Prussian censorship and Karl Marx's brief career as an editor for the Rheinische Zeitung

Marx as Prometheus chained

The first political piece that Karl Marx (age 24) wrote after his dissertation was a polemic against censorship in the spring of 1841. The Zensurinstruktion proclaimed by the Prussian government on 24 December 1841 refined existing rules, in addition to making the current practice more flexible. Marx's article was intended for Arnold Ruge's Deutsche Jahrbücher, scheduled to appear in Dresden in February 1842. Lo and behold, the issue was prohibited by none other than the Saxon censor, marking the start of an extended series of clashes with the censor throughout Marx's career.

In 1841 Marx was having difficulty finding employment. The university he attended was in Berlin, but he had submitted his graduation dissertation Zur Differenz der demokritischen und epikureischen Naturphilosophie in Jena. In Berlin he had specialized in philosophy - a subject that aroused suspicion among the Prussian authorities. Marx disagreed with the prescribed views of philosophers such as Schelling and spent time with young Hegelian adherents, comprising radicals such as Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge, and Ludwig Feuerbach. Since this disposition eliminated his options of getting hired as a teacher, Marx had to write for a living. In 1841 he returned to the Rhineland, the area of his birth.

The Rhineland was a distinctly bourgeois region of Germany with a relatively advanced capitalist economy. Influences from the French revolution were very pronounced there. The area had been urbanized for centuries, and Cologne was an important regional hub. Agriculture was commercialized but small-scale. Trade was substantial, and signs of industrialization were perceptible. At the Vienna Congress of 1815, the Rhineland had been attributed to Prussia. Separated by the Kingdom of Hannover, the Kingdom of Prussia henceforth consisted of two very different parts. In the original, eastern part of Prussia, the society was authoritarian and rather rigid. In many parts the Prussian aristocracy of large landowners wielded complete control over the farmers. The new ruler in Berlin was therefore deeply mistrusted by the people in the Rhineland. Their suspicions proved justified. The promises that the Prussian people would receive political representation went largely unfulfilled. And censorship was thorough. The first newspaper to displease the authorities was soon closed: such was the fate of the Rheinischer Merkur in Koblenz in 1816. Year after year, freedom of the press remained an important issue in the Rhineland. Expectations were high of the new King Frederick William IV, who ascended the throne in 1840. Throughout Prussia, those eager for reform demanded implementation of the innovations of 1810, which had failed to materialize under the previous ruler. This was the ambience that Marx encountered in Cologne. Expectations of change prevailed, and the Rheinische Zeitung für Politik, Handel und Gewerbe became the vehicle for expressing these sentiments. The newspaper had been founded as a mouthpiece for Cologne's progressives, who comprised businessmen and professionals. The businessmen Ludolf Camphausen, Gustav von Mevissen, and Dagobert Oppenheim, brother of the banker Salomon Oppenheim, were among the founders. The newspaper was first issued on 1 January 1842 and accommodated liberal and radical writers alike. Marx's first contribution to the Rheinische Zeitung was a report on the debates in Rhineland's Landtag about freedom of the press, dated 5 May 1842. On 15 October 1842 Marx became the executive editor. The general tone of the content had been determined for some time by Georg Jung, Dagobert Oppenheim, and Marx. Marx did not do so openly, but his involvement was a public secret. Marx wrote letters of protest to the Prussian censor, although these were signed by Joseph Engelbert Renard, the official publisher of the newspaper. Frequent clashes between the Rheinische Zeitung and the censor were inevitable. The expectation of the Prussian government upon issuing a permit for the newspaper in late 1841 that it would be a loyalist counterpart to the conservative but also Catholic Kölner Zeitung proved to be an illusion.

