Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion - Gareth Stedman Jones (2016)

Chapter 1. Fathers and Sons: The Ambiguities of Becoming a Prussian

Three years after the Battle of Waterloo, Karl Marx was born in the Rhineland, on 5 May 1818. Everywhere around him were the signs of the attempt to rebuild and restore Europe after thirty years of destruction and transformation brought about by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and nowhere more so than in the Rhineland itself. Situated between France and the German Confederation, the population of the Rhineland was overwhelmingly Catholic – around 1.5 million out of 2 million souls. Before 1789, it had been dominated by three prince bishoprics – Cologne, Mainz and Trier – whose ancient privilege it had been, together with four secular princely electors, to elect the Holy Roman Emperor. But during the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, not only had contending armies crossed and recrossed this monks’ corridor as inhabitants called it, but the states commanding these armies had redefined the whole area; first, as part of revolutionary France in 1794, and after 1815 as part of the Protestant kingdom of Prussia. The Holy Roman Empire, in existence since the year AD 800, had been abolished by Napoléon in 1806, and the victorious allies meeting in Vienna in 1815 had made no attempt to restore it.

The scale of these wars needs to be recalled. An estimated five million Europeans perished in them, a number equal in proportion to those lost in the First World War. The scale of warfare itself was altogether new. In the eighteenth century, armies numbered tens of thousands; by contrast, the army which Napoléon led in his invasion of Russia in 1812 amounted to 650,000 troops. How warfare impinged upon society was also transformed. Eighteenth-century wars had largely been fought out between mercenaries, but in the wake of the French Revolution ‘national armies’ were formed, first in France and then in Prussia. A new idea of ‘national service’ was devised, and with it came the practice of conscription. The Rhineland was relatively fortunate in avoiding the direct ravages of war, since major battles were fought elsewhere. But, as part of Napoléon’s empire, it could not evade conscription. Between 1800 and 1814, the Rhineland contributed 80,000, or one in twenty of the population, to the two million troops mobilized by France. Half of this huge number never returned.1

Karl Marx was born in Trier, the centre of the wine-growing Moselle valley in the south-west of the Rhineland. As the centre of a purely agricultural region – with the exception of some iron manufacture in the Eifel – the fortunes of Trier were closely linked to grapes and timber. Vineyards and woodland occupied the slopes rising from the river, and beyond them were the forests of the poor Hunsrück region in the south, and the Eifel in the north. Founded as Augusta Treverorum in 16 BC, and claiming to be the oldest town in Germany, Trier became the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. At one time the chief centre in Gaul, the Roman city may have possessed a population of up to 80,000. After a decline in its administrative importance in the Early Middle Ages, during the twelfth century the archbishops of Trier became prince-electors of the Empire, and the town enjoyed another period of prosperity during later-medieval times. But by 1802, according to official returns, the population of Trèves (as its French occupiers renamed it) amounted to only 8,846, and fell further to 7,887 with the withdrawal of French soldiers and officials in 1814. Thereafter, its population rose again and by 1819 amounted to 11,432.2

Marx’s father, Heinrich, had been born in 1777 in the contested frontier town of Saarlouis, the third son of Meier Halevi Marx, who was the rabbi of the town’s Jewish community. In 1788, Meier Halevi moved to serve as rabbi at Trier, where he remained until his death in 1804. Heinrich’s eldest brother, Samuel, succeeded his father, and continued in his office until his death in 1827, while Heinrich became a lawyer. He was successful in his profession, and in 1832 was awarded the status of Justizrat (the equivalent of QC). Widely recognized as a distinguished Rhineland jurist, Heinrich died on 10 May 1838. Karl’s mother, Henriette, was born to a Jewish family in Nijmegen in Holland in 1788, where her father was variously described as a merchant, money-changer and collector of lottery funds. In 1814, she married Heinrich, to whom she had probably been introduced by family acquaintances in Amsterdam. She bore Heinrich nine children and died on 30 November 1863.3 Sometime around 1816–19, Heinrich was baptized into the Christian Evangelical church of Prussia. His children were also baptized around 1824, followed by Henriette in 1825.


The historical drama which loomed behind these bare biographical facts was that of the French Revolution, which resulted in the French takeover of the Rhineland, the reforms of the Napoleonic Empire and in 1815 the acquisition of the Rhineland by Prussia, events which utterly transformed the fortunes of the Marx family. Heinrich could never have become a lawyer, but for the effects of the Revolution. He could never have acquired his legal qualification, but for the educational initiatives of Napoléon, and he could not have remained a lawyer, except by accommodating himself to the increasingly restrictive Prussian policy towards the Jews after 1815.

These momentous events also did much to shape the young Karl’s conception of the world, his relationship with his parents, and his generally negative attitude towards his family’s Jewish past. The long shadow cast by these events is explained by the enormous hopes awakened by the first years of the Revolution between 1789 and 1791: the promise of representative government, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and equality before the law, all couched in the universal language of the ‘rights of man’. This dream had been a crucial turning point for Heinrich Marx’s generation. But it is equally important to remember the later events, of 1792–4, which produced the dramatic replacement of France’s discredited monarchy, and the establishment of a republic, a political form previously thought impossible in large, old and populous European states. The newly constituted republic had successfully defended itself against the rest of Europe with the help of a citizen army, a democratic constitution, and even a civil religion to underpin its vision of a new world. But it had also engendered the Terror, virtual bankruptcy and the downfall of radical Jacobinism. For radicals of Karl’s generation, 1792 mattered more than 1789. The Jacobin Republic served both as a source of inspiration and as the starting point of any attempt to explain why the Revolution finally foundered. This tension between liberal and republican conceptions of the Revolution would dominate the language of Rhineland opposition groupings through to the revolutions of 1848.

