Korsch came from a medium middle-class background. His father had been through secondary school, had taken the Abitur, and possessed great intellectual ambition. He was very interested in philosophy and wrote an enormous unpublished volume on the development of Leibnitz’s theories of monads. He tried to put the whole of the cosmos into this philosophical system. It was his life’s work and purely theoretical. The family came from East Prussia, from a farming background. But he wanted something more urban and intellectual. Soon after he married Teresa Raikovsky, Korsch’s mother, they moved west to Todstedt. The father wanted to be closer to western culture, and he disliked the agricultural Junker environment in which they lived. Because although the Korsch family themselves had only a modest-sized farm, the big estates were all around them and his father had no interest in agriculture. His mother was
The first 11 years in that small town on the Lüneburg Heath had a very strong influence on Karl. He could speak the dialect of North Germany and until the First World War he pronounced certain syllables such as the ‘s’ at the beginning of sprechen and stehen in a North German way. He got rid of these during the War because all the people in his regiment were from Meiningen and they could not understand what he was saying; in order to be understood by ordinary people—the soldiers—he changed his accent. But he was always full of stories, proverbs and expressions from that part of the world.
When he was 11 the family moved because there was no Gymnasium, no secondary school, and Karl showed such abilities that his parents thought he should have a better school. Meiningen was at that time still a Grand-Duchy and I do not know why they chose it. It may have been because it was one of the most liberal and enlightened principalities; in contrast to Prussia which was much more reactionary, Meiningen had carried out a number of reforms. It possessed a Hoftheater which was the first theatre in Germany to play realistically and not recite the classical roles in an oratorical fashion. When they moved there, Korsch’s father was employed by a bank; in the end he rose to be vice-president of it in Meiningen. The Korsch family lived in Obermassfeld, a village nearby, and Karl used to walk an hour each way when going to school. Some people have suggested that the Korsches were quite affluent, but although they were not poor there were six children (four daughters, two sons) and life was certainly extremely simple. They lived in this village because rents were cheaper than in town and they led a very parsimonious existence.
Korsch remained at school in Meiningen till he got his Abitur; most of his teachers were alcoholics, having acquired the habit of excessive drinking as students. He began to read philosophy by himself, in addition to the prescribed texts such as Schiller’s theoretical essays which were included in the German literature course. Karl’s father was working on his theory of monads and so he too encouraged Korsch to read philosophy. He told me later that it was at school that he shed all the idiocies of the typical German students of the time—endless drinking, corporate ceremonies, more beer and more Sunday excursions to the village pub. He said later that he got these out of his system in his last two years at school and never had the slightest inclination to repeat them again.
After taking his Abitur he first went to the university at Jena, where he completed his studies. He also spent one term in Munich because he thought that he should know something about art and Munich was the place to see paintings and listen to good music. After that he spent some time in Switzerland; there he learnt to speak French fluently. He also got a very strong taste of the international community there among students and political exiles. He met a lot of Russians who had fled from Tsarism although no famous ones.
He studied law because his father thought it was the only thing for an intelligent young man to study, and from the start he specialized in international law and jurisprudence. He passed all his exams well. He was also a member of the Freie Studentenschaft, a group of students opposed to the existing student Bunde. Korsch played a leading role in this movement and he travelled all over Germany working for it—which is how I first met him. There was no formal membership. Historically, it emerged in opposition to the Burschenschaften and the Studentenkorps which represented reactionary anti-semitism and militarism, with a lot of rituals with ranks and drinking, and membership lists. The Freie Studenten had no lists; they had open groups—sports groups, philosophy groups, mutual help groups. Anyone who wanted could attend. They came into existence around 1900 and they were in outspoken opposition to traditional German codes of behavior. I do not think that they had any more specific political content, except that they aspired towards an individualistic freedom. They had a slight tendency towards the left of centre, but they were certainly not socialist.
Although his father was a Leibnitzian he considered himself at this time to be a Kantian. He often gave talks on a variety of subjects and you could always see he was a Kantian. He insisted that anyone whom he considered intelligent enough should read not only the Critique of Pure Reason but Kant’s other works as well, especially the Metaphysic of Morals. He was also a convinced socialist by the time of his last year in school. He looked around to see if there were any socialists among his school-mates, but he did not find any. He read a lot: I do not know when he first read Marx but I am inclined to think it was at school, because when he was a student he was an outspoken socialist—by conviction, although not a member of any organization. He never joined the spd, although he had friends in the spd especially in Jena. He wanted the Freie Studenten to meet workers and socialists and he arranged discussion evenings through a friend of his, Heidemann, whose father was an spd member of the local parliament in Mecklenburg. The evenings were arranged like a dinner where men and women sit next to each other—in this case workers and students sat alternately.