Ferdinand Lassalle And Helene Von Donniges
The middle part of the nineteenth century is a period which has become
more or less obscure to most Americans and Englishmen. At one end the
thunderous campaigns of Napoleon are dying away. In the latter part
of the century we remember the gorgeousness of the Tuileries, the four
years' strife of our own Civil War, and then the golden drift of peace
with which the century ended. Between these two extremes there is a
stretch of history which seems to lack interest for the average student
In America, that was a period when we took little interest in the
movement of affairs on the continent of Europe. It would not be easy,
for instance, to imagine an American of 1840 cogitating on problems of
socialism, or trying to invent some new form of arbeiterverein. General
Choke was still swindling English emigrants. The Young Columbian was
still darting out from behind a table to declare how thoroughly he
defied the British lion. But neither of these patriots, any more than
their English compeers, was seriously disturbed about the interests of
the rest of the world. The Englishman was contentedly singing "God Save
the Queen!" The American, was apostrophizing the bird of freedom
with the floridity of rhetoric that reached its climax in the "Pogram
Defiance." What the Dutchies and Frenchies were doing was little more to
an Englishman than to an American.
Continental Europe was a mystery to English-speaking people. Those who
traveled abroad took their own servants with them, spoke only English,
and went through the whole European maze with absolute indifference. To
them the socialist, who had scarcely received a name, was an imaginary
being. If he existed, he was only a sort of offspring of the Napoleonic
wars--a creature who had not yet fitted into the ordinary course of
things. He was an anomaly, a person who howled in beer-houses, and who
would presently be regulated, either by the statesmen or by the police.
When our old friend, Mark Tapley, was making with his master a homeward
voyage to Britain, what did he know or even care about the politics of
France, or Germany, or Austria, or Russia? Not the slightest, you may be
sure. Mark and his master represented the complete indifference of the
Englishman or American--not necessarily a well-bred indifference, but
an indifference that was insular on the one hand and republican on
the other. If either of them had heard of a gentleman who pillaged an
unmarried lady's luggage in order to secure a valuable paper for another
lady, who was married, they would both have looked severely at this
abnormal person, and the American would doubtless have added a remark
which had something to do with the matchless purity of Columbia's
If, again, they had been told that Ferdinand Lassalle had joined in the
great movement initiated by Karl Marx, it is absolutely certain that
neither the Englishman nor the American could have given you the
slightest notion as to who these individuals were. Thrones might
be tottering all over Europe; the red flag might wave in a score of
cities--what would all this signify, so long as Britannia ruled the
waves, while Columbia's feathered emblem shrieked defiance three
thousand miles away?
And yet few more momentous events have happened in a century than the
union which led one man to give his eloquence to the social cause, and
the other to suffer for that cause until his death. Marx had the higher
thought, but his disciple Lassalle had the more attractive way of
presenting it. It is odd that Marx, today, should lie in a squalid
cemetery, while the whole western world echoes with his praises,
and that Lassalle--brilliant, clear-sighted, and remarkable for his
penetrating genius--should have lived in luxury, but should now know
nothing but oblivion, even among those who shouted at his eloquence and
ran beside him in the glory of his triumph.
Ferdinand Lassalle was a native of Breslau, the son of a wealthy
Jewish silk-merchant. Heymann Lassal--for thus the father spelled his
name--stroked his hands at young Ferdinand's cleverness, but he meant it
to be a commercial cleverness. He gave the boy a thorough education at
the University of Breslau, and later at Berlin. He was an affectionate
parent, and at the same time tyrannical to a degree.
It was the old story where the father wishes to direct every step that
his son takes, and where the son, bursting out into youthful manhood,
feels that he has the right to freedom. The father thinks how he has
toiled for the son; the son thinks that if this toil were given for
love, it should not be turned into a fetter and restraint. Young
Lassalle, instead of becoming a clever silk-merchant, insisted on a
university career, where he studied earnestly, and was admitted to the
most cultured circles.
