Georg Weerth, first poet of the German working class, on his bicentennial
Georg Weerth.

“Weerth, the German proletariat’s first and most important poet, the son of Rhineland parents, was born in Detmold, where his father was church superintendent.” So wrote Frederick Engels in 1883 of his friend Georg Weerth, who came into the world 200 years ago on February 17, 1822. “In 1843, when I was in Manchester, Weerth came to Bradford as an agent for his German firm, and we spent many a pleasant Sunday together. In 1845, when Marx and I lived in Brussels, Weerth took over the continental agency for his firm and arranged things so that he, too, could make Brussels his headquarters. After the revolution of March 1848, we all met up in Cologne to found the Neue Rheinische Zeitung [New Rhineland Times]. Weerth took on the feuilleton, and I don’t think any other paper ever had one as hard-hitting and funny.”

In 1836 Weerth began a commercial apprenticeship, and little later became acquainted with the industry and commerce of the Rhineland and its captains in his uncle’s company in Bonn. The very next year he went to work as a correspondent for a worsted and wool company in the industrial city of Bradford and made the acquaintance of Engels. Through this friendship and his own observation, Weerth got to know the English capitalist system, which was more advanced than German capitalism, as well as the class struggles of the organized proletariat.

With Engels, who was then working on The Condition of the Working Class in England, Weerth saw the poverty and hardship of the workers in the textile factories and identified with the class-conscious proletarians. Through Engels, Weerth became acquainted with the ideas of early socialism and leaders of the English labor movement, as well as Marx in 1845. He also made contact with the revolutionary wing of the Chartist movement. All this profoundly politicized Weerth: Not only was it necessary to understand the misery of the working class as the flip side of enormous technical progress but also that this class was destined to overthrow capitalism. That same year, he moved to Brussels and worked here with Marx and Engels on the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung. In 1847 he became a member of the League of Communists.

Georg Weerth. | Public Domain

As early as 1845, Weerth’s short story “The Flower Festival of the English Workers” does not depict worn-out industrial workers, but confident proletarians. For the first time in German literature, a new image of humanity emerges directly from the experience of the fighting proletariat: Workers as class-conscious, fighting people with a developed aesthetic sense. The story ends:

“But in the inn Zur alten Hammelsschulter (The Old Mutton Shoulder) they opened the windows, for the night was too delicious. The stars twinkled so cheerfully as if they were rejoicing over the poor small people down there on earth, over the workers in Yorkshire who, despite all the tyranny celebrate such splendid poetic festivals.

“Yes, poetic festivals! —For a flower festival of English workers…is of all the greater importance because it has sprung from the people without any outside cause. This is proof that workers, in addition to their political development, have preserved in their hearts a treasure of warm love for nature, a love which is the source of all poetry and which will one day enable them to propel a fresh literature, a new, mighty art into the world.”

With historical-materialist understanding, Weerth figuratively captures the inherent power of the proletariat as an industrial, militant, as well as an esthetic capacity, a power of the future.

Weerth’s songs and poems are among the best poetry of the Vormärz, the pre-revolutionary period in the German arts. Engels again: “Where Weerth was master, where he surpassed Heine (because he was healthier and more genuine) and where he is second only to Goethe in German, is in his expression of natural robust sensuousness and physical lust.”

In his poem “Industry,” Weerth articulates the dual character of capitalist industry. On the one hand, “She sits upon the darkest throne,/ And flogs to untold servitude,/ Calamity’s cruel stamp she bears,/ The poor she drives to temple cold!” At the same time, it is she who produces the weapons for liberation: “And they who forged the sword and chains,/ Will use the sword to smash the chains!” Liberated, industry takes on a new character, and she herself appears as the precondition of her own liberation: “Transformed, the goddess dark appears—/ Happy, and glad are all who’re near!/ From labor’s anguish long unseen,/ She rid the rock and made us free!” Ultimately, this struggle for liberation is the prerequisite for a free society in which freedom achieves the unleashed sensuality of humanity: “And nature with enthralling kiss/ Lures the living to greater bliss!”

Like “The Flower Festival of the English Workers,” Werth’s poetry goes beyond the depiction of misery, showing the class-conscious working class, its humanity and strength. His poem “They Sat on the Benches” is about the reaction of English workers to the Silesian weavers’ uprising:

They sat along the benches,
They sat around their board,
The beer was poured in plenty
They drank with pleasure deep.
They knew no heavy sorrow,
They knew no ache nor woe
They knew not past nor future,
They only lived this day.

They sat below the alder—
Great was summer’s frill.
Wild and angry lads
From York and Lancashire
Their song was rough and throaty,
They sat until late night
They listened to the tale
“Of Silesian weavers fight.”

And when they knew it all,—
They almost were in tears.
The sturdy lads leapt up
And urgent was their sense.
They clenched their fists in anger,
Their hats waved stormily;
Meadows and woods resounded:
“Good Luck, Silesia!”

In this vivid account, Weerth depicts confident, proletarians enjoying the day sensuously, yet with an internationalist grasp of their common cause with the Silesian weavers. Both poems—about the Silesian and the British workers—are written from the perspective of the struggling proletariat, conscious of their power and eventual victory; and the poems reinforce this class consciousness.