The changes brought about by the Revolution were momentous. The government of France before 1789 was organized on the basis of a hierarchically conceived estates system, built upon the supposed distinction between those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked. In the Revolution, a new nation was constructed. In its new constitution, those who worked – the ‘Third Estate’ – became the Nation itself. The privileges and separate existence of the other two estates, the aristocracy and clergy, were abolished. Furthermore, on the night of 4 August 1789, in town and country, feudal privileges and powers were abrogated. Serfdom was abolished and peasants were enabled to acquire possession of the land they had cultivated, either outright or else upon the payment of modest redemption fees. Finally, with the transformation of the Estates General into the National Assembly, the refounded Nation now rested upon a new and purely secular source of political legitimacy, the sovereignty of the people.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the events of the Revolution had been the result of a seemingly clear-cut revolutionary agenda. Only in retrospect could it be understood in this way. The process was considerably more ambiguous and confused.

At the beginning of the Revolution, ‘the overwhelming majority of the deputies were convinced that all reforms must be accomplished under the auspices of the monarchy, in close cooperation with a king for whom they continued to show strong filial devotion’. The deputies persisted in a ‘vision of a return to an idealized past, of a reform process in which historical precedent remained of considerable importance’. ‘Yet somehow, in the space of six weeks of extraordinarily intense meetings’ in the summer of 1789, these delegates reached ‘a position that could only be described as revolutionary’, a ‘new concept of national sovereignty, fundamentally democratic in its implications’.4

At the beginning, it seemed most likely that the Assembly would adopt the historical monarchy, tempered by a balance of powers, which had been proposed by its Constitutional Committee and its respected chairman, Jean-Joseph Mounier. Instead, however, it adopted a radically new constitution based upon national sovereignty and a unitary legislative assembly, a proposal more in the spirit of Rousseau. The crown, now effectively defined as a subordinate executive authority, was given only a temporary power of suspensive veto, and this was further qualified by a resort to the people as the final court of appeal. This system, as the Girondin leader, Brissot, remarked, could only be made to operate with a ‘revolutionary king’.5

Many of the representatives were unsure whether the National Assembly was attempting to reform an existing system, or to establish an entirely new one. The result, not surprisingly, was incoherent, a wholly unstable and virtually untenable combination of the Rousseau-based principle of the inalienable sovereignty of the general will and the categorically anti-Rousseau-based principle of a representative assembly.

Part of the reason for the confusion of aims was the weakness of a financially bankrupt executive powerless to prevent the adoption of a language of abstract universals, following the example of the Americans in 1776. Various members of the Assembly signalled the danger of adopting this language. The argument of Champion de Cicé, Bishop of Bordeaux, was characteristic: ‘We must not be concerned with the natural rights fixed at the cradle of fledging peoples, but with the civil rights, the positive law of a great people that has been united for the past fifteen centuries … let us abandon natural man to concern ourselves with the lot of civilized man.’ Another moderate, Pierre-Victor Malouet, pointed out the obvious risks of adopting such an approach. Unlike in America, a society, he claimed, already ‘prepared for democracy’ and ‘entirely composed of property holders’, in France, ‘announcing in an absolute manner to suffering men, deprived of knowledge and means, that they are equal in rights to the most powerful and most fortunate’ could ‘destroy necessary bonds’ and incite ‘universal disruption’.6

As the Revolution unfolded, this language of universal rights acquired a more and more coercive edge. In part, this can be ascribed to the radicalization of the Revolution in the face of escalating hostility from the Catholic church, the resistance and attempted flight of the king, the civil war in the Vendée, and the growing determination of European powers to combat what Burke called ‘the armed doctrine’ of revolution. In this state of emergency, in place of the religion royale of the Ancien Régime, a new form of the sacred was conceived, and it was located in the Nation. Old ecclesiastical structures were dismantled and the sacred bases of kingship were removed, even Christianity itself. The pressure to merge political and religious authority, now under republican auspices, became more intense. This was a process which culminated briefly in the summer of 1794 in Robespierre’s foundation of ‘The Cult of the Supreme Being’, a republican civil religion along lines originally sketched out in Rousseau’s Social Contract.

The differences between what would now be called ‘liberalism’ and ‘republicanism’ only emerged in the course of these escalating conflicts, but the disjunction between original intention and political result was there from the beginning. For, already in 1789, the National Assembly’s resort to a language of natural rights and popular sovereignty generated outcomes that bore little relation to its original stated aspirations. What prevailed even then in those debates was a language of political will rather than of social reason, of absolute sovereignty, rather than government limited by the rights of man; a language which could also justify the Terror.7

This tension between liberal and republican visions of the Revolution was particularly clear in the case of Jewish emancipation. According to the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, men were born and remained free and equal in rights. Furthermore no person was to be harassed on account of his or her opinions, even religious ones, provided that the manifestation of these opinions did not disturb ‘public order established by the law’. On this basis, the Constituent Assembly accordingly granted French citizenship and all its attendant rights to the Jews on 27 September 1791.

Before 1789, those thinkers most well disposed towards the Jews had been Protestants, exiles in Holland like those around Pierre Bayle and Jacques Basnage, or in England free thinkers like John Toland, who claimed freedom of belief for all faiths. Montesquieu had also pressed for tolerance in the name of reason, but also as a measure of raison d’état, designed to ensure that Jewish mercantile activities were fully employed in the service of the state. Catholic attitudes voiced by Bossuet and Fleury were negative for theological reasons. It was true that Jews served as witness to the Glory of God, and formed part of traditional church history; therefore, they had to be protected. But they were also witness to God’s anger; they must therefore either be kept in a humiliated state or be converted. Those most negative about the Jews, however, were not Christian believers, but one strand of opinion among the Philosophes, especially Voltaire, for whom the Jews combined ‘the most sordid avarice’ with ‘the most detestable superstition’. These views were shared to a greater or lesser extent by other leading philosophers, Diderot, Jaucourt and D’Holbach.8

In 1789, the Cahiers de Doléances – the statements of grievance compiled by every locality and sent to Paris – revealed more mundane sources of anti-Jewish feeling, especially in Alsace and the eastern provinces bordering the Rhineland. Here, religious arguments were less frequent than economic complaints about the association of the Jews with usury. These resentments had a real basis in demographic and economic pressures upon agrarian workers, who suffered from the subdivision of holdings, scarcity of coinage and the lack of regular credit facilities; and they flared up in July 1789, around the time of the Grande Peur. The peasants rose up not only against the seigneurs, but also against the Jews, several hundred of whom were forced to flee from the Rhineland to Basle or Mulhouse. This partly explains why equality of rights was accorded by the National Assembly to Protestants and actors on 24 December 1789, and to the Jewish Sephardi community of Bordeaux (‘the Portuguese’) in January 1790, but was not extended to the Jews of the eastern provinces until September 1791, and then perhaps only because of the change in the political climate following the king’s attempted flight to Varennes the previous June.

