This question started when I noticed a curious aside in Fontane's Wikipedia article:

Fontane was plagued by health problems during his last years but continued to work until a few hours before his death.

Being a slightly* morbidly curious person, I tried to find more information about this work. The first place I looked was the citation offered by Wikipedia, which amounted to:

Otto Drude: Theodor Fontane. Insel Verlag, Frankfurt, 1994. p. 176

That was an effective dead end for me - I kept running into German-language books (and am pretty sure the cited work is in German, though I can't find it to confirm) which are useless to monolingual me. Insel Verlag is a mostly-German-language publishing house, Otto Drude appears to have written German-language books, etc.

The next thing I found was another aside, in a PDF (page 35) this time:

Shortly before his death he [Fontane] had planned another historical novel, Die Ligedeler, which was to deal with certain bold, half-mythical pirates of the fourteenth century.

However, this was another dead end. Googling "Die Ligedeler" theodor fontane gave me three Google Books results, all in German. I also can't figure out the source for the PDF's claim. After trying a few other variations of previous search terms (both in regular Search and in Google Books), I gave up and wrote this question. Probably someone who can read German, or has better search skills, can find some more useful sources.

My question is simple: what is known about this book Fontane was working on before he died? Have I identified the correct title? What about the plot? Characters? Really, I would be interested in any information available.

What is known about the last book Theodor Fontane worked on?

* more than slightly

I've included all of the above to 1) prove this isn't a no-effort "look up something I found on Wikipedia" and 2) perhaps provide answerers someplace to start. The German-language books, while an impediment to my progress, may contain just the information I am after.


Fontane was working on several projects when he died. As mantioned in Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach's answer, one of these was Die Likedeeler. "Likedeeler" was the Low German name of the "Vitalienbrüder" (Victual Brothers, a group of late 13th-century privateers). One of the most famous names associated with them was Klaus Störtebeker.

The fragments or drafts for Die Likedeeler were published for the first time in Hermann Fricke's study Theodor Fontanes letzter Romanentwurf: Die Likedeeler (Verlag der Rathenower Zeitungsdruckerei) in 1938, using manuscripts available at the Theodor-Fontane-Archiv.[1] (The Theodor-Fontane-Archiv had been established just three years earlier in Potsdam in 1935.) Fricke wrote that there were 240 manuscript pages in folio or quarto size, part of which had text on both sides, and 6 single-sided manuscript pages with notes about trips to Emden and Bremen. The scholar noted that the manuscript pages had gone through many hands, so their original order had not been preserved.

The fragments were published again in a larger volume entitled Fragmente und frühe Erzählungen, Nachträge (Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung) in 1975 and in Fragmente. Band 1: Texte (De Gruyter) in 2016, edited by Christine Hehle and Hanna Delf von Wolzogen and published on behalf of the Theodor-Fontane-Archiv.

The 2016 edition is now the authoritative edition of Fontane's unfinished works: it

contains approximately 170 unfinished stories and essays by Fontane that were not published during his lifetime and which only exist as drafts. Approximately 90 of the texts are being published here for the very first time.

The fragments of Die Likedeeler can be found in the section "Historische Erzählungen" ("historical stories/narratives"). With a length of 58 or 59 pages, it is the longest of the eight narratives of that section in the book and one of the longest one in the entire book (Eleonore is just 5 pages shorter; Allerlei Glück is 70 pages long). Since most fragments in the 2016 edition are at best a handful of pages long, Die Likedeeler is among those projects that had advanced furthest at the time of Fontane's death.

In mid July 1880, Fontane came up with the idea to write Frisian novels with the titels [Die] Likedeeler and Quade Foelke[2] (see Roland Berbig's Theodor Fontane Chronik (De Gruyter, 2010), who uses Fricke as a source).

Eight years later, more specifically on 8 May 1888, Fontane had finished his draft for Frau Jenny Treibel but had not yet started working on Die Likedeeler:

With this story [Frau Jenny Treibel] I conclude the cycle of my Berlin novels, which amount to 6 in total, and, if a few more years are granted me, I intend to finish with a very ballad-like historical novels that is situated around the year 1400.

