Trunk, Johann Sebastian, 1850-1933

Johann Sebastian Trunk

Short biography of transnational anarchist Johann Sebastian Trunk, by Jared Davidson.

In the windswept cemetery of rural Geraldine stands the headstone of Johann Sebastian Trunk, a German cabinet-maker, militant anarchist and advocate of making the world anew—violently if necessary. The tidy headstone betrays no indication of the radicalism once lived; indeed, many anarchists in New Zealand, England or Germany would know little more than the weekend adventurer scanning the concrete commemorations. For despite the part Trunk played in the international anarchist movement during its development in the 1870s to 1900s, little is known about him—a fate shared by many comrades who, although integral to the movement, have often been passed over for leading figures. Like the headstone, his name is often inscribed among others but without any further offerings of information.

As part of my own research on anarchism in New Zealand, I decided to check up a footnote in Frank Prebble’s ‘Troublemakers’ Anarchism and Syndicalism: The Early Years of the Libertarian Movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand: “S Trunk, the militant German anarchist, previously in London, migrated to New Zealand where his brother Lutjohann lived, and nothing more was heard from him.” After tracking down other one-liners and piecing together a family tree, I was able to make contact with Trunk’s 94-year-old granddaughter Joyce King, and other family members. I was excited about the possibility of learning more on this mysterious anarchist and possibly put a face to the name. But his anarchist activities were a surprise to the family too. “We never, ever, heard a whisper of anything of that,” recalled Joyce.

Who was Johann Sebastian Trunk? Was this transient and militant anarchist active in the New Zealand labour movement? And how did he end up in the South Island town of Geraldine—quite possibly the furtherist place from the meccas of European anarchism one could get at the time? What follows is a brief-but-nonetheless-needed biography of a transnational anarchist whose activities are grounded in the tension and conflicts of a movement coming of age.

Johann Sebastian Trunk was born on 1 November 1850 and grew up on a family farm in Breitenbuch, Bavaria. Little information is known of his time there, but family note that he was born a Roman Catholic and became an apprentice cabinet-maker. The story handed down to Joyce and the family was that to become fully certified in his trade, Trunk had to work two months in another country: “from Germany he went to Switzerland, from Switzerland he went to France, and while he was in France, Germany got involved in a war with some other country and he high-tailed it to London.”

The reality is only half true. Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century was home to a burgeoning socialist movement, personified by the German Social Democratic Party and the growth of numerous labour unions. Under the umbrella of ‘social democrat’ fell various tenets of socialist thought trying to find its feet—from those who believed in gradualism and parliamentary change, to pro-revolutionary, proto-anarchist advocates. For example, a number of social democrats like the fiery Johann Most, were becoming disillusioned with parliamentary politics and advocating more insurrectionary means to bring about social revolution. Support for revolutionary change was increasing in the German socialist movement, and Trunk was one such advocate.

A paragraph or two on Johann Most is necessary, as his political journey typifies that of Johann Trunk and many other socialists-cum-anarchists of the period. Born into a life of poverty, abuse and toil, Most drifted across the German empire as a bookbinder until finding socialism. He then dived into a number of editorial roles with instant success—saving fledging socialist newspapers with a rhetoric that fell on fertile ground. Despite his growing radicalism being suppressed by numerous stints in prison, Most was elected into parliament as a social democrat in 1874, a position of relative immunity held until exiled by the German government in 1878. A captivating and powerful orator, Most used the public platform to popularise his increasingly revolutionary views across Germany (and beyond).

The more time spent in parliament, the more radical his views became. Although he never committed such acts, Most helped to popularise ‘propaganda of the deed’—the insurrectionary use of violence against monarchs, state officials or employers in order to rouse the masses into revolutionary action, and to set right the daily wrongs of capitalist violence and exploitation. Terrorism to its detractors, propaganda by the deed became rife across Europe from the mid 1870s and for a time was uncritically adopted by many anarchists and other revolutionaries. Most’s rejection of parliamentary and legalist methods for spectacular direct action found his ideas edging closer to such an anarchist position—one he would associate with during his years in London and the Unites States.

