August Bebel

Reminiscences


Personal Matters

To a man who, in public life, is battling with a world of opponents, it is not immaterial what sort of a mind the wife at his side. Either she may be a helper and a co-worker in his efforts, or a leaden weight and an obstacle to them. I am happy to say that my wife belongs to the first class. She was the daughter of a section worker on the Leipsic-Magdeburg railroad. He had died before I became acquainted with her. She was working in a modiste’s shop in Leipsic. We were engaged in the Fall of 1864, shortly before the death of her mother, and we were married in the Spring of 1866. I have never had any cause to regret my marriage. I could not have found a more loving, devoted, always self-sacrificing woman. If I managed to accomplish what I did, it was possible, in the first place, only thru her untiring care and readiness to help. And she has had to go thru many hard days, months and years, until at last the sun of calmer days shone for her.

A source of happiness and a consolation for her became our daughter, who was born in January, 1869, and with whose birth an amusing incident is connected. On the forenoon of the critical day, I was sitting at my desk in my room and waiting with great excitement for the expected event, when some one knocked at the door, and at my call a gentleman stepped into the room and introduced himself as a lawyer, Albert Traeger. Traeger’s name was familiar to me thru his poems in the “Gartenlaube,” and his public activity. After our introduction, Traeger said, surprised: “Why, you are still a young man; I thought you were an oldish and rotund man, who had given up his business and played politics for his pleasure.” I stood before him in the usual green wood-turner’s apron, and replied, smiling: “You see, you are mistaken.” Then we conversed for a while, until I heard the expected baby’s cry in the adjoining room. Now, nothing could hold me any longer. With a few words I explained the situation to Traeger, whereupon he congratulated me heartily and left. A few years later we became colleagues in the German Reichstag, and remain good friends to this day, in spite of our widely divergent principles.

My position in the labor movement, and my engagement, made my permanent residence in Leipsic desirable. While Saxony had introduced business freedom in 1863, every “foreigner” who wanted to avail himself of it, and that means every one not born in Saxony, had to become naturalized. That cost much money in those days, for a man had to acquire citizenship in the community at the same time. I lacked the means to make myself independent and become naturalized. This, and the municipal citizenship in Leipsic, cost about $150.00, and what I had to expect from home amounted to about $350.00. Unexpectedly, I was compelled to make myself independent, because my master, pretending that he had no more work for me, gave me notice to quit at the end of 1863. In reality he gave me notice because he had heard that I intended to make myself independent. He wanted to keep a competitor out of the field. Thereupon I went to Wetzlar and secured as much money as I could. Then I rented a shop in the center of the town, in the yard of a merchant’s store which had just been changed from a stable into a workroom. The room was so primitive that it had no fireplace as yet. Until this could be completed, I had to violate the police regulations by running my stove-pipe thru the window into the yard. As my small funds melted away like butter in the sun, this small room had to serve me also as a bedroom, and on hard winter nights I felt the cold bitterly. In order to circumvent the naturalization for a while, I had opened my business under the name of a bourgeois friend, until, in the Spring of 1866, in order to be able to marry, I went into debt for the naturalization. Two years later, the legislation of the North German Federation would have saved me a great deal of expense.

I began business on the smallest scale with the assistance of an apprentice. After a few months I could afford to engage a helper. But when I had been elected to the Reichstag, in February; 1867, and had to give my helper an insight into the business during my absence, which he could not have gotten while I was present, he gave notice after my return and made himself independent. When I related this incident later to a former colleague, he said, dryly: “Serves you right; why did you pay wages that enabled him to save money?” This “enormous” wage amounted to $4.50 per week in those days; it was higher by half a dollar than in any other shop, and working hours, with me, were ten hours, as compared to eleven, in other places.

