August Bebel

Reminiscences


The Convention of the German Workingmen’s Clubs

The number of workingmen’s clubs had grown considerably, above all in Saxony. While we were working in Leipsic, Julius Motteler, whom I met in 1863 during the celebration of the anniversary of the Industrial Educational Club in Leipsic, was working with Wilhelm Stone in Crimmitschau, coppersmith Foersterling, before his transition to the Lassalleans was at work with shoemaker A. Knoefel in Dresden, weaver Pils in Frankenburg, the weavers Lippold and Franz in Glauchau, bookbinder Werner in Lichtenstein-Callnberg, weaver Bohne in Hohenstein-Ernsttal, etc., all of them organizing workingmen’s clubs. We extended our labors also to Thuringia. In the lower Iron Mountains, among the weavers and knitters, dozens of workingmen’s reading clubs had been organized, and they were very active. Similar phenomena became visible in other parts of Germany. Particularly in Württemberg, a large number of workingmen’s clubs were founded, which combined into a district organization as early as 1865, and soon after that created a public organ of their own. In Baden and in the kingdom of Hannover likewise, many workingmen’s clubs, mainly educational clubs, came to life.

The activity and unity of the Lassalleans, on the other hand, called forth the need of unity on the opposite side. But this could be but a loose unification, because the clubs lacked a common and definite aim for which they could struggle with enthusiasm and self-sacrifice, as the Lassalleans did. The only thing, in which we were united, was our opposition to the Lassalleans and our alleged opposition to politics in the clubs. But as a matter of fact, the leaders of most of these clubs, or their backers in the clubs, tried to win its membership for their party politics. In these clubs, all shades of bourgeois parties of that time were represented, from republican democrats to the members of the National Club on the right, from among whose midst the National Liberal party was founded later on, in 1867. But as early as 1865, the radical and greater German elements separated from the National Club and formed the Democratic People’s party, whose organ became the “Deutsche Wochenblatt,” in Mannheim.

Meanwhile people got along in the clubs as well as possible. The political situation did not press for any clear issue immediately, for the constitutional fight against Bismarck’s ministry in Prussia demanded a united advance against him. The German Reform Club that had formed in opposition to the National Club, and advocated the unity of all Austria with Germany in one empire, was a collection of South-German particularist and Austrian elements with a strong dash of Catholicism. This club had no significance for the labor movement. Its advocacy of Austrian federal reform, which consisted in the main of a German parliament to be elected by the state legislatures of the individual states, did not awaken any sympathies anywhere. The workingmen’s clubs did not arrive at a clear position in the German question, neither did they in the question of Slesvig-Holstein, which became very pressing in 1864.

The labor movement had taken root also in the West of Germany, especially in the Main district. In Frankfort-on-Main, during a convention called on May 29, 1862, by the Frankfort Workingmen’s Educational Society, some acrimonious discussions concerning the political position of workingmen were held. Here the lawyer JB. von Schweitzer, who later played a leading role in the movement, advocated a separate political organization of the working class, evidently under the influence of Lassalle’s lecture: “On the particular connection of the present historical period with the idea of the workers’ estate.” After that time the differences of opinion did not cease any more in the Main district. The publication of Lassalle’s open letter kept the fire stirred. In Frankfort, Bernhard Becker also made himself felt now. A few years later I learned to know him as a mediocre and conceited man, who was also clumsy of speech. The attempt to push a declaration against Lassalle thru a labor convention in Roedelheim, on April 19th, 1863, in which Professor Louis Buechner gave a lecture on Lassalle’s program, failed. On the other hand, Lassalle himself appeared on May 17th, in Frankfort-on-Main, in order to press his case. Schulze-Delitzsch, who had also been invited, excused his absence with business matters. He did well. My later acquaintance with Schulze-Delitzsch made it evident to me that he would have been defeated by Lassalle in every way. Sonnemann, who argued against Lassalle, met this fate.

The reply to those events in the Main district was a proclamation, dated May 19th, by which the German workingmen’s clubs were invited to a joint convention at Frankfort-on-Main, to be held June 7, 1863. This proclamation was signed by the central committee of the workingmen of the Main district, by the workingmen’s clubs of Berlin, Cassel, Chemnitz and Nuremberg, and the Artisans’ Club of Duesseldorf.

