Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung November 1848

The German Central Authority and Switzerland

Source: MECW Volume 8, p. 66;
Written: by Engels on November 24, 1848;
First published: in Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 153, November 26, 1848.

Cologne, November 24. In the comedies of last century, notably the French, there never failed to be a servant who amused the public because he was continually being cudgelled, cuffed and, in especially effective scenes, even kicked. The role of this servant is certainly a thankless one, but still it is enviable compared with a role which is being continuously performed at our Frankfurt imperial theatre: compared with the role of the Imperial Minister of Foreign Affairs. The servants in the comedy at least have a means of avenging themselves — they are witty. But the Imperial Minister!

Let us be fair. The year 1848 is no year of roses for any Minister of Foreign Affairs. Up to now Palmerston and Nesselrode have been glad to be left in peace. Eloquent Lamartine, who with his manifestos moved even German old maids and widows to tears, has had to slink away in shame with broken wings and bedraggled feathers. His successor, Bastide, only a year ago in the National and the obscure Revue nationale, as official trumpeter of war, gave vent to the most virtuous indignation at Guizot’s cowardly policy. Now he sheds silent tears every evening on reading his oeuvres complętes de la veille [Collected works of the day before] and at the bitter thought that day by day he is sinking more and more to the level of Guizot of the respectable republic. Nevertheless all these Ministers have one consolation: if things have gone badly for them in big matters, they have been able to take their revenge in small matters, on Danish, Sicilian, Argentinian, Wallachian and other remote questions. Even the Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Herr Arnim, when he concluded the unpleasant armistice with Denmark,[75] had the satisfaction not only of being duped, but also of duping someone, and this someone was — the Imperial Minister!

In fact, the Imperial Minister of Foreign Affairs is the only one of them all who played a completely passive role, who received blows, but did not deal a single one. From the first days of his entry into office he has been the predestined scapegoat on whom all his colleagues of neighbouring states vented their spleen, on whom they all took reprisals for the petty sufferings of diplomatic fife, a share of which they too had to bear. When he was beaten and tortured, he remained silent, like a lamb being led to the slaughter. Where is there anyone who can say that the Imperial Minister ever harmed a hair of his head? Truly the German nation will never forget Herr Schmerling for having dared with such determination and consistency to resume the traditions of the old Holy Roman Empire.[76]

Need we give further confirmation of Herr von Schmerling’s courageous patience with a list of his diplomatic successes? Need we return to the journey of Herr Max Gagern from Frankfurt to Schleswig, that worthy parallel to the old story of Sophia’s journey from Memel to Saxony?[77] Need we again rake up the whole edifying history of the Danish armistice? Need we dwell on the unsuccessful offer of mediation in Piedmont and on Herr Heckscher’s diplomatic study trip at the expense of the Empire? There is no need to do so. The facts are too recent and too striking for it to be necessary even to mention them.

But there is a limit to everything, and in the end even the most patient man must show his teeth, as the German philistine says. True to this maxim of a class which our worthy statesmen declare to be the great, well-meaning majority in Germany, Herr von Schmerling at last also felt the need to show his teeth. The sacrificial lamb looked for a scapegoat and believed it had finally found one in the shape of Switzerland. Switzerland — with scarcely two and a half million inhabitants, republicans into the bargain, the refuge from which Hecker and Struve invaded Germany[78] and seriously alarmed the new Holy Roman Empire — can one find a better and, at the same time, a less dangerous opportunity of proving that “great Germany” has teeth?

An “energetic” Note was immediately dispatched to the Vorort Berne because of the machinations of the refugees. The Vorort Berne, however, being conscious of its rights, replied no less energetically to “great Germany” in the name of “little Switzerland”. But this did not at all intimidate Herr Schmerling. His capacity to bite grew with astonishing rapidity, and already on October 23, a new, still “more energetic” Note was drafted and on November 2 handed to the Vorort.[79] In it Herr Schmerling now threatened naughty Switzerland with the birch. The Vorort, even swifter in its actions than the Imperial Minister, replied two days later with the same calm and determination as before, and therefore Herr Schmerling will now put into effect his “provisions and measures” against Switzerland. He is already most busily engaged in this, as he has stated in the Frankfurt Assembly.

