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The King of Prussia's Insanity

Karl Marx

Berlin, Oct. 12, 1858

It was to-day that the King left Berlin en route to Tyrol and Italy. Among the silent crowd waiting at the Potsdam Railway terminus to watch his departure there were many who, in 1840, had assisted at his coronation, and in his first public delivery of stump oratory, heard him solemnly swear that he would never allow a "Gallic bit of paper to interfere between him and his people."[a] The same man had the misfortune not only to accept on his oath a "Gallic bit of paper"—a romantic byword this for a written charter or constitution—but to become himself the god-father of the Prussian Constitution, and, in a certain sense, to be dethroned by virtue of that same mischievous "bit of paper." You will have remarked the discrepancy existing between the King's rescript to the Prince of Prussia and the Prince's rescript to the Ministry. The King in his rescript says:

"Continuing to be personally hindered from conducting public affairs, I request your Royal Highness and Liebden for the time being, etc., to exercise the kingly power as Regent in my name, according to your best knowledge and conscience, and with responsibility to God alone."[b]

The Prince, in his counter-rescript, says:

"In consequence of this Royal request and under virtue of Article 56 of the Constitution I being the next male heir to the throne, hereby take upon myself the Regency of the country, and, according to Article 56 of the Constitution, convoke the two Houses of the Diet of the Monarchy."[c]

Now, in the Royal rescript, the King acts as a free agent, and, by his own free will, temporarily resigns. The Prince, however, refers at the same time to the "Royal request" and to "Article 56 of the Constitution" which assumes the King to be insane or captive, and, consequently, unable to install the Regency himself. The King, furthermore, in his rescript, calls upon the Regent to exercise his power "with responsibility to God alone," while the Prince, by referring to the Constitution[d], leaves all the responsibility to the existing Ministry. According to the article quoted by the Regent, the "next heir to the throne," has immediately to convoke the Chambers, which in a united sitting, are to decide on the "necessity of the Regency." To take the latter power out of the hands of the Diet, the voluntary resignation of the King was insisted upon, but to become not altogether dependent upon the King's caprices, the Constitution was referred to. Thus there is a flaw in .the Regent's claim as it professes to proceed from two titles, which extinguish each other. Article 58 of the Constitution declares that

"from the moment of his (the Regent's) oath relative to the Constitution (before the united Diet), the existing Ministry remains responsible for all governmental acts.

How does this tally with "the responsibility to God alone"? The acknowledgment of the King's rescript is a pretext, because the Diet is convoked, and the convocation of the Diet is a pretext, because it is not to decide upon the "necessity" of the Regency. By the mere force of circumstances the Prince of Prussia, who, in 1850, declined taking the oath to the Constitution, sees himself now placed in the awkward position of not only accepting, but of appealing to it. It must not be forgotten that from the Autumn of 1848 to the beginning of 1850, the Absolutists, especially in the ranks of the army, had cherished, and occasionally, even openly avowed their plan of supplanting the vacillating King by the sober Prince, who, at all events, was not prevented by any elasticity of intellect, from possessing a certain strength of will, and who, furthermore, by his conduct during the days of March, his flight to England, the popular odium centring upon him, and, lastly, his high deeds in the Baden campaign[57] seemed quite the man to represent strong government in Prussia, as Francis Joseph and the son of Hortense[e] do on the Western and Eastern frontiers of the Hohenzollern domains. The Prince, in fact, has never altered his principles. Yet the slights he, and still more his wife, a disciple of Goethe, a cultivated mind, an ambitious and haughty character, have had to submit to, on the part of the Queen and her camarilla, could not but drive him into a, somewhat oppositional attitude. The King's malady left him no alternative but to allow the Queen to rule or himself to accept the Constitution. Besides, there is now removed a scruple characteristic of the man, which weighed upon his mind in 1850. Then he was simply the first officer of the Prussian army, and that army swears fidelity to the King alone, but not to the Constitution. If, in 1850, he had taken the oath to the Constitution, he would have bound the army which he represented. As it is now, he may take the oath; but, if he likes, by the simple act of his resignation, he can enable his son to subvert the Constitution by help of the army. The very example of his brother's reign during the last eight years had, if any other stimulus were required, given sufficient proof that the Constitution imposed imaginary fetters only on the Royal prerogative, while, at the same time, it turned out quite a godsend in a financial point of view. Just think of the King's financial difficulties during the epoch from 1842 to 1848, the vain attempts at borrowing money through the Seehandlung[58] the cool denials of a few millions of dollars on the part of the Rothschilds, the small loans refused by the united Diet in 1847, the complete exhaustion of the public treasury, and then, on the other side, compare the financial facilities met with even in 1850, the, first year of the Constitution, when three budgets, with a deficit of 70,000,000, were covered at once by the Chambers in the wink of an eye. He, indeed, must be a great fool, who should lose hold of such .a machinery for coining money! The Prussian Constitution has, as far as the people, are concerned, only added the political influence of the aristocracy to the traditional power of the bureaucracy, while the crown, on the contrary, has been enabled to create a public debt, and increase the yearly budget by more than 100 per cent.

