Murder and Liberty

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"Murder and Liberty"

Karl Heinzen Advocates Political Assassination


By: Karl Peter Heinzen

Date: 1853

Source: Excerpts from Karl Heinzen, Murder and Liberty, 1853, Reprinted as a Contribution for the "Peace League" of Geneva (Indianapolis, Indiana: H. Lieber, 1881).

About the Author: Karl Peter Heinzen (1809–1880) was a radical German democrat, an active participant in the 1848 revolutions in Germany, and, for the last thirtyone years of his life, a political exile in America.


Most of the earliest theorists of general class warfare terrorism were either German or Russian. Along with Edgar Bauer (1820–1886), Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), Wilhelm Weitling (1808–1871), Sergei Nechaev (1847–1882), and Johann Most (1846–1906), Heinzen formulated the terrorist approach to modern politics. These six authors typically worked independently of one another, sometimes drawing upon each other's work and sometimes rejecting it, and the relations among them were quite complex.

Heinzen experienced his first political exile in 1829 when he was a medical student at the University of Bonn. He returned to Germany in 1831 and thereafter worked in various civil service positions, secretly pamphleteering to urge violent uprising against the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian regimes. Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) considered him simple-minded and argued that his reduction of the problems of the common people to the existence of autocrats was not helpful to the proletarian revolution. In the 1848 revolutions, he fought alongside Friedrich Franz Karl Hecker (1811–1881), Gustav von Struve (1805–1870), and other leaders of the Baden republican uprising. After their defeat in the fall of 1848, he fled Germany and in 1849 settled in America as a refugee. From 1854 until his death, supported by several German immigrants—including the prominent woman physician, Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska (1829–1902)—he edited his own radical German-language newspaper, Der Pionier (The Pioneer).

In 1848, Heinzen wrote a vigorous polemical essay, "Der Mord" (Murder), which advocated tyrannicide by claiming that monarchs and potentates were ipso facto murderers and thieves and that, therefore, to kill them is only to act in self-defense. After his friend and fellow revolutionist, Johann Philipp Becker (1809–1886), published the essay in Biel, Switzerland, in two installments in January and February 1849 (in his short-lived underground newspaper, Die Evolution), "Der Mord" became a rallying point for the most extreme opponents of established governments worldwide.

In 1853, Heinzen revised and expanded "Der Mord" into a 30-page pamphlet that appeared in English several times as "Murder and Liberty".


There are a number of technical expressions for the important manipulation by which one man destroys the life of another. . . . but the object is always the same, viz., the annihilation of a hostile or inconvenient human life. From the stand-point of justice and humanity, the destruction of the life of another is always unjust and barbarous, whether it occur on the scaffold or in battle, in the murderer's den or on the dueling grounds, in prison or on the street. The language of humanity has, therefore, no concern for the subtle differences by which the dominant barbarity claims on the one hand as permissible killing, what it condemns on the other hand as punishable murder. Humanity must absolutely condemn all killing, since she refers all hostile conflicts among men to the tribunal of reason, and not to that of force; she is, therefore, only consistent if she designates every voluntary annihilation of the life of another human being with the condemnatory term murder. Her only endeavor can be to abolish murder; yet, as long as murder offers the only means for the attainment of this object, Humanity is also compelled to draw the sword and to become the murderess of the murderers. If one man is permitted to murder, all must be permitted to do so, particularly those who practice it for the annihilation of the murderers by profession or "by the grace of God."

. . . The large, bloodstained picture which we call history shows us murder in a thousand forms, and the murderers under a thousand names. Sometimes it is called war, and the murderers' heroes; sometimes it is called insurrection, and the murderers are called the people; again it is called assassination, and the murderers are called bandits, etc. It is always the same simple object, viz: to neutralize opposition by destroying human life; according to the motives and circumstances, it meets with different criticism, which as a rule is wholly perverse and servile. The principles of justice remain unchanged in history; but their recognition is possible only to free judgment for which reason they are sometimes wholly obscured for long periods. The judgment of men is, usually ruled, nay, entirely suppressed, by the prevailing fact, so that they acknowledge even the prevailing murder, in spite of its injustice, while they condemn the conquered murder, in spite of all justice. . . .

. . . what signify the few thousand executions of the French Revolution in comparison with the millions of murders of the centuries of reactionary dominion which brought about that popular explosion? I remind the reader among other things of the fact that at the outbreak of that revolution several million victims of the despots and priests filled the dungeons of Europe. What signify the daggers of Harmodius [assassin of Hipparchus] and Brutus [assassin of Julius Caesar], or the arrow of [Wilhem] Tell [assassin of Hermann Gessler], or the attempt[s] of [Giuseppe Maria] Fieschi and [Louis] Alibaud [on the life of Louis-Philippe] in comparison with the numberless murders by which the tyrants put their opponents out of the way in all conceivable manners? . . . Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Galba, Otho, Vitellius were murdered. From Commodus to Constantine the Great, 27 out of 36 emperors were murdered. Of all these assassinations of tyrants, only the smallest share is to be attributed to friends of freedom or revolutionists; but suppose, they were all committed by them,—are they worth mentioning in comparison, with the mass-destruction of human life that proceeded from these tyrants? How many human beings, did Sulla murder! But he went unpunished after he had laid down the dictatorship, and lice had to perform executioner's duty on him—men in their degeneracy had failed to do it. . . . weakness has always been the main fault of the revolutionists, that, in ill-conceived humanity and devoid of energy, they spared the lives of incurable reactionaries, or that, blinded by the unreasonable joy over the seeming victories of their cause, they failed to gain it in reality, or, at least, to secure it by the complete annihilation of their enemies. Called to exercise the functions of [the] Goddess of Justice towards all the enemies of the people, they dropped the sword of the Goddess from their hands at the first blow, and kept only her blindness. A revolutionist in whose power it lay to annihilate all the representatives of the system of violence and murder which rules the world and lays it waste, would deserve a thousand-fold the traitor's death, if he hesitated but a moment. . . .

