A short history of an anarchist meeting place in Germany, and its varied history since 1920: farmer's shelter, anarcho-syndicalist centre, and police training centre!
“As the traveller makes his way through the forest moving eastwards from Meiningen, a town in Thuringia, he comes upon a lodge set upon an uncluttered plateau: the Bakuninhütte (…) a libertarian lodge”, wrote Hermann George in the summer of 1931 in the anarcho-syndicalist weekly Der Syndikalist . The Bakuninhütte (Bakunin Lodge) was a structure erected by German anarchists during the 1920s and it has endured down to this day, surviving through the years of four Germanies – Weimar Germany, the Third Reich, The GDR and finally reunified Germany.
How it all began
Meiningen is a small town lying a hundred kilometres southwest of Erfurt in the heart of Germany. In 1919 a number of activists (mostly young) decided to set up a group that affiliated to the Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands (FAUD)/Free Workers’ Union, Germany, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation that within a few months was to number almost two hundred thousand members.
In 1920 the Meiningen FAUD group drew up plans to procure a plot of land in order to farm, the object being to bring some relief from the economic crisis that had post-war Germany in its grip. The purchase was made the same year – 21,000 marks bought 6,400 square metres of land located three quarters of an hour’s walk from Meiningen, on the Hohe Maas, a forest-ringed plateau nearly 500 metres above sea level. Besides planting potatoes and vegetables, the land was also used by the local anarcho-syndicalists for week-end camping with their families. Both forms of use were confronted by a shared problem: the rainfall. So the group erected a small, temporary shelter. Thanks to their collective efforts, the construction turned, over the months, into an increasingly sturdy shelter inside which people could sit and do their cooking.
In 1925, due to the stabilising of the economy, the farming activities became redundant so the little shelter gradually turned into a meeting-point for local anarcho-syndicalist activists.
Our Bakunin, Our Bakuninhütte
In July 1926, to mark the half-centenary of his death, the building, by then a proper lodge, was dedicated to Bakunin: and thus was born the Bakuninhütte. Above the entrance were an inscription that read “Bakunin-Schutzhutte” and a commemorative plaque to the Russian revolutionary – the handiwork of local marble quarriers Otto Walz and his son Heini.
After a while, the lodge was extended: a dining room, a dormitory, a kitchen and a common room were added. The materials for the construction as well as the water were fetched in on people’s shoulders and at night kerosene lamps were used. Improvements were even made to the Bakuninhütte exterior with the addition of paths, terraces, benches placed under the trees, bushes and flower beds. A further two commemorative plaques were installed, one dedicated to Francisco Ferrer and one to Sacco and Vanzetti. Max Baewert, an anarchist activist from Meiningen, composed some poetry dedicated to the lodge and they became the Bakuninhuütte’s motto:
“Free land and free shelter
Free spirit and free speech
Free men and free usage
Draw me ever to this place.”
The artisan Franz Dressel built two swings and a small roundabout for children. A beer garden also had garden chairs and tables. The Bakuninhütte was completely self-managing and came about and grew thanks to the efforts of those who used it: initially the Meiningen group and later increasingly wider segments of the anarchist movement of the day.
With changes in the economy, the scheme underwent a definitive change. No longer was this some sort of a working allotment, a venture into self-sufficient farming: it became a lodge that turned into a place where people could meet up and trade ideas and simply rest. The Bakuninhütte was a political and existential crossroads and played a by no means secondary role in the lives of the activists of the day. The lodge played host to young passing ramblers and to meetings by anarchist groups, men and women alike, engaged with the libertarian movement who dropped by to holiday with their families. Remember that under the collective agreements of the Weimar Republic’s political and economic legislation, those were the early years of holidays and working hours and weekly rest days were being enforced.
In order to provide some legal cover for the lodge’s activities, 1927 saw the launch of the Siedlungsverein ‘Gegenseitige Hilfe’ e.v (‘Mutual Aid’ Non-Profit Housing Association) which became the official owner of the Bakuninhütte, albeit that the management of it was still in the hands of the Thurinigian FAUD. On 27 and 28 May the lodge had its official unveiling. The following year, on 19 and 20 May 1929, there was a further regional get-together. In February 1930, the anarchist poet Erich Mühsam dropped in at the Bakuninhütte, an unmistakable sign of the lodge’s nationwide popularity. June 1930 saw the very first national camp-out by the Syndikalistische Anarchistische Jugend Deutschlands (SAJD – German Anarcho-Syndicalist Youth).
Such was the success of the Bakuninhütte that in the latter half of 1930 work had to be undertaken to extend the building. A nationwide self-funding drive was launched with especial support from Der Syndikalist, through the sale of 10 pfennig postcards (Bakunin-Karten-Baufondskarten). At that point Fritz Scherer, bookbinder and rambling enthusiast, became the Hüttenward (Lodge-keeper). In that capacity, Franz not only looked after everything the Bakuninhütte and its guests might require, but also maintained the Hüttenbuch (lodge register), a sort of visitors’ book in which callers to the lodge could jot down their thoughts.
In the autumn of 1932 the extension work got under way thanks to the success of the fund-raising campaign and the contribution of a number of bricklayers from neighbouring towns. In 1933 Hitler came to power: the association which was legally the management company for the Bakuninhütte was dissolved and that June was the last time the anarchists were able to hold any activities there.
The Bakuninhütte, from one Germany to Another
The Bakunin Lodge was ceded first to the SS and then to the Munich Nazi Party in 1935 and, finally, in 1938, sold off to a private individual. Fritz Scherer, the last lodge-keeper was luckily able to salvage the Bakuninhütte. After the war, Thuringia found itself in the Soviet-occupied zone and the Bakuninhütte was processed through various administrative departments of the German Democratic Republic: in 1970 it was allocated for use as a training centre for a section of the Meiningen police.
In 1989 it was acquired by the German Federal Republic’s Heritage Office. At the start of the 1990s initial efforts to recover the lodge fell through. After 1996 it was utterly abandoned.
In 2004 numerous activists made an offer to the Heritage Office in Suhl and the Bakuninhütte was bought back in 2005. The following year saw the launch of the Wanderein Bakuninhütte, but it was not all plain sailing because there was a ban on access to the building and its use.
During that time, a number of initiatives emerged regarding the Bakunin Lodge. In April 2011 the ban on access to the building was lifted and its refurbishment became a lawful possibility. The funding drive launched in 2012 raised 7,000 euros, which were spent on repairing the building which had suffered grave damage over the years. It being the only vestige of anarcho-syndicalism in Germany in the form of built environment, the aim is to turn the Bakuninhütte not into some sort of a stiff testimonial to the past but to make it a lively, dynamic monument that can help people appreciate history, a focal point for cultural activities and to revive it as a stop-off for ramblers.
The Bakuninhütte appears to be up and running again: a place where people can ramble and grow together, conjured out of nothing thanks to the day to day efforts of rank and file activists. The Bakuninhütte lives on and, with it, the figure whose name it bears. Once upon a time, back in 1932, Der Syndikalist carried this appeal: “The Bakunin Lodge should be and shortly will be an enduring testimonial to the solidarity and creativity of our movement!”
From: Tierra y Libertad, No 323, June 2015, Madrid. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.