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Georg Forster, "Observations on [France's] New Communal Spirit," from Recollections from the Year 1790 (1793)

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Only free nations, says the eyewitness we are following here, know this feeling, for only free nations have a fatherland.

I saw the preparations for this festival, which remains unparalleled in the annals of mankind. The greatest amphitheater in the world, compared to which the famous Roman ones were mere child’s play, was created in a few days by the omnipotence of the popular will. The suspect indolence of 15,000 paid workers was made good by the enthusiasm of 100,000 volunteers. In the intoxication of liberty they worked with a zeal, with a profligacy of energy that one can scarcely believe, even if one has seen it in person. The alternation of the working groups was endless, and the order that prevailed everywhere was impossible to conceive, if one failed to bring the enthusiasm of the moment into the equation. No guards were posted here, the imperious voice of the overseer, let alone his rod, was unknown; the bees and ants, too, build without tyrants and satellites, and yet they complete the construction of their small republic in harmony. The justice of the people sanctifies the property of everyone and protects the rights of everyone. Clothing and watches that had been taken off during the work remained the entire day untouched where they lay. With drums and martial music, shouldering the shovels, the enthusiastic crowds marched arm in arm to their day’s work, accompanied by songs of liberty, and they left the field later than the sun. Old and young, men and women, dukes and day laborers, rentiers and shoe-cleaners, bishops and actors, court ladies and fishwives, nuns and priestesses of Venus, chimney sweeps and fops, invalids and school boys, monks and scholars, peasants from the surrounding villages, artists and artisans under their banner, all came arm in arm in a motley procession and set to work stoutly and boldly. A thousand touching expressions of the feelings that had been stirred up everywhere glorified this busy scene; a thousand good-natured jokes, a thousand proofs of Gallic cheerfulness, a thousand examples of noble-mindedness, generosity, and selflessness by the common people appeased the humbled pride of the nobility.

Source: Georg Forster, “Bemerkungen über den neuen Gemeingeist” [“Observations on the New Communal Spirit”], from Erinnerungen aus dem Jahre 1790 [Recollections from the Year 1790] (1793), in Sämtliche Werke [Collected Works], edited by G. G. Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1843, vol. VI, pp. 181-83.

Reprinted in Jost Hermand, ed., Von deutscher Republik 1775-1795. Texte radikaler Demokraten [From the German Republic 1775-1795. Texts by Radical Democrats]. © Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1968, pp. 112-15.

Translation: Thomas Dunlap

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