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Hellmuth von Gerlach on Leading Antisemites and their Agitation (1880s)

Hellmuth von Gerlach (1866-1935) was a member of the Association of German Students [Verein deutscher Studenten] in the 1880s when he met Court Preacher Adolf Stöcker (1835-1909) and became enamored of Christian Socialism. He was one of the most important newspaper editors and agitators in Stöcker’s Christian Social Party. After the mid-1890s, he moved into the camp of the liberal nationalist Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919). His leftward drift continued before and during the First World War: he espoused pacifism and, shortly after the war, became a co-founder of the German Democratic Party. The following excerpt is from Gerlach’s autobiography, From Right to Left [Von rechts nach links], published in 1937. Gerlach is able to see through the chicanery and corruption of the German antisemitic movement’s self-seeking leaders (many of whom are represented elsewhere in the documents and images in this volume).

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In the winter of 1885, I attended the Kommers* organized by the Leipzig chapter of the Association of German Students** in honor of the founding of the Reich. Court Preacher Adolf Stöcker was the official speaker. He commenced: “Dear young friends! As you can hear, I am terribly hoarse. I can only manage to croak. But I intend to croak like the ravens from the Kyffhäuser Mountains and extol the magnificence of the Reich!” These first words from Stöcker’s mouth remained etched in my young mind. After all, for me, they were the first evidence of a kind of rhetorical talent that Germany had not experienced since Lassalle. What incredibly rich imagery did this man evoke with his words! When the priest of Saint Sophia’s church in Berlin, Walter Burckhardt, died at the age of 27, Stöcker gave the funeral oration. Burckhardt, handsome like a young God and highly talented, was the favorite student of the master he had revered with such enthusiasm. Stöcker, the childless man, cast his eyes on the coffin: “He was like a son to me – in my work, my right hand. Now it has been hacked off.” At this moment, the hard man’s voice cracked. The hearts of everyone present stood still, and eyes filled with tears. As is generally known, oratorical talent is rare in Germany. Stöcker possessed it in its most valuable manifestation: in the ability to always speak in a form appropriate to the milieu. In the pulpit or at a banquet, at the grave or the baptismal font, in the synod or the parliament, in a popular assembly filled with adversaries, or before the faithful flock of a missionary association – at all times, his speech was well-suited to the audience.

People often claimed that Stöcker had taken speech lessons from a great actor. For in his case, everything was indeed harmonious: the content of the speech, the pose, the gesture, the bearing, and the voice. This was no artificial product, however. This man did not need lessons in public speaking. Everything was natural – mastered nature. That is why it was so overwhelming in effect that everyone hung spellbound on his every word, even skeptical parliamentarians.

One could hate Stöcker, one could love him, but no one could remain indifferent toward him. For an entire decade, I loved him. Every time I began to waver, the bewitching nature of his speech cast another spell on me. No matter how much I may have objected to his political proclamations, when I ended up sitting under his pulpit in the City Mission Church on Sunday, it was as though my senses became befuddled once again. Bewitched, I remained on the magic mountain.

On Sunday evenings, Stöcker knew how to dispel any last remaining doubts that had cropped up among his followers over the course of the week. He had become rich through marriage and kept an open house. On Sunday evenings, he used to gather 20-30 of his friends at a richly laden (though not sumptuous) table. Young people were particularly well represented; in addition, there were also like-minded persons from the Reich who happened to be in Berlin at the time. Then the questions of the day were thoroughly discussed.

* Evening drinking session of a student fraternity – trans.
** Verein deutscher Studenten, or V. d. St. – trans.

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