Little Germany: Exile and Asylum in Victorian England 
by Rosemary Ashton.
Oxford, 304 pp., £17.50, July 1986, 0 19 212239 8
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The Reading Room of the British Museum is now completed, and if London had nothing but this hall of the blessed, scholars would make it well worth their while to make a pilgrimage here. All the sorrows of the outside would disappear in the mighty rotunda, and it is so quiet in this region of the eternal spirits that one can follow a thought into one’s inmost recesses ... Never has wisdom been made so comfortable for the student. Each one has a place, with a desk and accessories, and he needs only to signal for the folios to come floating down from every region.

No, not Karl Marx, who was never grateful to anyone for anything, but Johanna Kinkel, novelist, letter-writer and wife of a former professor of art history at Bonn. She was one of the two thousand-odd political refugees who came to England following the failure of the 1848 revolution – Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Poles. Though exile meant loss of status and even regular income, she adapted better than most to her new circumstances. When she died, probably by her own hand at the age of 48, exile was at best a contingent factor. She had long been subject to bouts of depression, but she was also jealous of her husband’s female pupils – a hardship she would have been spared in Bonn.

Nineteenth-century Britain was highly cosmopolitan, as befitted not only the hub of the Empire but the commercial and industrial centre of the world. Not all the Continental Europeans in London and the other major cities were political refugees. Of the Germans, many were businessmen, artists, musicians and scholars. They may have had a political preference for liberal England, especially if they were Jews, which many of them were: but if they did settle here, it was from choice, not necessity. A few straddled the professional/exile divide, like Friedrich Engels who came to Manchester in the early 1840s on family business and was obliged to stay after his participation in the Baden rising of 1849. But for the business and professional category in general, political considerations came second. They had little difficulty in integrating into their communities, especially outside London. In Manchester, Bradford, Glasgow and Belfast they left a considerable economic and cultural mark: they founded Goethe and Schiller societies, became magistrates and Lord Mayors and were the main force behind the formation of the Halle Orchestra. Charles Halle himself was a refugee from revolution, fleeing to England to escape ‘the juggernaut of Republicanism’.

Life was much more awkward for the small group who form Dr Ashton’s subject. They came because they had to. Few knew whether they were going to be here for two years or twenty. England was a refuge, not a home. Some, like the Kinkels, were determined to make the best of it and became ultra-Anglophiles – a recognisable exile syndrome. The others, too, fitted into familiar categories.

There were those whom Anthony Heilbut has called the ‘bei unsers’ and ‘ach so specialists’, who compensated for lack of recognition in their new environment by exaggerating the merits of the old country and their potential status in it. Aficionados of 1930s refugee humour will recognise here the subject-matter of the Great Dane joke – the emigré dachshund, spurned by the English dogs in the park, who insists that back in Berlin he had been a Great Dane.

There were those, even less fortunate, who did not make it at all: arriving penniless and with little knowledge of English, they ended up on the bottle, in the debtors’ prison, in the madhouse or floating down the river. Even those with skills other than pamphleteering, such as tailors or furriers, were condemned to a miserable existence in the sweat-shops of the East End. The Metropolitan Police reckoned in 1854 that two-thirds of all refugees lived ‘in straitened circumstance’. Some gave up and went to America, where they might survive and even prosper, but would not be around on the day of the triumphant return to the Continent.

In between those who flourished and those who went under there were professional revolutionaries, who needed to retain their political identity and organisational coherence and had to pay a fairly heavy price for this. On the one hand, they needed an income to survive, which they did by teaching, translating, journalism and scrounging. Some had English friends and well-wishers, which sometimes helped and sometimes did not. But maintaining their political mission also meant a deliberate decision not to integrate into English life: the few that attempted to do so, like Arnold Ruge, earned the contempt of the others, as in Marx’s wickedly brilliant squib ‘Great Men of the Exile’. Indeed, Engels, in his Jekyll and Hyde capacity as capitalist and revolutionary, was alone in successfully bestriding the two worlds. He hunted with the Cheshire and belonged to the Manchester Albert and Brazenose Clubs. After his retirement he lived in style in Regent’s Park Road and presided over Christmas celebrations as if he were the patron of Dingley Dell. His plum puddings were a much coveted treat. Marx, by contrast, did not even bother to apply for naturalisation until 1874, by which time it was too late: he had ceased to be obscure and was turned down. But even he adapted to the vulgar pleasures of the English. On Sundays, when Sabbatarian philistines barred him from the Reading Room, he marched with family, friends, acolytes and picnic baskets from Soho to Hampstead Heath. ‘A Sunday on Hampstead Heath,’ Wilhelm Liebknecht recalled, ‘was one of our greatest joys.’

