Edward Aveling (1892)

The Cholera and the Hamburg Socialists

Source: Pall Mall Gazette, 16 September 1892, p.2
Transcription: by Graham Seaman for MIA, March 2021.

As bearing on another aspect of the same question, Mr. Edward Aveling sends us the following, which throws considerable light upon the measures taken within the town of Hamburg:-

The name of the letters and telegrams from Hamburg about the cholera is Legion. The details given are innumerable. And yet the details given in the ordinary newspapers are incomplete. As far as I have seen, none of the bourgeois papers has said anything about the interesting part played by the Social Democratic organizations in Hamburg during the last few weeks of horror. The part they have played has been, if I may use the phrase, both passive and active. For the passive side, it is clear that a pestilence that necessarily attacks especially the poorer working classes must make great ravages in the ranks of the Socialists. Hamburg is one of our greatest strongholds, and August Bebel is member for one of its divisions. The mortality among the Socialist party there has been terrible. Every day in the Socialist paper, the Hamburger Echo, has been published a long list of the comrades actually known to have succumbed to the cholera. And, under the disorganized condition of things at Hamburg, these lists are, of course, far from complete. A recent number of the Echo lies before me. It contains a long column in small type of “Elend-statistik”–a ghastly epitome of certain streets in the working-class quarters. It is monotonous enough. For house after house the report is, e.g.:–I take two cases literally at random–“Three rooms; ten people living in them. One man dead of cholera; his wife and two children without means of subsistence. Three families in this flat.” Or, “Four rooms; nine people living in them. Two children dead of the cholera; a man, his wife, and child down with cholera; the sick people and those not yet attacked lying on top of one another; all of them without any means of subsistence.” Bearing all this in mind, and remembering further that, according to the Socialists, and indeed according to every one except the authorities, the cholera might have been held in check and stamped out on its first appearance with a little energy and expenditure of money; bearing in mind again that work could at once be found for the thousands now thrown out of it, if the authorities would but instantly start upon the making of the necessary sanitary arrangements–it is small wonder that the Hamburger Echo breaks out:– “Misery increases; want grows apace. Unless still more innumerable lives of human beings are to be sacrificed, our demand (for public works) must be granted.”

Let me turn now to the active part played by the Socialists of Hamburg during the epidemic. Some hints of the condition of things mentioned above have perhaps filtered through the Press agencies and the correspondents’ letters. But, as far as I know again, absolutely nothing has been made public of the work done in Hamburg by the party. Only English readers of the German Socialist press can be aware of the important historical fact that, in their distress, the powers that be have had to turn to the Socialistic organization for help. At a meeting called by the Chamber of Commerce in the Hamburg Exchange for the purpose of forming a help committee for alleviating the distress due to the cholera epidemic, a certain Dr. Gieschen spoke as follows:– He thanked the Chamber of Commerce for taking the matter in hand; warned the meeting against too much splitting up of their forces, pecuniary and otherwise; spoke in favour of a centralized body in communication with local ones, so that the distribution of the various means for relieving and for prevention might be properly carried out. The work to be done should not be limited to any special class. They had to get right among the people, and therefore he held that it was necessary to put themselves into communication with the leaders of the Social Democratic party. The co-operation of the Socialists would be of extraordinary value. The Social Democratic organs had written about the cholera in a very reasonable, clear-headed fashion, and the suggestions which had been made in their articles were worthy of careful consideration. Later on, Herr Sigmund Hinrichsen took up the same parable. He approved highly of the recommendation of Dr. Gieschen that they should go to the prominent leaders of the Social Democratic party. He spoke at length on the question, pointing out that these people were well known among all the poorer class, and that they also knew the methods, the ways and means to get at the places where disease and want were worst. Not only the doctors and the merchants, but the Church said the same thing. A clergyman wrote in the Hamburg Fremdenblatt:– “A large sum of money has been raised for alleviating the present want. The difficulty is its distribution. The best people for that distribution are (1) doctors, (2) poor-law officials, (3) men of business who know the wants of the poorer people, (4) the workers who live in the parts of the city concerned.” Then, after a reference to the doctors, the good priest goes on:– “A commission should be formed for each street and each large court, consisting of the local poor-law officers, two workers, and a business man. The working-class constituents of the commission can be easily managed, as the workers necessarily will at once and readily be provided by the Social Democratic leaders.”

Not only the Chamber of Commerce, the meeting it summoned–which it should be understood consisted of the presidents of the various “Bürger Vereine” of the city–not only the doctors and the parsons, turned to the Social Democrats. The authorities, and even the police authorities, did the same. It was necessary to get out as speedily as possible 250,000 leaflets giving exact instructions as to disinfection. It was necessary not only to print, but to distribute these. For both purposes the authorities turned to the Socialists. The leaflets were printed in a few hours by Auer and Co.–that is, by the Social Democratic Printing Office. Still more prompt and remarkable was the distribution. To the cry of the authorities a thousand Socialists responded on the instant; and so complete is the organization of the party that not only were the thousand ready at the shortest possible notice, but each of them knew exactly what to do, and the distribution also was effected within a few hours. So, also, when a number of volunteers were required to go round explaining the methods of disinfection, 400 Socialists were at once forthcoming. And in this connection it should be noted that there was something more than mere organization supplied by the Socialists. That important something was courage. Whilst the bourgeois folk were, take them altogether, in a state of panic flying from Hamburg in immense numbers, our people stayed at their posts and went down into the pestilence. The humour that always plays around big tragedies is not wanting in this one. Here is one instance of it. A Mecklenburg paper–the escutcheon of Mecklenburg is an ox's head–utters a shrill warning against the invasion of the workers that might be coming from the district of Hamburg. It points out that in consequence of the cholera and the absolute suspension of all business in Hamburg many working people are seeking employment elsewhere. But, it goes on, “the Hamburg workers are almost to a man convinced and educated Social Democrats, and every one of them coming hither will be an agitator in our midst, and will spread the poison of social democratic teaching among our agricultural population. It is well known how easily our agricultural labourers, upon this point so incredibly credulous, are carried away by agitators devoid of conscience, who tell them the most outrageous and nonsensical things.” And so our Mecklenburg wiseacre clamours that the workers of the towns should be kept away from Mecklenburg, less on account of the possibility of cholera than of the certainty of Social Democracy.

These grim jests apart, after the facts that I have given above–facts, let me again say, that have been sedulously suppressed by the bourgeois papers in all countries–there is some foundation for the words of the Arbeiter Zeitung, the organ of the Austrian Socialists: “The only really organized body to-day is the class-conscious working class. No wonder people turn to it in their distress and necessity.”