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Karl Marx: The Divorce Bill and Marriage Reforms in Nineteenth-Century Germany and Prussia


On December 18, 1842, Marx wrote and published his criticism about The Divorce Law in his socialist newspaper called Rheinische Zeitung in response to Germany’s and Prussia’s divorce reforms. He condemned religion for interfering with Prussia’s progression. But in the eleventh century, Rebbeinu Gershom ben Yehuda (965-1028) reformed Jewish divorce laws that gave equal say to both parties. Jewish husbands could no longer divorce their wives unless their wives gave consent; both Jewish men and women sought divorce for unfaithfulness; if they were abusive; or if a spouse contracted a sexual transmitted disease. This not only gave religious leniency, but it also gave women more freedoms. With Christianity, however, divorce was rarely given, if given at all. Christians strongly believed that marriage was a covenant between God, and they also believed that marriage could only be separated by death. With regards to women’s rights, women were inferior to their fathers and husbands, and they had to obey both. Marx argues that the Divorce Bill was only a revision that treated marriage as a religious church institution, which ignored the secular essence of marriage. But throughout Germany and Prussia, in the nineteenth century, strict marriage laws influenced class statuses, regulated population growth, and hindered the poor from marrying. These stipulations were formed through the Divorce Bill and marriage reforms that allowed middle and upper-class German women to marry, with proof of their social status, wealth, reputation, and location, while simultaneously denouncing the poor’s right to marry. Thus, Germany and Prussia were building the middle and upper-classes numbers, while destroying the poor, hindering the lower classes from obtaining wealth, knowledge, and growth. Regulations such as these were not based on religion but on social class control. To understand how the Divorce Bill and marriage reforms in Germany and Prussia came about, we need to look at the social history of Germany and Prussia.

E. J. Schuster, a former author and affiliate with both Cambridge University and the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, wrote an article, in Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation, called “The History and Present Condition of the German Divorce Law,” which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1910. In this journal article, Schuster argues that there are “five different factors that influenced the German divorce law which include: Germanic custom; The Canon Law; The Reformation; The influence of rationalism and natural law doctrines; and The influence of unification and compromise.”[1] The latter of the three deals with issues regarding late nineteenth century social issues, reforms, and lack thereof. As such, these components did not directly influence Marx’s criticism. However, by looking at Schuster’s first components, we can see how these areas influenced the issues of 1842.

Germanic customs and The Canon Law will be thoroughly discussed to give clarity to why Marx criticized The Divorce Law. During antiquity, Germanic customs allowed husbands to divorce their wives without reason, but both parties were allowed to re-marry. If a wife was found to have committed adultery, then her husband had the right to “dismiss or sell her.”[2] Yet, she was allowed to leave a marriage if her husband was abusive. With the influence of Christianity, in the twelfth century, these divorce laws changed and redefined Germany.[3]

When The Canon Law was introduced, it legally stripped down the Germanic divorce customs and deprived religion from interfering with the medieval courts. The Canon Law allowed men to divorce women, but it would not allow divorce women to re-marry. This caused many issues for the women, especially the ones that were subjected to violence. Medieval women did not have any rights and were inferior to men, as such they could not provide for themselves. If their husbands divorced them, and they were not allowed to re-marry, they were forced back home to live with their parents, other relatives, or live in a convent. Thus, many of them were forced to stay in these miserable and fearful conditions in exchange for food, protection, and shelter. In 1537, new divorce reforms redefined German marriages, separations, and annulments. The German High Courts prohibited marriage between cousins, but still maintained that women could not re-marry after a divorce. Furthermore, the courts clearly defined that adultery was ground for divorce for both parties. If one spouse was found unfaithful, then the couples underwent a period of separation called “separation of board and bed,” which gave couples a chance to reconsider divorce.[4]

