Rudolf Raspe and the "Real" Baron Munchausen

Hieronymous Carl Friedrich, Baron von Münchausen, of Boden-werder (pictured right), was a member of the landed gentry, whose undistinguished military career got him only as far as the rank of Captain. He did take part in campaigns against the Turks, and was present at the siege of Oczakov. But from his middle age on, his most challenging pursuits were farming, hunting, and entertaining.

He was, however, a born storyteller, and regaled his dinner guests with outrageous tales told with an utter conviction which raised his heroic stature.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive record that a young professor and rising member of the Hanoverian court, Rudolf Erich Raspe, was personally entertained by this raconteur during his travels. But the Baron was a relative of Baron Gerlach Adolf von Munchausen, who founded the University at Gottingen (which Raspe attended). Raspe was, at the very least, familiar with the figure — and possibly the exaggerations — of the notorious liar.

Raspe (left) was born in Hanover in 1737, the son of an accountant. His youthful fascination with the local mines somehow crossed with the inclination to advance among the academic circles and court institutions of the Hanover electorate, a society fueled by patronage.

Raspe gained a triumphant success in 1763 with a hubris-reeking but well received scientific treatise on geological changes within the Earth's crust, refuting accepted theories and explaining the value of, for example, fossil evidence as climate indicators.

It was followed several years late with a study of volcanic activity in Germany, and — to show his Renaissance capabilities — a critical essay on oil painting. In addition, Raspe is believed to have contributed articles and nonsensical tales to a humor periodical called "Vade Mecum für lustige Leute."

Frederick II, King of Prussia and future embezzlement victim
His burgeoning renown and friendly connections helped Raspe obtain a position as Curator of the collections belonging to Frederick II, the Landgrave of Hess-Cassell, as well as a university position overseeing antiquities. For a young gentleman seeking an influential position, such an offer could not be bettered.

The need to keep himself in a fashion suitable for a respected member of the court, and to repay debts accrued during his days as a library clerk and chaser of impressionable young actresses, led Raspe to begin pirating away selected pieces of the Landgrave's collection, which he pawned. The easy, private access proved insatiable; he had soon embezzled the equivalent of 2 years' salary.

His court appointment to a diplomatic post in Venice (rumored to have been orchestrated by a rival for his wife's affections) required his departure from the collection, leaving him vulnerable to discovery — and the ire of his creditors.

Upon detection, a confession and promise of restitution did not reap a reprieve, and so Raspe fled to Holland, and then England.

Frederick II, while attempting to reclaim his property, also sought to claim what was left of Raspe's credibility. Though extradition from Britain was unworkable, a fortuitive campaign against Raspe's character made his acceptance among the elite society he courted problematic at best.

He was expelled from London's Royal Society, despite support from the anti-Hanoverian wing. Raspe eventually found anonymity (and poverty) amongst the coal mining towns of Cornwall, where he maintained himself by offering scientific and geological advice.

In his desperation, and as a measure of the contempt which he felt for the Landgrave and his class, Raspe penned a collection of satirical tales, starring an impeccable but dubious military officer and his blatantly fraudulent stories.

The original stories, written in English (in which Raspe was fluent), captured a cadence of earnest pomposity that was later duplicated in another figure of English culture, Colonel Blimp.

Despite Raspe's attempts at anonymity — both in publishing the work discreetly, unlike the scientific papers for which he earned his fame, and in his flight from justice — his literary voice is very clear in the stories of Munchausen, according to Raspe's biographer, John Carswell.

In "The Romantic Rogue" [Alcuin Press, U.K.; 1950], Carswell wrote,

"It may even be that [Raspe] recognized that he had given away something of himself, the seedy failure, by creating Munchausen, the fabulous success. ... "

"'Munchausen' is a joke, but like most jokes which last, there is bitterness and pain in its composition. The fantastic Baron is the creature of Raspe's own frustrated egotism, a spirit released from the clutch of circumstance from which his author never escaped."

"Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia" met with greater and greater success as it appeared in pirated editions and translation around the world. In some cases, these translations of the Baron's lies were further embellished by eager editors. At most, Raspe received a few guineas for his original edition.

Having used up his patronage of colleagues and men of position in the scientific community, Raspe's wanderings took him throughout the British Isles until, at the age of 57, he fell victim to a spotted fever epidemic in Ireland. In a final irony, Raspe attained further anonymity in death — he is reported to have been buried in an unmarked grave, in Killegy.

