Carl Schurz, Reminiscences


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1948


That the “Reminiscences” of Carl Schurz are published by Manesse in 1948, i.e. on the 100-year anniversary of the German revolutions of 1848/49, is almost certainly not a coincidence. After all, Carl Schurz is usually remembered as being two things: German revolutionary and American statesman. The two volumes of his memoirs correspond to these two stages of his life, documenting his early years in Germany in volume one and his later years in America in volume two.


Schurz is born in the Rhineland in 1829, to which he owes, like he says, his “buoyant Rhenish blood” and his “sanguine” nature. He leads a turbulent life, but he is also born into turbulent times. As a young man he takes up his academic studies at the University of Bonn, where he meets his later friend, mentor, and co-revolutionary Gottfried Kinkel, who teaches German literature at the university. Schurz joins the democratic movement and actively takes part in the uprisings of the German revolutions of 1848/49. Together the revolutionaries, following the French example, fight for a free and equal society, for the fundamental rights of free speech, free press, the right of assembly, or the right to protest. In 1849 he barely escapes arrest and spends, after freeing his friend Kinkel in a cloak-and-dagger operation from the prison in Spandau, several years in Switzerland, England, and France before emigrating to the States with his wife Margarethe in 1852.


If you are no fan of language that is all too flowery or contrived, but prefer plain language “without any complication or ornament”, you will like Schurz’ sober prose. Even as an adult he keeps to the advice given to him by his high school teacher that “clearness and directness of expression are the fundamental requisites of a good style”. And yet Schurz’ interest is not primarily in language as style but as a container of contents. If a writer chooses imprecise, abstract, or vague expressions to describe a real experience, that experience of the world will remain equally abstract and vague for the reader. If, however, the author does his best to describe his experiences as clearly and precisely as possible, he also simultaneously “exercise[s] the faculty of correct observation”.


With this in mind, Schurz writes volume two of his political memoirs in English; after all, things experienced in English should best be rendered in English too. And Schurz does experience an awful lot in this volume, which was translated into German by his daughter. The former revolutionary becomes a journalist, an lawyer, a member of the Republican Party, a supporter of Lincoln’s presidential campaign, and an abolitionist. As a general he fights in the Civil War and the famous Battle of Gettysburg. As American ambassador he travels to Spain and to Berlin, where he meets Bismarck. Later he becomes Senator of Missouri and Secretary of the Interior under President Hayes, the peak of his political career. Strangely, Schurz is much better known in America than he is in Germany – perhaps because his political career takes place on American soil. It’s time to restore this great statesman, who, as Uwe Timm said so well, fought for democratic values with words and weapons all of his life, to his rightful place in German cultural memory.


by Teresa Teklić

Signet Sunflower Foundation