In March, I visited Stuttgart on what I expected to be an interesting but routine research trip. What I found was a fascinating history of workers’ organisation, socialism and a living memorial to the life and activities of Clara Zetkin.

Clara Zetkin

Clara Zetkin was born in Widerau in rural Saxony, southern Germany, in 1857. She became active in Marxist politics in the 1870s and was a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Party (SPD) until 1917, though spending the 1880s in exile in Zurich and then Paris.

Zetkin was, alongside Rosa Luxemburg, a key figure on the revolutionary left of the SPD. She was also the leading figure in the SPD’s women’s movement, editing its newspaper (1891-1917). She launched the first ever International Women’s Day on 8 March 1910.

Zetkin took a principled anti-war stance after the outbreak of war in 1914, against the position of the SPD leadership, and in 1915 organised an international socialist women’s anti-war conference.

She went on to help found the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1919 and represented the party in the German Parliament from 1920 until 1933. She was a member of the executive committee of the Communist International (1921-33).

Zetkin died – in exile in the Soviet Union – on 20 June 1933, shortly after fleeing Nazi Germany. One of her final acts was the extremely brave anti-Nazi speech she made in the Reichstag, after Hitler was elected Chancellor.

On the trail of Clara Zetkin

In 2008, I was invited to contribute a paper to the forthcoming conference, ‘Roundabout Leipzig: Leipzig in der Englisch-Sprachigen Kultur’, an event to mark the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University of Leipzig.

Although Zetkin did not study or teach at the university, I persuaded the organisers of the relevance of a paper on Zetkin on the basis that women were not admitted to the university for much of its history, Zetkin played an important role in Leipzig and she had a significant but today unknown impact on German-British culture.

With the paper accepted, I embarked upon my research – research that has gone beyond that original conference, and continues to this day. In addition to the standard archival and library research of the historian, I was keen to ‘experience’ Zetkin, to provide a body to the soul of the research I was engaged in.

I thus planned a series of trips to Germany to discover Zetkin’s haunts. In May 2009 I sought out Zetkin’s home and school in Leipzig from 1872 to 1881 – sadly lacking due to wartime bombing and postwar redevelopment – and also engaged in a cycling tour of Mittelsachsen to rediscover her childhood village of Wiederau.

Zetkin was born in the village in 1857, before moving to Leipzig on her father’s retirement. Wiederau remembers Zetkin through a museum located in the village schoolhouse (her father, Gottfried Ei√üner, had been the schoolmaster), the Museum ‘Alte Dorfschule’.

As the museum’s keeper, Ursula Bergmann, was quick to point out, Zetkin was not born there and did not live there – her village house has long since disappeared – but the school was made the focal-point of Zetkin remembrance by the authorities of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and, since German reunification, it is beautifully kept by Frau Bergmann, even while few visitors appear to cross its threshold.

Frau Bergmann was so delighted that three visitors had come to the museum on a Saturday – and one (me) from abroad! – that she cycled to the museum especially, and treated us to a two-hour-long tour, plying us with fascinating and useful research material and souvenirs from GDR times (now no longer displayed, but locked away in cupboards where the visiting public do not see them).

She explained to us her passion for preserving Zetkin’s memory within the context of the village’s local history, a passion ignited since reunification. During the GDR Frau Bergmann, as a village resident, had often attended the Alte Dorfschule for official events such as Zetkin’s birthday or International Women’s Day (IWD), and had been bored by and resented the compulsion behind these occasions.

It is a curious fact that, in the ‘free air’ of the liberal democratic eastern Germany, Frau Bergmann is not only keen to promote Zetkin as a significant local, but she is quite happy to acknowledge aspects of Zetkin’s socialist thought and practice, and she even exports Zetkin’s relevance further afield.

Following my experiences in Saxony, I took the opportunity, during a research trip to the Zetkin papers in the Bundesarchiv in Berlin, to visit Zetkin’s final home in Germany in December 2009. Although during much of the 1920s Zetkin was resident in Moscow as the women’s representative on the Comintern, she always maintained a German residence, and from 1929 to 1932 that residence was in Birkenwerder, a town just north of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg.

