Against Capital Punishment
First Published: Die Rote Fahne, No. 3, 18 November 1918.
Source: International Socialist Review Vol. 30 No. 1, January-February 1969, pp. 5-6.
Translated: from the French which was from the original in German William L. McPherson in Germany After the Armistice: A Report Based on the Personal Testimony of Representative Germany, Concerning the Conditions Existing in 1919, edited by Maurice Berger.
Transcription/Markup: Einde O'Callaghan, Daniel Gaido, & Brian Basgen
Public Domain: Luxemburg Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2005. This work is completely free.
This is an alternate translation of the same work by a different name A Duty of Honor, which is the correct German translation for Eine Ehrenpflicht.
We did not wish for amnesty, nor
for pardon, in the case of the political prisoners, who had been the prey of
the old order. We demanded the right to liberty, to agitation, to revolution
for the hundreds of brave and loyal men who groaned in the jails and in the
fortresses because, under the former dictatorship of Imperialist criminals,
they had fought for the people, for peace, and for socialism.
They are all free now.
We find ourselves again in the
ranks, ready for the battle.
It was not the clique of
Scheidemann and his bourgeois allies, with Prince Max of Baden at their head,
that liberated us. It was the Proletarian Revolution that made the doors of our
cells spring open.
But another class of unfortunate
dwellers in those gloomy mansions has been completely forgotten. No one, at
present, thinks of the pale and morbid figures which sigh behind prison walls
because of offenses against ordinary law.
Nevertheless these are also the
unfortunate victims of the infamous social order against which the Revolution
is directed—victims of the Imperialistic war which pushed distress and
misery to the very limit of intolerable torture, victims of that frightful
butchery of men which let loose all the vilest instincts.
The justice of the bourgeois
classes had again been like a net, which allowed the voracious sharks to
escape, while the little sardines were caught. The profiteers who have realized
millions during the war have been acquitted or let off with ridiculous
penalties. The little thieves, men and women, have been punished with sentences
of Draconian severity.
Worn out by hunger and cold, in
cells which are hardly heated, these derelicts of society await mercy and pity.
They have waited in vain, for in
his preoccupation with making the nations cut one another's throats and of
distributing crowns, the last of the Hohenzollerns forgot these miserable
people, and since the Conquest of Liege there has been no amnesty, not even on
the official holiday of German slaves, the Kaiser's birthday.
The Proletarian Revolution ought
now, by a little ray of kindness, to illuminate the gloomy life of the prisons,
shorten Draconian sentences, abolish barbarous punishments—the use of
manacles and whippings—improve, as far as possible, the medical
attention, the food allowance, and the conditions of labor. That is a duty of
The existing disciplinary system,
which is impregnated with brutal class spirit and with capitalist barbarism,
should be radically altered.
But a complete reform, in harmony
with the spirit of socialism, can be based only on a new economic and social
order; for both crime and punishment have, in the last analysis, their roots
deep in the organization of society. One radical measure, however, can be taken
without any elaborate legal process. Capital punishment, the greatest shame of
the ultra-reactionary German code, ought to be done away with at once. Why are
there any hesitations on the part of this Government of workers and soldiers?
The noble Beccaria, two hundred years ago, denounced the ignominy of the death
penalty. Doesn't its ignominy exist for you, Ledebour, Barth, Daeumig?
You have no time, you have a
thousand cares, a thousand difficulties, a thousand tasks before you? That is
true. But mark, watch in hand, how much time would be needed to say:
"Capital punishment is abolished!" Would you argue that, on this
question also, long discussions followed by votes are necessary? Would you thus
lose yourselves in the complications of formalism, in considerations of
jurisdiction, in questions of departmental red tape?
Ah! HOW German this German
Revolution is! How argumentative and pedantic it is! How rigid, inflexible,
lacking in grandeur!
The forgotten death penalty is
only one little isolated detail. But how precisely the inner spirit, which
governs the Revolution, betrays itself in these little details!
Let one take up any ordinary
history of the great French Revolution. Let one take up the dry Mignet, for
Can one read this book except
with a beating heart and a burning brow? Can one, after having opened it, at no
matter what page, put it aside before one has heard, with bated breath, the
last chord of that formidable tragedy? It is like a symphony of Beethoven carried
to the gigantic and the grotesque, a tempest thundering on the organ of time,
great and superb in its errors as well as in its achievement, in victory as
well as in defeat, in the first cry of naive joyfulness as well as in the final
And now how is it with us in
Everywhere, in the small as in
the great, one feels that these are still and always the old and sober citizens
of the defunct Social-Democracy, those for whom the badge of membership is
everything and the man and the spirit are nothing.
Let us not forget this, however.
The history of the world is not made without grandeur of spirit, without lofty
morale, without noble gestures.
Liebknecht and I, on leaving the
hospitable halls which we recently inhabited — he, among his pale
companions in the penitentiary, I with my dear, poor thieves and women of the
streets, with whom I have passed, under the same roof, three years and a half
of my life —we took this oath as they followed us with their sad eyes:
"We shall not forget you!"
We demand of the executive
committee of the Council of Workers and Soldiers an immediate amelioration of
the lot of all the prisoners in the German jails!
We demand the excision of capital
punishment from the German penal code!
During the four years of this
slaughter of the peoples, blood has flowed in torrents. Today, each drop of
that precious fluid ought to be preserved devotedly in crystal urns.
Revolutionary activity and
profound humanitarianism—they alone are the true breath of socialism.
A world must be turned upside
down. But each tear that flows, when it could have been spared, is an
accusation, and he commits a crime who with brutal inadvertency crushes a poor