Werner, Wilhelm (1859-1939) aka The Elephant

A short biography of Wilhelm Werner, one of the pioneers of German anarchism.

“His courage was legendary. In the intimate circle of his friends, he was called “ the Elephant ”, because he did not fear to turn up, with a few comrades, in the most remote corners of the vicinity of Berlin to disrupt anti-semite meetings and attempt to open the eyes of the audience. This type of activity was not without risk. This most often ended with the muscular expulsion of the opponents. When such was the case, Werner always resisted more than the others and covered the flight of his comrades by protecting them with his large shoulders. Hence his nick name “Elephant”. Rudolf Rocker, Memoirs, vol. 1.

Wilhelm Werner was born on 10th January 1859, probably in Berlin. Apprenticed as a print worker, he joined the Book Printers Union at the end of his apprenticeship and the Social Democratic Party in 1883. He was a delegate at the founding conference of the Second International in 1889. He was a candidate in the elections in the Teltow constituency of Berlin in 1890.A leading light in the Jungen, the anarchising left within the Social Democratic Party, he was editor of its mouthpiece Der Sozialist. He refused to submit to Party discipline at the 1891 Congress of Erfurt and was expelled. He became a pioneer of German anarchism. He and fellow Jungen comrade Gustav Landauer were excluded from the Congress of the Second International on 9th August 1893 in Zurich when August Bebel passed a motion of expulsion, following which the two were violently mishandled from the hall. He had to flee to London in 1894. He was unable to get work in the print trade in London because the print workers union barred foreigners. He had to move to Nottingham to get work and there he was accepted as a member of the union. He was then able to return to London. Fortunately his wife Marie had managed to sell the printing plant he had left in Berlin and sent the money on. He lived on Cleveland Street in Soho with his family who joined him in 1895.He later moved to East Ham. He and Marie had two daughters, Lettie and Sylvia.

A friend of Rudolf Rocker, he was one of those who proposed him as Librarian of the Workers Educational Union, the German association that was founded by Willich and Schapper after they had expelled Marx and Engels from the Communist League. Rocker's son Fermin often visited the Werners as a child and describes Wilhelm as " a typical Berliner, a kind but prickly sort of fellow, endowed with that dry, caustic humour so characteristic of the Spree dweller. Blessed with an excellent constitution, he was an immensely industrious and hardworking man..".

On his return to Germany in the 1910s, he became one of the best orators of the Berlin anarchist movement and acquired a strong reputation in the 1920s. The last decade of his life, with the triumph of that which he had fought so hard against, must have been bitter indeed. But as his friend Rocker said: “Nothing is ever lost that is done for the great ideal of social justice, freedom, human brotherhood, and the liberation of all peoples”.

He died on the 8th January 1939, near Berlin.

NICK HEATH