If this threat was the usual imperial farce such as we have seen so many times this year, we would not waste a single word on it. Since, however, one can never sufficiently credit the stupidity of our imperial Don Quixotes, or rather imperial Sanchos, in administering the Foreign Office of their Barataria island,[80] it may easily happen that owing to this Swiss conflict we shall be involved in all kinds of new complications. Quidquid delirant reges etc. [Horace]

Let us then examine somewhat more closely the imperial Note to Switzerland.

It is well known that the Swiss speak German badly and are not much better at writing it. But the Note in reply from the Vorort is, as regards style, a perfect masterpiece worthy of Goethe compared with the schoolboyish, clumsy German of the Imperial Ministry which is always at a loss for the right expressions. The Swiss diplomat (Federal Chancellor Schiess, it is said) seems to have deliberately used a specially pure, limpid and refined language in order in this respect too to form an ironical contrast to the Note of the Imperial Regent,’ which could certainly not have been written in a worse style by one of Jellachich’s red-coats.[81] In the imperial Note there are sentences which are quite incomprehensible, and others which are extremely clumsy, as we shall see later. But are not these sentences written precisely “in the straightforward language which Government of the Imperial Regent will always consider it its duty the use in international intercourse"?[80] Herr Schmerling does no better in respect of the content. In the first paragraph he recalls

“the fact that in regard to the German Note of June 30 of this year for several weeks before any reply followed, proceedings took place in the Diet[82] in a tone which at that time would have made it impossible for a representative Of Germany to stay in Switzerland”.

(This is also a sample of the style.)

The Vorort is good-natured enough to prove to the “Government of the imperial Regent” from the minutes of the Diet that these debates “for several weeks” were limited to a single brief session on one single day. It is clear, that our Imperial Minister, instead of looking up the documentary records, prefers to trust to his own confused memory. We shall find still further proofs of this.

Incidentally, the Government of the Imperial Regent could regard this obligingness of the Vorort, its readiness to come to the assistance of the Government’s poor memory, as a proof of the “good-neighbourly attitude” of Switzerland. Indeed, if the Government of the Imperial Regent had taken into its head to speak in a Note in such a fashion about the debates of the English Parliament, the dry arrogance of Palmerston would have dealt with it in quite a different way! The Prussian and Austrian ambassadors in London can tell it what was said in public proceedings about their respective states and Notes, without anyone thinking that their stay in London was thereby rendered impossible. These tyros want to teach Switzerland international law and do not even know that the only thing that concerns them in the proceedings of sovereign assemblies is what is decided, but not what is said! These logicians assert in the same Note, “Switzerland should know that attacks on freedom of the press could not emanate from Germany” (it suffices to print these lines in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung to make them bitterly ironical!) — and they even want to meddle with the freedom of debate of the highest organ of authority in Switzerland at that time!

“There is no conflict here over principles. It is not a question of the right of asylum or of freedom of the press. Switzerland should know that attacks on these rights cannot emanate from Germany. Germany has repeatedly stated that it will not tolerate their abuse, it has recognised that the right of asylum must not become an industry for Switzerland” (what does that mean?), “a state of war for Germany” (the right of asylum a state of war — what German!), “that there must be a difference between shelter for the persecuted and a hiding-place for highway robbers.”

“A hiding-place for highway robbers"! Have Rinaldo Rinaldini and all the robber chieftains who made their appearance with Gottfried Basse in Quedlinburg descended with their bands from the Abruzzi Mountains to the Rhine in order at a suitable time to plunder Upper Baden? Is Karl Moor on the march from the Bohemian forests? Has Schinderhannes also left behind a brother’s son, who as the “nephew of his uncle” [i.e., Louis Bonaparte] wants to continue the dynasty from Switzerland? Far from it! Struve, now in the Baden prison, Madame Struve, and a few workers who crossed the frontier unarmed — these are the “highway robbers” who had their “hiding-place” in Switzerland, or allegedly still have it there. The imperial authority, not satisfied with the prisoners on whom it can take revenge, is so lost to all decency that it hurls abuse across the Rhine at those who were lucky enough to escape.

“Switzerland knows that it is not being asked to persecute the press in any way, that it is not a question of newspapers and leaflets, but of their authors, who at the very frontier day and night wage a base contraband war against Germany by the mass smuggling in of inflammatory writings.”

