Trier, the small town in southwest Germany where Karl Marx was born in 1818, is a former Roman capital still littered with ruins, in a Catholic part of the Rhineland known mostly for its wine. When Mary Shelley passed through in 1840, she was exhausted by the long carriage ride over bad roads, horrified by the miserable peasants she saw along the way, and frustrated that there was no steamship on the winding Moselle River to take her to the Rhine. How could such a backward, remote place have shaped an author of The Communist Manifesto? The way Jonathan Sperber answers this question in the first chapter of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life illustrates and vindicates the historical method suggested in his subtitle, showing just how badly we needed a new life of Marx and why it needed to be written by a historian.
Other biographers turn quickly from the town to the Marx family, attempting to explain why Marx became a revolutionary by focusing on his Jewish roots. “Thoroughly Jewish in their origins, Protestant by necessity yet living in a Catholic region,” the Marx family “could never regard their social integration as complete,” writes David McLellan, in Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, the last major biography of Marx in English, published forty years ago and still the standard today. The first chapter of Francis Wheen’s more recent Karl Marx is called “The Outsider,” and opens with an allusion to the Holocaust.
In his first sentence, Sperber underscores a crucial fact about Marx’s birth that McLellan and Wheen ignore: the year. Marx was born “at the end of three decades of revolutionary upheaval and counterrevolutionary response that shaped the lives of his parents, strongly influenced his upbringing and education, and created political passions and political enemies that would remain with him throughout his life.” The Rhineland was affected earlier and more deeply by the French Revolution than anyplace else in Central Europe. In Marx’s parents’ lifetime, the ancient Electorate of Trier and most of the weird old pieces of the Holy Roman Empire around it were wiped off the map. Trier and other German territories west of the Rhine were annexed by the French Republic in 1797, and then, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, ceded to Prussia, a faraway Protestant kingdom that treated its new and mostly Catholic territory in the west as something of a colony. If the Marxes’ “social integration” was incomplete, it may have been because their entire society had recently disintegrated.
But all things considered, the Marx family adapted to change fairly successfully. Unlike previous biographers, Sperber notes that Marx’s father, Heinrich, also known as both Heschel and Henri, served as secretary to the Trier Consistory, representing local Jewish interests under French rule, and that Heinrich’s brother, the rabbi Samuel Marx, was a delegate to the “Grand Sanhedrin,” an 1806 assembly of Jewish leaders invited by Napoleon from across the empire to replicate the Jewish court of antiquity. Sperber describes in detail how Trier experienced the less than altruistic French “liberation,” and how it challenged the identity of the Jews as a nation apart, dividing their community and often making them scapegoats for anti-Napoleonic sentiment. This was a social revolution, too, he reminds the reader; the French expropriated property and transformed whole ways of life. It evidently frustrated and changed Heinrich Marx, who converted and became a loyal subject of the Prussian absolutist monarchy while retaining a strong personal faith in Enlightenment values.
Early nineteenth-century Trier, then, was not the remote and sleepy hamlet that a tourist may take it to be. It was on the fault line dividing the five great powers of Europe into a liberal west—France and England—and a conservative east: Prussia, Austria and Russia. Abandoning crypto-racial origin myths, Sperber turns outsiders into fellow citizens; he also begins to map the international terrain of Marx’s career as a whole. It is as if Trier has been airlifted from the land of the lost to a place at or near the hot center of modern European history: instead of just “backward,” it is full of conflicts of values that define the new century and might incline a young person to rebellion or reflection, or both.