The large suburban house is today known as the Clara-Zetkin-Gedenkst√§tte and serves as a local municipal library for primary school children. The Zetkin memorial comprises two upstairs rooms of the library, one preserving original furniture from Zetkin’s tenure and a bookcase full of Zetkin-related volumes, and the other displaying educational posters and photographs of Zetkin’s life and work, with a large table and many chairs, suggesting its use for cultural gatherings, seminars and other educational purposes. Unlike the Museum ‘Alte Dorfschule’, which is geared towards receiving visitors, both in its displays and in the enthusiasm of Frau Bergmann, the Clara-Zetkin-Gedenkst√§tte is much more of a relic of GDR times.

The museum rooms are locked under normal circumstances, though when I arrived unannounced, a member of staff was pleased to open them up for my perusal and research. Once opened, however, I was left to my own devices with no introduction to the displays and resources. This is, no doubt, partly due to the building being primarily a working library and not a museum, but I got the sense that the community and staff do not reach out to visitors who might be interested in learning about Zetkin and her time in Birkenwerder.

Even the presence of the seminar table and chairs was not especially suggestive of honouring Zetkin, but seemed simply to be an efficient use of the upstairs space, which was not conducive as library rooms for young children (there being no lift). Having experienced Zetkin’s bourgeois origins in Wiederau, discovered the lack of her built environment in Leipzig and visited her exuberant dwelling in Birkenwerder, I was left with a chronic gap of 1881 to 1929.

I have set aside the period 1881 to 1891, at least for now, as during these years of the anti-socialist laws in Germany, Zetkin lived in exile in Switzerland and France, experiencing dire poverty in Paris for much of the period with her common-law husband, Ossip Zetkin (who died of tuberculosis in 1889), and her two sons, Maxim and Konstantin.

In 1891, however, she returned to Germany, moving to Stuttgart and taking up the editorship of the Social Democratic women’s newspaper, Die Gleichheit, which she commanded until 1917. Zetkin’s position within the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) advanced rapidly. She became the recognised leader of the SPD women’s movement, though her leftwing position within the party was often greeted with hostility, both nationally and especially in the politically conservative, strongly religious and predominantly rural Kingdom of W√ºrttemberg. With her rising political fortunes came a corresponding improvement in her personal comfort, as reflected in the three dwellings she inhabited during her time in Stuttgart:

Roteb√ºhlstra√üe 147 (1891-1899, neighbouring her friend, the industrialist, Robert Bosch), Blumenstra√üe 34 (1899-1903) and Kirchheimer Stra√üe 14 (1903-1929). The former two abodes are flats in urban Stuttgart, but by 1903, and following her marriage (1899-1927) to Georg Friedrich Zundel, Zetkin’s family wealth was such that she could afford a large detached house in suburban Sillenbuch, south-east of the city, designed by Zundel, an artist and SPD activist.

There the couple lived with Zetkin’s two sons, the family becoming notable Sillenbuch worthies, with Zetkin becoming known for spontaneous acts of generosity, and ever ready to lend her car for local emergencies. With the foundation of socialist Waldheime (see below), Zetkin offered support, giving a speech in 1911 at the opening of Waldheim Gaisburg, for example.

In Sillenbuch, Zetkin also played host to visiting socialists, most notably Rosa Luxemburg, who stayed with her many times, became her dear friend and, for a time, was the lover of Konstantin Zetkin. Due, no doubt, to Stuttgart’s location in the former West Germany, and its liberal democratic respect for private property and rejection of memorialising socialist leaders, all of Zetkin’s erstwhile residences in the city are in private hands, with no plaques or other indicators of her former occupancy.