We know that Fontane wanted to include poems into the novel. Roland Berbig's Theodor Fontane Chronik notes for the year 1893 (my translation):

Plan/outline ("Entwurf") for Likedeeler — F especially gives thoughts avout the poems he wants to include in Likedeeler; titles for the envisaged titles are "Storm on St. Vincent", "Storm on Bergen or Drontheim", "A Song that includes their 'agenda'" and "Then a song celebrating storm and sea".

Berbig's entry for 16 March 1895 tells us that Fontane wanted to base the novel on the most exact historical knowledge; he asked both Hanz Hertz and the historian Friedrich Holtze for help in researching the novel's historical background.

On the same day, Fontane also writes (my translation):

I want to work on a new novel (whether it will be completed does not matter), a splendid novel that deviates from everything I have written until now and that deviates from everything that has been written so far, even though some will probably tend to put it in the same category as "Ekkehart" and "Die Ahnen". But it will deviate from these by being a reconciliation between my earliest and most romantic balad style and mmy most recent and most realistic novelist scribblings.

In Zum Geschichtsdenken Theodor Fontanes und Thomas Manns, oder, Geschichtskritik in "Der Stechlin" und "Doktor Faustus" (Königshausen & Neumann, 2004), Birger Solheim, using he above passage, writes (my translation; italics from the German text):

The plans for Die Likedeeler suggest in what direction the old Fontane was going. He emphasises that he does not plan to write a typical historical novel like Ekkehard or Die Ahnen: "It [Die Likedeeler] deviates from it, in that it should be a reconciliation between my earliest and most romantic ballad style and my most modern and realist novelistic scribblings" (IX: 25). So Fontane definitely had a conception of how a historical should be modelled from a narratological point of view, namely like a ballad with an ethically oriented hero and, as far as Die Likedeeler is concerned, with a hero oriented towards socialism.

(Die Ahnen was a cycle of historical novels in sechs volumes that Gustav Freytag published in the years 1872–1880. Ekkehard was a historical novel—based on the life of the monk Ekkehard II—by Joseph Victor von Scheffel that was published in 1855.)

Hanz Hertz writes in a letter to Fontane dated 3 April 1895 that he is busy with books related to Die Likedeeler and with a song about Störtebeker.

In spite of these plans, Fontane first focused on other works, such as the novel Der Stechlin (written between 1895 and 1897 and published in book format in October 1898), his autobiographical Von Zwanzig bis Dreißig (published in 1898) and the novel Mathilde Möhring, which remained "unfinished" at the time of his death but was published posthumously in 1906 [3].

According to Fricke, Fontane first started working on a Likedeeler novella but got stuck fairly soon. His original outline for the chapters turned out to be insufficient when he started addding historical information. In a second attempt, Fontane drafted both an opening and a closing chapter, but the remaining chapters still raised many questions. Fricke assumes this second attempt still lies before 4 April 1995. The third, fourth and fifth bundles of manuscript pages seems to represent a phase in which Fontane had access to more historical sources. Fontane also wrote the first version of chapters two, three, four, seven and eight.

Fontane's main source was Johannes Voigt's treatise "Die Vitalienbrüder", published in Historisches Taschenbuch. Neue Folge, zweiter Jahrgang, edited by Friedrich von Raumer (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1841). In addition, he also used book about the history of East Frisia and about Klaus Störtebeker. Fontane also visited East Frisia in August 1882. (As mentioned above, Die Likedeeler was not the only novel related to East Frisia that he wanted to write.)

[1] Based on WolrdCat search results, this book is probably hard to find outside university libraries.

[2] The 2016 edition of Fontane's fragments and drafts contains a fragment of 2–3 pages for Quade Foelke. This would have been a novel inspired by the Frisian noble Foelke Kampana or Foelke the Cruel, who lived from 1355 – c. 1418 and was a contemporary of the Likedeeler.

[3] I write "unfinished" in quotation marks because Fontane had already offered both Mathilde Möhring and Frau Jenny Treibel for publication to two periodicals in July 1891, even though he didn't finish the first draft of Mathilde Möhring until late August or early September of the same year. Fontane reworked the novel in the winter of 1895–1896, after finishing Von Zwanzig bis Dreißig.


