Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter One: Early Years


1. Home and School

KARL HEINRICH MARX was born on the 5th of May, 1818, in Trier. Owing to the confusion and destruction amongst the official Registers in the Rhineland during the troubled times which prevailed at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, little is known with certainty about his antecedents. Even the year in which Heinrich Heine was born is still the subject of dispute.

With regard to Karl Marx, however, the situation is not quite so bad, for he was born in more peaceable times; but when a sister of his father died about fifty years ago leaving an invalid will, all the legal investigations to ascertain the lawful heirs were not able to discover the birth and death dates of her parents, that is to say, of the grandparents of Karl Marx. His grandfather was Marx Levi, but later on the Levi was dropped. This man was a Rabbi in Trier and is believed to have died in 1798. In any case, he was no longer alive in 1810, but his wife Eva Marx, nee Moses, was, and she is believed to have died in 1825.

This pair had numerous children and two of them, Samuel and Hirschel, devoted themselves to scholarly professions. Samuel, who was born in 1781 and died in 1829, became the successor of his father as Rabbi in Trier. Hirschel, the father of Karl Marx, was born in 1782. He studied jurisprudence and became an advocate in Trier. Later he became a Justizrat and in 1824 he adopted Christianity, taking the name Heinrich Marx. He died in 1838.

Heinrich Marx married a Dutch Jewess named Henrietta Pressburg whose genealogical tree showed, according to the statement of her granddaughter Eleanor Marx, a century-long line of Rabbis. Henrietta Pressburg died in 1863. Heinrich Marx and his wife Henrietta left a large family, but at the time of the testamentary investigations which provided us with these genealogical notes only four of the children were still alive: Karl Marx, Sophie the widow of an advocate named Schmalhausen in Mastricht, Emilie the wife of an engineer named Conrady in Trier, and Luise the wife of a merchant named Juta in Cape Town.

Thanks to his parents, whose marriage was an extremely happy one, Karl Marx, next to his sister Sophie the eldest child, enjoyed a cheerful and carefree youth. His “splendid natural gifts” awakened in his father the hope that they would one day be used in the service of humanity, whilst his mother declared him to be a child of fortune in whose hands everything would go well. However, Karl Marx was neither the son of his mother, like Goethe, nor the son of his father like Lessing and Schiller. With all her affectionate care for her husband and her children, Marx’s mother was completely absorbed in her domestic affairs. All her life she spoke broken German and took no part in the intellectual struggles of her son, beyond perhaps wondering with a mother’s regret what might have become of him had he taken the right path. In later years Karl Marx appears to have been on intimate terms with his maternal relatives in Holland, and in particular with his “uncle” Philips. He repeatedly refers in terms of great friendship to this “fine old boy” who proved helpful to him later on in the material troubles of his life.

Although Karl Marx’s father died a few days after his son’s twentieth birthday, he too seems to have observed with secret apprehension “the demon” in his favourite son. It was not the petty and fidgety anxiety of a parent for his son’s career which troubled him, but rather the vague feeling that there was something as hard as granite in his son’s character, something entirely foreign to his own yielding nature. As a Jew, a Rhinelander and a lawyer, he should have been thrice armed against the wiles of the East Elbian Junkers, but in fact Heinrich Marx was a Prussian patriot, though not in the wretched sense the term has to-day, but a Prussian patriot of the Waldeck and Ziegler type, saturated with bourgeois culture and having an honest belief in the “Old Fritzian” enlightenment, an “ideologue” of the type hated by Napoleon with good reason. Although the conqueror had given to the Rhenish Jews equality of civil rights and to the Rhineland itself the Code Napoleon, a jealously guarded treasure ceaselessly attacked by the Old-Prussian reaction, Marx’s father hated Napoleon.

His belief in the “genius” of the Prussian monarchy was not even shaken by the fact that the Prussian government would have compelled him to change his religion in order to save his bourgeois position. This has often been cited, even by otherwise well-informed persons apparently for the purpose of justifying or at least excusing an action which requires neither justification nor excuse. Even considered from a purely religious standpoint, a man who acknowledged “a pure belief in God” with Locke, Leibnitz and Lessing no longer had any place in the synagogue and belonged rather in the fold of the Prussian State Church, in which at that time a tolerant rationalism prevailed, a so-called religion of reason which had left its mark even on the Prussian Censorship Edict of 1819.

