Marx as Christian

The pale, yellow light of the waning day streamed through the dusty window panes of the little cigar shop, and across the bench where old Hans Fritzsche worked and hummed the melody of Der Freiheit the while.

The Young Comrade who sat in the corner upon a three-legged stool seemed not to hear the humming. His eyes were fixed upon a large photograph of a man which hung in a massive oak frame above the bench where Old Hans rolled cigars into shape. The photograph was old and faded, and the written inscription beneath it was scarcely legible. The gaze of the Young Comrade was wistful and reverent.

“Tell me about him, Hans,” he said at last.

Old Hans stopped humming and looked at the Young Comrade. Then his eyes wandered to the portrait and rested upon it in a gaze that was likewise full of tender reverence.

Neither spoke again for several seconds and only the monotonous ticking of the clock upon the wall broke the oppressive silence.

“Ach! he was a wonderful man, my comrade,” said Old Hans at length.

“Yes, yes, he was a wonderful man—one of the most wonderful men that ever lived,” responded the Young Comrade in a voice that was vibrant with religious enthusiasm.

Both were silent again for a moment and then the Young Comrade continued: “Yes, Marx was a wonderful man, Hans. And you knew him—saw him smile—heard him speak—clasped his hand—called him comrade and friend!”

“Aye, many times, many times,” answered Old Hans, nodding. “Hundreds of times did we smoke and drink together—me and him.”

“Ah, that was a glorious privilege, Hans,” said the Young Comrade fervently. “To hear him speak and touch his hand—the hand that wrote such great truths for the poor working people—I would have gladly died, Hans. Why, even when I touch your hand now, and think that it held his hand so often, I feel big—strong—inspired.”

“Ach, but my poor old hand is nothing,” answered Old Hans with a deprecating smile. “Touching the hand of such a man matters nothing at all, for genius is not contagious like the smallpox,” he added.

“But tell me about him, Hans,” pleaded the Young Comrade again. “Tell me how he looked and spoke—tell me everything.”

“Marx is back.” Well, sort of. Neukölln, March 2015.

“Well, you see, we played together as boys in the Old Country, in Treves. Many a time did we fight then! Once he punched my eye and made it swell up so that I could hardly see at all, but I punched his nose and made it bleed like—well, like a pig.”

“What! you made him bleed?”

“Ach! that was not much; all boys fight so.”


“My father was a shoemaker, you see, and we lived not far away from where Karl’s people lived. Many a time my father sent me to their house—on the Bruckergrasse—with mended shoes. Then I would see Karl, who was just as big as I was, but not so old by a year. ]Such a fine boy! Curly-headed he was, and fat—like a little barrel almost.

“So, when I took the shoes sometimes I would stop and play with him a bit—play with Karl and the girls. He was always playing with girls—with his sister, Sophie, and little Jenny von Westphalen.

“Sometimes I liked it not so—playing with girls. They were older than we boys and wanted everything to go their way, and I liked not that girls should boss boys. So once I teased him about it—told him that he was a baby to play with girls. Then it was that we fought and he gave me a black eye and I gave him a bloody nose in return.

“Sometimes the Old Man, Karl’s father, would come into my father’s shop and stay a long while chatting. He was a lawyer and father only a shoemaker; he was quite rich, while father was poor, terribly poor. But it made no difference to Herr Marx. He would chat with father by the hour.

“You see, he was born a Jew, but—before Karl was born—he turned Christian. Father had done the same thing, years before I was born. Why he did it father would never tell me, but once I heard him and Heinrich Marx—that was the name of Karl’s father—talking about it, so I got a pretty good idea of the reason.

“‘Of course, I am not a believer in the Christian doctrines, friend Wilhelm.’ he said to my father. ‘I don’t believe that Jesus was God, nor that he was a Messiah from God. But I do believe in a God—in one God and no more.

Jewish, Georgian, and Chinese doubles etc. Kreuzberg, March.

“‘And I’m not so dishonorable as to have become a Christian, and to have had my children baptized as Christians, simply to help me in my profession,’ he said. ‘Some of our Hebrew friends have said that, but it is not true at all. As I see it, friend Wilhelm, Judaism is too narrow, too conservative. Christianity makes for breadth, for culture, for freedom. And it is keeping to ourselves, a people set apart, which makes us Jews hated and despised, strangers in the land. To become one with all our fellow citizens, to break down the walls of separation, is what we need to aim at. That is why I forsook Judaism, Wilhelm.’

