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Preparations for napoleon's Coming War on the Rhine

Karl Marx


Berlin, May 1, 1860

The notion that Louis Bonaparte is about to put the German question on the tapis prevails here among all classes of society. In to-day's National-Zeitung, a correspondent even affirms that he knows, from sources most. authentic, that Badinguet (as Louis Bonaparte is familiarly styled at Paris) has definitely resolved upon a Rhenish campaign, and that Lord John Russell had just been informed of this scheme when, some weeks ago, he rose from his seat to frighten the House of Commons by fierce invectives against the Emperor of the French, and the sudden announcement that England was now going in search for new alliances. The tone and temper of French semi-official prints are far from allaying these apprehensions. Read, for instance, the following extract from Bullier's Correspondence[289], a Paris publication from which most of the provincial journalists in France derive their inspiration:

"A friend of mine, who is addicted to prophetic pleasantries, said to me the other day: 'You'll see the Emperor go to the Rhine to offer his alliance to the King of Prussia[a], coupled with a slight rectification of frontiers.' I replied by a quotation from the pamphlet Napoleon III et l'Italie[b]: It is better to settle a Territorial modification in a friendly way than to have to do it the day after a victory."

Not long after the treaty of commerce with England[c] was concluded, the French Government threw out a hint to the Prussian Embassador[d] at Paris that an application for a similar treaty between France and the Zollverein[290] would be favorably received, but the Prussian Government answering that the Zollverein was not at all desirous to make such a treaty, surprise and displeasure were expressed in terms far from courteous. Moreover, the Prussian Government was, at the time, fully informed of the negotiations which the agents of Louis Bonaparte had recently opened with the Bavarian Court, in order to induce the latter to cede to France the fortress of Landau, which, it was said, having been left to France by the treaty of 1814, had been unjustly taken from her by the treaty of 1815[291]. The popular rumors of an impending rupture with France are, consequently, strengthened by official suspicion.

Prussia's position at present bears, in some respects, a strong likeness to that of Austria after the conclusion of the Oriental war. Austria seemed then to have got off best of all the Powers. She flattered herself that she had humbled Russia, her dangerous neighbor, without incurring any trouble beyond the mobilization of her forces. Having played the armed mediator while the Western Powers had to bear the brunt of war, she might, after the proclamation of peace, fancy she had broken, by the arms of the Western Alliance, the ascendency Russia had won over her since the Hungarian events of 1849, and there were indeed at that time many compliments bestowed upon the clever diplomatic tactics of the Vienna Cabinet. In point of fact, however, the ambiguous attitude maintained by Austria during the Oriental war, left her without allies, and enabled Louis Bonaparte to localize the Italian war. Prussia, in her turn, maintained her resources intact during the Italian war. She shouldered her arms, but had not used them, and contented herself with spilling, instead of blood, the patient ink of her political wiseacres. After the peace of Villafranca, Prussia seemed to have weakened the rival House of Hapsburg through the instrumentality of French victories, and opened to herself the road to paramount power in Germany. Still, the very pretexts on which the treaty of Villafranca was proclaimed ought to have rent the delusions she labored under. While Louis Bonaparte declared that Prussia's armaments and threats of an eventual intervention had blunted the sword of France, Austria declared that her own power of resistance had split upon the equivocal neutrality of Prussia. During the whole war, Prussia had displayed pretensions ludicrously contradicted by her acts. Before Austria and the minor German States she appealed to her duties as a European Power; before England and Russia she appealed to her obligations as the paramount German Power; and, resting her claims on these double pretensions, she demanded from France to be acknowledged as the armed mediator of Europe. To her claims as the German Power, par excellence, she acted .up by allowing Russia to intimidate, in a circular[e] of unprecedented insolence, the minor German courts, and by timidly listening, in the person of Herr von Schleinitz, to Lord John Russell's flippant lectures on the "constitutional" law of nations.

Her claims as a European Power she made good by hushing up the warlike impulses of the minor German princes, and by an attempt to turn the military defeats of Austria into as many titles for usurping the place formerly held by her rival in the councils of the German Confederation. When at last forced, by the progress of the French arms, to assume something like a warlike attitude, she met with the cold resistance of the minor German States, which hardly thought it worth while to dissimulate their distrust as to the ultimate intentions of the Prussian Court. The peace of Villafranca found Prussia completely insulated, not only in Europe, but in Germany, while the subsequent annexation of Savoy, by greatly contracting the exposed front of France, greatly improved her chances of a victorious campaign on the Rhine.

