Eduard Bernstein

Ferdinand Lassalle

Vain attempts to compel immediate political success - Approaching the reactionary government of Prince Bismarck - Lassalle’s death

ALL that Lassalle wrote and said after the Bastiat-Schulze, gives ever clearer proof of inner lassitude, of mental enervation. His energy is no longer the original energy, the natural result of belief in his own force, and the strength of the cause championed - it is forced. Compare the Worker’s Programme with the Ronsdorf Speech; the defence speech, Science and the Worker, with his defence in the trial for high treason, and what I have just said will be understood. The inner energy has gone, and violent language replaces it; logical flourishes replace incontrovertible logical arguments; instead of convincing, Lassalle takes more and more to declamation. That with which he had but recently reproached the Progressists he now does himself - he intoxicates himself with imaginary successes.

At the trial for high treason, Lassalle, in defending himself against the charge that what underlay his agitation, was the ultimate use of physical force, very ably used the picture of Schiller’s Wallenstein on the night before his going over to the Swedes, and quoted the verses of the monologue in the first act of Wallenstein’s Tod

Wär’s moglich? - Könnt ich nicht mehr wie ich wollte?
Nicht mehr zurück, wie mir’s beliebt?

[Is’t possible? Could I no more do as I would?
No more turn back, as I desire?]

It is wonderful how these lines fit in with Lassalle’s own situation at this time; how like his position was to that of Wallenstein when he speaks these words. He, too, like the Friedlander, had to use his own image - “done things that he could turn to account à deux mains.” He had not contented himself with studying the course of internal and foreign politics objectively, with a view to seizing the right moment for forwarding his own plan of campaign; he had already begun to treat with the representative of one of the powers against whom he was fighting; he had entered into direct negotiation with Herr von Bismarck. Assuredly, he too could still say with Wallenstein

Noch ist sie rein, noch! Das Verbrechen kam
Nicht über diese Schwelle noch!

[Yet it is pure, - as yet! For never crime
Has passed across this threshold yet.]

As yet he had broken no pledge. But was he still really free in his inner heart? Might not the logic of events force him also to consummate the “deed” because he “did not put away temptation from him?”

That in the winter of 1863 to 1864 Lassalle had repeated and important conferences, tete-à-tete with the then Herr von Bismarck, there can now be no doubt whatever. The lifelong confidante of Lassalle, the Countess Sophie von Hatzfeld, when, in the summer of 1878, Bismarck introduced his gagging Bill against German Social Democracy, on her own initiative told representatives of that party of these facts, adding circumstantial details. When the member of the Reichstag, Bebel, in the sitting of September 16th, 1878, brought the matter before the Reichstag, Bismarck the next day admitted having had interviews with Lassalle, and only made an attempt to deny that they had had reference to any political negotiations. Bebel, on the strength of the communications made by the Countess Hatzfeld, said: “These conversations and negotiations turned upon two different matters: firstly, upon the granting of universal suffrage; and secondly, upon the granting of State-help to the productive co-operative associations. Prince Bismarck had been completely won over to this plan by Lassalle. He only refused to introduce universal suffrage until such time as the Schleswig-Holstein war had been satisfactorily concluded, and only refused to push it through immediately as Lassalle wished. In consequence of this difference of opinion, serious disagreements arose between Lassalle and Prince Bismarck; and it was not the latter who broke off the negotiations, but it was, as I must emphatically state, Lassalle who caused the breach, and who declared he could not enter into further negotiations.”

To this Bismarck replied: “Our conversations undoubtedly turned upon the question of universal suffrage, but under no circumstances upon an introduction of it. I never in all my life entertained so monstrous an idea as to grant universal suffrage in this way by forcing it upon the Chamber.” He had accepted it “with some reluctance” as a “Frankfurt tradition.” As to the productive co-operative associations, he was “not even to-day convinced of their inexpedience.” Only, the political events at that time had not allowed of the carrying out of the experiments initiated in this direction. Moreover, it was not he but Lassalle who had desired these meetings, who had written to request them, and he, Bismarck, had consented to meet Lassalle’s wishes as a mere caprice. “What could Lassalle have offered or given me? He had nothing at his back. The do ut des is at the bottom of all political negotiations, even when one doesn’t, for decency’s sake, say so. But when one is forced to say to oneself, ‘what can you, poor devil, give?’ There was nothing he could have given me as minister.”