Most readers today are probably unfamiliar with the practice of official censorship. We tend to associate censorship with covert pressure and illegal practices. In the 1840s in Prussia, as in many other European states, this was not the case. Censorship existed. Governments made no secret of it. In Prussia censorship was preventive: texts intended for publication needed to be submitted to the censor for approval. But censorship was controversial. Especially the movements for democracy found the practice offensive. Nor was being a censor a coveted occupation. The Prussian authorities had great difficulty finding the right people for this work. Editors of all newspapers became skilled at 'writing between the lines.' Alternatively, they might write long treatises about seemingly unimportant subjects that readers recognized immediately as references to other topics. Since the Rheinische Zeitung was a morning paper, the copy had to be delivered to the censor in the evening. The editors would wait for the copy marked in red pencil to return and might work on the definitive newspaper into the wee hours. The Rheinische Zeitung wore out four censors over the course of its existence. Police commissioner Laurenz Dolleschall had a strange experience with Marx. Dolleschall had spent the entire evening waiting for the copy. He was impatient, as he planned to attend a ball. At his wits end, he took a coach to Marx's home. In response to his nervous ring at the door Marx opened an upstairs window and blandly reported that the next day's edition of the paper had been cancelled. During Dolleschall's term as a censor, protests from the editors to Regierungs-Präsident von Gerlach, Prussia's governor in the Rhineland, against articles rejected by the censor were regularly honoured. Of course these incidents compromised the prestige of the authorities.

As an editor, Marx had perpetual run-ins with the censor. One such case concerned the publication of pieces about the divorce act on 15 November and 19 December 1842. Another was about the article 'Von der Mosel' describing the economic difficulties of wine growers along the Mosel, also in December 1842. The article met with criticism from the government, to which Marx responded on 15, 17, 18, 19, and 20 January 1843. The straw that broke the camel's back was the article 'Die Rusische Note über die preußische Presse' (text in German) of 4 January 1843. The Russian Czar Nicholas I vented his discontent about this article directly to his counterpart the king of Prussia. At the government meeting of 19 January 1843, with King Frederick William IV present, the decision was taken to prohibit the newspaper as of 1 April 1843. Regierungs-Präsident von Gerlach was held accountable as well. Henceforth, after being reviewed by the censor but prior to publication, the copy was to be presented to von Gerlach as well. This measure was of course a clear manifestation of mistrust regarding the censor and von Gerlach alike. At the time the censor was J. Wiethaus, who turned out to be unsuitable for this office, not for the same reasons as Dolleschall, but because of his views. In the Rheinische Zeitung of 12 January 1843, he allowed the following sentence in an article from the Berlin correspondent: 'Surely, censorship constitutes the greatest immorality.' The minister was deeply aggrieved about this. Following the disclosure of the measures against von Gerlach, Wiethaus resigned on 26 January 1843. The authorities were shocked and incredulous at the aubade Wiethaus received out of gratitude from the citizens of Cologne on 30 January. Worse still, the 28th infantry regiment participated! The last censor of the Rheinische Zeitung was Saint-Paul, appointed directly by the authorities in Berlin. He took his duties so seriously, that he started to question himself, when the paper was left with insufficient copy as a consequence of his intervention. The censorship of the published version had become painfully visible. Carrying on with the publication seemed pointless to Marx. His brief letter of resignation read as follows: 'I affirm that I have resigned from the board of editors of the Rheinische Zeitung because of the current censorship arrangements. Cologne, 17 March 1843. Dr. Marx.' The newspaper continued for barely another two weeks and then ceased publication.

The brief history of the Rheinische Zeitung is full of surprises. It was a sudden manifestation of talent and innovative spirit. Despite the low circulation - the newspaper had only 1,568 postal subscribers in the fourth quarter of 1842 - its influence extended throughout Germany. And across Europe, as we have observed. The episode thrust young Marx into the spotlight, of the democratic opposition and the authorities alike. In practice, censorship proved impossible. The claim by a government that the censor might block unwelcome publications led offended sympathizers to have that promise redeemed. This was possible only by tightening censorship, doubling it, and ultimately even prohibiting publications. While this appears obvious, the only possible conclusion is that an independent press is incompatible with censorship. Still, a lot of water ran under the bridges across the Rhine before this awareness gained general acceptance in Germany. The history of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842/43 is also a history of Cologne. A history that has a global importance, thanks to its connection to the upheaval of 1848 and the European democratic movements and especially thanks to Marx's role. Not only readers in Cologne and Berlin, but also those in Moscow, Beijing, Havana, as well as those in Amsterdam, London, and New York, learned about the problems of the wine growers along the Mosel and about the incompetence of Police Commissioner Dolleschall, despite his claim that he had prevented 140 articles from appearing in the Rheinische Zeitung. Because of this global significance, this history is well documented and widely known. Still, the collapse of Cologne's archive on 3 March 2009 was a major catastrophe. The archive of the Rheinische Zeitung was stored there, as were the papers of Ludolf Camphausen and Gustav Mevissen, to name but three sources. Each successive generation will explore history and needs primary sources to this end. At present, how much of Cologne's archive can be salvaged remains unclear. Complete salvation of this history, like that of all those countless other histories in which Cologne and its residents figured, is desperately needed.

