MAX NETTLAU’S 70th BIRTHDAY

By Fritz Brupbacher (Translated by Jules Scarceriaux)

April 30th, Max Nettlau, the historian of anarchism, was seventy years old. He lives in Vienna in a tiny little room hardly big enough for himself, a stove and a few needed books. There, he toils day and night to complete his works without asking himself if they will ever be printed. Times are hard for men who have only their thoughts and knowledge to sell. We live in an epoch where love is no longer loved, when each one looks for either a master or a slave. But Dr. Max Nettlau studies the libertarian movement and writes its history. The knowledge of such a movement is not wished for by masters nor by slaves; to them, such history is enervating.

For more than thirty years Nettlau’s Bakunin, a monumental biography, waits for an editor, in any language. Still it is in existence, about fifty copies polygraphed by himself, have been spread all over the world. Every one of us who writes about the libertarian movement and upon Bakunin has taken something from Nettlau. Without him we should practically have ignored everything from the history of anarchism.

Now, a 40,000 Volume library collected by his own means is packed up in boxes somewhere. Nettlau is not “rich” enough to install his own library and make use of his own books. Day and night he is at work as the poorest worker and he is as poor as the last of them; for his work is poison to the wealthy of the world. Should Nettlau manufacture ammunitions, he would then live in abundance.

Yes, Dr. Nettlau was born in Vienna. His father was chief gardener for prince Schwarzenberg; he was a republican of the German 48; fatherhood was well understood by him, for he left his son to grow like his flowers. Nettlau had a happy childhood growing up in a wonderful garden in Robinson Crusoe and Grimm’s stories atmosphere, dreaming of some South-Sea Islands, idealistic and free. Later, this dream of a free island passed into his social conceptions. The political dream of the year 1848 remained a part of his life. Already as a youth, he wanted to organise a society of conspirators to fight the tyrants.

When a young collegian he read “Die Zukunft” (The Future), an Australian socialist publication. Very early in life he participated at socialist gatherings and meetings. Once, at the Gymnasium, he was already reprimanded for his conceptions; in a composition he had condemned Louis XIV for having made too many wars. He was then told that a prince can never be blamed.

First, Nettlau studied philology. He obtained his doctorate summacum lande for his Cimbrian Celtic grammar. From 1891 on, he published his first work upon Bakunin, and thus the latter was known in our midst.

Later he gave up philology and applied himself entirely to the study of the libertarian movement. He wrote numerous well-documented articles for newspapers and reviews. He wrote not only a biography of Bakunin, but also one of Reclus and another on Malatesta.

Furthermore, besides the above mentioned works, he published in German three volumes upon the history of anarchism; four more manuscripts on the subject are ready. But these books cannot see the daylight. Here, one could ask if the editors are under the impression that there is no more a public of revolutionary readers for such books. Or we should be inclined to enquire if the revolutionary element has lost the taste for everything dealing with freedom.

However, we believe that there must still be one editor for the history of anarchism in a single volume, a book that would consign the essential of the work to which Nettlau has concentrated his entire life. This summing up which we have asked him for, Nettlau is now writing without bothering about its publication. Deep into his heart he has confidence. He works at what he believes to be his task as must work all those who love and advocate freedom.

Again, we, the old ones, cannot conceive our intellectual workshop without Nettlau’s work. And I think that it will be the same with the young element, for those who think that freedom is as much needed as our daily bread.

Thus, all of us, friends of freedom, of truth, will say today to Dr. Nettlau, on his 70th birthday, that our hearts are thankful for him who has kept the treasures of the anarchist literature through his researches and publications. Nettlau has not worked and suffered in vain. And if he is dear and so great to us, it is as much for the reason that he is not only a scholar, but also a man who has lived only for his ideas locked up in the midst of his books that speak of them. We shake hands with him with gratitude and wish him in his work many, many more years. No doubt that finally, there will be an editor in some country in the world who will understand the importance of Nettlau’s marvellous work.

Man! Vol. 3 No 6
June 1935

(From “Man! An Anthology of Anarchist Ideas, Essays, Poetry and Commentaries”, ed. By Marcus Graham. Cienfuegos Press, London 1974.)

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