“Smuggling in"! “Inflammatory writings"! “Base contraband war"! The expressions become ever more elegant, ever more diplomatic — but has not the Government of the Imperial Regent “considered it its duty to use straightforward language"?

And, in fact, its language is remarkably “straightforward” It does ,not demand from Switzerland any persecution of the press; it is not speaking about “newspapers and leaflets”, but about “their authors”. The activities of the latter must be put a stop to. But, worthy “Government of the Imperial Regent”, when proceedings are ‘instituted in Germany against a newspaper, e.g. the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, is it a question of the newspaper which is in everyone’s hands and can no longer be withdrawn from circulation, or of the “authors”, who are put in prison and brought before the court? This worthy Government does not demand any persecution of the press, it merely demands persecution of the authors of the press. Well-meaning persons! Wonderful “straightforward language"!

These authors “wage a base contraband war against Germany by the mass smuggling in of inflammatory writings”. This crime of the “highway robbers” is truly unpardonable, the more so since it goes on “day and night”, and the fact that Switzerland tolerates it is a flagrant violation of international law.

From Gibraltar whole shiploads of English goods are smuggled into Spain, and the Spanish priests declare that the English “by smuggling in evangelical inflammatory writings”, e.g. the Spanish Bibles published by the Bible Society, wage a base contraband war against the Catholic Church. Barcelona manufacturers also curse the base contraband war waged from Gibraltar against Spanish industry by the smuggling in of English calico. But were the Spanish ambassador to complain about it just once, Palmerston would reply to him: Thou blockheads that is just what we took Gibraltar for! Hitherto all other governments have shown too much tact, taste and consideration to complain in Notes about smuggling. But the naive Government of the Imperial Regent speaks in such “straightforward language” that it most artlessly declares that Switzerland has violated international law if the Baden customs officials do not display the appropriate vigilance.

“Switzerland, finally, cannot he unaware also that the right of foreign countries to resist such iniquity cannot depend on whether the Swiss authorities lack the strength or desire to prevent it.”

The Government of the Imperial Regent seems completely “unaware that the right” of Switzerland to leave in peace everyone who obeys the laws of the land, even if he wages a base contraband war etc. by smuggling in etc., “cannot depend on whether the German authorities lack the strength or desire to prevent” this smuggling. The Government of the Imperial Regent should take to heart Heine’s reply to the Hamburger who moaned to him about a big fire:

Get yourselves better laws
And better fire-hoses —
[Heine, Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen]

and then it would no longer need to make itself ridiculous by its straightforward language.

“The conflict is only ‘over the facts, it goes on to say, and therefore we shall at last hear about some other significant facts besides the base contraband war. We are eager for them.

“The eminent Vorort demands, on the grounds of its lack of information, that it be supplied with definite proof of actions which could confirm the accusations made against the Swiss authorities.”

Obviously, a very reasonable demand on the part of the eminent Vorort. And will the Government of the Imperial Regent most willingly accede to this just demand?

By no means! just listen:

“But a controversial procedure between governments on generally known matters is not customary among nations.”

That is a rough lesson in international law for arrogant little Switzerland, which believes itself entitled to be as impertinent towards the Government of the Imperial Regent of great Germany as little Denmark was at one time. It should take note of the example of the Danish armistice and be more modest. Otherwise the same thing might happen to it.

When the extradition of a common criminal is demanded from a neighbouring state, a controversial procedure is involved, however “generally known” the crime. But the controversial procedure, or rather the mere proof of guilt which Switzerland demands before taking measures — not against common criminals who have crossed the border, nor against refugees, no, against its own officials, elected on the basis of a democratic popular vote — such proof “is not customary among nations"! Truly, the “straightforward language” cannot be denied even for a moment. It could not be more straightforwardly confessed that there are no proofs to put forward.

There now follows a hail of questions in which all these generally known facts are enumerated.

“Does anyone doubt the activity of the German agitators in Switzerland?”

Of course no one does, just as no one doubts the activity of Herr Schmerling in Frankfurt. It is clear that most of the German refugees in Switzerland pursue some “activity”. The only question is what their activity is, and obviously Herr Schmerling himself does not know, otherwise he would tell us.

“Has anyone any doubt about the refugee press?”

