Harvard Square Observer: Rough Draft

Ernest Cassara

It has been difficult for Ye Olde Observer to settle his mind on a topic for this week’s commentary, for I have been trying to get used to a pair of spectacles that have “progressive” lenses.  I didn’t order them, although My Better Half speculates that I was asked and nodded, not knowing what I was nodding to.  In any case, although it is nice to have “middle vision,” especially in an art gallery, where, with bifocals, one has to walk right up to the little note next to a painting to read what it is, I just don’t get to art galleries all that often.  When one reads as much as I do, the bifocal is the thing to opt for.  SO, back I go, as soon as they can fill the order, for glasses with bifocals.

The other thing that has occupied me this week, is the fact that I am expected to give a reasonably coherent talk at the Ethical Society of Boston on Sunday, the 18th, and I have announced that I will be speaking on “Carl Schurz: From German Revolutionary to American Statesman.”  That is the title of the piece I included in my new edition of Schurz’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, published a couple of years ago.  How does one deal with Schurz’s amazing career and that of Lincoln in the same 27 minutes? Of course, I could talk longer, but the speech will be filmed, to be broadcast on a number of local television stations.  When I spoke to the same group last year, my topic was “Religion and Hate,” and no one had warned me of the time limit.  So, I spoke, I’m told, for 45 minutes.  When, a week later, I was handed a DVD of a broadcast, I believe on a Brookline, Massachusetts, local access channel, I was speaking very eloquently, I thought, when the titles ran up the screen over my handsome, bearded, face and the speech was cut off approximately three-quarters of the way through.  Ah, well!  Now, I have been warned!

Having sparked in you some interest in what I have been writing, I am going to quote some of it.  I hope, unlike the student mentioned early on in the text, you will get to know much more about Carl Schurz than he did.

In early 1906, Carl Schurz was overcome by a recurring bout with bronchitis.  Mark Twain and William D. Howells, his associates in the Anti-Imperial movement, who visited at his home on 91st Street, New York City, were among those who were told that there was no hope for his survival.  Schurz told Dr. Jacobi, whom he addressed, after so many years as “Du,” rather than the formal “Sie,” “Es ist so leicht zu sterben.” (“It is so easy to die.”)

A Roman Catholic priest, who hoped to administer the last rites of the church, was denied entrance, Schurz having been a friend of Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture Society, for many years. 

Early on 14 May 1906, the last of the surviving generals of the Civil War, and the most famous of the German “Forty-Eighters” died.

One of my history students told me that he knew little of Schurz, but that his name kept cropping up in the books he read.  Indeed!  Aside from being the most famous of the German revolutionaries of 1848 and ’49, Schurz was a journalist, anti-slavery orator, campaigner for Lincoln and the new Republican Party, minister to Spain, Civil War general, Senator from Missouri, Secretary of the Interior in the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes, political independent, and reformer - among other things.

In the academic year 1975-76, both my wife and I were awarded Fulbright professorships, I teaching history at the University of Munich, she studying the status of women in the universities of Berlin.  The head of the institute of history at Munich was very considerate, arranging my lectures and seminars early in the week, so that, often, I could travel to Berlin for a long weekend, to be with my wife and our son, who was attending the John F. Kennedy School.  So I became well acquainted with two great German cities.

The papers my wife produced on her study led to her being invited to teach in the spring semester 1982 at the University of Siegen, in Westphalia.  My university granted me a study leave.  I spent a month buried in the 23,000 Schurz papers at the Library of Congress, and, then, joined my wife in Siegen.

I discovered that two trolley rides would bring me from Siegen to Bonn, where Schurz had studied at the university.  With the invaluable help of Fräulein Goethe - who, responding to my startled look assured me that she was no relation - I was able to peruse the newspaper that student Carl Schurz produced with his professor Gottfried Kinkel.  That newspaper promoted democracy and the lot of the laboring class, at the risk to the lives of the editors, for the Rhineland was under the control of Prussia. 

I made many discoveries about Kinkel and Schurz, and, at lunch, I discovered Kölsch, the local beer.  (One of the frustrations caused by the spread of supermarket chains in Germany, is that they contract with the larger breweries, thus driving many of the local beers out of the market!)

By the way, not far distant on the Rhine from Bonn is Liblar, the birthplace of Carl Schurz.  He was able to begin his wonderful autobiography, Reminiscences, with the words, “I was born in a castle.”  He immediately explains that he was not of royal blood!  His grandfather was the manager of the local prince’s estate.  The castle and its grounds are now owned by a business association.  I found the apartment where Schurz, with his school teacher father and mother resided with the grandparents, although, when I requested to see the inside, I was told it would be an imposition on the present inhabitants.

As I have indicated, Schurz had engaged in various military activities - some of which had a comic opera aspect to them, as he looked back at them in his Reminiscences at the beginning of the twentieth century - but what was not funny was his presence in the fortress city of Rastatt in Baden, when it was besieged by the troops of the Prince of Prussia, the future Wilhelm I. On its fall, he could have counted on execution by firing squad, since, as a Rhinelander, he was a Prussian citizen. He narrowly escaped the fate suffered by a number of his fellow warriors, for he remembered having noticed an entrance to a sewer that ran under the city, evacuating outside the walls. Hidden by sympathetic citizens, he and two cohorts bided their time until they could enter the sewer unseen by the occupation troops. This allowed Schurz to escape across the Rhine to Alsace and then on to Switzerland. This dramatic exploit is commemorated by a small park, which I visited in present-day Rastatt.

Professor Kinkel, was captured, however, and imprisoned in the penitentiary at Spandau.
Living among the German emigres in Zrich, he sent back to Joanna Kinkel, who was carrying on with the editing of the newspaper in Bonn, a detailed account of the final days in Rastatt.  He insisted that a truthful account of the disaster, while discouraging, had to be presented to the democrats, who had to confront hard reality.  He hated to concede it, but he thought the people were being driven by their oppressors to the point where they would have to put aside battles of cannon and musket and adopt dagger and rope

Fortunately, Schurz had a close resemblance to a cousin, whose passport he used to return to Germany without being nabbed by the authorities. Joanna Kinkel was able to raise money to be used by Schurz to bribe Kinkel’s jailers at Spandau.

Schurz’s first attempt failed, but, a few days later, one of the bribed jailers arranged for Kinkel to descend by a rope to the ground, where Schurz was waiting.

Schurz’s rescue of Kinkel from prison was to make him famous in the German-speaking world. To protect his accomplices, he remained silent for many years as the most incredibly- embroidered versions of his feat made the rounds. This embroidery created about him an aura that he never lost and was to a great extent responsible for making him the most notable of the Forty-Eighters who migrated to the United States. As keen a judge of character as William Dean Howells, meeting Schurz many years later when he had become an editor of the New York Evening Post, testified that there was something very romantic in his bearing.


Well, I must stop here, or our HSC Webmaster will be very upset at the length of this column.  If you want the rest of the story, you will have to attend the Ethical Society on Sunday, 18 February, at 10:30 A.M.  It meets at the second building of the Longy School of Music, at the corner of Garden and Chauncy Streets, just out of Harvard Square, in Cambridge.

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Harvard Square Commentary, February 12, 2007