Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter Six: Revolution and Counter-Revolution


1. February and March Days

ON February 24th, 1848, the bourgeois monarchy in France was overthrown by a revolution. This movement was not without its repercussions in Brussels, but King Leopold, a wily old Coburger fox, succeeded in extricating himself from the situation more cleverly than his father-in-law in Paris. He announced to his Liberal Ministers, the Deputies and the Mayors that if the nation demanded it he would abdicate at once, and this generous gesture so touched the hearts of the sentimental bourgeois statesmen that they immediately suppressed all their rebellious feelings.

But after that the King caused his soldiers to disperse all public meetings and set his police to hunt down foreign fugitives. Marx was treated with particular brutality. Not only did the police arrest him, but they also arrested his wife, who was held for one night in the company of common prostitutes. The police official responsible for this piece of infamy was later removed from his post and the order of arrest had to be withdrawn immediately, but not so the order of expulsion although it was a thoroughly unnecessary piece of chicanery, for Marx was in any case about to leave Brussels for Paris.

Immediately after the outbreak of the revolution the central authorities of the Communist League in London transferred executive authority to the district representatives in Brussels, but in view of the situation in Brussels, which was practically under martial law, the latter handed on this authority to Marx together with instructions to form a new central leadership in Paris to which he had been recalled by a letter signed by Flocon on behalf of the provisional government, an incident which greatly honoured him.

On March 6th he once again had an opportunity of putting his superior understanding of the political situation to good account when at a big meeting of German fugitives living in Paris he energetically opposed an adventurous plan to invade Germany by armed force in order to revolutionize the country. This plan had been hatched out by the dubious Bornstedt, who had unfortunately succeeded in winning Herwegh for it. Bakunin was also in favour of the plan, though he later regretted having given it his support. The provisional government was also prepared to support the plan, but less from any real revolutionary enthusiasm than with the arriere pensee that in view of the prevailing unemployment it would be an excellent thing to get rid of many foreign-born workers. It placed barracks at the disposal of the revolutionaries and made them a daily grant of 50 centimes per man for the march to the frontier. Herwegh had no illusions about the reasons which prompted the provisional government to support the venture and he himself referred to “the egoistic motive,” the desire “to get rid of many thousands of foreign-born artisans who were competing with the French,” but his lack of political vision caused him to pursue the adventure to its pitiful end near Niederdossenbach.

Whilst Marx energetically opposed this revolutionary foolery, which, with the victory of the revolution in Vienna on March 13th and in Berlin on March 18th had lost any justification it might have had, he was busily engaged in forging the weapons to further the German revolution effectively, a task on which the communists had concentrated their main attention. In accordance with his instructions he formed a new central leadership in Paris, consisting of himself, Engels and Wolff from Brussels, and Bauer, Moll and Schapper from London. This new body then issued an appeal containing seventeen demands “in the interests of the German proletariat, the petty-bourgeoisie and the peasantry,” including a demand that Germany should be proclaimed a republic, one and indivisible, and further demands for the arming of the people, the nationalization of the princely and other feudal estates, of the mines and of the transport system, the establishment of national workshops, and the introduction of a general system of compulsory education at State cost, etc. Naturally, these demands were intended only to lay down the general lines of communist propaganda, for no one knew better than Marx that they could not be carried out from one day to the next, but only as the result of a long process of revolutionary development.

The Communist League was much too weak to act alone in the work of accelerating the revolutionary movement, and it was soon seen that its reorganization on the continent was only in its infancy. However, this was no longer so important because the working class had now won the means and the possibility of conducting its propaganda openly and therefore the chief reason for the existence of the League was removed. Under these circumstances Marx and Engels founded a German communist club in Paris and strongly advised its members to keep away from Herwegh’s guerilla bands and instead to make their way singly into Germany in order to further the revolutionary movement there. They succeeded in sending several hundred workers back to Germany, and, thanks to the mediation of Flocon, they obtained the same support for them as the provisional government had granted to Herwegh and his volunteers.

As the result of these efforts the majority of the members of the Communist League succeeded in getting back into Germany and their activities there demonstrated that the League had been an excellent training school for the revolution. Wherever the revolutionary movement in Germany showed any signs of vigorous development, the members of the League were seen to be the driving force behind it: Schapper in Nassau, Wolff in Breslau, Stephan Born in Berlin and other members elsewhere. Born hit the nail on the head when he wrote to Marx: “The League is dissolved – everywhere and nowhere.” As an organization it had-ceased to exist, but its propaganda was visible wherever the conditions for the proletarian struggle for freedom existed, although this was true of a comparatively small area of Germany only.