In this proclamation, the Leipsic central committee was blamed for having made the calling of a workingmen’s convention impossible for a long time. The movement itself, however, it was claimed, was based upon “so important and pregnant a thought, of such far-reaching significance for the welfare of our entire nation and country, that it must not be disturbed in its healthy course by the mistakes of individual personalities. It is the duty of all who have the cause at heart to prevent, with all their powers that the ending of an attempt which miscarried thru the fault of a few, become the beginning of a disastrous split and disintegration of the entire movement.”

But the split was already there, and it was, as I realized later, a historical necessity. In the convention of Frankfort-on-Main, 54 clubs, from 48 cities, and one free labor assembly (Leipsic) were represented by 110 delegates. If the calling of this convention had not been so precipitate, so that it looked like a surprise, and was charged against its originators as such, the delegation would have been still stronger. The Leipsic Industrial Educational Club elected me as its representative by a vote of 112 in 127. Outside of myself, Professor Rossmaessler and shop manager Bitter had been elected as delegates by a Leipsic labor meeting.

When I appeared in Frankfort at the preliminary meeting, I was introduced to August Roeckel, the chairman of the local committee, who received me with the words: “Well, you Saxon, have you finished your sleep at last? It is time.” A little annoyed, I replied: “We have risen earlier than a good many others!” Roeckel laughed, and said he had not meant to hurt my feelings.

Among the delegates were Hermann Becker, or Red Becker, who had been sentenced to long imprisonment in a fortress in the Communists’ process in Cologne; Eugene Richter, who had been discharged from his position as clerk of the court on account of his political activity; Julius Knorr, of Munich, the proprietor of the “Muenchener Neueste Nachrichten,” which was then but a small paper, but earned a large fortune for its owner.

Whether Red Becker owed his nickname to his red hair, which covered his mighty head but scantily, and to his red mustache, or to his former red sentiments, I do not know. Becker was a large, good-looking, very jovial gentleman, whose face betrayed his liking for a good bite and a good drop. He was communicative and talkative, in distinction from Eugene Richter, whose frigid and reserved nature attracted my notice even then. Richter created the impression as tho he were looking disdainfully at all of us. Accident would have it that, one day during the noon recess, I took a walk around the city park with Becker, Eugene Richter and a few other delegates. Our conversation touched also upon Lassalle. Becker ventured the opinion that Lassalle had issued his proclamation against the progressive party merely for the reason that this party had not lifted him on its shield and given him a seat in the state legislature. Guido Weiss was reported as saying that old Waldeck had called Lassalle’s repulsion a mistake. Becker indicated also that Lassalle had given rise to “moral reservations” on the part of the progressive party thru all sorts of complications with women, but this looked a little like hypocrisy, in view of the “moral missteps” of other leaders of the progressive party of that time. I must say that Becker made his remarks about Lassalle without animosity, nor did he ever permit himself to be carried away into attacks upon his former party associates. Miquel was different in this respect, for later on he even voted in favor of the anti-Socialist laws.

The chairmanship of the convention was entrusted to Roehrig, director of a commercial school in Frankfort-on-Main, as first president and to Dittmann, of Berlin, as second president. The first order of business was a motion by Rossmaessler, as follows:

“The first joint convention of German Workingmen’s Clubs and Workingmen’s Educational Clubs begins its deliberations with the statement that it is the first duty of the clubs represented in it and of all others, and of the entire workers' estate, in their efforts in behalf of the intellectual, political, civic and economic uplift of their estate, to be united among themselves, united with all those who strive for the liberty and greatness of the German fatherland united and co-operating with all who labor in the making of a nobler mankind.”

This resolution was almost unanimously adopted. It expresses more than long speeches the position of the convention. Altho this resolution was aimed directly against Lassalleanism, as were all the proceedings of the convention, the name of Lassalle was mentioned only by one speaker, if I remember correctly. This omission was not the result of previous agreement. It is permitted to assume that it was due to the fact that people did not believe in any future for the movement inaugurated by Lassalle, or, perhaps, because people did not want to honor him by mentioning his name. The second point of order of business was the “Nature and Aims of Workingmen’s Educational Clubs.” Eichelsdoerfer, of Mannheim, was the speaker, who stood at the left wing of the convention. I also took part in the debate. It is worth noticing that an amendment of Dittmann, which demanded that the clubs should also try to secure instructors for the education of their members in political economy and in civil government, was defeated by a vote of 25 to 25. A workingman of to-day can hardly grasp such backwardness.

