1919-1945: The Proletarischer Zeitgeist

1919-1945: The Proletarischer Zeitgeist

A short history of the radical German workers' newspaper Proletarischer Zeitgeist from its birth in the AAUE union through its political development to its decline.

In 1922 the majority of the membership of the councilist union the AAUE (United General Workers Union) of Zwickau was expelled because of their participation in the works councils in the railway workshops and the mines. This majority retained control of the AAUE paper, Weltkampf, so the remainder of the Zwickau AAUE founded the paper Proletarischer Zeitgeist (Proletarian Spirit of the Times). This minority had experience of editing WeltKampf which had been founded in 1919, but also with Communist Worker Newspaper of West Saxony between 1920-1921. It had initially tried to use Die Einheits-front (The United Front) paper in Berlin and Revolution published in Dresden and Heidenau as a forum.

In November the first issue of PZ appeared with the sub-title: a newspaper written by workers for workers and the slogan: the development of the self-confidence of the working class is the first condition for its victory. Its editors were Werner Heidel, Marie Meier, Fritz Land, E. Kohlisch, Richard Beier, L Wuebbens and Willy Fischer.

Metalworkers in Zwickau as well as some quarry workers, miners in Haselbach and textile workers in Falkenstein supported the paper. PZ’s geographical spread was the Haselbach area with Altenburg in the north, Falkenstein in the south and Hohenstein Ernsthal in the east-the district of West Saxony. But the organizing successes of 1920-21 were not to be repeated. The defeats of many strikes, the state of siege from 1923 and inflation weakened the movement. Papers like Revolution in Dresden and Council Communist in Oberrohna disappeared. By default PZ became the AAUE organ for central Germany.

After various seizures, PZ was printed outside of West Saxony. In order to avoid repression by the employers, articles appeared without a name. But also the editorial line was strongly against what they saw as a cult of personality developing around celebrities, against ‘new authorities being bred’ as they said. This developing pugnacious anti-authoritarian outlook led on to the PZ group breaking more and more with the strictly Marxist outlook of the AAUE and mid-1924 they too were expelled.

‘Anti-authoritarian authorities’ were sharply criticized in PZ, among them Rudolf Rocker, Otto Ruhle, Franz Pfemfert and Erich Muehsam.

As a result PZ became the organ of oppositionists within AAUE and opened itself up to smaller council communist, unionist (throughout this article ‘unionist’ refers to those organised in councilist unions and not the mainstream unions controlled by the Social Democrats and Communists) and anarchist groups throughout Germany. So it was supported in the north in Hamburg, in the west in Hagen and Iseloh, in Thuringia in Eisenach, in central Germany in Leipzig and in Halle-Ammendorf. Its main circulation however was still in Saxony, and outside Zwickau that meant Dresden Freital, Pirna, Heidenau, Zittau, and Sebnitz. A strong unionist movement existed in Pirna. In addition a group of unionist youth under the influence of the anarchist anti-militarist Ernst Friedrich had come into existence. They distributed PZ as well as other papers like Schwarze Fahnen (Black Flag) Freie Jugend (Free Youth) Der Junge Unionist (The Young Unionist). An oppositional group of the Socialist Workers Youth in Leutersdorf also supported PZ as did young unionists in Jena, Leipzig, Zittau and Berlin.

PZ went from regional reporting to questions about the development of revolutionary consciousness. There were many discussions for example around women, children, Esperanto, psychoanalysis, dialectical materialism, and the future economy. PZ opened up its pages to anyone who regarded themselves as anti-authoritarian. As a result there were lively and often sharp polemics. As the enterprise was envisaged as a comradely cooperation, the editorial board hardly ever intervened in an editorial capacity.

As the anti-authoritarian movement began to wane, PZ itself was effected. Many small groups in West Saxony dissolved. However other small groups emerged and PZ was thus able to continue until 1933.

In 1932 the print run was still 2,400 copies which decreased in 1933 to 1,850 copies. There also existed a PZ internal bulletin to coordinate the groups

PZ was evolving towards an anarchist communist position. Otto Reimers (born in Hamburg in 1902) had been involved with the councilist AAU in Hamburg in the early 1920s and was a member of the PZ group from 1922 to 1933, being responsible for its distribution throughout Germany. In 1930 he became an anarchist. He carried on underground activity after the Nazi rise to power.

Despite occasional personal attacks PZ was drawing closer to the positions of the Anarchist Federation (AF: formerly Anarchist Communist Federation FKAD) in 1932. However this rapprochement was cut short by the 1933 events, although former AF members in East Germany and in Berlin cooperated in distributing PZ again at the end of the war (Fritz Heller, Templin and Pittelkow).

In 1930 PZ held its first Germany-wide conference in Pirna, and the following year in Halle-Ammendorf. The planned Easter conference of 1933 was aborted by the Nazi rise to power.

After 1933 some PZers were put into ‘protective custody’, among them Ernst Poenisch in Pirna, Marie Meier and Willi Jelinek in Zwickau. The group in Hagen was arrested in 1934 after meeting with a French comrade and spent some time in jail. Afterwards, one of them, Willi Fritzenkoetter, emigrated to England. Martin Kuechler was arrested in Pirna with his wife and friends for ‘listening to enemy broadcasts’. The Hamburg PZers Paul Zinke, Ernst Fiering and Karl Kaminski were arrested in 1945 and murdered by having hand grenades thrown into their cells by prison guards as the British Army was approaching. Zinke’s wife Margit and Fiering’s wife Marie were hanged in the concentration camp of Neuengamme.(These murders were authorised by a local SS commander. In all 58 male and 13 female resistance fighters were targetted for execution. When some resisted their execution Obersturmführer Anton Thumann hurled grenades into their cells. For these and other war crimes, he was hanged in October 1946)

However the main networks of PZ survived and remained undetected because they did not keep membership lists. They were able to keep in contact between 1933 and 1945 under the cover of ‘goodwill visits’.

For the Nazi period and post war history of PZ see Willi Jelinek.

Nick Heath