The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz/Volume One/08 Refugee in Switzerland

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FROM Selz to Strasburg we wandered on foot. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. For a time we could see from our road the steeples of Rastatt. This distant view of the prison from which we had escaped would have been more joyful had it not reminded us of the unfortunate friends who in this dungeon awaited a sad fate. As we were still wearing uniforms, having no other clothes, we were easily recognized as fugitive revolutionary soldiers, and not seldom the village folk stopped us and wished to know how we had escaped. Then we were invited to rest, and were entertained with wine, refreshments and merry conversation until late in the evening, when we reached Strasburg. There we stopped at the hotel, the "Rebstöckl," the host of which was well known for his warm German sympathies. He gave us a hearty welcome and took especial care of us after he had heard our story. The next day we were obliged to report ourselves to the prefect. This officer informed us that the French government had resolved to send the German refugees into the interior; we could therefore stay neither in Strasburg nor in any other place near the frontier. Neither could he give us passports to Switzerland. But as it was our special desire to go to Switzerland, we resolved to continue our journey secretly without the assent of the authorities.

Meantime the news had come that those of the private soldiers of Baden and the volunteers of the Palatinate, who had done nothing but simply serve in the revolutionary army, were to be sent home without punishment. Only the officers and other noted transgressors were held back. Nothing therefore stood in the way of Adam's return home, and I urged him to avail himself of this opportunity. Adam once more gave expression of his warm attachment to me, of the sincerity of which I certainly had no reason to doubt. But he recognized that my advice was good, and resolved without delay to return to his family in the Palatinate. I divided the money I had with him, and thus we parted with the sincerest emotion and with the promise occasionally to write to one another. Only when Adam was gone it occurred to me that I had never known his family name, so that my efforts to find him out remained unsuccessful. I could not write to him; and thus it happened, that, as he did not write to me, I have never heard from him again since that day of parting.

After having spent some hours in visiting the Strasburg Cathedral, Neustädter and I prepared for departure. We purchased alpaca dusters to conceal our military uniforms, and then took a railway train for Basel, which, however, we left at a way-station shortly before reaching the Swiss frontier. It was near evening. We went into a village near by and found a little tavern, through the open door of which we saw a woman busy at the cooking stove. We entered and asked for something to eat. In her Alsatian idiom, hard for us to understand, she promised us some ham and eggs. While she was preparing our meal a man entered, whom we took to be her husband and the landlord of the inn. As his face inspired confidence, I thought it best to acquaint him frankly with our situation, as well as with our wish to cross the frontier into Switzerland without meeting any official person who might demand a passport. Our host seemed to be highly interested, and showed a surprising familiarity with the bypaths and trails used by the smuggling fraternity on the Swiss frontier. We suspected directly that he was of that fraternity himself. After dark he accompanied us part of the way, and then instructed us how we could avoid contact with all the customs officers and reach the Swiss village of Schönebühl, where we would find, at a certain minutely described spot, a barn which would probably be open, and where we would have a good night's rest on the stored hay. We followed the advice, and about midnight we reached the barn and stretched ourselves out to sleep.

Soon after sunrise we were on our feet again and inquired of some peasants, who seemed to be going to their work, the road to Bern — for I had heard in Strasburg that Anneke and the other friends whom I wished to join were in that city. The road led us first through fertile valleys. The fields teemed with men and women busy gathering their crops. I remember well the emotion experienced on that march. It was a joyful picture I beheld, but again and again the thought arose in me, "How much happier those toilers are than I! When they have done their hard work they return to their homes. They have a home, and I have none." I could not get rid of those somber reflections until we reached the Münsterthal, that magnificent cleft in the Jura Mountains. After a short rest I could not restrain the desire to take a look directly at the high Alps. So we climbed up the Monto, which rises to an elevation of about 4000 feet, and there we beheld for the first time in the distance the marvelous sublimity of the snowy mountain heads. It was a strange, invigorating and inspiring sight.

