The Berlin Agreement Debates

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 6 July 1848

Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 7, p. 189;

First published: in Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 37, July 7, 1848.
Collection(s): Neue Rheinische Zeitung

The agreement debates (Vereinbarungsdebatten) was the name given by Marx and Engels to the debates in the Prussian National Assembly, which met in Berlin in May 1848 to draft a Constitution “by agreement with the Crown” according to the formula proposed by the Hansemann-Camphausen Government. Marx and Engels labelled the Berlin Assembly, which adopted this formula and thereby rejected the principle of popular sovereignty, the “Agreement Assembly” and its deputies “the agreers”.

Cologne, July 6. While ministerial crisis No. 2 continues in Berlin, we would like for the time being, in the words of Deputy Mätze, to return “from these tempests” to the hitherto “calm lake” of the agreement debates. Say what you like, we have spent here more than one hour of genial cheerfulness —

Here, breeding and custom hold sway,
And many a quiet pleasure blooms
Amidst us to this day.
[Heinrich Heine, Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen]

It is the turn of the session of June 30. Right from the beginning it opens with significant and very peculiarly characteristic occurrences.

Who has not heard of the great campaign of the 57 family heads from Berg and Mark who set out to save the fatherland? Who does not know with what defiance of death this cream of conservative philistinism, forsaking wives, children and business, set out to step into the breach to give battle to the revolution in a fight to the death, in a word, to go to Berlin and present to the Ministry a petition against agitators?

These 57 paladins then also presented to the Agreement Assembly an address containing mild, reactionary pious wishes. The address is read. A few gentlemen of the Right wish also to have the signatures read. The secretary begins to read but is interrupted by shouts of “Enough, enough!”

Deputy Berg:

“The document which has just been read must be either a motion or a petition. If it is a motion I would like to know which member has adopted it. If it is a petition, let it be sent to the appropriate committee so that we may no longer be bored with it.

This laconic answer of Herr Berg disposes of the matter. The President [Wilhelm Grabow] stammers a few apologies and puts aside the address of the 57 family heads.

Thereupon rises an old friend of ours and of the Left, Deputy Schultz from Wanzleben:

“The day before yesterday I withdrew my motions concerning civil marriage etc. with the explanation that my proposed Bills are to be drafted differently by me. I find in the stenographic reports that my remarks are followed by the comment: ‘Laughter.’ It may he that somebody or other has laughed at my remarks, but if so, he certainly did it without reason” (Renewed laughter.)

Deputy Schultz from Wanzleben explains now with the most ingenuous good nature that he only wanted to do his best, that he would be happy to be taught better, that he had been convinced of the imperfections of his Bills, that he could, however, hardly move amendments to his own proposals and that he therefore considered it his duty not to “submit” his motion to the Assembly in its original form but to withdraw it for the time being.

“I cannot find anything laughable in this and I must protest if by the word ‘laughter’ my judicious procedure is presented as laughable.”

Deputy Schultz from Wanzleben fares like the Knight Tannhäuser:

Whenever I think about this laughter,
My eyes shed sudden tears.
[Heinrich Heine, Der Tannhäuser]

Deputy Brill remarks that the otherwise excellent stenographic reports lack the statement by Minister Hansemann that the programme of the present Ministry is a continuation of the speech from the throne. He remembered this particularly well because being a printer it had reminded him of the phrase “to be continued”, which he used to print so often.

This frivolous treatment of the most serious subjects enrages Deputy Ritz exceedingly. He rushes to the rostrum and states:

“Gentlemen, I believe that the dignity of this Assembly demands that in our speeches we refrain from relating parables and comparisons which are out of place here. They are also unparliamentary. (Considerable agitation.) I do not consider our great hilarity during the previous session as commensurate with the dignity of the. Assembly ... in the interest of this Assembly’s dignity I would recommend a certain sobriety.

“In the interest” of the “sobriety” recommended by Deputy Ritz we would recommend that “in the interest of the Assembly’s dignity” Deputy Ritz should speak as little as possible because his words are always followed by “great hilarity”.

It became revealed at once, however, how much the wellmeaning intentions of such worthies as Herr Schultz from Wanzleben and Herr Ritz are inevitably misunderstood in this wicked world. For President Grabow appointed the scrutineers and among them were to be found none others than Herr Schultz from Wanzieben for the Left Centre (laughter) and Herr Brill for the Right Centre (hilarity). Concerning Herr Brill, our readers should know that this deputy who belongs to the extreme Left has seated himself in the Right Centre smack into the midst of the Upper Silesian and Pomeranian peasants where, by his popular oratorical talents, he has defeated quite a number of the reactionary party’s insinuations.

Then follows the question of Herr Behnsch concerning the Russian Note which is supposed to have caused the withdrawal of Wrangel from Jutland. Auerswald denies the existence of this Note despite the Morning Chronicle and the Russian Bee. We believe that Herr Auerswald is right. We do not believe that Russia has sent an official “Note” to Berlin. But neither we nor Herr Auerswald can know what Nicholas sent to Potsdam.