Marx and his nearest friends went to the Rhineland, which was the most progressive part of Germany and where the Code Napoleon afforded greater freedom of movement than the Prussian Civil Code in Berlin, and there they succeeded in securing the lead in preparations which were being made in Cologne by democratic and, in part, communist elements to found a newspaper. However, things were not by any means all plain sailing, and Engels in particular suffered the disappointment of discovering that communism in the Wuppertal was not even a reality, much less a power in the land and that since the revolution had begun to show real signs of life Wuppertal communism was nothing but a faint shadow of the past. Writing to Marx, who was in Cologne, he declared in a letter of the 25th of April from Barmen: “It is damned little use reckoning on any shares here....They all avoid any discussion of social questions like the plague; they call it incitement.... There is nothing whatever to be got out of my old gentleman. He regards the Kölnische Zeitung as the last word in incitement and he would sooner send us a thousand bullets to finish us off than a thousand thaler to help us along. However, Engels succeeded in floating fourteen shares and on the 1st of June, 1848, the first number of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung appeared. It was signed by Marx as chief editor whilst Engels, Dronke, Weerth and the two Wolffs were members of the editorial staff.



2. June Days

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung described itself as “an Organ of Democracy,” but it did not mean left-wing parliamentary democracy. It harboured no such ambitions and it considered it urgently necessary to watch the official Democrats closely. Its ideal, it declared, was by no means the black, red and gold republic, and in fact its real oppositional work would begin only after the republic had been established.

Completely in the spirit of The Communist Manifesto it sought to further the revolutionary movement on the basis of existing conditions. This task was made all the more urgent by the fact that the revolutionary ground which had been won in March was half lost again by June. In Vienna, where the class antagonisms were still undeveloped, a happy-go-lucky anarchism prevailed, whilst in Berlin the bourgeoisie had the power in its hands, but was only too anxious to slip it back at first opportunity into the hands of the vanquished pre-March powers. In the little German States and Statelets, Liberal Ministers were giving themselves airs, but they did not distinguish themselves from their feudal predecessors by the display of any manly pride before the throne of Kings, but rather by the possession of still more pliable spines. And to crown it all, the first meeting of the Frankfort National Assembly on the 18th of May, which was to create German unity by virtue of its own sovereign authority, proved itself to be no more than a hopeless talking shop.

In its very first number the Neue Rheinische Zeitung dealt with this shadowy unreality so energetically that half of its not very numerous shareholders immediately beat a retreat. Not that the paper made any exaggerated demands of the political vision and courage of the parliamentary heroes. It criticized the federal republicanism of the left-wing of the Frankfort parliament and declared that a federation of constitutional monarchies, little principalities and republics with a republican government at their head could not be accepted as the final constitution for a united Germany, but it immediately added:

“We do not put forward any utopian demand for the immediate establishment of a German Republic, one and indivisible, but we do demand that the so-called Radical Democratic Party should not confuse the first stage of the struggle and of the revolutionary movement with the final aim. German unity and a German constitution can be achieved only as the result of a movement which will be forced to seek a decision both as a result of inner conflicts and of a war against the East. The definitive constitution cannot be decreed; it will come about as a result of the movement we have yet to experience. It is therefore not a question of fulfilling this or that political idea or of holding this or that opinion, but of grasping the general trend of development. The National Assembly has only to take the immediately possible practical steps.”

However, the National Assembly did something which according to all the laws of logic should have been practically out of the question: it elected the Austrian Archduke Johann as Reich Regent thus playing the movement into the hands of the princes.

Events in Berlin were more important than those in Frankfort. The Prussian State was the most dangerous enemy of the revolution inside Germany. On the 18th of March the revolution overthrew the Prussian government, but in the given historical situation the fruits of victory fell first into the lap of the bourgeoisie, and the latter hurried to betray the revolution. In order to ensure “the continuity of legal relations,” or, in other words, to deny its own revolutionary origin, the bourgeois Camphausen-Hansemann Ministry called a meeting of the United Diet in order to entrust this feudal-corporative body with the drawing up of a bourgeois constitution. On the 6th and 8th of April two laws were passed establishing various bourgeois rights as the basis of the new constitution and providing for the introduction of a general, secret and indirect franchise to elect a new assembly whose task it would be to draw up the constitution in agreement with the Crown.

