A short biography of Erich Muehsam, German poet, playwright, bohemian and anarchist revolutionary.
Erich Muehsam was born in Berlin in 1878 into a fairly well-to-do Jewish family. Soon after his family moved to Luebeck in north Germany where his father worked as a pharmacist (in fact the pharmacy is still there).
He hated the school where he was sent, which was known for its authoritarian discipline and its unsparing use of corporal punishment. Erich was often a victim of "the unspeakable flailings which were supposed to beat out of me all my innate feelings" because his rebellious nature often clashed with the school regime. In 1896 he wrote an anonymous piece for the socialist paper Luebecker Volsboten denouncing one of the school's most brutal teachers. This caused a scandal and Erich was expelled for taking part in socialist activities.
Erich had wanted to be a writer and poet from an early age and he left Luebeck to pursue this aim in Berlin in 1900. He got involved in a group called Neue Gemeinschaft (New Society) which combined socialist ideology with experiments in communal living. Here he met Gustav Landauer who introduced him to anarchist communist ideas. Muehsam contributed to Kampf, the anarchist paper of his friend Senna Hoy, who later died in terrible conditions in a Russian prison.
In 1904 Erich went to Ascona in Italian Switzerland to live in the artists' colony of Monte Verita (the writer Herman Hesse, the dance theorist Laban, the psychotherapist Otto Gross and many Dadaists and Expressionists lived there at one time or other).
He began writing plays there, the first of which, The Con Men, mixed new political theory with traditional dramatic forms. He also continued contributing to many anarchist papers, which drew the attention of the German authorities. He was considered one of the most dangerous anarchist agitators.
He moved to Munich in 1908 and took part in the cabaret movement. He did not care much for writing cabaret songs, but he achieved much notice because of them.
In 1911 he founded the paper Kain which advocated anarchist communism. He castigated and ridiculed the German state, fighting capital punishment and theatre censorship, and prophetically analysing international affairs. The World War that he had predicted led to the suspension of Kain.
At first Erich publicly supported the war, but by the end of 1914 was persuaded that he had been wrong, saying that, "I will probably have to bear the sin of betraying my ideals for the rest of my life". He threw himself into anti-war activity taking part in various actions. He supported the strikes that were beginning to break out. As these became more widespread and began to take on a revolutionary nature, Erich was among those arrested and imprisoned in April 1918, and then freed in November.
With the fall of the Kaiser and King Ludwig of Bavaria, Munich burst into revolt. Muehsam and Landauer as well as Ret Marut (later known as the novelist B. Traven) were among those agitating for the setting up of Workers Councils which led on to the founding of the Bavarian Council Republic. This lasted only a week.
The Social Democrats, terrified by the thought of revolution, allied with the right. The Freikorps, a reactionary militia organised by the socialist minister Noske and composed of right wing military and students, crushed the Council Republic. Landauer died under the blows of rifle butts and boots.
Muehsam escaped but was later captured and sent to prison for 15 years. In prison, Erich continued with his writing, composing many poems and the play Judas. Released in the amnesty of 1924, he returned to a Munich in the grip of apathy. He joined the Anarchist Communist Federation of Germany (FKAD). He restarted Kain but this failed after a few issues. He then brought out Fanal (The Torch) where he attacked both the Communists and the far right. His openly revolutionary tone and his attempts to stop the rise of the right made him a hate figure among conservatives and Nazis.
He used satire to ridicule the Nazis with short stories and poems. This came to the personal attention of Hitler and Goebbels, arousing their anger. He agitated for the freeing of the revolutionary Max Hoelz and wrote a play, Staatsraeson (For reasons of State) in defence of Sacco and Vanzetti), in 1928.
In 1930 he completed his last play Alle Wetter (All Hang) which called for mass revolution as the only way to stop the seizure of power by the radical Right.
A few hours after Van der Lubbe had set fire to the Reichstag in February 1933, Muehsam was arrested and then spent the last 17 months of his life in the concentration camps of Sonnenburg, Brandenburg and Oranienburg.
His teeth were smashed in with rifle butts, his scalp was branded with a swastika from a red-hot iron and he was hospitalised. He was forced to dig his own grave for a mock execution, and his body became a mass of bruises and wounds. His tormentors tried to force him to sing the Nazi song Horst Wessel Lied. He refused to give in and sang the Internationale. " Thanks to his will power he resisted all attempts to humiliate him" (Augustin Souchy).
Despite these tortures Erich remained intransigent to the end. Finally he was tortured and murdered on the night of 9th July 1934.
After beatings, a Stormtrooper leader administered a lethal injection and then a suicide by hanging was faked.
Never in my life have I learnt
To submit to anyone
Here I am locked up,
Far from my home,
My wife, my workshop.
And even if they kill me,
If I must die,
To give up is to lie!
But if the chains broke
Then I would breathe in sunshine
At the top of my lungs- Tyranny!
And I would cry to the people: be free!
Forget to submit yourselves!
To give up is to lie!
From Muehsam's poem The Prisoner
Text from the AF's magazine, Organise!