It is perfectly clear that the man who has “never lied officially” here deals very unofficially with the truth. Lassalle would not have gone to the minister, nor would the latter have repeatedly sent for the “revolutionary Jew” - Bismarck himself admits this may have occurred some four times, while the Countess Hatzfeld maintains that it was oftener, three or four times a week - and have discussed with him for hours together just for the sake of a chat. Further, one has but to read over the speeches of the representatives of the Government in the Chamber, and the articles in the official press of this period, to be convinced how greatly the Bismarck ministry was then taken up with the idea of introducing universal suffrage; and under the then existing circumstances, this could hardly have been done in any other way than by that of royal force. Lassalle himself, in his defence before the Stadtgerichthof, quotes some remarks to the same effect, and subsequently adds in connection therewith the celebrated declaration, which can only now that his interviews with Bismarck are known, be rightly appreciated.

The prosecutor accuses me of wishing to introduce universal and direct suffrage, and thus to overthrow the Constitution

Well, gentlemen, although I am but a private individual, I may say to you: not only do I wish to overthrow the Constitution, but perchance, ere one year shall have passed, I will have overthrown it!

But how? Without one drop of blood having been shed, without a hand having been raised in violence! Perchance not another year shall have passed, but universal and direct suffrage will have been introduced by the Government in the most peaceful manner in the world.

The strong hands, gentlemen, can be played with exposed cards! It is the strongest diplomacy that does not need to conceal its calculations with any secrecy, because it is founded upon iron necessity.

And so I proclaim to you, here in this solemn spot, perchance not another year shall pass - and Herr von Bismarck will have played the role of Robert Peel, and universal and direct suffrage shall have been proclaimed!

Lassalle certainly adds that he had known this from the beginning, “from the very first day on which, by issuing my Reply Letter, I began this agitation, and it could have escaped no one who looked at the situation with his eyes open.” But if it is indubitably true that already in the winter of 1862-1863 the question was being mooted in Government circles, whether it would be possible to break up the Progressist majority in the Chamber, by a change in the electoral law, and to this end they began dabbling in the social question; [1] yet Lassalle would scarcely have spoken with such certainty of a speedy introduction of universal suffrage, have constantly recurred to it, unless he had been convinced from his conversations with Bismarck, that, whether introduced before or a the end of the Danish campaign, this measure had been decided upon.

On the other hand, Bismarck’s contention that it had never come to any rupture between himself and Lassalle is more credible. The negotiations may have dropped for a time, when Lassalle became convinced that Bismarck wanted to wait events before undertaking this, after all, risky step - and explains why Lassalle always speaks of the possible introduction of the measure within a year’s time: But that the relations were not finally broken off, is proved by the fact that Lassalle continued to send, through the secretary of the “General German Working-men’s Association,” a copy of all his publications, etc., under cover and marked “private,” to Bismarck.

So, too, we may believe Bismarck that his negotiations with Lassalle could come to no definite settlement, because of the do ut des. Of course, matters were not quite as Bismarck would represent them with his churlish, “what can you, poor devil, give? He had nothing he could have offered me as minister.” At this time Bismarck was by no means so secure in his position as not to need every help he could get, and Lassalle could, all the same, have given him something. The fact was only this, that it was not enough to decide Bismarck to yield to Lassalle’s importunities. Perhaps, too, this is one of the reasons why Lassalle, after his return to Berlin, exaggerated his successes in a positively morbid manner; he, who had written so late as July, 1863, to Vahlteich: “You cannot allow our delegates to tell untruths. So you cannot, therefore, ask them to speak of 10,000 men, when perhaps we haven’t got 1,000. We may be silent upon this point, but is not meet that we should lie.” He now wished, at all costs, to seem to possess power, even though he had no actual masses to lead. But Bismarck was probably kept sufficiently well posted by other informants as to the real condition of the movement.