Though his birth was Jewish, he encountered little prejudice against his
race. Napoleon had changed the old anti-Semitic feeling of fifty years
before to a liberalism that was just beginning to be strongly felt in
Germany, as it had already been in France. This was true in general, but
especially true of Lassalle, whose features were not of a Semitic type,
who made friends with every one, and who was a favorite in many salons.
His portraits make him seem a high-bred and high-spirited Prussian,
with an intellectual and clean-cut forehead; a face that has a sense of
humor, and yet one capable of swift and cogent thought.
No man of ordinary talents could have won the admiration of so many
compeers. It is not likely that such a keen and cynical observer as
Heinrich Heine would have written as he did concerning Lassalle, had not
the latter been a brilliant and magnetic youth. Heine wrote to Varnhagen
von Ense, the German historian:
My friend, Herr Lassalle, who brings you this letter, is a young man of
remarkable intellectual gifts. With the most thorough erudition, with
the widest learning, with the greatest penetration that I have ever
known, and with the richest gift of exposition, he combines an energy of
will and a capacity for action which astonish me. In no one have I found
united so much enthusiasm and practical intelligence.
No better proof of Lassalle's enthusiasm can be found than a few lines
from his own writings:
I love Heine. He is my second self. What audacity! What overpowering
eloquence! He knows how to whisper like a zephyr when it kisses
rose-blooms, how to breathe like fire when it rages and destroys; he
calls forth all that is tenderest and softest, and then all that is
fiercest and most daring. He has the sweep of the whole lyre!
Lassalle's sympathy with Heine was like his sympathy with every one
whom he knew. This was often misunderstood. It was misunderstood in his
relations with women, and especially in the celebrated affair of the
Countess von Hatzfeldt, which began in the year 1846--that is to say, in
the twenty-first year of Lassalle's age.
In truth, there was no real scandal in the matter, for the countess was
twice the age of Lassalle. It was precisely because he was so young that
he let his eagerness to defend a woman in distress make him forget
the ordinary usage of society, and expose himself to mean and unworthy
criticism which lasted all his life. It began by his introduction to
the Countess von Hatzfeldt, a lady who was grossly ill-treated by her
husband. She had suffered insult and imprisonment in the family castles;
the count had deprived her of medicine when she was ill, and had
forcibly taken away her children. Besides this, he was infatuated
with another woman, a baroness, and wasted his substance upon her even
contrary to the law which protected his children's rights.
The countess had a son named Paul, of whom Lassalle was extremely fond.
There came to the boy a letter from the Count von Hatzfeldt ordering him
to leave his mother. The countess at once sent for Lassalle, who brought
with him two wealthy and influential friends--one of them a judge of a
high Prussian court--and together they read the letter which Paul had
just received. They were deeply moved by the despair of the countess,
and by the cruelty of her dissolute husband in seeking to separate the
mother from her son.
In his chivalrous ardor Lassalle swore to help the countess, and
promised that he would carry on the struggle with her husband to the
bitter end. He took his two friends with him to Berlin, and then to
Dusseldorf, for they discovered that the Count von Hatzfeldt was not far
away. He was, in fact, at Aix-la-Chapelle with the baroness.
Lassalle, who had the scent of a greyhound, pried about until he
discovered that the count had given his mistress a legal document,
assigning to her a valuable piece of property which, in the ordinary
course of law, should be entailed on the boy, Paul. The countess at
once hastened to the place, broke into her husband's room, and secured a
promise that the deed would be destroyed.
No sooner, however, had she left him than he returned to the baroness,
and presently it was learned that the woman had set out for Cologne.
Lassalle and his two friends followed, to ascertain whether the document
had really been destroyed. The three reached a hotel at Cologne, where
the baroness had just arrived. Her luggage, in fact, was being carried
upstairs. One of Lassalle's friends opened a trunk, and, finding a
casket there, slipped it out to his companion, the judge.