The political exile’s greatest burden is incomprehension – of his hosts and by his hosts. He is where he is because politics is his main preoccupation, an attribute that differentiates him from most of the human race. And if his main preoccupation is revolutionary politics, he is likely to seek out prospects for it wherever he is – the revolution knows no frontier. Georg Weerth, visiting Engels in 1844, reported that Socialist ideas were ‘astonishingly prevalent’ in England; Marx, watching the demonstrations against the Sunday Trading Bill in 1855, assured the Neue Oder-Zeitung it was ‘not an exaggeration to say that the English Revolution began in Hyde Park yesterday.’ The more conservative Theodor Fontane – a visitor, not an exile – was nearer the mark in explaining why the British poor were not about to revolt: though ‘the state does nothing for the people, neither does it do anything against them.’

Not only did the English lack revolutionary fervour, they showed no interest in that of their new guests. Those with established scholarly or literary reputations, like Gottfried Kinkel or the poet Friedrich Freiligrath, found influential well-wishers who tried to get them professorships or librarians’ posts – generally unsuccessfully. Those Englishmen most likely to sympathise with the new arrivals, whether Chartists like Ernest Jones or George Jacob Harney, ‘advanced’ publicists like G.H. Lewes or G.J. Holyoake, or even established writers like Carlyle or John Stuart Mill, had limited means and little patronage. But most new arrivals found that their heroism on the barricades or their daring escapes meant nothing: ‘these people’, wrote Amalie Struve from ‘the gloomy banks of the Thames’, ‘do not know our fatherland and its struggles ... Here is no sympathy, no spiritual co-existence.’

What was hardest to bear was the intellectual gap between Britain and Germany, bridged by only a few who were familiar with German thought, like Carlyle and George Lewes. Barred from any effective political action in their own country, German academics and students could immerse themselves in the most abstruse utopias and deal in absolutes that simply had no place in a country with a parliamentary constitution. British political discourse was bound to strike them as shallow. Ernest Jones was above the average for Jenny Marx: ‘by English standards advanced, though not quite a la hauteur for us Germans who have run the gauntlet of Hegel, Feuerbach etc’. Worse, the exiles were, almost without exception, atheists or free-thinkers and were at a loss in the face of British social conformity, whether in religious observance or sexual mores. It was easier, it appeared, to publish Strauss’s Life of Jesus in tyrannical Prussia than in Liberal England. At times it is difficult not to sympathise with their distress. Gottfried Kinkel’s and Carl Schurz’s first taste of freedom was in the port of Leith on a Sunday. It took them seven hours to find somewhere to eat.

What the exiles faced was that tyranny of the majority that Mill excoriated in On Liberty, where he observed that, while the yoke of law was lighter in England than in most other countries of Europe, that of opinion was heavier. What Mill called ‘our social intolerance’ had practical consequences: many of the exiles sought posts as tutors and governesses, where safe views on religion and morals were at a premium. Some were writers who hoped to gain an English public. Many had children for whom they sought a progressive education. As a result many second-generation exiles went to University College School, an oasis of godlessness in a conformist desert.

But however heavy the yoke of opinion, that of law was undoubtedly light. Alexander Herzen commented that ‘in England the policeman at your door or within your doors adds a feeling of security.’ Malwida von Meysenburg experienced ‘a pleasant feeling of freedom’ when no one asked to see her passport on her arrival. Ferencz Pulszky was amazed that when he reached London, ‘everything was going on here in the usual way, as if no Continental revolution existed.’ Engels reassured Wilhelm Wolff, whom he was anxious to bring to England: ‘You know no one is ever stopped at a port of entry here.’ Kinkel pointed out that Britain was ‘the only country in Europe which has never expelled a refugee and where juries have never let themselves be dictated to by a foreign despot’. Liebknecht, co-founder with August Bebel of the German Social Democratic Party, confessed himself affected by ‘practical John Bull’, and in the 1880s advised Bismarck to imitate Disraeli if he wished to avoid revolution. Indeed, anything that smacked of Continental practices caused an outburst of public indignation in Britain. When it emerged that the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, had authorised the opening of Mazzini’s correspondence, he was attacked in Parliament for resorting to ‘the spy system of foreign states’ and Carlyle wrote to the Times that opening of men’s letters was ‘a practice near of kin to picking men’s pockets’. When, just before the Great Exhibition, the Government introduced passport checks, allegedly at the request of foreign governments, William Howitt asked in Dickens’s Household Words: ‘Why should we stoop to become the tools of foreign surveillance?’

