THE '48ERS[1]

My Friends:—Allow me to express my sincere thanks for the honor you do us old “Forty-eighters” by your warm welcome this evening.

I have often asked myself which of the memories of my somewhat eventful life I should most wish to preserve and which I could most readily spare, and I have always come to the conclusion that the recollections of the period of 1848 are among my dearest and most precious. I would not give them up at any price.

It has become the fashion in certain quarters in Germany to scoff at the year '48 as the “mad year.” That is such a foolish, yes, such an almost childish, view, of which only those are capable who cannot or will not grasp great historic facts in their true significance. It was in 1848 that the ruling German Powers so completely broke the bonds of absolutism that a return to the old form of government was made impossible. All the constitutional development they have had they owe to that period.

In 1848, for the first time, a sense of German national unity was felt and consciously developed with a life-giving force.

I was born on the left bank of the Rhine, and I distinctly remember how strong French traditions and French sympathies were among the people there in the days of my boyhood. Many of them were not sure that they did not prefer to be French rather than Prussian. The year '48 forever completely put an end to such an unsettled state of mind and in its place awakened in every heart the mighty longing for national unity which grew to be an irresistible moral impulse, until at last came the great consummation.

To us youths, however, the period of '48 was something even more than that. I have always been glad that I took part in such a movement in my early youth. Whoever has had a similar experience knows what it means to have been one of a numerous body who dedicated themselves to a cause, which to them was a noble and sacred one; who, with the boundless devotion of youth and with the idealism that is free from all thought of self or of personal interest, were ready for any sacrifice. That was the spirit of the youth of 1848. Whoever was young then will cherish the memory as a proud and dear one. I always vividly remember a tragic incident of those days. In September, 1848, I took part in a congress of students which met in Eisenach at the foot of the Wartburg. I was sent there as a delegate from the University of Bonn. The other German universities were also represented. There were present, among others, nine or ten young men, delegates of the University of Vienna, who belonged to the Academic Legion of that city. This legion played a prominent part in the revolutionary developments of the time and seemed, for a short period, to exert a decisive influence on the Austrian Government. In their headquarters, the aula of the university, the leaders of the legion received deputations bringing petitions for the redress of grievances and for the introduction of reforms, as if the armed students were, indeed, the reigning power. Then came the reaction. It had grown strong by the union of the Court party and the Army with the nationalities hostile to Germany. A violent end seemed to threaten the revolutionary movement and at the time of our student congress at Eisenach the catastrophe was rapidly approaching.

The delegates of the Vienna universities appeared at our Congress clad in the picturesque uniform of the Academic Legion; they were handsome, chivalrous youths and general favorites, owing to their winning, genial manners. We were still in the midst of our student festivities and full of youthful exuberance of spirits when our Austrian friends suddenly announced, with agitated mien, that they were obliged to return to Vienna without delay. To our question, “Why?” they answered that they had received letters from headquarters warning them that the final crisis was impending, that the cause of freedom required the presence of all her champions. In great haste they left us. I still see before me the scene of our parting. When, with a last hand-clasp, we called out, “Auf Wiedersehen!” one of them answered with a questioning inflection: “Auf Wiedersehen? we go to battle from here—look at the lists of the fallen, perhaps you will there find our names!” It was the “Morituri salutamus” spoken in the first freshness of youth. Soon after came the terrible October fights in Vienna in which the blood of the Academic Legion flowed in streams.

Such was the spirit of a great part of the German youth of 1848. But we are asked: Were there not many fantastic vagaries indulged in? Were there not many wild blunders made and much attempted that was foolish and unattainable? Certainly. But many of the things that were then aspired to have since been realized and others should and will be realized in the course of time. The so-called “Forty-eighters” were striving principally for the realization of two great ideals: national unity and representative government. The great union of Germany has been achieved and it may be confidently predicted that the continuance of the united German Empire will be all the more firmly assured the more popular and free the form of its government. The more arbitrary the supreme power, the more dangerous will anti-nationalism become. The more popular the administration of state affairs the more patriotic will be the people and the more patriotic the people the stronger and safer the Empire. The fact that the German nation now represents a free and proud people united by a feeling of patriotism in which it rejoices, and not merely an alliance of princes, is the surest guarantee of its permanence. May the powers that be in Germany always keep in mind this fact.

The youth inspired by the spirit of '48 fought honestly for these great aims, these high ideals; he was ready to give his life for them, and whatever his mistakes or his foolhardiness the German people have every reason to be proud of him instead of scoffing at the “mad year.” It is to be wished that in the youth of to-day a living spark of that same self-sacrificing idealism might be kindled and that this spark might never be choked and extinguished by a puerile ambition for personal aggrandizement.

Surely no one will deny that those German representatives of the movement of '48 who have sought and found a new home in America have always been good and conscientious citizens of their new fatherland. The intellectual freshness and vivacity which they brought with them greatly stimulated at the time the political and social life of the Germans in America, and when, with the movement of secession, danger threatened the new fatherland, the German '48ers, each in his way, were among the first who, with self-sacrificing devotion, rushed to the defense of the Union and liberty. Most of them have proved that the revolutionary agitators of 1848 could become reliable and conservative citizens under a free government. I believe that public opinion will on the whole give them a good character—and if it does not we will give it to ourselves.

Now we have dwindled to a very small band and again we find ourselves facing a crisis which makes special demands on the patriotism of the citizens of this Republic. You, Mr. Chairman, have already pointed out that there is a great difference of opinion as to the cause and the expediency of the present war, but that now, since the war has actually begun, we must all, man for man, stand together in the defense of our common country. Gentlemen, not only is this quite self-evident, but I go even further in saying that the man who now most eagerly advocates peace must, under the circumstances, recommend the most energetic conduct of the war, as only by a speedy and decisive victory of the United States can peace be soon restored.

Mature reflection and a serious consideration of all the aspects of the problem have made me a fast friend of peace—not peace at any price, but peace as long as it is compatible with the honor and safety of the Nation. It is my conviction that few things are so dangerous to the ethical basis of democratic government as a protracted state of war. Under prevailing conditions the policy to be pursued by the true advocate of peace should be as follows: for peace as long as it can be maintained; after the outbreak of hostilities, for the most vigorous management of the war in order to put an end to the state of war as quickly as possible with a decisive victory. Again for peace as soon as the first chance of peace presents itself. Every patriotic citizen will, therefore, wish most speedy and decisive success to the arms of the Republic. He will support every demand of the Government with the most self-sacrificing devotion in order to regain the “desired peace,” as President McKinley calls it in his last message. He will oppose every attempt to degrade a war which was heralded to all the world as a war for humanity to an ordinary war of conquest, an attempt which, if successful, will dishonor the flag and bring new wars and untold disaster upon the American people. Let us hope that the United States may be spared the heavy responsibility which would devolve upon them if this war should kindle a far-reaching conflagration, a danger which is all the more threatening the longer the war lasts. Let us hope that the great American Republic, among whose most loyal citizens we old '48ers count ourselves, may honorably emerge from this crisis with her democratic institutions unimpaired, with her promise honestly fulfilled that her victorious arms shall not serve the lust of conquest, but shall be unselfishly used only in the name of humanity, of civilization and liberty—thus winning anew the confidence and respect of the world.

  1. Speech at a semi-centennial banquet in Arion Hall, New York City, May 14, 1898, in honor of the old '48ers.

    Translated by Miss Schurz.