Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne by Karl Marx 1853

I. Preliminaries

On May 10, 1851 Nothjung was arrested in Leipzig and Bürgers, Röser, Daniels, Becker and the others were arrested shortly after. The arrested men appeared before the Court of Assizes in Cologne on October 4, 1852 on a charge of “treasonable conspiracy” against the Prussian state. Thus the preliminary detention (in solitary confinement) had lasted a year and a half.

When Nothjung and Bürgers were arrested the police discovered copies of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, the “Rules of the Communist League” (a communist propaganda society), two Addresses of the Central Authority of this League as well as a number of addresses and other publications. A week after Nothjung’s arrest had become public knowledge there were house-searches and arrests in Cologne. So if there had still been something to discover it would certainly have disappeared by then. And in fact the haul yielded only a few irrelevant letters. A year and a half later when the accused finally appeared before the jury, the bona fide material in the possession of the prosecution had not been augmented by a single document. Nevertheless as we are assured by the Public Prosecutor’s office (represented by von Seckendorf and Saedt) all government departments of the Prussian state had undertaken the most strenuous and many-sided activity. What then had they been doing? Nous verrons!

The unusually long period of pre-trial detention was explained in the most ingenious way. At first it was claimed that the Saxon government refused to extradite Bürgers and Nothjung to Prussia.

The court in Cologne appealed in vain to the ministry in Berlin, which appealed in vain to the authorities in Saxony. The Saxon authorities however relented. Bürgers and Nothjung were handed over. By October 1851 enough progress had been made at last for the files to be presented to the indictment board of the Cologne Court of Appeal. The board ruled that “there was no factual evidence of an indictable offence and ... the investigation must therefore start again from the beginning”. Meanwhile the zeal of the courts had been kindled by a recently approved disciplinary law which enabled the Prussian government to dismiss any official of the judiciary who incurred its displeasure. Accordingly the case was dismissed on this occasion because there was no evidence of an indictable offence. At the following quarterly session of the assizes it had to be postponed because there was too much evidence. The mass of documents was said to be so huge that the prosecutor was unable to digest it. Gradually he did digest it, the bill of indictment was presented to the prisoners and the action was due to be heard on July 28. But in the meantime the great driving wheel of the government’s case, Chief of Police Schulz, fell ill. The accused had to sit in gaol for another three months awaiting an improvement in Schulz’s health. Fortunately Schulz died, the public became impatient and the government had to bring up the curtain.

Throughout this whole period the police authorities in Cologne, the police headquarters in Berlin and the Ministries of Justice and of the Interior had continually intervened in the investigations, just as Stieber, their worthy representative, was to intervene later on as witness in the public court proceedings in Cologne. The government succeeded in assembling a jury that is quite unprecedented in the annals of the Rhine Province. In addition to members of the upper bourgeoisie (Herstadt, Leiden, Joest), there were city patricians (von Bianca, vom Rath), country squires (Häbling von Lanzenauer, Freiherr [i.e. baron] von Fürstenberg, etc.), two Prussian government officials, one of them a royal chamberlain (von Münch-Bellinghausen) and finally a Prussian professor (Kräusler). Thus in this jury every one of the ruling classes in Germany was represented and only these classes were represented.

With this jury the Prussian government, it seems, could stop beating about the bush and make the case into a political trial pure and simple. The documents seized from Nothjung, Bürgers and the others and admitted by them to be genuine did not indeed prove the existence of a plot; in fact they did not prove the existence of any action provided for in the Code pénal. But they showed conclusively the hostility of the accused to the existing government and the existing social order. However, what the intelligence of the legislators had failed to achieve might well be made good by the conscience of the jury. Was it not a stratagem of the accused that they should have conducted their hostile activities directed against the existing social order in such a way that they did not violate any article of the Code? Does a disease cease to be infectious because it is not listed in the Police Medical Register? If the Prussian government had restricted itself to using the material actually available to prove the harmfulness of the accused and if the jury had confined itself to rendering them harmless by its verdict of guilty, who could censure either government or jury? Who indeed but the foolish dreamer who imagines that the Prussian government and the ruling classes in Prussia are strong enough to give even their opponents a free rein as long as they confine themselves to discussion and propaganda.