With the establishment of this brilliant principle of “agreement with the Crown” the victory which the proletariat of Berlin had won on the 18th of March against the Prussian Guards was rendered ineffective, for if the decisions of the proposed new assembly required the agreement of the Crown then obviously the latter was once again in a strong position. It could again dictate its will unless it was brought to heel by a second revolution, a possibility which the Camphausen-Hansemann Ministry did its utmost to prevent. It subjected the assembly, which met on the 22nd of May to the pettiest chicanery, placed itself as “a shield” before the dynasty and gave the leaderless counter-revolution a head by recalling the Prince of Prussia from England whither the thoroughly reactionary heir to the throne had fled to escape the anger of the masses on the 18th of March.

The Berlin Assembly was certainly not a very spirited revolutionary body, but at least it did not keep its head so consistently in the clouds as its Frankfort companion. It gave way on the question of “agreement with the Crown,” a principle which sucked the marrow from its bones, but after the Berlin masses had again spoken a menacing word by storming the Zeughaus on the 14th of June it rallied again and took up a more or less determined attitude towards the Crown. As a result Camphausen resigned, although Hansemann clung to office. The difference between the two was that whilst Camphausen was still troubled by remnants of progressive bourgeois ideology, Hansemann dedicated himself utterly, without shame or scruples, to the brazen profit interests of the bourgeoisie and sought to further them most effectively by kow-towing more zealously than ever to the King and the Junkers, by corrupting the assembly and by oppressing the masses to a greater extent than ever before. For the moment and for reasons of its own the counterrevolution willingly let him have his head.

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung did its utmost to stem this fatal development. It pointed out that Camphausen was sowing seeds of reaction in the interests of the bourgeoisie, but that the harvest would be reaped in the interests of the feudal party. It did its utmost to stiffen the resistance of the Berlin Assembly and in particular its left-wing, and it fought against the indignation aroused by the fact that a number of old flags and weapons had been destroyed in the storm on the Zeughaus, declaring that the people had shown unerring instinct not only in attacking its oppressors, but in destroying the brilliant illusions of its own past. And above all it warned the left wing against contenting itself with the deceptive appearance of parliamentary victories, pointing out that the reaction would gladly grant it such illusions providing the really commanding positions still remained in the hands of the old powers.

It prophesied a miserable end for the Hansemann Ministry, which sought to create a basis for bourgeois dominance by compromising with the old feudal and police State. “In this ambiguous and contradictory task it sees itself and its aim, the founding of bourgeois dominance, outwitted at every turn by the reaction in the absolutist and feudal interests – and it will be the loser. The bourgeoisie cannot establish its dominance without winning the whole people as its temporary ally and without taking up a more or less democratic attitude.” Caustic scorn was poured on the attempts of the bourgeoisie to turn the emancipation of the peasantry, the legitimate task of the bourgeois revolution, into a piece of legerdemain: “The German bourgeoisie of 1848 is betraying the peasantry, without decency and without shame, although the peasantry represents its natural ally, flesh of its flesh and blood of its blood, and although it is helpless against the aristocracy without the support of the peasantry. The German Revolution of 1848 was nothing but a parody of the French Revolution of 1789, it declared.

It was a parody in another sense also, for the German Revolution had not gained the victory as a result of its own strength but as the result of a French revolution which had already given the proletariat a share in the government. This neither justifies nor excuses the treachery of the German bourgeoisie to the revolution, but at least it explains it. Whilst the Hansemann Ministry was beginning its grave-digging services, the spectre the bourgeoisie feared was almost banned. In a terrible street battle which lasted four days the proletariat of Paris was defeated, thanks to the joint services rendered to capital by all bourgeois classes and parties.

In Germany the banner of “the victorious vanquished” was raised from the dust by the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and in a striking article Marx pointed out which side democracy must take in the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat: “They will ask us whether we have no tears, no sighs and no words of regret for the victims in the ranks of the National Guard, the Mobile Guard, the Republican Guard and the Regiments of the Line who fell before the anger of the people. The State will look after their widows and orphans, pompous decrees will glorify them and solemn processions will bear their remains to the grave. The official press will declare them immortal and the European reaction from East to West will sing their praises. On the other hand, it is the privilege and right of the democratic press to place the laurel wreaths on the lowering brews of the plebeians tortured with the pangs of hunger, despised by the official press, abandoned by the doctors, abused as thieves, vandals and galley-slaves by all respectable citizens, their wives and children plunged into still greater misery, and the best of their survivors deported overseas.”

This magnificent article, which breathes the fires of revolutionary passion even to-day, cost the Neue Rheinische Zeitung the greater number of those shareholders who still remained.



3. The War Against Russia

In foreign policy the war against Russia was the pivot around which the Neue Rheinische Zeitung moved. It regarded Russia as the one really dangerous enemy of the revolution and one which would inevitably enter the struggle as soon as the revolutionary movement took on a European character.

