A short biography of German anarchist Otto Schreiber, who was active in London for many years.
Otto Franz Schreiber was born on 20th January 1868 in Germany. He seems to have made his way to London sometime in the1880s where he worked as a tailor. He was an active member of the Communistische ArbeitersBildungVerein (Communist Workers Education League) founded in London in 1840 to which many exiled members of the Communist League, including Marx himself, had belonged. The CABV had taken an increasingly anarchist direction and this was reinforced by the coming to London of Johann Most, one-time German Social Democrat leader who started moving towards anarchism himself.
When prominent anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker came to London in 1895 he appears to have become good friends with Schreiber. Both were enthusiasts of the literary work of the Scots-German anarchist John Henry MacKay and his depiction of “Darkest London” and they undertook joint ventures into the East End as a result of this enthusiasm, which led on to Rocker’s involvement in the Jewish anarchist movement there. Schreiber, along with Hermann Stenzleit and Wilhelm Werner, attended his series of lectures at the CABV on the history of the First International, and they encouraged him to turn these into a book. In addition Schreiber introduced Rocker to Herman Jung, secretary of the First International for many years and still living in London.
He had contacts in anarchist circles in Berlin and undertook a journey there in 1896. He was also involved in the production of German language anarchist texts including Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel (Worte eines Rebellen) which came out in nine parts between 1886-1896 under his editorship as well as Jean Grave’s The Day After The Revolution (Die Gesellschaft am Tage nach der Revolution: Autorität & Organisation) in 1890.
He also co-authored some signed and unsigned leaflets including on 15th February 1892 The Social Democrats: The Latest Operations (Sozialdemokraten. Die jüngsten Vorgänge) along with another London German anarchist Otto Mathias and 26 others ; and To Comrades Everywhere(An die Genossen allerorts)"London 8th February 1898.
Schreiber was one of those representing the London CABV at the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam in 1907. He was the last German secretary of the CABV up until his arrest in World War One (although the Englishman Harold Edwards took on the post for six months in 1920 before it disappeared completely.)
Otto appears to have lived in Soho at 17 Lexington Street, as a letter to the noted German anarchist Gustav Landauer in 1910 has this address. He met Kathleen Murray (born 25th October 1892),a tailor's assistant, usually called Doll or Dolly because of her small stature, apparently at the Jubilee Street anarchist club and they lived in free union. They had two children, Paul (but called Eddie by his parents –see letters from Otto to Dolly) born in 1912 and David, born in 1916.
He was arrested after the outbreak of the World War, probably around June 1915. He had been one of those who held to the anti-war position at a stormy meeting held at the offices of Freedom in late 1914 and also attended by Malatesta, Keell, Schapiro and Tcherkesov where there was a confrontation between the anti-war Malatesta and the pro-war Tcherkesov.
He was one of the many Germans interned in Britain and had the misfortune of being sent to the Knockaloe concentration camp on the Isle of Man. Many internees were imprisoned in London or the surrounding area but the most recalcitrant were sent to the Isle of Man, as a result of which visits from their families were seriously curtailed because of the length of travel and general inaccessibility. Knockaloe was designed for 5,000 prisoners but by the end of the war it held 24,000. It had the worst reputation of the camps on the island. Many of those interned had lived in Britain for years. After the sinking of the Lusitania on the 7th May 1915 all “enemy aliens” were vindictively interned. Many spent up to 5 years in prison camps.
Prisoners at Knockaloe lived in wooden shed-like buildings. Food was served three times a day and was adequate but this deteriorated in 1917. Letters from Otto to Dolly are deeply moving and refer to their children and how few letters he receives from her. The situation for Dolly herself as an unmarried mother with two children was not very desirable and by the end of the war she had to give Eddie over to adoption by Constance Barnett, a translator of Russian writers and member of the Bloomsbury Group.
Otto died at Knockaloe on December 11th 1917, allegedly of heart failure, according to the death certificate issued. Rocker in his book The London years says that whilst at Alexandra Palace internment camp in 1917 he heard from others sent there from the Isle of Man that Schreiber had died of a heart attack. "I had known Schreiber for twenty years. He had been active in our German movement. A lifelong anti-militarist, who had carried on a relentless war against the Kaiser regime, and had to live in exile because of it, he died in a German prisoners of war camp as though he had been one of the Kaiser's own men! And the British Press spoke of this as a war of democracy against Prussian militarism!"
As Lorraine Robinson, one of Dolly’s granddaughters ( she had children with another partner Alf, after Otto’s death)wrote: “family legend has it that my Great Uncle Walter had the death investigated and found out that Otto had died of malnutrition but I have no idea if that is actually true”.
Otto was buried in Peel churchyard, close by the camp. His gravestone bore the name Franz (his middle name) rather than Otto. He was one of 200 prisoners who died on the island. In 1962 the German graves were moved to the German Cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire and the old gravestones were destroyed. Otto’s grave thus lies alongside the dead from Zeppelin crews from World War One and Luftwaffe crews from World War Two, a final ignominy for this staunch opponent of autocracy and militarism.
Hamon, A. Le socialisme et le congress de Londres
Rocker, R. The London Years
Information supplied by the Bibliothek der Freien (Berlin) including information from Berlin police files and from Lorraine Robinson a grand-daughter of Dolly who also supplied a photocopy of a letter from Otto to Dolly