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A Prussian View of the War

Karl Marx

Berlin, May 24, 1859

The war got up by the French autocrat is sure not only to be not "localized" in the sense of the political slang, according to which the term is understood to mean that the operations of war are not to be carried beyond the limits of the Italian Peninsula; the war, on the contrary, will not be confined even within the bounds of a simple war to be fought between arbitrary governments and to be decided by the action of drilled armies. In its progress it will turn into a general revolutionary conflagration of continental Europe, out of which not many of the present rulers are likely to save their crowns and their dynasties. Germany may become the center of the revulsion, as it must become the center of military operations the very moment Russia has made ready to throw her sword into the balance. Not much reasoning is required in order to arrive at the conclusion that a serious defeat on the battle-field will lead to revolutionary convulsions in France or in Austria, but Berlin is perhaps the only place which affords the data indispensable for calculating the rude trials Germany is to pass through in no distant future. Day by day you may discern, almost with the naked eye, the growth of the conditions which, when developed to a certain degree of maturity, will produce a tremendous crisis hardly yet suspected by the vulgar of all ranks. I may sum up the symptoms of the coming storm in a few words: The jealous rivalry of the German Princes, which condemns them to inactivity during the first phase of the war; the social misery and disaffection, spreading like wild-fire from the Vistula to the Rhine, which will add civil commotions to foreign aggression during the second phase of the war; and lastly, the outbreak of the Slavonian populations incorporated with Germany, which will join an internal struggle of races to a foreign war and revolutionary dislocation.

Now, let us first consider the social basis the German Princes will stand upon, when at last the force of circumstances shall have compelled them to decide upon some common course of action. You are aware that the period from 1849 to 1859 marks an epoch unprecedented in the economical development of Germany. During that time it has, so to say, been converted from an agricultural into an industrial country. Take one single city, Berlin, for instance: In 1848, it mustered hardly 50,000 manufacturing laborers, male and female, while at this moment their aggregate number has expanded to 180,000. Take one single branch of industry: Before 1848, the export of wool to England, France and other countries formed one of the principal German resources, while at the present moment the home-grown German wool hardly suffices for the consumption of the home manufactories. Simultaneously with the development of manufactories, railways, steam navigation, and exploration of mines, there has suddenly sprung up a credit system not only proportionate to the general progress of industry and commerce, but fostered beyond its legitimate bounds by the hot-house contrivances of the Crédit Mobilier imported from France. The peasantry and the small middle class, including, until lately, the immense majority of the nation, had, before the revolution of 1848, quietly taken to the old Asiatic method of hoarding hard money, but have now replaced it by paper securities of all sorts, all colors, and all denominations. The Hamburg crisis of 1857 had slightly shaken, but not seriously damaged this fabric of new-fangled prosperity, which now reels at the very first roar of the cannon on the banks of the Po and Ticino. You have doubtless already been informed of the reaction of the Austrian commercial crisis upon the rest of Germany, and of the bankruptcies following each other in rapid succession at Leipsic, Berlin, Munich, Augsburg, Magdeburg, Cassel, Frankfort and other commercial centers of Germany. These disasters, however, denote only transitory catastrophes in the higher commercial spheres. To give an idea of the real state of things, I think it best to call your attention to a proclamation of the Prussian Government just published, in which, referring to the dangerous disbandment of whole industrial armies in Silesia, Berlin, Saxony, and Rhenish Prussia, it states that it can not listen to the petitions of the Chambers of Commerce at Berlin, Breslau, Stettin, Danzig and Magdeburg, recommending the ambiguous experiment of issuing more inconvertible paper money, and declines still more positively to employ the laborers on public works solely for the purpose of affording them occupation and wages[a]. The latter demand certainly sounds strange at a moment when the Government, from want of means, was forced to suddenly stop the public works already in progress. The single fact that, at the very beginning of the war, the Prussian Government should be forced to issue such a proclamation speaks volumes. Add to this sudden interruption of industrial life, a general imposition of new taxes throughout the whole of Germany, a general rise in the price of first necessaries, and a general disorganization of all business concerns by the calling in of the reserves and the Landwehr, and you may realize a faint idea of the proportions which social misery will reach in some months. The times, however, are passed when the bulk of the German people used to consider worldly misfortunes as inevitable inflictions sent from heaven. There is a low, but audible popular voice murmuring already the words: "Responsibility! If the revolution of 1848 had not been crushed by fraud and violence, France and Germany would not again be arrayed in arms against each other. If the brutal subduers of the German revolution had not lowered their crowned heads before a Bonaparte and an Alexander, there could have been no war, even now." Such are the low grumblings of the popular voice, which, by and by, will speak in accents of thunder.