In a deep valley, on the other side of the Monto, we stopped at a wayside tavern, in which we found an intelligent-looking man, and a boy, who were refreshing themselves with wine and bread and cheese. The man, when we asked for the road and the distances from place to place, informed us kindly that he lived at Bern and was just enjoying a little excursion with his son. Pushing our inquiries further, we learned that he knew several of the German refugees, among others my friends, and that these had indeed spent some time in Bern, but about a week ago had left that city to go to Dornachbruck, near Basel, where he was sure I could now find them. This was disagreeable news to me. In order to join them I had to retrace my steps the way we had come. I resolved at once to do so. But Neustädter, who did not know my friends, and who hoped to find some occupation in Bern, preferred to continue his journey in that direction. Thus we parted in the little tavern, and did not meet again until eighteen years later, in St. Louis, on the Mississippi River, where he occupied a modest but respected position, and where we then pleasantly rehearsed the common adventures of our youthful days.

My arrival at Dornachbruck brought me a new disappointment. In the village inn I learned that Anneke and others of my friends had indeed been there a few days before, but after a short stop had left for Zürich. I would gladly have traveled after them at once had I been sure that those whom I sought had not left Zürich again. My purse, too, was nearly empty, and, moreover, I felt physically very much exhausted. So I concluded it would be best, for the time being, to remain in Dornachbruck. I took a room in the inn, wrote home for some money and the clothes I had left behind, and went to bed. The great excitements and fatigues of the past days began to tell on me. I was thoroughly tired out, and felt myself lonely and forsaken. Sleep refreshed me but little. In very low spirits I wandered about in the village and surrounding country, and spent many an hour in the crumbling tower of a castle ruin, lying in the grass or sitting on moss-covered masonry. My melancholy grew deeper and darker. The future lay like a black cloud before me. I imagined myself at last seriously ill, and then spent the larger part of the day lying on my bed in a drowsy condition. It may have been on my tenth day in Dornachbruck when, one morning, I heard a remarkably loud voice downstairs calling my name. "That must be old Strodtmann," I exclaimed, and jumped from my bed. Indeed it was he, my Schleswig-Holstein friend. He had come from Bonn, to bring me a letter from my parents and dozens of them from my university friends. Also a purse bursting with gold, and whatever else I stood in need of. My escape from Rastatt had created in Bonn a most joyful sensation, which in the letters brought by Strodtmann found lively expression, and of which Strodtmann could not tell me enough. My melancholy was gone at once. Suddenly I felt perfectly well, and after having celebrated our reunion with the best dinner that the inn in Dornachbruck could furnish, we resolved to set out on the next day for Zürich, where Strodtmann promised to remain with me for a while.

Thus we marched forth, student-fashion, frequently stopping by the way, and then resuming our journey with constantly increasing gayety. On the River Aar, in view of the ruins of Hapsburg, not far from the spot where centuries ago the Emperor Albrecht had been killed by his nephew, Johann von Schwaben, we lay down in the grass, lost ourselves in historic contemplations and poetic outbursts, and fell asleep. It was evening when a Swiss policeman woke us. We found good quarters in an inn near by, and the next day secured seats on top of the mail coach for Zürich. When we arrived at Zürich, whom should I see? There, at the halting-place of the mail, stood my friends: Anneke, Techow, Schimmelpfennig and Beust, the very friends that I had been pursuing on my journey hither and thither — there they stood just as if they had expected me. Their surprise was no less than mine. When I jumped down among them, as if I had dropped from the clouds, they hardly trusted their eyes. They had heard nothing of my escape from Rastatt. Neither had they found my name in the newspapers that gave an account of the revolutionary officers imprisoned in the casemates. Nobody had been able to tell them about me. Thus they had come to believe that I had been lost, perhaps in one of the last engagements, perhaps in an attempt to pass the Prussian lines. As they now saw me before them, alive and well, there was no end to their exclamations of astonishment.

