Wilhelm Wolff’s biography by Friedrich Engels (1876)

If I am not mistaken it was towards the end of April 1846. Marx and I were then living in a Brussels suburb; we were engaged in a joint piece of work [the German Ideology] when we were informed that a gentleman from Germany wished to speak to us. We found a short but very stockily built man; the expression on his face proclaimed both goodwill and quiet determination; the figure of an East German peasant in the traditional clothes of an East German provincial bourgeois. It was Wilhelm Wolff. Persecuted for infringing the press laws, he had been fortunate enough to evade the Prussian prisons. We did not suspect at first sight what a rare man lay concealed under this inconspicuous exterior. A few days were enough to put us on terms of cordial friendship with this new comrade in exile and to convince us that it was no ordinary man we were dealing with. His cultured mind schooled in classical antiquity, his wealth of humor, his clear understanding of difficult theoretical problems, his passionate hatred of all oppressors of the masses, his energetic and yet tranquil nature soon revealed themselves; but it took long years of collaboration and friendly association in struggle, victory and defeat, in good times and bad, to prove the full extent of his unshakable strength of character, his absolute, unquestionable reliability, his steadfast sense of duty equally exacting towards friend, foe and self.

Wilhelm Wolff was born on June 21, 1809 in Tarnau, near Frankenstein in Silesia. His father was an hereditary serf and also kept the court kretscham (the inn — Polish karczma — where the village assizes took place), which did not save him from having to perform statute labor with his wife and children for his worthy lord. Wilhelm was thus not only familiar with the frightful plight of the East German bondsmen from early childhood, but also suffered it himself. But he learnt more besides. His mother, of whom he always spoke with particular affection and who possessed an education unusual for her station, roused and nursed in him anger at the shameless exploitation and disgraceful treatment of the peasants by the feudal lords. And we shall see how this anger fermented and seethed in him all his life when we reach the period when he was finally able to give vent to it in public. This peasant lad’s talents and lust for knowledge soon attracted attention; if possible he was to go to grammar school, but what obstacles there were to be surmounted before this could be achieved! Quite apart from financial difficulties there was the worthy lord and his steward, without whom nothing could be done. Although serfdom had been abolished in name in 1810, feudal tributes, statute labor, patrimonial jurisdiction and the manorial police remained in existence, thus preserving serfdom in practice. And the worthy lord and his officials were far more inclined to make peasant lads into swineherds than students. However, all barriers were successfully negotiated. Wolff gained admission to the grammar school at Schweidnitz and then went to university in Breslau. At both of these institutions he had to earn the greater part of his living by giving private lessons. At university he preferred to devote his energies to classical philology…

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