Eduard Bernstein

My Years of Exile

Life and work in Zürich

WHEN the memorial to Freiherr von Stein was uncovered in Berlin, in the year 1877, I heard an apprentice ask his companion, as the two were gazing at the memorial on the following day, “Du, wen soll denn der da vorstellen? “(Look here, who’s that there meant for?) To which the other replied, “Det weeste nich? Det ist der Jeneral Stein.” (Don’t you know? That’s General Stein.)

I was reminded of this conversation when I stood some eight years later before the memorial column on the Platzpromenade of Zürich, which exhibits a bas-relief of the poet Gessner, famed for his idyllic verse. Two boys about fourteen years of age came along. “Du,” said one, “wer isch jetzt auch der da?” (Here, who’s that?) “Oh,” was the reply, “das isch so e Sängervater gsi!” (Oh, that’s some choirmaster or other!)

Do not both these replies reveal a trait of popular psychology? In Berlin, the person commemorated must perforce be a general; in Zürich he must be “some choirmaster or other.”

And indeed the North German who comes to Zürich is astonished that the statues of the city are mostly those of composers and conductors. Music plays a great part in the social life of Zürich. Both the great choirs of the city – the mixed choir and the “Harmony” – enjoy a reputation which has travelled far beyond the frontiers of Switzerland, and the great musical festival of Zürich, which is for the city an event in which everybody is interested, and which is celebrated by decorating the streets with flags, by processions, etc., attracts many well-known foreign guests. A song festival held in Zürich during my residence there, at the beginning of the eighties, attracted the aged Franz Liszt, among others, to the shores of the Zürichsee. And everybody knows the part which Zürich played in the life of Richard Wagner.

Of soldiers, on the other hand, one saw few in Zürich at that time, and what one did see made it obvious that one was in a country where the militia system obtained. Except when on active service no one wore uniform. In the Kronenhalle restaurant, at one time, there was always to be found, towards evening, a little circle of intellectual notables, to whose table I was sometimes invited. One member of this circle was a professor of military science, who was also a colonel in the army. There was nothing in the least military about his bearing, although, as far as externals went, his great height fitted him to be a soldier, as well as his great knowledge of military matters (he was afterwards promoted to the rank of general). To-day militarism seems to have struck its roots deeper into Swiss soil. This little country, with its peace-loving population, which had no more ardent desire than to succeed in holding aloof from the political struggles of its great neighbour States, has not fully escaped the contagion of its surroundings. And to avoid being drawn into the dance for which the militarism of the Great Powers likes to call tie tune it has had to pay all sorts of tribute. Yet another illustration of the words of the poet, that the most innocent cannot live in peace if his neighbours are not peaceful.

In the eighties of the last century little of all this was visible, so that there was not as yet any anti-militarist element in the Swiss Labour movement. Only a few far-sighted persons beheld the treacherous clouds on the horizon. One of them was the Swiss Socialist, Karl Bürkli, who had a pretty fair understanding of military affairs – his essay on Der Wahre Winkelried was, in its day, very highly spoken of by Hans Delbruck in the Preussische Jahrbücher – and whose name was seldom mentioned without the addition of his military title, “Alt-Landwehr-Hauptmann” (Late Militia-Captain). In our days, now that the United States are on the point of being seriously involved in European politics, it is of interest to note that Bürkli repeatedly declared that the only means by which Switzerland could avoid being drawn into the stream of European politics was to shelter herself beneath the wing of the great Transatlantic Republic, and declare herself as a federated State.

(Since the above lines were written the unrestricted submarine campaign has had the result of causing the United States to join the Powers making war upon Germany. This, at all events, is a thing that old Bürkli would not have dreamed of, but we can imagine what he would have thought of it. He had no national prejudices, but his political sympathies were with the Western nations.)

Karl Bürkli was in many respects an original. A manual worker to begin with, he had, like so many Swiss, travelled widely in his youth. He was devoted to Socialism body and soul, and in Paris he became acquainted with the representatives of the old French Socialism: Étienne Cabet, Victor Considerant, and others; and he took part in a Socialistic colonial expedition to Texas. When he had returned to Zürich, and had thrown himself into the conflict of parties, a hostile pamphleteer bestowed upon him the appellation of “Alt-Räuber-Hauptmann” (Old Robber-Captain, Old Brigand Chief); but his friends readily adopted this as a suitable nickname, for in spite of his realistic ideas, he was still something of a romantic. As a Socialist he was in essentials a pupil of Charles Fourrier, and shared with his master the attribute of a keen eye for the actual which was often combined with a bold imagination; and he resembled him also in this, that he lacked the capacity to make an orderly statement of his ideas. He had a very fine library, read a great deal, and often carefully pondered over what he had read. But when he wanted to explain his opinions, the brain of this apostle of the doctrine of the sovereignty of the instincts became the theatre of something like the sovereignty of ideas, and he soon came to grief by stumbling over his mutually encroaching conceptions. Like almost all Socialists of the older school, he concerned himself greatly with theories of money and credit, and an essay of his favouring an interest-bearing paper currency funded on the land brought him into violent conflict with us Socialists of the Marxian school. But one could not long be angry with the honest old fellow. He had at least one thing in his favour: he was able to give support to even the most abstruse ideas by means of striking images. If our old robber-captain was announced to speak before the Zürich section of the International, one might be sure that he would put some life into the debate.

Zürich, in the year 1879, still boasted of a section of the old International Workers’ Association, which split in two at the Hague Congress of 1872, and two years later expired. It propagated itself like a last rose, because there was a certain need of it. Where would the Socialists of different nationalities who had taken refuge in Zürich come together for common discussion except in an international Society? So the Zürich section still survived, years after the death of the mother organisation, holding its sessions in the “green Hüsli” on the lower Mühlensteg; when I came to Zürich it used to meet daily in an hotel on the Stüssi Hofstatt. It was there that I first made the acquaintance of the German-Swiss Socialists in their own homes, and heard them express themselves in a language which to me sounded a curious and heterogeneous mixture of literary German and Swiss patois.

