Today in London’s media history: exiled German socialist/anarchist paper Freiheit begins publishing, 1879.

The German-language socialist (later anarchist) paper Freiheit (meaning Freedom) was first published from London, though mainly aimed at distribution in Germany, on 4th January 1879.

Here’s a good account of the paper’s early years and the context that gave birth to it, from ‘The Slow Burning Fuse, The Lost History of the British Anarchists’, by John Quail.

“There had been German political refugees in London since the events of 1848, one of the better known of them being Karl Marx. For the most part these refugees were men mostly ‘past middle age and already long-standing members of some English trade union or another, and their meetings were mainly social affairs where politics were discussed as part of a pleasant chat over a drink. There was, however, a steady influx of younger men with more activist tendencies. This influx was to turn into a flood as a result of the German Anti-Socialist Laws; yet the quickening of the German political atmosphere to which these Laws were something of a response had already affected the German exiles by 1877. One consequence was that at an informal gathering after the Cleveland Hall meeting Kitz describes how he was ‘urged by my comrade Johann Neve’ (of whom more later) ‘to form an English section of the Socialist party. I succeeded in getting together a number of comrades including those of the British Federation whom I have already referred to and thus was started an English Revolutionary Society, which, working with the foreign element was to take its part in the International Socialist movement ( … )’ This English Revolutionary Society was a part of the Social Democratic Club which met in pubs in Soho from its foundation in August 1877 until it found permanent premises in Rose Street ( now Manette Street ) in 1878. There were some five sections according to nationality with Frank Kitz as secretary of the English section. The move to club premises was important because now discussion and organisation could go ahead without the interference of landlords; and without the expense of hired rooms, says Kitz,’we were enabled to hold public meetings with greater frequency’.

When a wave of refugees arrived in London from Germany after the passage of the Anti-Socialist Laws in 1878, the Rose Street club became a central point for defence and aid. The general publicity given to the Laws also attracted attention to the thing they were designed to repress. ‘Shortly after this influx of refugees,’ writes Kitz, ‘the sections jointly issued a pamphlet by J. Sketchley, entitled The Principles of Social Democracy thus taking advantage of the interest awakened ( … ) Many thousands of this pamphlet were sold, the German section bearing the major portion of the cost, in order to aid propaganda among our own working class. The English section undertook the reissue of two pamphlets on Communism by H. Glasse; they also published an address to the amnestied Communists of Paris and 50,000 copies of this leaflet were distributed’. (Sketchley, incidentally, was an old Chartist. ) In order to understand the reasons for and the consequences of the Anti-Socialist Laws it is necessary to explain in more detail what was happening in Germany in this period.

A German Anarchist movement had existed since the mid-1870s. Their propaganda was spread by wandering agitators and smuggled newspapers. It was a small movement, in isolation, yet it began to have some influence on the left wing of the Social Democratic Party. This influence grew because of the anomalous position of the party. It was rapidly increasing the number of seats it held in the Reichstag ( and displaying all the tendencies towards respectability which such positions seem to entail ). On the other hand, however, even a majority of seats held by the SDP in the Reichstag would have given it no real power. The Reichstag was able, under the constitution, only to advise the Kaiser and his Chancellor; and the latter were able to ignore this advice, constrained only by a wish to preserve the forms of government by consent. The extent to which the Anarchists began to have influence among the party’s left wing was the extent to which it began to see that even quite modest reforms might only be achievable by revolutionary means.

Yet there was no revolutionary turbulence among the German workers, as the general lack of response to revolutionary propaganda seemed to prove. At this time the Anarchists were developing ideas as to how such working-class passivity could be overcome. It was suggested that a new kind of propaganda was needed, a propaganda of deeds rather than words. Kropotkin, for example, writing at about this time, asked what separated ‘the argument from the deed, the thought from the will to act’. He answered his own question by saying : ‘It is the action of minorities, action continued, renewed without ceasing, which brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of self sacrifice are as contagious as cowardice, submission and panic.’

