Theodor Fontane, a German poet, wrote "Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan" (translated here as "The Tragedy of Afghanistan") in 1847. It's about the aftermath of a massacre suffered by a British force in 1842. The poem is certainly a good read, and the historical event certainty compelling. What I'm unsure of is why Fontane chose to write about this event specifically. Why was he drawn to highlight a old-ish incident concerning the British army, as opposed to something closer to home? Is there something about the whole affair that drew Fontane to compose his poem? I would appreciate answers that have evidence directly from Fontane, or other sources which could be absolutely sure, but well-backed up speculation would be fine as well.

Why did Fontane choose to write "The Tragedy of Afghanistan"?

  • Germany didn't exist in 1847 (although German definitely did). In 1847, Fontane was a Prussian poet. – Peter Shor Feb 6 at 19:25
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    @PeterShor The name "Deutschland" was already in use in 1847 and Prussia was part of the Deutscher Bund. As far as I know, it's perfectly normal to describe Fontane as a German author instead of a Prussian author. – Tsundoku Feb 6 at 19:39
  • And Goethe was a Roman author? ;-) – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Feb 7 at 0:14

Theodor Fontane did not write "Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan" in 1847/8, as the Berlin Review of Books erroneously claims, but a decade later. By that time, Fontane had been twice been in London as a foreign correspondent for Prussian newspapers: the first time from April till September 1852 (Bemmann: 99-106) and the second time from September 1855 till January 1859. The occasion for the second time was the Crimean War, in which Prussia did not want to intervene (Bemmann: 113–131). (Fontane had developed an interest in England in the 1840s, reading, for example, Hume's massive History of England and the works of Walter Scott. England and Scotland had been important sources of inspiration for his ballads.)

By the end of his second stay in England, his admiration for the British people was at its nadir. He described the English as a "money-making Volk" and was especially appalled by the massacres during the Indian Rebellion of 1857–1858. In a letter to the editor-in-chief of the Neue Preußische (Kreuz-)Zeitung (his employer), he wrote that, with regard to India, all of England disgusted him; he even described the English as a people of "robbers and pirates". (In spite of his criticism of English colonialism and English society, he did not condemn the English people as a whole.)

It is perhaps this historical background and his criticism of colonialism that inpired him to write "Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan". (I have been unable to find statements about a specific explicit motivation to write this poem.) According to the entries in his diary, he worked on the poem on 1 and 2 May 1858; he recited the poem for the literary society Tunnel über der Spree (in Berlin) on 3 April 1859. It was printed in the magazine Argo in 1860 (Tagebücher: 616). Before April 1859, Fontane had already recited the poem in London on 5 August 1858 (Berbig: Theodor Fontane Chronik: 905) and for the literary society "Krokodillen-Gesellschaft" in Munich on 10 March 1859 (Berbig: Theodor Fontane Chronik: 962).


  • Bemmann, Helga: Theodor Fontane. Eine preußischer Dichter. Ullstein, 1998. (440-page biography published on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the author's death; now out of print.)
  • Berbig, Roland: Theodor Fontane Chronik. De Gruyter, 2010. (Day-by-day chronicle of Fontane's life and works, based on the author's correspondence and diaries, and other sources; 3.905 pages.)
  • Fontane, Theodor: Tage- und Reisetagebücher: Tagebücher 1852, 1855-1858. Edited by Charlotte Jolles, Rudolf Muhs, Gotthard Erler and Therese Erler. Aufbau-Verlag, 1995.
  • Let me add that if Fontane was looking to write about an example of a disastrous military defeat, I think he would have been very hard-pressed to find any other recent comparable examples. This was really an unparalleled event. – Peter Shor Apr 5 at 18:32
  • @PeterShor I think you're right. He also wrote a free translation of Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade", but the perception of that event is very different. – Tsundoku Apr 5 at 18:45

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