Generally speaking, I was able to listen to it with pleasure. The language has something pithy about it, and the Swiss differ from German speakers principally by the greater conciseness and pregnancy of their conversation. They do not indulge greatly in rhetoric; one of them, a highly intelligent metal-worker, astonished me by invariably breaking off his discourse, when he had, in his opinion, said what was necessary, by a sort of croak: “Hab g’schlosse!” (I’ve finished!)

The Slav element was more strongly represented in the Zürich International than the Swiss; the Russians, of course, being the most numerous. However, at the beginning of the eighties the Russian colony in Zürich boasted of only a few members of international interest. The days were over when Peter Lavroff gathered the young Socialist Russian students of Zürich about him. The learned author of Historical Letters was then living in Paris, where he gave lectures in his modest home in the Rue St. Jacques, thereby attracting many educated Russians during the vacations.

Since the International Section could not undertake any sort of practical action, it was, as an association, a mere debating society. All sorts of theoretical questions were discussed, and abstract speculations as to Socialist practice were indulged in. For example, we occupied ourselves for several evenings with the question put forward by Höchberg in the Jahrbuch für Sozialwissenschaft: What would Social Democracy do, at the present stage of its development, if it suddenly had to assume the reins of government? On one of these evenings August Bebel was present; in those days he was travelling for his door-handle business, and combined these business journeys with visits whose object was of a political nature. He listened to us for a time, but did not appear to be much edified by what he heard; in particular, certain ideas unfolded by Karl Kautsky, whom Höchberg had invited to Zürich, and my humble self, relating to the possibilities of the existing state of affairs, did not by any means meet with his approval. They were much too moderate for him, and in his opinion, if we were to come forward in time of revolution with such tame proposals as these, we might possibly be strung up on the lamp-posts. Despite the anti-Socialist laws, Bebel was in those days extremely sanguine. The obstinate persistence of the commercial “slump” gave him reason to hope that capitalistic society would not succeed in recovering from the burden that was weighing upon it, but was hastening towards its dissolution. It was a false calculation, but it endowed this politician, then in the prime of life, with the wonderful driving force which enabled him at that time to perform inestimable services for his party in Germany. The Zürich International, which formed a section of the languishing Swiss Workers’ League, was of course unable to breathe any life into the latter. This much-vaunted alliance could no longer be maintained in its traditional form. Not only the League, but its organ, the Tagwacht, published in Zürich, was suffering from anaemia. The circumstances of this newspaper were as proletarian as they could possibly be. It was set up on an old-fashioned, hand-worked printing-press, in a little house of almost antediluvian simplicity in the Zeltweg in Hottingen-Zürich. A fairly large room, to which one gained access by a narrow staircase, served at one and the same time as composing-room, machine-room, and editorial office – as the latter, inasmuch as one corner contained a tall writing-desk of the simplest fashion, and a stool of the same kind for the editor. In the same room, of an evening, in a very indifferent light, the local branch of the Workers’ League and other committees held their sessions. Since I took part in the Labour movement immediately after my arrival in Zürich, I participated in many of these branch meetings, which, on account of their general style, always struck me as resembling the meetings of the early Christians. The assemblies of the first Christian communities can scarcely have been much less luxurious than these gatherings.

There was a humorous incident at one of these meetings which must, in its native originality, have been almost unique. A delegate was complaining violently of a resolution passed at the previous session. He was reminded that he and no other was the person who had proposed the resolution. “Why, yes” replied the worthy fellow; “I moved the resolution, but you ought not to have accepted it!”

The editor of the Tagwacht was Hermann Greulich, a Silesian by birth, who had come to Zürich as a journeyman bookbinder, and had lived there for many years in thoroughly proletarian and even sub-proletarian surroundings. He married early, and was soon blessed with children. And since he had to feed his elderly relations as well as his children, things were uncommonly “tight” with the household of this unusually talented man; so that he was obliged, when his own calling did not provide him with sufficient employment, to look out for some sort of extra work; and he could not afford to be fastidious. Thus, for a time he roasted coffee for a daily wage. But even as editor of the Tagwacht his income remained proletarian. For this newspaper, which appeared only two or three times a week, in a small format, had a limited circulation, and could therefore pay only a very moderate salary. But the demands made upon the editor were as great as his salary was small, and in addition to producing the paper he had to undertake all sorts of duties in connection with agitation and organisation. The working classes had as yet no standard for estimating the value of literary work; even the so-called educated classes entertained the most erroneous opinions in this respect. In short, the struggle for life was not made easy for our friend. But he had worried through, and for the time being Karl Bürkli, who valued his intellectual talents at their true value, was standing beside him and giving him a helping hand.

Greulich was in all respects a more lucid thinker than Bürkli, and he had what Bürkli lacked – the gift of rapid and orderly expression. Some pamphlets from his pen are true models in this respect, and he was a silent collaborator in many of Bürkli’s treatises; it was he who was responsible for their form. Some of the greatest favourites among the German Songs of Labour were written by him; among them the haunting lyric, sung to the air of Die Wacht am Rhein: “Es tont ein Ruf von Land zu Land,” [“There sounds a call from land to land”] which has for its refrain the motto of the weavers of Lyons who went on strike in 1831 “Arbeitend leben oder kampfend den Tod’ ((“Vivre en travaillant ou mourir en combattant [“To live by work or in fighting die.”] To-day, after a life full of activity, Greulich is one of the representatives of Swiss Social Democracy on the National Council of the Swiss Confederacy, and fulfils that office efficiently despite his great age. He has mastered the Swiss idiom as only a few have done of those who have wandered into Switzerland from Eastern Germany. Not infrequently he will even break into the dialect when speaking “literary German” to his former countrymen.