Before evening I was lodged in the house of a baker's widow, in the Dorf Enge, a suburb of Zürich. Strodtmann found quarters in a neighboring inn. My other friends lived near by in the house of the schoolmaster. All this was very convenient and comfortable, although extremely simple. While Strodtmann was with me my thoughts moved in the atmosphere of the old conditions and surroundings, and my sojourn in Zürich appeared almost like part of a student's jaunt. But ten days later my dear good friend returned to Bonn, and what now began for me was the life of a refugee in its true reality. I had not become quite conscious of it all when the illness, which had threatened in Dornachbruck and had then been interrupted by the happy meeting with Strodtmann, developed into a violent fever, which kept me in bed two weeks. The village physician, as well as the baker's widow and her daughter, took care of me, and after a time I fully recovered. But when I rose from my bed I found myself in a strange world. It came over me that I had absolutely nothing to do. My first impulse was to look for a regular occupation. But soon I convinced myself that a young man like myself, who might have given lessons in Latin, Greek or music, had little to hope for in a population which, although it had hospitably received a great mass of fugitives, did, after all, not like them much. The other refugees were in the same condition, but many of them looked down upon such endeavors with a certain contempt, so long, at least, as their pecuniary resources were not exhausted. They firmly believed that a new upheaval would occur in the old Fatherland before long. Nobody cultivates the art of deceiving himself with the windiest illusions more cleverly, more systematically and more untiringly than the political refugee. We succeeded easily in finding in newspapers some news that clearly indicated to us the inevitable and fast-approaching outbreak of a new revolution. We were certain that we would soon return triumphantly to Germany, there to be the heroes of the day, the true champions of a victorious cause. Why should we therefore trouble ourselves with cares for the future? It appeared to us much more important and appropriate to discuss and determine the part each should play in the coming action. With the profoundest seriousness we debated the question who should be a member of the provisional government, or minister, or military leader.

We gravely sat in judgment over each other's character, capabilities, and especially fidelity to revolutionary principles, and but few forgot in this respect the positions to which they believed themselves entitled. In short, we disposed of the glorious future as if we had actually held the power over it in our own hands. Such delusions were well apt to develop among us a light-hearted and idle tavern existence, to which many of our companions gave themselves without restraint. I heard some of my refugee friends say, with a sort of lofty condescension, that the Fatherland looked to us as its great helpers and leaders; that we had to devote our lives solely to this exalted duty, and that therefore we should not fritter away our time and our strength in commonplace philistine occupations.

I must admit that in a simple-hearted, naïve way I shared this illusion — I was still only twenty years old — as to the imminence of a new revolutionary uprising. But the tavern had no charm for me whatever, and soon the life of a refugee began to yawn at me like a horrible void. A restless craving for systematic mental activity seized upon me. First I thought of the tasks which, as a young man, I would have to perform in the anticipated new struggles in Germany. With my nearest friends, who had all been officers in the Prussian army, and were excellent teachers, I reviewed and studied the military operations in Baden on a map specially drawn by us for that purpose. Then followed a series of military studies, of tactics and strategy, for which my friends furnished me the necessary material and instruction, and which I carried on with great zeal. Who could have thought that the knowledge thus gathered would be of use to me on a field of operations far away from Germany, and that one of my teachers, Schimmelpfennig, would then be a brigadier in my command!

This work, however, did not altogether satisfy me. My old love for historical studies was as strong as ever, and as I succeeded in gaining access to a good library, in which I found the works of the historian Ranke and many other books of value, I was soon again profoundly immersed in the history of the Reformation.

When winter came my lodgings in the house of the good baker's widow became uncomfortable on account of the cold. Then I took, with a companion in the Palatinate revolution, an old Prussian head forester by the name of Emmermann, two cosy rooms in the house of a merchant on the Schanzengraben. My chum had the typical face of an old forester, weather-beaten, illumined by keen eyes, furrowed with a network of deep wrinkles, and ornamented with a gigantic gray mustache. He was an old bachelor, an amiable, benevolent soul, and we lived together in cheerful peace and friendship. He told me often that his forest-house had been situated in the neighborhood of a place called Tronegg, which had been in the immemorial past the seat of the gloomy hero of the Nibelungen Lied, Hagen von Tronje.

