A short biography of Scots-German anarchist John Olday
Son of a German mother and Scottish father, Arthur William Oldag was born out of wedlock in London. After his birth his mother moved to New York where John spent his early years. When she returned to Germany for a visit she left him there with her mother. He never used his given names and was always known as John.
He almost immediately became involved in political activity in Hamburg. At the age of eleven he took part in the hunger riots of 1916. Two years later he took part in the unrest around the sailors’ mutiny and the workers’ insurgency. He hauled ammunition for a Spartacist machine-gun emplacement. With the defeat of the revolt he managed by the skin of his teeth to avoid execution, all other members of the machine-gun unit being killed.
In the early 1920s he joined the Young Communist League of Germany (Kommunistischer Jugend Deutschlands, KJD) and took part in the expropriation of food stores by masses of starving people. He was shortly after expelled from the youth organisation for “anarchist deviations”. He turned to the anarchist movement and took part in a militia unit during the uprisings of October 1923, then was active in the Ruhr region of Germany, where the anarchists had thousands of supporters, particularly among miners and factory workers. There he propagated ideas of workers councils.
In 1925 he withdrew from the revolutionary movement and devoted himself to artistic activities, which included expressionist graphics and political cartoons. He also wrote theatrical sketches for the Hamburg cabarets. He returned to political activity in 1932 and in 1933 he provided illustrations for anti-Nazi leaflets produced by his old Spartacist friends, with caricatures of leading Nazis. As an ‘eccentric gay artist’ he was able to be accepted in Nazi circles, relaying information to his old comrades when an arrest or a raid was planned. During this period he worked closely with Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union seafarers coming into the port of Hamburg. However in 1938 he was faced with arrest by the Gestapo. Using his dual nationality, he obtained a British passport and fled to London.
In London John came into contact with pacifists. This allowed him to publish Kingdom of Rags, his account of his life in Germany, illustrated with anti-Nazi drawings, in 1939.
With funds from anti-Chamberlain parliamentarians Olday coordinated the sinking of a Nazi munitions ship off the Dutch coast and the killing of a Jewish quisling in Antwerp. He also wrote the text of an appeal to German workers to sabotage the Nazi war industry.
He entered into a marriage of convenience in 1938 with Hilde Meisel (alias Hilda Monte), a member of the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (International Socialist Struggle League) and a German Jew. She thus became a British subject by marriage which enabled her to continue to support underground activities against the regime in Germany. She left the ISK in 1939, thinking it was not militant enough, and later carried on underground activity in Europe. In 1945 she died as a result of being shot by an SS patrol on the German-Swiss border)
With the outbreak of war Olday refused to work with British intelligence or to tone down his calls for class war. He was conscripted into a British Army Pioneer Corps regiment from which he deserted. He lived underground for the next two years and made contact with the British anarchist movement. His cartoons appeared in the anarchist paper War Commentary from 1942 and indeed joined its editorial board and two collections of his drawings, The March to Death (1943) and The Life We Live, the Death We Die (1944) were both published by Freedom Press. The March To Death sold ten thousand copies within eighteen months.
He published an anti-militarist broadsheet, Forces Newsletter, that was distributed among British soldiers. He produced this from a run-down studio in Camden Town he was sharing with the anarchist Philip Sansom. As Sansom writes: “These newsletters were produced on the kitchen table in the studio. Drawings were produced on a small, neat lithograph stone which John brought out under the bed once a month, and collated together with duplicated sheets. None of the casual visitors who came to the studio from time to time had any idea of the seditious material that flowed out from there to about 200 members of His Majesty’s forces, for the work was produced as quickly as possible and all traces cleared away immediately it was finished “(Freedom supplement, 3rd September 1977). He also produced drawings and poems for the IWW paper Industrial Worker, which was distributed by Scandinavian Wobblies in German ports.
John managed to get a job with an engineering spare parts firm. He was offered a big office typewriter which he needed to produce the anti-militarist sheet. This proved to be his undoing. Desperately poor, he decided to forgo a taxi fare and got a handcart to move it across London. He was stopped and asked for his papers. Though suspected of being a deserter, he refused to reveal his identity. However, whilst in Brixton prison he was seen by a Special Branch officer who remembered interviewing him when he came to Britain. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in January 1945 for ‘stealing by finding’ an identity card, the normal sentence being usually a month’s prison. However the magistrate was particularly vindictive.