In 1792–3, French armies took over the southern Rhineland and established a Jacobin republic in Trier’s fellow religious electorate of Mainz; in 1794, they took over the whole of the left bank of the Rhine (allegedly the true boundary of Roman Gaul, and a pre-existing goal of French expansion adopted by the revolutionary Danton) and remained there through to the downfall of Napoléon in 1815. The Rhineland had become part of the French Republic, and subsequently the First Empire. The doctrine of universal rights was, therefore, to be put to work there.

The situation of the population of 22,000 Jews in the overwhelmingly Catholic Rhineland varied significantly between territory and territory. In Cologne, for example, Jews had remained excluded from the city since their expulsion in 1424; in Bonn, Jews enjoyed toleration, while Protestants did not; in Aachen, even Protestants were forced to hold services outside the city gates; in Mainz, on the other hand, Jews and Christians were accorded the same rights – Jews could attend Christian schools and from 1786 both Protestants and Jews had been allowed to graduate from the local university. In Trier, Jews had experienced a particularly chequered history. Attacked around the time of the First Crusade in 1096, and again around the time of the Black Death, they had largely prospered in between. After they were expelled from the city for much of the fifteenth century and again at the end of the sixteenth century, the last major attack upon their property had occurred in 1675. In the eighteenth century, antagonisms seem to have diminished. Jews were treated with greater toleration and received more favourable treatment as one component of a movement of Catholic Enlightenment, which pressed for greater equality for religious minorities. In part, Catholic reformers, especially the ‘Febronians’ in Trier, were acting on principle. But they were also fearful of falling behind areas of Protestant Germany, where a combination of Enlightenment and the economics of raison d’état had brought about a steady increase of prosperity.9

Jews, however, were not treated as equal co-subjects of these various principalities, episcopies or city-states, but rather – in common with elsewhere – as members of a separate ‘nation’ exterior to the states concerned. They were thus restricted to certain quarters of cities, debarred from many occupations, and made subject to a discriminatory tax, justified as a form of protection money, levied on the local Jewish community as a whole and divided out between them.

Despite the ambivalence of attitudes towards the Jews, a bridge between universalism and Jewish emancipation was already established on the eve of the Revolution. However, the position developed amounted to less than a full and unconditional possession of equal rights. In France, whether formulated by reform-minded Catholics like the Abbé Grégoire, members of the ‘Patriot Party’ or Enlightenment sympathizers, the form taken by the argument remained either explicitly or implicitly conditional. The argument was that according equal rights would aid ‘the regeneration’ of Jews, meaning their accelerated assimilation into the ‘national’ community and effective disappearance within a few generations.

The terms of the debate had first emerged in Germany, where the partition of Poland with its 750,000 Jews between Russia, Austria and Prussia had raised unforeseen questions about how these new subjects were to be treated.10 In Austria, it precipitated the 1781 Emancipation Decree of Joseph II. In Prussia, where the small Jewish population had doubled, and where rising anti-Jewish feeling in Alsace was causing increased anxiety, this new situation produced in the same year the first sustained non-Jewish argument for emancipation, by Christian Dohm, a professor of history and friend of the great exponent of Enlightened Judaism, Moses Mendelssohn. Dohm was an exponent of natural religion and rejected all ‘positive’ faiths. Much of the case he put forward in On the Civic Improvement of the Jews rested upon the Jews’ capacity to become happier and more useful members of society, once there was an end to the oppression ‘so unworthy of our age’, which had corrupted them. The removal of legal discrimination, he assumed, would lead to the assimilation of Jews into Gentile society and the gradual disappearance of a specific Jewish identity. In place of their ‘clannish religious opinions’ they would be inspired by patriotism and love for the state. This would occur as part of a larger transformation of society as a whole from a hierarchy of estates into a social structure based upon merit.11

This book was rapidly translated and published in France, where it made an immediate impact. In 1787, it inspired a prize essay competition in Metz: ‘Are there means of making Jews in France happier and more useful?’ The most famous answer came from the Abbé Grégoire. Like Dohm, Grégoire argued for the removal of the disabilities of the Jews, both civil and political, not so much to increase their usefulness, but rather to accomplish their ‘regeneration’. Grégoire was the first Catholic priest to write sympathetically about the plight of the Jews, but he also drew extravagantly upon an eclectic variety of sources to explain their ‘corruption’. Not only had God punished them by dispersing them across the world, but Grégoire also concurred with Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss clergyman and widely esteemed inventor of the ‘science’ of ‘physiognomy’, in believing that their moral degeneracy could be detected in their facial characteristics.12

After the outbreak of the Revolution, Grégoire became one of the champions of the new Constitutional church established by the National Assembly to rectify the abuses of the Catholic church during the Ancien Régime. With the advent of this new church and society, he believed, the Ashkenazi Jews would be dissolved into the nation. Furthermore, the argument for the ‘regeneration’ of the Jews was now expressed in universalistic terms. For all groups in the Ancien Régime had been corrupted to a greater or lesser extent before 1789. He was not in doubt that the new nation must possess a unified character, and therefore that all would now have to transform their customs and values. In particular, a new homogeneity would be achieved through intermarriage. Apart from the Jews, Grégoire paid special attention to the transformation of country people, free blacks and, his particular bête noire, the speakers of patois.

