Who Is Götz von Berlichingen, and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things?

Your average humour or satire magazine has a pretty straightforward title. JudgePunchMadCrackedNational LampoonCharlie HebdoTitanicThe Onion. So you might wonder why, in post-World War I Austria, somebody thought it would be a good idea to give a satirical paper the tongue-twisting title Der Götz von Berlichingen. (Pro tip: “Götz” rhymes with “shirts,” providing you’re a BBC newsreader; likewise, “Berlichingen” rhymes with “barely swingin’,” only instead of a “sw” in the middle there’s the kind of strong ‘h’ sound you make when you say “huge” really clearly. See how easy German is? You’re welcome.)

Der Götz von Berlichingen, of course, is the paper that published the adventures of the Riebeisel family from 1923 to 1934 as the first weekly speech-balloon comic strip on the European continent. It proudly declared itself Eine lustige Streitschrift gegen Alle (“A humorous, belligerent paper against everybody”). (Whoever did the cataloguing at the Austrian National Library is no cynic: clearly believing that the paper’s subtitle must be a misprint, they’ve silently “corrected” it, so that Der Götz is listed as Eine lustige Streitschrift für alle, “for everybody.” But the actual masthead bore this “misprint” for a dozen years, until the last few months of its existence, and certainly never claimed to be “for” everybody.)

Well, there’s an answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph, but I’m going to take a while to answer it. You’ve been warned now; it’s not too late to bail and hit up The Chive or Ranker so you can spend three hours clicking through seventy slow-loading pages to see “25 People You Can Only Find At Wal-Mart.”

Actually, you’ll be done faster here, so stick with me.

First of all, Götz von Berlichingen was a real person, just like those folks at Wal-Mart, only way cooler. He has two claims to fame, one of them being the fact that he was a 16th-century cyborg. But that’s not why he gets a newspaper named after him.

Götz von Berlichingen.

Götz von Berlichingen in the flesh and/or iron. Landesmedienzentrum Baden-Württemberg.

Gottfried von Berlichingen zu Hornberg was born in 1480 into a wealthy Franconian knightly family, in the north of modern Bavaria. Knighthood didn’t have much of a future, what with the Renaissance already underway in Italy, but the last generations of knights packed in all the feuding, hacking and thwacking they could–imagine Sons of Anarchy with horses instead of Harleys–and Gottfried (Götz, for short) was always up for an act of bloody revenge, either to defend his own family’s honour, or a friend’s–or for money: at the age of twenty, he became the leader of a mercenary band. He was already a seasoned warrior by 1504, when, while besieging the town of Landshut for Duke Albrecht IV due to a little family dispute over the succession to the Duchy of Bavaria-Landshut–a dispute in which the surrounding countryside was horribly laid waste–young Götz somehow lost his right hand to a cannon shot. (His own account of this mishap is rather–wait for it–disjointed; Berlichingen 32-3.)

Being a man of means, after about seven months’ convalescence, Götz commissioned an ingenious prosthetic hand of iron, with jointed, racheted fingers so that he could still hold a weapon. (About twenty years later, he had a more sophisticated model made, which had a movable wrist and was capable of holding a quill pen.)

The second iron hand of Götz von Berlichingen.

Hand 2.0: the improved iron prosthesis of Götz von Berlichingen, constructed about 1530. Photographed in 1909 by Wilhelm Kraft. In the holdings of the Museum at Jagsthausen, one of Götz’s castles. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, www.landesarchiv-bw.de.

Henceforth, he was known as Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand, or “with the iron hand,” and was never confused with any other Götz von Berlichingens–or Götzes von Berlichingen, as the case may be. Moreover, he went right on feuding and mercenarying as if nothing had happened.

Playmobil Götz von Berlichingen

Even Playmobil Götz von Berlichingen is tougher than you are. Or me. Though both his hands are plastic.

Badass as that sounds, it was Götz’s mouth, and not his hand, that made him a cultural icon. In 1516, he was feuding with the city of Mainz–that’s right, he was so macho he feuded with whole cities, including Nuremberg, Augsburg, Ulm and Cologne–and he decided to burn down a few buildings in order to lure out the local bailiff. As you would. When the bailiff finally showed up, Götz yelled up to him on the castle ramparts, “er solte mich hinden lecken” (Berlichingen 71; that is, “he should lick me behind,” or “kiss my ass”), and bravely rode off for parts unknown.

Contrary to what some websites will tell you, Götz did not coin this phrase, not even in German; Catullus would have recognized the sentiment a millennium and a half earlier, and it wasn’t new then. But in the German-speaking lands, the insult certainly became associated with Götz. (It’s also known as der schwäbische Gruss–the “Swabian greeting”–despite the fact that the Swabian League was another entity that Götz feuded with. This guy was like Rambo! How has there never been a Götz von Berlichingen comic book?)

