Articles by Frederick Engels in The Rheinische Zeitung

North- and South-German Liberalism [131]

Written: in March 1842
Source: MECW, Volume 2;
First published: in the Rheinische Zeitung, No. 102, April 12, 1842
Marked with the sign ‘X’
Transcribed: in 2000 for by Andy Blunden.

Berlin, March. Until quite recently the south of our Fatherland was thought to be the only part of it capable of strong political convictions; Baden, Württemberg and Rhenish Bavaria seemed to be the only three altars on which could be kindled the fire of the only patriotism worthy of the name, independent patriotism. The north seemed to have sunk back into inert indifference, a limp, if not servile, torpor, in which it sought recovery from the truly grand and unusual exertion of the wars of liberation, in which the south took no part. With that deed the north seemed to feel it had done enough and now deserved some rest, so that the south soon began to look down on it, chide its lack of interest and be scornful of its patience. The events in Hanover [132] were also amply exploited by the south to vindicate its superiority over the north. While the latter seemed to be quieter, less active, the former was triumphant, preening itself on its developing parliamentary life, its speeches in the chambers, its opposition, which had to give support to the north while the south knew its own existence assured even without it. — This has all changed. The movement of the south has gone to sleep, the cogs on its wheels which used to engage so firmly and keep them revolving have gradually become ground down and no longer interlock properly; one voice after another falls silent and the younger generation has no desire to follow the path of its predecessors. The north, on the other hand, although external circumstances were not nearly so favourable for it as for the south, although the platform, when not entirely lacking, could never rise to the significance of that of South Germany, has nevertheless for some years possessed a store of solid political conviction, of firmness of character combined with lively energy, of talent and journalistic activity such as the south was never able to accumulate in the period of its finest flowering. Moreover, North-German liberalism is incontestably more thoroughly developed and versatile and possesses a firmer historical and national basis than the liberalism of the south could ever achieve. The standpoint of the former far transcends that of the latter. Why so? The history of the two phenomena provides the clearest answer.

When in the year 1830 political consciousness began to awaken all over Europe and the interest of the state began to come to the fore, the events and stimulations of that year, colliding with the reawakening dreams of Germanisation, gave rise to the new phenomenon of South-German liberalism. Born of immediate practice, it remained true to it and made it the basis of its theory. The practice out of which its theory was constructed was, however, as we know, very varied: French, German, English, Spanish, etc. Hence it came about that the theory, the real content of this movement, also ended up as something very general, vague and blurred, which was neither German nor French, neither national nor definitely cosmopolitan, but simply abstract and incomplete. There was a common purpose, the legalisation of liberty, but generally two diametrically opposed means of achieving it; thus, constitutional guarantees were desired for Germany and, in order to achieve this, one day greater independence of the princes from the Federal Diet [133] would be proposed and the next, greater dependence but a popular chamber alongside the Federal Diet: two equally impractical means in the prevailing circumstances. One day the great purpose was to be achieved through greater unity of Germany, and the next through greater independence of the small princes in relation to Prussia and Austria. Hence, always united on the purpose but never on the means, the by far more powerful party was soon overtaken by the government and realised its imprudence too late. Moreover, its strength was dependent on a momentary excitement, on the effect of a purely external event, the July revolution, and when this abated, it also had to go to sleep.

During this period things were much quieter in North Germany and outwardly less active. Only one man poured forth all the ardour of his vitality in living flames, and he was worth more than all the South Germans put together. I am speaking of Börne. In him, who with all the energy of his character rose above their half-heartedness,- this one-sidedness carried on the fight to its conclusion and so overcame itself. In him theory wrested itself free from practice and revealed itself as the latter’s most beautiful flower. Hence he adopted the standpoint of North-German liberalism firmly, becoming its precursor and prophet.

This movement, whose domination of Germany can no longer be disputed, has gained a fuller content and more enduring existence through its basis. From the start it linked its being not to an individual event but to the whole of world history, and especially German history; the source from which it flowed was not in Paris, but in the heart of Germany; it was the newer German philosophy. Hence the North-German liberal is distinguished by a high degree of consistency, a definiteness in his demands, and a consonance of means and purpose, for which the South-German liberal has hitherto always striven in vain. Hence his conviction appears as a necessary product of national aspirations and itself national, because it wants to see Germany equally worthily placed in internal and external matters and cannot fall into the ludicrous dilemma of whether to be liberal first and then German, or German first and then liberal. Hence it knows itself to be equally safe from the one-sidedness of both parties and is free of the quibbles and sophistries into which they were driven by their own inner contradictions. Hence it can launch a resolute, vigorous and successful battle against each and every form of reaction, such as South-German liberalism never could, and hence its eventual victory is certain.

Nevertheless, South-German liberalism is not to be regarded as a lost outpost or an unsuccessful experiment; through it we have achieved results which are not to be disregarded. Above all, it was South-German liberalism that, founded a German opposition, thereby making political convictions possible in Germany and awakening parliamentary life; that did not allow the seed which lay within the German constitution to fall asleep and rot, and that extracted from the July revolution the profit to be won from it for Germany. It proceeded from practice to theory and failed; so let us begin the other way round and try to penetrate from theory into practice — I will wager anything that in the end we shall get farther this way.