How far did the fortunes of the Marx family change in the ten years following the Emancipation Decree of 1791?13 The evidence is only indirect and it suggests little significant improvement in the situation of Jews in the Rhineland. Greater freedom of residence was possible, and some broadening in the choices open to artisans. But there was now mounting Jacobin hostility towards all pre-existing forms of worship, culminating in the closure of all churches and synagogues between September 1793 and February 1795, or their transformation into Temples of Reason. The re-establishment of congregations in the traumatic aftermath of these events was often difficult, since many were now happier with their new secular status as equal citizens and refused to continue their former contribution to communal support. The billeting of French occupying troops and the requisitioning of provisions for the military were also problems. In neighbouring Alsace, the harsh years of the French Thermidorian regime (1795–9) brought a new surge of anger against usury. Despite the fact that Christian financiers had been equally involved, Jews were the chief targets of peasant animosity.14

Far more dramatic changes in the fortunes of the Rhineland’s Jews occurred under the rule of Napoléon. In the 1790s, the Jacobins had generally adopted an exploitative attitude towards the local population. They had closed down all four of the Rhineland universities – Bonn, Cologne, Trier and Mainz – and had carted off local art treasures to Paris. Napoléon, on the other hand, was determined to court the collaboration of local elites. He abolished the revolutionary calendar and supported consensual local customs and holidays (not least St Napoléon’s Day). While he was impatient with the humanities and traditional courses studied at universities, he was an enthusiastic promoter of vocational subjects. Apart from the applied sciences, he was particularly interested in promoting jurisprudence as a means of supporting his newly constructed and definitive legal code, the Code Napoléon. This was a project worthy of the founder of a second Roman Empire, and its new Justinian. On a state tour of the Rhineland in 1804, he stayed briefly in Trier, where he ordered that the magnificent Roman Porta Nigra be freed from the clutter of medieval buildings surrounding it, and ordained the foundation of a new Law School in Coblenz.15

In 1801, primarily in order to pacify the western French area of the Vendée, the heart of royalist and clerical resistance to the secular republic, Napoléon also made a Concordat with the Pope. Having removed Catholic objections to his rule, he followed this up with measures designed to extend administrative uniformity to other confessions, principally to Protestants and Jews. His justification was that ‘the people must have a religion; this religion must be in the control of the government … My policy’, he stated, ‘is to govern men as the majority wish to be governed. That is the way, I believe, in which one recognizes the sovereignty of the people. If I ruled a people of Jews, I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon.’16

Napoléon seems to have possessed an instinctive dislike for the Jews, fuelled in part by his Catholic upbringing, in part by his reading of Voltaire. ‘The Jews are a vile people,’ he wrote in his Memorial of Saint Helena, ‘cowardly yet cruel.’17 But, at the same time, he was also determined to ease the tensions endemic to the new Empire’s eastern provinces, in particular by accelerating the process of Jewish ‘regeneration’. Despite his distaste, therefore, he did much to regularize the legal status of Jewish citizens and widen their occupational opportunities.

On 9 February 1807, along with seventy-one other rabbis and prominent Jewish laymen, Samuel Marx, the rabbi at Trier – brother of Heinrich and uncle to Karl – was summoned by Napoléon to ‘The Great Sanhedrin’ in Paris.18 A previous gathering of Jewish notables had been asked a series of hostile questions designed to hasten their assimilation, by highlighting the areas in which Jewish law was thought to be incompatible with the laws of the nation. They were quizzed about their attitudes towards patriotism, intermarriage, state authority and usury. As a result of their Sanhedrin, two decrees reorganized the Judaic faith along state-approved lines. The members of the Rabbinate became state employees akin to Protestant pastors and Catholic curés, and the administration of the Jewish creed was entrusted to a General Consistory similar to that governing Protestant communities. Far more inflammatory was the third decree, the so-called ‘infamous decree’ (décret infâme). This measure continued the practice of discriminatory taxation, but purportedly was designed to stamp out obstacles to Jewish ‘regeneration’, especially the practice of ‘usury’. It not only urged diversification into other occupations, but also changed existing credit arrangements, obliged Jewish dealers to apply to the Prefect for the annual renewal of a licence to trade, forbade Jews – unlike other groups – to avoid conscription by payment for a substitute, and compelled them to register and, if necessary, modify their names to meet the new demands of civil registration.

Rhineland Jews were keen to demonstrate their patriotism by doing their best to comply with these decrees, particularly those directed against usury. On 16 August 1808, at a synagogue celebration of Napoléon’s birthday in Trier, Marx’s Uncle Samuel urged Jewish youth to apply itself to artisanal trades, agriculture or the sciences; his own son trained as a gardener. The newly established Consistory was also keen to act decisively against usury. A document from 1810 states that Samuel had ‘left no opportunity unused to warn about the spirit of fanaticism so contrary to the principles of our religion’; and it went on to state that the Consistory would immediately report to the authorities any ‘Israelite’ who, as a result of usury, was found ‘guilty of deception of a non-Israelite’.19 It must also have been around the same time that Karl’s father began his career as a lawyer. In line with the new demands of the civil administration, Heinrich – originally Herschel – now changed his name to Henri. He was recorded among those enrolled in the three-year licentiate law course at Coblenz, and in 1814 – the year in which he got married – he signed himself as a witness to the birth of his niece, ‘H. Marx avoué’.20

But time was running out for Napoléon and his new empire. On the disastrous Russian campaign in 1812 Napoléon lost 570,000 men. The Russian army continued westwards, reinforced by the defection of the Prussian contingent of the Grande Armée. The Austrians rejoined the allied coalition, and in October 1813, at the Battle of Leipzig, Napoléon’s army of 200,000 was defeated by a coalition of 365,000 Austrians, Prussians, Russians and Swedes. When the remnant of Napoléon’s army entered Mainz in November, a further 18,000 were lost to typhus. By the end of January 1814, the whole of the left bank of the Rhine was in allied hands.


