Erich Muehsam 1878-1934: The Man and His Work

By Roland Lewin
Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, Volume One No. 3, Autumn 1977

The public is unaware of the life and work of Erich Muehsam, the anarchist militant whom Rudolf Rocker called ”an unshakeable opponent of every tyranny”. Some works devoted to the history of contemporary Germany, however, that he played an important role in the revolutionary Bavaria of 1918-1919, and that he was one of the first victims of the Hitler regime.

Erich Muehsam is one of the most interesting figures of the German libertarian movement. He was born in Berlin on 6 April 1878. He came from a Jewish family. His father was a pharmacist. The family settled down in Luebeck where the young Erich went to secondary school. His spirit of revolt and taste for action soon showed themselves. He published, in the town’s social-democratic newspaper, several anonymous articles on life at boarding school. His descriptions were not academic but just and his criticisms did not spare anybody. His articles caused quite a stir. He was found out and expelled from school for his ”socialist activities”. However, he graduated at Parchim. His father advised him to follow in his footsteps, and he was for a while an apprentice then an assistant pharmacist.

He soon met Gustav Landauer, the famous writer and anarchist militant. [2] He became his friend and disciple. Both belonged to the New Community, a literary liberal group which had strong influence on the intellectual life of Germany. Apart from Gustav Landauer and Erich Muehsam, this cultural circle included the Hart brothers, Peter Hille, Paul Scheerbart. Muehsam travelled to Switzerland, Italy, Austria and France. In 1909 he settled down in Munich where he earned his living by contributing to various newspapers, notably Jugend and Simplicissmus. In April 1911 he created and activated the monthly review Kain, which lasted until the first world war (a new series appearing from November 1918 until April 1919). During the ten years which preceded the war, he also published many other works: an essay on homosexuality, children’s stories, collections of poems, and plays.

In January 1918 the workers in the munitions factories decided to demonstrate against the war. They launched a general strike which extended throughout Germany. This action, however, did not last long. Muehsam had approved of this kind of struggle and had addressed the Krupp factory workers at Munich. Furthermore, he had refused to be recruited into the auxilliary patriotic service which had just been established. The police arrested him and sent him under house arrest to Trauenstein. He was released on 5 November. During the three days which followed his release he delivered anti-war speeches in front of the Munich barracks.

The revolutionary wave broke all over Germany. During the night of 7-8 November, the king of Bavaria abdicated and the republic was proclaimed. The independent socialist Kurt Eisner formed a coalition government with the majority social-democrats. He relied on the workers’ councils and broke away from the central power of Berlin. He conceded, however, to the pressures from his right wing and was soon practising a policy of concessions that in turn brought him hostility from the far left.

Muehsam had restarted the publication of the review Kain and founded the Union of Revolutionary Internationalists. He was a member of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council which soon transformed itself into a Central Revolutionary Committee. Gustav Landauer and the poet Ernst Toller were also members. On 7 December, 400 men led by Muehsam and the sailor Rudolf Eglhofer, one of those mainly responsible for the Kiel mutiny, occupied the Munich press buildings. He tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain the resignation of the Interior Minister, Auer, who represented the right wing of the Bavarian government.

In his monumental history of the German Army, Benoist-Mechin recounts this episode as follows:

”Disquieted by the growing progress of the counter-revolution, and inspired by the example of their Berlin rivals, Eglhofer and Muehsam decided to take action before it was too late.

”In the night of 7 December, they attempted, on their own initiative, a coup. Accompanied by 400 armed men, they invaded the editorial premises of the principal newspapers of Munich and declared the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Eisner, woken in the middle of the night, dressed in great haste and went to the spot to try to calm things down and to oppose the violence. Impressed by his courage, the red guards went to Auer, at the Ministry of the Interior, where they broke down the doors. Amid the hue and cry they insisted on the minister’s resignation. At revolver point Auer was obliged to sign the following declaration:

”‘In the night of 7 December I was attacked by 400 armed men, and was compelled to give up my commission. Under duress I declare my resignation as Minister of the Interior.’