Under these circumstances, the line of policy which Prussia now affected to follow, both in her internal and external relations, appears alike faulty. Despite all the vainglorious declamations of the Prussian newspapers and Representative Chambers, nothing has been altered in her internal affairs, save the phraseology of her officials. The propositions on army reform[f], while not at all strengthening her military force for the impending emergency, aim at a permanent enlargement of the standing army, already too large; the overburdening of the financial resources, already overstrained, and the annihilation of the only democratic institution of the country—the Landwehr[292]. All the reactionary laws on the press, the right of association, the municipal administration, the relations of landlords and peasants, the bureaucratic tutelage, the ubiquity of the police, have been carefully maintained. Even the infamous statutes relating to marriages contracted between nobles and the common stock of mankind, have not been rescinded. The very idea of restoring the Constitution, overthrown by a coup d'état, is hooted at as a wild dream.

I will give you one single instance of the civil liberty now enjoyed by a Prussian subject. A native of Rhenish Prussia[g] had, during the worst period of the reaction, been condemned by a packed Jury, because of what was then called a political crime, to seven years imprisonment in a Prussian fortress. The period of his punishment, not abridged by the liberal ministry, having come to an end, he repaired to Cologne, there to be driven out by order of the police. He then set out for his native town, but, strange to say, was informed by the authorities that, having absented himself for seven years from the place, he had lost his citizenship, and must look for another abode. He retorted that his absence had not been a voluntary one, but all in vain. From Berlin, where he then resorted, he was again ejected on the plea that he had no means of existence to show, except his personal resources of labor and knowledge; all his property having been consumed during his imprisonment. He at last betook himself to Breslau, where an old acquaintance of his employed him as one of his agents, but being one morning summoned to the police, he was told that his permission of residence could be prolonged only for a few weeks, if, in the mean while, he should not have procured citizenship in Breslau. On his appliance to the Breslau municipal authority, many petty difficulties were thrown in his way, which, being removed by the interference of zealous friends, his petition for citizenship was at last granted, but, together with the grant, he received a big bill, parading an array of fees, all to be paid by any happy mortal on his entrance into the ranks of Breslau citizens. If his friends had not possessed the means by clubbing, to raise the sum required, this Prussian subject would, like the Wandering Jew, have found no place in his glorious fatherland where to rest his head.


Berlin, May 2, 1860

After the conclusion of the peace of Villafranca, the Prussian Government, which for months had flattered itself with the idle hope of being acknowledged as the armed mediator of Europe, and of rearing, upon the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, the edifice of Hohenzollern greatness, seemed to have awakened to a sense of the immense dangers looming in the future. Their policy, at once irresolute, vacillating, and perfidious; had left them without allies, and even von Schleinitz, whose long-winded dispatches had become a standing joke with the diplomatic world, could hardly conceal from himself the truth that, so soon as the internal state of France should again drive the Man of December beyond the French frontiers, Prussia was to be the predestined object of another localized war.

Had not Louis Napoleon, in a moment of apparent openheartedness, dropped some words to the effect that he knew what Germany stood in need of—unity, that he was the man to impart it; and that the Rhenish Provinces would be not too high a price for the purchase of so precious a commodity. Quite true to the tradition of Prussia's past, the first idea of the Prince Regent[h] and his satellites was to throw themselves upon the mercy of Russia. Had not Frederick William I acquired Pomerania by a treaty of division concluded with Peter the Great against Charles XII of Sweden?[293] Had not Frederick II carried the day in the Seven Years' War, and annexed Silesia by the withdrawal of Russia from her Austrian ally?[294] Had not the several divisions of Poland[295], planned between the Court of Berlin and the Court of Petersburg, swelled out the diminutive dimensions of the Prussian monarchy? Had not, at the Congress of Vienna, the unbounded servility of Frederick William III, who stood by Alexander I, when, in 1814, England, Austria, and France showed some indication to opposition and resistance, been rewarded by the annexation of Saxony and the Rhenish Provinces to Prussia?[296] Prussia, in one word, had in its encroachments upon Germany, always enjoyed the patron-age and the support of Russia, on the express condition, of course, of helping that latter Power to subject the countries bordering on the fatherland, and of playing the part of its humble vassal on the European stage. In October, 1859, the Prince Regent and Alexander II, surrounded by diplomatists, generals and courtiers, met each other at Breslau, there to conclude a treaty[297], the articles of which have, till now, remained an unfathomable secret, not for Louis Bonaparte or Lord Palmerston, but for Prussian subjects, whose liberal representatives have proved themselves, of course, much too polite to interpellate Herr von Schleinitz, the Foreign Minister, on such a delicate question. This much, however, is sure, that the Bonapartist press took no fright at the Breslau conference; that ever since then the relations between Russia and France have grown more ostentatiously intimate; that that conference did not prevent Louis Bonaparte, either from seizing upon Savoy, or threatening Switzerland, and throwing out hints upon some unavoidable "rectification of the Rhenish frontiers," and, finally, that Prussia herself, despite the comfortable prospect of again being allowed to form Russia's vanguard, has, in these latter times, eagerly seized upon the bait of an English alliance, only thrown out at London to amuse the British House of Commons for a week or two.

