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The New International, May 1943

Franz Mehring

Divine Right of the Hohenzollern

An Historical Article by Karl Marx



From Archives of the Revolution, THE NEW INTERNATIONAL, , Vol. IX No. 5, May 1943, p. 155.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following article was originally published in The People’s Paper, a Chartist organ, on December 13, 1856, where it was discovered by Comrade Ryazanov. It deals with the “Neuenburg Question,” one of the seriocomic incidents by which the Prussia of Frederick William IV and his romantic reactionaries used to amuse all Europe. Today the matter has been forgotten, therefore a few words of explanation are necessary to understand the article of Marx:

The manner in which Neuenburg came under the sway of the Hohenzollern is pictured by Marx perfectly. As far back as the time of the Burgundian Kingdom, the little country had its own ruler and was recognized by Switzerland, but had neither voice nor vote in the Swiss Assembly. When, after many changes, its feudal dynasty died out in the year 1707, there appeared fourteen claimants, among them the King of France and the King of Prussia. The latter was supported by England and Holland, in view of their intense opposition to the hegemony of Louis XIV, and he was equally supported by the Swiss Cantons as a neighbor who was not dangerous. The result was decided by the feudal ruling class of Neuenburg for the reasons described by Marx, or, as the loyal Prussian historian, Stcnzel, puts it, “after many promised favors had been secured by them.” Indeed, a divine reason for the Divine Right of the Hohenzollern to Neuenburg.

It is not quite correct for Marx to say in his article that the French Revolution destroyed the domination of the Hohenzollern in Neuenburg. On the contrary, as late as February 15, 1806, Frederick William III ceded the little country to Napoleon, who turned it over with all sovereign rights to his marshall, Berthier. After the first Treaty of Paris by agreement dated June 3, 1814, Berthier turned Neuenburg over to the King of Prussia in consideration of a life income of 34,000 Prussian dollars. This was confirmed by the Treaty of Vienna, but Neuenburg was incorporated in the Swiss Union as the Twenty-first Canton.

The salvation of the little country proved to be the fact that it finally emerged from the swamp of feudal domination.

The constitution of 1848 gave everyone in Switzerland the full rights of citizenship after a residence of two years, so that by 1856 nearly half of the population consisted of those who had immigrated, who by means of the universal suffrage could easily assume power.

In country and city the Patricians saw their power steadily vanishing. They, therefore, hit upon the desperate idea of restoring feudal conditions by a royalistic “coup.” Some of the leaders went to Berlin, but Frederick William IV, while too cowardly to sanction the undertaking openly, was dishonest enough to accord it silent consent. Thus a handful of Junkers tried their luck, “in the name of the King,” and on the third of September, 1856, took the castle of Neuenburg by surprise, arrested the authorities and proclaimed the restoration of the Hohenzollern. The farce lasted just two days; Swiss militia from Berne put an end to the matter quickly, without the loss of a drop of blood. Sixty-six prisoners fell into their hands and were turned over to the Swiss Court on the charge of treason. The latter made no secret of the fact that the guilty parties would be given their freedom provided, once and for all, the King of Prussia gave up his claims of “divine right” to Neuenburg.

The latter addressed a communication to the Swiss in which he extended to them the “urgent recommendation” to free the prisoners, and subject to this proviso, tendered “his good offices to finally solve the whole question.”

But the Swiss hadn’t the remotest intention of giving up sure guarantees for vague promises. Thus it looked as though war were unavoidable; in Prussia preparations were made to mobilize 160,000 men and insure their transit through South Germany; the Swiss sent several divisions of the militia to the border.

But the whole stupid affair was becoming too ridiculous for the European powers. Bonaparte gave Switzerland positive guarantees, and in January 1857 the prisoners were freed. Frederick William IV had to hand Bonaparte a renunciation of his claim of “divine right” and on March 5, 1857, the four neutral great powers met in Paris as a tribunal before which Prussia and Switzerland were to come to an understanding in regard to details. Frederick felt deeply insulted by being obliged to treat directly with the Swiss rebels, but he tried to combine the profitable with the disagreeable by demanding a feudal restoration, an allotment of an income of $8,000,000 etc., etc. When, after much juggling and haggling, he was awarded $1,000,000, he ended the fiasco by the ridiculous statement that he did not care to bargain for money with Switzerland, and that he would rather take nothing, so that he did not get a sou for his “divine right.”

Marx wrote his article about the time when the Neuenburg incident threatened to embroil Europe in war.

Divine Right of the Hohenzollern
by Karl Marx

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