”Then the troops loyal to the Government jumped into lorries and drove to the Miniatry of the Interior, rushed up the stairs, entered Auer’s office, dispersed the extremists and finally became masters of the situation.” [3]

On 11 December, the Spartacists founded their first Munich group. Until the spring of 1919, they had less influence in Bavaria than in other German states. During many months, the presence and action of the anarchists constituted an obstacle to their efforts in this region. On 29 December 1918 the Spartacusbund merged with the Left Radicals and became the Communist Party of Germany.

On 10 January 1919, fearing trouble during the legislative elections, Kurt Eisner had Muehsam and eleven other revolutionary militants arrested.

The Workers’ Council made him release them the following day. Polling day was 12 January.

The independent socialists were defeated in every constituency. The received only 2.5 percent of the votes. The electorate voted en masse for the majority social democrats (centralist tendency) and for the Bavarian People’s Party (catholic). Encouraged by these results, the bourgeoisie took a harder line and tried to overthrow the government. On the 21 February, when going to present his resignation, Kurt Eisner was assassinated in the street by a young officer, Count Arco-Valley. The popular conscience made a martyr of him; about a hundred thousand attended his funeral.

On the same day as his death, the Central Revolutionary Committee declared a stage of siege and a general strike throughout Bavaria. Furthermore, a new government was immediately formed, presided over by the majority socialist Hoffman. Fearing a trial of strength, he made a few concessions to the extreme left who were soon to find them insifficient. At the beginning of April, the workers’ councils of Augsburg launched a political strike, of which Muehsam was the protagonist. This action rested on the following watchwords: unlimited dictatorship of the proletariat, creation of a republic of councils, alliance with soviet Russia and soviet Hungary, breaking off of relations with the central government of Berlin, formation of a revolutionary army. Several towns in Bavaria joined the movement.

Seconded by Gustav Landauer and Ernst Toller, Erich Muehsam invited the Central Revolutionary Government to proclaim without delay the republic of councils. The proposition was adopted by 234 votes to 70. The communists voted against because they judged it premature. They estimated that the economic and political conditions were not yet ready for the realisation of such a project.

The Bavarian republic of councils was proclaimed during the night of 6-7 April. Hoffman and his cabinet took refuge in Bamberg, whence they organised a counter-offensive. At Munich, a council of peoples commissioners was immediately formed. Ernst Toller was its president. Gustav Landauer became commissioner of public instruction. Despite the pleas of his friends Muehsam accepted only a secondary post. The new government had a brief existence. It lasted only six days. This short period was however the reign of pure idealism. It was described by Erich Otto Volkmann as follows:

”Toller and Muehsam establish the principles of the new art. This art must come into the service of the revolutionary socialist ideals, must impregnate uniformly all the manifestations of the human spirit, architecture, town planning, sculpture, literature, painting and journalism, and lead men to a superior order of civilisation. The theatre must belong to the people. ‘The world must florish like a meadow upon which each can make his harvest.’

”Landauer reforms the educational system. He declares: ‘Everyone will work at what he thinks he is good at; all compulsion is abolished, the juducial spirit is gone.’ The teachers and civil servants in charge will be dismissed as soon as possible, exams and university degrees will be reduced to the minimum. Any civilian of eighteen is entitled to attend university. The teaching of history, that enemy of civilisation, is forbidden.

”A people’s commissioner appointed to the housing department arders the requisition of all dwellings on Bavarian territory. From now on each family will be allowed only one living room, with kitchen and bedrooms.

