August Bebel

Reminiscences


New Social Phenomena

In the spring of 1865, the first German Women’s Congress convened in Leipsic under the leadership of Louise Otto-Peters and Augusta Schmidt, resulting to the foundation of a General Association of German Women. It was the first step in the world of German women that led to an organization of women. The "Women’s Paper," which was then edited by a retired captain named Korn, became the organ of the association. In addition to Korn, Mrs. Louise Otto-Peters and Miss Jenny Heynrichs became members of the editorial staff. I attended the proceedings as a guest. When the Leipsic Women’s Educational Club, of which Louise Otto-Peters was president, applied to the Workingmen’s Educational Club for permission to use this club’s hall on Sundays for a girls’ Sunday school, we gladly consented.

The year 1865, which was a prosperous one, witnessed many strikes that broke out in various cities for higher wages. There were great walkouts in Hamburg, a strike of clothmakers in Burg, near Magdeburg, a walkout of the Leipsic printers, followed by a walkout of Leipsic shoemakers and other lines. The Leipsic printers’ strike had been caused by low wages and long hours of labor. The highest weekly wages amounted to five dollars and a quarter. The wage for 10000 n’s [hours?] amounted to 25 Saxon pennies; the journeymen demanded 30 pennies and a reduction of the hours of labor. On March 24th, notice was given by 545 men, out of 800, and eight days later they walked out. No organization existed for the payment of strike benefits. The Printers’ Educational Club, whose chairman was Richard Haertel, had to remain neutral, on penalty of dissolution. Haertel himself worked in a shop, owned by Colditz, who had signed the new scale. The printers’ union was not founded until 1866, and its direct cause was the Leipsic strike. An attempt at arbitration, made by Privy Counselor Professor Dr. von Waechter, one of the foremost jurists of Germany, had been unsuccessful.

Sonnemann, who had watched the case with particular interest, being a boss printer himself, wrote me, in order to suggest that I should offer to both sides the services of our permanent committee as arbitrators, and made various suggestions as to how I should behave in this role. As the correspondence, which I had with him on this subject, still has some merest to-day, I publish it herewith.

"Leipsic, May 11, 1865.

"Mr. Leopold Sonnemann, Frankfort-on-Main.

"Owing to illness, I have not been able to answer your favor of the first of this month until now. I fully sanction your plan to attempt the role of arbitrator in the present printers’ strike. Therefore, I addressed, first of all, the president of the printers’ union, in this city, in order to hear his opinion of the matter. He replied that he was himself working in a shop, which had adopted the new tariff, so that he was not directly interested in the question. He advised me to apply to the tariff committee.

"On Tuesday afternoon I conferred with this committee, and was pleased to note the readiness with which my offer was met. They named a few employers, whom they advised me to interview, in order to ascertain whether that side was willing to consider the matter of arbitration. These were Messieurs Giesecke & Devrient and Ackermann (the firm of Teubner). Yesterday I went to see them.

“Devrient was away on a trip. Giesecke was out, and at Ackermann’s I was told that I had better see City Counselor Haertel, of the firm of Breitkopf & Haertel, or Brockhaus, who were chairmen of the association. I must remark at this point that I had intentionally avoided these men, because they are known to be among the most violent enemies of the workers. Nevertheless, I felt, after this reference, that I had better see Haertel. I found both brothers at home, and conferred with them for about an hour. But the final result was that the employers did not care to take any steps that would lead to an agreement, after the tariff committee of the printers had shown itself so unyielding against the attempts of the Privy Counselor, Professor von Waechter. I replied that, during the last fourteen days, their views had evidently changed, and that they would readily listen to arbitration.

“But these, and similar statements on my part, did no good. I felt very clearly, from the remarks of the gentlemen, that they were very bitter against the tariff committee, and that they did not want any agreement.

“Among other assertions, I was told by them that this committee had no authority to act in the name of the typesetters, but that it had simply assumed this role. This assertion certainly looks queer, in view of all the facts. Then I was told: “What good would it do if the committee should agree with the employers, so long as the others would not agree?” Anyway, they said, they had no reason for accepting somebody else’s arbitration, since Privy Counselor Professor von Waechter, when dropping the negotiations, had declared himself willing to resume them at any time, and if the workers were really in earnest, they could take steps accordingly.

“After these declarations I realized how little success further negotiations must have, and so I withdrew.

“I immediately acquainted the striking printers, who were holding a meeting in the Colosseum, with the situation. I have not been informed to date what they have decided.

“I am sorry not to have secured a better result.

“Nevertheless, I shall follow up the matter carefully, and if matters should shape themselves more favorably for us, I shall inform you immediately.