Thus I lived in agreeable domestic conditions and continued diligently my military and historical studies. Although I avoided the tavern as much as possible, I did not keep entirely aloof from intercourse with a larger circle of refugees. We had a political club that met once a week, and in the transactions of which I took an interested part. This club was in correspondence with democratic friends in the Fatherland, informed itself about the state of the public mind and about everything that could be considered symptomatic of the coming new revolution, and endeavored to put in its own work here and there — an activity of which I learned only some time later how utterly illusory it was. From time to time it occurred to me that the revolution might delay its coming much longer than we believed, and I began to make plans for my own future. There was a rumor that the federal government of Switzerland intended to found a great university at Zürich. I thought if the new German revolution kept us waiting all too long, I might establish myself at the university as a "Privat-Docent" of history, and then win for myself by-and-by a regular professorship. For the time being I gladly accepted the proposition of my friend, Dr. Hermann Becker, dubbed the "red Becker" at the university, to write articles for the newspaper edited by him in Cologne, the remuneration for which was sufficient to keep me above water until something better could be found. Thus I believed to perceive some bright spots in the fogs of the future.

My most remarkable acquaintance of those days was Richard Wagner, who, in consequence of his participation in the revolutionary uprising in Dresden, had been obliged to leave Germany, and now lived as one of the refugees in Zürich. He had then already written some of his most important creations, but his greatness was appreciated only by a very small circle of friends. Among the refugees at Zürich he was by no means popular. He passed for an extremely arrogant, domineering character, with whom nobody could long associate, and who treated his wife, the first one — a stately, good-natured, but mentally not highly gifted woman — very neglectfully. If anyone among us had then prophesied his magnificent career he would have found little credence. As an insignificant and reticent young man, of course, I did not come close to him. Although I met him and spoke with him occasionally, he probably never noticed me sufficiently to remember me.

In the course of time I should probably have succeeded in obtaining some position as teacher, if not at the university, at least at some other minor institution, had not my life of quiet study had been interrupted by an event that was destined to turn it into very different channels. The unhappy lot of my friend, Professor Kinkel, was constantly in my mind, all the more as it had taken an unexpected and particularly shocking turn. After having been wounded in the head and taken prisoner by the Prussians, Kinkel was carried first to Karlsruhe, and then after the surrender of Rastatt, to that fortress, where he was to be tried by a court-martial. On the 4th of August Kinkel appeared before that tribunal, which was composed of Prussian officers. Sentences of death were at that time the order of the day. And there is no doubt that, at army headquarters as well as at the seat of the Prussian government, Kinkel's condemnation to death was desired and expected. But Kinkel conducted his defense himself, and even the warriors composing the court-martial, men educated in the strictest allegiance to royal absolutism, could not resist the charm of his wonderful eloquence. Instead of condemning him to death, they sentenced him to confinement for life in a fortress.

Kinkel in Chains.png


[From an imaginative lithograph published at the time. Kinkel, as a matter of fact, was in convict's garb in his cell, never in citizen's clothes and chains.]

To Kinkel's friends, to the admirers of the poet, I may say, to a large majority of the German people, this sentence appeared cruel enough. But the Prussian government at once manifested its dissatisfaction with it, for the reason that it was too mild. A rumor arose that the verdict would be set aside on account of some neglected formalities, and that Kinkel was to be put before a new court-martial. For weeks the poor prisoner, with alternate hope and fear, looked forward to the confirmation or rejection of the sentence, until at last, on the 30th of September, the following public announcement appeared:

"Warning. The late professor and member of a free corps, Johann Gottfried Kinkel of Bonn, having fought among the insurgents in Baden with arms in his hands against Prussian troops, has been sentenced by the court-martial instituted at Rastatt to lose the Prussian cockade and instead of the penalty of death only to confinement for life in a fortress. For examination of the legality of this sentence, it was submitted by me to the royal auditor-general, and by him to his Majesty, the king, for rejection on account of illegality. His majesty has graciously deigned to affirm the sentence, with the qualification that Kinkel shall undergo imprisonment in a civil penitentiary. According to this most high order, I affirm the verdict of the court-martial, to the effect that Kinkel is to be punished on account of treason with the loss of the Prussian cockade and with imprisonment for life, and that in execution of this sentence he shall be taken to a house of penal servitude; all of which is herewith brought to public knowledge.

  "Headquarters, Freiburg, 30 September, 1849.
  "The Commanding General von Hirschfeld."