This absolute assimilation of a foreign tongue is no mere intellectual process. It is also undoubtedly an expression of a psychical quality – I might even say of a temperament. According to my own observations, it is found mostly in people who feel a great need of dependence upon others. A strong-willed person can, of course, by means of study, master the principles of a foreign language, but in spite of this he usually remains cold in his feelings towards it. Improvement in a foreign language, which by no means always coincides with the absorption of its spirit. is in many cases a passive process, which is brought about by the effect of the environment; a sort of unconscious or half-conscious imitation, which is not the same thing as a thorough grasp of the language. Hence the phenomenon that people of scholarly education often prove to be much less adroit in the use of an acquired tongue than people who are only superficially cultured. But for the same reason such people exhibit a very different mastery over their own language to that displayed by half-educated folk.

I obtained some insight into the life and character of the Swiss people, owing to the fact that while I was in Zürich, until the time of my marriage, I always lived with Swiss people.

My very first landlady surprised me one day by the fact that she, a simple woman of the people, was able to express herself in French as well as in her Zürich German. But I did not stay with her long enough to discover how and where she learned French. Probably as a young girl she spent some time in situations in French Switzerland. A very large percentage of the German-Swiss think it advisable to spend some time in “Welsch” (French-speaking) Switzerland, and in the same way many young people from French Switzerland obtain situations for a time in German Switzerland, so that they can acquire a thorough knowledge of German. In middle-class families it is a widespread custom to exchange their children, whilst still of tender years, for children of the same social class from the other linguistic division of the Confederacy, so that they may acquire a practical knowledge of the other language. But when one of these children returns home, after an absence of four or five years, he has not infrequently quite forgotten his own language, and at first he is always trying to speak his adopted tongue. But he soon picks up his mother-tongue once more, and in the meantime, having attained to riper years, he retains as much of the other language as will always enable him to make himself understood. The effect of all this is that a great many Swiss are practically bi-lingual.

After lodging for a short time with the above-mentioned landlady, in one of the narrow streets that run upwards from the Limmatkai to the Niederdorfstrasse, I obtained a room in a massive structure in the handsome Bahnhofstrasse which was known as the Zentralhof. This room was on the fourth floor – I have always aimed high in the matter of lodgings – but it was spacious and very well furnished. The ceiling was so beautifully decorated that when Gottfried Kinkel once paid me a chance visit he stood still for quite a long time on entering the room, in order to admire my ceiling. My landlady had rented the whole of the third and fourth floors, and had furnished the rooms excellently, in order to sublet them. But it proved a very bad investment for her, as I learned later on.

This lady came of a patrician family of the Canton Bern, and was afflicted with all the prejudices of her class. She was an arch-Conservative; she was fond of speaking of the Neufchatel Legitimists, of the Pourtalès, the Rougemonts, and other aristocrats; she was highly indignant over the mobilisation of the civic property in her home district, and was horrorstruck when I one day explained to her that it would be much more sensible to give up her two big apartments, sell her furniture, set up a shop with the proceeds, and attend to the business with her daughter’s help. “What are you thinking of? Keep a shop? Never!” was her indignant reply.

And this same woman performed the roughest and most exhausting household tasks, until she had literally worked herself to death. With her daughter, an innocently lively girl of eighteen years, with a roguish light in her brown eyes, she saw to all the work of the two flats, with no other help than that of a charwoman, who came twice a week for the heavier tasks. It did not, in her eyes, discredit her socially that she and her daughter should act as the lodgers’ maid-servants so long as appearances were kept up outside the house. But she was honest to the bone, and was so far from overcharging her lodgers, as I once calculated when discussing her affairs with her, that even if all the rooms had been let and none of the tenants had fallen into arrears with their rent, she would still have been the loser to the amount of nearly thirty pounds a year.

But there were always one or two unlet rooms, and also tenants who fell into arrears – often to a very considerable extent, for they were given a great deal of latitude in the matter of payment. In those days a great deal of credit was given in Zürich. I came acrossm all sorts of cases of incredible dealings on a credit basis. Very significant in this respect was the notice engraved upon a plate which a much-respected democratic scholar and politician, Professor Salomon Vogelin, had attached to his front door: “No surety will be granted here.”

How often must he have been asked to go surety for a loan before he decided to fix such a plate upon his door! Vogelin had originally been a pastor, and as such had subscribed to the radical Reformed Theology of the Zürich school; but he afterwards exchanged the pulpit for the professorial chair, lecturing on the historical criticism of religion. A brilliant speaker, who knew how to flavour his lectures with sarcasm, he was a valued fighter in the ranks of democracy, and was in close sympathy with the Labour movement, at whose congresses he had presented admirable reports on the subject of extending the Factory Acts. Pastors and ex-pastors, more especially apostles of the Reformed Theology, played a considerable part in the Democratic Party of Zürich. The chief organ of the party, the Winterthur Landbote, was edited by three ex-pastors, who were often spoken of as the three worshipful pastors of Gemsberg.” Gemsberg was the house in which the Landbote was set up. There was no lack either of practising pastors who frankly confessed themselves to be Social Democrats.

How matters had altered since the days of 1839, when a shower of petitions from the Conservatives and religious fanatics succeeded in making it impossible for David Friedrich Strauss, who had been called to the University of Zürich, to take up his appointment! It was a long time before the author of the Life of Jesus recovered from the injustice then inflicted upon him, and he held the Republic responsible for it. But when he came to Zürich in the sixties, as a guest, and his admirers made holiday in honour of his visit, the spirit moved him, as after the banquet he climbed the Künstlergasse to the Polytechnic in the company of his hosts, to pay his tribute to the Republic. Near the splendid building erected after the designs of Semper he suddenly stood still and said to his companions, “Gentlemen, you know that I am a strict Monarchist, and I shall remain one. But when I here see the jewel of Zürich before me, and how upon its hill it lords it over Zürich, then I am forced to say that if we were in a monarchy no college would stand here, but a palace or a barracks.”

