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Years of Innocence
Origins of the Bund
An explosion of revolutionary hopes followed the fall of the Wilhelmine monarchy in November 1918. No one embodied the radical aspirations of the moment better than Artur Jacobs, a charismatic thirty-eight-year-old with boundless optimism and self-confidence. Born in 1880 into modest circumstances in Elberfeld, a small town in the Wupper Valley, Artur went on to attend higher secondary school (in German, “Gymnasium”) and university, and eventually found his vocation as a high school teacher. Artur was inspired by socialism’s promise of social justice and by the verve and independence of the burgeoning German youth movement. In the spirit of the latter, he aimed to do away with the obligation of formal respect traditionally accorded the teacher, hoping instead to inspire his students with his magnetism and mentorship. Personality, not credentials, would affirm his claim to lead. Impatient, impassioned, careless about propriety (he once, for example, took a group of girls on a hiking trip during which teacher and pupils all slept in the same barn), compelling to those who accepted his leadership and dismissive of those who did not, Artur was a controversial figure among staff, pupils, and parents alike.1
In the turmoil after World War I, Artur’s hope for an educational revolution that would lead to societal transformation was widely shared in Germany. The radical mood briefly permeated even the Prussian educational administration (in Germany, education remained the responsibility of the individual states). In November 1918, Gustav Wyneken, an influential educator and the spiritual father of the Entschiedene Jugend (“Youth of Conviction”), Germany’s “first revolutionary pupil and student movement,”2 was given an official appointment by the new socialist education minister and charged with transforming the school curriculum for the new republic.
In Essen, Artur was a tireless advocate of educational change, mobilizing pupils in his school to force through the revolutionary idea of a “school council,” which gave pupils a say in running the school. However, despite Artur’s protestations, just a few months later the teaching staff voted by a large majority to end the experiment. Undaunted, Artur briefly pursued the grander project of a citywide pupil-teacher council. In August 1919, Essen became the center of the Entschiedene Jugend movement and Artur one of its most influential activists. After he helped organize a major conference of students from across the city, the local Catholic press incited a backlash among conservative pupils, teachers, and parents. In the ensuing battle over school politics, Artur, though still relatively young, was placed on extended sick leave and eventually forced to take early retirement, albeit with a generous pension. It was at this low point, with his hopes for revolutionary pedagogy crushed and his career brought to an untimely end, that Artur discovered the possibilities of adult education and called the Bund into being.3
In a wave of enthusiasm for widening mass access to higher education, 1919 saw the founding of Volkshochschulen (adult education institutes) across Germany. In Essen, Artur played a significant role in creating the new institute, which, unusually, offered courses in four separate religious and political divisions: Protestant, Catholic, “free” (i.e., nondenominational and, in fact, socialist), and “scientific-neutral” (i.e., liberal). Artur became the coordinator of the “free” division. Just as earlier in the Gymnasium, Artur sought to create a close bond between inspirational teacher and motivated students that would extend beyond the classroom. Here, in this new world of adult education full of idealistic teachers and students, his ideas fell on fertile ground.4
In March 1924, Artur and eight other teachers and pupils from the school, aged between twenty-five and forty-five and most of them women, formed a new group, to which they swore a solemn oath of commitment. Though they would eventually settle on “Bund: Community for Socialist Life,” the name remained in flux for a while, changing from “Free Proletarian Bund” through various permutations, including “International Socialist Order: Bund.” The designation “international” may seem grandiose for a community whose membership never exceeded two hundred, but in the parlance of the time it meant simply that they were hostile to nationalism and felt part of an international community of socialists. Whatever the official name, to the members it remained, simply, “the Bund.” Among the original nine were several whom we have already met. Else Bramesfeld and Sonja Schreiber were teachers or teachers in training, inspired by the idea of a new kind of inclusive pedagogy. Lisa Jacob was one of three Jewish women in the original circle, the others being Artur’s wife, Dore, and Else Goldreich.5
Politics of the Personal