Another point of the order of business was a demand for a removal of the obstacles that stood in the way of the liberty of labor. Dittmann was the reporter on that subject. His resolution demanded professional freedom, liberty to move about freely, and removal of the difficulties in the way of marriages. Another item on the order of business referred to the position of the laborers in the matter of savings and loan clubs, co-operatives of production and consumption, whose foundation was recommended to the workingmen by the convention It also recommended the foundation of co-operatives for the common use of workshops with motive powers as the best means of promoting the national welfare and the civic independence of the workingmen. In this resolution special reference was made to the fact that these steps should be taken in accord with the suggestions of Schulze-Delitzsch. It was said, furthermore, that workingmen and employers should jointly promote such cooperatives, a conception which could find support only in a convention dominated by the small capitalist point of view. Finally the convention spoke in favor of the creation of old age and invalid insurance banks, which should be in a position to “do away at least partially with some cares.” This was at least no overestimation of such institutions. So far as organization was concerned, the foundation of district assemblies, with monthly reunions of delegates, was recommended, in order to further the organization of new clubs and maintain the connection between the existing clubs. At this point I took the floor a second time, in order to speak against the admission of representatives of free labor assemblies. Backed by my former experiences, I declared that those assemblies had not impressed me very deeply so far. Its members lacked the preparatory enlightenment, which was obtained in the clubs, and so they followed the momentary impressions created by some clever speaker. I was not afraid of the snares of the laws concerning associations for the present, for we had not been molested in Saxony so far, even tho a reaction might set in. I regarded district assemblies as useful. These statements called my Leipsic opponent, Bitter, to the platform, who protested against my estimate of the labor meetings. He claimed that they were much hotter than I depicted them, and that we should keep our backs covered by means of representation thru free labor assemblies, in view of the possibility that the law concerning associations might be enforced against us.The ultimately adopted organization had the following form:

I. — Periodical and free meetings, as a rule, annually, shall take place between representatives of the German Workingmen’s Clubs, in order to enlarge the understanding of their true interests by means of a living and personal exchange of opinions and experiences, and carry a recognition of this understanding into ever larger circles.

II. — Everything shall be discussed that can have an influence on the welfare of the working classes.

III. — Admission to these meetings is free to the representatives of the German Workingmen’s Clubs, who have written credentials from their members. Exceptionally, representatives of free labor assemblies may also be admitted, if the permanent committee that is entrusted with the examination of the mandates decides to do so. If the committee refuses to admit them, they may appeal to the convention. Every club may send from one to five representatives, but each club has only one vote. Every delegate can represent only one club. The clubs that have taken part in a convention will be invited by letter. At the same time the invitation will be published in as many papers as possible, but at all events in the “Deutsche Arbeiterzeitung” of Coburg, and the “Arbeitgeber” of Frankfort. Every club that is represented in the convention has to pay a contribution of two dollars for every convention. The same contribution is to be paid by those clubs who do not send any representative, but desire to have all reports and printed matter sent to them.

IV. — Every convention elects a permanent committee of twelve members, which is charged with the management of the following business: (1) The committee determines the place and date of the next convention, unless the last convention has expressly decided upon this, and makes the necessary preparations in the city of the convention. (2) The committee sends out invitations and notifications, accepts names of participants, issues admission cards, receives contributions, pays bills and keeps account of them. (3) The committee draws up a preliminary order of business, nominates reporters accordingly, and forms the preparatory committees subject to endorsement or alteration thru the decisions of the convention. (4) The committee promotes between conventions the aims and the execution of the decisions of the conventions. (5) The committee nominates its chairman and determines the assignment of business matters among its members; it submits to the convention the bills for examination and endorsement. The sessions of the committee always take place at the place of domicile of the officiating chairman. The validity of a decision requires the invitation of all members, the attendance of at least seven members, and the simple majority of the voting members. A decision may be taken by correspondence. The committee fills eventual vacancies, and if no quorum is present, the Chairman does so.

V. — The order of business for the proceedings of the convention is determined by the convention itself.

VI. — The chairman of the committee directs the proceedings of the conventions, until the delegates have elected their president.