There is certainly no lack of handsome school buildings in Zürich and the other Swiss cantons. Even in small Swiss market-towns I have seen splendid schoolhouses; but the schoolrooms in Switzerland are used much more frequently than is the case in Germany by societies of all kinds, for congresses, etc., and no exception is made in respect of Socialist conferences. However, in Switzerland the Socialists had already been granted the use even of church premises for their meetings, whereby, of course, such premises were only devoted to a purpose which they had served in an earlier age. And never has a church building served a worthier purpose than did the old Minster in the city of Basle, on the 25th of November 1912, when the best speakers of Social Democracy were enabled to raise their voices in favour of international peace. In the mid-eighties we were permitted to hold a Labour Congress in the sessions hall of the Zürich Assize Court, and the writer of these pages, who was one of the chairmen of the Congress, could not refrain from thinking: “Who knows but one day soon you will have to stand on the other side of that green table?” For I was at that time a wicked political malefactor. .

In the school buildings of the town of Olten the Congress was held in 1874 at which the Swiss Workers’ League was created. No schoolroom was necessary when we, in 1880, in the same town of Olten, where the two chief railway lines of Switzerland cross one another, gathered to form a Congress which laid the League in its tomb. A big room in an inn sufficed to hold the delegates assembled. Simultaneously with the resolution that the League be dissolved and the organisation of Swiss labour placed on a new foundation another resolution was accepted, to the effect that the Tagwacht should be discontinued and should be replaced by a paper for which the name Arbeiterstimme (the Workers’ Voice) was adopted. The Swiss Socialist Herter was appointed editor; an honest, unassuming man, who took great pains to make the paper succeed, but was no better able than Greulich to overcome unpropitious circumstances.

As I have already mentioned, the treacherous blow of the German anti-Socialist laws was fatal to the League and its organ. Although the Tagwacht was especially the foreign organ of German Social Democracy, a sort of rival to it appeared at the end of September 1879, under the title of Der Sozialdemokrat, which attracted to itself the most intellectually active portion of the German workers living in Switzerland.

The story of the foundation of the Zürich Sozialdemokrat, enlivened by all manner of interesting details, has often been told already. August Bebel has devoted a long chapter to it, in the third volume of his Recollections [1], so I will not dwell upon the subject here, largely as I myself was concerned in the matter. It was in the nature of things that after the creation of this newspaper the premises where it was set up and published would become a centre of German Social Democracy until the latter should develop a public party life of its own. A whole circle of politicians gathered about the editorial and publishing offices of the Sozialdemokrat, and at the suggestion of the Zürich party affiliated branches of the German Social Democratic Party were founded in the more important centres throughout Switzerland, where they made the affairs of the party their special concern. Georg von Vollmar was the first editor of the Zürich Sozialdemokrat. We need not waste more words over his distinguished personality and his significance: in the winter of 1880-81 he acted in alternation with my humble self, and as before Vollmar secured Wilhelm Liebknecht for me as an equally privileged contributor. The administration of the paper and its dispatch to subscribers was undertaken, soon after its foundation, by Julius Motteler, who was, in his day, with Bebel, Liebknecht, and others, one of the draughtsmen of the Eisenach programme of the Social Democratic Labour Party; a man of peculiar and variable mentality, who through his activities as a prominent man of business had obtained considerable experience of various co-operative societies, and had proved himself to be, from every point of view, a particularly trustworthy colleague. Since the distribution of the Sozialdemokrat in Germany was forbidden by virtue of the anti-Socialist laws, it had to be smuggled into the Empire, and a little smuggling was also necessary to forward the forbidden journal from certain centres to localities where it already had readers.

In the organisation and management of this smuggling, Motteler, supported by capable and devoted collaborators, performed such important services that the qualification of magnificent would involve no exaggeration. To send a weekly journal, with a circulation of over ten thousand, year out, year in, across the frontier, and then to forward it to its various destinations; with so much certainty that it reached the subscribers almost as regularly as a newspaper published in the neighbourhood, was a problem of whose magnitude the uninitiated could scarcely form a just idea. But it was solved, and the man who had preceded Motteler in the conduct of the smuggling business, and who remained to the end his energetic co-operator, Joseph Belli, has told the story, rich in vicissitudes, grave and gay, of the smuggling of the Zürich Sozialdemokrat into the German Empire, with lively intuition and much humour, in a booklet which will give even outsiders an idea of the difficulties encountered – difficulties overwhelming, yet overcome. The book was published by Dietz in Stuttgart in 1912, under the title of Die rote Feldpost und anderes (The Red Army Post and other matters). Motteler had given the name of Feldpost to the staff of the genuine smugglers, working principally under Belli’s leadership, but they dubbed Motteler their postmaster, which later on developed into the nickname of “The Red Postmaster,” by which Julius Motteler lives on in the memory of his colleagues and disciples. But Motteler’s apartment on the ground floor of a corner house on the higher Wolfbach, in Hottingen, near Zürich, and in particular the dispatching-room belonging to it, was known as Der Olymp (Olympus). Here now were gathered together the threads of that part of the management of the Social Democratic Party which concerned itself with the Sozialdemokrat. Hither for the most part climbed Bebel and Liebknecht, and other leaders of the party who were working in Germany itself, when they came to Zürich on the business of the party, as was then fairly often the case. And here, too, was the centre for the surveillance, and perhaps the unmasking of those who were suspected of being police agents, or were otherwise dubious persons.

