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 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 he 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
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
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
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
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
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 lawyer.
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
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
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
"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 herself.
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
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 Lassalle.
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.