August Bebel

Reminiscences


Back to Wetzlar and Onward!

On February 27, 1860, I started out for home. There were no railroads in south-eastern Bavaria at that time, and, besides, every journeyman in those days traveled most cheaply on food, when he begged a little. The weather was again miserable. One day during a heavy snow flurry, which lashed my face, I was walking along one of the ridges of Franconia, with my hands in my pockets, my cane under my arm and hat-rim turned down, when I was suddenly seized by my arm and thrown into the ditch. When I looked up, in surprise, I found that it was the horse in a wagon coming in the opposite direction that had wisely seized my arm and thrown me aside. On account of the stormy weather, I had neither heard nor seen the coming wagon.

About the middle of March, after more than two years of absence, I arrived once more in Wetzlar.

At the muster of recruits, I was set back for another year on account of general physical weakness. The same thing happened to me again during the following years at the muster in Halle on Saale, so that I was finally dismissed as unfit for military service. In the meantime, since I could not obtain any work in Wetzlar, I accepted a position with a Jewish master wood-turner in Butzbach, two miles from Wetzlar. But when the weather improved more and more and, one day, three of my school friends stepped into my workshop with their knapsacks on their backs and informed me that they were on their way to Leipsic, I felt drawn into the open with irresistible force, as the journeymen’s song has it, and was seized by a longing to follow them. I promised my friends to follow them within three days, and I hoped to catch up with them, if they did not cover too long distances. I could risk this offer, for I did not yield to anybody in marching ability in those days.

So far I had not had the least longing to become acquainted with Leipsic and Saxony, and if I had been consulted, I should not have seen either just then. But, nevertheless, this trip was decisive for my entire future in more than one way. So accident very often decides the fate of man.

I should like to add here that I think very little of the axiom that man is the captain of his own soul. Man always follows circumstances and conditions, which surround him and force him to act. Therefore, the so-called freedom of action is but a sorry idea. In most cases a man cannot clearly foresee the consequences of his actions. He recognizes only later what has led him to them. One step to the right, instead of to the left, or vice versa, would have carried him into vastly different conditions, which might turn out to be better or worse than those into which he got on the road actually taken by him. He recognizes the wise and the foolish step, as a rule, only by its consequences. But often the right or the wrong nature of his actions does not come into his consciousness, because he lacks the possibility of comparison. The self-made man exists only in a very relative way. Hundreds of others, equipped with far better qualities than he who rose to the top, remain unknown, live and perish, because unfavorable circumstances prevented their rise, forbade the correct application and utilization of their personal qualities. “Fortunate circumstances” give the right place to the individual in the common life. For an infinite number who do not obtain this correct place, the table of life is not set. But if circumstances are favorable, it requires, indeed, the right kind of adaptability for the purpose of making the best of them. This may be regarded as the personal merit of the individual.

I caught up with my three friends before they had reached Thuringia, and I arrived just in time to lend my arm to one of them, who had sore feet. This attitude of ours often caused merriment when we wandered thru the villages. We passed thru Ruhla, Eisenach, Gotha and came to Erfurt. Here we stayed over night for the first time in the lodging house of a YMCA. But only once, and never again. The hypocritically pious and sneaking manners of the lodging house keeper nauseated me. In the evening we had to go to bed, all at the same time, at his orders. [And w]hen we had climbed to the first floor, the door of a small hall was opened, and the melody of a hymn floated out to us, which was played on an organ by a smoothly combed, pale, blond youth. We entered, wondering what was coming. Thereupon the lodging house keeper stepped on a platform, and read a verse from a hymn book, line for line. We had to repeat each line, singing as he read it, with the accompaniment of the organ. Such a thing had never happened to me in a house of a Catholic journeymen’s club. In Munich, for instance, a printed prayer was tacked to the wall of the room, with a request to pray it before going to bed. There was not a sign of any moral compulsion. I repeat, I do not know what the custom is now in those Catholic journeymen’s clubs.

In Erfurt, the above process began to amuse us. We bawled, like lions, the melody and the text played and read for us. Then we climbed higher up into the sleeping room. After our shirt collars had been examined, for inhabitants, according to routine, we got into bed. Then the lodging house keeper went out with the light, and black darkness reigned.

But now the several dozens of young men from nearly all parts of Germany started in to jest and joke in a way such as I had never heard before. The merriment reached its climax, when, in the farthest corner of the room, one of the room mates, a man from Württemberg, dropped a few funny remarks in unadulterated Suabian. The noise did not cease until late. Next day we marched to Weimar. Here my companions declared that they could not continue the march, for all three had sore feet. They wanted to ride to Leipsic on the train. I protested against this, for I was short of money. And suppose there should be no work for us in Leipsic? But my protest did not help me any, and unless I wanted to travel alone, I had to ride with them. On May 7, 1860, at 11 pm, we arrived in Leipsic and asked our way to the lodging house in the Grosse Fleischergasse. When, next day, we took a look at the town, and at the promenade walks clad in full spring foliage, in the finest May weather, I liked Leipsic exceedingly well. I was also lucky, and obtained work in a shop, in which I became familiar with an article that I later used as a stepping stone to independence. If I had arrived in Leipsic twenty-four hours later, the place would have been taken by another. So another “moment of luck” decided my future. For the second time I worked in a large shop. Five colleagues and an apprentice were employed with me. My master and my fellow workers were congenial, so was the work, which was of a nature to teach me something. What I did not like was the bad coffee, which we received in the morning, and the noon meal, which was inferior in quantity and quality. Breakfast, afternoon snacks and supper we had to furnish ourselves. Our beds were in the master’s house. The seven of us slept in a spacious attic. I soon began to object to the food. In a few weeks I had my colleagues to the point where they agreed to a joint complaint, and we told the master, at the same time, that we would all quit work if our complaint should not result in a remedy. So we threatened him with a strike even before we had heard the word. This form of defense followed from the situation itself. The master was taken aback. He declared that he did not understand our complaint, because he liked the food extremely well. That was natural. He ate later with his family, and had different food. He did not know that. After repeated negotiations we enforced the arrangement that he had to pay us a certain amount for board, and we boarded ourselves. He said that this was even more advantageous to him than the old arrangement. He had had to pay more to his wife for our board than we asked from him. Later, by stubbornly staying in bed, we succeeded in putting off the beginning of work from 5 am to 6 am. Still later, we enforced also piece work, which the master did not want to accept, because he feared that we should perform bad work. But he was mistaken, as he found out later. In the end we also obtained permission to live outside of his house.


Next: My Entry into the Labor Movement and Into Public Life