For the rest, I became thoroly familiar with the miseries of a small master. The ordered goods had to be delivered to the customers on a long credit. Wages for employees, express and one’s own living expenses, required daily and weekly expenditures. Where to find the money? So I supplied a merchant with my goods for cash at a price that was but a little higher than the cost price. But when I went to get my money on Saturday, I received nothing but dirty paper bills, with which Leipsic was flooded at that time thru its traffic with the Thuringian states. Every one of these small states utilized its coining privilege to the utmost, and flooded the market with its paper money. But this money was taken and given everywhere and served as traffic money. In addition to this, I received checks from some industrial business that were not yet due, or ducats which the manipulator had filed so much that, instead of $3.00 and 5 groschen, which they represented in payment to me, I received only $3.00 and less from the banker, who had to change them for me. And it was about the same with the checks. I was angry over this mode of payment, but what was I to do? I doubled my fist in my pocket, delivered my goods next week as usual, and received the same payment.

My public activity gradually incensed the employers against me. Orders were refused to me. That was a boycott. If I had not succeeded in securing a small circle of customers outside of Leipsic for my articles (knobs for doors and windows made of buffalo horn) I should have been compelled to go into bankruptcy at the end of the sixties. I fared badly during the wartime of 1870-71, in which work was slack anyway. And when, in the Winter of 1870-1, I was imprisoned for 102 days, together with Liebknecht and Hepner, my wife had to inform me one day that not an article was being ordered any more, but that the helper and the apprentice had to be paid weekly. That was a bitter and sad situation. But it soon changed for the better. With the conclusion of peace, the period of prosperity began which lasted until 1874. The orders then came into the house unsolicited, the customers were glad when they were served. So when, in the Spring of 1872, I entered, with Liebknecht, upon my 22 months of imprisonment in Hubertusburg, which were followed in my case by nine months more of prison, I was able to leave the business in charge of a foreman with six helpers and two apprentices. Nevertheless, it was not all silk, even if my wife was at her post. I carried on my business correspondence by way of the fortress and of the prison. But things went to the bad once more, when, simultaneously with the industrial depression of 1874, my competitors manufactured the same articles by factory methods, and sold them at prices which I could not meet with my hand labor methods. I was about to give up the business and accept a position in the party, when, accident would have it, that I found an associate in the person of a party comrade, the merchant, Ferd. Issleib, in Berka, who had not only the necessary means, but also the mercantile knowledge, and who soon acquired the necessary technical knowledge in a very appreciable manner. In the Fall of 1876, we moved into a small factory with steam power, in which we undertook also to manufacture the same articles of bronze, in which we rapidly gained a good reputation. In the beginning we had a hard struggle, for the crisis was still on. My principal activity now became to look up customers and to undertake business trips, by which I was enabled later on, under the anti-Socialist laws, to perform good services for the party. After I had been expelled from Leipsic in 1881 by virtue of the so-called “small state of siege,” and when this expulsion was renewed every year, and I renewed my acquaintance with the jails in the meantime, I dissolved my partnership with Issleib, and held the position of a traveling agent for the business. I felt that I could no longer justify my taking part in the meagre returns of the venture at the expense of my self-sacrificing associate, for he had to carry the principal burden and perform most of the work for it. Besides, my permanent removal from Leipsic estranged me more and more from the internal affairs of the business. So I resigned also the position of traveling agent in 1889, and devoted myself to literary work, thru which I came into permanent business relations with my friend, Heinrich Dietz, in Stuttgart.

I have remarked before that people often have a wrong conception of a man’s personality. My associate corresponded altogether to the picture which people had of me. He was a tall, strong man, with red hair and red whiskers, reaching to his chest. Thus it happened that people coming to the office and wishing to see me, without knowing me personally, would address him. This mistake of identity always amused us greatly. It also tickled me one day, during a business trip in Tuebingen, while I was taking leave of some acquaintances in a wine room, to hear a citizen of Tuebingen back of me utter the astonished remark in purest Suabian: “What? That little man is Bebel?” Similar incidents often occurred in my experience. In former days it happened not unfrequently that fellow-travelers engaged in conversation about me, without knowing that I was sitting right among them and quietly listening to them. Sometimes they told veritable bandit’s tales about me.


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