During the first year of the Sozialdemokrat one heard little of such fellows. But this period saw the gathering of a social assemblage which some one – I don’t know who – called the Zürich Moorish Club, in memory of the Moorish Club of Berlin, which I mentioned in my third chapter; and a merry time we often had in the new “club.” An assembly-room of the inn at Thaleck in Hottingen (Thalegg, in the Zürich dialect) was sacred, on a certain evening in the week, to the staff of the Sozialdemokrat. This included, besides Motteler and Vollmar, a Socialist of Polish origin, Emil Schimanowski (who, with pathetic loyalty, was more devoted to the cause of his native land, yet furthered the cause of Germany with more effect), old Bürkli, Hermann Greulich, Karl Kautsky, my humble self, and certain of our most trusted comrades of German, Swiss, and Slav nationality, together with any guests of ours who were for the time being in Zürich. We indulged in unrestricted conversation, and since most of us were still young in those days, there was, as a rule, plenty of jesting, and all manner of songs were sung. Motteler was a capital fellow, very good, amongst other things, at acting as chairman at a “sing-song,” when he would sometimes make the rule that any one who failed to obey certain precepts – such as the omission of certain syllables, or the like – had to pay a fine for the good of the party, which was always willingly done. Vollmar, who was musical, accompanied our singing on the piano, or sang to his own accompaniment on the zither. Karl Kautsky, a nimble and extremely inventive person, delighted us, when our mood was more than usually extravagant, by irresistibly amusing imitations of acrobats, or as a fantastic dancer. What I used to do I will let August Bebel tell you. Describing these lively evenings at the Moorish Club, when he and Liebknecht came to Zürich, he says, in his Recollections

Then, with peculiar devoutness, the famous’ Song of the Burgomeister Tschech’ was sung. Burgomaster Tschech, in the eighteen-forties, attempted to assassinate Friedrich Wilhelm IV., with rather comical results. Eduard Bernstein was the soloist, and the refrain was sung in chorus. This song was followed by the equally celebrated `Petroleum Song,’ and other similar satirical songs, relating to the conditions in Germany. Or Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky – who were then the two inseparables – would sing a duet, in a manner which would break one’s heart, or soften a stone.

“Old Bürkli used to afford us a great treat, which he had to provide again and again; he would tell us of a scene in the ecclesiastical life of Zürich in which he himself had taken part. It was in the old church of St. Peter, where Lavater used to teach. Here, about the middle of the nineteenth century, an elderly preacher used to officiate, who adhered faithfully to his Zürich German, and, what is more, spoke it with the broadest of Zürich accents. He was given as assistant a young clergyman who had been educated in Germany, and who was accustomed, in the pulpit, to employ the unctuous tone of the North German theologian. When the two of them, at the end of the service, read alternate sentences of the Evangelical Creed, the contrast between the two voices was comical in the extreme, and Bürkli reproduced it in a masterly manner. It is difficult to convey a true conception of this performance to the reader, but the following will give him some idea of it

THE OLD PREACHER (with a guttural accent, broad vowels, and yet broader diphthongs): Ah belaev ‘n Gawd the Feyther Ahlmoighty, Crrat’r av Hehvn ‘n airth;

THE ASSISTANT (in a high-ditched, unctuous voice, speaking the literary language, with an affected accent) And in Jesus Chraist his only begotten Son;

And so on to the conclusion

THE OLD PREACHER: Ah belaev ‘n th’ Hawly Ghoost;

THE ASSISTANT: One holy Christian community;

THE OLD PREACHER: The res’rection o’ the flaish;

THE ASSISTANT: And the laife everlasting. Amen.

Among the Slav guests of the Moorish Club were a few Serbian Socialists who were studying in Zürich, and these sometimes brought with them two young compatriots who were still in the first class at the gymnasium. We were told sub rosa that they were the sons of a Serbian prince who had been executed for high treason. They were the brothers Nenadovich, cousins of Prince Peter Karageorgevich, then living in exile, and one of them, who afterwards practised as a doctor in Vienna, played a prominent part as intermediary in the events which set Peter on the throne of Serbia in 1903. Whether he had anything to do with the murder of Kind Alexander and his wife is more than I can say. One might expect as much from the son of a man who was beheaded by Alexander’s father. But when I knew him and his brother they impressed me only by their reserved and unassuming demeanour.

It is said that Peter Karageorgevich himself one day appeared in the Moorish Club. It is possible, certainly, in view of the foregoing, but I heard nothing of it at the time; however, it would hardly have made any particular impression upon me. When in the year 1883 one of the Nenadovich brothers, whom I met in the street, informed me, his face beaming with delight, of the betrothal of his cousin Karageorgevich to one of the daughters of Nicolas of Montenegro, I did no more than make some conventional rejoinder; the hopes of the Karageorgevich were Hecuba to me. However objectionable the description which a Serbian Socialist had given me of Milan Obrenovich, who was then on the throne of Serbia, his dethronement would have been a matter of indifference to me had it only meant a change of dynasty; Serbia, in those days, played a very different part in international politics to that which history thrust upon her later. But I was much more in sympathy with the national movement for the liberation of the Serbs, as of the Bulgarians, than were the majority of my German comrades.

On the whole, the Moorish Club had few visitors of Slavish origin. In the early eighties, after the Zürich Section of the International had been dissolved, a society known as “Slavia” was founded by the students who spoke the Slav languages. This society, as its name indicates, embraced all Slavs without distinction of nationality; and although it was officially innocent of political tendencies, the Democratic and Socialistic element gave it a political complexion. I was present at the meeting convened for the purpose of founding the society, when the official language was German, and I was always glad to visit the Society subsequently. It interested me to observe the behaviour of the Slavs towards one another, and I must say that I received a thoroughly favourable impression. The Russians, of course, from the fact that they constituted the great majority, very tactfully avoided taking any advantage in the shape of outvoting the rest. They appeared to be the least “national” of all the various elements. But the other Slavs also gave the first place to the spirit of comradeship. When in the autumn of 1885 the Serbo-Bulgarian war was unloosed by King Milan and his henchmen, those Serbian and Bulgarian students who were called to the colours attended a special banquet, at which they fraternised in a very striking and demonstrative fashion. But the Society was not long-lived. The Russian Socialists held interminable meetings of their own, for the discussion of their internal political controversies, and a Russian library and a reading-room were established, so that more and more Russians deserted the “Slavia.” The non-Russian Slavs were as yet too weak in numbers to keep the Society alive by their own efforts.

The Slavish students whom I knew in those days were differentiated from the average German student by their great moderation in the consumption of alcohol and their interest in everything relating to democracy. Of course they were, in a way, to be regarded as a selection from the mass of the students of their native countries. But it was evident from what they told me of the conditions in their own high schools that their manner of life was not essentially different from what it was at home. Undoubtedly ideology had a greater influence on their academic youth than in the land of Kant and Schiller. Among the German students in Zürich almost everything that lay outside of their special faculty was pervaded by the spirit that expresses itself in the present utterances of German scholars, which one can scarcely call ideology.