Unfortunately, the latter had no means of hiding it, and when the
baroness's servant shouted for help, the casket was found in the
possession of the judge, who could give no plausible account of it. He
was, therefore, arrested, as were the other two. There was no evidence
against Lassalle; but his friends fared badly at the trial, one of them
being imprisoned for a year and the other for five years.
From this time Lassalle, with an almost quixotic devotion, gave himself
up to fighting the Countess von Hatzfeldt's battle against her husband
in the law-courts. The ablest advocates were pitted against him. The
most eloquent legal orators thundered at him and at his client, but he
met them all with a skill, an audacity, and a brilliant wit that won for
him verdict after verdict. The case went from the lower to the higher
tribunals, until, after nine years, it reached the last court of appeal,
where Lassalle wrested from his opponents a magnificently conclusive
victory--one that made the children of the countess absolutely safe.
It was a battle fought with the determination of a soldier, with the
gallantry of a knight errant, and the intellectual acumen of a learned
It is not surprising that many refuse to believe that Lassalle's feeling
toward the Countess von Hatzfeldt was a disinterested one. A scandalous
pamphlet, which was published in French, German, and Russian, and
written by one who styled herself "Sophie Solutzeff," did much to spread
the evil report concerning Lassalle. But the very openness and frankness
of the service which he did for the countess ought to make it clear that
his was the devotion of a youth drawn by an impulse into a strife where
there was nothing for him to gain, but everything to lose. He denounced
the brutality of her husband, but her letters to him always addressed
him as "my dear child." In writing to her he confides small love-secrets
and ephemeral flirtations--which he would scarcely have done, had the
countess viewed him with the eye of passion.
Lassalle was undoubtedly a man of impressionable heart, and had many
affairs such as Heine had; but they were not deep or lasting. That he
should have made a favorable impression on the women whom he met is
not surprising, because of his social standing, his chivalry, his
fine manners, and his handsome face. Mr. Clement Shorter has quoted an
official document which describes him as he was in his earlier years:
Ferdinand Lassalle, aged twenty-three, a civilian born at Breslau and
dwelling recently at Berlin. He stands five feet six inches in height,
has brown, curly hair, open forehead, brown eyebrows, dark blue eyes,
well proportioned nose and mouth, and rounded chin.
We ought not to be surprised, then, if he was a favorite in
drawing-rooms; if both men and women admired him; if Alexander von
Humboldt cried out with enthusiasm that he was a wunderkind, and if
there were more than Sophie Solutzeff to be jealous. But the rather
ungrateful remark of the Countess von Hatzfeldt certainly does not
represent him as he really was.
"You are without reason and judgment where women are concerned," she
snarled at him; but the sneer only shows that the woman who uttered it
was neither in love with him nor grateful to him.
In this paper we are not discussing Lassalle as a public agitator or
as a Socialist, but simply in his relations with the two women who most
seriously affected his life. The first was the Countess von Hatzfeldt,
who, as we have seen, occupied--or rather wasted--nine of the best years
of his life. Then came that profound and thrilling passion which ended
the career of a man who at thirty-nine had only just begun to be famous.
Lassalle had joined his intellectual forces with those of Heine and
Marx. He had obtained so great an influence over the masses of the
people as to alarm many a monarch, and at the same time to attract many
a statesman. Prince Bismarck, for example, cared nothing for Lassalle's
championship of popular rights, but sought his aid on finding that he
was an earnest advocate of German unity.
Furthermore, he was very far from resembling what in those early days
was regarded as the typical picture of a Socialist. There was nothing
frowzy about him; in his appearance he was elegance itself; his manners
were those of a prince, and his clothing was of the best. Seeing him in
a drawing-room, no one would mistake him for anything but a gentleman
and a man of parts. Hence it is not surprising that his second love was
one of the nobility, although her own people hated Lassalle as a bearer
of the red flag.