Due to the initiative of my host in Stuttgart, the communist activist and bookseller, Adele Sperandio, and the kindness of the current owner of Kirchheimer Stra√üe 14, Margret, I was invited into Zetkin’s Sillenbuch home for coffee and cake and a look at some of its internal features. I also caught a glimpse of the house next door, also designed by Zundel, and occupied by him during his estrangement from Zetkin – a period of separation during which she refused him a divorce for many years.

If Zetkin’s former properties in Stuttgart do not offer themselves as monuments to her activities in and significance to the city, that is not to say that Stuttgart has forgotten its socialist pioneer of the proletarian women’s movement.

In fact, more than in Wiederau, Leipzig and Birkenwerder, Zetkin is alive in Stuttgart, and continues to inspire local people to a degree the other three locations can only aspire to. This situation is due not to governmental or corporate sponsorship, however, but to a tradition of communitarianism unique to Stuttgart: the Waldheim movement.

Waldheim Stuttgart e.V. ‘Clara-Zetkin-Haus’

Waldheime are communes of like-minded people, established in the wooded outskirts of Stuttgart. They tend to be either political (and specifically of a leftwing orientation) or Christian or youth, and date back to the nineteenth century. They are self-organised and self-financed, being democratically run by a committee which oversees cultural events, recruitment, the finances and relations with the wider community.What brought the Waldheime to my attention was my research into Clara Zetkin in Stuttgart, during which I came across a website for a ‘Clara-Zetkin-Haus’.

Of course, my first thought (given my poor grasp of the German language) was that this was a museum. On telephoning the establishment in June 2009, however, I was told I had got through to a restaurant – and given the linguistic ignorance at both ends of the line, the conversation ended there. In December 2009, after my pondering over the website, which suggested much more than simply a restaurant, I decided to email the Clara-Zetkin-Haus, and after a few days I received an interesting reply.

This was from Adele, a trustee of what she explained is the Waldheim Stuttgart e.V. ‘Clara-Zetkin-Haus’. My email had been forwarded to Adele, both because she can communicate in English and because she is responsible for the Waldheim’s cultural activities. Having read my email, and learnt of my research into Zetkin, Adele replied with an immediate invitation to visit her, learn about the Clara-Zetkin-Haus, see Zetkin’s former properties and meet people who know of Zetkin and are researching her local importance.

This was an invitation I could hardly refuse, and after negotiating appropriate dates and length of stay, it was decided I would visit from 10 to 16 March, during which time I would attend an important IWD centenary celebration. On my arrival in Stuttgart, Adele introduced me to the Clara-Zetkin-Haus. It comprises a restaurant, an events room, an outdoor eating and children’s play area, and display cabinets and leaflet stands containing educational material on radical events throughout Stuttgart, political campaigns and educational resources.

There is also accommodation for the Waldheim’s resident management couple. During an evening of drinking and conversation, I learnt that the Clara-Zetkin-Haus is essentially supported by two factions: socialists, spread throughout the Left Party, the German Communist Party (DKP) and the SPD, and environmentalists gathered in the Green Party and the Naturfreunde, an organisation for the appreciation of the outdoors.

The two groups respect and support each other, even while pursuing seemingly independent courses. I write ‘seemingly’, as the Clara-Zetkin-Haus was founded in 1909 by the SPD activist, Friedrich Westmeyer, and part of the Waldheim’s tradition has always been outdoor pursuits. Over the century, socialism has largely shed its advocacy of physical activity as fundamental to its politics, while nature groups have taken an apolitical course, or moved into the ghetto of ecological politics.

At the Clara-Zetkin-Haus, however, the unity of the two traditions is successfully maintained.Although socialism is in the air at the Clara-Zetkin-Haus, along with comradely good feeling, politics are not formulaic. There exist, for example, clear divisions of opinion regarding the Arab-Israeli puzzle, and the solution to the Palestinian Question. Similarly, the question of gender, and whether women require organisations or media of their own, is an open one.