VII. — The sessions of the conventions are public.

Among others, the following were elected members of the committee: Sonnemann, Max Wirth of Frankfort-on-Main, Eicheldoerfer of Mannheim, Dittmann of Berlin, etc. Sonnemann became the soul of this new organization, having charge of the duties of secretary and of the actual management.

The funds placed at the disposal of the committee by the organization were very insignificant, and many clubs did not even pay the small dues of two dollars per year. The anti-Socialist clubs of that time were not willing to make any sacrifices for their common aims, and in this they differed unfavorably from the Lassalleans. Owing to lack of funds, the committee took refuge, in the course of the summer, in the National Club and received 500 dollars from it, which were paid during the next two years. Sonnemann also addressed personally a number of large employers, with a request for funds. But the aversion against everything that called itself a workingmen’s club lurked instinctively even in the bourgeois of that day, and so the contributions from that side were meager.

Here I want to mention an incident that took place in the summer of 1865, that the “Koelnische Zeitung” attempted to exploit against me to my disadvantage forty years later.

In Saxony, the fight against the followers of Lassalle was particularly bitter. The comparatively advanced industrial conditions of Saxony seemed to offer an especially favorable soil for Socialist ideas. But we lacked the means for carrying on an agitation. Whatever we managed to get together for agitation was too little, altho the speakers were miserably paid. So one day, Dr. Eras and author Weithmann, a native of Württemberg, who lived a Catilinarian existence, wrote a gushing letter to the directors of the National Club, asking them for money to carry on an agitation against the Lassalleans. I was acquainted with this letter later on, and signed it at their request, as did Eras and Weithmann themselves. The “Koelnische Zeitung,” when publishing this letter and my grateful acknowledgment for 200 dollars (not $300 as that paper claimed) a few years ago, insinuated that all three signatures were from my hand. I emphatically repudiate this charge. In my letter of acknowledgment I stated that we intended to buy, principally, literature for the clubs, and that the directors of the National Club might exert an influence on the book dealers and induce them to sell their goods cheaply to us. The fact that the National Club allowed us money proved that it had a greater interest it the movement than it was credited with by some people But the money was used principally for purposes of agitation tours. However, it was spent very sparingly, for when the agitation for the elections to the North German Reichstag began at the end of 1866 and the beginning of 1867, we still had $120 of that $200 left, and used them then. That was, indeed, an expenditure for which we had not made any provision. But the situation changed from 1865 to 1866, and the change of ideas on both sides was so rapid that very few remained in their old positions. The National Club suffered most from this transformation. It disintegrated speedily, and was practically dead when its official dissolution was pronounced in the Fall of 1867. Many were angry, because we had received the $200. Especially, Dr. Hans Blum could not get over that. He considered himself in duty, bound to oppose me in the election campaign, and to upbraid me for having accepted that money. But he had to face the discovery that all his pains to injure me were useless.

In this connection I want to state that I have never been a member of the National Club, as some have claimed. This does not mean that I was opposed to it at that time, but it seemed superfluous to me to pay dues to the National Club in addition to all the great material sacrifices which my position and activity in the labor movement demanded of me, for my income was very small. I was content to be, in the words of Schulze-Delitzsch, an “intellectual honorary member” of the club.

In Leipsic, some people felt the need of striking one great blow as a counterstroke to Lassalle’s advent and the agitation of his followers. So I was instructed to confer with Schulze-Delitzsch concerning a meeting. He was willing. In his reply, he stated that we should have to be particularly careful in Saxony, because the Saxon laborers had shown an inclination for Communist and Socialist ideas, even in 1848 and 1849. In the course of January, 1864, Schulze-Delitzsch came to Leipsic.

It had been agreed that I should open the meeting with an address of welcome to Schulze, and then be elected chairman. But I was in ill luck. I opened the meeting, which was attended by 4,000 to 5,000 people, but got stuck in the middle of my address of welcome, which I had learned by heart. My temperament had ran away with my thoughts. I felt like dropping thru the floor for shame. The result was that not I, but Dolge was chosen as chairman. I resolved then and there never to learn another speech by heart, and I have fared well that way. Schulze-Delitzsch did not have an agreeable voice, and his delivery was dry. Nor was the contents of his speech calculated to create enthusiasm. He was a disappointment for many. He did not stop the development in the direction of the left side.

