1960s >> 1967 >> no-749-january-1967

50 Years Ago: Unconquerable Print

A little while ago in the affairs of the Continent of Europe, lived an emperor called Frederick the Great. The only unquestionably great thing he did was to kill himself with uncommon vices. He departed a little from the usual insipidence of royal life by taking an interest in literature and entertaining Voltaire at his court. It would seem that this same hospitable reception of the satirist is the principal act of his life which entitles him to the epithet of ‘The Great’ . . . one other action in the life of Carlyle’s hero entitles him to remembrance if not to a fool’s immortal pillory. While driving through one of the cities of Prussia on a sunny day, he saw on a wall a placard in which he himself was denounced as an idle intemperate atheist. It had been posted in the dark and was too high to be easily read. The emperor stopped his carriage and commanded that a similar bill should be glued at a more readable height. ‘For’ he said, ‘My subjects may print what they like so long as I do what I like’.

It is difficult to say what thoughts were dancing in the Prussian’s skull. Did the old blockhead think that Print remained no more than print; this fierce placard, ‘posted after dark,’ no more than paper and letterpress? Did he not think that his own coronation and the docility of the masses, depended on advisory placards far different in spirit from this nocturnal one; that a word of this fresh sheet might stop those gilt wheels of his; that a thought of it might be as a whirlwind to knock his golden palace down and blow him and his better-half over the seas out of disgusted Prussia; that this sheet of letter-press might fire a country to destroy an Emperor?

From the Socialist Standard January 1917.