However, Lord John Russell's indiscreet betrayal in the shape of a Blue Book[i], of Herr von Schleinitz's coquetry with the Tuileries during the last Italian war, gave the death-blow to the Anglo-Prussian alliance, which the Prussian Government considered for a moment as a scheme really entertained, but which was known at London to be nothing beyond a phrase hiding a Parliamentary trick. After all, despite the conference with Alexander II, at Breslau, and Lord John Russell's "search for new alliances," Prussia now, as after the treaty of Villafranca, finds herself completely insulated and singly exposed to the French theory of the natural frontiers.[298]

Can it be believed that under such trying circumstances the only expedient which the Prussian Government has hit upon is to renew its scheme of a little Germany with a Hohenzollern at its head, and, by the most insolent provocations, not only to drive Austria into the hostile camp, but to estrange the whole of Southern Germany? Yet, incredible as it may appear, and the more incredible since this line of policy is fervently recommended by the Bonapartist press, such is the case. The nearer the danger draws, the more anxious appears Prussia to display her hunger for a new division of Germany. By the way, it is likely enough that, after the blow dealt to Austria, Germany stands in need of a similar blow being dealt to Prussia, in order to get rid of "both the houses,"[j] but at all events nobody will suspect the Prince Regent and Herr von Schleinitz of acting upon such pessimist principles. Ever since the treaty of Villafranca the leanings of the Regent's policy have been betrayed in little press skirmishes and small occasional debates on the Italian question, but, on the 20th of April, in the Prussian Lower House, on [the] occasion of the debates on the Kurhessian question[k], the cat was let out of the bag.

I have before explained this Kurhessian question to your readers[l], and shall therefore now limit myself to explaining in a few words the main points upon which the debates turned. The Kurhessian Constitution of 1831 having been destroyed by the Arch-Elector[m] in 1849-50, under Austrian auspices, Prussia for a moment affected a desire to draw the sword on behalf of the protesting representative Chamber, but in November, 1850, on the meeting between Prince Schwarzenberg and Baron Manteuffel at Olmütz, when Prussia altogether surrendered to Austria, acknowledged the restoration of the old German Diet[299], betrayed Schleswig-Holstein, and recanted all her pretensions to supremacy, she also yielded her knight-errantry on behalf of the Kurhessian Constitution of 1831.

In 1852, the Arch-Elector octroyed a new constitution which was guaranteed by the German Diet, despite the protest of the Kurhessian people. After the Italian war, the question, on the secret instigation of Prussia, was again mooted. The Kurhessian Chambers again declared for the validity of the Constitution of 1831, and fresh petitions for its reestablishment went up to the Diet at Frankfort. Prussia then asserted the Constitution of 1831 to be alone valid, but, as she cautiously added, it ought to be adapted to the monarchical principles of the Diet. Austria, on the other hand, insisted that the Constitution of 1852 was legal, but ought to be amended in a liberal sense. Thus the dispute was a verbal one, a mere quibble, the gist of which was a trial of the respective power wielded by the Hohenzollern and the Hapsburg over the German Confederation. A vast majority of the Diet decided at last for the validity of the Constitution of 1852; viz., on the Austrian side, and against Prussia. The motives which swayed the votes of the minor German States were transparent. Austria they knew to be too much involved in foreign difficulties, and too unpopular, to attempt anything beyond the conservation of the general status quo in Germany, while they suspected Prussia of ambitious schemes of innovation. By not acknowledging the competency of the vote of the Diet of 1851, they would have put in jeopardy the competency of all the other resolutions of the Diet since 1848. Last, not least, they did not like the Prussian strategy of dictating to the minor German Princes and encroaching upon their sovereignty, by affecting to take up the grievances of the Kurhessian people against the Arch-Elector. Consequently the motion of Prussia was lost.