Like Most, and as told to his family, Trunk did leave Germany in 1878. However, he left as both an apprentice cabinet-maker and a victim of Otto von Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws. “Under the law,” writes Gultsman in The German Social Democratic Party 1975-1933, “all socialist organization and agitation was prohibited… the distribution and publication of socialist literature was outlawed and in areas of strong socialist sentiment or on the suspicions of illegal activity the police were empowered to impose a ‘minor stage of siege’ under which persons could be made to leave the area.” According to contemporary anarchist historian and archivist Max Nettlau, Trunk was active in the socialist movement from the early 1870s onwards, and in all likelihood was in the Social Democratic Party. As a result, and alongside over 900 expelled socialists, Trunk left German repression for less hostile shores.

Amongst the “cacophony of foreign voices, and only the lurking presence of spies to remind the political refugees of their troubles back home,” Trunk found himself in the “most fecund source of banned works of literature, history or philosophy”—Switzerland.[1] A relative sanctuary for revolutionaries of all shades, Switzerland was then flourishing in the smuggling of revolutionary newspapers from centres like Paris and London. Paris was an important dissemination point for Most’s own newspaper (and home to Victor Dave, an anarchist with whom Trunk would later form a working relationship with). Trunk may have had a hand in this transnational anarchist network, for Nettlau believed that Trunk had written articles for the Swiss Berner Arbeiter Zeitung (Bern Workers Paper).[2] And like Dave, who was expelled from France in March 1880, Trunk also ended up in London via Paris. Hermia Oliver in The International Anarchist Movement in Late Victorian London notes, “among the crowd of refugee socialists in London were also a German joiner, Sebastian Trunk (deported from France in 1880, who was described as very close to Most).” It appears that apprenticeship of a different kind—as an anarchist revolutionary—was the real reason for Trunk’s high tailing across the Atlantic.

The fugitives from Germany added an increasingly radical voice to the larger socialist community taking shape in London. This community often centred around the Social Democratic Club on Rose Street, Soho Square West, formed in 1877 by German expatriates in London “exasperated by the internal disputes within the Communistischer Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (Communist Workers’ Educational Society-CABV).” The new Club had five sections of various nationalities, including German and English sections—baptised in the midst of a lengthy stonemason’s strike.[4]

As well as being “packed to the brim with poor working class people,” the Rose Street tenement served as a landing point for foreign revolutionaries. As Mathew Thomas in his study of anarchist counter-cultures in Britain notes, “anyone visiting Rose Street would have encountered the European revolutionary world in miniature; its thought, atmosphere and ethos. Such visitors would have witnesses polemical debates about the aims and means of socialism and anarchism.”

Adding his vivacious voice to the debates was Johann Most, “who was received with open arms by the [CABV]. They backed Most financially in the founding of a newspaper, Freiheit.”[5] Johann Trunk, presumably fresh from his French deportation, “soon joined forces with Most,” cementing a relationship that would be as fraught as it was long. As a member of the Freiheit collective Trunk mixed his labour with the clutter that was its office; newspapers, type and presses strewn amongst furniture and bottles of beer. “Today Freiheit is what it should be. A newspaper that is completely for the revolutionary worker,” wrote Trunk in November 1881, pleased with the direction Freiheit and his comrades were taking.

However the British state was not, thanks to increasing pressure from Bismarck and other foreign representatives wanting to achieve in London what they had failed to do at home. On 30 March 1881 Most was arrested and sentenced to sixteen months hard labour, after applauding the assassination of Tsar Alexander II as “sterling propaganda-by-the-deed” and thundering for similar acts to continue, “until the last tyrant, the last plutocrat, and the last priest are dead.”[6] Yet his imprisonment simply inspired his followers and gave the nascent anarchist community in London a cause to rally behind. Comrades like Trunk, Frank Kitz and Johann Neve ensured that Freiheit presses continued to run hot, with sales jumping from 3 to 100 per week. Defence committees were formed at Rose Street by the English section of the CABV, organising protests, publishing an English-language Freiheit, and issuing scathing manifesto’s.