Of course no one has. Yet Herr Schmerling himself states that attacks on freedom of the press could not emanate from Germany. And if they were to come from there, Switzerland would certainly know how to repulse them. What then does this question mean? If we translate it from “straightforward language” into plain German, it can only mean: Switzerland should abolish freedom of the press for the refugees. A un autre, [tell that to somebody else] Monsieur de Schmerling!

“Has Germany to give Europe proof of the pilgrimage to Muttenz?”

Of course not, cunning “Government of the Imperial Regent"! But to prove that these pilgrimages were the cause of Struve’s invasion or possibly of some other enterprise giving greater grounds for complaint against Switzerland — to prove that would bring no discredit to the Government of the Imperial Regent, but would be all the more difficult.

Once again the Vorort is obliging enough to do more than “is customary among nations” ‘ and to remind Herr Schmerling that the pilgrimages to Muttenz[83] directly concerned Hecker, that Hecker was against the second invasion, that he even went to America in order to dispel all doubts about his intentions, that among the pilgrims there were prominent members of the German National Assembly. The Vorort is tactful enough, even in presence of the tactless Note of Herr Schmerling, not to mention the final and most striking reason: namely, that the “pilgrims” after all returned to Germany, where at any moment they could be called to account by the Government of the Imperial Regent for any punishable action, for all their “activity” in Muttenz. That this did not happen is the best proof that the Government of the Imperial Regent possesses no data incriminating the pilgrims, and that therefore it is still less able to reproach the Swiss authorities in this respect.

“Or the meetings in Birsfeld?”

“Straightforward language” is a fine thing. Anyone who, like the Government of the Imperial Regent, “has considered it his duty in international intercourse” to use this language, has merely to prove that meetings in general, or even meetings of refugees, took place in Birsfeld to be able to accuse the Swiss authorities of gross violation of international law. Other mortals, of course, would first of all have had to show what occurred at these meetings that was contrary to international law. But, of course, they are “generally known facts”, so generally known that I am prepared to bet that among the readers of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung there are not three to be found who have any idea what meetings Herr Schmerling is talking about.

“Or the warlike preparations of the malefactors, who are able to pursue their activity along the frontier, in Rheinfelden, Zurzach, Gottlieben and Laufen?”

Praise God! At last we learn something more definite about the activity” of the refugees! We did Herr von Schmerling an injustice in expressing the opinion that he did not know what the refugees were doing. He knows not only what they are doing, but also where they are doing it. Where do they do it? In Rheinfelden, Zurzach, Gottlieben and Laufen along the frontier. What do they do? “Pursue their activity"!

They pursue their activity"! Monstrous violation of all international law — their activity! What then does the Government of the Imperial Regent do in order not to violate international law? Is it perhaps “its excesses"? [Wesen — “activity”, Unwesen — “excesses"]

But Herr von Schmerling speaks of “warlike preparations”. And since among the towns where, to the terror of the whole Empire, the refugees pursue their activity there are several that belong to the Aargau canton, the Vorort takes it as an example. It again does something more than is necessary, it once again does more than “is customary among nations”, and offers to prove by means of a “controversial procedure” that at that time only 25 refugees were living in the Aargau canton, that of these only ten took part in Struve’s second expedition of volunteers,[84] and that even they entered Germany unarmed. That is all there was of “warlike preparations”. But what does that mean? The other fifteen, who remained behind, were the most dangerous. They obviously only remained behind in order to continue to “pursue their activity” without interruption.

These are the weighty accusations of the “Government of the Imperial Regent” against Switzerland. More than this it is unable to put forward, nor does it need to do so, since it “is not customary among nations” etc. But if Switzerland is so shameless as still not to be shattered by these accusations, the “decisions” and “provisions” of the Government of the Imperial Regent will not fail to have a shattering effect. The world is curious to know what these decisions and provisions will consist of, and is all the more curious because Herr Schmerling is preparing them in the greatest secrecy and does not want to communicate any details even to the Frankfurt Assembly. Meanwhile the Swiss press has already shown that all reprisals Herr Schmerling might take are bound to have a more harmful effect on Germany than on Switzerland and, according to all reports, the Swiss regard the “provisions and decisions” of the Government of the Imperial Regent with the greatest equanimity. Whether the Ministers in Frankfurt will be of the same mind, especially if English and French Notes intervene, remains to be seen. One thing is certain: the affair will end, like the Danish war, in a new disgrace, which on this occasion, however, will fall on official Germany alone.