There was no doubt a chauvinistic element in this self-image of the free-born Englishman, but the benefit to the political refugees was unquestionable, and their experiences were less contradictory or paradoxical than many of them thought. They enjoyed, or endured, the toleration born of indifference. They had been forced to leave Germany, or such Continental refuges as Belgium and Switzerland, because there they were somebodies: they were welcomed in England, where they were nobodies. At home they were persecuted because their opinions mattered: in England they were left alone because their opinions were unimportant. They were welcome as long as they kept themselves to themselves, stood on their own two feet and did not try to impose their funny foreign ways on anyone. This made sense, indeed was self-evident to most Englishmen, but it was hard on men and women who had but recently stood at the centre of the political stage.

In the end, even the most unreconciled critics of English hypocrisy came to see the merits as well as the defects of local folkways. Explaining why her daughters felt so acclimatised in England, Jenny Marx wrote: ‘Here ... you can withdraw into yourself and your snail’s shell – no one bothers about you, whereas in Germany people know the next morning what you had for dinner last night and how much your husband earns.’ Followers of Johanna Kinkel’s advice ‘those who have been forced into exile here ought really to make a thorough study of this land and its institutions’ – got somewhere and made a sizable contribution to cultural life. Theodor Goldstücker and Friedrich Althaus won chairs at University College London. Gottfried Semper, the architect, was intimately involved in the plans for the South Kensington museums. Arnold Ruge translated Buckle into German, Althaus and Joseph Neuberg translated Carlyle, Freiligrath translated Coleridge. Eugen Oswald translated Humboldt into English and became tutor to the children of both Richard Cobden and Edward VII. Eleanor Marx translated Flaubert and Ibsen. Johannes Ronge introduced Froebel’s kindergarten ideas to England and Malwida von Meysenburg became a pioneer of women’s education, joining forces with Barbara Leigh Smith, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Emily Davies.

Two thousand lost or disorientated souls are not many in a country of twenty millions. Yet they were remarkable for their variety and individuality, and, not least, for their personal and ideological incompatibilities. All this Dr Ashton portrays with wide learning lightly borne, with wit, judicious quotation, sympathy and organisational skill. Her grasp of British or German 19th-century politics is not always secure, but she has a strong feeling for a cultural climate and an instinct for how the individual moves in a finely tuned milieu that rivals that of any Victorian novelist.

Her concentration on Forty-Eighters means that she omits one of my favourite exile memoirs, that of Eduard Bernstein, a refugee from Bismarck’s repression of the Social Democrats in the 1880s. Like Johanna Kinkel, he became an extreme Anglophile: the Revisionism for which he became celebrated was strongly influenced by Fabianism and British trade-unionism and he was instrumental in getting Graham Wallas and Ramsay Mac-Donald translated into German – one of the few instances of British influence on Continental Socialism. But what impressed Bernstein most was the strength of Victorian civil society: for instance, in the decision of the authorities not to replace the railings of Hyde Park torn down in the suffrage riots of 1866, or Henry Irving’s putting it to the vote of the Lyceum audience whether they wanted their seats numbered. The fact that it was bad form to lock one’s room in a multi-occupied dwelling caused great inconvenience in his search for editorial offices for Sozialdemokrat, which was to be smuggled back to Germany from London.

But most remarkable for the newly arrived Continental was the British ability to do without bits of paper. When he went to Gravesend to meet his family, Bernstein entrusted their luggage, containing their entire possessions, to a carrier and discovered to his horror, back at his lodgings, that he had no receipt. He panicked, rushed back to the carrier’s office, only to be told by an adamant clerk that a ledger entry was enough evidence for both of them. The same, he and others discovered, applied to the procedures of the luggage van on the railways – ‘for Germans on their first visit to England an almost uncanny thing’. Even misdirected luggage was recovered through these informalities: ‘it could not have been done better in a country with the most meticulous regime of registration.’

The exiles tell us a great deal about themselves, their preoccupations and obsessions. They also tell us much about Victorian England. Those of our present rulers who want to return to Victorian values could do worse than consult Bernstein and Liebknecht, Herzen and Kinkel, Pulszky and von Meysenburg as witnesses to those values. They might be surprised by what they discover.

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