This girl was Helene von Donniges, the daughter of a Bavarian
diplomat. As a child she had traveled much, especially in Italy and in
Switzerland. She was very precocious, and lived her own life without
asking the direction of any one. At twelve years of age she had been
betrothed to an Italian of forty; but this dark and pedantic person
always displeased her, and soon afterward, when she met a young
Wallachian nobleman, one Yanko Racowitza, she was ready at once to
dismiss her Italian lover. Racowitza--young, a student, far from home,
and lacking friends--appealed at once to the girl's sympathy.
At that very time, in Berlin, where Helene was visiting her grandmother,
she was asked by a Prussian baron:
"Do you know Ferdinand Lassalle?"
The question came to her with a peculiar shock. She had never heard the
name, and yet the sound of it gave her a strange emotion. Baron Korff,
who perhaps took liberties because she was so young, went on to say:
"My dear lady, have you really never seen Lassalle? Why, you and he were
meant for each other!"
She felt ashamed to ask about him, but shortly after a gentleman who
knew her said:
"It is evident that you have a surprising degree of intellectual kinship
with Ferdinand Lassalle."
This so excited her curiosity that she asked her grandmother:
"Who is this person of whom they talk so much--this Ferdinand Lassalle?"
"Do not speak of him," replied her grandmother. "He is a shameless
A little questioning brought to Helene all sorts of stories about
Lassalle--the Countess von Hatzfeldt, the stolen casket, the mysterious
pamphlet, the long battle in the courts--all of which excited her still
more. A friend offered to introduce her to the "shameless demagogue."
This introduction happened at a party, and it must have been an
extraordinary meeting. Seldom, it seemed, was there a better instance
of love at first sight, or of the true affinity of which Baron Korff
had spoken. In the midst of the public gathering they almost rushed into
each other's arms; they talked the free talk of acknowledged lovers; and
when she left, he called her love-names as he offered her his arm.
"Somehow it did not appear at all remarkable," she afterward declared.
"We seemed to be perfectly fitted to each other."
Nevertheless, nine months passed before they met again at a soiree. At
this time Lassaller gazing upon her, said:
"What would you do if I were sentenced to death?"
"I should wait until your head was severed," was her answer, "in order
that you might look upon your beloved to the last, and then--I should
Her answer delighted him, but he said that there was no danger. He
was greeted on every hand with great consideration; and it seemed not
unlikely that, in recognition of his influence with the people, he might
rise to some high position. The King of Prussia sympathized with him.
Heine called him the Messiah of the nineteenth century. When he passed
from city to city, the whole population turned out to do him honor.
Houses were wreathed; flowers were thrown in masses upon him, while the
streets were spanned with triumphal arches.
Worn out with the work and excitement attending the birth of the
Deutscher Arbeiterverein, or workmen's union, which he founded in 1863,
Lassalle fled for a time to Switzerland for rest. Helene heard of his
whereabouts, and hurried to him, with several friends. They met again
on July 25,1864, and discussed long and intensely the possibilities of
their marriage and the opposition of her parents, who would never permit
her to marry a man who was at once a Socialist and a Jew.
Then comes a pitiful story of the strife between Lassalle and the
Donniges family. Helene's father and mother indulged in vulgar words;
they spoke of Lassalle with contempt; they recalled all the scandals
that had been current ten years before, and forbade Helene ever to
mention the man's name again.
The next scene in the drama took place in Geneva, where the family
of Herr von Donniges had arrived, and where Helene's sister had been
betrothed to Count von Keyserling--a match which filled her mother with
intense joy. Her momentary friendliness tempted Helene to speak of her
unalterable love for Lassalle. Scarcely had the words been spoken when
her father and mother burst into abuse and denounced Lassalle as well as
She sent word of this to Lassalle, who was in a hotel near by. Scarcely
had he received her letter, when Helene herself appeared upon the scene,
and with all the intensity of which she was possessed, she begged him
to take her wherever he chose. She would go with him to France, to
Italy--to the ends of the earth!
