Munich is, as German cities go, more or less the polar opposite of Berlin. Where Berlin is poor, questioning and endlessly becoming, Munich is rich, complacent and firmly established. But as Thomas Mann once commented of the Bavarian city, “on that healthy, earthy crust the most singular, the most delicate, the boldest exotic plants could sometimes thrive under truly favourable conditions.”
Munich’s Schwabing neighbourhood – like Montparnasse, Greenwich Village or Fitzrovia – once provided particularly fertile ground for strange flowers, flourishing artistic movements and social experimentation. Of the German-speaking literary world, every Mann and his dog lived there at some stage, including Frank Wedekind, Gustav Meyrink and Rainer Maria Rilke, not to mention artists like Kandinsky, Franz Marc and August Macke and others who made up the Blaue Reiter school of Expressionists. It was also the cradle of Jugendstil, Germany’s interpretation of Art Nouveau. In short, much that was progressive in arts and letters in imperial Germany happened in or passed through Schwabing.
One of the key characters associated with bohemian Munich was writer Countess Fanny (Franziska) zu Reventlow, who was born on this day in 1871 and would live as long as the empire. Growing up in northern Germany, it was evident early on that she was of rebellious cast. “How stifling it is to be a ‘young girl from a good family’!” she exclaimed at one point and once of age she decided to go it alone, cutting ties with her aristocratic background. Reventlow made her way to Munich and made ends meet any way she could; journalism, translating, even prostitution.
“I can only love, but I can never belong to another,” proclaimed the countess. True, she married twice, but divorced her first husband after a year, while the second was a baron with whom she entered an arrangement of convenience. In between those two marriages she gave birth to her son Rolf (though she never named the father) and chose to educate him at home. She had a number of affairs with writers and other figures in her circle. “I love one and desire six others, one after the other,” she pronounced. “It’s only change and ‘the gentleman stranger’ that stimulate me.”
Reventlow wrote extensively on the Schwabing scene, calling it a “spiritual movement, a niveau, a direction, a protest, a new cult or much more, the attempt to gain new religious potential out of the ancient cults once again.” Nowhere was this cultish bent more evident than in the self-mythologizing, self-consciously mystical “Cosmic Circle” with which Reventlow was associated. As the only woman in the group she was the target of creepy earth-mother/Jezebel fantasies from other members, including Alfred Schuler, Ludwig Klages and ephebophilic crypto-fascist poet Stefan George. She later parodied her experience in a roman à clef.
Mina Loy, who in the early 20th century would herself be seen as representative of a new type of woman, admired the countess as a teenager studying art in Munich. But many others outside the close-knit Schwabing bohemian set were scandalised by this working woman and single mother who believed in home schooling and sold love or gave it away free, depending on her fancy. And a countess at that! But at the same time Reventlow had no patience with the earnest orthodoxies of the Suffragettes, or with a feminism which refused to acknowledge passion. Politics in general played a subordinate role in her ceaseless quest to live a life free of constraint.
Material constraints, however, she knew all too well and in the end it wasn’t social disapproval or starry-eyed fanboys but poverty that eventually drove Reventlow from Munich. She wound up in the Swiss town of Ascona, near the utopian health farm/naturist colony/writers’ retreat of Monte Verità where the likes of Hermann Hesse and C.G. Jung dreamed of a better world over nut roast and nudey quoits. Reventlow may have viewed their zeal from a wry distance, but the bohemian encampment was at least preferable to the Second Reich’s narrow moral code and suffocating air of bourgeois self-satisfaction.
Fanny zu Reventlow didn’t live long enough to see society catch up with her; she died in a bicycle accident in 1918 before the end of the First World War.