At that time the renunciation of Judaism was not merely an act of religious emancipation, but also, and even more so, an act of social emancipation. The Jewish community as such had taken no part whatever in the great intellectual labours of the German thinkers and poets. The modest light of Moses Mendelssohn had vainly attempted to guide his “nation” into the intellectual life of Germany, and just at the time when Heinrich Marx decided to adopt Christianity a circle of young Jews in Berlin revived Mendelssohn’s efforts only to meet with the same failure, although such men as Eduard Gans and Heinrich Heine were in their ranks. Gans, who was the helmsman of the venture, was the first to strike his flag and go over to Christianity. Heinrich Heine hurled a robust curse after him – “Gestern noch ein Held gewesen, ist man heute schon ein Schurke” [1] – but it was not long before Heine himself was compelled to follow his example and purchase “an entrance card into the community of European culture.” Both Gans and Heine contributed their historic share to the intellectual labours of the century in Germany, whilst the names of their companions who remained loyal to the cultural development of Judaism have long since been forgotten.

Thus for many a decade the adoption of Christianity was an act of civilized progress for the freer spirits of Judaism, and the change of religion made by Heinrich Marx for himself and his family in 1824 must be understood in this sense and no other. It is possible that external circumstances determined the moment at which the change was made, but they were certainly not the cause. The breaking up of estates and farms by Jewish usurers took place on a growing scale during the agricultural crisis in the twenties and as a result it produced a violent wave of anti-Semitism in the Rhineland. In this situation it was not the duty of a man of irreproachable honesty like Marx’s father to bear any share of this hatred and, having regard for his children, he would have had no right to do so. Perhaps the death of his mother, which occurred at about this time, freed him from considerations of filial piety, feelings which would have been in harmony with his whole character; or perhaps the fact that the eldest son came of school age the year the father changed his religion may have played a part in the final decision.

But whether this was the case or not, there can be no doubt that Heinrich Marx had attained that humanistic culture which freed him entirely from all Jewish prejudices, and he handed on this freedom to his son Karl as a valuable heritage. There is nothing in the numerous letters Heinrich Marx wrote to his student son which betrays a trace of any specifically Jewish traits, either good or bad. His letters are written in an old-fashioned fatherly, sentimental and rambling way and in the style prevailing in eighteenth century correspondence, when a true German gushed in love and blustered in anger. Without any trace of petty-bourgeois narrow-mindedness the letters readily enter into the intellectual interests of the son whilst showing a decisive and thoroughly justifiable objection to the latter’s hankerings after fame as a “common poetaster.” But with all his delight in the thoughts of his son’s future, the old man, with “his hair blanched and his spirit a little subdued,” cannot quite rid himself of the idea that perhaps his son’s heart is not as great as his brain and that perhaps it will not find room enough for those mundane but milder feelings which are so very consoling in this human vale of tears.

In this sense his doubts were probably justified. The real love which he bore for his son “in the depths of his heart” did not make him blind, but rather prophetic. But as no man can ever foresee the final consequences of his actions, so Heinrich Marx did not think and could not have thought that the rich store of bourgeois culture which he handed on to his son Karl as a valuable heritage for life would only help to deliver the “demon” he feared, not knowing whether it was “heavenly” or “Faustian.” Whilst still in the house of his parents Karl Marx surmounted with the greatest ease things which cost Heine and Lassalle the first great struggles of their lives and left them with wounds from which neither of them ever fully recovered.

It is not so easy to see what school life contributed to the development of the growing lad. Karl Marx never spoke of any of his school companions and none of them has left any information about him. He soon completed the curriculum of his high school in Trier and his leaving certificate is dated the 25th of August, 1835. It sends off the hopeful youth in the usual fashion with an expression of good wishes for his further progress and stereotyped observations concerning his attainments in the various subjects. However, it stresses in particular the fact that Karl Marx was often able to render and interpret the most difficult passages in the classics and in particular such passages where the difficulty lay less in the peculiarities of the language than in the subject matter and the relation of ideas. His Latin themes, it declares, showed richness of thought and a deep acquaintance with their subject, but were often overweighted with unsuitable matter.