After serving eight months of the sentence he was released and immediately re-arrested by the military police and moved to the Prestatyn HQ of the Pioneer Corps . He was court-martialled and given two years detention.
The Freedom Press Defence Committee which had been founded to support four of the Freedom Press editors arrested in 1945 came to his aid as did the IWW in the USA. John had provided cartoons, poems, letters and reviews to the Industrial Worker during the war years. John was released after three months.
Before his release he made many contacts among German POWs and helped build up a network which became the Internationalist Gruppe Bakunin, (IB-G) in August 1946. The goals of the group were "the destruction of statism in every form: and the construction of a non- authoritarian commonwealth centred on the system of workers' and communal councils." Still very much wedded to underground work,Olday emphasised organisation through cells and small groups.
The IB-G believed that "The class struggle can only be carried forward individually and through small groups, since true revolutionary mass organizations will not be tolerated by either state-capitalism or state-socialism." .
He carried on propaganda in German POW camps via leaflets and newsheets and by 1947 he and other anarchists addressed the POWs under the camouflage of giving educational lectures on democracy.
Unfortunately the anarchist movement in Germany was depleted by war and emigration. Those who had survived the repression and the concentration camps were physically and mentally at a low ebb. In this context the noted German anarchist Rudolf Rocker began to advance the idea that anarchists should participate in all forms of “mutual aid” which included the reformist unions, municipal administrations, and decentralised small industrial and consumer cooperatives.
John Olday was one of the harshest critics of this line, saying that this was a reformist road and that Rocker had forgotten the revolutionary ideas of the anarcho syndicalist FAUD. He was one of the first to revive the old revolutionary slogan of All Power to The Workers and Soldiers Councils.
Against Rocker’s call for a Libertarian Federalist Alliance Olday advanced the idea of a Spartacist Alliance, on anarchist-communist principles, which united anarchists, council communists, and other anti-authoritarian socialists. He built up a network of sixty groups, mostly in East Germany. This included the Proletarischer Zeitgeist group in Zwickau. However in 1948 the East German secret police moved against these groups and smashed them.
Olday’s Information Bulletin now only appeared in small numbers. He changed the title of the bulletin from Anarchist to Council Anarchist, but the repression in East Germany and the poor state of the movement in West Germany saw Olday suddenly stop all anarchist activity. Without the driving force of Olday, the network faded away.
At the beginning of 1950 Olday emigrated to Sydney.
There he undertook work with a group of Yugoslav anarchist exiles in contact via the network. He then moved to Adelaide where he continued his artistic and cultural activities. There he worked as an attendant at an art gallery.
From there he moved to Melbourne where he got a job as a hospital worker and continued his artistic-cultural-political activities. From there he returned to Sydney. John’s time in Australia enriched the counter-cultural scene there with his adult education classes, mime shows, recordings, radio broadcasts and exhibitions and his advocacy of gay liberation.
In the late sixties, following the emergence of a new revolutionary wave, John returned to Europe, first of all to Hamburg and Berlin, and then to London. Here he worked with the magazine Black Flag.
In 1974 he founded the International Archive Team, producing a duplicated bulletin Mit Teilung which reported on struggles worldwide, but with a focus on developments in Germany. '
For a while he stayed in the small ground floor room at the Centro Iberico at Haverstock Hill. However he and Miguel Garcia, the Spanish anarchist who had served twenty years in jail and one of the main animators of the Centre did not get along, and Miguel’s antagonism was fed by his antiquated homophobic reaction to John. John staged a reprise of the old Hamburg cabaret shows at the Centro, but time had taken away their effectiveness.
His long-term connection with the IWW led him to to joining the IWW General Defence Committee, contributing information, articles and drawings and cartoons to its Industrial Defence Bulletin, as well as translating IWW material into German.
John was a man formed by the revolutionary period in Germany in the early 1920s and then the underground resistance. As such he was a believer in armed struggle and he advocated this in Mit Teilung, although he was lucid enough to voice criticism of both the Red Army Faction and the 2nd June Movement.
In the end his lifestyle caught up with him. Rarely eating a square meal and seeming to exist on black coffee and cigarettes he contracted stomach cancer. In spite of being in severe pain, he continued his political activity. He died in the summer of 1977 at the age of 72.
Freedom, Anarchist review 3rd September 1977, decicated to John, with contributions from Philip Sansom, Ted Cavanagh, Vernon Richards etc.