It was quite right in this respect for whilst it was calling for a revolutionary war against Russia the Tsar was offering the Prince of Prussia the use of the Russian army to re-establish despotism in Prussia by armed force (the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, however, was not aware of this, but it has since been proved by documentary evidence) and a year later the Russian bear saved Austrian despotism by crushing the Hungarian Revolution in its clumsy embrace. The German Revolution could not be finally victorious without destroying both the Prussian and Austrian absolutist States, declared the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and this would remain impossible so long as the power of the Tsar was unbroken.

As a result of such a war against Russia the Neue Rheinische Zeitung hoped for a tremendous release of revolutionary forces such as had taken place in France in 1789 as a result of the war against feudal Germany. In the words of Weerth, it treated the German nation en canaille, and this was true in that it bitterly scourged the lackey services which the Germans had rendered for seventy years against the freedom and independence of other nations in America and France, in Italy and Poland, in Holland and Greece, and still other countries: “Now that the Germans are beginning to cast off their own yoke they must alter their whole policy towards other countries; otherwise they will find that the chains they have forged for others will entangle their own shadowy young freedom. Germany will win its own freedom to the extent that it leaves other countries in freedom.” The paper denounced the Machiavellian policy which, although it was being shaken to the roots in Germany itself, deliberately fomented a narrow-minded hatred of things foreign in defiance of the cosmopolitan character of the Germans, in order to paralyse democratic energies, divert attention from itself, turn the molten lava of the revolution from its course, and forge a weapon of internal oppression.

“Despite the patriotic howling and drumming of almost the whole of the German press,” the Neue Rheinische Zeitung came out from the beginning on the side of the Poles in Posen, the Italians in Italy and the Hungarians in Hungary, and mocked at “the profundity of the combination” and “the historical paradox” which sought to lead the Germans into a crusade against the liberty of Poland, Hungary and Italy at a time when the same Germans were fighting against the very governments which proposed to lead them. “Only a war against Russia would be a revolutionary war for Germany. In such a war it could wash away the sins of the past, vindicate its own manliness, defeat its own despots, advance the cause of civilization by sacrificing its own sons in a manner worthy of a people which has flung off the chains of long-suffered and inert slavery, and win freedom at home by fighting for freedom abroad.

As a result of this attitude the Neue Rheinische Zeitung supported the cause of Polish freedom more passionately than that of any other oppressed nation. The movement in Poland in 1848 was limited to the Prussian province of Posen because Russian Poland was still exhausted from the revolution of 1830 and Austrian Poland from the insurrection of 1846. It was modest enough in its attitude and demanded hardly more than had been promised by the treaties of 1815 but never granted: the replacement of the army of occupation by native troops and the holding of all positions by natives. In the first spasm of fear occasioned by the events of the 18th of March the Berlin government promised “a national reorganization,” though naturally, it had no intention of ever carrying it out. The Poles were trustful enough to believe in its good-will but it deliberately incited the German and Jewish population of the province of Posen and systematically provoked a civil war whose atrocities were almost completely the guilt of the Prussians. Deliberately provoked to armed resistance, the Poles fought gallantly and more than once they routed forces superior to their own in numbers and equipment, for instance, on the 30th of April near Miloslav, but in the long run the fight of the Polish scythes against Prussian shrapnel was hopeless.

In the Polish question also the German bourgeoisie played its usual role of treachery and panic. Before the March Revolution it had realized clearly enough how closely the cause of Poland was connected with the cause of Germany, and even after the 18th of March its spokesmen had declared at the so-called preliminary parliament in Frankfort that to work for the re-establishment of national unity in Poland was the solemn duty of the German nation. But this did not prevent Camphausen from playing the lackey to the Prussian Junkers in this question also. He carried out the promise of “national reorganization” in a shameful fashion by wresting one piece after the other from the province of Posen, in all over two-thirds, and causing the federal Diet to incorporate it in the German League. This piece of infamy was the last gasp of that body, which ended its life miserably amidst the general contempt of the German people. The National Assembly in Frankfort was now faced with the question of whether or not it should recognize as its members those deputies who had been elected in the annexed parts of Posen. After a debate which lasted three days it decided as might have been expected of it and this degenerate offspring of the revolution gave its blessing to the infamy of the counter-revolution.

The importance attached by the Neue Rheinische Zeitung to this question can be seen from the fact that it dealt with the debate in Frankfort in great detail and published eight or nine articles, some of them very long, on the subject, in striking contrast to the contemptuous brevity with which it usually dismissed the parliamentary phrase-mongering of this assembly. This series of articles represents the longest work ever published in the paper and both content and style suggest that Marx and Engels were joint authors. In any case, Engels had a large share in the work, which bears unmistakable signs of his style and manner.

