1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Liebknecht, Wilhelm

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LIEBKNECHT, WILHELM (1826–1900), German socialist, was born at Giessen on the 29th of March 1826. Left an orphan at an early age, he was educated at the gymnasium in his native town, and attended the universities of Giessen, Bonn and Marburg. Before he left school he had become affected by the political discontent then general in Germany; he had already studied the writings of St Simon, from which he gained his first interest in communism, and had been converted to the extreme republican theories of which Giessen was a centre. He soon came into conflict with the authorities, and was expelled from Berlin apparently in consequence of the strong sympathy he displayed for some Poles, who were being tried for high treason. He proposed in 1846 to migrate to America, but went instead to Switzerland, where he earned his living as a teacher. As soon as the revolution of 1848 broke out he hastened to Paris, but the attempt to organize a republican corps for the invasion of Germany was prevented by the government. In September, however, in concert with Gustav von Struve, he crossed the Rhine from Switzerland at the head of a band of volunteers, and proclaimed a republic in Baden. The attempt collapsed; he was captured, and, after suffering eight months’ imprisonment, was brought to trial. Fortunately for him, a new rising had just broken out; the mob burst into the court, and he was acquitted. During the short duration of the revolutionary government he was an active member of the most extreme party, but on the arrival of the Prussian troops he succeeded in escaping to France. Thence he went to Geneva, where he came into intercourse with Mazzini; but, unlike most of the German exiles, he was already an adherent of the socialist creed, which at that time was more strongly held in France. Expelled from Switzerland he went to London, where he lived for thirteen years in close association with Karl Marx. He endured great hardships, but secured a livelihood by teaching and writing; he was a correspondent of the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung. The amnesty of 1861 opened for him the way back to Germany, and in 1862 he accepted the post of editor of the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, the founder of which was an old revolutionist. Only a few months elapsed before the paper, passed under Bismarck’s influence. There is no more curious episode in German history than the success with which Bismarck acquired the services of many of the men of 1848, but Liebknecht remained faithful to his principles and resigned his editorship. He became a member of the Arbeiterverein, and after the death of Ferdinand Lassalle he was the chief mouthpiece in Germany of Karl Marx, and was instrumental in spreading the influence of the newly-founded International. Expelled from Prussia in 1865, he settled at Leipzig, and it is primarily to his activity in Saxony among the newly-formed unions of workers that the modern social democrat party owes its origin. Here he conducted the Demokratisches Wochenblatt. In 1867 he was elected a member of the North German Reichstag, but in opposition to Lassalle’s followers he refused all compromise with the “capitalists,” and avowedly used his position merely for purposes of agitation whilst taking every opportunity for making the parliament ridiculous. He was strongly influenced by the “great German” traditions of the democrats of 1848, and, violently anti-Prussian, he distinguished himself by his attacks on the policy of 1866 and the “revolution from above,” and by his opposition to every form of militarism. His adherence to the traditions of 1848 are also seen in his dread of Russia, which he maintained to his death. His opposition to the war of 1870 exposed him to insults and violence, and in 1872 he was condemned to two years’ imprisonment in a fortress for treasonable intentions. The union of the German Socialists in 1874 at the congress of Gotha was really a triumph of his influence, and from that time he was regarded as founder and leader of the party. From 1874 till his death he was a member of the German Reichstag, and for many years also of the Saxon diet. He was one of the chief spokesmen of the party, and he took a very important part in directing its policy. In 1881 he was expelled from Leipzig, but took up his residence in a neighbouring village. After the lapse of the Socialist law (1890) he became chief editor of the Vorwärts, and settled in Berlin. If he did not always find it easy in his later years to follow the new developments, he preserved to his death the idealism of his youth, the hatred both of Liberalism and of State Socialism; and though he was to some extent overshadowed by Bebel’s greater oratorical power, he was the chief support of the orthodox Marxian tradition. Liebknecht was the author of numerous pamphlets and books, of which the most important were: Robert Blum und seine Zeit (Nuremberg, 1892); Geschichte der Französischen Revolution (Dresden, 1890); Die Emser Depesche (Nuremberg, 1899) and Robert Owen (Nuremberg, 1892). He died at Charlottenburg on the 6th of August 1900.

See Kurt Eisner, Wilhelm Liebknecht, sein Leben und Wirken (Berlin, 1900).