The history itself of that Constitution forms one of the most extraordinary chapters of modern history. At first there had been produced, on May 20, 1848, the sketch of a Constitution[f] drawn up by the Camphausen Cabinet, which laid it before the Prussian National Assembly. The principal activity of that body consisted in altering the Government scheme. The Assembly was still busied with this work when it was disposed of by Pomeranian bayonets. On the 5th of December, 1848, the King octroyed a Constitution of his own, which, however, the times wearing still a rather revolutionary aspect, was only meant to act as a provisional quietus. In order to revise it, the Chambers were convoked, and their labors exactly coincided with the epoch of frantic reaction. These Chambers on a Prussian scale reminded one altogether of Louis XVIII's chambre introuvable[59]. Still the King vacillated. The "bit of paper," sugared as it was, perfumed as it was with loyalty, emblazoned as it was with medieval figures, still did not come up to the King's relish. The King tried everything to disgust the Constitution-mongers, while the latter were as firmly resolved to succumb to no humiliation, to take fright at no concession, to gain a nominal Constitution, whatever its contents, to ascend by cringing in the dust. In fact, the Royal messages, which followed each other like the discharges of a platoon fire, set aside, not the resolutions of the revising Chambers, because the latter kept up a merely passive attitude, but, on the contrary, the propositions successively made by the King's own Ministers, in the King's own name. To-day one paragraph was proposed by them. Two days later, after its acceptance by the Chambers, fault was found with it, and the King declared its alteration a condition, sine qua non. At last, tired of this game, the King, in his message of Jan. 7, 1850, resolved upon a last and definitive attempt at making his faithful subjects give up in despair their Constitutional aspirations. In a message, calculated to this effect, he proposed a string of amendments[g] which, in all human probability, he could not suppose even the Chambers able to swallow. Still they were swallowed, and with good grace too. So there remained nothing but to have done with the thing, and proclaim the Constitution. The oath still smacked of the farcical contrivances by which the Constitution had been set afloat. The King accepted the Constitution, on the condition that he should "find it possible to rule with it"[h]; and the Chambers accepted this ambiguous declaration as an oath and a payment in full; the bulk of the people taking no interest at all in the transaction.

Such is the history of this Constitution. Of its contents I propose giving you a succinct sketch in another letter[i], since, by a strange concurrence of circumstances, that "airy nothing"[j] hag now become, at least, the ostensible basis of operations for the contending official parties, which in Prussia, as elsewhere, are destined to initiate the general movement, that in due time must appear upon the scene.

Written on October 12, 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune Tribune, No. 5465, October 27, 1858;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1401, October 29, 1858
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Friedrich Wilhelm IV, Der 11. April 1847. Thron-Rede ... zur Eröffnung des Vereinigten Landtages, Berlin, 1847, S. 6.
See also this volume, p. 75.—Ed.

[b] Here and below the quotations are from Friedrich Wilhelm IV, "Allerhöchster Erlass vom 7. Oktober 1858, betreffend die Aufforderung an Seine Königliche Hoheit den Prinzen von Preussen zur Uebernahme der Regentschaft".—Ed.

[c] Wilhelm, Prinz von Preussen, Regent, "Erlass Seiner Königlichen Hoheit des Prinzen von Preussen vom 9. Oktober 1858, die Uebernahme der Regentschaft und die Einberufung der beiden Häuser des Landtages der Monarchie betreffend".—Ed.

[d] "Verfassungs-Urkunde für den Preussischen Staat. Vom 31. Januar 1850".—Ed.

[e] Napoleon III.—Ed.

[f] "Verfassungs-Gesetz für den Preussischen Staat. Vom 20. Mai 1848".—Ed.

[g] Friedrich Wilhelm IV, "Zusammenstellung der in der Allerhöchsten Botschaft vom 7. Januar 1850 vorgeschlagenen Abänderungen und Ergänzungen der Verfassung vom 5. Dezember 1848".—Ed.

[h] Frederick William IV's speech at the sitting of both Prussian Chambers on February 6, 1850.—Ed.

[i] See this volume, pp. 74-77.—Ed.

[j] Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene 1.—Ed.

[57] During the March 1848 revolution in Germany the Prince of Prussia fled to England. As commander-in-chief of the Prussian forces he took part in suppressing the Baden-Palatinate uprising of 1849.

[58] The Seehandlung is short for the Preussische Seehandlungsgesellschaft (Prussian Maritime Trading Company). It was founded as a commercial and banking company in 1772 and granted a number of important privileges by the state. It advanced big loans to the government and in fact became its banker and broker.

[59] Chambre introuvable—the name of the French Chamber of Deputies in 1815-16 given to it by Louis XVIII. Its extreme conservatism, expressed in the ultra-reactionary actions of its majority, forced the King to disband the chamber.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.65-69), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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