Heinrich Heine. Lutèce

Letter XLIX (“The republic...has an instinctive fear of communism”)

Source: Lutèce. Paris, Michel Lévy Frères, 1855, from the French edition of his complete works, supervised by Heine;
Translated: from the original for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2011.

Paris, July 29, 1842

The Paris municipal council resolved not to destroy as planned the model of an elephant set up on the place de la Bastille, but instead to use it as a mold and to erect at the entry of the Trône barrier an iron model made in the old mold. This municipal decree is nearly as much discussed among the people of the [working-class] faubourgs Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marceau as the regency question is among the upper class. This colossal plaster elephant, which was put up at the time of the Empire, was later supposed to serve as the model for the monument that was proposed to commemorate the July Revolution on the Place de la Bastille. There was later a change of heart and in memory of that glorious event the great July column was built. The proposed demolition of the elephant gave rise to great fears, for the sinister rumor was spread among the people that a huge number of rats were nested within the elephant and in the event the great plaster monster was destroyed there was reason to fear that a legion of smaller but more dangerous monsters would appear and invade the faubourgs Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marceau. All the petticoats of the area trembled at the idea of such a peril, and the people themselves were seized with a secret fright at the thought of the invasion of these long-tailed voracious barbarians. The most respectful requests were addressed to the municipality, and consequently the latter put off the demolition of the great plaster elephant, which remained for many years standing peacefully on the Place de la Bastille.

What a strange country, where despite the general mania for destruction many bad things are preserved because people fear worse things that might replace them. With how much pleasure they'd bring down Louis-Philippe, this grand and prudent elephant, but they fear the thousand-headed monster, his majesty the sovereign populace, which would then become the government, and this is why even the noble and ecclesiastical enemies of the bourgeoisie, who have not been stricken blind, seek to preserve the July throne. Only the most hidebound among the aristocrats and the clergy and certain gamblers who play at games of chance or skill, speculate on pessimism and the republic, or rather on the chaos which would burst forth during or after the republic.

The French bourgeoisie itself is possessed by the demon of destruction, and even though it doesn’t precisely fear the republic it nevertheless has an instinctive fear of communism, of those somber companions who, like rats, would emerge as an invading mob from the debris of the current regime. Yes, the French bourgeoisie would have no fear of a republic of the former kind, even of a bit of terrorism a la Robespierre. It would easily reconcile itself with that form of government and peacefully mount the guard to defend the Tuileries, not caring if Louis-Philippe or a Committee of Public Safety resided there. For above all else the bourgeoisie wants order and the protection of the existing laws of property, demands that a republic can satisfy as well as royalty. But these shopkeepers have the instinctive presentiment that the republic of our time would not be the expression of the principles of ‘89, but only the form under which a new and unexpected regime of the proletariat would be established, with all the dogmas of the community of property. They are conservatives through material necessity and not from personal conviction, and fear supports everything that exists.

Will this fear last much longer? Won’t the national frivolity one fine morning take hold of spirits and drag even the most fearful into the maelstrom of revolution? I don’t know, but it’s possible, and the results of the Parisian elections indicate that it’s probable. The French have short memories and forget even their most well-founded founded apprehensions. This is why they so often go on stage like actors, and even like principal actors, in the immense tragedy that God has performed on earth. Other peoples only have in adolescence their great periods of movement, their history, at an age when they cast themselves without any experience into action. For later, when mature reflection and the consideration of consequences holds back peoples – like individuals – from precipitous actions, it’s only under the impulse of an external need, and not with a song in their hearts, that these virile peoples cast themselves into the arena of universal history. But the French never lose the carelessness of youth, and whatever they might have done and suffered yesterday, they no longer think of it today; the past is erased from their memory and the new day impels them to new acts and new suffering. They don’t want to grow old and they think they are preserving their youth by never losing the frivolity, the heedlessness, and the generosity of youth. Yes, generosity, a goodness not only juvenile, but even puerile in its pardoning of offenses, is a fundamental trait of the French character. I can’t help but add that this virtue emanates from the same source as their defects: the lack of memory. The idea of forgiving in this people responds to the word forget, to forget offenses. If things were not thus there would daily be murders and assassination in Paris, where at every step we encounter men who have some bloody complaint against each other.

The goodness of heart that characterizes the French currently manifests itself in regards to Louis-Philippe. And his most fervent enemies among the people, with the exception of the Carlists, prove in a touching manner just how much they participate in his domestic misfortune. I would dare to put forth that the king has currently become popular again. While watching the preparations for the funeral at Notre Dame [1] yesterday and listening to the conversations of those gathered there I heard this naïve expression: “Now the king can stroll without fear around Paris; no one will fire on him.” (What popularity!) The death of the Duc d'Orleans, who was beloved by all, has regained for his father the surliest hearts, and the conjugal union was again blessed by a common misfortune. But how long will this honeymoon last?

1. The Duc d'Orleans was killed in a coach accident.