Additionally, and most worryingly, the Waldheim is suffering the generational problem: how, in an increasingly cynical, apolitical and post-ideological world can a leftwing organisation like the Clara-Zetkin-Haus recruit the next generation of activists? Can young people, who are seemingly less inclined to take part in outdoor pursuits, be persuaded that Waldheime have a role in modern Stuttgart society? My short stay in the city does not qualify me to comment on these questions, though my impression of the two Waldheime I experienced was of a vibrancy which ensures time, at least, for these questions to be addressed.

In addition to the Clara-Zetkin-Haus, I also attended the Internationale Frauentag (IWD) celebration at Waldheim Gaisburg. This Waldheim, established in 1911, also by Westmeyer, is similarly made up of comrades from across the left (though for the IWD celebration, the DKP was preponderant, with its banner hanging from the wall, and a stand at the event for Cuban Solidarity and a socialist bookstall run by Adele, a DKP member herself).

The event was very entertaining and instructive, charting the history of IWD from 1910 to the present in the form of a theatrical performance, with music and a speech. Decade by decade the performance progressed, identifying the SPD origins of the event in 1910, showing its importance to the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1920 and 1930 and marking the anti-feminist nature of Nazism and the women’s struggle against Hitlerism in 1940 before looking at the postwar era. Of these later scenes, the one for 1990 was the most fascinating, with a recitation of the losses suffered by women consequent upon the reunification of Germany.

This flagged up another area of division within the DKP, for while all members appear to have lamented the demise of the GDR – and the phenomenon of ‘Really-Existing Socialism’ – there is divided opinion on whether life in eastern Germany is better or worse since 1990 (at least for those in work; there is an unquestioned acknowledgement that eastern German mass unemployment is a reality of capitalist society, and undeniably worse for sufferers than their life in the GDR).In addition to these gatherings in the two Waldheime, Adele also introduced me to two very different researchers into Clara Zetkin – Mascha Riepl-Schmidt and Theodor Bergmann.Mascha is an independent researcher, focussing on the history of the women’s movement in the Stuttgart area.

Given her inclination towards the SPD, she is primarily interested in Zetkin’s pre-communist period, though this also makes sense given Mascha’s geographical interests, for although Zetkin maintained a house in Stuttgart until 1929, from 1920 her politics saw her gravitate more towards Berlin and Moscow, being not only a member of the Comintern but also a KPD member of the Reichstag (1920-1933).

Mascha spoke over lunch of Zetkin as a member of the first democratically-elected government of Württemberg (elected as an Independent Social Democrat in 1918, having left the SPD the year before and with the KPD only being founded a year later).

She kindly presented me with a copy of her book, Wider das verkochte und verb√ºgelte Leben, which includes the chapter, ‘Clara Zetkin: Die “rote Emanze”’, and Adele later gave me a volume of essays which includes Mascha’s ‘Ihre beste Zeit? Clara Zetkins Leben in Stuttgart Sillenbuch von 1904-1924’.

In contrast to Mascha, Theodor is primarily interested in Zetkin’s communist phase, and especially her oppositional stance within the KPD. Returning to Clara-Zetkin-Haus, I met Theodor over coffee, and he explained to me that, although Zetkin was a founder member of the KPD and remained within its ranks until her death, she in fact had a kinship with the Communist Party of Germany-Opposition (KPD-O), which was formed in 1928 when the KPD expelled the Right Opposition led by Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer.

Brandler and Thalheimer objected to what they saw as corruption in the KPD after its leader, Ernst Th√§lmann, defended a prot√©g√©, John Wittorf, from charges of theft despite his guilt. Th√§lmann was deposed by the party’s Central Committee only to be reinstated by Joseph Stalin through the agency of the Comintern.

Zetkin was sympathetic to Brandler and Thalheimer’s charges, and distrusted Th√§lmann, but while she aired her views within the party and the Comintern (receiving a personal rebuke from Stalin), she adhered to party discipline and maintained party unity in public.Although a professor emeritus of agriculture at the University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Theodor is also an historian of the KPD-O, having published several books on the subject.