However the Prussian government had deprived itself of the opportunity of using this broad highway of political trials. Owing to the unusual delay in bringing the case before the court, the Ministry’s direct intervention in the proceedings, the mysterious hints about unheard-of horrors, the rodomontade about a conspiracy ensnaring the whole of Europe and, finally, the signally brutal treatment of the prisoners, the trial was swollen into a procès monstre, the eyes of the European press were upon it and the curiosity and suspicions of the public were fully aroused. The Prussian government had put itself in a position in which for decency’s sake the prosecution was simply obliged to produce evidence and the jury to demand it. The jury itself had to face another jury, the jury of public opinion.

To rectify its first blunder, the government was forced into a second one. The police, who acted as examining magistrates during the preliminary investigation, had to appear as witnesses during the trial. By the side of the ordinary Public Prosecutor the government had to put an extraordinary one, beside the Public Prosecutor’s office the police, beside a Saedt and Seckendorf a Stieber together with his Wermuth, his griffin Greif and his little Goldheim. It was inevitable that yet another government department should intervene in court and, by virtue of the miraculous powers of the police, should continuously supply the facts whose shadows the legal prosecution had pursued in vain. The court was so thoroughly aware of the position that with the most laudable resignation the President, the judge and the prosecutor abandoned their functions to Stieber the Police Superintendent and the witness and continually disappeared behind him. Before we proceed to elucidate these revelations made by the police, revelations which form the basis of the “indictable offence” that the indictment board was unable to discover, one more preliminary observation remains to be made.

It became evident from the papers seized from the accused, as well as from their own statements, that a German communist society had existed with a central authority originally based in London. On September 15, 1850, the Central Authority split. The majority — referred to in the indictment as the “Marx party” — moved the seat of the Central Authority to Cologne. The minority, which was later expelled from the League by the group in Cologne, established itself as an independent central authority in London and founded a separate league [265] in London and on the continent. The indictment refers to this minority and its supporters as the “Willich-Schapper party”.

Saedt-Seckendorf claim that the split in the London Central Authority had its origin solely in personal disagreements. Long before Saedt-Seckendorf the “chivalrous Willich” had spread the most vicious rumours among the London émigrés about the causes of the split and had found in Herr Arnold Ruge, that fifth wheel on the state coach of European Central Democracy, and in others of the same sort, people who were willing to act as channels leading to the German and American press. The democrats realised that they could gain an easy victory over the Communists by making the “chivalrous Willich” the impromptu representative of the Communists. The “chivalrous Willich” for his part realised that the “Marx party” could not reveal the causes of the split without betraying the existence of a secret society in Germany and in particular exposing the Central Authority in Cologne to the paternal attention of the Prussian police. This situation no longer obtains and so we may cite a few passages from the minutes of the last session of the London Central Authority, dated September 15, 1850.

In support of his motion calling for separation, Marx said inter alia the following which is given here verbatim:

“The point of view of the minority is dogmatic instead of critical, idealistic instead of materialistic. They regard not the real conditions but a mere effort of will as the driving force of the revolution. Whereas we say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power’, you say on the contrary: ‘Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds.’ Whereas we are at pains to show the German workers in particular how rudimentary the development of the German proletariat is, you appeal to the patriotic feelings and the class prejudice of the German artisans, flattering them in the grossest way possible, and this is a more popular method, of course. Just as the word ‘people’ has been given an aura of sanctity by the democrats, so you have done the same for the word ‘proletariat’. Like the democrats you substitute the catchword of revolution for revolutionary development,” etc., etc.

Herr Schapper’s verbatim reply was as follows:

“I have voiced the opinion attacked here because I am in general an enthusiast in this matter. The question at issue is whether we ourselves chop off a few heads right at the start or whether it is our own heads that will fall.” (Schapper even promised to lose his own head in a year, i.e. on September 15, 1851) “In France the workers will come to power and thereby we in Germany too. Were this not the case I would indeed take to my bed; in that event I would he able to enjoy a different material position. If we come to power we can take such measures as are necessary to ensure the rule of the proletariat. I am a fanatical supporter of this view but the Central Authority favours the very opposite,” etc., etc.

It is obvious that it was not for personal reasons that the Central Authority was divided. But it would be just as wrong to speak of a difference of principle. The Schapper-Willich party have never laid claim to the dignity of having their own ideas. Their own contribution is the peculiar misunderstanding of other people’s ideas which they set up as dogmas and, reducing these to a phrase, they imagine to have made them their own. It would be no less incorrect to agree with the prosecution in describing the Willich-Schapper party as the “party of action”, unless by action one understands indolence concealed behind beerhouse bluster, simulated conspiracies and meaningless pseudo-alliances.