“Humorous Sketches from Contemporary Commercial Life”

In 1846-47 Weerth embarked on a new project, a novel offering a contemporary account of German society. Based on three family histories and from the perspective of the workers’ movement, he planned to depict the advance of capitalism and the development of the working class into the antagonist of the bourgeoisie. Ultimately, Weerth did not succeed in this epic venture of artistically realizing his Marxist insights.

However, one character in the novel, that of the Prussian Mr. Preiss [Price], survives in Humorous Sketches from Contemporary Commercial Life, Weerth’s most mature prose work. Preiss knows only one motto: to make money. Here all humanity ceases. His encounter with the March Revolution in Germany turns Preiss into a comic figure. He dreads the revolution, which threatens his commercial concerns; he adapts to the changing fortunes of the times, always in the interest of his financial interests, and ultimately reckons with a ministerial post. The sketch ends: “Upon the completely unfounded rumor that Mr. Preiss was to become prime minister, raw proletarians threw in his windows that very evening.”

Once again Weerth conveys a historically optimistic perspective of the resistance of the proletariat, of the destruction of capitalist society. The revolution is not over yet. The ridicule of Preiss lampoons the moral weakness of rulers; by laughing at them, one is a little closer to one’s own liberation.

The feature pages (feuilleton) of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung

In February 1848, Weerth went to Cologne and worked for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which was edited by Marx. The feuilleton genre, growing increasingly popular in Germany at this time, became a tool for Weerth in the political struggle.

Weerth’s most famous contribution is “Life and Deeds of the Famous Knight Schnapphahnski,” published between August 1848 and January 1849, the first German serialized feuilleton novel. The political satire targets the Prussian squirearchy (Junkerism) and its counter-revolutionary machinations. Its model is Prince Lichnowski, whom Heine had already satirized in Atta Troll as Schnapphahnski. In 1848, Lichnowski represented the deeply reactionary interests of the Prussian Junkers as a member of the Frankfurt Assembly.

Engels comments: “The collected Schnapphahnski feuilletons were published in book form by Hoffmann and Campe in 1849, and they are still very amusing today. However, on September 18, 1848, Schnapphahnski-Lichnowski rode out with the Prussian General von Auerswald (also a member of the assembly) to spy on peasant detachments on their way to join the fighters on the Frankfurt barricades. Both he and Auerswald were, deservedly, put to death by the peasants as spies, and so the German Imperial Administration charged Weerth with libeling the dead Lichnowski. Weerth, who had left for England long ago, was sentenced to three months imprisonment, long after reaction had put an end to the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. He later actually served those three months, because his business required him to visit Germany from time to time.”

After a brief interruption due to the libel proceedings against the paper, new episodes appeared from December 1848 onward, stating that Schnapphahnski did not refer to a particular nobleman, but to Prussian Junkerism in general.

The Schnapphahnski novel ends:

“Yes, the great Cologne cathedral farce was over, in which all the high lords, with the most beautiful phrases in their mouths but resentment in their hearts, devised, amid the cheers of the foolish people, all the fine plans which were soon to bear such excellent fruit in the summary executions of Vienna, in the octroying of the Prussian and Austrian constitutions and in the ridicule of the Frankfurt Assembly.

“Yes, this feast of the most disgusting coquetry with the stupid sovereign Michel was over, and we would perhaps still be laughing about it if the bullet-torn corpses of the proletarians of Paris, Vienna, and Berlin did not grin at us through the shimmering heap of these ‘people-friendly’ princes, of these fine servants and of these duped representatives of the people, of Vienna and Berlin, if through this tangle of the most hypocritical assurances, the most shameless lies, the dying sighs of the trampled Poles, the cry for help of the tortured Hungarians and the cry for revenge of devastated Lombardy did not ring out to us, if the bloody head of a Robert Blum did not roll at our feet—but enough! the humor has dried up; the book is over.”

This feuilleton novel continues the tradition of political literary journalism of Börne and Heine, which reaches its most significant highpoint with Weerth. Weerth marks the transition to socialist literature in Germany.

After the counter-revolution, Weerth resigned and began to work in commerce again. Engels comments: “In 1850-51, in the interest of another Bradford company, he traveled to Spain, then to the West Indies and across almost all of South America. After a brief visit to Europe, he returned to his beloved West Indies.”

Weerth continued to correspond with Marx and Engels, but died of yellow fever in Havana on July 30, 1856, at only 34 years of age.

Engels once more:

“In this, he differed from most poets in that he was completely indifferent to his poems once written down. If he had sent a copy of it to Marx or me, he left the verses lying around and it was often difficult to get them printed anywhere. Only during the Neue Rheinische Zeitung this was different. The following extract from a letter from Weerth to Marx, Hamburg, 28 April 1851, explains why:

“‘I have written all sorts of things lately, but have not finished anything, for I see no purpose, no aim at all in writing. When you write something about national economics, it makes sense. But me? To make poor jokes, bad jokes, in order to draw a stupid smile from the patriotic grimaces—truly, I can’t think of anything more pathetic! My literary activity perished most decisively along with the Neue Rheinische Zeitung….

“‘We never compromised ourselves. That is the main thing! Since Frederick the Great, no one has treated the German people so en canaille [so like the masses] as the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

“‘I don’t want to claim this as my achievement; but I was a part of it….’”


CONTRIBUTOR

Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin. She has lived in Ireland since 1985, working as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She writes for Culture Matters and for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist party of Ireland.

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