Text by Huub Sanders, 3 April 2009
I am grateful to Götz Langkau for his comments.

Ernst Dronke Papers
Moses Hess Papers
Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Papers
Publizistik im Vormärz Collection
Arnold Ruge Papers
Georg Weerth Papers
Georg Herwegh Papers (microfilm)

Contemporary periodicals:

Rheinischer Merkur Koblenz (Reprint, Berlin, 1928)
Call number: ZF 1284: 1 (1814) - 2 (1816)

Hallische Jahrbücher für deutsche Wissenschaft und Kunst Leipzig. Editors: A. Ruge and Th. Echtermeyer.
REMARKS Continued as: Deutsche Jahrbücher für Wissenschaft und Kunst
Call number: ZK 1067: (1838) - (1841)

Deutsche Jahrbücher für Wissenschaft und Kunst. Leipzig (ZK 1067).
REMARKS Continuation of: Hallische Jahrbücher für deutsche Wissenschaft und Kunst
Call number: ZK 1067: 4 (1841): no.1-156 - (In: Hallische Jahrbücher ...)
Call number: ZK 1020: 5 (1842)
Call number: ZK 1020: 6 (1843): no.1-24 - (Reprint, Glashütten i.T. (1972))

Rheinische Zeitung für Politik, Handel und Gewerbe Köln 1842-1843 no.90 (31/3
Call number: ZF 1321: (1842) - (1843) Reprint, Berlin (1974 With an introduction and a bibliography of the publications of Karl Marx in the Rheinische Zeitung by Inge Taubert et al. Unrevised new edition [originally published in Cologne, 1842-43]. Leipzig: Zentralantiquariat der DDR, 1974)

A small selection from the vast literature

Michael Evans, Marx and the Rheinische Zeitung (Manchester, [1995?])

Wilhem Klutentreter, Die "Rheinische Zeitung" von 1842-43 (Dortmund 1966-1967) 2 Bde
Call number : 223/226 A-B

Götz Langkau und Hans Pelger, Studien zur Rheinischen Zeitung und zu ihrer Forderung nach Handelsfreiheit und Grundrechten im Deutschen Bund: mit einem Brief von Karl Marx an Hermann Müller-Strübing (1843) 401 p. Schriften aus dem Karl-Marx-Haus; 51 (Trier 2003)
Call number: 2004/6997

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Texte aus der Rheinischen Zeitung von 1842/43: mit Friedrich Engels' Artikeln im Anhang. Edited by Hans Pelger with assistance from Elisabeth Krieger-Neu (Trier 1984) XXXVI, 376 p.
Call number: 2003/178 fol

Karl Marx, On freedom of the press and censorship. Transl. with an introd. by Saul K. Padover XL, 208 p. The Karl Marx library 4 (New York etc. cop. 1974)
Call number: 1991/3578

Edmund Silberner, 'Moses Hess als Begründer und Redakteur der Rheinischen Zeitung', Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 4(1964), p. 5-44.
Call number: Stz Per 11/4/1964

Carl-Erich Vollgraf, Jürgen Herres and Michael Krätke, Die Journalisten Marx und Engels das Beispiel Neue Rheinische Zeitung (Berlin and Hamburg 2006)

Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (London 1999) 431 p.
Call number: 2000/4270