And there was also another side to this “giving.” Bismarck can hardly have doubted even for a single moment that in Lassalle he would have a political ally only for so long, and in so far as the alliance would be to the advantage of Lassalle and his political ends: in other words, that Lassalle would do by him exactly as he would do by Lassalle - i.e., turn mercilessly against him as soon as he had got what he wanted out of him. His first interview with Lassalle must have convinced him that the latter was not - what Rodbertus once well called Bucher, “a fish without bones” - but that, on the contrary, he had very portentous bones and maw. The bait of some small office - not to speak of money - was useless in the case. Universal suffrage once assured, Lassalle might easily become very unpleasant - so why be over-hasty? Anyhow, Lassalle’s agitation was being turned more and more fiercely and one-sidedly against the Liberal Party, and this was, for the time being, all Bismarck wanted.

In his defence speech - Die Wissenschaft and die Arbeiter [2], delivered on the 16th January, 1863, Lassalle had declared

“Can any one even assert that with us the three-class electoral system is to be laid at the door of the possessing classes, of the German bourgeoisie? ... It is the Prussian Government alone, not the possessing classes in Prussia, which for all time, and before all the world, must bear the blame and responsibility for enforcing the three-class electoral system.” And: “Bourgeoisie and workers, we are members of one people, and quite united against our oppressors,” i.e., against the Government.

But before the Stadtgerichthof, on the 12th March, 1861, the constitutional conflict in Prussia has become to him only a struggle between the monarchy and a “clique.” To this “clique” the monarchy could not yield, but “it might well call the people upon the scene, and trust to them. To do this, it need but call to mind its origin, for all monarchy has originally been the monarchy of the people.”

A Louis-Philippe monarchy, a monarchy created by the bourgeoisie, certainly could not do this; but a monarchy that still stands as kneaded out of its original dough, leaning upon THE HILT OF THE SWORD, eight quite certainly do this, if it determined to pursue truly great, national, and democratic aims.

This is the language of Caesarism, and during the course of his speech, Lassalle even intensified it by representing the existing Constitution as a boon conferred upon the bourgeoisie by the monarchy. But no one “cares to let his own boon be twisted into a rope wherewith to strangle himself, and no one can be blamed for this, and, therefore, neither should the monarchy be blamed.” Constantly driven back upon ostensible “right,” the monarchy had “remembered that it was more fitting to its position to rely upon true right, and to marshal the people upon the stage, than to yield to a clique, and to allow a handful of individuals to twist its own boon into a rope, wherewith to strangle it.” So would he, Lassalle, speak on the day when the monarchy should have overthrown the Constitution, and have introduced universal suffrage, if he were accused of being the intellectual originator of this overthrow of the Constitution.

Lassalle had now got so far that he not only did the reaction a passing service by the existence of his agitation, which, under certain conditions, was unavoidable. He fell more and more into the habit of speaking the language of the reactionists. Truly he could still cry with Wallenstein

Beim grosser Gott des Himmels! Es war nicht
Mein Ernst, beschlossene Sache war es nie!

[By the Great God of Heaven! It was not
In earnest. It was never so resolved!]

He was playing with the reaction; believed he was using it for his own ends, and that at a given moment he could shake it off with one wrench. In this sense it was that he once spoke to the Countess Hatzfeld of Bismarck as laic “delegate.” But he forgot that there is a logic of facts which is stronger than even the strongest individual will, and that inasmuch as he was playing for success, instead of trusting to the very strength of the movement itself, and of devoting his energies exclusively to it, he had, according to his own theory, already, to some extent, partially given up that movement.