But temperate as my Slav acquaintances were in the matter of beer, they – or at least the Russians – were correspondingly intemperate in their consumption of tea and cigarettes. But the tea which they drank was a very weak infusion, and the cigarettes they used to roll themselves. However, the quantity of this infusion consumed was enormous and I was seldom m the company of Russians who were not occupied either in rolling or smoking papyrossi.

With a few Russians we became seriously intimate, politically speaking. Kautsky and I struck up a particular friendship with Paul Axelrod, who, together with Georg Plechanow and Vera Sassulitsch, was a founder of the avowedly Marxist faction of the Russian Socialists; and through Axelrod I came to know, in addition to the above-named, his countryman, Leo Deutsch, the author of Sixteen Years in Siberia (Dietz, Stuttgart), shortly before he was arrested, thanks to some informer or other, at Freiburg in Breisgau, while travelling through Germany, when the Baden police handed him over to the Prussian authorities, who in turn surrendered him to Russia. Deutsch was then still a fairly young man, strong-willed and full of the joy of life. When I saw him again, twenty years later, after his return from Siberia, he was aged beyond his years, and sat most of the time withdrawn into himself. Who denounced him never became known, although Julius Motteler made every effort possible to discover the offender, and the discovery of police spies was Motteler’s peculiar and assiduously practised art, one might almost say his favourite sport. Even before Deutsch’s arrest our community had a great catch of this kind, the knowledge of which caused a good deal of noise at the time. The story takes us back to the premises where the Moorish Club used to meet, and a particular recollection in connection with it, which might well be mentioned here, but that August Bebel has already related it in his autobiography. In the house at Thaleck, at the corner of the Zeltweg and the Steinwiesgasse, where the Moorish Club used to meet in the tavern on the ground floor, Zürich’s famous poet, Gottfried Keller, was lodging at the time of which we are speaking. Now one evening when Paul Heyse was visiting Keller, and heard the loud “sing-song” in the room on the ground floor, he asked who was making such a noise down there. “Those are the Social Democrats,” answered Keller, in his semi-Zürich German. Whereupon the poet of the Children of the World struck an attitude and with comical pathos declaimed

Dort unter der Schwelle
Brodelt die Holle.

(There beneath the threshold
Hell is seething.)

Although I could easily have made Keller’s personal acquaintance, since my friend Reinhold Ruegg was on very friendly terms with him, I allowed the opportunity to slip. This was not out of any lack of interest, but rather because of a characteristic which has often hampered me in other ways. A peculiar shyness kept me from allowing myself to be introduced to persons of importance if I had not political business with them. I could not get rid of the feeling that I personally was not of sufficient importance to justify the introduction. For this reason I avoided entering into relations with two scientists of great celebrity, who were then living in Zürich, and were closely connected with my family: the physiologist, Ludimar Hermann, and the chemist, Victor Meyer, although as regards the latter I had the greatest admiration for his genius and his fascinating personality. Perhaps this was why I avoided him.

But although I have never spoken to the poet of “der grünen Heinrich,” I have seen him often enough. For a long while Gottfried Keller used occasionally, as he went homewards to his inn on the borders of Zürich and Hottingen, to turn into the Pfauen. There he would sit, all alone, drinking his mug of beer or wine. I, at some distance, was doing the same, for the tavern lay conveniently on my homeward route, so that we two might have given a representation of the famous epic of the Farmer and the Old Owl – “The Farmer stared at the Owl, the Owl at the Farmer stared” – if the interest had been mutual.

“His mug” must not be taken literally, for Keller, like the majority of Zürichers, was a courageous drinker. When I saw him turning homeward from the inn I often had the impression that he had a full cargo on board. There is an anecdote concerning him which has certainly appeared in print somewhere before this. Late in the evening Keller wanted to return to his lodgings, into which he had only just moved, and he was not sure of the way; so he called out to a passer-by: “Hö, chönnet Ihr mir nit sage, wo-n-ich wohn’?” (Hi, can you tell me where I live?) The passer-by gazed at him in astonishment. “Der Tuusig, Ihr seid ja der Gottfried Kelley!” (The deuce, you are surely Gottfried Kelley!) Kelley lost his temper: “Dummer chaib! Han ich eu gefraget, wer ich bin? Ich han eu gfragt, wo-n-ich wohn’!” (Silly sheep, did I ask you who I am? I asked you, where do I live?)

This is not told in depreciation of the poet. Drinking and “treating” were regarded as perfectly righteous employments in Zürich. Thus, my Zürich doctor, when I was suffering from a really severe cold, advised me to take six strong glasses of grog before I went to sleep, and added drolly: “I often do so myself, as a prophylactic.” My compatriots Beust and his sons were also heavy drinkers. The younger son once tried to drink our Wilhelm Liebknecht under the table; but the old man was weather-proof and the contest remained undecided.

For me the Zürich thirst remained an unknown thing, although I sat for years by the fountain’s edge. I was living with a friend of my own way of thinking, a traveller for a great Hungarian wine-grower, and as my relations with him and his family were uncommonly friendly I had plenty of wine offered me; but I seldom took advantage of the offer.

The leading personalities of the Moorish Club were extremely temperate, which was not solely due to the fact that all of us, with the exception of Höchberg, who was merely a sojourner among us, had only very modest means at our disposal. Vollmar, who could carry a great deal, drank nothing at all at home, and only a little in the tavern. Motteler never touched a drop of alcohol; Kautsky, by preference, followed his example; so did Karl Höchberg; and as for myself any exploits of this kind worthy of mention were already things of the past. So, since Vollmar, Kautsky, and I were non-smokers into the bargain, Benoît Malon, who lived in Zürich through the summer and autumn of 1879, was, thanks to us, entirely confounded as to the opinion which he, as a Frenchman, had formed of the peculiarities of the Germans. His idea of a German had been a man who was a terrific smoker, and was for ever swilling beer.