This monstrous proceeding called forth, even from many of those who did not share Kinkel's political opinions and who disapproved of his acts, expressions of the profoundest indignation. The sentence pronounced by a regular court-martial was called illegal simply because it was not a sentence of death. It was called an "act of grace," that the king, nominally accepting that so-called illegal sentence of the court-martial, changed the confinement in a fortress into imprisonment in a penitentiary. What was confinement in a fortress? It was imprisonment in a fortified place under military surveillance, which permitted the prisoner to retain all the signs of his civil identity, his name, his clothes, his character as a man, and had treatment on the part of his guards not unworthy of that character — a kind of imprisonment in which he could continue his accustomed mental occupations — imprisonment, to be sure, but not disgrace, not degradation to the level of the common felon. And what was confinement in a house of penal servitude? Imprisonment in an institution intended for the ordinary criminal, where the prisoner was on the same level with the thief, the forger, the highwayman; where his head was shorn, his ordinary dress exchanged for the striped jacket, where he lost his name and received in its stead a number, where, in case of a breach of disciplinary rules, he was punished with flogging, where he had to abandon his whole mental life to do menial labor of the lowest kind. And this was called an act of grace! It was not to mitigate a sentence of death, because there was no such sentence, but to change the sentence of confinement in a fortress, such as I have described, into something infinitely more cruel, something loaded with debasement and infamy — a sentence of penal servitude — and this to Kinkel, the art-historian, who had opened the realms of the beautiful to so many a youthful mind; the poet, who had cheered and lifted up so many a German heart; the genial, refined, amiable, warm-hearted gentleman, whom only enthusiasm for liberty and fatherland had made to do what they called his crime! Even if he had, according to the law, deserved punishment after fighting in a lost cause, the sound sense and the human sympathy of many of his opponents revolted at the brutal arbitrariness which, overriding the obvious sense of a court-martial verdict, would not only punish, but degrade him and bury him amid the dregs of the human kind. Even death, which would have left to him his dignity as a man, would have seemed less inhuman than such an "act of grace."

Kinkel was first taken to the prison at Bruchsal in Baden, and soon afterwards to the penitentiary at Naugard in Pomerania. It was evidently intended to remove him as far as possible from the Rhineland, where sympathy for him was warmest. With shorn head, clothed in a gray prison jacket, he spent his days in spinning wool. On Sundays he had to sweep his cell. He was denied, so far as possible, all mental activity. His diet was that of the criminal in the penitentiary. From the day of his arrival in Naugard, October 8, 1849, until April, 1850, he received altogether only one pound of meat. But he moved the heart of the director of the penitentiary, and his treatment assumed gradually a more considerate character, a few small favors being granted to him. He was permitted more frequent correspondence with his wife, his letters being opened and read, however, by the officers; and he was relieved of the task of cleaning his cell. A little gift of sweetmeats, which his family sent at Christmas-time, was delivered to him. But he was still obliged to spin wool; and when our good Strodtmann, at that time a student in Bonn, appealed to the popular heart in Kinkel's behalf, in a poem called the "Spinning Song," the young poet was promptly dismissed from the university.

In the meantime the preparations for the trial of those who had taken part in the attack upon the Siegburg armory in May, 1849, went on in Cologne, and early in the year 1850 there was a rumor that the government intended to transport Kinkel from Naugard to Cologne in the spring, for the purpose of having him also tried for that revolutionary attack.

In February, 1850, I received a letter from Kinkel's wife. In burning colors she described to me the terrible situation of her husband and the distress of the family. But this high-spirited and energetic woman did not speak to me in the tone of that impotent despair which pusillanimously submits to an overpowering fate. The thought that it must be possible to find ways and means for the liberation of her husband gave her no rest day and night. For months she had been corresponding with friends in whose character she had confidence and whose energy she hoped to excite. Some of them had discussed with her plans for the rescue of her husband, and others had put sums of money at her disposal. But, so she wrote, nobody had shown himself ready to undertake the dangerous enterprise himself. What was needed, she said, was a friend who had sufficient tenacity of purpose, and who would devote his whole strength to the work until it should have succeeded. She herself would make the attempt did she not fear that her appearance in the vicinity of her husband's prison would at once excite suspicion and stimulate the watchfulness of his keepers. But it was necessary to act promptly, before the gnawing tortures of prison life should have completely destroyed Kinkel's mental and bodily strength. Then she informed me that Kinkel, according to rumor, would be taken to Cologne for trial on account of the Siegburg affair, and that there might then possibly be a favorable opportunity for his deliverance. She asked now for my advice, as she confided in my friendship as well as in my knowledge of the situation.