The first thing which strikes one in these articles, and it is a feature which does the paper all honour, is the refreshing frankness with which they expose the contemptible game which was being played with Poland. However, the moral indignation of which both Marx and Engels were capable – far more capable than the worthy Philistine could even imagine – had nothing in common with the sentimental sympathy which, for instance, Robert Blum in France, showed the maltreated Poles. Their judgment on the efforts of the respected leader of the left wing in this direction read: “Empty tubthumping, but as we are gladly prepared to admit, tub-thumping on the grand scale and in a good cause,” and their judgment was well-founded, for Blum failed to realize that the betrayal of Poland was at the same time the betrayal of the German Revolution, which thereby lost an indispensable weapon against its deadly enemy, Tsarism.

Marx and Engels passed the same disrespectful judgment on the demand for “the general fraternization of the peoples,” that vague aspiration towards fraternity irrespective of the historical situation and the social development of the peoples involved. For them such phrases as “Justice,” “Humanitarianism,” “Liberty,” “Equality,” “Fraternity” and “Independence” were no more than moral phrases which sounded fine but played no role in historical and political questions. What they termed “modern mythology” was always abhorrent to them and in the hectic days of the revolution they admitted only one test: “For or against?”

The Polish articles of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung breathe a spirit of real revolutionary passion which raises them high above the usual pro-Polish phrases indulged in by the common run of democrats, and even to-day they stand as an eloquent proof of the keen and penetrating political insight of their authors. However, they are not completely free of errors with regard to Polish history. It was certainly of great importance to point out that the struggle for Polish independence could be successful only if it were at the same time a victory of agrarian democracy over patriarchal-feudal absolutism, but they were wrong in assuming that since the Constitution of 1791 the Poles themselves had realized this. It was also incorrect to say that the old Poland of aristocratic democracy was dead and buried, but had left behind a vigorous son, the Poland of peasant democracy. The Polish Junkers who had fought with incomparable bravery on the Western European barricades to free their people from the stifling embrace of the Eastern powers were regarded by Marx and Engels as the representatives of the Polish aristocracy, whereas in fact the Lelewels and the Mieroslavskis had been steeled and purified in the flames of the struggle and had raised themselves above their class as Hutten and Sickingen had once raised themselves above the German feudal class, or, in the less distant past, Clausewitz and Gneisenau above Prussian Junkerdom.

Marx and Engels soon abandoned this error, but Engels always clung to the disdainful judgment passed by the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on the struggle of the Southern Slav nations and groups for national freedom. In 1882 he still maintained the attitude he had taken up in 1849 in his polemic with Bakunin. In July, 1848, Bakunin came under suspicion of being an agent of the Russian government and a report to that effect was published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung from its Paris correspondent, Ewerbeck, while a simultaneous and similar report was published by the Havas Bureau. However, this suspicion was revealed almost immediately as baseless and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung published a handsome apology. At the end of August and the beginning of September Marx travelled to Berlin and Vienna, and in Berlin he resumed his old friendly relations with Bakunin. When Bakunin was expelled from Prussia in October, Marx came out with a strong condemnation of the authorities. When Engels published his polemic against Bakunin in connection with an appeal the latter had issued to the Slavs, he began with the assurance that Bakunin was “our friend,” and only then proceeded to attack Bakunin’s Pan-Slav tendencies, though he did so with considerable severity.

In the Slav question also the interests of the revolution were paramount in determining the attitude of Marx and Engels. The Austrian Slavs – with the exception of the Poles – had sided with the reaction in the struggle of the Vienna government against the revolutionary Germans and against Hungary. They had taken revolutionary Vienna by storm and handed it over to the merciless vengeance of the “Royal and Imperial” authorities. At the time when Engels was conducting his polemics against Bakunin they were again in action against insurrectionary Hungary, whose revolutionary war was reported by Engels through the columns of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung with expert knowledge, but at the same time with such passionate partisanship that he over-estimated the level of the historical development of the Magyars as he had previously over-estimated that of the Poles. Answering Bakunin’s demand that the Austrian Slavs should be guaranteed their independence he declared: “Not on your life! Our answer to the sentimental phrases about fraternity which are now offered to us on behalf of the most counter-revolutionary nations in Europe is: hatred of Russia was the first revolutionary passion of the Germans and it still is. Since the revolution this hatred of Russia has been enhanced by hatred of the Czechs and the Croats, and, together with the Poles and Magyars, we can secure the victory of the revolution only by energetic terrorism against these Slav peoples. We know now where the enemies of the revolution are concentrated: in Russia and in the Austrian Slav countries, and no amount of phrases and appeals to a vague democratic future for these countries will prevent us treating our enemies as our enemies.” And therefore Engels proclaims a merciless struggle to the death against “counter-revolutionary Slavdom.”