In fact, to return once more to the already quoted essay of Lassalle on the fundamental idea of his Franz von Sickingen with the volte-face performed since his return from the waters, Lassalle had arrived at exactly the same tactics which in this essay he had designated as the “moral guilt” of Franz von Sickingen. It is worthy of note how accurately Lassalle there foreshadowed his own fate. He too had come to that “selfcomplacent good sense,” which seeks to attain revolutionary aims by diplomatic means; he had assumed a mask in order to deceive his antagonist - the Prussian Government - but, in fact, he deceived not it, but the mass of the people, without whom he was nothing; the movement itself remained limited to a small group of personal friends. And as Lassalle writes of Sickingen that, “this great diplomatist and realist, who had carefully calculated everything beforehand, and wished to entirely exclude chance, is at last forced by the most accidental of chances to lose everything,” and “while the calculation based upon this delusion was doomed to failure through the semblance of chance and of the non-essential in the existing condition of things, the ultimate decision, instead of proceeding as he wished from what had been prepared, proceeded from the first unlooked-for chance.” [3] So, too, Lassalle finds himself forced now to reckon only with chance, and to make everything in home and foreign politics dependent upon chance constellations. Lassalle played, trusting to his real ability. But he forgot that the game is to him who has the best chance of wearing out his opponent, to him who holds the most trumps in the political game, - therefore, to him who can command the greatest number of really powerful factors. And as in this case, Bismarck was in this position and not Lassalle, it was inevitable that in the long run Lassalle should become Bismarck’s “delegate,” rather than Bismarck his.

Such was the situation when Lassalle delivered the Ronsdorf Address: Die Agitation des Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeiter-Vereins und das Versprechen des Königs von Preussen. [4] It was his last, and, at the same time, the weakest of his agitation speeches, conceived solely with a view to external effect. How very conscious Lassalle was of the weakness of this speech is proved by the published version of it, edited by himself: this is full of interpolated remarks as to the effect of certain passages - crutches which a sound lecture can well dispense with, and that would indeed mar the impression of a really pregnant speech. The Ronsdorf Address has none of the qualities of Lassalle’s early agitation speeches, while on the contrary, it emphasises all their defects.

Moreover, the speech is not merely inherently weak, its tendency also is more reprehensible than anything Lassalle had until then said or written.

Some Silesian weavers, impelled by their misery, and encouraged by the social demagogy of the Feudal Party, had sent a deputation to Berlin, to petition the King of Prussia for help against the wrongs under which they suffered. And at last, as the employees of a Progressist manufacturer were concerned, they had, on Bismarck’s instance, been received by the King. In answer to their complaints, they had been told that, the King had instructed his ministers “to prepare to render them some legal redress, so far as this was possible, with all despatch and energy.”

That Lassalle should represent this step of the Silesian weavers, and the reception of their deputation by the King, as a result of his agitation, no one - exaggerated as the claim is - will find any great fault with. This, like so many other exaggerations in his Address, is to be explained by Lassalle’s position. But Lassalle did not content himself with this. He placed such a construction upon the reception of the deputation by the King, and upon the King’s words, as could only result for the time being in a glorification of the King and his Government. He reads the working-men a report from the semi-official Zeidler’schen Korrespondenz on the reception of the deputation by the King, and reads those very passages that are most favourable to the monarchy - as he expressly says in the printed version of the speech - “in the most impressive tone, and accompanied with the most effective gestures of the hand.” [5]

In the King’s words, he declared, there lay “the recognition of the main principle to advance which we are beginning our agitation” - i.e., that a dealing with the labour question by legislative means is essential. Further, Lassalle declares, “the promise of the King that this dealing with the labour question, and the doing away with the misery of the workers, shall be brought about by legislative means;” and, thirdly, as “a Progressist Chamber, a Chamber elected by the Three-Class Electoral Law, would never vote the money necessary to the King for this object, or even, could this object be attained without money, would ever give their consent to such legislation;” the kingly promise, “through the intrinsic force of logic, included also a promise of universal and direct suffrage.”

At these words the report represents “the meeting which had listened to the whole of this last part of the speech with extraordinary keenness,” as “bursting into indescribable cheers,” starting afresh every time Lassalle tried to continue his speech.

If the cheers were really so loud, it proves that the workers took Lassalle’s interpretation of the King’s promises for current coin - the very worst evidence that could be given against this speech.