The night after the arrival of this letter I slept but little. Between the lines I could read the question whether I would not be the one to undertake the venture. It was this question that kept me awake. The spectacle of Kinkel in his prison jacket at the spinning-wheel was constantly before my eyes, and I could hardly endure the sight. I loved Kinkel dearly. I believed also that with his great gifts, his enthusiasm and his rare eloquence, he might still do great service to the cause of the German people. The desire to restore him if I could to Germany and to his family became irresistible. I resolved that night to try and make the attempt.

The next morning I began to consider the matter in detail. I remember that morning very clearly. Two doubts troubled me much. The one was whether I would be capable of carrying so difficult an undertaking to a happy end. I said to myself that Frau Kinkel, who after all had most to win and most to lose, seemed to believe me capable, and that it was not becoming in me to put my ability in doubt in the face of her confidence. But would those whose coöperation in so dangerous a risk was necessary give their confidence to so young a man as I was? I might perhaps gain it by a bold attitude. I cheered myself with the thought that as a young, insignificant and little known person I might better succeed in remaining unnoticed than would an older and more widely known man, and that therefore I might trust myself with less danger in the jaws of the lion. Finally, would older, more experienced, and more careful men be willing to do and dare all that might be required for the purpose of the task? Perhaps not. In short, this was, all things considered, a piece of work for a young man, and my youth appeared to me at last rather in the light of an advantage than of a hindrance.

My second doubt touched my parents. Could I with regard to them take the responsibility, after having just escaped from a terrible catastrophe, to put my life and freedom again in such jeopardy? Would they approve? One thing was clear: I must not in this case ask my parents for their permission, for I would then have to correspond with them about my project, and such a correspondence, subject to all possible chances of detection, might thwart the whole plan. No; in order to succeed, the undertaking must remain a profound secret, of which only those engaged in it were to have knowledge, and even then, if possible, only in part. To my family I could not confide it, for a conversation among them, accidentally overheard by others, might betray it. Therefore the question as to the approval of my parents I must answer myself, and I answered it quickly. They were among Kinkel's warmest admirers and devoted to him in loyal friendship. They were also good patriots. My mother, I thought, who the year before had given my sword to me with her own hands, would say: "Go and save our friend." And thus all my doubts were overcome.

On the same day I wrote to Frau Kinkel that in my opinion she would probably only aggravate the lot of her husband if she permitted an attempt to liberate him in Cologne on the occasion of the Siegburg trial, because then the authorities would doubtless take the most comprehensive precautions. She should hold her pecuniary means together without thinking of anything to be undertaken soon, and wait patiently and silently until she heard again from her friend. My letter was so worded that she could understand it, while it would not betray my intentions if it fell into wrong hands. As she also was familiar with my handwriting, I signed with a different name and directed the address to a third person whom she had mentioned to me. I conceived at once the plan to get secretly to Bonn for the purpose of talking over with her further steps, instead of risking such communications to paper.

Without delay I began my preparations. I wrote to my cousin, Heribert Jüssen, in Lind, near Cologne, whose outward appearance corresponded in all essential points with mine, asking him to procure from the police a traveling passport in his name and to send it to me. A few days afterwards the passport was in my hands, and now I could like an ordinary unsuspected mortal travel without difficulty wherever I was not personally known. Then I gave the officers of our club to understand that I was ready as an emissary to visit various places in Germany for the purpose of organizing branch clubs and to put them into communication with our committee in Switzerland. This offer was received with great favor, and I obtained, together with minute instructions, a long list of persons in Germany who could be depended upon. Of course of my real plans I did not give the slightest intimation. All was ready for my departure, and as I went on a secret expedition as an emissary, my friends found it quite natural that about the middle of March I should suddenly and entirely unnoticed disappear from Zürich.