A short biography of Hermann Steinacker, German anarchist murdered by the Nazis.
"Fixed and unwavering our comrade always believed in the collapse of the Nazi regime. Quiet, even humorous, he endured his imprisonment in the Munster penitentiary." August Benner writing about Hermann Steinacker.
Johann Baptist Steinacker was born on 20th November 1870 in Odenheim in the Karlsruhe district of Germany. He learnt the trade of a tailor. He joined the Social Democratic Party but soon moved towards anarchism. In 1910 his name appeared on the records of the political police. He was placed on the Anarchist Directory, complete with photo, compiled by the Centre for the Monitoring of German and International Anarchism, based at Berlin police HQ. He appears to have preferred to use the first name Hermann probably because his real first name had too many religious connotations.
Commitment to anarchism under the Kaiser’s Germany required great determination and commitment . Not only were anarchists under constant surveillance from the State, but they were marginal to a workers’ movement dominated by the Social Democrats with their mass party and their control of the unions. The Social Democrats saw anarchists not as political opponents but as enemies. Rosa Luxemburg, one of the leaders of German Social Democracy, was to denounce anarchism as the “counter-revolutionary ideology of the lumpenproletariat” (rather inaccurate as anarchists in Germany were often skilled workers).
Locally in Elberfeld in the Wupper valley (Wuppertal) where Steinacker was active, this led on one instance of sellers of anarchist papers being physically expelled from a union hall. (1)
The Elberfeld anarchist group had only ten members and concentrated its activities on internal meetings and paper sales (selling 100-150 of each issue). They held a successful meeting in 1914 on birth control which attracted 150 people but this appears to have been their only such public meeting. German anarchists were deeply committed to anti-militarism and internationalism - in contrast to the bulk of Social Democracy, which on the outbreak of the First World War took the side of the regime. One day before the outbreak of war the Social Democrats had been preaching internationalism, but by 10th August Wuppertal Social Democrats were fulminating about the atrocities of the “Belgian and French nationalists”. Because of their anti-war stand Steinacker and eight other local anarchists were placed in “protective custody” for ten days. In March 1916 Steinacker was conscripted.
The committed stance of the anarchists eventually paid off. With the revolutionary wave that swept through Germany beginning in 1918, 1200 workers had joined the newly founded anarcho-syndicalist FAUD in Wuppertal by 1920. Subsequent repression and the collapse of the movement as well as wide-scale unemployment meant that the FAUD began to shrink by 1923. By 1933 there were only one hundred members of the FAUD left in Wuppertal. Alongside the FAUD was the very active branch of the national youth organisation SAJD - Syndikalistisch-Anarchistischen Jugend Deutschlands, founded in the 1920s.
Hermann Steinacker had a very important role within the local FAUD. His political longevity, his knowledge of anarchism and his general high level of culture, meant that his tailor shop on the high street became a focus of the libertarian movement. He was respected by the anarchist youth for his attitude towards them. As one of these young people, Paula Benner, was to state: "He was one of the few adults of whom one received answers to their questions". His pioneer work as a free thinker and his ongoing campaigns for anti-authoritarian education influenced two generations of young people. He acted as a teacher in the best sense of the word to the anarchist youth and children’s groups.
Steinacker had urged the local Social Democrat and Communist leaders in the parties and unions to call a general strike on the coming to power of the Nazis, but in vain. With the Nazi takeover Steinacker advised the Wuppertal FAUD and SAJD to disband, which saved them from the first wave of Nazi terror. In the meantime an underground network was set up. However by May 1933 local anarchist Helmut Kirschey (see libcom biography) had been arrested followed by those of the brothers Fritz and Willi Benner (see libcom biography) in August.
Steinacker was instrumental in organising collections for the families of those arrested. His tailor shop was a good cover for underground work. In addition he held the contact list for the underground anarchist network set up throughout the Rhineland with contacts with a centre in Holland from where illegal publications were smuggled in. Following a denunciation, Steinacker was arrested by the Gestapo in October 1934. He received a prison sentence of one year and nine months which he served in Luettringhausen prison. Following his release on 6th July 1936 he immediately became involved in collecting money for the movement in Spain. In December the Gestapo struck and Steinacker was the first of eleven to be arrested and imprisoned in Dusseldorf. There he witnessed the beating and torture for eight days of Anton Rosinke, leading member of the Dusseldorf FAUD. Rosinke was to be murdered in this prison on 14th February 1937.
There followed the trial of 88 Rhineland anarchists in January 1938. Steinacker received ten years imprisonment. He was sent to Munster prison. August Benner, brother of Fritz and Willi, and imprisoned with him there from 1941 gave an account of Steinacker’s detention there. Whilst remaining morally and spiritually unbroken, the seventy three year old Steinacker’s health had been ruined by torture and detention. He could no longer climb the stairs to the prison workroom. His comrades carried him there every morning. One day he fell asleep in the workroom. He was thus deemed no longer fit to live and the prison warden contacted the Dusseldorf Gestapo. In January 1944 he was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. His bloodstained glasses were handed over to his daughter after he was murdered there on 14th April 1944.
Remember this fallen comrade!
(1) Wuppertal in its present borders was formed in 1929 by merging the early-industrial cities of Barmen and Elberfeld with Vohwinkel, Ronsdorf, Cronenberg, Langerfeld, and Beyenburg. The initial name Barmen-Elberfeld was changed in a 1930 referendum to Wuppertal (“Wupper Valley”). The new city was administered within the Prussian Rhine Province. From Wikipedia.