“I am convinced that the committee is earnestly wishing an agreement, since it realizes, no doubt, that it is dangerous to carry this thing to extremes, and an honorable compromise is best. On the other hand, I am equally convinced that the above named Mr. Haertel did not act in conformity with the wishes of all employers, as it is known that most of them are willing to arbitrate. But we cannot confer with them individually, because Haertel, as their chairman, has to pass upon all such offers. I intend to publish the whole affair in the press, and to wait whether individual employers will not condescend to offer their hands for an agreement over the heads of such extremist leaders as Haertel, Brockhaus, etc. I also wish to state that six shops have granted the principal demands of the workers....”

Sonnemann replied to this letter, by return mail, on May 12th:

“I was surprised to be without news from you so long. My inquiry of the first of this month, concerning the printers, was only a preliminary one. My clearly expressed intention was that you should act jointly with Dr. Hirsch and Bandow, and both of them had already declared their willingness to me. Not that I have not full confidence in you, or that you could not handle the matter alone; my intention was to give more formality and dignity to the action of the committee, by having three of its members act as representatives. In this respect, I counted especially upon Bandow, who is well respected in Leipsic, as the chairman of our convention. However, you have left nothing undone, and it is only to be regretted that the result of your efforts was not more favorable. Before you publish anything, I consider it appropriate that I should write once more to Brockhaus and Haertel, and offer to these gentlemen, once more, the services of a delegation from our committee. I should advance the reason that the workers have the most confidence in their chosen representatives. Perhaps we might run the thing in such a way that the printers give full powers to our delegation. The employers may choose their Privy Counselor von Waechter and a few other gentlemen, and these committees might then make a decision jointly. Write me by return mail whether you agree that I should write once more to the gentlemen. A few lines from you will suffice. I must not refrain from telling you that, in my opinion, the journeymen printers have gone too far in the form and the substance of the matter. They have been egged on by the Lassalleans, I suspect. If this were not the case, they would have secured their demands, for there was never a more favorable time for their efforts to raise wages than the present. This is demonstrated by the fact that everywhere the moderately and decently advanced demands have been granted.”

The assumption of Sonnemann, that the Lassalleans had had their hands in this strike, was quite wrong. While Schweitzer’s “Social-democrat” showed a lively interest in the strike of the Leipsic printers, it did not exert any influence over them.

On the next day I wrote the following answer:

“In reply to your favor of the 12th of this month, I wish to say that I understand fully your intention as expressed in your favor of the first of this month. But from this point of view, it was quite natural that I should first inquire of both parties whether they would be willing to accept the intervention of the permanent committee. That I did nothing else, you may see from the statement of Haertel in yesterday’s `Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.’ I have only to say, in justification of myself, that, after the personal declarations of this gentleman, it was impossible for me to make such an offer officially.

“It seems that his statement has been called out mainly by various inquiries on the part of some employers, concerning certain press notices, which reported that the printers’ union of this city had declined to arbitrate the difficulty, whereas it had not been asked at all, in its corporate capacity.

“I wish to state expressly that the news items in the public papers, which are largely contradictory, have not been issued by me. But they have at least done some good by stirring up public opinion, and by inducing Privy Counselor von Waechter, yesterday morning, to invite me for a conference with him. He informed me that he was willing, at any time, to take up the matter of arbitration, and that he asked my assistance in this matter. He suggested that we should inquire once more of the tariff committee, whether they were willing to meet us, and on what basis. At the same time, he remarked that he considered it indispensable that the printers’ union should make some concessions. I had to agree with him in this view, and you are right in saying that the form in which the matter was started was not the correct one.

“A repeated inquiry, at the tariff committee, revealed their willingness to meet Waechter, and come to an agreement with him. I declared, once more on this occasion, that the permanent committee would be willing to assume the role of arbitrators in co-operation with Waechter. This was accepted with thanks, and they promised to give me their answer after they would have had their conference with Waechter. Unfortunately, I was not at home yesterday afternoon, when the delegation came to see me. This morning, after receiving your letter, I betook myself immediately to the meeting place of the tariff committee, but found no one there. I shall go there again later. This is ten thirty a.m.

“One o’clock pm. Just now a member of the tariff committee has left me, having made the following communication to me. The chairman of this committee went to Waechter yesterday, at my request, and expressed their willingness to negotiate with him once more in co-operation with the permanent committee. When asked on what basis this was to be done, they offered the proposition to make a different sort of tariff, namely, to go by the alphabet instead of by 1000 n’s [hours?]. Waechter agreed to this, and promised to confer with some employers and to let them know what success he had. Up to the present no such answer has come from him, and, in my opinion, we cannot do anything else but to wait for it. Then I shall send you news immediately.

