhood struggling for freedom. This becomes a theme motif throughout the history of the 1800's. The band of brothers is not just a union of blood, struggle and shared sacrifice, but also of shared ideal. This is nascent in Shakespeares "band of brothers", but is expanded by Schiller. In Wilhelm Tell we find the broadest use of the theme. This may have been a Germanic influence that tended to socialize ideas across a spectrum, while in the hands of Englishmen and ultimately Americans who would adopt the "band of brothers" theme wholeheartedly there is a more independent spirit, an exclusive spirit that reserves the appellation for the "best and the brightest". Yet this was also imbedded in the Shakespearean ideal, "We few, we happy few..."

Wilhelm Tell was written at the close of Schiller's life (1803-1804). There was tremendous martial upheaval in Germany at the time the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing. It would have been difficult for Schiller not to have infused a martial air to his play and a martial nature to the nation. A certain amount of military excellence was essential for a nation to survive in the turmoil and struggle between states. A nation that comprised a band of brothers then was more likely to succeed. Later, Wilhelm Tell was played continuously in Switzerland during World War II when the country was surrounded by fascist dictatorships. It was a constant reminder to the Swiss that their independence depended upon their fierce unity and defiance of their foe.

Schiller died in 1805. He only reached his mid-forties. During his life he accomplished much as a play write and as a poet. Some believe that his most lasting contribution was in the field of philosophy where he delved into aesthetics (the study of beauty). Influenced by Kant, he came up with a new definition of beauty that would inspire later philosophers and even whole movements. He believed that beauty is conceived in the mind by applying standards to the physical world as it is perceived by the senses. He obviously saw the "band of brothers" theme as a beautiful conception and he succeeded in helping to imprint it upon the western mind.

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