Now, on the 20th of April, when this matter came to be debated at Berlin in the House of Deputies, Herr von Schleinitz, in the name of the Prussian Government, explicitly declared[n] that Prussia would not think herself bound by the vote of the German Diet; that, in 1850, when the Prussian Constitution was fabricated, there existed no German Diet, that body having been swept away by the earthquake of 1848, whence it followed that all resolutions of the German Diet which should run counter to the plans of the Prussian Government were void of legal force; and, lastly, that, in fact, the German Diet belonged to the dead, although the German Confederation, of course, continued to exist. Now, is it possible to imagine any step more foolish on the part of the Prussian Government? The Austrian Government declared the old Constitution of the German Empire to be defunct, after Napoleon I had really put the extinguisher upon it. The Hapsburg then proclaimed only a fact. The Hohenzollern, on the contrary, now proclaims the nullity of the Federal Constitution of Germany at a moment when Germany is threatened with a foreign war, as if to afford the Man of December legal pretexts for entering into separate alliances with the minor German States, which, till now, were precluded from such a course of action by the laws of the Diet. If Prussia had proclaimed the right of the Revolution of 1848, the nullity of all the counter-revolutionary acts committed by herself and the Diet since that time, and the restoration of the institutions and laws of the Revolutionary epoch, she would have commanded the sympathies .of all Germany, Austrian Germany included.

As it is, she has only divided the German Princes without uniting the German people. She has, in fact, opened the door by which to let in the Zouaves.

Written on May 3-4, 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5950, May 19, 1860


[a] Frederick William IV.—Ed.

[b] La Guéronnière, L'empereur Napoléon III et l'Italie, Paris, 1859, pp. 63-64.—Ed.

[c] See this volume, pp. 341-44.—Ed.

[d] A. Pourtalès.—Ed.

[e] Gorchakov's "Circularschreiben an die russischen Gesendtschaften vom 15. (27.) Mai 1859", Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 167, June 16, 1859.—Ed.

[f] See this volume, pp. 345-49.—Ed.

[g] Peter Nothjung. See Engels' letter to Ferdinand Lassalle of March 15, 1860, present edition, Vol. 41.—Ed.

[h] William, Prince of Prussia.—Ed.

[i] Correspondence respecting the Affairs of Italy from the Signing of Preliminaries of Villafranca to the Postponement of the Congress, London, 1860.—Ed.

[j] Cf. "a plague o'both your houses", Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 1.—Ed.

[k] See the Königlich privilegirte Berlinische Zeitung, No. 93, April 20, 1860.—Ed.

[l] Karl Marx, "Trouble in Germany", present edition, Vol. 16.—Ed.

[m] Friedrich Wilhelm I.—Ed.

[n] Von Schleinitz's speech in the Prussian Diet on April 20, 1860, Stenographischer Bericht, Bd. 2, Berlin, 1860, S. 794-95. Presumably Marx used the material from "Debates in the Prussian Chamber", The Times, No. 23604, April 26, 1860.—Ed.

[289] Bullier's Correspondance, a Paris news agency founded in the 1850s and later amalgamated with Havas.

[290] The Zollverein, a union of German states which established a common customs frontier, was set up in 1834 under the aegis of Prussia. Brought into being by the need to create an all-German market, the Customs Union subsequently embraced all the German states except Austria and a few of the smaller states.

[291] A reference to the Paris peace treaties of 1814 and 1815 signed by France and the main participants of the sixth and seventh anti-French coalitions (Russia, Britain, Austria and Prussia) that defeated Napoleon. Under the terms of the first treaty, signed on May 30, 1814, France lost all the territories won by her in the 1792-1814 wars, with the exception of several border fortresses and Western Savoy. Under the provisions of the second Paris treaty the territory of France was limited by the 1790 borders and she was deprived of strategically important points on her Eastern frontier, including the fortress of Landau.