There can be no doubt that this speech was intended, so far as. the workers were concerned, to urge them to the greatest and most enthusiastic activity on behalf of the Association, by painting, the success already achieved in the most brilliant colours possible. But the speech was intended for others besides working-men. In reply to a review of his Bastiat-Schulze, published in the Kreuz Zeitung, and emanating, according to Lassalle, “from too important a source” for him to ignore the questions there addressed to him, he especially refers the reviewer in the Government organ to the Ronsdorf speech, and sends his reply and two copies of the speech under cover “personally” to Bismarck. Both speech and review were intended to make an impression upon the Government - were written ad usum delpini. The “indescribable cheers” were to be a bait for Bismarck and the King.

But no one man can serve two masters. The attempt to turn the speech so that it should produce the desired effect in higher quarters really gave it an out-and-out Caesarian character. It is doubly a pronunciamento of Caesarism - Caesarism within the ranks of the party, and Caesarism in the politics of the party.

“Yes, there is nothing more incapable of organisation and more impotent, nothing more unintelligent,” writes Lassalle in his reply to the Kreuz Zeitung, “than the restless, malcontent, liberal individualism, this great malady of our time! But this restless, malcontent individualism is by no means a malady of the masses; it is, indeed, necessarily and naturally rooted only in the fractional intelligences of the bourgeoisie.”

The reason is obvious: the spirit of the masses, as behoves their position as masses, is always directed towards objective, positive aims. The voices of restless, vain-glorious individuals would be drowned in this volume of voices without even being heard. The oligarchical is the only homogeneous fruitful soil for the negative, acrid individualism of our Liberal bourgeoisie, and its subjective, obstinate self-glorification.

And so, in the Ronsdorf speech, he says:

There is another, a most remarkable element in our success, upon which 1 must torch. That is the solid spirit of complete unity and discipline that prevails in our Association! And in this respect, too, in this respect above all, perhaps, our Association stands out - epoch-making, an entirely new figure in history! This great Association, spreading over well-nigh all German lands, moves and has its being with the solid unity of an individual’. I am personally known to, and have personally visited but a small number of districts, and yet from the Rhine to the North Sea, and from the Elbe to the Danube, I have never heard a ‘No;’ and, at the same time, the authority with which you have invested me is one that rests entirely upon your own continued confidence in me! ... Wherever I have been, I have heard words from the workers, that may be summed up in the sentence: We must weld the wills of all of us into one single hammer, and must place this hammer in the hands of a man m whose intelligence, integrity, and good faith we have the necessary confidence, so that he may be able with that hammer to strike!

The two contradictories which our statesmen have heretofore regarded as irreconcilable, whose fusion they have looked upon as the philosopher’s stone - freedom and authority - these most extreme contradictories have been completely reconciled by our Association, which thus becomes on a small scalp the prototype of our next forth of society on a large scale. With us there is not a trace of that malcontent spirit of Liberalism, of that malady of individual opinion and superiority with which the body of our bourgeoisie is eaten up ... [6]

There is a formally correct idea underlying these words, i.e., that in modern Society the workers are under normal conditions compelled to common action far more than any other class of society; and that, in fact, the very conditions of life of the modern industrial proletarian, develop in him the spirit of solidarity. The bourgeois, on the contrary, is only impelled towards common action by abnormal conditions, and not by the very nature of his social existence. This correct idea, however, receives a totally false interpretation by the above generalisation. The action of the masses does not, by a long way, mean personal dictatorship: indeed, where the masses abdicate their will, they are already on the road to become, from a revolutionary factor, a reactionary one. In the struggles of modern Society, personal dictatorship has invariably been the sheet-anchor of the reactionary classes, seeing their existence imperilled; no one is so ready to renounce “negative acrid individualism” as the modern bourgeois so soon as his money bags and his class privileges seem seriously threatened. In such moments the cry of “a reactionary mass” becomes a true one, and when the tendency becomes a general one Bonapartism flourishes. The classes that feel themselves incapable of self-government do that which Lassalle is here imputing to the workers: they abdicate their own will in favour of a single person, and condemn every attempt to oppose any private interests of this person as “restless, malcontent individualism.” Thus, in the seventies and eighties, the German bourgeoisie accused the very party - the Freisinnige - which was most consistently defending their class interests, of betraying these interests, because by their “malcontent” they were hampering the self-preserving activity of the State. And so in 1851, the French bourgeoisie attacked their own parliamentary representatives, whenever they attempted to refuse Louis Bonaparte the means for his coup d’état, as “disturbers of the peace,” “anarchists,” etc., until Napoleon was strong enough to proclaim himself dictator against the bourgeoisie, instead of contenting himself with the rôle of mere maintainer of law and order for the bourgeoisie.