”Other measures are aimed at integrated socialisation, with the complete renovation of the financial and currency systems.” [4]

Some initiatives were excellent. Others lacked realism. Despite the good intentions of its protagonists, the Bavarian republic of councils was not established on solid ground. As Ernst Toller later recalled, it also had to face a lot of practically insuperable obstacles:

”The inadequacy of its leaders, the opposition of the Communist Party, the disunity which reigned among the socialists, the disorganisation of the administration, the increasing scarcity of food, the confusion of the soldiers, all these components contributed to its fall.” [5]

On 13 April, the first government of the councils was overthrown by the troops of the Hoffman cabinet, who had succeeded in regrouping. One part of the Munich garrison, helped by the republican guards (majority socialists), occupied the principal public buildings of the Bavarian capital. Muehsam and twelve people’s commissioners were arrested and taken under escort to Ebrach prison, near Bamburg. The same day the workers and soldiers, led by Ernst Toller, defeated the counter-revolutionary army. In the confusion that followed a new government of councils was formed under the aegis of three Russian communists: Levine, Levien, and Axelrod. They kept Landauer away from any responsibility. Toller was too popular to be completely set aside and was nominated as commander-in-chief of the north sector of Munich. The military supreme command was entrusted to the sailor Eglhofer. A few days later, Hoffman reassembled his troops and sent them in the direction of the Bavarian capital. Toller smashed this second counter-revolutionary offensive at Dachau on 16 April.

Hoffman and the members from his cabinet then appealed for help from the central government of Berlin. Gustav Noske, the Minister of National Defence, agreed to come to their aid and supervised the operations himself. He sent to Bavaria a considerable and well-equipped army. The generals von Luettwitz and von Oven were in command. The main attack started on 27 April. The revolutionary troops resisted bravely but could not contain the enemy advance. On the first of May, the government army occupied Munich and started a severe repression. There were about seven hundred executions. Landauer, Eglhofer and Levine were among the first victims. Axelrod and Levien fled to Austria before the capture of the town. As for Toller, he was arrested and sentenced to five years’ gaol. He was granted a relatively mild sentence because he had prevented the execution of several counter-revolutionary prisoners.

The trial of Muehsam and twelve of his comrades took place in July in Munich. It lasted eight days. The court martial condemned Muehsam to fifteen years’ detention. He was sent to prison at Ansbach then to Niedershoenfeld. During his imprisonment he wrote Homage to Gustav Landauer, some poems and his famous drama Judas which was to appear later on the reportoire of Erwin Piscator.

As with Ernest Girault and so many other libertarian militants, Erich Muehsam believed that the October revolution would reconcile marxism with anarchism. In 1920 he wrote:

”The theoretical theses and practices of Lenin on the achievement of the revolution and of the communist tasks of the proletariat have given to our action a new base… No more insuperable obstacles to a unification of all the revolutionary proletariat.” [6]

His illusions were short lived. After the crushing of Kronstadt and of the Makhnovists, he understood that it was impossible to reconcile the differences between the two currents of the working class movement. Until the end of his life, however, he tried to unite their struggles in the fight against the bourgeoisie and national socialism. For propaganda purposes the communists presented him as their fellow traveller. They exploited with success his good will and his concialiatory attitude.

Muehsam was granted an amnesty on 21 December 1924. Thousands of Berlin workers were waiting for him at the station the following day. For six months he travelled across Germany and spoke of behalf of political prisoners. After that he helped individual cases and took up more particularly the defense of the famous militant communist Max Hoelz who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. He also took part in the campaign to free Sacco and Vanzetti. In October 1926 he founded the monthly review Fanal, which lasted five years. He also created his own publishing house and published many works: his memoirs about the Bavarian councils republic, a recital of his literary encounters, an essay on communist anarchism… up until the advent of the Third Reich he attended many meetings and urged the German workers to unite against national socialism.