And he goes on to say that this action will be ‘sometimes collective, sometimes purely individual’ but that it would neglect no ‘means at hand …to awaken audacity and the spirit of revolt by preaching by example’. This preaching by example was later to be better known as ‘propaganda by deed’. The theory of propaganda by deed seemed to invite the most spectacular actions and in Germany it led to two attempts on the life of the Kaiser. In May 1878 Emil Hödel, and in June of the same year Carl Nobiling, shot at the Kaiser as he was driven through the streets in an open carriage. Both attempts failed. The failed assassins both had links with known German Anarchists and Hödel declared himself an Anarchist at his trial. He was beheaded. Nobiling died of self-inflicted wounds. No revolutionary upsurge accompanied these attempts, any such thing being pre-empted in any case by the frantic reaction of the German authorities. Bismarck, the German Chancellor, irritated by the growing electoral strength of the SDP, constitutionally circumscribed and severely legalistic though it was, seized upon the assassination attempts as an opportunity to smear the party. The result of his efforts was the Anti-Socialist Laws of October 1878.

After the second assassination attempt Berlin became an armed camp. All known socialists had their homes raided. Even before the passage of the Laws over 500 people had been arrested and sent to jail for ‘insulting the Kaiser’ or ‘approving’ of the attempts on his life. Some of the cases would have been laughable had it not been for the suffering involved : “A drunken man received two and a half years in prison for murmuring ‘William is dead, he lives no more.” A woman talking about the Emperor’s wounds was sentenced to a year and a half for saying “The Kaiser at least is not poor, he can afford to care for himself.” A worker, while sitting on a bench along Unter den Linden was heard to say that “Hödel is a dumb-bell but Nobiling planned his attempt well.” This slip of his tongue cost him four years of his freedom. The results of the repression were twofold. Firstly, as far as the left-wing socialists were concerned the mask of the democratic process was ripped away to reveal black reaction. Secondly, socialist agitation of any sort was made both doubly difficult and very much more dangerous. A wave of socialist refugees left Germany and many came to London. Frank Kitz described the situation : ‘Thousands were expatriated, hundreds of families broken up, hundreds imprisoned; seizures and confiscations were the order of the day. Of those torn from their families a number went insane and others were irretrievably ruined; a great number sought refuge in London and our club in Rose Street presented at times the appearance of an arrival or departure platform at a station with luggage and cases of prohibited literature and the bewildered emigrants going to and fro.’ The bitterness caused by the repression and the AntiSocialist Laws probably made more Anarchists than the German authorities had been able to silence by their measures. For some years London was to be the major centre for the production of German revolutionary and Anarchist propaganda and the organisation of its secret distribution.

Into the embittered society of the German exiles in London came Johann Most, later to be the central figure in a case which was to prove a rallying point for the new socialist movement. When he arrived in London, Most was a dissident left-wing Social Democrat who had been forced out of Germany. No theoretician, as a bitterly sarcastic and humorous speaker and journalist who was popular with working-class audiences, he had earned himself some notoriety and a string of jail sentences. He had been elected to the Reichstag, which he found frustrating, until another jail sentence for a speech on the Paris Commune put an end to his political career. On his release he edited a Berlin Social Democrat newspaper whose circulation he boosted from 2,000 to 18,000 in a year. Further activities in this direction were abruptly halted after Hödel’s attempt. Most spoke about it at a meeting and though his comments were not approving he was arrested and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment. When this term was up he was sentenced to a further five months, which he spent in solitary confinement. In December 1878 he was released and given twenty-four hours to leave Berlin. He went to Hamburg, where the local party leaders, their nerve completely shot, advised him to emigrate to America. Most did leave Germany but went instead to London, arriving just before Christmas 1878.

Most’s energy was unaffected by his prison sentences and expulsion. With the financial and practical help of members of the Rose Street club, the first issue of Freiheit, a paper designed for illegal distribution in Germany, was published on 4 January 1879. At first it described itself as a Social Democrat paper but from February 1879 onwards it steadily downgraded the importance of electoral activity; and in 1880 it began printing specifically Anarchist articles. At this time, too, fairly formal links were alleged to exist between Most and ‘the younger generation of Bakuninists in Paris, the group that publishes the Révolution Sociale’. Once the paper was established a number of successful networks were set up for smuggling the paper into Germany. Large numbers were sewn into mattresses in a factory in Hull and exported. Sailors carried quantities of it from England to Germany via Hamburg. Each issue of the paper was given a different title so that the authorities had to first find out its name before banning it. Naturally German police spies were sent to try and infiltrate the smuggling networks and the group round the paper. Kitz relates that on several occasions ‘we were puzzled by the fact that the German Government was aware of the new titles before the paper reached Germany, and thus forestalled us. Johann Neve and I set out to find the cause. Suspecting a member who had recently joined we supplied him with a specially printed copy of the paper bearing a title different from the one we actually intended to use. The bogus title was prohibited but the other escaped. I regret to say that this member met with a serious accident when attending a fête held in support of the Freiheit.’ The spy was shot and seriously wounded on Hampstead Heath.