These lines were not due solely to a fierce wave of anger and indignation at the slavish services rendered by the Austrian Slavs to the European reaction. With the exception of the Poles, the Russians and perhaps the Slavs in Turkey, Engels denied the Slav peoples any historical future, “for the simple reason that all other Slavs have not the first historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for independence and national life.” Their struggle for national independence made them the willing tools of Tsarism, and all the well-meaning self-deceptions of the democratic Pan-Slavs could not alter this fact in the least. The historic right of the great civilized peoples to pursue their revolutionary development was more important than the struggle for independence of these small, crippled and impotent nations and groups, even if here and there some delicate national flower should be nipped in the bud. As a result of the greater struggle these little nations and groups would be privileged to take part in a process of historical development which would remain completely foreign to them if they were left to themselves. And in 1882 he again said very much the same thing: if the struggle of the Balkan Slavs for their independence ran counter to the interests of the proletariat of Western Europe then these lackeys of Tsardom could go to the devil as far as he was concerned; poetic sympathies had no place in the political struggle.

Engels was wrong when he denied any historical future to the smaller Slav nations, but the fundamental idea which governed his attitude was undoubtedly correct and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung held fast to this idea even in a case when it coincided with the “poetic sympathies” of the Philistines.



4. September Days

This case was the war begun by the Prussian government after the 18th of March against Denmark at the instructions of the German League in the Schleswig-Holstein question.

Holstein was a German district and belonged to the German League. Schleswig was not a member of the League and its Northern section at least was preponderatingly Danish. Both Duchies were connected with Denmark by a joint ruling house, although in Schleswig-Holstein the principle of exclusively male succession prevailed whilst in Denmark, which was very little larger and very little more populated than the two Duchies, both male and female succession were permissible. Schleswig and Holstein had a joint administration and enjoyed State independence together.

That at least was the formal relation of Denmark to the two Duchies according to international treaties, but in fact up to the verge of the nineteenth century the German spirit was dominant in Copenhagen and the German language was the official language of the Kingdom while the nobles of Schleswig-Holstein exercised decisive influence in Danish governmental circles. During the Napoleonic wars national antagonisms began to develop. In the Vienna Treaties Denmark had to pay for its loyalty to the heir of the Great French Revolution with the loss of Norway, and in the struggle for existence it was forced to annex Schleswig-Holstein because the gradual expiration of the male line of its ruling house imminently threatened the complete separation of the two Duchies from Denmark and in such circumstances they would fall into the possession of a collateral line. Denmark began to emancipate itself as far as possible from German influence, and as it was too small to develop a really national spirit it began to foster a sort of artificial Scandinavianism with a view to uniting itself with Norway and Sweden in a joint cultural community.

The attempts of the Danish government to obtain complete control over the two Elbian Duchies met with obstinate resistance within the latter and the conflict soon developed into a national question for Germany. Particularly after the formation of the Zollverein Germany began to recognize the importance of the Schleswig-Holstein isthmus for its flourishing trading and maritime relations, and it welcomed resistance to Danish propaganda in Schleswig-Holstein with increasing approval. From 1844 onwards the song Schleswig-Holstein meerumschlungen became a sort of national anthem. The movement certainly did not go much beyond the usual sleepy and boring tempo of pre-March agitation, but the German governments were not able to free themselves completely from its influence. In 1817, King Christian VIII of Denmark made a decisive move in the game by issuing a Royal Letter declaring the Duchy of Schleswig, and even part of the Duchy of Holstein, to be integral parts of the Kingdom of Denmark, and now even the German Federal Diet pulled itself together sufficiently to lodge a lame protest instead of declaring itself noncompetent as was its custom whenever it was necessary to defend the interests of the German people against princely violence.

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung naturally felt not the least sympathy for the sea-surrounded, pot-thumping enthusiasms of the bourgeoisie, which it regarded as the reverse side of Scandinavianism, “enthusiasm for a brutal, grubby, piratical Old-Nordic nationality which is unable to express its deep-seated aspirations in words, but certainly can in deeds, namely, in brutality towards women, chronic drunkenness, and alternate tear-sodden sentimentality and berserker fury.” The situation shifted in the most extraordinary fashion because it was the bourgeois opposition in Denmark, the party of the so-called Eider-Danes, which fought under the banner of Scandinavianism, which wanted to make the Duchy of Schleswig Danish, to extend Denmark’s economic activities and to consolidate the Danish State by giving it a modern constitution. And on the other hand the fight in the two Duchies for the old established rights developed more and more into a struggle for feudal traditions and dynastic privileges.