When 1751 rolled around, “divorce by mutual consent” was initiated in some parts of Prussia, but this changed in 1784 when the Prussian Code was created.[5] The Prussian Code gave harsher restrictions than any of the previous divorce laws. Under this law, divorce could not be obtained if there were children in the marriage; if one member of the party rejected the divorce; if there was no evidence of abuse; and if there was no hope for re-uniting.[6] Once it was determined that the couples followed the above criteria, then the Courts awarded divorce to the following reasons: “adultery; abandonment; refusing sexual actions; mental illness; abuse; criminal activity and punishment; excessive indulgence; lack of self-control; a husband’s failure to maintain a wife if brought about by crime; or by changing religions.”[7] Even though the Prussian Code still bound women to aggressive men, it gave some hope for others, while simultaneously forcing women to submit to their husbands.[8] Along these issues, Jewish and Christian women in the lower, middle, and upper classes were also socially divided through legislation. As a result, divorce impacted these women differently and at different rates.

Lower class couples were forced to stay married and were not allowed divorce. In the middle and upper-classes, divorce was allowed, especially with abuse cases. This type of discrimination caused a gap between these classes of women, and eventually class segregation developed. But these discriminations also led Germany and Prussia to control marriage rights within these classes. Doctor John Knodel, a researcher in sociologist and professor at University of Michigan, wrote an article, in the historical journal Population Studies, called “Law, Marriage, and Illegitimacy in Nineteenth-Century Germany,” which was published by Taylor & Francis, Limited. Knodel argues that marriage restrictions had a long tradition in many German states extending back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a period when the governments of these states were striving to foster population growth in the belief that an augmentation in numbers led to an increase in power and wealth.”

During the nineteenth century, Prussia held deep anti-semitic attitudes toward their Jewish populations. King Frederick William III coerced Prussian Jews to convert to Christianity, and enacted strict policies that prevented other religions to convert to Judaism. “3,171 Persian Jews converted to Christianity.”[9] In the same year that Marx wrote his arguments about the Divorce Bill, Prussia prevented Jews from being citizens. “80% of Posen Jews were still not citizens and 1/3 of Prussian Jews had not attained that status.”[10] When Frederick William IV was assassinated, Prussia took a drastic turn, and began the process of refinement. These new steps opened the door for the Jewish people to gain their freedoms. They were allowed to become citizens, could hold high paying positions, and own their own property. These steps were followed by Germany’s attempt to reform marriage and set divorce policies that gave more freedoms to individuals who wanted marriage or divorce.[11] But even though, Germany and Prussia were refining their discrimination laws, toward their Jewish citizens, they continuously attacked the poor, middle, and upper-class men and women.

To prevent the lower class from growing, the German government urged middle and upper-class Germans and Persians to “marry; produce large families; and promote immigration, while discouraging celibacy and emigration.”[12] Mandates like these prevented lower class women from gaining any type of independence. They were bound to a life of spinsterhood where they were forced to live with parents or next of kin. Since they were discouraged from moving outside their local areas, individuals from the middle and upper-classes did not immigrate to other towns. This proved difficult to obtain suitable husbands and wives.[13]

Once the middle and upper-class individuals acquired permission to marry, by their local authorities, they had to produce proof of their “wealth, lands, income, and show that they had a stable career. Then they had to further show that they were productive members of society with good reputations and strong social standings.”[14] As such, marriage reforms and The Divorce Bill, Germany and Prussia were not handling things in a “religious moral essence,” but instead were controlling their populations to prevent their undesirable citizens from growing and corrupting the other classes.[15] Marx argues that The Divorce Bill was hindered by religious views, but instead it was hindered by social control.

