Tax Resistance Crisis Hits Germany in 1848

In there was a tax resistance crisis in Germany, when the executive attempted to govern independently from the legislature and the National Assembly declared that citizens had no obligation to pay for it. Karl Marx was among those members of the press who spread the news of the authorized tax strike and who were prosecuted for this. He was acquitted, but others were not so lucky.

Here are some notes from the aftermath that made it into the British press. First, from the Caledonian Mercury:

The trial of M. [Benedikt] Waldeck has commen[ced?] that of M. Zeigler, burgomaster of Brandenburgh, charged with treason, for having, in his official capacity, published the tax refusing resolution of the late National Assembly, has ended with a verdict of guilty, and a sentence of six months’ imprisonment in a fortress, and deprivation of his order.

From the London Daily News:

During the last week we have had a signal instance of the capricious mutability of the public taste in relation to the political topics of the day, and of the fluctuating value of the wares of the news market. No event has exercised a more critical influence over the fate of Prussia than the decree of the Rump of the National Assembly, on , to refuse to the Brandenburg ministry, then just a week in office, the means of carrying on the government. This hoisting of the revolutionary standard isolated the democratic party in one instant completely from the mass of the nation, whose sympathies had until that moment seriously inclined to their cause, or at least wavered. The country rallied at once to the throne; and when the landwehr was called out, not a man disobeyed the royal summons. The tax-refusers (Stener verweigerer) were from that hour doomed, and the democratic cause was lost. Still the public eye followed with a singular interest those bold citizens who had bidden defiance to the crown. Nearly all of them were returned as members to the Second Chamber of , mostly by the populations of the large cities. The nine deputies elected on that occasion by Berlin were all Stener-verweigerer, and nearly the entire Left of the new assembly was composed of the same compromised category. Still there was drawn an important line of distinction between such as had voted for the decree of the National Assembly purely and simply without joining the agitation to carry the decree into practical effect throughout the country; and such as had by the distribution of proclamations, by inflammatory speeches, and other such means, attempted to organise a resistance on the part of the people to the payment of taxes. It furnishes a valuable testimony to the constitutional disposition of the most democratic assembly which could be returned in Prussia under a system of universal suffrage, that only 42 out of the large majority which voted the refusal of taxes were found rash enough to attempt to bring that vote to a practical result. Those 42 are now arraigned at the bar of the criminal jury court. The most eminent among them are [Hermann] Schulz, [Ludwig] Hildenhagen, [Philipp] Von Berg, and [Lothar] Bucher. The trial of these offenders, which a year ago would have roused the keenest political excitement throughout Germany, has gone on during the last week without moving the faintest curiosity.

The National Zeitung, chief democratic organ, apologizes to its readers for confining its extracts to the speech of Schulz. The printer, who cleared several thousand thalers by giving separately the earliest edition of the short-hand report of Waldeck’s trial, has sunk a considerable part of his gains in the new enterprise of issuing a corresponding account of the Stener-verweigerungs process.