I come now to the spectacle which the German Princes exhibit before the eyes of a rather impatient public. The Austrian Cabinet, since the beginning of January, had put in motion all resorts of diplomatic intrigue to induce the German States to concentrate a great federal army, into which Austrian forces were to enter to a large extent, on some point of Southern Germany, which concentration should expose France to an attack on its eastern frontiers. In this way the German Confederation was to be inveigled into an offensive war, while, at the same time, Austria reserved for herself the direction of that war. A resolution in that sense, proposed to the German Diet at Frankfort, on the 13th of May, by Hanover[b], was met by Herr von Usedom, the Prussian Plenipotentiary, with a formal protest of his Government[c]. Hence a general outburst of patriotic indignation on the part of the Princes of Southern Germany. The counterpart was now enacted by Prussia.

The Prussian Government, on the prorogation of its Parliament, had secured itself a passing popularity by declaring that it was resolved on a line of "armed mediation"[d]. Hardly were the Chambers dismissed when the "armed mediation" shrunk together to the more modest dimensions of a refusal on the part of Prussia to declare itself neutral, as called upon to do by France and Russia. The negative prowess, although sufficient to arouse the wrath of the Court of St. Petersburg, was far from coming up to the expectations of the Prussian people. The armaments of the Western and Eastern fortresses, coupled as they were with the calling in of the reserves and the Landwehr, were intended to allay the popular clamor thus raised. On May 19, however, Herr von Usedom, in the name of his Government, asked the German Diet to put the Federal Army of Observation under the direct command of Prussia, and leave to her the whole initiative of the military measures to be taken. Now it was the turn of the minor German Princes, secretly backed by Austria, to verify their patriotic pretensions. Bavaria declared that the time was not yet come to subject the army of the Wittelsbachers to the commands of the Hohenzollerns. Hanover, with a rancorous "Tu quoque"[e], reminded Prussia of its protest against a Federal army of observation, to be concentrated on a point of Southern Germany. Saxony, on its part, saw no reason why its august ruler should not be intrusted himself with the supreme command, if it were only with a view to set aside the conflicting pretensions of the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns. Württemberg almost preferred French invasion to Prussian supremacy; and in this way all the worst reminiscences of the Holy German Empire[282] boasted an ignominious revival. The nullification of Germany for the moment is the sum total of these bickerings between its diminutive rulers. The cry for the restoration of the German National Parliament is only the first weak protest, not on the part of the revolutionary masses, but of the anxious, mediating middle classes, against those dynastic obstructives.

I shall take another occasion to speak of the Slavonian troubles preparing in Germany.

Written on May 24, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5659
and the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1465, ,June 10, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] "Circular-Erlass vom 21. Mai 1859—betreffend die Bewilligung von Staats-Prämien für die Ausführuiig neuer Chausseebauprojekte in solchen Fällen, wo derartige Bauten zur Vorbeugung oder Beseitigung von Nothständen für erforderlich erachtet werden", Königlich Preussischer Staats-Anzeiger, No. 121, May 24, 1859.—Ed.

[b] For the resolution see the Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 141, May 21, 1859.—Ed.

[c] This protest was made on May 19, 1859. See the Neue Preussische Zeitung, No. 118, May 22, 1859.—Ed.

[d] From the Prince of Prussia's speech at the closing session of the two Chambers of the Prussian Diet on May 14, 1859. See the Königlich privilegirte Berlinische Zeitung, No. 113, May 15, 1859.—Ed.

[e] "You too."—Ed.

[282] The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation founded by King Otto I in 962 lasted until August 1806.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.341-345), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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