We know of these exploits because, despite having been banned on two different occasions as an outlaw by the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I–which meant he could be killed without repercussions–Götz was ultimately rehabilitated at the age of sixty by Maximilian’s grandson and successor Charles V in order to fight the Turks. At sixty-four, more like a modern than a medieval man, Götz retired honorably to his castle and lived to be eighty. In retirement, he dictated his memoirs (it would be cool if he’d written them out with his iron hand, but surviving examples of his signature demonstrate that even Hand 2.0 was far from a precision instrument), depicting a life of personally-motivated thuggery as altruistic Christian chivalry.

Götz’s fame was further cemented two centuries later when his story fell into the hands of the young Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832); Goethe (rhymes with “Alberta,” as heard on BBC) wasn’t yet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but he was an up-and-coming novelist and playwright, associated with the pre-Romantic movement known as Sturm und Drang, or “Storm and Stress.” If, in a couple of decades, the Romantics would become the temple of the idea of the artistic genius, unbound by academic rules and limits, the Stürmer und Dränger were more like the Church of the Subgenius: they mostly excelled at hanging around in pubs, talking about all the great stuff they were going to write by breaking all the rules, which meant that many of them never got around to putting pen to paper.

Among the notable exceptions was Goethe, a natural poet of formidable energy, who started churning out exquisite verse as a teenager and never let up for the next seventy years. In 1771, the 24-year-old Goethe used Götz’s memoirs as the basis of his first major play, Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (“Götz von Berlichingen with the iron hand”), further stylizing the old brigand into a sexy young Robin Hood type who dies a martyr to freedom–his last word. (One production of the play, in 1804, apparently lasted almost six hours, which led the now older Goethe to think that some limits might not be a bad thing–a very un-Sturm und Drang idea; Brahm 191.)

In the third act of the five-act drama, Götz is being besieged in his castle by the imperial forces; a messenger demands his surrender, and the hero calls down from his window:

GÖTZ: Mich ergeben! Auf Gnad und Ungnad! Mit wem redet ihr! Bin ich ein Räuber! Sag deinem Hauptmann: Vor Ihro Kaiserliche Majestät hab ich, wie immer, schuldigen Respekt. Er aber, sag’s ihm, er kann mich im Arsche lecken! Schmeißt das Fenster zu.

That is, in English (in my translation):

GÖTZ: Surrender! Throw myself on his mercy! Who are you talking to! Am I a robber! Tell your captain: For His Imperial Majesty, as ever, I have all due respect. As for him, however, tell him he can lick me in the ass! Slams the window shut.

Incidentally, if the definition of “robber” is “somebody who robs people,” then the historical Götz was, in fact, a robber, ’cause robbin’ was part of feudin’. Also, this passage has generally been censored in many editions of the play, so Götz ends up saying, “Er aber, sag’s ihm, er kann mich – –.” What an actor does with that is a topic for somebody else’s blog. In some versions, it’s completely rewritten to “He can go to the devil.”

However, it’s the uncensored version that is most closely associated with Götz–and you know a quotation is famous when everybody knows it, but everybody gets it wrong: for most German speakers, das Götz-Zitat, “the Götz quotation,” is the more straightforward imperative phrase “Leck mich im Arsch” (“Lick me in the ass”), rather than either Goethe’s or Götz’s words. In German, then, to “quote Götz” is to tell someone in obscene terms that you are not further interested in their opinions or their company.

Which brings us back to our original question: Why name a satirical newspaper after this guy?

Well, one reason is obvious: “Kiss my ass” is a pretty strong mission statement for satire, and being able to allude to that sentiment without saying it outright gives you the perfect combination of provocation and the kind of respectability that German speakers call Salonfähigkeit.

Even more importantly in the historical context, that is, in Austria after World War I: on the one hand, although not an Austrian in the geographical sense, Götz is clearly linked to the recently-ended Hapsburg imperial monarchy, but in a suitably ambivalent fashion (a model subject he wasn’t); on the other, the connection to Goethe, also no Austrian but the greatest literary figure in the German language, ties the paper to the greater German cultural sphere. And in 1919, the tiny new Austrian republic was calling itself “German-Austria” (Deutsch-Österreich), and hoping to compensate for being shorn of its Hungarian-, Slavic- and Romanian-speaking territories by being allowed by the victorious powers of the Entente to join the equally newborn German republic. In its first year of publication, the left-liberal leaning Der Götz von Berlichingen clearly supported this merger, or Anschluss, which throughout the 1920s was actually much more popular on the left wing (in part because Germany was then governed by the largest and most powerful Social Democratic party in Europe) than on the right (in part because Germany was dominated by Protestants rather than Catholics, and also because of those pesky Social Democrats; Germany’s fall into authoritarianism at the decade’s end, and the rise to power of Hitler, somewhat, but not entirely, reversed these polarities).