Herr Behnsch also puts a question on the Note of Major Wildenbruch addressed to the Danish Government[1] according to which the Danish war was merely a feigned war and a dalliance designed to work off “superabundant patriotism”. [Heine, Bei des Nachtwichters Ankunft zu Paris]

Herr Auerswald finds some reason for not answering this question.

After a boring and confused discussion about the committee of experts there occurs finally a truly interesting parliamentary scene, a scene during which a certain amount of indignation and passion victoriously rises above the stereotyped drumming of the Right. We owe this scene to Deputy Gladbach. The Minister of War had promised today to answer his question on the disarming and arrest of the returned volunteers.

As soon as the President indicates that this subject is reached, Lieutenant-Colonel Griesheim, who is an old acquaintance of ours, rises and begins to speak. This bureaucratic-soldierly importunity is, however, rejected at once by a vigorous interruption.

The President states that under Paragraph 28 of standing orders assistants to Ministers may only speak with the permission of the Assembly.

Griesheim: I am here as representative of the Minister of War.

President: I have not been so informed.

Griesheim: Well, if the gentlemen do not want to listen to what I have to say.... (Aha! Agitation.)

“The gentlemen!” For Herr Griesheim “the gentlemen” surely ought to be the “High Assembly"! The President should have called Herr Griesheim to order because of his repeated disregard for all propriety.

The Assembly wants to listen to Herr Griesheim. First, however, Herr Gladbach is given the floor to amplify his question. He explains first of all that he has put the question to the Minister of War and he demands that he be present and under standing orders the Assembly has the right to demand this. The President, however, sets this aside and Mr. Gladbach, bearing in mind the urgency of the matter, goes into the substance of his question. He relates that the volunteers, after they had left their corps and returned home because of the application of military despotism, had been branded in Spandau as vagabonds “by the execrable police system that had crept out of its hiding places overnight”. He relates that in Spandau they had been disarmed, detained and sent home under police orders. Herr Gladbach is the first deputy who has succeeded in relating such an ignominious deed with entirely appropriate indignation.

Herr Griesheim declares that this measure was taken upon the request of police headquarters in Berlin.

Herr Gladbach now reads the honourable discharge of one of the volunteers signed by Prince Friedrich of Schleswig-Holstein and contrasts it to the police pass, quite vagabond-like in tone, which was issued to the same volunteer “upon ministerial decision” in Spandau. He points to the arrest, forced labour and cash fines threatened in the police pass, gives the lie to Herr Griesheim’s assertion that this measure originated with the Chief of Police by citing an official document, and asks whether perhaps there existed a special Russian Ministry in Spandau.

For the first time the Ministry was caught out in a direct lie. The entire Assembly becomes extremely excited.

The Minister of the Interior, Herr Kühlwetter, finally has to get up perforce and stammer a few apologies. All that had happened had been the disarming of 18 armed men-merely an illegal act! One could not tolerate armed bands moving through the countryside without permission-22 volunteers who are returning home! (Without permission!)

The initial words of the Minister are received with unambiguous signs of displeasure. Even the Right is still too much under the depressing influence of the facts not to keep at least quiet. But they soon pull themselves together as they perceive how their unfortunate Minister painfully manoeuvres under the laughter and the grumbling of the Left, and greet his lame excuses with loud cheers; part of the Centre joins in and Herr Kühlwetter finally gathers enough courage to say: Not 1, but my predecessor has ordered this measure, but I herewith declare that I fully approve it and should the case arise I would do the same.

The Right and the Centre reward the courage of their heroic Kühlwetter with a thundering cheer.

Gladbach, however, does not let himself be intimidated. He mounts the rostrum amidst the noise and clamour of the conservatives and asks once more: How is it possible that Herr Schreckenstein, who was the Minister already before the Spandau incident, did not know anything about it? How is it possible that four volunteers with good testimonials can endanger the security of the state? (Interruption-the gentlemen of the Centre raise points of order.) The question is not settled. How can one forcibly send these people home like vagabonds? (Interruption and noise.) I still have not received an answer to my question about the police pass. These people have been maltreated. Why does one tolerate a pack of Sunday-school heroes who to the disgrace of the capital (loud noise) have arrived armed from Wuppertal? (Noise. Cheers.)

Kühlwetter finally comes clean: this action had been taken under the pretext of a doubtful proof of identity! Thus an honourable discharge signed by the General Staff of Schleswig-Holstein is for the police bureaucrats of Herr Kühlwetter proof of identity which is open to doubt"? What a strange bureaucracy!

Several more deputies speak against the Ministers until the President finally drops the matter and Deputy Mätze leads the Assembly from the tempests of this debate to the calm seas of the life of a schoolteacher where we leave them, wishing them the most beautiful idyllic joys.

We are pleased that a deputy of the Left has at long last succeeded by a well-reasoned question and resolute demeanour in forcing the Ministers to run the gauntlet and in causing a scene which recalls French and English parliamentary debates.

  1. On April 8, 1848, during a secret mission on behalf of the King of Prussia Major Wildenbruch handed a Note to the Danish Government. It stated that Prussia was not fighting in Schleswig-Holstein in order to rob Denmark of the duchy but merely in order to combat “radical and republican elements in Germany”, The Prussian Government tried every possible means to avoid official recognition of this compromising document