Lessing’s prickliness could also make him immune to the delusions about German cultural superiority expounded by other thinkers of his age, however. Two threads run through Lessing’s diverse reflections: a deep philosophical pessimism inherited from his idol Arthur Schopenhauer, and a satirical style reminiscent of Heinrich Heine, in keeping with a Jewish-German literary tradition radically curtailed by the second world war.
After falling into obscurity for almost a century, a newly published annotated edition of his early writings introduces a new generation to Lessing’s witty and often waspish mind, including the target of his most obsessive gripe: urban din.
“If anything could be more shocking than the murder of Prof Lessing at Marienbad, it is the indecent joy with which the German press receives the news,” the Manchester Guardian commented on Lessing’s death at the time.
“Lessing wrote philosophically about a wide range of issues,” said Marwedel, who has spent the last 40 years of his life researching Lessing’s biography and annotated edition of his work. “He’d write an essay about Kantian ethics one day, a column about the psychology of stage kisses the next: he was quite French in that way, and not your typical German ivory-tower philosopher”.
Lessing responded with a telegram in which he asked, perhaps more in jest than in earnest, whether Mann would follow up his words with an armed duel, but the author of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain declined the offer.
In a nation of great thinkers who preferred the clean air of ivory towers over the hubbub of the streets, Theodor Lessing stood out for digging his knuckles into the dust.
In another essay, also written in 1930, the trained medic warned of the consequences of rainforest destruction and climate change: “Something is changing on our globe,” Lessing wrote. “There will be a change in the climate that will change many people’s ways of living, their professions and their work.”
As founder of Germany’s first anti-noise society, the Jewish-German philosopher and avowed socialist campaigned against organ grinders, coachmen cracking their whips and housewives beating their carpets, expounding his pet hate in a monthly pamphlet called “Der Anti-Rüpel” (“The Anti-Lout”).
Europe’s supposedly enlightened cultural tradition, he would go on to write, had done little to protect the continent’s biodiversity: like a “cruel, merciless machine”, it had driven bears, wolves, moose and other species to extinction.
The noise of the city, Lessing wrote with characteristic acidity, was “the revenge of those working with their hands on those head-workers who laid down their laws”: a kind of aural narcotic that dulled the mind like alcohol or drugs and prevented urban dwellers from sharp enlightened thinking.
The article was as prophetic as it was scandalous: “For German anti-democrats, Hindenburg was effectively a placeholder for the kaiser, so to poke even gentle fun at him amounted to lèse-majesté,” said Marwedel.
“The misguided roughs who shot him were the tools of something bigger than themselves – the Nazi creed which glorifies the murder of political opponents.”
Lessing’s spikes and bristles mean Germany’s visionary grumbler has been largely neglected by academia since his death. An open letter published shortly after the assassination, calling for donations to set up an institute in Lessing’s name and produce a complete edition of his writings, was signed by luminaries including Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell but failed to collect sufficient funds.
The scandal led to boycotts of Lessing’s lectures, his dismissal from teaching at Hanover’s Technical University, and eventually his death in exile: on 30 August 1933, a team of three Nazi-supporting assassins from the Sudetenland shot the philosopher through the window of his study in Marienburg, making him the first known victim of the Nazi regime in the Czech Republic.
“I have grown sceptical of the beauty and greatness of the German mind,” Lessing says in an essay on English drama, written at a time of growing resentment between the two nations, and reprinted in Culture and Nerves. “In England it is different. The average person there is more eccentric and unique than we are.”
Published on the eve of Lessing’s 150th birthday on Tuesday , with an afterword by editor Rainer Marwedel, the two-volume, 1,920-page anthology Culture and Nerves also reminds readers that the Hanover-born malcontent was not just the “noise philosopher” his critics liked to mock, but a sharp mind who managed to see through the fog of history with a clarity few of his contemporaries could match.
In 1910, he wrote a satirical screed that mocked the Jewish literary critic Samuel Lublinski using common antisemitic tropes, which in turn led novelist Thomas Mann to denounce Lessing as an “impertinent midget” in an essay of his own.
In the ultimate tour de force of his mocking eloquence and piercing foresight, Lessing portrayed the German president Paul von Hindenburg as a puppet of the ascendant National Socialist movement.
The great brawler of early 20th-century German philosophy picked fights with those he dismissed as “self-hating” fellow Jewish intellectuals, challenged the towering man-of-letters Thomas Mann to a duel, and skewered the holy cows of the Nazis, who brutally murdered him shortly after seizing power in 1933.
Marwedel said he had funded the research for the latest volumes largely out of his own pocket. He is currently seeking funding to complete an edition of Lessing’s entire works, amounting to at least nine volumes and 3,600 pages.
“For Lessing, insight was attained through suffering, and knowledge was pain”, Marwedel told the Guardian. Such a combative outlook on life could make him a prickly intellectual sparring partner: his book on the “Jewish self-hatred” of his contemporaries allowed that term to gain widespread currency.