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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

tch of history which seems to lack interest for the average student

of to-day.

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

take poison!"

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.