Cahn, Berthold (1871-1942)

Berthold Cahn (holding briefcase)
Berthold Cahn (holding briefcase)

A short biography of German Jewish anarchist communist Berthold Cahn

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 3, 2020

Berthold Cahn was born into a Jewish family in Langenlonsheim near Bad Kreuznach in Rheinland-Pfalz in May 28th, 1871. He worked as a warehouse worker and house servant.

He was first reported in a police report in 1903 and a year later joined the anarchist movement. He became a member of the Anarchistische Föderation Deutschlands (AFD) which was founded in 1904. He adopted a class struggle anarchist communist approach from the start, and at a conference in Halle on May 16th 1910 put forward a denunciation of the politics of the grouping around Gustav Landauer and the paper Der Sozialist, which rejected class struggle. He had strong criticisms of Landauer’s idea of creating rural settlements, and his encouragement of urban workers to desert the cities, saying that such settlements could actually economically strengthen capitalism.

Cahn contributed to the FDA paper Der Freie Arbeiter and was its temporary editor for a time. He served his first prison sentence for writing an article in issue 17 of Freie Arbeiter which the authorities construed as “calling for disobedience to the law and inciting class hatred”. That issue of the paper was confiscated, and Cahn, putting himself forward as the responsible editor defended himself in court. He served a two months sentence for this in Tegel from August 1912. It was tough in prison, and Cahn left it in poor health.
He served another prison sentence of three months for an article in the paper later in the year, and again in December 1912 he received another three months sentence for a speech he had given, in both cases for incitement to class hatred. He was finally released on September 26th, 1913.

During the First World War he was under police surveillance, only receiving mail after initial censoring and clearance. On March 2nd, 1915, he was arrested without charge and put in “protective custody” for 21 months until November 2nd, 1916. He served his sentence at Moabit prison in Berlin. It was there that he met the American socialist Edward Holton James, himself imprisoned as an undesirable alien. James was to write about Cahn in the pages of The Word, Guy Aldred’s paper after the Second World War, where he remembered the times at Moabit and reported on Cahn’s death via news received from Rudolf Rocker.

On the day of his release he spoke of the appalling prison conditions at a secret meeting convened by fellow anarchist Rudolf Oestreich, the bed bugs, the scabies, and the freezing conditions. AS a result of imprisonment, he suffered a severe lung disorder and was only able to become politically active again in February 1917.

Cahn was an accomplished orator and gave speeches at anarchist meetings and popular assemblies from 1908 onwards, becoming one of the German anarchist movement’s leading activist.
After World War One, he joined the successor to the AFD, the Föderation Kommunistischer Anarchisten Deutschlands (FKAD)- Anarchist Communist Federation of Germany. He became its main orator, lecturing on anti-militarism. Against racism and anti-Semitism, for free education, and against capitalist exploitation and for an anarchist communist society.

He gave lectures for the FKAD, the anarcho-syndicalist union the FAUD, and for Erich Mühsam’s Anarchistische Vereinigung Berlin (Anarchist Association of Berlin and was respected by all three of these groupings. Whilst critical of anarcho-syndicalism, he had a more conciliatory approach to the FAUD than his fellow member of the FKAD, Rudolf Oestreich.

Cahn’s political activities during the years between the World Wars, led to long periods of unemployment and more prison sentences. On May 1st, 1924, Cahn was one of the speakers, together with Emma Goldman and Rudolf Rocker, at the hall of the Berlin Teachers’ Association, protesting against the persecution of anarchists in the Soviet Union. He attempted to organise house servants and packers in the Verband der Hausdiener, Packer, Packerinnen und Geschäftskutscher Berlin (Association of House Servants, Packers and Business Coachdrivers of Berlin).

After the coming to power of the Nazis, Cahn and his flatmate, fellow anarchist Fritz Scherer, were arrested on December 2nd, 1933. Scherer was released after 12 days but Cahn was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for possession of anti-state leaflets and preparation for treason and was sent to the Berlin-Plötzen prison until April March 4th, 1935. A few days after the November pogroms of 1938 Cahn was arrested again. It was originally thought that he had been murdered in that year but in fact he was shot at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp along with 250 other Jews on 28-29th May 1942, after the arson attack by the Jewish resistance group of Herbert and Marianne Baum on the Nazi propaganda exhibition on “The Soviet Paradise”. These shootings were personally ordered by Goebbels and Hitler.

On September 3rd, 2018 a stolperstein (stumbling block) memorial stone was laid at 3 Wadzeckstrasse near Alexanderplatz in Berlin, in memory of Cahn.

Nick Heath


Erik Natter/Gustav-Landauer-Denkmalinitiative Berthold Cahn, ein Leben für den Anarchismus (2018)