Might Is Not Right

Thursday, 20 April 1865 - Gottingen, Hanover

My last blog I spoke of the “Gottingen Seven.” These were seven professors here at Gottingen University who publicly protested King Ernestus Augustus’s rewriting the constitution without the approval of Parliament in 1837. All seven were sacked.

The public outcry must have had an effect, for ten years later His Majesty put the constitution back the way it was, and pardoned the Gottingen Seven. In the end I suppose they won. Two of them actually came back to Gottingen, Wilhelm Eduard Weber, the physicist; and George Heinrich August Ewald, orientalist and theologian.

I was able to corner the latter after one of his lectures. He prefers to go by Heinrich Ewald. In fact he introduced himself as Henry Ewald, when he noticed my English accent.

Heinrich Ewald
Ewald is considered one of the greatest Bible scholars of the nineteenth century. His eight volume History of Israel I think is already a classic. His writings are being translated into numerous languages, and he is famous throughout the world. One would never know that on meeting him. He is very down to earth chap.

Ewald is now sixty-one and shows no signs of slowing down. He told me he had visited England three years ago to copy Oxford’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts. He said he always enjoyed his visits to my country.

I asked if I would be too bold to ask about the Gottingen Seven. His soft eyes flashed. “I am not sorry I stood up to that tyrant. His father, King William, had signed the new constitution into law in 1833. Ernestus had no right to revoke it. My only regret was that I had to leave my beloved Gottingen.”

“You are fond of the University?”

“I was born in this town. My father was a weaver here and I was raised here, educated here, wooed and married my wife here. It was elated to teach at the University here. I hope to die here. It broke my heart that I had to leave.”

I can only imagine how he must have felt. I was born in Cambridge, where my family has always lived. Indeed, my DNA shows I had Bell Beaker Folk ancestors living in the Cambridge area.. For years, Harvard (the “other Cambridge” as I call it) has been wooing me to cross the pond, but I could never leave my Cambridge. To be booted from my alma mater would break my heart, too.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“I went to England and spent a year and a half gleaning your two biggest libraries: the Bodleian in Oxford, and the British Museum in London. A year and a half later, the King of Würtemberg invited me Tubingen University to teach. I was grateful to His Majesty but to be honest I was never happy there. Tubingen and I did not always see eye to eye.”

I’ve heard horror stories of college politics. Cambridge has always tried their best to work with me, so I’ve been lucky. Or maybe I’m never around on campus long enough to become a thorn in anyone’s side.

Ewald shrugged. “I will say one thing. I was so unhappy, I buried myself in my studies. I wrote a lot to escape. I can’t tell you how overjoyed I was when Gottingen asked me back in ‘48. I didn’t bear them any ill will. It was the King who fired me, not them, after all. I came back and have been teaching here ever since.”

“So you get along with the staff here?”

“Well, there was that incident in ’56.”


“Minister von Borries’s policy was unconstitutional, so I protested publicly.”

“Ah,” I nodded. “Another Gottingen Seven?”

“More like Gottingen One. I was the only one that protested. I nearly got fired again. I suppose they didn’t want another incident, so they decided to ignore me.” Ewald looked rather disappointed.

“I’m glad to see you don’t ignore political injustice.”

Ewald smiled. “More than one Biblical prophet got in trouble doing just that. It’s hard to study them and not follow their example.”

King Wilhelm of Prussia
soon to be
Kaiser Wilhelm I, Emperor of Germany
 I thanked Professor Ewald and wished him luck. The feisty gent has one last confrontation in him. Next year when Prussia conquers and annexes Hanover, King Wilhelm of Prussia will demand all government officials, including college professors, swear allegiance to him. Only one man will refuse, declaring “Might is not right.” A stronger country did not have the moral right to rule a weaker one by using force. Ewald had sworn allegiance to King George V of Hanover and will not forsake his king for another.

Ewald will be threatened with expulsion, but won’t back down. The Prussian Government will be stuck with a dilemma--how to punish the rebel without looking like the bad guys. They will deprive Ewald of the right to teach in any Prussian school. However, in acknowledgement of his years of service as a teacher and writer, they will give him a pension equal to his current salary--a very generous “punishment.”

Ewald will be allowed to live the rest of his life in his beloved Gottingen. Rather than retiring, he will use his time produce new books as well as revise old ones. He’ll die of a heart attack at 71, working up until the end. I can’t tell him his fate, but I think he would probably be pleased to know he will die in Gottingen doing what he loves.

History of Israel
Third Millennium Library website with links to all eight volumes.

More works by Heinrich Ewald at Internet Archive.

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