“From the way that father nodded his head and smiled I could tell, though he said little, that he was the same sort of a Christian.”

“But it was about him, the son, that you were speaking, Hans.”

“Ach, be patient. Time is more plentiful than money, boy,” responded Hans, somewhat testily.

“Well, of course, we went to the same school, and though Karl was younger than me we were in the same class. Such a bright, clever fellow he was! Always through with his lessons before any of the rest of us, he was, and always at the top of the class. And the stories he could tell, lad! Never did I hear such stories. In the playground before school opened we used to get around him and make him tell stories till our hair stood on end.”

“And was his temper cheerful and good—was he well liked?” asked the Young Comrade.

“Liked? He was the favorite of the whole school, teachers and all, my boy. Never was he bad tempered or mean. Nobody ever knew Karl to do a bad thing. But he was full of mischief and good-hearted fun. He loved to play tricks upon other boys, and sometimes upon the teachers, too.

“He could write the funniest verses about people you ever heard in your life, and sometimes all the boys and girls in the school would be shouting his rhymes as they went through the streets. If another boy did anything to him, Karl would write some verses that made the fellow look like a fool, and we would all recite them just to see the poor fellow get mad. Such fun we had then. But, I tell you, we were awfully afraid of Karl’s pin-pricking verses!

“Once, I remember well, we had a bad-tempered old teacher. He was a crabbed old fellow, and all the boys got to hate him. Always using the rod, he was. Karl said to me one day as we were going home from school: ‘The crooked old sinner! I’ll make him wince with some verses before long, Hans,’ [16]and then we both laughed till we were sore.”

“And did he write the verses?” asked the Young Comrade.

“Write them? I should say he did! You didn’t know Karl, or you would never ask such a question as that. Next morning, when we got in school, Karl handed around a few copies of his poem about old Herr von Holst, and pretty soon we were all tittering. The whole room was in a commotion.

The Christian Marx. Berlin, February 2014.
The Christian version. Berlin, February 2014.

“Of course, the teacher soon found out what was wrong and Karl was called outside and asked to explain about them. ‘I’m a poet, Herr teacher,’ he said, ‘and have a poet’s license. You must not ask a poet to explain.’ Of course, we all laughed at that, and the poor Herr von Holst was like a great mad bull.”

“And was he disciplined?”

“To be sure he was! His father was very angry, too. But what did we care about that? We sang the verses on the streets, and wrote them on the walls or anywhere else that we could. We made it so hot for the poor teacher that he had to give up and leave the town. I wish I could remember the verses, but I never was any good for remembering poetry, and it was a long, long time ago—more than three score years ago now.

“We thought it was funny that Karl never gave over playing with the girls—his sister and Jenny von Westphalen. When we were all big boys and ashamed to be seen playing with girls, he would play with them just the same, and sometimes when we asked him to play with us he would say, ‘No, boys, I’m going to play with Jenny and Sophie this afternoon.’ We’d be mad enough at this, for he was a good fellow to have in a game, and sometimes we would try to tease him out of it. But he could call names better than we could, and then we were all afraid of his terrible verses. So we let him alone lest he make us look silly with his poetry.

“Well, I left school long before Karl did. My father was poor, you see, and there were nine of us children to feed and clothe, so I had to go to work. But I always used to be hearing of Karl’s cleverness. People would talk about him in father’s shop and say, ‘That boy Marx will be a Minister of State some day.’

“By and by we heard that he had gone to Bonn, to the University, and everybody thought that he would soon become a great man. Father was puzzled when Heinrich Marx came in one day and talked very sadly about Karl. He said that Karl had wasted all his time at Bonn and learned nothing, only getting into a bad scrape and spending a lot of money. Father tried to cheer him up, but he was not to be comforted. ‘My Karl—the child in whom all my hopes were centered—the brightest boy in Treves—is a failure,’ he said over and over again.

“Soon after that Karl came home and I saw him nearly every day upon the streets. He was most always with Jenny von Westphalen, and people smiled and nodded their heads when the two passed down the street. My! What a handsome couple they made! Jenny was the beauty of the town, and all the young men were crazy about her. They wrote poems about her and called her all the names of the goddesses, but she had no use for any of the fellows except Karl. And he was as handsome a fellow as ever laughed into a girl’s eyes. He was tall and straight as a line, and had the most wonderful eyes I ever saw in my life. They seemed to dance whenever he smiled, but sometimes they flashed fire—when he was vexed, I mean. But I suppose that what the girls liked best was his great mass of coal black curls.