And now for the trapping of the police agents. One day in the year 1884 there came to the Thaleck tavern a merchant, Elias Schmidt, from Dresden, who represented himself to the Socialists who repaired thither as professing the same ideas. He had, he informed us, gone into bankruptcy, and had left his native country with the remnants of his property. In his opinions he was body and soul a Socialist, and he sought to confirm the impression he had made by radical turns of speech. He paid his bill regularly, and was generous in the matter of standing drinks. But we older hands noticed at once that he did not know much about Socialism, so that he did not manage to impress us. It was only on a number of the younger Socialists, among them the somewhat ingenuous host of the tavern, the Swiss Socialist, J. Obrist, that he made any real impression with his Radicalism and his geniality. With them our warnings to have no dealings with him fell upon unfruitful soil, and were even referred to by some of them as undue interference on our part. If my memory does not deceive me, it was then that the term Olympus was adopted as the name of our headquarters on the upper Wolfbach. At all events, it was first used by people who, without being Titans, had reason for feeling annoyed with headquarters. Angry words were spoken, and we began to avoid the place.

At last even the good Obrist became suspicious, for a reason which I need not mention, and tackled Schmidt with the help of a comrade. The merchant willingly allowed his room to be searched, and nothing was found there to justify the searchers in concluding that he was up to mischief. But when they insisted on looking through the contents of his bulging coat-pockets he turned pale, and suddenly announced that he had a most urgent desire to visit an unmentionable place. They let him go, but noticed, as he came back, that it was his pockets which he had relieved there. Further investigation revealed to the searcher, in a very unappetising envelope, a whole bundle of letters, among which was the equally unappetising correspondence of Schmidt, which established his rascality beyond a doubt. There had been a lively exchange of letters between the worthy bankrupt and the chief of the Dresden criminal police; he had also offered his services to the police of Berlin and Stuttgart, and had been in communication with the confidential police commissary, Kaltenbach, who was stationed at Mulhouse in Alsace, and was apparently in the Swiss department of the Secret Service. His letters to Schmidt were carefully cleansed, and were added to the Secret Service archives of Social Democracy collected by Motteler. Their contents, however, were published with a sufficient commentary in a pamphlet issued by the Hottingen-Zürich Volksbuchhandlung, under the title: Die Deutsche Geheimpolizei im Kampfe mit der Socialdemokratie (The German Secret Police in the Struggle with Social Democracy). It is long ago out of print, and only to be found in a library here and there, but has not yet lost all interest. The letters give one an interesting glimpse of the dealings of the secret police with their agents. These may, in general, be characterised by the proverb: “Men love treachery, and despise the traitor.” There is plain evidence of the tendency to keep the detective as short of money as is possible, and to pay him, so to speak, by the piece. The more information the detective gives, and the more important it is, the better he is paid, and vice versa. A convenient system, and a rational one, if considered from a purely commercial point of view, but one which has the most corrupting influence upon the men to whom it is applied.

It is the best way of turning the detective into a decoy – or, rather, an agent Provocateur. In order not to lose his connection, but as far as possible to increase it, the detective who is paid for piece-work, should he lack material for his reports, can easily proceed to manufacture it; that is, he does everything possible to induce the persons upon whom he is spying to commit actions which they would not otherwise have committed. Even agents of the police who are paid a regular salary succumb to this temptation. Since they hold no official situation, but are always waiting for orders, they are always considering how they can contrive to send in “good” reports. Several examples, of different kinds, of the corrupting effect of the system of the secret political police came to our knowledge in the course of the years; some of a truly shocking nature. The informer was not always a traitor to begin with. Many had originally been enlisted to furnish apparently harmless reports, which their political knowledge enabled them to dictate, and it was not until afterwards that they became aware that they were the prisoners of a system which allows its tools no chance of moral regeneration. If such a man allowed his zeal to be diminished by the burden of this knowledge, his paymaster would coolly drop him, and sometimes none too gently. There were cases where one could with difficulty refrain from believing that the superior authorities had got rid of useless agents by assisting the other party to come off best.

The more the circulation of the Sozialdemokrat increased, the more numerous became the staff of police and police agents whose mission it was to discover the secret methods of smuggling and to get on the track of the various distributors. In the German Empire itself, in the great centres, the movement was spied upon with the greatest assiduity, and in those provinces of Germany that lay on the Swiss frontier the surveillance was intensified, while in Zürich persons of increasingly dubious aspect attempted to thrust themselves upon the most trusted members of the party. Nothing, of course, could have been more profitable than to obtain, in their headquarters, an insight into the system of the exiles, and to discover their main arteries of distribution, since this would provide a key to all their remoter connections, and would make it possible to cripple the whole organisation by repeated blows delivered in given places. Despite all their pains, however, the emissaries and voluntary informers of the police could never contrive to solve this problem. “Olympus” they all found inaccessible. On the other hand, the Sozialdemokrat was over and over again enabled to announce the unmasking of a detective.

But not only detectives had to be guarded against. In every Radical opposition there are numbers of persons, especially when they have to operate from abroad, who have some sort of personal grudge to assuage, or who are sooner or later impelled, by a thirst for adventure, to excite a political revolution. They become dangerous because they commonly develop an insuperable longing for action, and delight in all sorts of crazy projects, which merely compromise the movement. For them the literary campaign is not personal enough; the political contest is not fierce enough; until at last their anger cools, or their longing for adventure finds some other field of activity, and they feel in themselves the vocation not to overthrow the Fatherland, but to liberate it.

A typical example of this species was a half-pay captain, von Ehrenberg, who joined us in Zürich about the middle of the eighties. He was not without talents, but was possessed by a frantic ambition, and a thirst for revenge. He professed to be a legitimate scion of the house of Zähring, and in this quality regarded himself as the head of the ruling family of the sovereign house of Baden. As a soldier he had won distinction in the Franco-Prussian War, but later, through an article attacking the system of parade-drill and the like, had made himself unpopular, and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in a fortress, which he spent in Wesel, receiving his discharge when the sentence had been served. He then brooded over the idea of vengeance, although in the South German People’s Party, which he joined to begin with, he could not gratify his desire, so that Social Democracy served him as a change of horses.

