Kosmos Wiepersdorf


Stop 2: Family burial site
© Dirk Bleicker

Stop 2
Family burial site

Far away, so close: Bettina and Achim von Arnim between Wiepersdorf and Berlin

You can follow the story of Bettina and Achim von Arnim either here, at this point, or directly at the graves in the fenced-in cemetery. The numerous letters Bettina and Achim von Arnim wrote to each other provide information about life in the 19th century and about their relationship:

“Dear Arnim, ... You are so preoccupied with your harvest that you don't seem to think at all about [...] the fact that I am pining for you and whether I am healthy or ill ... I am quite disconsolate that after four weeks of absence you don’t even think of giving me an approximate idea of when you think you will return ... Your faithful wife, Bettine.”

“Dear Bettine! I sincerely commiserate with your sorrows, but I also lament my own situation, torn about everything I undertake, distracted, full of doubt in my endeavors. I want to take care of my family here and sacrifice every other occupation to it, and then you call me back in every letter so anxiously that I worry ... We still have a lot to harvest, even the purchase of horses and cattle will not allow me to leave ... Keep me dear to your heart, your Achim Arnim.”

The fenced-in enclosure in front of you, measuring barely ten by twenty meters, is the burial site of the von Arnim family. It comprises nine stone tombs in two rows, all very similar, on a stone ground. Achim von Arnim is buried right next to the rendered wall of the small church, in the top right-hand corner of the enclosure. The grave of his wife, whose maiden name was Bettina Brentano, lies directly in front of his, also next to the wall. Some say that Bettina lies at his feet, as it were. That, however, would be but half the truth at best, but more about that in a moment ...

At any rate, the two plain grave ledgers on the mossy tomb blocks are at the edge of the family burial site. To the left of the writer couple are the graves of their sons Kühnemund, Siegmund, and Freimund, as well as those of Anna, Freimund von Arnim's first wife, and Claudine, his wife after remarrying. In the upper row, you will also find the gravesite of Achim von Arnim, the grandson of Arnim and Bettina. This grandson, who added “Bärwalde” to his surname, was of great importance for the architectural history of the place. Somewhat set off, in the upper left-hand corner, is the much smaller gravestone of Walther Encke, a bourgeois police officer who had married the great-granddaughter of Bettina and Achim von Arnim—who was likewise named Bettina von Arnim. Her later name was Bettina Encke von Arnim, and she is commemorated by a memorial stone. After the Second World War she played a major role in turning the castle into a writers’ retreat center.

As far as Bettina and Achim von Arnim are concerned, the situation was as follows: apart from a few trips and stays in Berlin, Achim mostly lived here in Wiepersdorf after 1814. Bettina, for her part, other than a few trips and sojourns in Wiepersdorf, lived predominantly in Berlin together with their children, who totalled seven in the end. So was this just an indifferent marriage of convenience that the model couple of German Romanticism led over two decades?

Achim was born into an impoverished family of the Prussian landed gentry. He had inherited not much more than the small stretch of land known as Bärwalde—an estate in Niederer Fläming. Niederer Fläming was a municipality with seven villages, of which Wiepersdorf was one, in addition to the formerly significant Bärwalde Keep. Bettina, on the other hand, was the daughter of Peter Anton Brentano, a merchant from Lake Como who had become wealthy in Frankfurt am Main. Her mother, Maximiliane von La Roche, was a friend (at the very least) of the young Goethe: Lotte in “Werther” has Maximiliane's eyes ...

Thus the opposites of north and south united, the solitary landed gentry in Brandenburg and urban-oriented bourgeoisie from the Main, Protestantism and Catholicism—not exactly optimal conditions for a marriage. In fact there were pragmatic reasons for this union: Achim von Arnim had to beget offspring to gain his inheritance. But did such a motive in marriage necessarily make the couple miserable with their lot?

There was, without question, friction between the two and also the occasional reproach. Nevertheless, this marriage was not a misalliance. On over nine hundred sheets of paper, in more than five hundred letters that were sent back and forth between Wiepersdorf and Berlin, one can read and find deep mutual affection, how separation made them long for more closeness, and, above all, their enormous respect for one another. It seems as if Achim and Bettina had shared a passion: the passion for the poetic in various forms—whether in writing, music, the visual arts, or in life.

