Born at Magdeburg in Germany, he was educated at the monasterial (Kloster) school and at the Altstädter gymnasium of his native place. He spent some time as playwright with a company of strolling actors, but afterwards studied philosophy, theology and history at the University of Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, where in 1792 he established himself as a Privatdozent.
He created much sensation by an extravagant novel, Abällino, der grosse Bandit (1793; subsequently also dramatized), modelled on Schiller's Die Räuber, and the melodramatic tragedy Julius von Sassen (1796).
The Prussian government having declined to make him a full professor, Zschokke in 1796 settled in Switzerland, where he conducted an educational institution in the castle of Reichenau. The authorities of Graubünden admitted him to the rights of a citizen, and in 1798 he published his Geschichte des Freistaates der drei Bünde im hohen Ratien (Rhaetia). The political disturbances of this year compelled him to close his institution. He was, however, sent as a deputy to Aarau, where he was made president of the educational department, and afterwards as government commissioner to Unterwalden, his authority being ultimately extended over the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Zug. Zschokke distinguished himself by the vigour of his administration and by the enthusiasm with which he devoted himself to the interests of the poorer classes of the community. In 1800 he reorganized the institutions of the Italian cantons and was appointed lieutenant-governor of the canton of Basel.
Zschokke retired from public life when the central government at Berne proposed to re-establish the federal system, but after the changes effected by Bonaparte he entered the service of the canton of Aargau, with which he remained connected. In 1801 he attracted attention by his Geschichte vom Kampfe und Untergange der schweizerischen Berg- und Wald-Kantone. Through his Schweizerliote, the publication of which began in 1804, he exercised a wholesome influence on public affairs; and the like may be said of his Misceilen für die neueste Weltkunde, issued from 1807 to 1813. In 1811 he also started a monthly periodical, the Erheiterungen. He wrote various historical works, the most important of which is Des Schweizerlandes Geschichte für das Schweizervolk (1822, 8th ed. 1849).
Zschokke's tales, on which his literary reputation rests, are collected in several series, Bilder aus der Schweiz (5 vols., 1824–25), Ausgewählte Novellen und Dichtungen (16 vols., 1838–39). The best known are: Addrich im Moos (1794); Der Freihof von Aarau (1794); Alamontade (1802); Der Creole (1830); Das Goldmacherdorf (1817); and Meister Jordan (1845).
In Stunden der Andacht (1809–1816; 27 editions in Zschokke's lifetime), which was widely read, he expounded in a rationalistic spirit the fundamental principles of religion and morality. Eine Selbstschau (1842) is a kind of autobiography.
Zschokke was not a great original writer, but he secured an eminent place in the literature of his time by his enthusiasm for modern ideas in politics and religion, by the sound, practical judgment displayed in his works, and by the energy and lucidity of his style.
He died at his country house of Blumenhalde on the Aar on the 27th of June 1848.
This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Please update as needed.