“I cannot give my consent to your intention to write to Brockhaus and Haertel, for they are the bitterest enemies of the workers’ and of the workingmen’s clubs. Also you would place yourself in a false light by advancing such a motive as you suggest. For it is said of Haertel, that he tried to induce the chief of police of this city to dissolve the workingmen’s clubs, because they partly assisted the striking workers, and I had to hear from his own lips that the matter could be settled best if the workers and their clubs would cease to assist the printers with funds.

“Finally, I must repudiate the charge of your letter, that I wanted to arbitrate this matter alone. I had not the slightest intention of doing so, but have rather spoken expressly to the tariff committee, as well as to Haertel, of a delegation of the permanent committee, naming the members specifically. I should like to have Bandow and Hirsch here, even to discuss our own affairs.”

Three days later, on May 16th, I wrote another letter to Sonnemann, in which I said:

“I am now in a position to report to you definitely on the printers’ affair.

“As I informed you in my letter, the tariff committee, at my suggestion, had begun negotiations with Waechter, and had suggested a new method of calculation to him as a basis. Waechter agreed to this, and called the former arbitration committee of the employers, in order to submit to them this offer of the tariff committee. They figured and figured, but found, in the end, that the result would be the same, since often they would have to pay only 27 to 28 pennies, but equally often 32 and 33 pennies. Members of the tariff committee assured me that the price would, indeed, remain the same by this calculation, only the form would be different. The principals, then, declined to arbitrate the matter, since they did not want to come to an agreement, unless the printers would make concessions in their demands.

“When I received your favor yesterday morning, (1) I immediately approached the tariff committee once more, submitted to them the Frankfort tariff and your calculation as a basis for an agreement with the employers, and emphasized once more that. I was myself of the opinion that it was necessary for them not to cling stubbornly to their demands, and not to drive matters to excess. The member to whom I spoke declared himself in agreement with these views, promised to lay them before his colleagues and to report to me.

“Yesterday evening I received a reply. It was negative. They justified their actions with the excuse that they had various things in prospect, and for this reason they hoped to enforce their demands in time. Leipsic, as the main seat of printing, should strive, above all, to obtain the highest possible wages, because this would be of great influence for other cities. Besides, your calculation contained a lot of points, in which they could, and would, make concessions, to the employers. I was surprised at this reply. I had confidently expected that this proposition would be accepted. After it has been declined, I have no further reason to take any more steps in this matter, unless I am asked to do so from the other side.

“It seems to me that, just as the employers are controlled by Haertel and Brockbaus, so a few members of the tariff committee command all others. Now, we must let them try which one of the two parties will win out by stubbornness.

“The printers expect a favorable influence from the bookdealers’ exchange, which is being organized. To what extent this will help the demands of the strikers remains to be seen. It is a fact that many letters of encouragement and money are still coming to them, and keeping up their fighting spirit.

“As you will know, the police are proceeding against the striking printers, and I do not like this at all. Nineteen men have already left the city on account of this: on Monday. One has gone back to work. This is certainly a deplorable result, if the police repression has been resorted to, with this end in view.”

Another letter of mine to Sonnemann, dated May 28th, contains the laconic postscript: “In the matter of the printers, everything is in the same old condition.”

On June 20th, Sonnemann writes again:

“I am not a little surprised that you left my letter of the 17th of this month wholly unnoticed (it could not be deciphered, for the reason named above, but it had something to do with the printers’ affair). If the mechanism between us does not dovetail any better, then the publication of the pamphlets will be pretty difficult for me.”

This requires the following explanation: The permanent committee, being continually in conflict with the publishers of the “Allgemeine Arbeiterzeitung,” in Coburg, had decided to issue leaflets, which should appear weekly, if possible. These leaflets were to contain all matters referring to the labor movement, and the members of the committee were to be the principal editors. My reply to Sonnemann’s letter is dated June 23rd, and is as follows:

“I must repudiate the charges of neglect which you hurl at me in your last letter of the 20th of this month. You would not have made them, if you knew my circumstances. These are such that I cannot dispose of my time at will. While I have my independent business, I am compelled, by my lack of means, to earn my living by work; in addition to this, a good portion of the burden of business in the Workingmen’s Educational Club rests also upon me, and I am compelled to sacrifice many an hour to it, aside from the evenings, which are taken up wholly with club matters. Nevertheless, I shall try to fulfill my obligations, so far as I am able to do so, and I should have answered your first letter long ago, if I had anything worth mentioning to report.

“Particularly in regard to the labor and wage question, a regular calm has ensued, as was to be expected after the excitement and the noise of the preceding weeks.