The vast majority of the Bund’s members lived in the Ruhr region—and the city of Essen, the sixth largest in Germany at the time, was the center of the group’s activities. In the 1920s, the Ruhr was one of the most important industrial regions in the world. Its major industries were coal, iron, and steel, and its economy was dominated by giant companies like Krupp and Thyssen. Over the previous half century, towns and suburbs in the northern part of the region, where deeper, richer seams of coal were to be found, had grown at a speed that rivaled the explosion of gold-rush towns in the American West. After the First World War, Ruhr towns like Hamborn, Gelsenkirchen, and Oberhausen continued to support a radical population of coal miners and steelworkers. Living and working conditions here resembled the dark industrial scenes of a Dickens novel—or the grim world uncovered by the reportage of Alexander Stenbock-Fermor, the “Red Count”—a world that to many Germans seemed profoundly alien.6
Farther south, however, the region was more urbane and settled, with Essen well on its way to becoming an administrative and commercial hub. Towns and subdivisions along the Ruhr River, including those in the Essen-Stadtwald area, where Artur and Dore lived, and where the Bund would build its central meetinghouse, were leafy, attractive, and middle-class. South of the Ruhr, along the Wupper Valley, several small towns with textile or metallurgical specializations had been the cradle of Germany’s industrial revolution. After Essen, the city of Wuppertal was home to the second-largest concentration of Bund members. During the early 1920s, the Ruhr region was rife with unrest: frequent strikes, a bitter standoff with the French forces that occupied the western part of the region after World War I, and a major left-wing uprising in the wake of the failed Kapp Putsch of 1920.7
The Bund shows the influence of so many contemporary trends that it is hard to imagine it emerging anywhere but in Weimar Germany.8 For one thing, it drew heavily on the ethos of the German youth movements. Most of the members had belonged to one or another of the youth groups that were popular at the time, whether the prewar Wandervogel, the left-wing Naturfreunde (“Friends of Nature”), or Zionist groups. The term Bund can mean many things, including “league,” “federation,” or “covenant,” but in the youth scene of the 1920s, it acquired a very specific meaning. The so-called bündisch youth movement that took shape after the First World War anticipated many of the features of Artur’s group. Almost all Bünde were united in their mission of bringing together a group of men (and sometimes women) closely bonded by loyalty and common values. They also shared the sense that their groups represented natural fellowships, which stood in opposition to what they considered the artificial forms and conventions of modern society. Each Bund was supposed to form organically around a natural leader, whose inspiring personality would serve as the group’s center. This meant that in the case of “our” Bund, regardless of Artur’s natural gifts, the youth movement values with which many Bund members had grown up had prepared them to seek and accept a charismatic leader.9
To understand the Bund as experienced by its members, we have to imagine an entity that was part political group, part 1960s commune, and part Quaker society. Like a political party (though it did not stand for elections), the Bund had clear goals for societal change, advocating above all for socialist principles, including public ownership of the means of production. Artur’s Bund felt close to the main parties in the working-class movement, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists (KPD), and, like other left-wing splinter groups, aspired to be an elite vanguard, helping to influence the larger workers’ movement. To do this, it sent members into both the SPD and the KPD in order to maintain connection with those parties.
However, the term “Socialist Life” in the Bund’s name also referred to the organization’s desire to experiment with new ways of living, to pursue what was known in Weimar as “life reform.” Bund members sought to create their own community, living by their own rules. Many resided together in houses owned or rented by the group. Unlike the communes of the 1960s, the Bund did not intend to withdraw from the world. In a 1920s pamphlet, the group presented itself as “a socialist life-and-struggle community in the industrial heartland”10 whose members’ mission was “to take socialism seriously” in their own lives “and to put truth into practice—without fear of the consequences or of clashes with the world around us.”11 It demanded from its members a degree of self-denial that no 1960s collective ever would. There were to be no drugs; Bundists were expected to do without alcohol and even nicotine, though caffeine seems to have been an addiction they could not renounce.
As with many other so-called life-reform groups in the Weimar period, the Bund made no distinction between the personal and the political. Thus, its members applied their shared principles not only to questions of national importance but to all aspects of daily life. When Artur, Dore, Lisa, Sonja, Else, and others came together, they were as likely to discuss marital relationships, work problems, difficulties in raising children, or failure to fulfill obligations to the group as the development of the world economy.
Copyright © 2019 by Mark Roseman