1878: A German-Jewish Anarchist, Writer, Poet and Cabaret Performer Is Born

An agitator against social injustice, Erich Muehsam supported Germany in WWI, until turning anti-war – and became an early victim of the Nazis.

David B. Green
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Erich Mühsam.
Erich Mühsam.Credit: wikipedia
David B. Green

April 6, 1878, is the birthdate of the German-Jewish poet, anarchist and cabaret writer Erich Muehsam. Outspoken, radical and passionate, Muehsam was contemptuous of authority all his life, which came to a cruel end after he became one of the first “subversive” Jews picked up by the Nazis after they came to power in 1933.

Erich Muehsam was born in Berlin, and moved with his family to Luebeck when he was six weeks old. His father, Siegfried Seligmann Muehsam, was a pharmacist, who had warm enough memories of his traditional Jewish upbringing that he wrote a nostalgic novel about it.

On the other hand, noted historian Lawrence Baron in an essay on Erich Muehsam’s Jewish identity, Siegfried was worried enough about anti-Semitism that he and his wife, the former Rosalie Cohn, had the family conspicuously celebrate Christmas in Luebeck. Erich’s three siblings all embraced Zionism as adults. But Erich saw the answer to anti-Semitism as coming through a rejection of all nationalisms.

Expelled for 'socialist agitation'

Erich attended the Katharineum Gymnasium in Luebeck, whose strict code of discipline was evoked by Thomas Mann in his novel “Buddenbrooks.” Erich’s frequent disobedience led to frequent beatings. After he published a parody of a speech by the school’s headmaster in a Luebeck newspaper, Muehsam was deemed a “socialist agitator,” and expelled from the school.

He finished school at the Friedrich-Frank Gymnasium, in Parchim. His real ambition was to be a poet, but at his father’s insistence, he began an apprenticeship at Siegfried’s pharmacy.

He gave that up and returned to writing in 1900, when he moved to Berlin. There, he hooked up with a range of increasingly radical groups, and developed a reputation as a satirical writer. Under the guidance of friend and mentor Gustav Landauer, he adopted an outlook that combined both anarchism and communism. As Muehsam himself wrote: “I was an anarchist before I knew what anarchism was. I became a socialist and communist when I began to understand the origins of injustice in the social fabric."

The gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp with the phrase 'Arbeit macht frei'Credit: AP

Muehsam’s prodigious writing output brought him under the surveillance of German authorities, especially after he returned from several years of living on a vegetarian, communistic commune in Switzerland to Munich. By now, he was also writing plays, and had started several periodicals of his own.

Possessed by war passion

In 1911, Muehsam founded the journal Cain, but stopped publication with the start of World War I, both because of government censorship, but also because of the brief phase of hyper-nationalist support for the German war effort he underwent. “I, the anarchist, the anti-militarist, the enemy of national slogans, the anti-patriot and implacable critic of the armament furies,” a chastened Muehsam wrote some time later, “discovered myself somehow possessed by the common intoxication, fired by an irate passion."

The imperial government happily seized on Muehsam’s pro-war essays for propaganda purposes, and when, toward the end of 1914, he reversed his position, and became engaged in active opposition to the war, he again became a public enemy. Finally, in April 1918, the Bavarian authorities arrested him, and held him until the end of the war.

In the complex political machinations that followed the war and the assassination of moderate socialist Kurt Eisner, Muehsam aligned himself with the far-left Central Revolutionary Committee, and participated in the cabinet of the Bavarian Soviet Republic – which remained in power for all of six days, in April 1919.

When that fell, Muehsam was arrested and sentenced to 15 years’ confinement. He was released in 1924, as part of a general amnesty offered to political prisoners – who also included Adolf Hitler – by the Weimar government.

Both during his imprisonment and after, Muehsam continued writing – poetry, essays and dramas, which were very popular in German cabarets. From early on, he was critical and mocking of the Nazi party – but also fearful of its potential.

On February 28, 1933, Muehsam was arrested, on the orders of propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. For the next year and a half, he was moved from one concentration camp to another until, on July 11, 1934, after refusing to cooperate with his captors by hanging himself, Muehsam was brutally murdered, and left hanging in a barracks at the Oranienburg camp.