. . . the assassin Tell was praised as liberator, because from safe ambush he shot down the slave of a tyrant . . . Switzerland which today celebrates the memory of the assassin Tell on the walls of every house, all Switzerland becomes the object of persecution for all the reactionary blood-hounds, when a German Tell discharges only a revolutionary thought arrow from his quiver. Make your own applications of this logic. Neither the despots nor the republicans reject murder as "immoral," but they hold it to be moral, only if they practice it themselves, or . . . if it serves their interest. . . .

Revolution is only self-defense. Murder in self-defense is not only permitted, but is also a duty to society, when it is directed against a professional murderer. The fault of self-defense, as well as of the revolution, usually lies in the fact that it is satisfied with the immediate results without using its victory to secure guarantees for the future. A bandit attacks a traveler and is disarmed by him, but allowed to live; this gives the bandit an opportunity to make surer work of the traveler next time, and jeopardizes also the lives of his friends. Just so with the revolution. It is folly and self-betrayal, if it limits self-defense to the result of the moment. It must root out the reaction in its carriers, its representatives; for its enemies are incurable, like the merely disarmed bandit, like the spared tiger. We know our enemies, we know them all and in every place personally. There will be no more excuse, if they are again spared. Whoever stands beyond the line that separates the ruling powers from the people, is doomed. Let the people execute the sentence, and let them spare only those who were misled, compelled, or powerless.

The road to humanity leads over the summit of cruelty. This is the inexorable law of necessity dictated to us by the reaction. We cannot evade it, unless we would renounce the future. If we would accomplish the end, we must use the means. If we would secure the life of the people, we must secure the death of its enemies; if we would vindicate humanity, we must not shrink—from murder. . . .

I preach the murder of despots openly, because it is a right, because it is a duty, because it is the only means to save humanity from the rule of murder, and because it must be acknowledged to be universally permitted and just. I know that the famous leaders [of the revolution] are not to be relied upon, that they care more for their reputation of gentility than for the radical revolution, and that the heads of the reactionaries are safest in their hands. Ther[e]fore, I endeavor to make the murder of despots a cause of the people, so that the people may without considering the genteel great men murder democratically on every occasion, if they would live democratically after the revolution. . . .

The doctrine of the murder of tyrants must be short, as the murder itself. Only one thing remains. It was not my object to shed blood and to annihilate tyrants on paper, in order to secure cheap alleviation for long-repressed wrath over a world full of unprecedented disgrace and disgraceful acts. It was my object, in the first place, to destroy that false ethical code, to annihilate the "moral scruples" by which thousands, especially of our country-men, are kept from decisive action, even when free opportunity is offered. It was my object to vindicate not only the aims of the revolution, but also its means, including assassination, and to render it as legitimate as the tyrants have done with their murder by war, their "legal" murder, their murder by "court-martial." My further task is to give hints concerning the augmentation and application of such means. The safety of the despots rests wholly on the preponderance of their means of destruction. Remove their soldiers, or only spike their guns, and they sink trembling into the dust and whine at the feet of their subjects. The first aim then, must be to do away with the preponderance of engines of mass-destruction, which we do not and cannot possess, by means of the homeopathic use, as it were, of powerful destructive substances which it would cost little to furnish and which might be obtained or prepared with little risk of discovery.


Heinzen's influence has been mainly secret and subversive, but very powerful. Even though he apparently committed no violent acts himself, his calls to violence have inspired terrorists since the 1840s. Johann Most, likewise an exile in America, frequently cited Heinzen in his own radical periodical, Die Freiheit (Freedom). In sympathy with the attack of the anarchist Leon Czolgosz (1873–1901) on President William McKinley (1843–1901), Most reprinted Heinzen's 1849 essay on murder in Die Freiheit, no. 36 (September 7, 1901), the day after the shooting. Federal agents and local police nationwide, already busy rounding up anarchists after Czolgosz's immediate confession, took this opportunity to arrest Most and send him to prison for a year.

In a sense, Heinzen was typical of militant "ends-justify-the-means" theorists from Caligula to Stalin. In the name of humanity and peace, he advocated extreme levels of cruelty and violence. Not only the monarchs and potentates themselves, but also all who support them, from their willing henchmen to their unwilling servants, and even innocent passersby if they should happen to be present, must be killed without pity in order to build an anarchic society based on wisdom and justice. The essential contradiction and numerous internal inconsistencies of this line of reasoning are self-evident. Like most terrorists, Heinzen failed to see that killing unarmed, unprepared, or innocent civilians undermines the purity and authority of whatever cause the killer supports. His basic argument, expressed as a syllogism, will not withstand the scrutiny of even the simplest Aristotelian logic:

Premise 1: Murder is always wrong.

Premise 2: Murder occurs.

Conclusion: Therefore, to murder murderers is right.



Alexander, Yonah, and Walter Laqueur, eds. The Terrorism Reader: A Historical Anthology. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Wittke, Carl Frederick. Against the Current: The Life of Karl Heinzen (1809–80). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945.


Grob-Fitzgibbon, Benjamin, "From the Dagger to the Bomb: Karl Heinzen and the Evolution of Political Terror." Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 97–115.