A growing revolutionary class has absolutely no reason to abdicate its will, to renounce the right of criticism, to renounce its “superiority,” vis-à-vis of its leaders. And we have seen, in the Solingen affair, that whatever stress Lassalle might lay upon his superior intelligence, vis-à-vis of the workers, it was from amongst the ranks of these workers that he had had to take a very distinct and energetic “No,” and that surely not to the detriment of the movement. In Berlin, too, on one particular occasion, he had to take a like “No,” and when he boasted at the Association directed by him that he had realised “authority and freedom” as represented above, he was expressing a wish rather than stating an actual fact.

In addition to those personal qualities of Lassalle’s which made the idea of such dictatorship so sympathetic to him, there was now too actual need for it. The policy he was pursuing could only be carried through if the members and adherents of the movement followed their leader without criticism, and did his bidding without a murmur. Just as Lassalle himself dealt with the promise of the King of Prussia to the Silesian weavers in such a fashion that only by a small, quite casual reservation, did the democrat, - one is tempted to say - salve his conscience while the rest meant nothing but pure Caesarism; so his adherents also were to be ready, on the word of command, to don the livery of loyalty. If there is one thing that can at least humanly excuse the Ronsdorf speech, it is the fact that it was, under the given circumstances, a necessity for Lassalle. He needed the dictatorship in order to be sure of the workers whenever he should require them for his actual ends, and he needed the endorsement of his dictatorship to appear to those in higher circles as a power to be treated with. The speech was the necessary step in the path once catered upon - it was no longer possible to stop.

And so the subsequent steps taken by Lassalle, both as regards the internal management of the Association, and its immediate external action, followed in the same direction. In the Association he insisted upon the expulsion of Vahlteich, who had opposed him in matters concerning organisation. And he not only made this a Cabinet question - he or I? - so that the members of the Association had hardly any other choice than to sacrifice the working-man Vahlteich to the president, he also acted most unloyally in this affair in other ways. Thus, e.g., he gave directions for having the very voluminous written indictment he had drawn up against Vahlteich circulated in such a way that Vahlteich himself only learned its contents after it had already influenced the rest of the members of the executive against him.

Now, whatever one may think of Vahlteich s proposals for changes in the organisation, the way in which Lassalle represented the mere idea of a reform of the Association as treachery, was the less justified that he, Lassalle himself, had already half made up his mind to drop the Association if his last attempt “to bring pressure to bear upon events” should fail.

This attempt, or, as Lassalle himself has called it, this “coup” was to be carried out at Hamburg. It had reference to the affairs of the Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein, just then conquered from Denmark.

When, in the winter of 1863, the death of the King of Denmark forced the Schleswig-Holstein question to the front, Lassalle, who was at this time already in communication with Bismarck, and therefore had every interest to induce the Association to support any policy upon which the Prussian Government should decide, had been working up the members of the Association against the “Schleswig-Holstein craze” [7], and had drawn up and had everywhere got a resolution passed in which it was said that:

The unification of Germany would of itself settle the Schleswig-Holstein question. In the face of this great mission, the question - so long as there are thirty-three princes in Germany - whether one of these is a foreign prince seems of comparatively very subordinate interest.” For the rest, the resolution is made up only of more or less general phrases. It was the duty of all German Governments to enforce, “if need be by force of arms,” the incorporation of the Duchies with Germany, but the people are warned to be on their guard; “to let themselves be drawn away from their great central mission by nothing.” Against the Progressists and members of the National Verein the reproach is levelled of “seeming to want to use Schleswig-Holstein as an opportunity for diverting attention from the internal situation, and for shirking the solution of a conflict to which they are not equal, under the guise of Patriotism.