So, on 10 April 1919, the first number of Der Götz von Berlichingen appeared at the news kiosks with the eponymous figure on its front page, and a clear message to the reader:

Der Götz von Berlichingen, 10 Apr. 1919, front page,

Der Götz von Berlichingen, 10 Apr. 1919, front page, freely translated: “To everybody! You can kiss my shiny metal ass!” Illustration: Carl Josef, i.e., Carl Josef Pollak (1877-1937). ANNO/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

In fact, Götz’s utterance here is neither the historical nor the literary version, but rather a somewhat milder variant (though still censored): “Ich meine natürlich: [Ihr könnt mich] gern haben!” (Roughly: “My opinion, of course, is: You can all have a go at me!”) This version is still considered rude, although it avoids using actual obscenities.

Der Götz von Berlichingen lives up to this provocative battle cry: although it isn’t yet much for comics (with a couple of exceptions), it is full of exquisite and savagely critical cartoons in three colours, as well as poems and prose articles, taking aim at both left and right on the political spectrum. The main artists were the above-mentioned Carl Josef (Pollak; 1877-1937), Josef Danilowatz (1877-1945), Paul Humpoletz (1889-after 1938?),Theo Matejko (1893-1946), Emil Weiss (1896-1965), and Franz Kraft (who occasionally signed his work “Faz Kat,” and who worked into the late 1950s, but whose dates are otherwise unknown). Though the format of the paper is still much like the typical humour magazine of the nineteenth century, the strong influence of modern art, particularly the Vienna Secession–a variant of Jugendstil or Art Deco–gives many of the illustrations a startlingly contemporary feel. In particular, Danilowatz’s work, though his influences are more likely to have been along the lines of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, is often reminiscent of a mature Bill Sienkiewicz, or Howard Chaykin at his most experimental, .

But back to the “Götz quotation.” The newspaper never used the figure of Götz himself much–he wasn’t its Alfred E. Neuman–but it did play with the quotation. The second number featured a lengthy essay, “L. M. I. A.” (i.e., the initial letters of the popular Götz-Zitat), by the nineteenth-century Austrian author Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-1879), whose participation in the abortive revolutions of 1848 associated him with the liberal-Romantic ideals of nationalism, and thereby with the Anschluss of all German-speaking peoples in one political entity–and in fact, the essay is about the inevitability of German unity, concluding with the following passage:

Ferdinand Kürnberger, "L. M. I. A."

Ferdinand Kürnberger, “L. M. I. A.” Der Götz von Berlichingen 17 Apr. 1919, p. 8. ANNO/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

That is: “The idea of ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’ (Luke 14:23) is old in politics, but it would have been new and original in this compelling dialectic. Do you want to be German? — L. M. I. A. — Yes, you’re German!” (Kürnberger 8). This sentiment from 1876 aligns well with the contemporary strategy that the German-Austrian provisional government wished to employ in 1919 in pursuing Anschluss with Germany: unite now, as the peace treaties were being negotiated, and present the victorious powers with a fait accompli. Kiss our collective German ass, Triple Entente! The German government, however, was more cautious, believing that even attempting Anschluss would derail the negotiations and alienate France in particular, which had always been wary of German expansion. The Germans turned out to be pretty much correct, and neither the Austrians nor the Germans were in any position to antagonize the Entente nations–a situation which would also become clear, and fodder for biting satire, to the editors of Der Götz von Berlichingen in the coming months.

But aside from such political uses, the paper also deployed the Götz-Zitat in more playful ways. For example, in the following cartoon by Theo Matejko:

Theo Matejko, "Allow me, Mademoiselle!" Der Götz von Berlichingen 24 Apr. 1919, p. 10.

Theo Matejko, “Allow me, Mademoiselle!” Der Götz von Berlichingen 24 Apr. 1919, p. 10. ANNO/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

This is the third weekly issue of the paper, so effectively Der Götz is two weeks old. The attractive young lady is walking her little dog on a blustery day, while carrying the premiere issue of this very paper, with our friend Götz on the front page. Dealing with the dog, the wind and the newspaper has forced her into a somewhat compromising position, and a distinguished if rather dissipated-looking gent offers assistance in the title: “Allow me, Mademoiselle!” Her reply in the caption is completely censored, other than an exclamation mark–anything else would be unladylike–but it’s signalled by her brandishing the paper. At six words long, it must be closer to Goethe’s wording than Götz’s. At the same time, however, she’s smiling, so the sentiment takes on a different shade: she’s doing just fine, thanks. (The picture is a lot saucier, however, if we read its title as a reply to the caption, rather than vice versa. Matejko specialized in saucy, and most of his young women aren’t as dressed as this one is.)