“The girls raved about Karl, and he could have had them all at his feet if he would. I know, for I had two sisters older than myself, and I heard how they and their friends used to talk about him. But Karl had no eyes for any girl but Jenny, except it was his sister.

“Folks all said that Karl and Jenny would marry. Rachel—that’s my oldest sister—said so one night at the supper table, but our good mother laughed at her. ‘No, Rachel, they’ll never marry,’ she said. ‘Jenny might be willing enough, but the old Baron will never let [21]her do it. Karl’s father is rich alongside of poor people like us, but poor enough compared with Jenny’s father. Karl is no match for the beautiful Jenny.’

“Then father spoke up. ‘You forget, mother, that Heinrich Marx is the best friend that old Baron von Westphalen has, and that the Baron is as fond of Karl as of Jenny. And anyway he loves Jenny so much that he’d be sure to let her marry whoever she loved, even if the man had not a thaler to his name.’

“Soon Karl went away again to the University at Berlin, not back to Bonn. Thought he’d get on better at Berlin, I suppose. He might have been gone a year or more when his father came into father’s little shop one day while I was there. He said that Karl wasn’t doing as well at Berlin as he had expected. He tried to laugh it off, saying that the boy was in love and would probably [22]settle down to work soon and come out all right, upon top as usual.

“It was then that we learned for the first time that Karl and Jenny were betrothed, and that the old Baron had given his blessing to his daughter and her lover. Very soon all the gossips of the town were talking about it. Some said that there had been quite a romance about it; that the young folks had been secretly engaged for nearly a year, being afraid that the Baron would object. ‘Twas even said that Karl had been made ill by the strain of keeping the secret. Then, when at last Karl wrote to old Westphalen about it, and asked for Jenny in a manly fashion, the old fellow laughed and said that he had always hoped it would turn out that way. So the silly young couple had suffered a lot of pain which they could have avoided.

“Of course, lots of folks said that it wasn’t a ‘good match,’ that Jenny von Westphalen could have married somebody a lot richer than Karl; but they all had to admit that she couldn’t get a handsomer or cleverer man than Karl in all the Rhine Province.

“But things seemed to be going badly enough with Karl at the University. Herr Heinrich Marx cried in our little shop one evening when my father asked him how Karl was doing. He said that, instead of studying hard to be a Doctor of Laws, as he ought to do, Karl was wasting his time. ‘He writes such foolish letters that I am ashamed of him,’ said the old man. ‘Wastes his time writing silly verses and romances and then destroying most of them; talks about becoming a second Goethe, and says he will write the great Prussian drama that will revive dramatic art. He spends more money than the sons of the very rich, and I fear that he has got into bad company and formed evil habits.’

“Then father spoke up. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘I’ll wager that Karl is all right, and that he will do credit to the old town yet. Some of our greatest men have failed to pass their examinations in the universities you know, Herr Marx, while some of the most brilliant students have done nothing worthy of note after leaving the universities crowned with laurels. There is nothing bad about Karl, of that you may be sure.’

“The old man could hardly speak. He took father’s hand and shook it heartily: ‘May it be so, friend Wilhelm, may it be so,’ he said. I never saw the old man again, for soon after that he died.

“Karl came home that Easter, looking pale and worn and thin. I was shocked when he came to see me, so grave and sad was he. We went over to the old Roman ruins, and he talked about his plans. He had given up all hopes of being a great poet then and wanted to get a Doctor’s degree and become a Professor at the University. I reminded him of the verses he wrote about some of the boys at school, and about the old teacher, Herr von Holst, and we laughed like two careless boys. He stood upon a little mound and recited the verses all over as though they had been written only the week before. Ach, he looked grand that night in the beautiful moonlight!

“Then came his father’s death, and I did not see him again, except as the funeral passed by. He went back to Berlin to the University, and I went soon after that away from home for my wanderjahre, and for a long time heard nothing about Karl.


From The Marx He Knew (1909), by John Spargo. Published under a Creative Commons license, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Photographs by Joel Schalit.

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