As for the true Baron von Münchhausen, the appearance of two German editions translated by Gottfried Bürger, in 1786 and 1788, brought an end to his peaceful life in Boden-werder. He became a public curiosity, as trespassers overran his estate to catch a glimpse of the famed "hero," and perhaps overhear a tale or two.

The anonymous authorship of the German editions (labeled as originating in London, for safety's sake) left him powerless in the courts to defend his name. He spent his final years an embittered recluse, who nonetheless forced his young bride to wait longer than she had expected to claim her inheritance once he died, in 1797 — outliving Raspe himself.

The ultimate insult to the true Baron, perhaps, is that Boden-werder now sells itself as a tourist attraction, riding on a cannonball of notoriety from the Baron's alleged exploits. Visitors to the Boden-werder health resort/theme park may swim, hang glide, bowl or ride a steamer along the Weser River, or witness the annual "Festival of Lights" fireworks display!

Further Adventures of the Baron

The Baron's adventures, which at one time were as widely circulated as the Bible, inspired similar folkloric characters, such as the French Baron (or Captain) Crac, as well as several fantasy films which took advantage of the cinematic facility to deceive with as much assurance as the baron himself.

There was even a radio series in the United States in the 1930s, in which the Baron, after having the authenticity of his tales questioned, would ask in a thick accent, "Vas you der, Charlie?"

Carswell wrote, "Continuators had only to meet the Baron to succumb to the temptation of trying him in a new costume." Such was the case of the directors of several silent and early sound films which related, honestly or not, the Baron's exploits:

  • CAPTURING THE NORTH POLE (UK/Urban/Eclipse, 1909)

  • LE BARON DE CRAC (France, 1909) dir. Emile Cohl

  • BARON MÜNCHAUSEN'S DREAM (France/Pathe, 1911) dir. Georges Melies


  • MÜNCHAUSEN (short) (Germany, 1920) dir. Richard Felgenauer

  • MÜNCHHAUSES ABENTEUR AUF DER REISE NACH RUSSLAND (Germany/Minerva, 1923) dir. E. Kneib-Munchaen


  • THE ADVENTUTRES OF BARON MUNCHUSEN (short) (USSR, 1929) dirs. I. Ivanov-Vano and D. Cherkez

  • MEET THE BARON (USA/MGM, 1933), starring radio's Baron, Jack Pearl; dir. Walter Lang

  • BARON PRÁSIL (Czech, 1940) dir. Martin Fric

  • MÜNCHHAUSEN (Germany/UFA, 1943) dir. Josef von Baky

  • THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MÜNCHAUSEN (short) (Canada/National Film Board, 1947) dir. George Duning

  • BARON MÜNCHAUSEN (Short) (Canada, 1948) dir. Colin Low

  • MÜNCHHAUSEN IN AFRIKA (West Germany, 1958) dir. Werner Jacobs

  • BARON PRÁSIL (Czech, 1962) dir. Karel Zeman

In addition, there was a Soviet TV series based on the Baron's exploits, and a French cartoon with music by Michel Legrand.

In the late '30s, George Melies planned a new version of BARON MUNCHAUSEN in collaboration with Hans Richter, an Austrian-based producer. Melies' sudden death in 1938 halted the project, through Richter persisted in trying to produce the satire, using the Baron's tales as masks for making pointed political comments. [He had earlier tried to produce a film based on Voltaire's "Candide."]

In 1939, Jean Renoir arranged for his production company to take on the project, now titled THE LIES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. The screenwriters were Jacques Prevert, Jacques Brunius and Maurice Henry. As budgets were signed and sets prepared in Muenchenstein, the project succumbed to the war.

For Related Articles on THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN by David Morgan:

  • "MUNCHAUSEN At The Starting Gate" — September 1987 interview with Gilliam, before the madness set in

  • "The Mad Adventures Of Terry Gilliam" — On Location at Cinecitta (Sight & Sound Magazine, Autumn 1988)

  • Script Development — Analysis of Gilliam and McKeown's screenplay

  • "Shout For Your City!" — Even cities under siege need bureaucrats

  • Interview With Eric Idle — The fellow Python talks on the set about surviving a Gilliam shoot

  • Composer Michael Kamen on MUNCHAUSEN (1998)

  • Publicity — How do you sell a film about a character no one in the States had ever heard of?

  • Market Research — Audiences at test screenings gave their verdict: What happened to Sting?

  • Litigation — Losing millions of dollars at the box office is no guard against people suing

  • Essay — Cover notes for the Criterion Collection's 1992 special edition laserdisc

    copyright 1992, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.