Instead of reform there has been a mere revision, hence Prussian law was retained as the basic law, which has resulted in considerable half-heartedness and uncertainty; 2.) the legislation treats marriage not as a moral, but as a religious and church institution, hence the secular essence of marriage is ignored; 3.) the procedure is very defective and consists of a superficial combination of contradictory elements; 4.) it cannot be ignored there are, on the one hand, severities of a police nature which are contrary to the concept of marriage and, on the other, too great leniency in regard to what are called considerations of fairness; 5.) the whole formulation of the Bill leaves much to be desired as regards logical consistency, precision, clarity and comprehensive points of view.[16]

As Marx continued to blame the failures of the Divorce Bill on religion, he failed to see that religion, especially Judaism, gave more freedoms to women than Christianity and the German government. Through the centuries, The Roman Catholic Church strictly mandated that women should submit to their husbands in everything, and that divorce was abomination against God.[17] However, through secular legislations, divorce gave women more freedoms by giving them the right to simply divorce. The divorce restrictions that these women faced were not because of Christianity or Judaism, but by the fact that they had to be controlled by the state to prevent orphans, homelessness, starvation, disease, and even prostitution.

During the eleventh century, Judaism began to reform women’s rights, giving them an equal say about their treatment in a marriage. Christianity rarely saw any reforms and continued to preach submission; that divorce was an abomination to God; and that separation could only happen until death. Because of these strict religious teachings, the Divorce Bill in 1842 gave way for Christian women to have a voice in their treatment in a marriage. This bit of freedom gave testament that Germany and Prussia were trying to form decent but equal divorce laws. These reforms overrode Christian beliefs while discriminating against social classes. Thus, divorce and marriage were strictly controlled by the state and not by religious beliefs or institutions.

In essence (pun intended), The Divorce Bill was formed through social control via state mandates to prevent a social crisis among women and children. Mandates like this eventually created marriage reforms that forced individuals to marry in a certain class, while preventing the poor from gaining any kind of prestige. By forming a stagnant growth rate among the poor, Germany and Prussia began to slowly rid their regions from their undesirables. Thus, The Divorce Bill and marriage reforms were not created to preserve religion, they were built to prevent women from becoming poor, homeless, or becoming prostitutes. Mandates and practices, like these, were not directly supported by Christianity or Judaism, and were not supported by these institutions, nor did they influence such mandates upon their followers.

[1]. E. J. Schuster, “The History and Present Condition of the German Divorce Law,” Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 10, no. 2 (1910): 299-233, [2]. Schuster, “The German Divorce Law,” 229. [3]. Schuster, “The German Divorce Law,” 229. [4]. Schuster, “The German Divorce Law,” 229-230. [5]. John Knodel, “Law, Marriage, and Illegitimacy in the Nineteenth-Century Germany,” Population Studies 20, no. 3 (March 1967), 281. [6]. Knodel, “Nineteenth-Century Germany,” 280-282. [7]. Knodel, “Nineteenth-Century Germany,” 280-282. [8]. Ep. 5:22 (KJV).

[9]. Jewish Virtual Library, “Prussia,” Virtual Jewish World: Prussia, last modified 2022, [10]. Jewish Virtual Library, “Prussia,”

[11]. Jewish Virtual Library, “Prussia,” [12]. Knodel, “Nineteenth-Century Germany,” 279-280. [13]. Knodel, “Nineteenth-Century Germany,” 279-294. [14]. Knodel, “Nineteenth-Century Germany,” 281. [15]. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engles, Collected Works, vol. 1, Karl Marx: 1835-1843 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1975), 310. [16]. Marx and Engles, Karl Marx: 1835-1843, 307. [17]. De. 24:1; Exr. 10:3; Je. 3:1; Mt. 5:31, 19:7; Lu. 16:18; 1Co. 7:27, 7:10; Ep. 5:22.


Primary Sources:

Kamenka, Eugene. The Portable Karl Marx. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engles. Collected Works. Vol. 1, Marx: 1835-1843, 1975.

Books and Articles:

Knodel, John. “Law, Marriage, and Illegitimacy in Nineteenth-Century Germany.” Population Studies 20, vol. 3 (March 1967), 279-294.

Schuster, E. J. “The History and Present Condition of the German Divorce Law.” Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 10, no. 2 (1910), 229-238.

Jewish Virtual Library. “Issues in Jewish Ethics: Divorce.” Jewish Ethics. Last modified 2022.

Jewish Virtual Library. “Prussia.” Virtual World: Prussia. Last modified 2022.


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