What would now happen to the Rhineland was a matter of contention among the victorious allied forces. Prussia hoped for a chunk of Saxony as its share in the spoils of victory. But after the collapse of the Austrian Netherlands in the 1790s, the British became determined that Prussia, for the most part an eastern power, should replace Austria as the western ‘sentinel’ against a fresh French military break-out. Prussia resisted this solution as long as possible. It would mean taking on the huge responsibility of defending the long western frontiers of Germany. The people of the Rhineland were equally unenthusiastic. The great majority were Catholic and would probably have preferred a Hapsburg ruler. They called the Prussians ‘Lithuanians’; while the well-heeled lamented that ‘we are marrying into a poor family’.21

The most immediate challenge for the Prussians was not Catholicism, but the threat posed by Rhenish law. If the Rhineland were to be incorporated into Prussia, Prussian law would surely replace the local legal system. But the Prussian legal code, the Allgemeines Landrecht, although enlightened in intention, largely predated 1789 and took virtually no account of the fundamental shift in legal and political assumptions which were to take place in the Rhineland as the result of the Revolution and twenty years of French rule. As in France, feudal lordship had been replaced by the sovereignty of private property, common rights had been privatized, guilds had been dissolved, administration had been streamlined and church land had been auctioned off.

The whole of this social and political transformation was presupposed in a new legal system, and it was strongly supported by the local population. These new judicial institutions were based upon the Code Napoléon, which presupposed equality before the law. Furthermore, a strange twist of events had pushed the system in a yet more liberal direction. Under Napoléon, juries had only been allowed in ordinary cases. Crimes of special interest to the state had been reserved for special tribunals consisting of judges and military officers, acting alone. During the allied invasion in 1814, however, the judges serving in these unpopular courts had fled and non-jury courts had closed down. As a result, the judicial system in the Rhineland now stood out as a model of liberal practice, and the principles embodied within it – trial by jury, public hearings, the separation of judiciary from executive and the outlawing of corporal punishment – survived to 1848, when it became the model of reformers all over Germany.

In 1815 the direction of Prussian policies for its new Rhineland province was as yet unclear. For the Revolution and the war had also forced Prussia to change. In 1806 in the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt, the Prussians had been utterly humiliated by Napoléon. It was the end of the political order of old Prussia – of ‘the agrarian ruling class in uniform’.22 In response to this fiasco, radicals within the Prussian administration had introduced a series of fundamental reforms. Conscription and promotion by merit were introduced in the army, a ministerial system was devised, servile tenure was abolished, guild restrictions were removed, and municipal self-government was established. These measures were accompanied by the introduction of universal primary education and the foundation of a new university in Berlin.

There was also a major shift in attitudes towards Jewish emancipation: promoted by the reforming Chancellor Karl von Hardenberg, the 1812 ‘Edict Concerning the Civil Condition of the Jews’ swept away previous special jurisdictions, and turned Jews into ‘citizens’ of the Prussian state. The Edict did not go as far as the French legislation of 1791. There was still the expectation that changed status would be accompanied by changed behaviour. In addition, the question of whether Jews would be eligible for government employment was left undecided. Nevertheless, as a first step it was strongly welcomed by Jewish organizations.

Such a change played a significant part in the move away from the political assumptions which had governed feudal and absolutist Prussia of old. Change had been made necessary by the renewal of war against Napoléon in 1813. It had involved the mobilization of Prussia in the months leading up to the Battle of Leipzig, and for many at the time had meant the true birth of ‘Germany’.23 After the humiliation of 27 October 1806, when Napoléon and his victorious army had been cheered as they had ridden through the streets of Berlin, an extraordinary transformation had occurred. At that time, there had emerged the first sparks of national resistance to France. This had been confined to small circles of students and intellectuals, who defended a ‘nation’ in the sense of a linguistic and cultural community encompassing and transcending existing principalities and estates. Subsequently, this sentiment became conjoined with a growing reaction against the ruthlessness and exploitative behaviour of the Grande Armée, and as a result popular indifference turned into hatred of the occupying power. Reading groups, gymnastic associations and secret societies circulated propaganda among the educated classes, and found a wider reception, especially among the young in the towns, including students, artisans and day labourers.

In 1813, the conservative and absolutist Prussian monarchy had been forced to follow the example of the French revolutionary state and summon its own mass conscripted army. The whole eligible male population, irrespective of estate and including Jews, was called up, while a variety of voluntary groups, including women, provided backup across civil society. Momentarily, the cause of Prussia and the cause of an inchoate ‘Germany’ had come together. Thereafter, an endlessly embellished recollection of this moment of patriotic unity in 1813, when king and people allegedly stood together, nurtured a powerful reservoir of loyalist sentiment in the decades leading up to 1848.

The definitive victory over Napoléon at Waterloo by mostly British and Prussian troops on 18 June 1815 appeared as the culmination of the hopes engendered by Prussia’s ‘Reform Era’ and by the patriotic mobilization of 1813. It had been preceded less than a month before by the Royal Edict of 22 May promising the calling of a representative assembly. There were also reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Rhineland. The province’s government had been entrusted to prominent members of the reform camp, in particular Johann Sack, Justus von Gruner and Christoph von Sethe, who opposed the old aristocracy and favoured the Rhineland’s liberal judicial system. For a moment, it seemed as if a new and more progressive Prussia might come to terms with its post-revolutionary province.

These hopes were soon dashed. The promise of a representative assembly was not kept. Metternich’s establishment of the German Confederation, an old-world conglomerate of thirty-eight mainly princely entities, dampened visions of a new form of German unity. The disappointments and confusions of Romantic and nationalist activists, now enrolled in a new form of student association, the Burschenschaft, were passionately expressed in a new form of political gathering, commemorating the three-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, the Wartburg Festival of 1817. There, among an assortment of hated objects, participants burnt the works of the playwright August von Kotzebue, who had derided Romantic nationalist ideals. A year later, dressed in an ‘old German costume’ designed by the Romantic gymnast Friedrich Jahn, a radical nationalist student from Jena, Karl Sand, assassinated Kotzebue in his home. This was quite enough to frighten the nervous Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, who had already been convinced by Metternich about the threat posed by ‘demagogues’ spreading Jacobinism and nationalism. Thus, in 1819, the German Confederation, prompted by Metternich, enacted the Carlsbad Decrees, which suppressed the student societies and imposed a crackdown on freedom of speech and of association.