In January, 1848, Frederick VII came to the throne of Denmark as the last of the male line, and in accordance with the death-bed advice of his father he immediately began to prepare a liberal constitution for Denmark and for the two Duchies. A month later the February revolution in Copenhagen awakened a vigorous people’s movement which brought the Eider-Danes into power, and the latter immediately began to put their program into execution with relentless energy, aiming at annexation of the Duchy of Schleswig up to the river Elder. The two Duchies then declared themselves independent of the Danish Royal House, formed a provisional government in Kiel and raised an army of 7,000 men. The aristocracy had the upper hand in the provisional government and instead of mobilizing the resources of the two Duchies, which-were quite in a position to Pit themselves against Denmark, the government appealed to the German Federal Diet and to the Prussian government for assistance, for it had no cause to fear that either of these bodies would attempt to interfere with the feudal privileges of the aristocracy.

It found willing support from these two bodies which gladly seized on “the defence of the German cause” as a convenient opportunity of recovering from the heavy blows dealt by the revolution. After the signal defeat of his Guards Regiments at the hands of the Berlin barricade fighters on the 18th of March, the Prussian King was anxious to re-establish their prestige by a military walk-over and Denmark, which was militarily weak, seemed to offer the desired opportunity. The King hated the Eider-Danes as one of the fruits of the revolution, but at the same time he regarded the Schleswig-Holsteiners as rebels against a God-given authority, and he therefore instructed his generals to perform their “lackey service for the revolution” in as dilatory fashion as possible. At the same time he sent a secret envoy to Copenhagen in the person of Major von Wildenbruch to inform the Danish government that he wished above all that Schleswig-Holstein should retain its ducal rulers and that he was intervening merely in order to forestall the radical and republican elements.

However, Denmark was not deceived by this message. So it appealed to the Great Powers for assistance, and both Great Britain and Russia proved very willing to grant it. Their help permitted little Denmark to pummel big Germany like a schoolboy. The Danish men-of-war struck crippling blows at Germany’s maritime trade, but the German Federal Army under the command of the Prussian general Wrangel invaded the two Duchies and despite miserable generalship pressed back the weak Danish forces, only to find its military successes rendered nugatory by the diplomatic intervention of the Great Powers. At the end of May Wrangel received orders from Berlin to withdraw his troops from Jutland whereupon, on the 9th of June, the National Assembly announced that the cause of the two Duchies was the cause of the German nation and therefore came within the province of the Assembly which would undertake to defend Germany’s honour.

The war was in fact being conducted in the name of the German League, and its leadership should have been in the hands of the National Assembly and the Habsburg Prince it had elected Reich Regent, but the Prussian government ignored these facts and on the 28th of August, under English and Russian pressure, it concluded the seven months’ truce of Malmoe, at the same time treating with contempt the conditions put forward by the Reich Regent and utterly ignoring his representative. The terms of the truce were ignominious for Germany: the provisional government of Schleswig-Holstein was dissolved and supreme control for the period of the truce placed in the hands of a Danish supporter, the decrees of the provisional government were cancelled and the Schleswig and Holstein troops separated from each other. Germany also suffered a distinct military disadvantage, for the truce embraced the whole of the winter season during which the Danish fleet would have been helpless and unable to blockade the German coasts whilst the German troops would have been able to take advantage of the ice to cross the Little Belt and conquer Fyen, thus reducing Denmark to the island of Zealand.

The news of the signing of the armistice arrived in the first days of September and burst like a bomb-shell in the Frankfort National Assembly, whose deputies were endlessly discussing “with the washerwoman loquacity of mediaeval scholastics” the “fundamental rights” of the future Reich Constitution. In their first consternation the deputies actually decided on the 5th of September to veto the armistice, and this caused the resignation of the Reich Ministry.