Despite ongoing harassment by police, Freiheit continued with interim editors and a rotating team of typesetters. However the paper’s celebration of the assassination of Lord Cavendish and Thomas Burke by Fenian revolutionaries in Dublin was a step too far for the authorities. Its description of their deaths as “a heroically bold act of popular justice” annihilating “the evil representatives of a malignant government based on brute force,” saw Freiheit falter under the weight of further police raids.[7]

With Most stewing in a London jail cell and Neve fleeing from persecution, Trunk boldly stepped into the hot seat, editing Freiheit from 20 May to 3 June 1882. Trunk and others also kept up spirits by “issuing fiery broadsheets designed to ‘prove to comrades far and near, that we are still there, and in no way prepared to throw our rifles in the corn’: but to no avail.”[8] Printers brave enough to run the presses were not forthcoming and Freiheit was moved to Paris, then Switzerland, never to be printed in London again.

During this period Trunk was also involved in other anarchist developments in London. In 1881 he, alongside 6 others, was the organising secretary for London Social Revolutionary Congress held in July, and attended with Johann Neve as delegate for the CABV. They were mandated to "stick with the strict principles of our club (ie. communist revolution) and to fight any compromise by the parliamentary social-democrats from Zurich." Among the 45 delegates present to further organised anarchism were key figures such as Peter Kropotkin and Louise Michel. Trunk, alongside Neve and the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, was elected to an International Committee created to maintain anarchist relations after the congress.

In June 1885, Trunk was among other German anarchists who helped form a North London branch of the Socialist League (SL). William Morris, influential textile designer and a key member of the League, mentions him in his diary: “I doubt if, except one or two Germans, etc, we have any real anarchists amongst us.” This would change over time as the Socialist League, and its paper The Commonweal, moved towards an overtly anarchist potion. As E P Thompson notes, anarchist influence in the SL reached its climax in November 1888 when Lucy Parsons, militant anarchist and widow of Chicago Martyr, Albert Parsons, addressed a series of commemorative meetings organised by the League. With Parsons and Kropotkin, Trunk also shared the platform on the speaking tour.

It appears Trunk, active as he was in the English anarchist scene, was also involved in the blossoming Jewish anarchist movement. “In February 1885,” notes Rudolf Rocker in The London Years, “the radical movement among the East End Jewish workers started a club in Berner Street… this club was for years the centre of propaganda and social life among the Jewish comrades.” According to Rocker’s memoir, Trunk was regular and welcome guest at the Club.

However Trunk and his fellow German anarchists were soon engulfed in an intense and bitter dispute know as the Bruderkreig, or Brothers War, which had been simmering since 1884. This complex split in the German movement was based on ideological positions, competing newspapers, and strong personalities, and was further clouded by the involvement of police spies.

In February 1887, Johann Neve was arrested by Belgian police while smuggling anarchist newspapers into Germany. As Andrew Carlson explains in Anarchism in Germany, “it was a route that Berlin police wanted to smash, and Neve was a person they wanted to imprison, but it took them several years of work and the assistance of several police spies before they were able to achieve these two goals.” After being thrown in a German jail, Neve wrote to Trunk that he had carved the date 1902 into his cell door—the year it would swing open and grant him freedom. It was the last letter anyone in the movement ever received from Neve, who died in police custody in 1896.

Neve’s imprisonment turned the anarchist’s political and literary debate into one of outright war. Accusations that Neve had fallen victim to a spy plot were rife, and friends quickly became enemies. Trunk initially found himself on the side of his Freiheit comrades such as Victor Dave—‘collectivists’ who were often at odds with anarchist communists like Josef Peukert and the Die Autonomie group. However Trunk—despite hiring a private investigator to determine where the Autonomie group’s money was coming from—later joined forces with Peukert and the group. He cited Dave’s overbearing and tyrannical behaviour as the reason for his defection.[9]

Trunk’s move to anarchist communism ensured he continued to be active in London’s radical counter-culture. In March 1891 he spoke alongside John Turner, Michel, Malatesta and Kropotkin at a London meeting commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Paris Commune. He also hosted a visit of American anarchist Emma Goldman in 1900—his house being a distribution point for leaflets, handbills, posters (and people) from around the globe.