We tried to realize the resolution of the Frankfort convention by attempting to create district assemblies in Saxony. But as the existing legislation stood in the way, we asked permission from the Beust ministry. At a state convention, held under my chairmanship in the Summer of 1864, the reply of von Beust was read. In it the minister permitted the organization of a district assembly, provided that the clubs would agree not to occupy themselves with political, social or public affairs in general. Thereupon I moved the following resolution, which was unanimously adopted: “The Saxon workingmen’s clubs thank Mr. von Beust for his gracious gift, and prefer to dispense with the creation of a district assembly.” A second resolution was offered, to the following effect: “The assembled delegates call on the Saxon workingmen to demand energetically the abolition of the existing laws on association.” But the police officer who supervised the meeting would not permit a vote on this resolution, because it was a political act. I engaged in a sharp controversy with him over this question, but submitted, under protest, when he threatened to dissolve the convention.

***

On August 31, 1864, the telegraph carried the news around the world that Ferdinand Lassalle had died of the consequences of a duel in Geneva. The impression created by this news was a profound one. By far the greater part of his opponents breathed more easily, as tho freed from a nightmare. They hoped that now the movement called forth by him would come to an end. And, indeed, it seemed so at first. Not only did his club number but a few thousand members at his death, in spite of gigantic labors, but these members soon quarrelled among themselves. Moreover, Lassalle had unfortunately chosen in the author, Bernhard Becker, whom he had recommended as his successor in the presidency of the club, a man who was not equal to his task in any way.

That even some opponents of Lassalle had a just estimate of his role is shown by an article in the Coburg “Allgemeine Arbeiterzeitung,” a paper founded toward the close of 1862, which had been called to life by the lawyer, Dr. Streit of Coburg, the business manager of the National Club. This paper had fought Lassalle with moderation so far. But, nevertheless, it devoted an honorable obituary to him, which closed with the following words:

“A portion of the liberal party and the liberal press, the same portion that has fought him most bitterly, and yet with the least justification, the very men who most deserved the blows of his club may secretly gloat over his death. We regret the death of an opponent whom only injustice or narrow-mindedness can afford to measure by ordinary standards.”

It is well known that the Countess Hatzfeldt, for long years the intimate friend of Lassalle, carried on a veritable cult with his corpse. She planned to transport it all over Germany, for the purpose of holding services over it everywhere. But the authorities, thru the intervention of Lassalle’s relatives, spoiled this plan. On hearing the news that the corpse of Lassalle would be passing thru Mannheim, Eichelsdoerfer wrote a letter to Sonnemann, from which I take the following passages, because they show how some individuals on our side looked upon the situation by this time:

“Dear Friend Sonnemann:

“The corpse of Lassalle will arrive here on Friday, as Reusche telegraphs to me from Geneva. It will be taken on board the steamer. We may have been his opponents in life, but in the main we agreed, we wanted to help the vast mass of our people, and I believe we have learned, in the meantime, that no trenchant improvement can be expected without universal suffrage and without the resulting transformation of our political conditions. Perhaps the present moment would be favorable for some action on our side, in order to bring about a unification of the two drifts on the basis of a fitting program, which action might serve as a monument to the dead champion. A little more moderation on the other side, and a little more determination on our own, might lead up to that, and would only serve the cause, since the Philistines of the leading liberalism must be driven, if they are to go ahead towards their aim. This view of mine I do not hesitate to communicate to you, in order to hear your opinion, so that we may induce our friends to take steps that might be far-reaching in their consequences, under certain circumstances - and that could not do any harm, on the other hand.

Also I have the vague feeling that we shall be driven to energetic resolutions in Leipsic, (1) since, on the one hand, everything presses forward to the principles, and we will hardly obstruct them. Half-heartedness and vagueness are good for nothing; they do not even help to prepare the correct solution.... I shall not be able to evade the duty of accompanying the body of Lassalle. A few of my friends will do the same. I do not know whether I shall invite the club, since this might be misconstrued, because many people do not, and many more do not want to, understand that one can acknowledge the merits of Lassalle without going with him in everything.” Finally, he asks Sonnemann to communicate his opinion to him.

In a postscript he says: “Would it not be fitting for you, as the president of the workingmen’s association, to come here and pay the last respects to your opponent? If you want to do this, wire me. Then I shall let you know the time of the arrival of the body, as soon as I shall know it.”