  • Berbig, Roland: Theodor Fontane Chronik. De Gruyter, 2010. (3905 pages. See snippet view on Google Books.)
  • Fontane, Theodor: Fragmente und frühe Erzählungen, Nachträge. Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1975.
  • Fontane, Theodor: *Fragmente. Band 1: Texte. Eeited by Christine Hehle and Hanna Delf von Wolzogen. De Gruyter, 2016.
  • Fricke, Hermann: Theodor Fontanes letzter Romanentwurf: Die Likedeeler. Verlag der Rathenower Zeitungsdruckerei, 1938. (See snippet view on Google Books.)
  • Solheim, Birger: Zum Geschichtsdenken Theodor Fontanes und Thomas Manns, oder, Geschichtskritik in "Der Stechlin" und "Doktor Faustus". Königshausen & Neumann, 2004.

When adapting the book title you name a little and spelling it "Likedeeler", together with the statement "which was to deal with certain bold, half-mythical pirates of the fourteenth century." from your question, it seems quite apparent that the novel was to be focused on the Victual Brothers who later called themselves "Likedeeler" (equal sharers), a group of pirates who, together with their most famous member/leader Klaus Störtebeker, enjoy somewhat of a mythical status in German folklore, especially in the northern areas.

Most links point to a book called "Theodor Fontanes letzter Romanentwurf: Die Likedeeler" by Hermann Fricke from 1938, which I don't have access to, however. But I found a German article on a Fontane-centred blog that details a cultural journey by the Fontane Kreis Hannover, an apparent subsection of the Theodor Fontane Gesellschaft (Theodor Fontane Society), so there seems to be some credibility to it. They went to follow Fontane's traces during his research for the project and they have to say about the issue (translated by me):

The view back into the adventure and play world of the adolescent Theodor Fontane with street kids from Swinemünde at the Baltic beach in Heringsdorf, which the poet gives his readers in his autobiographical novel "Meine Kinderjahre", shed a light on "Störtebekers Kul" as poetical source of inspiration for his historical novel "Die Likedeeler". Had Fontane completed the poetical shaping of these childhood experiences, it would have created a literary work of "highest poetic degree" as to Thomas Mann. The livelong feeling attempt to tackle the Störtebeker myth - intendes as "reconciliation (...) between my oldest and most romantic ballad style and my most modern and realistic novel writing" - was given up by Fontane despite instensive local research (in Norden, Marienhafe and Emden) in 1895 in favour of the political novel "Der Stechlin".

They then go on details about visiting the aforementioned locations from Fontane's research and supposedly Störtebeker's life. They also mention:

Despite [the scarcity of known facts] the legends are rich, which the poetic side of the story-teller Fontane surely appreciated, as the symbol figure Störtebeker who has been stylized into a maritime hero suggests justice and charity, which fits to Fontane's ethics.

So it seems clear to me, the Likedeelers and specifically Störtebeker would have been the topic of his novel and it seems to have been intended as somewhat of an application of Fontane's modern style of realism to a topic with historical but even more so mythical relevance and for that alone it would sure have been an interesting work. Would it have been a romanticization of piracy and Robin Hoodery or a look at the reality of Hanseatic endeavours in the 14th century? An embrace or a deconstruction of a beloved maritime myth? A historical documentary or a political parable? We don't quite know, but possibly any and all of that. ;-)

While the article says that Fontane abandoned the idea for "Die Likedeeler" in favour of "Der Stechlin", which was finished and published before his death (Wikipedia says he died in the month of its publishing, so it ought to have been finished for some time) and is thus his actual last novel, it is made quite apparent by the article as well as the title of Fricke's book, that "Die Likedeeler" is seen as his last unfinished project. In fact it's even suggested that he might have worked on it over quite some time. If he picked up the idea right before his death again and if it is what he worked on last I admittedly don't know, though.

  • This is interesting, and I've upvoted :). However, I'm not sure that this is actually the book he was working on right before death - comments on the question and the end of your first quote seem to indicate he abandoned the project to work on "Der Stechlin". Did he come back to the Likedeelers novel after finishing "Der Stechlin"? – bobble Feb 23 at 23:42
  • Oh, well, that I don't know. But everything points to this being his "last project". Afterall, "Der Stechlin" was finished and published. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Feb 23 at 23:43

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