In Berlin, conservatives had also already begun to gain the upper hand at the court of Friedrich Wilhelm III, and the marriage of his sister to the future Czar Nicholas I of Russia pushed him further in a reactionary direction. In contrast to the policies of the Prussian reformers, there was a new emphasis upon the centrality of religion. According to a memorandum of 1816, religion was the only bond powerful enough to transform a people into a ‘unanimous whole’, capable of unified and determined action ‘in times of external threat’. This in turn meant a change in policy towards the Jews. Steps were taken to ensure that conversion was made easier, but, by the same token, as long as the Jew remained a Jew, he was strictly to be excluded from any position in the state.

Both as a lawyer and as a Jew, Heinrich Marx was caught up in the crossfire between these contending parties. On 13 June 1815, Heinrich wrote to the new Prussian provincial governor, Johann Sack, requesting that the new administration rescind the anti-Jewish Napoleonic decree of 17 March 1808. He referred to his fellow believers, Glaubensgenossen, arguing that while some were guilty of usurious practices, the remedy was not the current unequal legislation, but a clear law against usury. He went on to contest the claim that such discrimination was designed as a cure for Jewish degeneration. He gave ‘eternal thanks to the Almighty for the fact that we still were, and are, human beings’, and stated that any ‘person who after such a long period of oppression has not been made wholly degenerate, must bear the unmistakeable stamp of a noble humanity; the ineradicable seeds of virtue reside in the breast; the spark of divinity inspires the spirit’. He also appealed to ‘the gentle spirit of Christianity’, often darkened by ‘the spirit of fanaticism’, to ‘the pure morality of the Gospel tarnished by the ignorance of the priests’ and to ‘the will of the king as the wise lawgiver’.24

Heinrich was particularly concerned about his own ability to practise as an attorney. On 23 April 1816, reporting upon the numbers of Jews employed in the administration of justice, the President of the District Court, Christoph von Sethe, wrote to Berlin, arguing that while the 1812 Edict forbade Jews to practise as attorneys, three who were currently practising – including Heinrich – ought to be granted the exceptional right to continue to do so. They had chosen their profession in good faith, and had the monarch’s assurance that no official should be ousted from his post as a result of the change of government. But Kircheisen, the conservative Minister of Justice in Berlin, did not think that exceptions should be made, nor did the Prussian Minister of the Interior, von Schuckmann.25

With reformers on the defensive or marginalized – Sack was moved to Pomerania soon after – the local administration could do little to help. Towards the end of 1816, Heinrich submitted to the ‘Immediat-Justiz-Kommission’ a report on the institution of commercial courts in the Rhineland. When the ‘Kommission’ invited him to publish his report, he agreed but only on condition that his name and place of residence be withheld. He was fearful of the possible consequences, if it became known that he lived in Trier. As he explained:

unfortunately, my relations are of such a kind that as the father of a family I must be somewhat cautious. As is known, the confession to which nature has chained me enjoys no special esteem, and this province is certainly not the most tolerant. And if I have to endure many things, some quite bitter, and if I were to have to risk losing my small fortune almost completely, until such time as it could come to be accepted that a Jew might both possess some talent and be upright; I certainly cannot be blamed, if I have become somewhat shy.26

And so Heinrich was baptized as a member of the Prussian Evangelical church sometime between 1816 and 1819. No record of his baptism exists. But there is no cause to doubt the reason for it. It was because, as Karl’s friend Wilhelm Liebknecht and his daughter, Eleanor, both stated long ago, the Prussian government left him with no other choice if he wished to continue as a lawyer.27

While there can be no doubt about the professional necessity for Heinrich’s baptism, it is not so certain that such a change was entirely contrary to his convictions. His references to the ‘gentle spirit of Christianity’ and ‘the pure morality of the Gospel’ suggest a strong respect for Christianity, while still a member of the Jewish community. What may have restrained him from making such a move earlier was consideration for the feelings of his parents. This may have been what he was referring to years later when in a reproving letter to the nineteen-year-old Karl, about the need to respect one’s parents, he mentioned his own experience: ‘how I have fought and suffered, in order not to distress them as long as possible’.28 Karl’s brother-in-law, Edgar von Westphalen, remembering forty years later, called Heinrich a Protestant in the manner of Lessing or according to Kant’s model of faith and reason united in a higher morality.29 This certainly agrees with the tone of another letter Heinrich wrote to his son Karl, in 1835: ‘a great support for morality is pure faith in God. You know that I am anything but a fanatic. But this faith is a real [requirement] of man sooner or later, and there are moments in life when even the atheist is [involuntarily] drawn to worship the Almighty … for what Newton, Locke and Leibniz believed, everyone can … submit to.’30

In the 1820s, Heinrich seems to have prospered. Following his appointment to the Trier Appeal Court in 1818, he wrote another report on usury in 1821 and became a public advocate. He was evidently well regarded by his colleagues. The impressive house near the Porta Nigra bought in 1819 was purchased from a fellow jurist, and the godparents of his children were principally Trier advocates. Edgar von Westphalen claimed that he was one of the foremost advocates and most noble of men in the Rhineland. Nor did Heinrich lose all contact with the local Jewish community. The Marx family continued to share ownership of a vineyard at Mertesdorf with Dr Lion Bernkastel, a prominent member of the Consistory, and continued to seek his assistance in medical matters into the 1830s.31 The family also remained on friendly terms with the widow of the rabbi, Samuel Marx.32

For Trier itself and its surrounding region, the 1820s was not a prosperous time. Under French rule, Moselle wine gained from easier access to the French market, but then suffered a prolonged and deepening crisis a few years after the region’s incorporation into Prussia. Misled by the apparent monopoly position accorded to the industry by the Prussian tariff of 1818, wine growers vastly increased the acreage devoted to viticulture and at the same time diluted quality, lured by the promise of a Prussian mass market. By the mid-1820s, overproduction was leading to falling prices and this was turned into catastrophe by commercial treaties with Bavaria and Württemberg, which led to the displacement of Moselle wine by South German Pfalz and Rheingau wines. The crisis of the wine growers continued in the 1830s and 1840s to the point where their misery could only be compared with that of the internationally notorious contemporary case of the Silesian weavers.33