Achim von Arnim initially studied law, physics, and mathematics in Halle and Göttingen. But when he met writers such as Goethe, Ludwig Tieck, and Clemens Brentano, he seemed to have found his true path. Together with Clemens Brentano, Bettina’s brother, he published The Boy's Magic Horn in 1805, a collection of folk songs that was highly regarded by his contemporaries—especially Goethe and the Grimm brothers. It is still today the most important folksong collection of German Romanticism. But Arnim’s life in Berlin as a writer, journalist, and co-founder of the highly contentious Deutsche Tischgesellschaft did not last long. What could an anti-Napoleonic patriot do if he was not able to get a job in the civil service? Three years after he and Bettina were married in 1811, Achim von Arnim recognized a solution in pursuing the life of a farmer on his own estates. During the Wiepersdorf period, the first part of his main work, Die Kronenwächter (The Crown Guardians) was published as early as 1817, but the novel remained a fragment. In fact, from then on, he devoted himself—to the astonishment and consternation of his wife—to cows, pigs, and horses. “Sometimes I don’t understand how I got into this whole business,” he wrote to her in June 1818, “but it was somehow meant to be; the city air holds no prosperity for me.”

For Bettina von Arnim it was quite the opposite. She still complained in 1823 that in Wiepersdorf “you lost interest in writing here, where the whole day, the entire year, your whole dear life nothing happens that makes you wish to lift an arm or leg. I know of no work that dulls the brain more than doing nothing at all and experiencing nothing.” She moved back to Berlin with the children already in 1817. There, Bettina von Arnim was the permanent guest of Carl von Savigny, a jurist and member of the Prussian State Council. He was married to her sister Kunigunde. She socialized with Achim’s friends and her own, such as the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm or Alexander von Humboldt—and otherwise conformed to the conventions entailed in the role of a single mother, though by no means without complaining.

Conventions were not really Bettina’s thing. “When I look to do my duty,” she wrote, “I'm very pleased when it escapes me, otherwise if I caught hold of it, I'd surely throttle it!” Bettina, also known as “the imp” in Berlin circles, was considered an enfant terrible. After an argument with Christiane, the wife of Privy Councilor Goethe, Bettina claimed it was as if “a black pudding had gone berserk and bitten her.” Christiane's husband, Goethe, was piqued. The Prussian army reformer August Neidhardt von Gneisenau wrote Bettina in a letter that he could not always justify her neglect of social conventions; however, he did not want to give fatherly advice, since he neither had the right to do so nor the “hope of success.” He did not err in this. When the theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher tried to kiss her, Bettina proudly told her husband of the self-command she mustered in her reaction—adding that she had “changed a lot after all, otherwise [she] probably would have kicked him in the ribs.” Bettina was well aware of her strength, naturally demanding autonomy and fulfillment of one’s potential as well as standing up for all those she considered oppressed or patronized. This has earned her much admiration—not least in the eyes of 20th-century women writers such as Christa Wolf or Sarah Kirsch.

But that is not all: after Achim died in 1831, Bettina herself became a writer and her success far exceeded that of her husband. Her novels Goethe's Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (Goethe's Correspondence with a Child) from 1835, Dieses Buch gehört dem König (This Book Belongs to the King) from 1843, or Clemens Brentanos Frühlingskranz (Clemens Brentano's Spring Wreath) from 1844 were all composed of letters and form a very own kind of Romantic literature. It is therefore a mockery of the truth that the inscription on Bettina’s grave neglects to mention her significance for German literature. This inscription, equally a product of norms for social roles and family quarrels, not only gives an incorrect year of birth—Bettina was actually born in 1785—but also immortalizes her merely as “married to Ludwig Achim von Arnim.” But Bettina was so much more.

You will find the next stop if you continue on the main path to the castle complex and go around the building on the right. There you will learn how the original manor house acquired its palatial character.