This decision was welcomed with lively satisfaction, but without any illusions by the Neue Rheinische Zeitung which demanded the prosecution of the war against Denmark as a result of historical development quite apart from any treaty rights: “The Danes are a people unconditionally dependent on Germany commercially, industrially, politically and in literature. It is a well-known fact that Hamburg is the capital of Denmark and not Copenhagen, and that Denmark derives its literary imports from Germany in the same way as it does its material imports. With the sole exception of Holberg, Danish literature is nothing but a feeble copy of German literature ... Germany must take Schleswig with the same justification that France took Flanders, Alsace and Lorraine, and sooner or later will take Belgium. It is the right of civilization against barbarism, of progress against stagnation ... The war which we are waging in Schleswig-Holstein is a real national war. Who has taken the side of Denmark from the beginning? The three most counter-revolutionary powers in Europe: Russia, England and the Prussian government. As long as it possibly could the Prussian government waged the war only in appearances. Remember von Wildenbruch’s note, the willingness with which Prussia evacuated Jutland at the request of England and Russia, and now the conclusion of this armistice. Prussia, England and Russia are the three powers which have most to fear from the German revolution and its first fruit, German unity: Prussia because it would thereby cease to exist, England because the German market would be lost to its exploitation, and Russia because democracy would advance thereby not only to the Vistula, but to the Dvina and the Dnieper. Prussia, England and Russia have conspired together against Schleswig-Holstein, against Germany, against the revolution. The war which may come about as a result of the Frankfort decisions would be a war of Germany against Prussia, England and Russia. The German revolutionary movement needs such a war to rouse it from its lethargy, a war against the three great powers of the counter-revolution, a war which would finally make Prussia an integral part of Germany, which would make an alliance with Poland an urgent and unavoidable necessity, which would immediately give Italy its freedom and be waged directly against the old counter-revolutionary allies of Germany from 1792 to 1815; a war which would ‘endanger the Fatherland’ and save it just because the victory of Germany would depend on the victory of democracy.” These clear and sharp passages from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung reflected what the revolutionary masses instinctively felt. Thousands of men streamed into Frankfort from a radius of fifty miles around, ready and eager for new revolutionary struggles, but, as the Neue Rheinische Zeitung pointed out, such a struggle would abolish the National Assembly itself, and the latter preferred suicide by cowardice to suicide by heroism. On the 16th of September it gave its approval to the Truce of Malmoe, whilst with one or two exceptions, the representatives of its left-wing rejected a demand that it should constitute itself as a revolutionary convention. The only fighting which took place was a minor barricade engagement in Frankfort itself, and even this was deliberately permitted to grow by the worthy Reich Regent in order to give him a pretext for bringing in an overwhelming force of troops from the neighbouring federal garrison of Mayence and over-awing the sovereign parliament with its bayonets.

At the same time the Hansemann Ministry in Berlin was overtaken by the miserable fate which the Neue Rheinische Zeitung had prophesied for it. It had strengthened the “State power” against “the forces of anarchy,” thus assisting the old Prussian military, police and bureaucratic State to rise to its feet again after the buffeting it had received on the 18th of March, but it had not even succeeded in furthering the brazen profit interests of the bourgeoisie for which it had betrayed the revolution. And above all, as a member of the Berlin Assembly sighed dolefully, “Despite the breach in the March days, the old military system is with us in its entirety again.” This was true, and since the Paris June days it had resumed its menacing sabrerattling almost automatically. It was an open secret that one of the reasons why the Prussian government had agreed so readily to the truce with Denmark was its desire to recall Wrangel and his troops to the neighbourhood of Berlin in order to prepare a counter-revolutionary coup. On the 7th of September, therefore, the Berlin Assembly plucked up sufficient courage to demand from the Minister for War that he should issue an order warning all army officers against reactionary activities and calling upon all those officers whose political convictions ran counter to the existing constitutional situation to resign their commissions as a matter of honour.

This demand was really of no very great importance, particularly as similar appeals had in fact already been issued to the members of the bureaucracy without producing any result whatever, but it was more than militarism was prepared to stand from a bourgeois Ministry. The Hansemann Ministry fell and a purely bureaucratic Ministry was formed under General Pfuel, who then calmly issued the orders in question to the officers’ corps as proof to the world that militarism no longer feared the bourgeoisie and was now in a position to mock at it.

In this way the “petulant, super-clever and impotent” Assembly experienced the fulfilment of the prophecy of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung that one fine morning its left-wing would wake up to find that its parliamentary victory had coincided with its material defeat. Replying to the hubbub raised by the counter-revolutionary press, which declared that the victory of the left wing had been won under the pressure of the Berlin masses, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung spurned the lame denials of the liberal newspapers and declared frankly: “The right of the democratic masses of the people to exercise a moral influence on the actions of constitutional assemblies by their presence is an old revolutionary right and no period since the English and French revolutions has seen its abandonment. History has to thank this right for almost all the energetic steps taken by such assemblies.” This hint was directed as much to the “parliamentary cretinism” of the Frankfort Assembly in those September days of 1848 as to the Berlin Assembly.


Last updated on 27.2.2004