This in the December of 1863.

The Duchies were now conquered, and the question was what to do with them. A large proportion of the Progressists were in favour of the legitimate claims of the Duke of Augustenburg, whilst the influential Prussian circles were for the annexation of the Duchies to Prussia. Now, however little interest the Democratic Parties had in adding a thirty-fourth to the already existing thirty-three sovereign princes in Germany, they, on the other hand, had no reason for conferring any augmentation of power upon the most reactionary Government in Germany at that time. Lassalle, however, had now so completely lost all his sense of political tact, that he in all seriousness contemplated holding a large public meeting at Hamburg, and getting it to pass a resolution to the effect that it was the duty of Bismarck to annex the Duchies to Prussia against the wishes of Austria and the other German States. No words are needed to point out what a part Lassalle thus took upon himself, nor for what a part he wanted to use the socialistically-inclined workers of Hamburg, who felt such warm gratitude and veneration for him. The project, however, was never carried out, and the Hamburg workers were happily spared a conflict between their democratic convictions, and their supposed duty towards their leader.

Lassalle, after fighting another lawsuit in Düsseldorf, had gone to Switzerland. His first stay was at Rigi Kaltbad, and here, on the occasion of an excursion, he received an invitation from Fräulein Helene von Dönniges, whose acquaintance he had made in Berlin in the winter of 1861 to 1863, and to whom, according to her statements, he had already then offered his hand. Out of this visit grew that love affair whose final result was the premature death of Lassalle.

The details of the Lassalle-Dönniges affair are to-day so well known, all the steps taken by Lassalle in this business that are really characteristic of him are placed so absolutely beyond doubt, that a repetition of the whole story is unnecessary here. Moreover, during the affair Lassalle did not show himself in any new light; - he rather developed only such qualities as are already familiar to us; it may, indeed, be said that the Dönniges affair on a small scale, and in another domain, is essentially a reproduction of the history of the Lassallean agitation. Lassalle believed he had found the wife of his choice in Helene von Dönniges. The only difficulty was to obtain the consent of the parents. But Lassalle had not the faintest doubt that the influence of his personality must overcome this difficulty. Self-consciously, and yet at the same time with circumspect calculation of every possible contingency, he drew up his plan of campaign. He will come, will conquer the good-will of the parents, and wring from them their consent before they really know what they are doing in acquiescing. Then suddenly a small unforeseen obstacle comes in the way. Through the indiscretion of the young lady the parents learn earlier than they should do of the engagement, and declare that they will not accept Lassalle as son-in-law under any circumstances. Lassalle, however, does not yet give up his plan. His triumph will only be greater the greater the opposition of the parents. Strong in his self-confidence, he takes a step which gives such a turn to the situation, that all hope of attaining his end in the way planned out is excluded, a step that shakes even the girl’s own faith in him ... Well, then, if not in this way, then in another. And regardless of what he owes himself and his political position, Lassalle begins a struggle in which there is for him but one point of view - success. Every means is right that promises success. Spies are employed to watch the Dönniges family, and to report their every movement. Through the instrumentality of Hans von Bülow, Richard Wagner is entreated to induce the King of Bavaria to intervene on Lassalle’s behalf with Herr von Dönniges, while Bishop Ketteler, of Mainz, is offered Lassalle’s conversion to Catholicism, in order that the Bishop may exercise his influence in Lassalle’s favour. Lassalle did not in the least care how unworthy it was of the historical mission he had set himself, to dance attendance upon a Minister von Schrenck, so that the latter might help him to his love, nor did he care how little worthy he was proving himself of his prototype Hutten, when he petitioned the incarnate representative of Rome to help him to obtain a wife. Here where he might have shown pride, where he should have shown it, he did not.