Without going into immaterial details and tedious formalities, I shall state briefly the line of argument adopted by the prosecution and the defence. The offence charged in the indictment is incitement of his majesty’s subjects to rebellion. Rebellion (says the Staats-Anwalt) is resistance to the king’s government. Never had the king at any lawful time divested himself of the prerogative of choosing his own ministers. Therefore the Brandenburg government was lawful. But there can be no more serious act of resistance to a government than to deny it the means of carrying on the administration. Not only did the 42 accused incite by writing, word of mouth, and manifold means of agitation, to such resistance, but they actually encouraged the people to seize and sequester the cash-boxes of the state. Proclamations would be exhibited, signed with the names of many, encouraging the peaceable citizens to such acts of violence. Letters and a vast volume of testimony would be produced, in order fully to establish the charges contained in the indictment. The line of argument adopted by the defence is by no means so simple, and goes into some of the most thorny questions of political jurisprudence. In the first place, the defendants admitted all the evidence of importance brought against them. But the offence with which they were charged, attempted rebellion, must, according to the statute, be accompanied by some acts of violence. Now, they had been guilty of no such act themselves, nor had they instigated others to use force. They employed a legal passive resistance against an illegal government. The Brandenburgh government was illegal, because it not only had no majority in the national parliament, but dissolved an assembly called together for the purpose of framing a constitution in consent with the sovereign, which could not be legally dissolved before it had completed that mission. By the King’s promises of , the constitutional principle of self-government had been introduced into Prussia; and the very heart of constitutionalism was that no ministers were entitled to the confidence of the king, without also possessing the confidence of the people shown by a parliamentary majority in favour of those ministers. Therefore, the ministry of Count Brandenburgh was illegal in its composition, and illegal in its acts. Now, the National Assembly had, undoubtedly, the right of withholding supplies from such a government; for the king in the patent prefixed to the electoral law, by which the National Assembly was chosen, had expressly declared that the same privileges, which had been promised on , to the Reichs-Stände, or estates of the realm, should be also competent to the National Assembly. But one of the chief of those privileges was the right of voting the taxes (Stener-bewilligungs-Recht.) The crown prosecutor had attempted to draw a distinction between the right of voting and the right of refusing taxes, the Stener-bewilligungs-Recht and the Stener-verweigerungs-Recht, but the fact was that they were the same thing; else the first mentioned privilege was no privilege at all. The decree of the National Assembly was therefore perfectly legal and constitutional; and the attempt to realise it was equally so, because the assembly was not affected in its existence by the arbitrary dissolution by the government. The taxes withheld were not to be used for the purpose of levying war upon the King, God forbid, but they were simply to be reserved for other ministers who enjoyed the confidence both of his Majesty and the parliament. There was no violence in such a proceeding at all; it was merely a sort of constitutional blockade of an unconstitutional cabinet, and was the only peaceful remedy let to the people against absolute and arbitrary rule. Another circumstance was, that not only was inviolability guaranteed to the persons of the National Assembly, but it was expressly stipulated before they were convoked that they should not be called to account for their acts before the legal tribunals. The state prosecutor said that they had not been called to account for their acts in the house, but for their acts out of it. This, it was said on the part of the defence, was a proof that the government was conscious of illegality of the dissolution of the National Assembly; else, why were not all those members prosecuted, who had voted for the decree. The Staats-Anwalt replied to this that the two offences were distinct, and it could not be concluded from the prosecution of the more flagrant that the other was regarded as no offence at all.

It is expected that a verdict of not guilty will be returned in the case of the tax-refusers. Schulze’s speech, of which I gave yesterday the substance, produced a great effect on the court.

A follow-up from the London Daily News:

The trial of the tax-refusers is at last over. The jury, after consulting for several hours, at gave their verdict. They pronounced 36 out of the 37 accused who appeared “not guilty;” but the eminent talent of the man whom they selected for a victim more than compensated this equitable decision. Bucher, the best, coolest, and most closely logical head and speaker in the Prussian parliament, was declared guilty. He was condemned for being the last to quit the field in a hopeless cause; and the doom, if heavy, is not dishonourable. This morning the public prosecutor moved that, in consideration of his exertions having produced no result, the sentence should be limited to two years’ imprisonment in a fortress, loss of national cockade, and offices. The court modified this sentence in one particular, reducing the imprisonment to 15 months. His offices as assessor and common councilman were taken away. Of the four who did not appear to plead, three were declared guilty: two of an attempt to excite rebellion, and the third of insulting the King’s majesty. The last was condemned to 3 months’ common imprisonment, and the others to 15 months’ confinement in a fortress.

Hessian leader Hans Daniel Hassenpflug’s anti-Constitutionalist moves, which included dissolving the state legislature in , led to another tax resistance campaign. Bavarian (and Austrian) troops marched in to Hesse to protect its autocracy against an anticipated Prussian invasion (and against the rage of the Hessian democrats).

Here’s a report from that incident, from the Reynolds’s Newspaper:

Since the Bavarian troops have been within the walls of Rothenberg the proceedings against the tax-refusers and opposers of the September ordinances began. These proceedings are carried out in the most shameless way. The judge, who, with his mother, 80 years of age, inhabits a small apartment, has been forced to give up his parlour and his bedrooms to soldiers who are quartered upon him; and it is not permitted to such “rebels” to find another lodging out of their own houses. No; there must be personal punishment, as well as the cost of entertaining soldiers. The judge, Von Urff, had eight men quartered on him, but being dangerously ill, they were, on the urgent representations of physicians, withdrawn; the next day a letter was sent him from Count von Rechberg; the doctors would not suffer it to be delivered, lest the excitement should prove fatal to their patient. On the following day however, an adjutant forced his way into the sick man’s bedchamber and delivered the letter, the purport of which was that he should, within the space of twelve hours, acknowledge the validity of the September ordinances, or suffer the consequences. He immediately sent in his resignation. And such things are done in the 19th century, and in the face of civilised Europe.