This first incarnation of Der Götz von Berlichingen lasted only six months–about as long as any optimism about the Anschluss. The final number, on 27 Sept. 1919, offered a genuine tour de force, as all of the issue’s artists collaborated on a series of cartoons, throughout the paper from the front page on, constructing a fanciful narrative about the current coal shortage. (We’ll have to look at that some time.) But as with the original Götz von Berlichingen, you can’t keep a good man–or whatever kind he was–down. Der Götz von Berlichingen returned, with a new publisher and editor, and in a cheaper black-and-white garb, though with at least some of the same artists, on 12 Oct. 1923. Once again Carl Josef was on hand to portray the iron-handed knight:

"I'm back again already!"

Carl Josef, “I’m back again already!” Der Götz von Berlichingen 12 Oct. 1923, p. 1. ANNO/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

Despite the passage of over four years, the front page announces: “I’m back again already!” Moreover, the masthead announces that this is the second year of publication, and under Götz’s picture the caption “Ihr kennt mich alle” (“You all know me”) is a punning callback to the first cover of 1919, where the words “Ihr könnt mich” in “Ihr könnt mich gern haben” (“You can all have a go at me”) were the ones that were censored. Beside the picture, a brief editorial once again declares the paper’s mission statement: “Hie Götzens Faust und Götzens Hinterteil allewege!”–“Here you shall always find Götz’s fist and Götz’s hindquarters!”

The final page of this comeback issue demonstrates very well the effect that Der Götz von Berlichingen wanted to have: an illustration by Ladislaus Tuszyński (1876-1943) entitled “A Misunderstanding?” shows a paper boy running through the streets yelling the paper’s name: “Götz!”

Ladislaus Tuszyński, "A Misunderstanding?"

Ladislaus Tuszyński, “A Misunderstanding?” Der Götz von Berlichingen 12 Oct. 1924, p. 8. ANNO/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

In his wake, he leaves shock and consternation: a priest and a flaneur stop in their tracks, a capitalist is outraged, a well-bred lady faints at the mere thought of the Götz-Zitat. Misunderstanding? From the look on the boy’s face, he knows very well what he’s doing. (By law, incidentally, such paperboys were restricted only to yelling out the title of their newspapers; none of this “Extry! Extry! Read all about it!” for the Austrians. This makes the joke even better.)

Der Götz von Berlichingen continued in this vein for another twelve years. For example, in the very first Riebiesel comic strip, the monstrous dog that Frau Riebeisel buys not only pees on the furniture, but also utters (growls?) the word “Götz” as it does so. The word recurs every so often in the strip over the years, muttered by some bystander who’s being inconvenienced by the Riebeisels’–or more likely, Herr Riebeisel’s–antics. Götz’s attitude–his fist and his hindquarters–permeated the paper, pillorying conservatives, socialists, bourgeoisie, anti-Semites and, with increasing frequency, Nazis.

The Austrian Civil War of February 1934 rang down the curtain on parliamentary democracy, and the authoritarian right-wing Federal State (Ständestaat) closed down or assimilated the critical press: Der Götz was gone before the end of June that year. Though it was meant to safeguard Austrian independence in the face of a resurgent Nazi Germany, the Ständestaat would prove to be only the four-year prelude to an Anschluss that the Austrians of 1919 had hardly anticipated. Götz’s iron fist proved no match for Hitler’s: among the victims, once Austria had been annexed by the Nazi Reich, would be the publisher and editor of Der Götz von Berlichingen, who suffered in reality the martyrdom that Goethe had concocted for his fictive Götz on the stage–and which the real Götz von Berlichingen had avoided, to die of old age in his bed.

There appears to be no major scholarship on Der Götz von Berlichingen, but the paper’s entire run has now become available in digitalized form at the website of the Austrian National Library/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.


Berlichingen, Götz von, Lebensbeschreibung des Herrn Gözens [sic] von Berlichingen.
Halle: Niemeyer, 1886. [Reprinted from the original 1731 Nuremberg edition.] http://digital.ub.uni-duesseldorf.de/urn/urn:nbn:de:hbz:061:1-5585.

Brahm, Otto. “Die Bühnenbearbeitung des Götz von Berlichingen.” Goethe-Jahrbuch 2 (1881): 190-216.

Myers, Duane P. “Berlin versus Vienna: Disagreement about Anschluss in the Winter of 1918-1919.” Central European History 5.2 (1972): 150-175.

Stadler, Karl R. The Birth of the Austrian Republic, 1918-1921. Leyden: A. W. Sijthoff, 1966.

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