1001 Ways to Die – (5) Ferdinand Lassalle, German Politician and Publicist

Lassalle's Tomb in Wroclaw, Poland

The German politician and publicist Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64) died after a duel in Switzerland at the age of 40.

Sturm und Drang marked the life of Ferdinand Lassalle. Born in 1825 in Breslau, Eastern Prussia (today’s Wroclaw in Poland) as Ferdinand Lasal, he changed his name to one that sounded less Jewish and more like a revolutionary French name. As lawyer for Countess Sophie von Hatzfeldt in her divorce, he became famous and received a tidy sum, which he dedicated to the revolution and the workers’ movement.  (Source: IISH)

The General German workers’ Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein, ADAV) was established by Lassalle in 1863. The only stated purpose of this organization was the winning of equal, universal, and direct suffrage through peaceful and legal means. As a result of the “disagreements between MArx and Lassalle, a lot of German Marxists did not join the first labour party in the history of Germany.  

The German Social Democratic Party, SPD, ws established in 1875, absorbing ADAV.  

But Lassalle was not an “ordinary” socialist. He became friends with Bismarck. As Geoffrey Wawro notes in his review of Steiberg’s Bismarck biography on WSJ:

“Mr. Steinberg notes that Bismarck’s tactical use of democracy drew much from his controversial friendship, in the early 1860s, with the dashing socialist Ferdinand Lassalle. None of Bismarck’s conservative contemporaries could make sense of this relationship, but Bismarck learned from Lassalle clever ways to ­discredit liberalism and what the ­Germans called Manchestertum—the mania for British-style capitalism ­wedded to parliamentary government.

Lassalle loathed liberalism on the grounds that it merely replaced the landed aristocracy with a new elite of merchants and professionals; it would lead, he believed, “to a deep immorality and to exploitation” of the poor by the rich. Bismarck would later employ that novel line of attack to justify the paternal Polizeiwirtschaft (police state) that he wielded against German socialists and Catholics after unification. With one hand, he doled out old-age pensions and accident insurance, while removing representative government with the other.”

Ferdinand Lassalle


According to Golo Mann (The History of Germany since 1789) when Bismarck had to address the Reichstag years later, he made what was almost a declaration of love for LAssalle as a human being:

“He had something which geatly attracted me as a private person; he was one of the most intelligent and charming people with whom I have come in contact, a man who was ambitious in a big way. Lassalle was an energetic and highly intelligent person and to talk to him was very instructive; our discussions lasted for hours and I was always sorry when htey were over. I regret that our political positions did not allow more extended dialogue. I would have been glad to have a man of such talents and intellect as my neighbour in the country….”

But Lassalle was not just a politician. He was a man of many talents. In 1845, having graduated from University, he started wrting a book on Heraclitus. The author’s efforts were intrrupted by other events and the book was eventually published in 1858 with the title ” The philosophy of Heraclitus the Dark Philosopher of Ephesus”. In this essay Lassalle portrayed Heraclitus as a young Hegelian, or a precursor of Hegel.

The reason that led him to the fateful and fatal duel was is love for a woman, Helene von Donniges, the daughter of a Bavarian diplomat. Herr von Donniges was dead against the marriage between his daughter and the socialist Leader. Helene finally sucumbed to the huge pressures exerted by her family and renounced Lassalle, becoming engaged to the Wallachian Count von Racovitza. Lassalle who did not take this lightly challenged both Helene’s father and fiancee to a duel. The fiancee accepted and on the morning of 28 August 1864  Lassalle was mortally wounded. He died on August 31.

Wilhelm von Donniges

Helene married the Wallachian Count Von Racovitza and, subsequently, the actor Siegwart Friedmann, a leader in German theater. After Friedmann’s death, Helene married again, this time the Russian Baron von Schewitsch. After the Baron died in Munich in 1911, Helene became very distressed and committed suicide taking chloral hydrate in November of the same year.

Helene von Donniges

In a dramatic and romantic posture worthy of Sarah Bernhardt, Helene (Von Racovitza) poses at the Mora studio.

Paris - Musée d'Orsay: Jean Baptiste Carpeaux's La Danse (model)

Note: This allegorical vision of a genie of the dance, surrounded by Dionysiac creatures, was designed in 1865for the Paris Opera House. Puritans, who exist even in France, thought that the sculpture was obscene and erotic. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux had given the genie a female face (that of Princess Helene de Racowitza) and a male nude body (the model was a carpenter, Sebastien Visat). (Source: flickr)

Lassalle's Death Mask


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