He came to Zürich, and as he brought an introduction from a trustworthy comrade, he found a welcome on the upper Wolfbach. Our first impression of him was not unfavourable. A small, slender, yet strongly built man, he was at first very unassuming in his behaviour, and was apparently a fairly docile sort of person. For example, when, in reply to his remark that he thought of giving our Zürich workers a course of lectures on military science, I rejoined that I should not advise him to do so, as our working men would already have been instructed by the military authorities, he was immediately silenced. But in actual fact his silence meant anything rather than consent. I had done for myself once for all in his eyes by my objection. What he was planning was to teach Socialist workers the science of insurrection. Nothing came of it, as he had probably foreseen, except that a few restless spirits came forward who had hitherto lacked a mentor of his calibre. He also published instructions to insurgents, which he had intended for the Sozialdemokrat, under the title of Advice for the Defence of Zürich in the Case of Hostile Invasion, in the Zürich Arbeiterstimme. The articles revealed the expert soldier, but they also betrayed a malicious spirit whose imagination revelled in brutalities. And that this brutality was in his case not only imaginary had appeared, as we learned later, in his behaviour to the soldiers subordinate to him as an officer, and was further revealed by the cruel manner in which he terrorised his wife, a very pretty and lovable woman. He was a vegetarian, and, like a genuine faddist, felt obliged to declare his inclinations to the proletariat, so that he learned market-gardening, and loved to devote himself to the heavy work of digging, hoeing, etc., in a piece of land that he rented for the purpose. But this demonstration of his friendliness toward the people did not last overlong. One day we received from a Socialist living in Paris, a Hungarian by nationality, a fragment of a fugitive article from Ehrenberg’s pen, in which he fulminated against the Zürich Sozialdemokrat, which was corrupting the party through its unheard-of moderation – and this at a time when the Sozialdemokrat was, as a matter of fact, in the greatest disgrace with the majority of the party leaders in Germany, as the organ of the Radical opposition within the party. But as if this were not enough, Ehrenberg, while on the one hand he had entered into alliance with the Anarchists, was at the same time endeavouring to do business with the French party of la Revanche grouped about General Boulanger. He had informed them that he possessed the plans of the fortress of Wesel, and was in a position, thanks to his influence with Social Democracy, to excite an insurrection, and under given conditions to capture the fortress; and he named a fabulous sum of money as the cost of the preparations, which he would undertake if desired. In the meantime, it seemed, his offer had not been accepted in Paris, especially as information had been obtained from intermediaries respecting the Captain’s actual influence with our party. At the same time certain persons had approached individual members of our party with inquiries as to the attitude of Social Democracy in a war between Germany and France. We had left them in no doubt that if France should begin the war she would find German Social Democracy against her, in spite of the anti-Socialist laws and our attitude toward the question of Alsace and Lorraine. Whether Ehrenberg had learned of this I do not know; if so, the storm of abuse which descended upon the above-mentioned article, and its writer in particular, would have been amply justified.

Nothing came of the French negotiations; on the other hand, the Swiss authorities, who had somehow got wind of the affair, began to keep their eye upon the man who, in their opinion, threatened to compromise the neutrality of Switzerland by his activities. Ehrenberg was placed under surveillance as being, suspect of political espionage, and – observe this – among his papers, which were seized, was found, among other things, the draft of a report to the German Embassy in Bern, wherein information was given concerning the active members of the staff of the Sozialdemokrat and their habits, and the writer offered, some Sunday afternoon, when Motteler and his wife were taking their usual stroll in the country round about Zürich, to break into their house and steal all important letters and lists of addresses. The idealist and hater of tyrants was prudently arranging a political reinsurance.

At his judicial examination he revealed himself as skilled in every sort of evasion, but his speech repeatedly became so obscene that the examining police captain, Fischer, had to warn him that he must show respect, if not for him, at least for the recorder. One day, when he was permitted to visit his home, in company with the police, for the purpose of making some change of clothing, he took the opportunity to escape, fled to Germany, and there wrote a venomous book relating to Democracy in Switzerland; but he was arrested in Germany also, again contrived to escape, and finally turned up in the Transvaal, where he appears to have played an ambiguous part in the Boer War.

Had not the man been so full of petty malice he might well, with his many adventures, have figured as the hero of a romance of espionage. But he was lacking in all those reconciling qualities of humanity without which we cannot long interest ourselves in any one. Apart from his thirst for vengeance, which had its roots in personal grievances, Ehrenberg knew nothing of emotion; he was all calculation, in even the most trivial of matters. Whether he was at any time a detective in the true sense of the word is doubtful. But there is no doubt that he was a most unscrupulous species of traitor.

But one cannot by any means say this of all the people who were entered on our black list as detectives. There were persons among them of whom one had reason to believe that they had never consciously delivered a Socialist to the knife, and others who took a real intellectual delight in the vocation which had absorbed them. The chapter relating to detectives and the unmasking of detectives forms one of the most tragic portions of the history of the Zürich Sozialdemokrat. It was inevitable, in view of the increasing intensity of the conflict with the tools of the police, that occasional mistakes as to identity should be made, and that people should be proscribed who had been imprudent, but had not been guilty of any intentional information. A warning in the Staatsanzeiger, as the Sozialdemokrat was called by our comrades in the German Empire, meant, under the circumstances, proscription, and the heart-broken protests of people who solemnly declared that they were unjustly suspected caused me many a sleepless night. This reverse side of our struggle is too readily forgotten by those to whom the period of the anti-Socialist laws appears to-day in the romantic light of distance and the past.



1. An abridged translation is published by Messrs. T. Fisher Unwin, under the title, My Life.


Last updated on 29.1.2003