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The King of Prussia's Insanity[49]

Karl Marx

Berlin, Oct. 2, 1858

In one of his tales, Hauff, the German novelist, narrates how a whole gossip-mongering, scandal-loving little town was startled out of its habitual state of self-complacency one fine morning by the discovery that the leading dandy, the lion, in fact, of the place, was but a monkey in disguise[a]. The Prussian people, or part of them, seem, at this moment, to be laboring under the still less comfortable idea that all these twenty years past they have been ruled by a madman. There is a suspicion, at least, lurking in the public mind, of some such great dynastic mystification having been palmed off upon the faithful Prussian "subjects." It is certainly not, as John Bull and his able editors will have it, from the King's conduct, during the Russian war, that any such misgivings have arisen. His abstention from that bloody sham is, on the contrary, considered the sanest political act Frederick William IV has to boast of.

If a man, in any walk of life, however humble, all at once proves quite the reverse of what he was taken for, generally his angry and duped neighbors are sure to turn over the leaves of his history, rake up bygone stories, remember whenever there was something wrong with the fellow, stitch together the queer scraps and odd ends of the past, and at last arrive at the morbid satisfaction that all along they ought to have known better. Thus it is now recollected—and from personal knowledge I can attest the fact—that Dr. Jacobi, the leading physician of the Rhenish Lunatic Asylum at Siegburg, was, all at once, in the month of May, 1848, summoned to Berlin by Mr. Camphausen, the then head of the ministry, to assist the King, who, as was then said, labored under an inflammation of the brain. The nervous system of his Majesty had, as the myrmidons of the new-fangled Cabinet whispered in very confidential circles, been rudely shaken by the days of March, and, especially, by the scene where the people placed him face to face with the bodies of the citizens killed in consequence of a preconcerted misunderstanding, forcing him to uncover his head before and implore mercy of those bloody and still warm corpses[50]. That Frederick William afterward recovered, there can be no doubt, but it is by no means clear that he has not remained, like George III, subject to periodical relapses. Some casual eccentricities in his behavior were passed over the more slightly as he was known to indulge rather freely in the libations which once drove frantic the priestesses of a certain god at Thebes.[51]

In October, 1855, however, when he visited Rhenish Prussia on the pretext of laying the foundation stones of the new bridge to be built over the Rhine at Cologne, strange rumors were bruited about concerning him. With his face shrunk together, his legs gone, his belly protuberant, and an expression of restless anxiety in his eyes, he looked like the specter of his former self. While speechifying, he faltered, stumbled over his own words, now and then lost the thread of his sentence, and altogether looked uncomfortable, while the Queen[b], close to his side, was, anxiously watching all his movements. Contrary to his former habits, he received nobody, talked to nobody, and went nowhere but in company with the Queen, who had become quite inseparable from him. After his return to Berlin, there oozed out from time to time strange on dits[c] as to the bodily injuries he had, in sudden fits of passion, inflicted on his own Ministers, on Manteuffel even. To lull public attention, the King was said to suffer from dropsy. Afterward, reports as to the misadventures incurred by him in his own gardens at Sans Souci, sometimes hurting an eye against a tree, at other times damaging a leg on a stone, became more and more frequent, and, as early as the beginning of 1856, it was insinuated here and there, that he labored under temporary attacks of insanity. It was more especially said that he fancied he was a non-commissioned officer, who had still to pass through the trial of what, in the technical language of the Prussian drill-sergeant, is called Übungsmarsche[d]. Thence he used to run ill-omened races by himself in his parks at Sans Souci and Charlottenburg.

These and other reminiscences of a period of ten years are now being carefully connected. Why, it is asked, should not all that time an insane have been palmed off as King upon the Prussian people, since it is now confessed that for the last eighteen months at least Frederick William IV was kept on the throne despite his mental disease, and since, consequent upon the quarrels among the members of the royal family, the juggles played in his name by the Queen and the Ministers have been publicly exposed. In cases of insanity, arising from softening of the brain, the patients usually enjoy lucid intervals to the very moment of death. Such is the case with the King of Prussia, and this peculiar character of his insanity has afforded the fit opportunities for the frauds committed.

The Queen, always watching her husband, caught at every lucid interval of his mind to show him to the people, or make him interfere on public occasions, and drill him for the acting of the part he was to play. Sometimes her calculations were cruelly baffled. In the presence of the Queen of Portugal[e], who, as you will remember, celebrated her nuptials at Berlin, per procura[f] the King was to have publicly assisted at the church ceremonies. Everything was ready, and Ministers, aides-de-camp, courtiers, foreign embassadors, and the bride herself, were waiting for him, when all at once, despite the desperate efforts of the Queen, he was overtaken by the hallucination of believing himself the bridegroom. Some queer remarks he dropped as to his singular destiny in being married again during the lifetime of his first spouse, and as to the impropriety of his (the bridegroom's) appearance in a military uniform, left his exhibitors no chance but to countermand the spectacle which had been announced.