In the actual finals religion presented some difficulties and history also, but in his German composition the examining masters found an “interesting” idea, an idea in fact which we shall find of much greater interest. The subject set was “The Reflections of a Youth Before Choosing a Profession,” and the verdict on Marx’s attempt was that it recommended itself by a richness of ideas and good systematic construction, but that otherwise its author fell into his usual error of exaggerated searchings after unusual and picturesque expressions. And then the following passage is quoted literally: “We cannot always take up the profession for which we feel ourselves suited; our relations in society have begun to crystallize more or less before we are in a position to determine them.” Thus the first flash of an idea shows itself like summer lightning in the mind of the lad, an idea the development and completion of which was to be the immortal service of the man.



2. Jenny von Westphalen

In the autumn of 1835 Karl Marx entered the University of Bonn and remained a student there for a year, though it is to be feared that his studies of jurisprudence were neither very wide nor deep.

No direct information is available concerning this period, but to judge from the letters of his father it would appear that a certain amount of wild oats was sown in it. At first we find his father complaining only of “bills a la Karl, without relation and without result,” (and it is true of Marx throughout his life that as far as accounts were concerned the classic theoretician of money could never quite make his own tally) but later on we find his father in a very bitter mood and complaining of “wild frolics.”

Coming on top of the merry year he had just spent in Bonn, it had all the appearance of a typical student escapade when at the mature age of eighteen Karl Marx became engaged to a playmate of his childhood, a close friend of his elder sister Sophie, who helped to smooth the path to the union of the two young hearts. In reality, however, it was the first and most joyous victory of this born master of men, a victory which appeared “absolutely incomprehensible” to his father until he discovered that the girl too had “something of genius” about her and was capable of making sacrifices which would have been impossible for an ordinary girl.

Indeed, Jenny von Westphalen was a girl not only of unusual beauty, but of unusual spirit and character. She was four years older than Karl Marx, but still only in the early twenties. Her youthful beauty was in its first glorious bloom and she was greatly admired and much courted, and as the daughter of a highly-placed official she might have made a brilliant match. Jenny von Westphalen sacrificed all her brilliant prospects for “a dangerous and uncertain future,” as Marx’s father put it; and occasionally he believed that he could observe in her the anxious presentiments which also disturbed him, but by that time he was so certain of the “angel girl,” the “enchantress,” that he promised his son not even a prince should rob him of her.

The future turned out to be more dangerous and more uncertain than Heinrich Marx had feared even in his worst forebodings, but Jenny von Westphalen, whose youthful portrait radiates childlike grace and charm, held to the man of her choice with the steadfast courage of a heroine in defiance of terrible sufferings and affliction. It was not in the humdrum sense of the word perhaps that she lightened the heavy burden of his life, for she was one of the favoured children of fortune and not always capable of dealing with the minor misfortunes of life as a more inured woman of the people might have done, but in the high sense in which she grasped his life’s work.

In all her letters which are still extant there is a breath of real womanliness. Hers was a nature such as Goethe has described, ringing equally true in every mood, whether it was reflected in the delightful chatter of happy days or in the tragic anguish of a Niobe robbed of a child by poverty and privation and unable to give it even a modest grave. Her beauty was always the pride of her husband and after their fates had been linked together for twenty years, we find him writing in 1863 from Trier, where he had gone to attend the funeral of his mother: “Every day I made a pilgrimage to the old Westphalen house (in the Romerstrasse) and it interests me more than all the Roman remains because it reminds me of the happy days of my youth and because it once sheltered my treasure. Every day I am asked left and right about the quondam ‘most beautiful girl in Trier,’ the ‘Queen of the ball.’ It is damned agreeable for a man to find that his wife lives on in the memory of a whole town as ‘an enchanted princess.’” And the dying Marx, free as he was of all sentimentality, spoke in a sorrowful and deeply-moving tone of the most beautiful period of his life embodied in Jenny von Westphalen.