Although no longer involved in party politics, he maintains his communist faith which originated with his membership of the Young Spartacus League in 1927, the Young Communist League of Germany in 1929 and finally the KPD-O in 1933. With the rise of Nazism, Theodor fled Germany (on account of his being Jewish as well as a communist), and lived in exile until 1946.

On his return to Germany, he studied agriculture and pursued an academic career from 1955. At the age of 94, Theodor is one of the few remaining individuals who can recall pre-Nazi Germany, and can speak of the political struggles of the early 1930s from firsthand experience. My meeting him was a pleasure, but also an honour.

Final Thoughts

In addition to Adele of the DKP, Mascha, inclined towards the SPD, and Theodor, still spiritually of the KPD-O, I met several other people involved with the Waldheime interested in Zetkin. Not necessarily researching her, but all inspired by Zetkin’s socialist passion, her promotion of women’s equality and her support for the people of Sillenbuch.

In all of the places besides Stuttgart that I have been during my Zetkin odyssey, I have found little knowledge of the woman, and even less enthusiasm (Frau Bergmann aside). In Britain, of course, Zetkin is unknown popularly, and a mere footnote in academic discourse. This either bodes ill or well for my own endeavours at publicising Zetkin’s reception in and influence on British politics.

Be that as it may.In Stuttgart, Zetkin attracts interest from across the left, bridging gulfs that traditionally the German left has failed to bridge. While Nazism persists in casting its long shadow over German society and culture, influencing every aspect of historical analysis and remembrance, the diabolical divisions between the KPD and the SPD between 1920 and 1933, and their contribution to the success of the Nazi Party, must continue to cast a shadow over left-politics thereafter.

While the DKP rejects partnership with the sold-out, neo-liberal SPD, it has shown willingness to cooperate with the Left Party, and in local campaigns there has even been joint efforts between them and the Green Party, currently over the ‘Stuttgart 21’ initiative and the broad-left’s opposition to the city elders’ desire to bulldoze the main railway station and replace it with a newer, more modern variant.

The environmental and socialist left have united to try to block the initiative, and time will tell if their efforts succeed.On the other extreme, Adele took me to Dornhalde Cemetery in Stuttgart to visit the grave of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, three members of the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof Group) who committed suicide (or were murdered) in Stammheim Prison in 1977. Although Adele scorns their murderous methods, and labels them as bourgeois and misguided (they were unconnected to the DKP), she nonetheless refers to them as comrades.

Socialism has a problematic past, and while new ideological alliances are forged, old ones are not entirely forgotten.On my last day with Adele, in an effort to achieve a symbolic international solidarity, I explained to her the current struggles within my own company to fight job cuts, and the balloting that was taking place by the trade unions on possible strike action, and I gifted her a T-shirt from my trade union, the TSSA.

In return, she gave me her anti-‘Stuttgart 21’ badge – a badge she had been wearing prominently on her coat during all our outings. The circle was closed. I was her Genosse and she my Genossin, despite her never asking me my own political affiliations (I am non-party). While the need for parties and factions might persist, ‘factionalism’ as a block to the efforts of the like-minded seems slowly to be dying a death.

The age of ideological imposition within the left is coming to an end – now we must turn our attention to using compromise and negotiation within our ranks to defeat the ideological monolith that is neo-liberalism. Who would have thought that such a turn around would occur. But it has, and the future continues to offer new fields of battle for right against might, compassion against ruthlessness, and collectivism against individualism.

It was in the politically conservative, religious and still noticeably rural south of Germany that I rediscovered this age-old truism.I would like to thank all the comrades and acquaintances I met in Stuttgart who made my visit both educational and interesting. Those mentioned above, but also many more who I have not named or whose names I did not learn.

Most especially, however, I thank Adele, who opened her home to a stranger she had met online, who acted as my Cicerone throughout the city, and who fed me – with both food and mental nourishment – during my week’s stay. I hope one day I will have the opportunity to return the experience.

Dr John S. Partington works for the finance department of the railway industry, and is a member of the TSSA