[292] A reference to the "liberal course" proclaimed by Prince William of Prussia (King of Prussia from 1861) in October 1858, when he took up the regency. In the bourgeois press this course was described as a "new era". Actually he did not carry out any of the reforms expected by the bourgeoisie; but in 1860 a previously prepared military reform was effected which abolished the remnants of democratism still surviving in the Prussian army after the national liberation war against Napoleon I in 1813-15. This reform stipulated that henceforth the Landwehr would be used only for garrison duties, and it considerably increased the strength of the army in peacetime.

[293] A reference to the treaty of alliance and mutual guarantees between Russia and Prussia (Traité d'alliance et de garantie mutuelle conclu à st. Petersbourg entre la Russie et la Prusse) concluded in June 1714 during the Northern War between Russia and Sweden (1700-21) when Russia sought to win Prussia over to her side by promising to divide Swedish possessions in Germany. Under the treaty Prussia was guaranteed the possession of Eastern Pomerania with the town of Stettin (Szczecin).

[294] The Seven Years' War (1756-63)—a European war in which England and Prussia fought against the coalition of Austria, France, Russia, Saxony and Sweden. In 1756-57, the Prussian troops of Frederick II won a number of victories over the Austrian and French armies; however, the success of the Russian forces in Prussia (1757-60) put Frederick II in a critical position, nullifying the results of his victories. The war ended with France having to cede some of her colonies (including Canada and almost all of her possessions in the East Indies) to Britain, while Prussia, Austria and Saxony had to recognise the pre-war frontiers.

The death of Empress Elisabeth on January 5, 1762 (December 25, 1761) led to a sudden change in Russia's foreign policy. Her successor, Peter III, concluded a peace treaty with Prussia thereby giving the latter an opportunity to sign, in 1763, the Hubertusburg peace treaty with Austria and Saxony and retain the possession of Silesia.

[295] The three partitions of Poland (by Austria, Prussia and Russia) took place at the end of the eighteenth century (1772, 1793, 1795).

Russia gained Lithuanian, Byelorussian and Ukrainian territories; Polish land, including Pomorze, Great Poland, and part of Mazovia with Warsaw, went over to Prussia; and Austria received the Western Ukraine and part of Smaller Poland. As a result of the third partition Poland ceased to exist as a state.

[296] The Congress of Vienna was held by European monarchs and their ministers in 1814-15. They established the borders and status of the European states after the victory over Napoleonic France and sanctioned, contrary to the national interests and will of the peoples, the reshaping of Europe's political map and the restoration of the "legitimate" dynasties. By decision of the Congress of Vienna, territories along the right and left banks of the Rhine, as well as Northern Saxony, were incorporated into Prussia, notwithstanding the opposition of Britain, Austria and France.

[297] The meeting between Alexander II and William, Prince Regent of Prussia, took place in October 1859 in Breslau (Wroclaw). Although no political objects of the meeting were officially mentioned either in Prussia or in Russia, the press of both countries stressed its great political importance for consolidating the alliance of the two sovereigns.

[298] A reference to the claims of Napoleon III to the left bank of the Rhine, which the French ruling circles had considered France's "natural frontier" in the east ever since the seventeenth century. For details see Engels' articles "Po and Rhine" and "Savoy, Nice and the Rhine" (present edition Vol. 16).

[299] The Olmütz agreement—In October 1850 Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria and Count Frederick William von Brandenburg, the head of the Prussian Government, met in Warsaw. The conference was held on the initiative of Nicholas I in connection with the sharpening struggle between Austria and Prussia for supremacy in Germany. The Russian Tsar, acting as arbiter, used his influence to make Prussia abandon its attempts to form a political confederation of German states under Prussia's aegis. The dispute was settled when the heads of the Austrian and Prussian governments signed an agreement in Olmütz (Olomouc) on November 29, 1850 under which Prussia renounced its claims to supremacy in Germany and yielded on the issues of Schleswig-Holstein and Hesse-Cassel. As a result of the agreement an Austrian army corps was sent to Holstein.

The Federal Diet (Bundestag)—the central body of the German Confederation. It consisted of representatives of the member states and held its sessions in Frankfurt am Main. Having no actual power, it nevertheless served as an instrument of monarchist feudal reaction.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.373-380), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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