Articles by Marx & Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung

The English Soldier's Oath of Allegiance

Source: MECW Volume 9, p. 22;
Written: Written on March 7, 1849;
First published: in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 241, March 9, 1849

Cologne, March 7. The Neue Preussische Zeitung in great triumph publishes the English army oath of allegiance and rejoices immeasurably at the discovery that the English soldier swears loyalty only to the Queen but not to the Constitution. Should we then in Prussia, in the youngest constitutional state, should we, contrary to the example of the oldest constitutional country, compel our soldiers to swear allegiance to the Constitution?

But the Neue Preussische Zeitung forgets to inform the readers how the English soldier stands in relation to civil laws.

As a matter of course, the British soldier, for all offences which are not mere offences against discipline, is tried by the ordinary courts, the county courts, petty sessions, quarter sessions[18] or assize courts, and in all conflicts with other citizens he is treated simply as a citizen.

But that is not all. In England every citizen, whether an official, a soldier or whatever he is, is responsible before the law for all his actions and cannot plead as an excuse that the action in question was ordered by his superior. For example, a revolt occurs. Troops are called in. Legal demands to disperse are or are not issued. The people do not disperse. A civilian official (always a justice of the peace or an urban elected official) gives permission for the army to intervene, or does not do so. The soldiers open fire, there are deaths. The findings of an inquest on those killed come before a coroner's jury which establishes the facts in each case. If the jury decides that the intervention of the armed forces was not justified by the circumstances, it brings in a verdict of premeditated murder against all the participants, including therefore the civilian official who gave permission for the intervention of the troops, the officer who gave the order to fire, and all the soldiers who actually opened fire.

If the civilian official did not give permission for intervention, the consequence is merely that he does not figure in the verdict. Matters remain unaltered as far as the officers and soldiers are concerned.

This verdict of premeditated murder is a formal indictment, on the basis of which criminal proceedings are instituted before the regular courts with their juries.

The English soldier, therefore, is by no means regarded by the law as a machine that has no will of its own and must obey without argument any order given it, but as a "free agent", a man possessing free will, who at all times must know what he is doing and who bears responsibility for all his actions. English judges would give a stern reply to an accused soldier if he defended himself by saying that he had been ordered to fire and that he had had to "obey orders"!

In Prussia things are quite different. In Prussia the soldier declares that his immediate superior gave him the order to fire, and this frees him from all punishment. In Prussia, and likewise in France, the official is assured of complete impunity for every violation of the law when he can prove that the order for it had come from his proper superior in the proper hierarchical way.

The Neue Preussische Zeitung will probably take our word for it that we do not hold the view that the brief formula of an oath can alter a man and turn a black-and-white Guards lieutenant into an enthusiast for "constitutional freedom".

In the last twelve months, the gentlemen who are "with God for King and Fatherland" have themselves, through their own praiseworthy kith and kin, gained the most pleasant experience of the significance of the oath. We are not at all against the Neue Preussische Zeitung making the army swear allegiance to the king, the Dalai Lama or the man in the moon, so long as "My glorious army",[19] in the way which has been described above, is put in exactly the same position in relation to the laws as the army in England.