On 28 February 1933, a few hours after the burning of the Reichstag, he was arrested when he was getting ready to leave Germany. He spent time in several of Hitler’s gaols: Lehrterstrasse prison (Berlin), Sonnenburg camp, Ploetzensee prison (Berlin), Oranienburg concentration camp. Nazi propaganda blamed Muehsam for the execution of twenty-two hostages at Munich on 30 April 1919. As he pointed out to his executioners, this accusation did not stand up to the facts: he was arrested and taken to prison at Ebrach on 13 April. This legend (of the hostages) was used as a pretext to justify treatment of the worst kind. Despite humiliations and tortures, Erich Muehsam kept a very dignified attitude. His agony lasted seventeen months. He was assassinated at the camp of Oranienburg during the night of 9-10 July 1934.

The nazis claimed that he committed suicide. Many details and many testimonies proved that he was coldly killed by the SS. He was buried on 16 July 1934 in the cemetary of Dahlem.

The same day his companion left Germany and took refuge in Czechoslovakia. A few months later she was invited to the U.S.S.R. She took with her all her husband’s manuscripts as she was promised that an edition of all his works would be published. She had the imprudence to give these documentsto the Soviet archives where they are probably still kept. The censorship allowed the publication only of some poems and literary memoirs. Zensl Muehsam was not deceived for long and showed her disappointment. During the Stalinist purges of 1936, she was arrested and condemned to eight years’ of hard labour and deported. [7] She only left the hell of a concentration camp fifteen years later.. she was then gravely ill and starting to lose her mind. She was sent to East Germany where she received a few medals and a pension. The Pankow regime made her sign documents and used her name on many occasions. She died in East Berlin on 10 March 1962.

The history of the German libertarian movement has still to be written. It is however surprising to note that in most books on anarchism the names of Gustav Landauer and Erich Muehsam are never mentioned. These two revolutionary militants played an important role that seems worthy of acknowledgement. Their main works deserve to be translated and distributed. They would, now, constitute an excellent instrument for reflection and discussion. Thanks to the recent work of a few comrades the life and works of Gustav Landauer were rescued from obscurity. We hope that it will be the same with Erich Muehsam.

Roland Lewin

NOTES
[1] This study appeared previously in Recherches Libertaires (No. 4, Sept. 1967) and Volonta (Vol. XX, No. 11, Nov. 1967), and as a supplement to Le Monde Libertarire, No. 143 (June 1968).

[2] See especially: ”Gustav Landauer et la regeneration social”, by Rene Forain, Le Monde Libertaire, No. 125 (Sept.-Oct. 1966), ”La Revolution et l’esprit unifiant” by Gustav Landauer, Le Monde Libertaire, Nos. 126 (November 1966) and 127 (December 1966); ”Gustav Landauer et la Revolution allemande,” Le Monde Libertaire, No. 128 (Jan. 1967); ”Gustav Landauer”, by C.W., Recherches Libertaires, No. 1 (Dec. 1966). The principal work by Gustav Landauer as been re-edited: Aufruf zum Sozialismus (Call to Socialism), Europaische Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt-Main, 1967, 195 pages (with a preface by Heinz-Joachim Heydorn).

[3] Benoist-Mechin: Histoire de l’armee allemande Vol. 1, ”L’effondremont (1918-1919)”. Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 1964, 379 pages.

[4] E.O. Volkmann: La revolution allemande. Librairie Plon, Paris, 1933, 310 pages.

[5] Ernst Toller: Eine Jugend in Deutschland. Querido Verlag, Amsterdam, 1933, 293 pages. This autobiographical work is also to be found in the selected works of Ernst Toller published in one volume by Rowohlt in 1961. I was a German: an autobiography, Ernst Toller, trans. by Edward Crankshaw, John Lane The Bodley Head, London, 1934, 298 pages plus X prelims.

[6] Bulletin communiste, 22nd July, 1920. Cited by Pierre Broue: Le parti bolchevique (history of the C.P. U.S.S.R.). Edns. Minuit, Collection ”Arguments”, Paris, 1963, 628 pages.