The other mainstay of the region was the forest, and during the first half of the nineteenth century there was a rising demand for wood, especially from the iron forges of the Eifel and coopers in the wine trade. Poor upland peasants benefited from this demand by selling the wood they collected from the forest floor. But the consolidation of private property rights during the period of Napoleonic rule and its confirmation by the Provincial Estates in the 1820s and 1830s threatened peasant livelihood by contesting the right to collect dead wood. Village resistance took the form of ‘wood theft’ mainly carried out by women and children. The rising numbers sentenced for wood theft by property-owning juries was one of the issues highlighted in an article by Karl Marx in the Rheinische Zeitung of 1842. But the issue was not so much, as he thought, a struggle between private property and subsistence agriculture, as rather a struggle by the poor to participate in the market for wood.34

If there was mistrust of Prussian rule in the 1820s, it was on the whole muted. There was no nostalgia for the Rhineland before the years of French rule. Berlin took little account of the economic interests of the Rhineland province; its free-trade policies were mainly designed to benefit the East Elbian corn exporters of the Prussian heartlands. But, like Napoléon, the Prussians tried to associate themselves with local culture. They returned looted treasure, restored Bonn University in 1818 (but not Trier) and patronized the growing Romantic cult of the medieval by supporting the project to complete Cologne Cathedral. Their main interest, however – and certainly in Trier – was military and strategic. Trier, a garrison town a few miles from the French frontier, was in the first line of defence against a potentially resurgent France.35

In the 1820s, the promise of the Prussian king to summon a representative assembly, originally prompted by Hardenberg and other ministerial reformers, was transformed by conservatives into the periodical holding of a provincial assembly organized along the lines of traditional estate society, and without budgetary powers.36 Since, under Rhenish law, noble privilege remained illegal, the attempt to nominate a noble estate at the first meeting of the Rhineland Assembly in 1826 was generally treated with ridicule; Rhenish notables remained firmly bourgeois in their outlook and style of life. Nevertheless, despite their inappropriateness of form, local leaders managed to turn these assemblies into vehicles for the expression of discontent with the local Prussian bureaucracy.37

3. 1830 AND AFTER

In response to events in the 1830s, the demands of Rhenish liberalism acquired a much more clear-cut shape. The revolution of July 1830 in Paris toppled the regime of the Bourbon king, Charles X, brother of the executed Louis XVI and ended any ambition to restore the structures of the Ancien Régime. A month later, Belgium witnessed the beginning of a successful national revolt against the Dutch, and from November through to the following summer of 1831 the Poles made an attempt to throw off Russian rule. Among German liberals and radicals, there was general excitement. According to the poet Heinrich Heine, who was holidaying in remote Heligoland, when news arrived of the fall of Charles X, ‘the fisherman, who yesterday took me over to the little island of sand where we bathe, smiled at me and said: “the poor people have gained the day” ’.38 In Brandenburg-Prussia, nothing much stirred. But in the Rhineland the fact that two of its most important neighbours, France and Belgium, had now become liberal parliamentary monarchies was greeted with enthusiasm. Politically, the intimidating presence of Prussian garrisons inhibited any overt challenge to the existing constitution beyond riots and disturbances in Aachen and Cologne.39 But in the Bavarian Rhineland at Hambach in May 1832, an assembly of burghers, artisans and students reinforced by thousands of locally protesting peasants called for a German nation-state founded upon the sovereignty of the people. Predictably, the German Confederation reacted with another set of laws strengthening censorship and prohibiting all forms of freedom of association and freedom of assembly.

The reaction of Trier burghers was less visible, but not enough to escape official attention. The Prussian authorities had already noted with raised eyebrows the activities of the Casino Club, the main social club of the city’s Bürgertum, which on several occasions had apparently omitted toasting the king’s health. They had been even more concerned when tensions between members of the Club and the garrison led to a mass withdrawal of its officers from the Club. But the anxiety increased when, on 13 January 1834, the Club held a festive banquet for 160 guests to welcome back from the Landtag (Provincial Assembly) the four Deputies from Trier.

Heinrich Marx delivered the welcoming speech. ‘One feeling unites us all at this ceremony,’ he began, ‘one feeling at this moment inspires the honourable citizens of this city; the feeling of gratitude towards their representatives, from whom they have the conviction, that they have struggled in word and deed, with courage and sacrifice for truth and justice.’ He then proffered ‘innermost thanks and warmest wishes to our benevolent king’ for first instituting ‘the representation of the people’. ‘Of his own free will’, the king had organized the calling of the estates ‘in order that the truth should reach the steps of his throne’. And, he went on, ‘where indeed should the truth lead us, if not there?’ ‘Where justice is enthroned,’ he concluded, ‘there also must truth make its appearance.’40 As a loyal address, this was certainly somewhat arch. Heinrich Marx thanked the representatives of the city before the king; he spoke of the first establishment of ‘the representation of the people’, rather than the calling of estates, and he related the Provincial Assembly to the attainment of justice and truth.

The authorities treated the proceedings as an affront. The Justice Minister criticized a lunch society composed of private subscribers in the city of Trier ‘presuming in an equally ignorant and unauthorized way to enlighten and criticize the proceedings of an assembly answerable to the majesty of the king’. And he was particularly alarmed that:

the great majority of Deputies to the Landtag do not behave as Deputies to the Landtag from their respective German estates, but as representatives of the people; and, as in England, they will be encouraged along this path by the public, if in the taverns they give and receive speeches and are applauded by onlookers as tribunes of the people for their accomplishments in the Landtag, combating the perils and plans which threatened the Landtag, and which they staved off.41

