A short biography of German anarchist Otto Rinke
Erich Otto Rinke was the son of a forestry official in Schmiegel in the German province of Posen (now Poznan in Poland). He was tall and wide and often referred to as Big Otto. Carlsen in his Anarchism in Germany says that “by nature he was argumentative, gruff and heavy fisted. Until 1890 he had the respect, but not always the love of those in the anarchist movement”. He is described by John Henry MacKay in his novel The Anarchists as having a short brown full beard and of being fluent in French but not so good at speaking English.
Otto Rinke, as he was usually known, worked as a locksmith, and shortly after finishing his apprenticeship began to wander all over Germany looking for work. In his travels he came in contact with the developing workers movement in Saxony and Wurttemburg and moved in a radical direction. He was called up to complete his military service but deserted shortly after on December 5th 1873. He fled to Switzerland and continued to work as a locksmith in Berne and Geneva.
It was in Bern that he came in contact with Bakuninist circles within the Socialdemokratische Verein Bern, along with a fellow German, Emil Werner. He joined the Jura Federation and together with August Reinsdorf and Emil Werner edited the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers' News) from July 15th 1876 to October 13th 1877 with 33 issues. The paper was financed by Natalie Landsberg. Most of the articles were written by Paul Brousse and then translated into German. As David Stafford notes: “The Arbeiter-Zeitung in fact appeared simultaneously with a new phase in the anarchist movement, characterized by a commitment to anarcho-communism and propaganda by the deed”.
Rinke was one of those who signed what has been described as the first German anarchist programme on October 2nd 1875. In May 1877 he, Werner, and Kropotkin founded the Anarchistisch Kommunistische Partei Deutscher Sprache (German-Speaking Anarchist Communist Party). The statutes of the group stated that its purpose was to unite the different elements of the German-speaking peoples who recognised anarchist-communist principles and who were associated with the International Workingmen’s Association. It did not have a very long life. After the “Red Flag” demonstration of March 18, 1877, Rinke was evicted from Bern, along with Werner and Paul Brousse. The red flag had been banned in Switzerland as an emblem of revolution following the Paris Commune.
This struck a blow at the Arbeiter-Zeitung. Its last issue stated that other newspapers would emerge to take its place.
In the summer of 1877 Rinke and Werner left Switzerland on foot and walked all the way to Verviers in Belgium to attend the International Anarchist Congress there. From there Rinke and Werner along with nine others went to Ghent to attend the Universal Socialist Congress there on September 9-16th. The Congress highlighted the differences between Anarchist and Social Democratic positions.
From Ghent Rinke returned to Germany, operating under the name of Otto Rau. He moved from Munich to Cologne . Whilst there he received a jail sentence in 1878-9, although it is not clear what for and for what length of time. This was part of the attempt to establish anarchist groups throughout Germany.
During 1879-80 Rinke based himself in Paris, moving in and out of Germany and working to develop the underground anarchist network there. In autumn 1880 he was arrested in Mannheim but he was still operating under the name of Rau and was released shortly after. He returned to Paris where he met Josef Peukert who had been born in north Bohemia. They became lifelong friends and leading lights within one wing of German anarchist communism over the coming years.
During most of 1881 Rinke spent most of his time in Paris with only short forays into Germany and Switzerland. Here he became acquainted with the German anarchist Balthasar Grün.
In December 1881 Rinke and Werner brought out the first issue of Der Rebell, Organ Anarchisten Deutscher Sprache In Geneva. This was smuggled into Germany, though many copies were seized by the police in the mail.
In March 1882 Rinke and Grün went on a propaganda tour of Germany. However they were soon arrested at Darmstadt. Grün commited suicide in Hanau prison in September of that year. Rinke served a sentence for desertion in Ulm prison and was then released.
Rinke then went to London in October 1883. The second issue of Der Rebell appeared in October 1883, followed by the third and fourth In November and December of the same year. Rinke printed Der Rebell in his London flat with the support of the Swiss Moritz Schulze and the Czech E. Mily, both compositors. Peukert carried out most of the editorial duties. It proclaimed itself the organ of all German-speaking anarchists. In all 17 issues appeared, the last one appearing in October 1886.
Together with Peukert, Rinke set up the paper Die Autonomie in opposition to Johann Most 's Freiheit (Freedom) in November 1886. It was much better written than Der Rebell with far more news of the movement. Whilst in London he met the Scots-German anarchist John Henry Mackay and went with him on trips into the East End of London. He features as the character Otto Trupp in Mackay’s novel The Anarchists written in 1891.
Life in London for Rinke was very difficult. He had no steady work and had to support a wife and two young children. However during 1888-1890 he found steady work and was better off. Rinke was able to devise successful operations for the smuggling of Die Autonomie into Germany. A sign of his success was the fact that Berlin Police President Von Richtofen wrote that the police had been able to confiscate few copies of the paper and neither were they able to arrest anyone for smuggling it into the country. However, now the British police were hounding anarchists and he suffered severe harassment. Fleeing persecution, Rinke left London for the US in 1890, living first in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In the USA he joined the Autonomen Gruppen Amerikas (Autonomous Groups of America), editing their anarchist communist papers Der Anarchist from 1889–5 in New York, along with Peukert and Claus Timmermann, and Der Kämpfer (The Fighter) in St. Louis in 1896 which ran to only four issues. Rinke had moved to St Louis where he worked as a foreman in a factory producing electric motors. He died in 1899 at the age of 46, “choking to death on a piece of meat which he was eating in haste in order to get to an anarchist meeting”(Carlsen).
Rinke’s reputation suffered badly during the vitriolic civil war- the Bruderkreig- that severely damaged the German-speaking anarchist movement. Victor Dave accused him of persuading Grün to kill himself in order to save himself, and of being involved in the “champagne bottle murder” and robbery of a rich French woman in which Grün appears to have been implicated. However police files do not bear this out. Grün committed suicide in remorse, after breaking under questioning and revealing Rinke’s real identity. Johann Most later brought the matter up again during the height of the Bruderkreig. Max Nettlau, it seems more through hearsay than anything else, appears to have agreed with Dave and Most , referring to the Janus face of Rinke. Kropotkin, on the other hand always had the highest regard for Rinke. Otto Rinke had devoted all of his short adult life to the cause of anarchism but in the end was left sidelined and discredited.
Carlson, Andrew R. Anarchism in Germany, Vol 1.
Stafford, David. From Anarchism to Reformism
Mackay, John Henry. The Anarchists.