Sixty Years in the Social-Democratic Movement


“After the defeat of the revolution in 1848 to 1849, the working-class party on the Continent lost what they gained during its short epoch—a free press, liberty of speech, and the right of association. The Liberal bourgeois party, as well as the democratic party, found in the social conditions of the classes they represented the opportunities to keep together under one form or another, and to assert more or less their common interests. To the working-class party, after 1849, as before 1848, only one way was left open—the way of a secret society. So, since 1849, there developed a whole series of proletarian societies on the Continent, discovered by the police, condemned by the courts, broken up by imprisonment, but always reorganised under pressure of the existing conditions. Part of these secret societies had for their object the immediate revolution of the state. This was right in France, where the working class was conquered by the bourgeoisie, and the attack on the actual Government immediately coincided with the attack on the governing class. Another part of the secret societies sought the formation of a party of the working class without caring for the actual governments. This was necessary in countries like Germany, where the bourgeoisie and the working class together succumbed to the half-feudal governments, and, where, therefore, a victorious attack on the actual Government would have brought about a victory for the middle class.”

Thus did Marx describe the situation after the breakdown of the 1848 movement. The League of the Communists was revived with the aim of organising the working-class party in secret. As dubious elements of all sorts intruded themselves into the League in London, the central office was, at the suggestion of Marx, transferred to Cologne. My task at Mainz was to revive and reanimate the local organisation of the League, and to win over the workmen to our aims. In public our propaganda appeared only in the circulation of leaflets. We were so well organised, that we could inundate the whole of Mainz with a flood of leaflets within an hour. The police did not even once succeed in catching the distributors.

In October, 1850, I was ordered by the Frankfort comrades to reorganise the League at Nürnberg, which had succumbed. Unfortunately, our agitation did not last long. In the German fatherland one only heard of arrests. The police-constable was the hero of the day. The reaction shrank from no means, which it deemed opportune, to suppress the revolutionary movement.

In June, 1851, I also was arrested at Mainz.

When I first entered the prison cell, I did not expect that my imprisonment would last for years. Young and lively as I was in the consciousness of having done what I had to do as a workman, I did not expect to encounter a hard time of afflictions. But there came years of suffering and of agony that will never fade from my memory. Mainz and Cologne, Graudenz and Silberburg were to be the stations of the cross in my life.

There were pending three charges against me—firstly, that of procuring, publishing, and circulating treasonable writings; secondly, of assuming a false name (the police had found out that I was a deserter, and that I was not bearing my right name); the third charge, and most serious, was that of participating in the “League of the Communists.” The last charge was formulated as follows: An Act of indictment against Frederick Lessner, 27 years old, journeyman tailor, born at Blankenheim, in the Grand Duchy of Sachsen-Weimar, and lately residing at Mainz. Of the personal circumstances of the accused Frederick Lessner, the connections he formed in London from the summer of 1847 to the spring of 1848, his stay at Cologne during the years 1848, 1849, and 1850, the relations in which he stood during this whole time with the heads of the League of the Communists, and the activities he displayed as chairman of the Socialist Workingmen’s Club at Mainz, the details are contained in the Act of indictment already made against Röser and associates (the Cologne Communist trial of 1852 is meant), to which reference is here made. At his arrest, effected the previous year (June 18th, 1851), a regular communistic library was found in his possession, that contained, among other things, the rules of the London “Arbeiter-Bildungsverein,” the manifesto of the Communists of the year 1848, the rules of the “Arbeiter-Bildungsverein” at Cologne, Wiesbaden, and Mainz, the “Aims of the Communist Party,” the “Red Catechism,” the “Appel aux Democrates de toutes les Nations,” the toast of Blanqui, and the leaflet “German Men and Prussian Subjects.” . . . . According to this Frederick Lessner is charged with having formed a plot in the course of the years 1848 and 1851, at Cologne, in combination with several persons, the object of which was to overthrow the Constitution, and to arm the citizens and inhabitants against the Government of the King, and against each other, to excite to civil war. Offences against Sec. 84, 89, and 91 of the Rhenish Penal Code, and against Sec. 61, No. 2, and Sec. 63 of the Penal Code for the Prussian State.—Cologne, September 28th, 1852. The Attorney-General, Nicolovius.

This act of indictment was only handed over to me after a detention on remand of 15 months.

The greatest part of this anxious time I spent in solitary confinement. If I had not made the acquaintance of an educated and high-minded girl some months before my arrest, who took care of me, in her full devotion and love, I would have fared badly. This high-minded girl procured breakfast, lunch, and supper for me, and even succeeded by her persistent endeavours in being allowed to see me once a week, so that I was not entirely cut off from the outside world. The magistrates allowed this because they very probably supposed they would by these means get acquainted with the secret societies. Every step of this girl was watched by the police, and they even tried to induce her by threats to bear witness against me. The endeavours were not successful, but my faithful friend succeeded in interesting a Hessian Member of Parliament in my case, and induced him to bring before the public the mean treatment of myself, and that of other prisoners on remand.

After this had been spoken of in the Diet, a change took place in the brutal treatment meted out to me. My benefactress was soon afterwards expelled from Mainz, in revenge for her noble behaviour. If she had not taken care of me, I could not have undergone all this without harm.

The worst treatment I experienced was the transport from the prison at Mainz to that of Cologne. The journey, which I had to do on foot, lasted from June 26th to July 6th—eleven days. I was transported mostly in company with 20 to 30 criminals from town to town. At each of these stations I had to undergo solitary confinement as a particularly dangerous man, and thus I had occasion to find out the whole brutality and villainy of the different burgomasters and policemen. During the whole journey I was handcuffed. Obsequious policemen put the handcuffs on so tight that the blood spurted from my hands. When I protested against this inhuman treatment, I was maltreated. The burgomasters and police meant to prove their loyalty towards King and Government by their brutality. Only with a shudder do I remember the days from June 26th to July 6th, 1852.

On October 4th, 1852, I was tried before the jury at Cologne. Besides me, the accused were Nothjung, Bürgers, Röser, Dr. Daniels, Dr. Becker, Dr. Abraham Jacobi, Dr. Klein, Otto, Reiff, and Ehrhardt. The proceedings lasted over five weeks. I will not give details of the course of the proceedings; they are minutely treated by Karl Marx in the “Revelations on the Communist Trial at Cologne.” The verdict was given on November 12th, 1852. The sentences on Nothjung, Bürgers, and Röser were six years; on Dr. Becker, Reiff, and Otto, five years; on myself, three years confinement in a fortress; as to the remaining four accused, a verdict of “Not Guilty” was returned. Except myself, none of those then sentenced are still alive.

With the Communist trial at Cologne, the first part of the campaign of the German Communists came to an end.


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