For a government still anxious about the reaction of its Rhineland subjects in the aftermath of 1830, worse was yet to come. Less than a fortnight later, on 25 January 1834, there took place another celebratory supper to mark the anniversary of the foundation of the Casino Club. After most of the guests had left, a number of participants gathered at one of the tables, speeches were given and songs sung. While songs without political content were murmured, the ‘Marseillaise’ was taken up with more enthusiasm and that was followed by the ‘Parisienne’, and other revolutionary songs. One of the participants took out a silk tricolour napkin and stood on a stool and waved it around, then, stepping down and staggering backwards, caused others to kiss, embrace or even kneel before it. One of the lawyers present exclaimed, ‘if we had not experienced the July Revolution in France, we would now be having to eat grass like cattle’. Again among those present was Heinrich Marx, though he left before the final rendition of the ‘Marseillaise’.42

The Prussian administration was alarmed by the reports of the incident that it received from the military in Trier. The Mayor, on the other hand, attempted to smooth things over by arguing that the whole affair was simply the result of drinking too much wine, and should not be taken too seriously. Public opinion disapproved of the proceedings, but disliked even more the elaboration of the incident by the military. Nevertheless, the government went ahead with a charge of high treason against one of the participants, the lawyer Brixius. But the accused was acquitted in Trier, and yet again on appeal in Cologne, an eloquent testimony to the value and importance of the Rhineland’s non-absolutist judicial system.

It was also some indication of the anxiety of Prussia’s rulers that at the Trier Gymnasium, which Karl Marx attended between 1830 and 1835, alongside the headmaster, Johann Hugo Wyttenbach, a pronouncedly conservative co-director, Vitus Loers, was appointed and entrusted with political surveillance of the school. Wyttenbach was a history teacher as well as director. He was a cultured and progressive man, who had once saluted the storming of the Bastille as the dawn of freedom, and whose religious beliefs were informed by Kant. Heinrich reminded his son, when he reached the end of his times at the Gymnasium, to send some appreciative verses to Wyttenbach – ‘I told him how devoted you are to him.’ But he also reported that he had been invited to a luncheon held by Loers, who ‘has taken it ill that you did not pay him a farewell visit’. Heinrich had told a white lie to excuse his son’s disrespect.43

Despite the 1834 incident, the views of Heinrich were not those of a revolutionary, and, as he wrote to his son, he was ‘anything but a fanatic’. In 1837 in an attempt to humour his son’s youthful ambition to take up ‘dramatic composition’, he suggested a trial run and came up with a suggestion for a theme. The subject should come from Prussian history and relate to ‘a crowded moment of time where however the future hung in the balance’. He pondered a theme, which would allot a role to ‘the genius of the monarchy’, perhaps via ‘the mind of the very noble Queen Louise’. He lighted upon Waterloo. ‘The danger was enormous, not only for Prussia, for its monarch, but for the whole of Germany’; and it was ‘Prussia that decided the great issue here’, a fitting topic for ‘an ode in the heroic genre, or otherwise’. There has been some doubt whether this suggestion was entirely serious; Queen Louise had died in 1810. But there was no ambiguity in his condemnation of Napoléon a page further on. ‘In truth, under his rule not a single person would have dared to think aloud what is being written daily and without interference throughout Germany, and especially in Prussia.’ Anyone who had studied that history ‘can rejoice greatly and with a clear conscience at his downfall and the victory of Prussia’.44

A Jew who had joined the Christian Evangelical church – the official confession of the Prussian monarchy – in a Catholic land clearly cannot be considered typical. Yet Heinrich Marx shared many of the values and attitudes of Rhineland liberals. Even in religious matters, at least until the conflict over mixed marriages flared up in the late 1830s, there was a much more consensual overlap in attitude among the Rhenish elite, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, than the confessional divisions would suggest. In Heinrich’s case, as has already been made clear, it was shaped by the legacy of the Enlightenment. According to his granddaughter, Eleanor, ‘he was a real eighteenth-century “Frenchman”. He knew Voltaire and Rousseau by heart.’45 But similar enlightened movements of reform had made an impact among Rhineland Catholics too. In the late eighteenth century, Trier University had been much affected by the enlightened theology of Febronius and the teachings of Immanuel Kant, while in the University of Bonn students flocked to the radical theology lectures of Georg Hermes.46

The points of consensus were political. These included a determination not to destroy the benefits of twenty years of French rule, especially the Civil Code, the jury system and the abolition of the feudal aristocracy. These changes had been accompanied by distaste for the fanaticism of the Jacobins and for the bureaucratic authoritarianism of Napoléon. There was also widespread dislike and suspicion of Prussian militarism, resentment about Prussian economic policy, which was thought to benefit the eastern provinces, and a desire for moderate parliamentary government, promised by the king back in 1815. For Heinrich’s generation, the decisive years had been 1789–91 – the promise of a representative assembly, equality before the law, the abolition of the estates, the rights of man – and for Jews especially the year 1791 and the achievement of unconditional emancipation. These were the demands that inspired the new Rhineland leaders who came to prominence in the 1830s – Hansemann, Mevissen and Camphausen – and who would lead the liberal ministries in Berlin and Frankfurt in 1848.

For a younger and more radical generation, born and brought up entirely under Prussian rule in Metternich’s Europe, reasoned arguments for constitutional monarchy and representative government were not enough. In 1830, when Karl was twelve, after fifteen years of severe repression, there was once again talk of revolution, as another generation witnessed anew the downfall of a Bourbon king in Paris. Parliamentary regimes were established in France and Belgium, and the suffrage was reformed in Britain. But throughout Europe there was radical pressure to push the reforms further and rifts began to appear between liberals and radicals, constitutional monarchists and republicans, Bonapartists, nationalists and democrats. In France and Britain differences became public and explicit almost immediately. But in Germany, where conditions remained repressive, disagreements within the ‘Bewegungspartei’ (‘party of movement’) remained muted and implicit. Ten years later, however, in the face of the Prussian monarchy’s refusal to make any concession to the cause of reform, these divisions became as explicit and as polarized as elsewhere. It was at that point that the 24-year-old Karl Marx emerged as one of the most distinctive exponents of a new and peculiarly German form of radicalism, very different from the cautious hopes of his father. What has now to be explained is how family circumstance, the critical condition of German religion and philosophy, and, above all, Karl’s own soaring intellectual ambitions combined to shape such a singular stance.