I do not know what reply Sonnemann made to this letter, at any rate, Eichelsdoerfer’s suggestion was not considered. Much water had to flow down the Rhine, before any such action, as Eichelsdoerfer wanted, was realized.

After the permanent committee had decided, on motion of the Industrial Educational Club of Leipsic, to hold the next convention there, the Coburg “Arbeiterzeitung” opposed this. The paper declared that it was out of the question to hold such a convention in a Saxony ruled by Mr. von Beust, and, therefore, it opened the debate on this resolution. The only clubs who seconded the Coburg “Arbeiterzeitung” were those of Baden, which voted in this sense at their convention. In a way, the misgivings against the holding of a convention in Saxony were justified, for it depended wholly upon Mr. von Beust, by virtue of the Saxon law on association, to decree rain or sunshine.

In order to avoid the rain, we took account of the situation to the extent of obtaining from the permanent committee, at our request, the declaration that they would not place the military question, an eminently political question, on the order of business of the convention. The local committee on preparations was formed by two members each of the “Vorwaerts” Club, the Industrial Educational Club, and the Educational Club of the printers, also by Professor K. Biedermann and a member of the committee of the Polytechnic Society. The chairmanship was entrusted to me. Mr. von Beust kept us waiting a long time for his decision, but finally he gave his consent. The convention was now called for October 23d and 24th, and the following order of business adopted: (1) Free movement. (2) Co-operatives; (a) Consumers’ co-operatives; (b) Producers’ co-operatives. (3) A uniform plan of instruction for educational clubs. (4) A fund for the assistance of young wanderers which was demanded by many young laborers in the clubs. (5) Old age insurance. (6) Life insurance. (7) Regulation of the labor market, also an employment agency. (8) Workingmen’s homes. (9) Election of the permanent committee.

That was a rather crowded order of business, whose completion was made possible only by publishing the reports and resolutions of the reporters beforehand, and making speeches and reports short. The thoroness of both left much to desire.

There were 47 clubs represented, eight of them from Leipsic alone, and three district federations, namely, from the Upperland of Baden, Württemberg and the Main district. In Leipsic, there existed at that time, aside from the professional club of printers, a similar club of the bricklayers and carpenters. Besides, the Lassalleans, under the leadership of Fritzsche, had quickly founded three other professional clubs, one each of the cigarmakers, the tailors and the journeymen smiths. Among the delegates were, for the first time, Dr. Friedrich Albert Lange, representative of the Duisburg Consumers’ Club, and Dr. Max Hirsch for the Magdeburg Workingmen’s Educational Society. Professor V. A. Huber, the conservative representative of the idea of co-operation, was present as a guest.

The convention elected Bandow, of Berlin, as the first chairman, Dolge and myself as his alternates. In the name of the city, the burgomaster, Dr. Koch, welcomed the convention. Right at the very first order of business, Fritzsche started trouble and his followers created scenes of disorder, having taken possession of the galleries of the hall. Fritzsche declared, after the manner of Lassalle, that liberty to move about freely should no longer be debated, but simply decreed, but that universal suffrage should be demanded. He spoke very provokingly, and thereby called forth the demonstrative applause of his followers. The delegates protested vigorously against this method. On this occasion I admired the talent of Friedrich Albert Lange for settling difficulties successfully. An energetic intervention on my part, in my capacity as chairman of the local committee, also created quiet in the galleries. Next day we had another lively scene, when Fritzsche demanded the floor after the debate had been closed. When the floor was refused to him, he protested against the prevailing terrorism and resigned as a delegate. The resolutions of this convention were of no great importance. Fr. Albert Lange, who reported on consumers’ clubs, proved to be a brilliant speaker. The following members were elected to the permanent committee: Bandow, Bebel, Dr. M. Hirsch, Lachmann of Offenbach, Lange, Martens of Hamburg, who used to be a disciple of Weitling, but who showed no longer any signs of his communism, Reinhard of Coburg, formerly member of Parliament in Mecklenburg, Sonnemann, Staudinger of Nuremberg, Stuttmann of Russelsheim, Weithmann of Stuttgart and Max Wirth of Frankfort-on-Main.


1. Leipsic had been chosen as the place of the next joint convention of the clubs.


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