[7] Consult on this subject the writings of Alexandre Weissberg (L’accuse; preface by Arthur Koestler; Editions Fasquelle, 1953, 591 pages) and of Margarete Buber-Neumann: Deportee en Siberie; afterword by Albert Beguin; Editions de la Baconniere et du Seuil, collection ”Cahiers du Rhone”, Paris, 1949, 255 pages. Also ”How the Berlin journal of the Unified Socialist Communist Party, New Germany, tries to distort the fate of Zensl Muehsam”, Le Libertaire, No. 185 (10 June 1949).

Principal Sources:
Benoit-Mechin, Histoire de l’armee allemande, Vol. 1, ”L’effondrement, 1918-1919”, Paris 1936 and1964 (two editions).

Beyer, Hans, Von der Novemberrevolution zur Raterepublik in Munchen. (From the November Revolution to the Munich Republic of Councils). Berlin, 1957.

Dorst, Tankred and Neubauer, Helmust, Die Munchener Raterepublik. (The Munich Republic of Councils). Frankfurt, 1966.

Hem Day, Erich Muhsam. Brussels, no date (1934 or 1935?).

Mitchell, Allan, Revolution in Bavaria, 1918-1919. The Eisner Regime and the Soviet Republic. Princeton U.P. 1965; Munich, 1967 (two editions).

Muehsam, (Kreszentia), The Painful Life of Erich Muhsam, Paris, 1934; Genoa, 1960 (two editions).

Rocker, Rudolf, Der Leidensweg von Zensl Muhsam. (The Grief of Zensl Muhsam). Frankfurt-Man, 1949.

Schade, (Franz), Kurt Eisner und die bayerische Sozialdemokratie. (Kurt Eisner and the Bavarian Social Democracy). Hanover, 1961.

Volkmann, E.O., La revolution allemande (1918-1920). (The German Revolution (1918-1920). Paris, 1933.

Braunbuch uber Reichstagsbrand und Hitler-Terror. (Brown Book on the Reichstag Fire and the Hitler Terror) Basle, 1933.

Weissbuch uber die Eriessungen des 30 Juni 1934. (White Book on the Executions of 30 June 1934). Paris, 1934.

Wir sind die Rote Garde. Sozialistische Literatur 1914-1935 (We are the Red Guard. Socialist Literature 1914-1935). 2 vols. Leipzig, 1967.

Bibliographical Postscript
Grunberger, Richard, Red Rising in Bavaria. Arthur Barker, London, 1973, pp. 164.
Maurer, Charles B., Call to Revolution. The mystical anarchism of Gustav Landauer, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1971, pp. 218.

Articles on Erich Muehsam and texts by this militant have appeared in the following periodicals (by chronological order):

Bulletin communiste, No. 21, 22 July 1920.
Les Vagabonds, Jan. 1924.
La Revue Internationale Anarchiste, No. 1, 15 November 1924.
La Revolution Proletarienne, No. 4, April 1925.
Le Nouvel Age, No. 11, Nov. 1931.
Le Libertaire, Nos 391 (24 March 1933), 422 (3 Aug. 1934) and 435 (8 Feb. 1935).
Le Voix Libertaire, Nos. 273 (4 Aug. 1934) and 274 (1 Sept. 1934).
Terre Libre, No. 5, Sept. 1934.
La Revue Anarchiste, No. 21, Oct.-Dec. 1934.
L’Espagne Antifasciste, No. 18, 7 Nov. 1936.
Ce qu’ll Faut Dire, No. 48/49, Dec. 1947.
Die freie Gesellshaft, Nos. 10 (Aug. 1950) and 19 (May 1951).
Information, No. 4, 1959.
Le Monde Libertaire, No. 86, Jan. 1963.

Iconography
Terre Libre, No. 5, Sept. 1934.
Le Revue Anarchiste, No. 21, Oct.-Dec. 1934.
Weissbuch uber die Erchiessungen des 30 Juni 1934, Paris, 1934.
Muhsam, Kreszentia, La Vie douloureuse d’Erich Muhsam, Paris, 1934.
Muhsam, Erich, Auswahl, Zurich, 1962.
Schade, Franz, Kurt Eisner und die bayerische Sozialdemokratie, Hanover, 1961.
Mein Kampf. (Documents about Hitler and the Third Reich, from the film of Erwin Leiser). Paris, 1962.
Bloch, Charles, La nuit des longs couteaux, Paris, 1967.