What a situation, and yet how simple a one for a man of spirit! It is
strange to have to record that to Lassalle it seemed most difficult. He
felt that he or she, or both of them, had been compromised. Had she a
lady with her? Did she know any one in the neighborhood?
What an extraordinary answer! If she were compromised, all the more
ought he to have taken her in his arms and married her at once, instead
of quibbling and showing himself a prig.
Presently, her maid came in to tell them that a carriage was ready to
take them to the station, whence a train would start for Paris in a
quarter of an hour. Helene begged him with a feeling that was beginning
to be one of shame. Lassalle repelled her in words that were to stamp
him with a peculiar kind of cowardice.
Why should he have stopped to think of anything except the beautiful
woman who was at his feet, and to whom he had pledged his love? What did
he care for the petty diplomat who was her father, or the vulgar-tongued
woman who was her mother? He should have hurried her and the maid into
the train for Paris, and have forgotten everything in the world but his
Helene, glorious among women, who had left everything for him.
What was the sudden failure, the curious weakness, the paltriness of
spirit that came at the supreme moment into the heart of this hitherto
strong man? Here was the girl whom he loved, driven from her parents,
putting aside all question of appearances, and clinging to him with a
wild and glorious desire to give herself to him and to be all his own!
That was a thing worthy of a true woman. And he? He shrinks from her
and cowers and acts like a simpleton. His courage seems to have dribbled
through his finger-tips; he is no longer a man--he is a thing.
Out of all the multitude of Lassalle's former admirers, there is
scarcely one who has ventured to defend him, much less to laud him; and
when they have done so, their voices have had a sound of mockery that
dies away in their own throats.
Helene, on her side, had compromised herself, and even from the
view-point of her parents it was obvious that she ought to be married
immediately. Her father, however, confined her to her room until it
was understood that Lassalle had left Geneva. Then her family's
supplications, the statement that her sister's marriage and even her
father's position were in danger, led her to say that she would give up
It mattered very little, in one way, for whatever he might have done,
Lassalle had killed, or at least had chilled, her love. His failure at
the moment of her great self-sacrifice had shown him to her as he really
was--no bold and gallant spirit, but a cringing, spiritless self-seeker.
She wrote him a formal letter to the effect that she had become
reconciled to her "betrothed bridegroom"; and they never met again.
Too late, Lassalle gave himself up to a great regret. He went about
trying to explain his action to his friends, but he could say nothing
that would ease his feeling and reinstate him in the eyes of the
romantic girl. In a frenzy, he sought out the Wallachian student, Yanko
von Racowitza, and challenged him to a mortal duel. He also challenged
Helene's father. Years before, he had on principle declined to fight a
duel; but now he went raving about as if he sought the death of every
one who knew him.
The duel was fought on August 28, 1864. There was some trouble about
pistols, and also about seconds; but finally the combatants left a
small hotel in a village near Geneva, and reached the dueling-grounds.
Lassalle was almost joyous in his manner. His old confidence had come
back to him; he meant to kill his man.
They took their stations high up among the hills. A few spectators saw
their figures outlined against the sky. The command to fire rang out,
and from both pistols gushed the flame and smoke.
A moment later, Lassalle was seen to sway and fall. A chance shot,
glancing from a wall, had struck him to the ground. He suffered
terribly, and nothing but opium in great doses could relieve his pain.
His wound was mortal, and three days later he died.
Long after, Helene admitted that she still loved Lassalle, and believed
that he would win the duel; but after the tragedy, the tenderness and
patience of Racowitza won her heart. She married him, but within a
year he died of consumption. Helene, being disowned by her relations,
prepared herself for the stage. She married a third husband named
Shevitch, who was then living in the United States, but who has since
made his home in Russia.
Let us say nothing of Lassalle's political career. Except for his work
as one of the early leaders of the liberal movement in Germany, it has
perished, and his name has been almost forgotten. As a lover, his story
stands out forever as a warning to the timid and the recreant. Let men
do what they will; but there is just one thing which no man is permitted
to do with safety in the sight of woman--and that is to play the craven.
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