And yet success did not come. The Bishop of Mainz could do nothing, because Helene von Dönniges was a Protestant., and the attempted mediation undertaken by confidential representatives sent to the scene of the struggle by the Bavarian Minister for Foreign Affairs only seemed to prove to Lassalle that by his method of proceeding he had placed himself and the woman he was fighting for in a totally false position.

Although he knew that Helene was absolutely without strength of will, and had indeed perceived in this an advantage for his future life together with her - “Keep Helene for me in the submissive frame of mind in which she now is,” he had written on the 2nd August to the Countess Hatzfeld - he all at once expected her to do that which demanded a very strong will, and was indignant because she tried to back out of it. Upheld by his self-esteem, and accustomed to look at things exclusively from the point of view of his own moods and interests, he had entirely left out of his calculations that it is the most submissive human beings who most. easily change their impressions, and thus he saw “boundless treachery,” and the “most-unheard-of trick” of an “abandoned jade,” where there was nothing more than the instability of a grisette in high life.

Meantime, however, his nervous system was completely shattered, and for a long while he no longer possessed the energy of a healthy will. Sudden resort to violent means, anxiety to move heaven and earth about every petty matter, inability to bear with contradiction, or to deny oneself any desire, are not proofs of mental strength, but of extreme weakness. And the rapid alternations between outbursts of anger and of tears that, according to the unanimous testimony of eye-witnesses, at this time manifested themselves in Lassalle, point unmistakably to an absolutely shattered nervous system.

In this condition it was impossible for him to take his defeat quietly, and he sought to obtain satisfaction in a duel for the insult which, in his opinion, had been offered him. Foolish as duelling is in itself, it was comprehensible enough under these circumstances. In the circles of society in which this affair occurred, a duel is the cleansing bath that removes all stain and all insult, and if Lassalle had not the moral strength to resort - no matter what he was fighting for – only to means such as became the representative of the party of the socialistic reorganisation of Society, then it was but logical that he should try to obtain satisfaction for the supposed insult offered after the fashion of his surroundings.

He who faced the Bojard Janko von Racowitza in duel was not the Socialist Lassalle, but Lassalle the would-be aristocrat merchant’s son, and if in the person of the latter the former, i.e., the Socialist, was also shot down in the duel, he thereby expiated the sin of having allowed his other self to gain the ascendancy.




1. Let me again remind readers of the attitude taken up by Eichler, The following passage from the conclusion of a speech delivered by Herr Hermann Wagener - the confidant of Bismarck, the inspirer and director of the Kreuz-Zeitung - at a meeting of the Prussian Conservative Volksverein, on the 2nd November, 1862, is also of interest. “Gentlemen, let us not deceive ourselves, let us learn from our opponents, for they rightly say, if you do not succeed in solving the social question, all your toil and labour will be in vain. I, therefore, conclude with this appeal - let us set about that which we recognise as the task and requirement of the immediate future, let us set about this with even greater energy, let us set about it not only at election times.”

2. Science and the Workers.

3. See No.45, 1890-91, of the Neue Zeit, p.558, etc., where I have published this essay.

4. The Agitation of the General German Working-men’s Association, and the Promise of the King of Prussia.

5. The passage reads thus: “With the hope of a very speedy legal settlement of the question, and thus of the redressing of their grievances, His Majesty dismissed the deputation. The royal promise will echo encouragingly and helpfully through all the valleys of the Riesengebirg, and will inspire many hundreds of honest, patient families with new hope and new strength for brave endurance.”

6. Die Agitation des Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeitervereins, etc. (The Agitation of the General German Working-men’s Association) 1st Edition, p.37, etc.

7. In a letter of Lassalle’s to the vice-president, Dr. Dammer - to whom Lassalle in the first excitement sent two absolutely contradictory telegrams - he actually said: “The first telegram I sent off at once because the whole Schleswig-Holstein craze is, in many respects, extremely unpleasant for me.” The contradiction in the telegrams is now explained by the position, full of contradictions, into which Lassalle had drifted. He was, without knowing it himself, no longer free.


Last updated on 21.1.2003