“In the matter of the book printing, I saw Heinke, the editor of the ‘Correspondent’ (founded in 1863), on Tuesday. Heinke will send you the paper regularly, in a wrapper, beginning July 1st, in exchange for leaflets or other communications . . . . He also promised to let me have important news concerning book printers’ affairs, either in the city or outside, and in that case I shall report toyou as quickly as possible.

“In regard to the printers’ strike, he told me that the greater portion of the tariff committee, and of the executive committee of the Printers’ Educational Club, had no employment so far, and would not be likely to find any in the near future. Nevertheless, he did not think that they would accept any assistance from our side, because, in the first place, they still had money, and in the second place, those who had work were contributing weekly to a fund for the unemployed, and in the third place, they would be likely to have to contribute to other trades in case of a strike, and that would drain their small resources still more; they had decided, from the outset, not to accept any contributions from any one but printers, or, at least, not to do so except in extreme cases.”2

The apprehension of the printers, that they might be called upon to contribute to the strikes of other trades, was justified, in so far as the tailors, as well as the men employed in the construction of the city’s water works, went on strike that spring, and so did the shoemakers.

In regard to the letter, I wrote to Sonnemann on June 28th:

“Yesterday, a meeting of shoemakers took place, for the purpose of debating a raise in wages. As we had an urgent meeting ourselves, I could not go there until late. So I could not give you a full report. Dr. Eras, who attended the proceedings from beginning to end, will have sent such a report to the `Neue Frankfurter Zeitung,’ and you may use it in the leaflet.

“To judge by the spirit which prevailed in that meeting, the laborers will not persist with their very just demands. Lack of clearness, disagreements among themselves, will not permit such a thing, altho they need it worse than other laborers, since a good worker earns $2.00, 20 new groschen to $3.00 per week. We, being outsiders, could not take part in the debate, but Eras and myself told them what we thought of them in private conversation. Only it will not do any good.”

On July 1st, Sonnemann replied as follows:

“I have your favors of June 23rd and 28th before me. My hint to you was not meant as an offense, as you may have taken it. I know very well that your time is taken up, and that it is very hard for you to sacrifice still more time to our cause; neither do I expect any long letters: two lines are always enough in order to report a thing briefly. If you had written me at once that the printers did not need any assistance from us, it would have been enough for the moment.

“As concerns this point, I am glad that the strikers are not short of funds. I merely ask, to tell them repeatedly, that our committee is ready to take sides with them, and I have expressed myself accordingly in our leaflet.”

This ended our correspondence on the printers’ strike. The printers obtained but a partial success. The majority of their men were discharged. In August, the printers’ union decided to quadruple the dues, first, in order to pay back the loans made to it, and in the second place, for the purpose of being able to assist the remaining victims of the strike. The tariff committee was sentenced to ten days of imprisonment for violation of the strike clause of the Saxon trade ordinance. Their appeal from this sentence resulted in its reversal. The shoemakers were luckier, contrary to expectations, for they enforced a raise of wages up to 25 per cent. What helped them was the fact that the masters were not organized, and most of them were small masters, who could not offer any resistance.

The attitude of a number of well known liberals during the Leipsic strike induced me to say, in Number 8 of our leaflet, that it was a fact that the demands of the laborers had met with the most determined resistance, precisely from that side which was continually flirting with the people, and pretending to be the friend of the workingmen. It was no wonder, therefore, that one could hear, even in those labor circles, which had nothing to do with Lassalleanism, remarks about the progressive party that were anything but flattering. This would not increase the sympathies of the laborers for that party.

In the same summer (July), we called a labor meeting, in order to protest against the decisions of the chambers of commerce and trades, which had decided that the newly introduced work books should be preserved in the hands of the employers, contrary to the trade ordinance, instead of those of the laborers. Also, the employers claimed the right to enter testimonials into those books, without the consent of the laborers. A proclamation, calling upon interested parties to join our protest, which we addressed to the Saxon workingmen, had good success. The Lassalleans, in that case, made common cause with us.


1. The ink in my copy of this letter has become so faded that it cannot be read any more.

2. Gustav Jaeckh claims, in his book, on “The International” (Leipsic, 1904), that the German printers had applied to the General Council of the International through their federal president, in order to interest the International, and particularly the printers’ union, in the strike of their brothers in Leipsic. These statements can hardly be correct. In the first place, no federation of printing trades existed at that time, consequently no federal president. In the second place, the printers refused to accept money from political organizations, let alone from the International. At best it might be true that the Leipsic printers addressed the General Council with the request to transmit their letter to the London printers’ union. But even this seems doubtful to me.


Next: The Stuttgart National Convention