The young people became engaged without first asking the permission of the girl’s parents, a circumstance which caused the conscientious father of Karl Marx no little misgivings, but it was not long before their consent was obtained. Despite his name and title, Privy Councillor Ludwig von Westphalen belonged neither to the East Elbian Junkers nor to the old Prussian bureaucracy. His father was Philip Westphalen, one of the most remarkable figures in military history. He was civil secretary to Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, who, at the head of a motley army in English pay, successfully defended Western Germany during the Seven Years War against the thirst for conquest of Louis XV and his Pompadour. Philip Westphalen became the real Chief-of-Staff of the Duke in the face of all the English and German generals with his army. His services were recognized in such measure that the King of England proposed to make him Adjutant-General of the army, an honour which Philip Westphalen refused. He was, however, compelled to tame his independent spirit to the extent of “accepting” a title, and his reasons for so doing were similar to those which caused Herder and Schiller to submit to the same indignity: he wished to marry the daughter of a Scottish baronial family who had come to the camp of Duke Ferdinand to visit her sister, who was married to the General commanding the English auxiliary troops.

One of the sons of this pair was Ludwig von Westphalen. From his father he had inherited a historic name and on his mother’s side his ancestors recalled great historical memories; one of her forefathers in the direct line of descent had gone to the stake during the struggle for the Reformation in Scotland, and another, Earl Archibald of Argyle, was executed in the market place at Edinburgh as a rebel against James II. With such family traditions Ludwig von Westphalen was far above the reeking and musty narrow-mindedness of the beggar-proud Junkers and of the arrogant bureaucracy. Originally in Brunswick service, he had not hesitated to continue this career when Napoleon amalgamated the little Dukedom with the Kingdom of Westphalia, for he was obviously less interested in the hereditary Guelphs than in the reforms with which the French conquerors remedied the decaying conditions in his own little Fatherland. However, his objection to foreign dominance was none the less strong on that account and in 1813 he felt the stern hand of the French Marshal Davoust.

His daughter Jenny was born in Salzwedel on February 12th, 1814, where he was Landrat [2], and two years later he was transferred to Trier as advisor to the government. In his early zeal the Prussian Prime Minister Hardenberg had sufficient acumen to realize that he must send the most capable men, those least affected by the common idiosyncrasies of Junkerdom, into the newly-won Rhineland which in its heart still leaned towards France.

To the end of his life Karl Marx spoke with the greatest devotion and gratitude of Ludwig von Westphalen, and when he addressed him as his “dear fatherly friend” and assured him of his “filial love it was more than the perfunctory flourish of a son-in-law. Westphalen could recite whole passages from the poems of Homer and he knew most of the dramas of Shakespeare by heart both in English and in German. In the “old Westphalen house” Karl Marx obtained much stimulation which his own home was unable to offer him and his school still less. From his earliest years he was one of Westphalen’s favourites, and it is not unlikely that Westphalen gave his consent to the engagement in view of the happy marriage of his own parents for in the eyes of the world the daughter of an aristocratic baronial family had also made a bad match when she married a commoner who was poor and no more than a civil servant.

The spirit of the father did not live on in his eldest son, who developed into a bureaucratic careerist and worse than that: during the period of reaction in the fifties he was the Prussian Minister of the Interior and he defended the feudal claims of the most obdurate and obscurantist Junkers even against the Prime Minister Manteuffel, who was at least a shrewd bureaucrat. There were never any particularly close relations between this son, Ferdinand von Westphalen, and his sister, who in fact was only his step-sister for he was fifteen years older than Jenny and the son of his father by an earlier marriage.

Jenny’s real brother was Edgar von Westphalen, who departed as far to the left of his father’s path as his step-brother did to the right. Occasionally Edgar even appended his signature to the communist manifestoes of his brother-in-law Karl Marx, but he never became a very reliable supporter. He went overseas and experienced changing fortunes, returned and turned up here and there, a thoroughly wild character whenever he was heard of, but he always kept a warm corner in his heart for Jenny and Karl Marx and they named their first son after him.




1. “A hero but yesterday, a villain to-day.”

2. Approximately the German equivalent of Sheriff of the County. – Tr.


Last updated on 27.2.2004