This Day in Jewish History

1864: Germany's First Social Democrat Is Killed Over a Woman

Ferdinand Lasalle's strain of socialism failed to win over Marx and his love failed to win over a woman's father.

Ferdinand Lassalle died in a duel, aged just 39.
German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

On August 31, 1864, Ferdinand Lassalle died of the gunshot wounds he had sustained two days earlier in a duel over a woman. Thus ended the short (he was all of 39) and contradictory life of the man who was one of the fathers of the German social democratic movement, a colleague of Marx’s and friend of Bismarck’s, a socialist who believed in democracy and change from within, and a vain, foppish, self-promoting figure who was sustained economically by a wealthy countess.

Ferdinand Lassalle was born on April 11, 1825, in Breslau, Prussia, today Wroclaw, Poland. His father, Heyman (Haim) Leysal was a onetime rabbinical student who had become a silk merchant and city councillor, as well as an enthusiastic supporter of Reform Judaism. His mother was the former Rosalie Heitzfeld Oppenheim.

Even as an adolescent, Ferdinand had a sense of his own charisma, and deliberated with himself as to how best to use his talents, confessing to his diary that, “There are two extremes at war within me. ... Shall I aim at cleverness or at virtue? Shall I take the line of least resistance, ingratiate myself with the eminent, win position and importance through subtle intrigues?”

Answering his own question in the negative, he declared his intention not to “become a smirking cowardly courtier,” but rather to “proclaim freedom to the peoples”

Promoting armed rebellion

At his father's insistence, Ferdinand attended a trade school in Leipzig before transferring to the University of Breslau and then again to the University of Berlin, to study philosophy and philology. By the end of his university studies, in 1845, Lassalle had already developed a belief in a socialism that would be democratic and based on the rule of law.

After a period in Paris in the mid-1840s, Lassalle returned to Prussia, where he became friendly with the Countess Sophie von Hatzfeldt, who was in the process of trying to get an equitable divorce from her husband. Lassalle, wanting to help, challenged the husband to a duel on the countess’ behalf. When the husband dismissed the invitation, the younger man proceeded to bring a number of lawsuits in Sophie’s name.

Eight years later, the husband finally settled with his wife, and Countess Sophie rewarded Lassalle for his efforts with a monthly stipend. Though their relationship was the source of much gossip, it apparently was more like that of mother and son than anything else.

His allowance permitted Lassalle to devote himself to political and ideological work, to which he was drawn in 1848, the year of revolutionary uprisings in Germany and Europe in general. He publicly urged an armed insurrection, for which he was put on trial. Although convicted of a lesser charge, he was banned from living in Berlin, permitted to return from the Rhineland only a decade later, after promising to refrain from politics.

Marx was ungrateful

International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam

In the late 1840s and the 1850s that Lassalle began corresponding with Karl Marx, in London. He loaned Marx money and helped publish his writings, but the two ultimately had contradictory views of socialism, and Marx apparently loathed him personally. In letters to his colleague Friedrich Engels, Marx suggested that Lassalle’s dark skin and curly hair were evidence that "he is descendant from the negroes who joined in the flight of Moses from Egypt (unless his mother or grandmother on the father's side was crossed with a nigger)."

In the 1860s, as Prussia’s political instability worsened, Lassalle resumed his revolutionary activity. In May 1863, he founded the General German Workers’ Association, which formed the basis for the country’s Social Democratic party. He led the organization until his death, with its principal goal being to attain, through peaceful means, universal and equal suffrage for all.

In the summer of 1864, Lassalle met and became engaged to Helene von Doenniges, the daughter of a Bavarian diplomat who disapproved of the match. After Helene was locked in her room, she apparently renounced her engagement to Lassalle and agreed to marry a Wallachian count.

Lassalle challenged this count to a duel too, but this time his offer was accepted. When the contest took place, on August 28, Lassalle took a bullet, and he died on August 31.