The mixture of political ideas in Freiheit at this time represented fairly accurately Most’s own ideas, which took parts of left Social Democracy, Blanquism (i.e. putschist republicanism ) and Anarchism but which were marked by strident calls for revolutionary violence that grew out of a wild and bitter response to the repression in Germany. His itch for vengeance found an exemplary object in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by Russian nihilists in 1881. Freiheit published an article by Most entitled ‘Endlich’ ( ‘At Last’ ) which enthusiastically supported their action. The Russian government applied pressure – pressure from the German government can be assumed to be constant – and Most was prosecuted by the British authorities. He was found guilty of incitement to murder heads of state and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment.

His arrest and sentence caused something of a stir in London Radical and socialist circles. A short-lived English-language paper also entitled Freiheit was issued by the English section of the Rose Street club as the organ of a Defence Committee. Frank Kitz was the editor. The paper printed an English translation of Most’s article but avoided being enmeshed in the prosecution by presenting it as part of the speech of the prosecuting counsel at the trial ! Jack Williams stood on the steps of the Old Bailey during the trial and sold many copies of this edition. Protest meetings were held, some successful as at Mile End Waste in April, some less so as at Peckham where ‘the Radicals combined with Tories; opposed the speakers and were only prevented by force from seizing the platform…’ The prosecution of Most was opposed publicly on the grounds of the right of asylum and the right of free speech ( although the first issue of the Freiheit did reprint some approving remarks of Disraeli’s on tyrannicide ). Such an approach did find quite wide sympathy – the jury at Most’s trial asked that he be treated with some mercy since he might be suffering from violent wrong done to him in Germany.

The German Freiheit continued under caretaker editors until further publication in London was stopped as a consequence of an article applauding the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish by Fenians in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882. The office was raided and its plant seized. Johann Neve narrowly escaped arrest and two compositors were jailed for six and nine months. Freiheit was forced to move, first to Switzerland and then to the United States. In its short but eventful London career it had ‘produced a number of important incidental effects. Through dissensions within the German exiles a split had taken place, the orthodox Social Democrats removing to new premises in Tottenham Street. The progressively Anarchist supporters of Most remained at Rose Street until they formed a distinctively Anarchist club in St Stephen’s Mews, Rathbone Place, some time around 1883…”

Freiheit continued to be distributed clandestinely in Germany, but suffered a serious blow when police spy Theodore Reuss was able to trace Johann Neve in Belgium and have him handed over to the German police. “Neve was one of the most wanted men in Germany. A truly heroic figure, modest and careful, he had chosen a life of exile on the Belgian/German border organising the secret distribution of Anarchist literature, arms and explosives in Germany. His arrest was a major triumph for the German political police. Johann Neve died – or was murdered – in prison.”

Freiheit, however, carried on production in the US. With Most, at the helm, the paper was not shy about criticising fellow anarchists, and work published in Freiheit often fomented controversies in anarchist circles. Splits and rows with other groups were common. For instance, Most’s arguemnts with Joseph Peukert led to the founding of a rival journal, Der Rebell; and Most and Benjamin Tucker carried out a long-running spat through the pages of their respective journals.

A few years later, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman became involved with the Freiheit group, but left, after arguing with Most. When Berkman, inspired by Most’s theory of the attentat, was imprisoned for the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, Most criticised Berkman’s action. Incensed, Goldman publicly attacked Most with a horsewhip at one of his lectures.

The journal’s publication occasionally faltered when Most was imprisoned—at least once, for writings he published in Freiheit —but fellow anarchists kept the journal afloat during those times.

When its charismatic founder and editor died in 1905, Freiheit went into a decline, and ceased publication in 1910 after 28 years.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.


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