In Heinrich von Kleist's play The Prince of Homburg, a production of which opens tonight at the Donmar Warehouse in a new version by Dennis Kelly, Wilhelm I, the Elector of Brandenburg, takes exception to the behaviour of one of his commanders in a battle. Notwithstanding his victory at the Battle of Fehrbellin (there was such a battle in 1675), he has the Prince of Homburg arrested for disobeying an order and is court-martialed. The Prince, a day dreamer, fails initially to grasp the seriousness of the situation until he hears that the Elector has signed his death warrant. He then begs for his life and is prepared to give up all that is dear to him. When the Elector hears of the Prince's reaction, he too is confused, possibly astonished and an extraordinary series of events start to unfold.
While the anger of the Elector in the play is justified and punishment inevitable, there is historical precedent for such anger. At the battle of Wagram in Austria in July 1809 the Emperor Napoleon dismissed Bernadotte, Marshal of France on the spot for disobeying an order, an event that was to have a profound impact on France and the German-speaking nations. Despite the fact that Napoleon was the uncontested winner, as in the play, he failed to secure a complete victory and the Austrian casualties were only slightly greater than those of the French and Allies, a result partly due the disobedience of Bernadotte. The irony of this was that Bernadotte, an able general, was to go on (by now Crown Prince Carl Johan of Sweden) to be one of the allied commanders who was to deliver upon Napoleon one of his most decisive defeats at the Battle of Leipzig also known as the "Battle of the Nations".
The Prince of Homburg, like Bernadotte, was an able commander and a figure of inspiration to his men. Perhaps it is for this very reason that the Elector feels he needs to act. Was he doing so out of an unswerving obedience to justice, or was he just cutting the day-dreaming prince down to size, establishing for one and all who was the boss? The events dramatised in the play are based on real events at the Battle of Fehrbellin, but romanticised. On that day, the Brandenburg cavalry did indeed rout a regiment of Swedish infantry, but on that occasion Frederich, the real Prince of Homburg attracted nothing but praise.
I myself have experience of such events. I recall that during the liberation of Iraq in 2003, I had a subordinate commander who was prone to either ignore or misinterpret orders to such an extent that I had identified a replacement should he ever again fail to do exactly as he was told. I know he was certain that he was hard done by and in his mind his actions, like those of our Prince of Homburg were logical; but what he had failed to understand was that the greater good, the execution of the battalion plan, was served only by his obedience to orders.
Where orders are ignored or disobeyed then there must be retribution. Gone in the modern world, thank goodness, is the fate of Admiral John Byng, executed at sea for failing to do "his utmost" to prevent the Minorca falling to the French in 1757. In modern armies the fate is likely to be less severe; relegation to a desk job is the norm.
Bernadotte was more fortunate. He prospered after his dismissal. And I am left wondering, given the impact of that event and its consequences for the German-speaking peoples, was it the fate of Bernadotte that inspired Heinrich von Kleist to write the play in 1809 – the very year of Bernadotte's dismissal at Wagram?
'The Prince of Homburg', Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0844 871 7624; Donmarwarehouse.com ) tonight to 4 SeptReuse content