A short biography of Franz Pfemfert, revolutionary, publisher, editor of Die Aktion
Franz Pfemfert was born in the east Prussian town of Loetzen (today called Gizycko in Poland) on 20 November 1879. Soon after his birth his family moved to Berlin and Franz attended Joachimsthal High school.
After the death of his father in 1892 his mother withdrew him from school because she wanted him to help out in her poultry and fish selling in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. Franz did not go along with this. Instead he went to live with his grandfather in Loetzen for a while, before going on travels around Germany for a year.
Around 1900 he probably worked for some time as a messenger and probably also did some apprenticeship in printing. Around about the same time he made his first contacts with both anarchist and literary circles. Among others he met the anarchist Senna Hoy, and his first poems appeared in Hoy’s paper Der Kampf (The Struggle) and in another anarchist paper Die Arme Teufel (The Poor Devil) in 1904. The year before he made the acquaintance through Hoy of Alexandra Ramm, whom he was later to marry.
He worked on various publications from 1910-1911, in 1910 becoming an editor of the radical democratic magazine Die Demokrat. He fell out with its publisher Georg Zepler who had removed an article by Kurt Hiller without consulting Franz first.
Franz decided to quit and to set up his own magazine which he called Die Aktion. The first issue appeared on 20th February 1911. It was intended to be a political paper for all those to the left of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) but also as a forum for the artistic avant-garde of the period, above all the Expressionists. Die Aktion was financed by among other things Die Aktion Evenings, where writers read from their articles in the paper. There were also Die Aktion events organised for women.
Pfemfert had long been critical of the SPD, in particular its nationalistic outlook, well before the start of the First World War. With the coming of war Franz became friendly with the only two Social Democrat MPs who had voted against war credits in the Reichstag, Karl Liebknecht and Otto Ruhle. Die Aktion maintained its anti-war outlook throughout the war, but was not able to openly criticize it, circumventing the censors through indirect expression. Franz was able to publish anti-war poems, particularly those of Oskar Kanehl, and produced special issues devoted to the cultures of countries at war with Germany.
In 1915 he created the Antinationale Sozialistenpartei (Anti-National Socialist Party). This worked secretly with other anti-war groups. In 1917 Alexandra opened a gallery and bookshop which from 1917 to 1918 exhibited the works of among others, Expressionist painters of Die Bruecke group like Karl Schmidt Rotluff, and Egon Schiele.
Die Aktion also published various series of books and booklets, with the Political Action Library and works by Herzen, Marx, Lenin etc, the Aeternist series with works by Carl Einstein, Franz Jung etc, the Lyric Poetry series, with works by Kanehl etc and the Red Cock in the Publishing House series, which published Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Mehring etc. Die Aktion published Dadaist texts, Russian anarchist texts and essays by the French anarchist Elisée Reclus.
With the end of the war Franz joined the Spartakusbund of Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Die Aktion threw itself open to all the left and revolutionary currents, attempting to maintain an open forum and undogmatic approach. He soon broke with the Communist Party (KPD) after it transformed from the Spartakusbund, criticizing its bureaucratic approach.
He became a member of its left split, the Communist Workers Party (KAPD) but only remained in it a short while. With Otto Ruhle he joined the United General Workers Union (AAUD-E) in 1921. In 1926 he took part in the creation of the second Spartakusbund (heavily critical of the KPD and upholding Luxemburg’s ideas). He maintained critical solidarity with the anarcho-syndicalist union the FAUD.
In 1927 he and Alexandra opened a photographic studio to support themselves, and created portraits of artists and political activists like Andre Gide, Karl Kraus, and Frans Masereel. However Franz began to suffer from lung problems in this period, being hospitalized in 1927, 1930 and 1932. This and the deteriorating political situation led to the less frequent appearance of Die Aktion and its book series.
In 1929 Alexandra became the literary agent and translator of Trotsky. There was a lively exchange of letters between her and Trotsky, and Franz began communicating with him as well.
Nazi seizure of power
With the rise of Hitler the Pfemferts were forced to flee in March 1933, going via Dresden to Karlsbad, (Karlovy Var) in Czechoslovakia. Here they opened a photographic studio. They led a precarious existence there, being forced to rely on the financial support of friends, but also standing out among the Sudeten Germans here who were predominantly pro-Nazi, and politically suspect to Czech Communists and orthodox German Communists in exile. In October 1936 they moved to Paris.
Here they were less isolated as they were on the same wavelength as other German exiles like Carl Einstein and Franz Jung. Again the Pfemferts attempted to survive by opening a photographic studio. The French government acted harshly if it believed exiles were politically active, so this hindered their activity, and the Russian secret police, the GPU, often exacted vengeance on dissidents. Their friend, Kurt Landau, was murdered by the GPU in this period.
The outbreak of war led to their internment. Franz was moved to a camp near Bordeaux where he managed to escape. In summer 1940, he met up with Alexandra, who had also managed to escape, in Perpignan. From there they went to Marseilles, where, after a long wait, they got a permit to go to Lisbon, then on to New York and from there to Mexico. They arrived in Mexico City in spring 1941.
Life was not good in Mexico. They were almost completely politically isolated, spoke no Spanish and had neither money nor friends. Trotsky’s widow, Natalia, supported them financially. They failed to gain entry to the USA, despite the intervention of Albert Einstein.
They opened a photographic studio in Mexico City, but it was a financial failure. They had to depend on the international funds of the Rescue Committee. In 1952 Franz was diagnosed with liver cancer and he died on 26th May 1954.
Die Aktion remains the great achievement of Franz’s life. It succeeded in uniting the political and cultural vanguards, opening its pages to all revolutionary currents, hosting the Expressionists and the Dadaists, and promoting and discovering many artists and writers. It promoted the realisation that revolution must not be just in the political and economic realms, but in all parts of life, including those of art and culture.
This article orinally appeared in Hobnail Review