Yet it was Trunk who was soon to be shipping out. At 56 years of age, and after personifying the development of anarchism in London, Johann left Europe for New Zealand in 1906. Trunk’s brother-in-law, Johannes Lutjohann, had already migrated to Christchurch and set up the billiards table company Lutjohann and Co. Being a skilled cabinet-maker, Trunk had been asked to join the company. Johann, his wife Johanne, and daughter Daisy, soon met them in Christchurch. Not long after, the company won a gold medal at the New Zealand International Exhibition for a patent dinning-room billiard-table (which are now highly sought-after).

Although Trunk was naturalised as a British subject in October 1908, when the First World War broke out his German background (and age) meant work was hard to find. The family decided to sell up, pool their money, and purchase a farm. With his carpentry tools in tow, Trunk and the extended family moved 140 km south to Geraldine. He contributed what labour he could: “He was too old to do any of the farm work,” remembers Joyce King, “so he took on the vegetable garden. He had beautiful gardens, nice and tidy, very neat. That would have come out of his cabinet making.” She recalls fondly that Trunk would take her to school in a horse and gig, a far cry from the metropolitan London he had left behind.

Indeed, little is known about this revolutionary’s activity in the antipodes. It does not appear that Trunk was visibly active in the local labour movement, despite some interesting family connections. Also working at Lutjohann and Co. was another brother-in-law, Frederick Schmidt (Smith), a socialist and avid reader of Marx. Frederick’s grandson Robert Smith was on the executive committee of the Christchurch Tramway Employees Union, and an active participant in the 1932 tramways strike. Yet Trunk seems to have left his advocacy of propaganda by the deed to days past. Having been involved in many of anarchism’s pivotal milestones, who could argue against limiting his plotting to that of the vegetable kind? After spending his final years in Geraldine, Johan Sebastian Trunk died on 4 June 1933, aged eighty-three—without an anarchist obituary but rich in transnational anarchist experience.

—Jared Davidson is the author of Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism, AK Press, 2013.

[1] Alex Butterworth, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents, Pantheon, 2010, p.58.
[2] Max Nettlau, Geschicte der Anarchie. I owe many thanks to Martin Veith for accessing and translating hard-to-find German-language texts on my behalf.
[3] Hermia Oliver, The International Anarchist Movement in Late Victorian London, Croom Helm, 1983.
[4] Nick Heath, ‘Neve, John, 1844-1896’, available online at http://libcom.org/history/neve-john-1844-1896
[5] Andrew Carlson, Anarchism in Germany: Vol, 1: The Early Movement, Scarecrow Press, 1972, p.182.
[6] Frederick Trautmann, The Voice of Terror: A Biography of Johann Most, Green Press, 1980, p.45.
[7] Trautmann, p.70.
[8] Bernard Porter, ‘The Freiheit Prosecutions, 1881-1882’ in The Historical Journal, 23(4), p.854.
[9] During my research for Sewing Freedom I located a lengthy text on Victor Dave and the Brothers War, written by Trunk. The text is in old-style German and awaits a keen translator to shed further light on the conflict.

Posted By

kropotcorn
Sep 20 2013 05:21

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  • “Today [i]Freiheit[/i] is what it should be. A newspaper that is completely for the revolutionary worker"

    Johann Trunk

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kropotcorn
Sep 19 2013 05:16

Sorry not sure why that image is sideways... maybe a mod could straighten him up?

Battlescarred
Sep 19 2013 11:10

Excellent work. I hadn't realised trunk had moved to New Zealand. In fact emigration may well explain the sudden disappearance from Britain of several revolutionaries. It was certainly the case with the syndicalist EJB Allen
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_John_Bartlett_Allen
and
http://vomitingdiamonds.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/e-j-b-allen-and-the-muck-of-syndicalism/
Could emigration explain why the syndicalist Guy Bowman appears to have completely disappeared from view in Britain shortly after the outbreak of the First World War??