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“Let the dead rest – and fulfill their hopes”: Remembering Erich Mühsam

“Let the dead rest – and fulfill their hopes”: Remembering Erich Mühsam

The anarchist author and poet, murdered by the Nazis on July 10, 1934, is now part of Germany’s literary canon

“Anarchist Executes Himself” was the headline of a Nazi propaganda paper on July 10, 1934. The “anarchist” in question was the German-Jewish writer Erich Mühsam, and the alleged suicide was easy to see through as National Socialist staging. Shortly before, he had been told that he should commit suicide, or else it would be taken care of. It happened on the night of July 9 or 10 in Oranienburg concentration camp, where he was imprisoned after the Reichstag fire. He was found hung in his cell. The fact that it was murder, and not suicide, has been established beyond doubt.

Mühsam stood for many things that the National Socialists despised: he was Jewish, an anarchist, an anti-militarist, a so-called November criminal and at least a bisexual. But Mühsam was more than what they reduced him to.

Although he was born in Berlin, on April 6, 1878, he grew up as the son of Jewish parents in the northern German Hanseatic city of Lübeck, associated with the author Thomas Mann and his seminal novel Buddenbrooks. His parents planned for him to become a pharmacist and take over their business. However, this is not what appealed to the young Mühsam. He left his hometown and moves to Berlin, to live the life of a Bohemian and writer. He began writing in 1901 and his first major publication appeared in 1903 under the title Homosexuality. At the time, he himself was in a homoerotic relationship with Johannes Nohl, who later became known as an author in Germany. Inspired by the research of the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeldt, Mühsam defends (male) homosexuality and campaigns against its criminalisation, prevalent in Germany at the time. From today’s perspective, it is full of stereotypes and clichés – including about the creativity inherent in homosexual men.

The end of the 19th century was characterised by reform movements in German-speaking countries. Preachers of various colours swore by naturism/nudism, vegetarian diets, naturopathy, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, etc. One of the centres of this movement was Mont Verita in Switzerland, where Mühsam also visited for a while and later mockingly criticised in his pamphlet Ascona (1905). Around the same time, he travelled around the literary circles of Berlin and its surroundings. One of them was the Friedrichshagener Dichterkreis, whose members included the German-Scottish anarchist John Henry Mackay; another was with the Berlin bohemians who met in the Café des Westen, popularly known as the Café Größenwahn (“Café Megalomania”).

Mühsam became increasingly politically active. His political poems had already caused a stir at school, but now he had other opportunities. 1911 saw the first issue of his magazine Cain: A journal for humanity (Kain. Zeitschrift für Menschlichkeit), an anarchist publication whose articles were almost exclusively written by himself, and which lasted until 1914. He also became friends with the anarchist Gustav Landauer, who, however, thought little of his friend’s poetic outpourings and his propaganda of “free love”. Mühsam’s propaganda of free love culminated in 1914 in a theatre play – The Freedweds (Die Freivermählten) which fell victim to censorship shortly before the start of the first world war.

When it began, many left-wing and anarchist comrades were initially carried away by the frenzy of war. Ernst Toller, a well-know German leftwing author, volunteered for military service and Mühsam was also initially euphoric, but soon changed his mind and wrote a series of anti-militarist poems – e.g. War Song (Kriegslied).   

The First World War ends in Germany with a revolution or an attempted revolution. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils are formed and temporarily take power locally – including in Munich, the future capital of the National Socialist movement. For a short time, there is a soviet republic in the city with the participation of well-known anarchist personalities – including Erich Mühsam (as a councillor for cultural affairs), Gustav Landauer and Silvio Gesell. It is a short-lived project that fails due to the intrigues of the Communist and the Socialdemocratic Party, among other things.

During the Weimar Republic, Mühsam was a relentless propagandist of anarchist ideas. He wrote poetry, rhymed, polemicised and propagated. Evidence of his commitment can be found, for example, in the play Staatsräson, which deals with the case of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, or in lectures to the vagabonds as part of the so called “Lumpenproletariat”. He stood somewhat outside the movement but took part in the discourse and offered other anarchists, such as Rudolf Rocker, a platform in his magazines, such as “Fanal” (1926-1931). At the same time, he also wrote for newspapers such as Weltbühne, published by Carl von Ossietzky, one of the most important liberal and antimilitarist journals of the time.

Due to the precarious political situation in Germany, he briefly sought salvation in an alliance with the Communist Party in 1925. He envisioned a kind of left-wing popular front in which all political forces, from the KPD to the anarcho-syndicalists, would join forces to bring about change. Mühsam disliked the dogmatic policies of the KPD, which excluded dissenters from the left at the time – including the council communist Otto Rühle, and his membership of the party ended after just six months. The project of a popular front had failed.

At the beginning of the 1930s, Erich Mühsam published his most important programmatic work, The Liberation of Society from the State (Die Befreiung der Gesellschaft vom staat. Was ist kommunistischer Anarchismus?). He further developed the concept of anarchist communism and incorporated his experiences from the Munich Soviet Republic. The pamphlet was banned in the same year—and later only appeared as samizdat literature in the GDR.

Shortly after the National Socialists seized power, he was swept up in a wave of arrests following the Reichstag fire in February 1933, imprisoned and later transferred to Oranienburg concentration camp, where he was executed in July 1934 by members of the SS.

A few days later, his mortal remains were buried in a cemetery in Berlin-Dahlem. Gestapo officers were present at the burial, expecting to arrest his wife Zensl Mühsam. Yet she had already fled Germany and escaped the Nazi henchmen. However, this was not the end of her ordeal, which Rudolf Rocker recorded in a pamphlet (Der Leidensweg der Zensl Mühsam) two years later. In the Soviet Union, where she first fled, she was under surveillance by the KGB; later, when she went to the GDR, the Stasi continued her surveillance there.

Mühsam’s tomb of honour at the Waldfriedhof Dahlem, Berlin. A yearly anarchist commemoration has taken place there since the 1970s

In the decades since the WW2, Erich Mühsam has become part of the German-language literary canon. Germanists in the old Federal Republic have been studying his poetry and politics since the 1960s. In East Germany, his work was partially published – without the explicitly anarchist texts – while at the same time he was an important point of reference for dissidents. In homage to him, the library of the Church from Below (Christian dissidents in the GDR) was called the “Kain Archive”. His anarchist texts were passed on by word of mouth, and the punk scene organised an annual memorial demonstration in Oranienburg in his honour from the early 1980s onwards.

Mühsam remains one of the best-known anarchists of German history. In 2012, the Hamburg punk legend Slime released a concept album (Sich fügen heisst lügen) with his poems set to music. The street art pictured above is from two addresses where he lived for a while, in the Hufeisensiedlung and at Alt-Lietzow 12. However, many of his important works area still await being digitised and translated.

~ Maurice Schuhmann

Photos: Yvonne Schwarz / Semiramis Photoart

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