Works by Erich Muehsam

Die Homosexualitat. Ein Beitrag zur Sittengesschichte unserer Zeit (Homosexuality: A contribution to the history of the customs of our times).Berlin, 1903.
Billy’s Erdengang. Eine Elephantengeschichte fur artige Kinder (Billy’s Stay on Earth. A story about elephants for good children). Berlin, 1904.
Die Wuste. Gedichte (The Desert. Poems). Berlin, 1904.
Ascona. Eine Broschure (Ascona. A pamphlet). Locarno, 1905 and 1906 (two editions).
Die Psychologie der Erbtante. Eine Tanthologie aus 25 Einzeldarstellungen als Beitrag zur Losung der Unsterblichkeitsfrage (The Psychology of the Wealthy Aunt. A study of the aunt through 25 unique descriptions contributed to resolve the problem of immortality). Zurich, 1905.
Die Hochstapler. Lustspiel in vier Aufzugen (The Crooks. A comedy in four acts). Munich, 1906.
Die Jagd auf Harden. (The Pursuit of Harden). Berlin, 1908.
der Krater. (The crater). Berlin, 1909.
Die Freivermahlten. Polemisches Schauspiel in drei Aufzugen (The Question of a Free Union. A polemical play in three acts). Munich, 1914.
Wuste – Krater – Wolken. Gedixhte (Desert – Craters – Clouds. Poems). Berlin, 1914.
1919. Dem Andenken Gustav Landauers (1919. Homage to Gustav Landauer). Berlin, 1919.
Brennende Erde. Verse eines Kampfers (Earth on Fire. Verse of a Combatant). Munich, 1920.
Judas. Arbeiter Drama in funf Akten (Judas. Working class drama in five acts). Berlin, 1921 and 1924 (two editions).
Das Standrecht in Bayern. (Martial Law in Bavaria). Berlin, 1923.
Alarm. Manifeste aus zwanzig jahren (Alarm. Demonstrations of twenty years). Berlin, 1925.
Revolution. Kampf, Marsch und Spottlieder (Revolution. Fighting, marching and satirical songs). Berlin, 1925.
Seenot. Verse und Gesange (Peril at Sea. Verse and Songs). Vienna, 1925.
Gerechtigkeit fur Max Hoelz! (Justice for Max Hoelz!). Berlin, 1926.
Staatrason. Ein Denkmal fur Sacco und Vanzetti (Reasons of State. Memorial for Sacco and Vanzetti). Berlin, 1928.
Sammlung 1898-1928. (C ollection of texts, 1898-1928). Berlin, 1928.
Von Eisner bis Levine. Die Entstehung der bayerischen raterepublik. Personlicher Rechenschaftsbericht uber die Revolutionsereignisse in Munchen vom 7 November 1918 bis zum 13 April 1919. (From Eisner to Levine. The genesis of the Bavarian republic of councils. A personal account of the revolutionary events in Munich from 7 November 1918 to 13 April 1919). Berlin, 1929.
Unpolitische Erinnerungen. (Unpolitical Memories). Leipzig, 1931; Berlin, 1961 (two editions).
Die Befreiung der Gesellschaft vom Staat. Was ist Kommunistischer Anarchismus? (The Liberation of Society from the State. What is communist anarchism?). Berlin, 1932.
La Liberte comme principe social. (Freedom as a Social Principle), Brussels, 1936.
Auswahl. (Chosen pieces). Moscow, 1960 )with an introduction and notes by N. Pawlowa).
Auswahl. (Chosen pieces). Zurich, 1962 (with an obituary article by Erich Weinert and an appendix by Dieter Schiller).

(Translated by A. and J.W.)

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