The boldness of the Queen's operations may be inferred from the following incident: There exists still an old custom at Potsdam, according to which the fishermen once in the year pay to the King an old feudal tribute of fish. On that occasion, the Queen, to prove to the men of the people the falsehood of the rumors then freely circulating as to the state of the royal mind, dared to invite the foremost of these men to a fish dinner, to be presided over by the King himself. In fact, the dinner went off pretty well, the King .muttering some words learned by rote, smiling, and, on the whole, behaving properly. The Queen, anxious lest the scene so well got up should be spoiled, hastened to give the guests the signal of departure, when all at once the King rose, and in a thundering voice demanded to be put in the frying-pan. The Arabian tale of the man converted into a fish[g] became a reality with him. It was exactly by such indiscretions, to venture upon which was one of the necessities of the Queen's game, that the comedy broke down.

I need not say that no revolutionist could have invented a better method of depreciating royalty. The Queen herself, a Bavarian princess, and sister of the ill-famed Sophia of Austria (the mother of Francis Joseph), had never been suspected by the public at large of being the head of the Berlin Camarilla. Before 1848 she went by the name of the "meek mother of the land" (die milde Landesmutter)[h], was supposed to wield no public influence at all, and from the natural turn of her mind, to remain a complete stranger to politics. There was some grumbling at her supposed secret Catholicism, some railing at her commandership-in-chief of the mystical Order of the Swan, founded on her behalf by the King[52], but that was the whole stock of public aspersion she ever had to bear. After the victory of the people in Berlin, the King appealed to their forbearance in the name of the "meek mother of the land[i], and that appeal did not fall flat upon his audience. Since the counter-revolution, however, the public appreciation of the sister of Sophia of Austria has undergone a gradual change. The person in whose name the magnanimity of the victorious people had been secured, happened to turn a deaf ear to the mothers and sisters whose sons and brothers had fallen into the hands of the victorious counter-revolution. While the "meek mother of the land" seemed to indulge the monarchic joke of having some poor militia men (Landwehrleute) executed at Saarlouis on the birthday of the King in 1850, at a time when the crime those men had committed, of defending popular rights, seemed already forgotten, her whole capital of sentimental religiosity was spent in public homage to the graves of the soldiers fallen in their attack upon the unarmed people of Berlin, and in similar acts of reactionary ostentation. Her fierce quarrels with the Princess of Prussia became also, by and by, subjects of public discussion, but it seemed quite natural that she, childless as she was, should bear a grudge against the haughty wife of the King's legitimate successor. I shall return to the subject.

Written on October 2, 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5462, October 23, 1858;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1400, October 26, 1858
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 894, October 30, 1858
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] W. Hauff, Der Affe als Mensch.—Ed.

[b] Elizabeth.—Ed.

[c] Rumours.—Ed.

[d] Training marches.—Ed.

[e] Stephanie.—Ed.

[f] Literally: by proxy; here as a person representing the bridegroom.—Ed.

[g] A Thousand and One Nights. "The Fisherman and the Afreet".—Ed.

[h] An expression from Gedenkbuch an die silberne Jubel-Hochzeitsfeier ihrer königlichen Majestäten Friedrich Wilhelm IV und Elisabeth Ludovika von Preussen zu Potsdam am 29. November 1848, Berlin, 1849, S. 353.—Ed.

[i] "An Meine lieben Berliner [in der Nacht vom 18.-19. März 1848]".—Ed.

[49] This article is marked "Berlin" but was written by Marx in London. By agreement with the Tribune editors, Marx marked some of his articles on the different European countries "Paris", "Berlin" or "Vienna" respectively, sometimes indicating an earlier date than that of their actual writing.

[50] On March 18, 1848, during the dispersal of a demonstration before the king's palace in Berlin, two shots were fired. This provocation on the part of the Prussian military command served as a signal for armed barricade fighting which ended in the defeat of the royal troops. As a result of the street fighting several hundred Berliners were killed and many wounded. The insurgents took over the guard of the palace, and on the morning of March 19 they forced the king to go out on to the balcony and bare his head before the corpses of the fallen fighters.

[51] According to Greek mythology, Dionysus, a god of wine, in order to avenge himself on Pentheus, King of Thebes, for not acknowledging him as god, led all the Theban women away to the Cithaeron mountains where they indulged in orgiastic and bacchanalian rites, and in their frenzy killed Pentheus.

[52] In 1843 Frederick William IV, who wanted to revive the romantic aspect of feudalism, issued a decree on the rebirth of the Order of the Swan, a medieval religious order of Knights (founded in, 1440 and dissolved during the Reformation). The King's intention did not materialise, however.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.54-58), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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