Erich Mühsam and the Berlin Idea Factory

By Michael Lederer

Erich Müh­sam (1878–1934) was a Ger­man-Jew­ish anti­mil­i­tarist anar­chist essay­ist, poet, and play­wright. I can check most of those box­es. I tried anar­chy in my 20s; it didn’t fit. And while my mater­nal grand­par­ents were Ger­man, I start­ed life in New Jersey.

Since 2003, I have main­tained my writ­ing office, research library, and a small per­for­mance space in the same build­ing in Berlin where Müh­sam worked and lived with his wife Zen­zl. Alt-Liet­zow 12. There is a plaque ded­i­cat­ed to Müh­sam beneath my win­dow. His spir­it is every­where here. He sat where I sit. Climbed the steps I climb. Feared what I fear.

The author Michael Led­er­er look­ing out of Erich Mühsam’s old win­dow pho­to cred­it: Kata­ri­na Lederer

When I first began to work in this build­ing, as close as it was phys­i­cal­ly to Mühsam’s world, still it was many oth­er worlds away. Europe was at peace, so hap­pi­ly unit­ing. In 2004, ten new coun­tries would join the E.U. From Mal­ta and Cyprus in the south, to the Baltic states Esto­nia, Latvia, and Lithua­nia in the north, with much of East­ern Europe in between. Peace and the sweet promise of pros­per­i­ty char­ac­ter­ized the day. The Schen­gen Treaty meant bor­ders were com­ing down, not being rein­forced. And across the ocean, the Unit­ed States with its Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty still loomed as a bea­con of hope to less priv­i­leged peo­ples every­where. But, as the say­ing goes, that was then and this is now.

Today, the world looks uncom­fort­ably clos­er to the one Müh­sam might rec­og­nize. Nation­al­ism is again ascen­dant in Poland, Hun­gary, the Czech Repub­lic, and Aus­tria. The right-wing AfD now sits in the Bun­destag as the third largest polit­i­cal par­ty in Ger­many. And – I weep to write this – the Unit­ed States is turn­ing from its tra­di­tion­al role as uniter to join the ranks of those ascen­dant nation­al­ists. Storm clouds, if not storm troop­ers, loom out­side the window.

The Nazis came quick­ly for Müh­sam. He was killed at the Oranien­burg con­cen­tra­tion camp on July 9, 1934. My father had bet­ter luck. He escaped the Nazis, fled as a 14-year-old Jew­ish refugee from Yugoslavia to the U.S., and I was born safe and secure on July 9, 1956 – twen­ty-two years to the day after Erich’s murder.

Müh­sam wrote, pro­duced, and per­formed cabarets as we have also done here at the Idea Fac­to­ry. In the Weimar Repub­lic, laugh­ing at the un-fun­ny was more than a method of cop­ing – it was a way of fight­ing back. The absur­di­ties of human his­to­ry and behav­ior are ripe tar­gets. One inci­dent, now fun­ny to look back at, was when at the end of World War I, fol­low­ing the abdi­ca­tion of King Lud­wig III of Bavaria, Müh­sam and his fel­low anar­chists, arm-in-arm with Social­ist col­leagues, declared the inde­pen­dent “Bavar­i­an Sovi­et Repub­lic” with its cap­i­tal Munich. It last­ed three weeks! That was just enough time for its For­eign Affairs Deputy, Dr. Franz Lipp, a for­mer psy­chi­atric patient, to declare war on Switzer­land. The rea­son, accord­ing to var­i­ous sources: “Swiss refusal to lend 60 loco­mo­tives to the new Repub­lic.” The play­wright Ernst Toller, a lead­ing mem­ber of that short-lived gov­ern­ment (April – May 1919), declared their rev­o­lu­tion to be no less than the “Bavar­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion of Love.”

In May 2019, on the cen­ten­ni­al anniver­sary of Mühsam’s Rev­o­lu­tion of Love, we will present here, in the build­ing where he lat­er worked and lived, a cabaret mark­ing the occa­sion. Text and per­for­mance will go beyond reflect­ing on Mühsam’s day. They will also attempt to shed some light on our own.

My 8‑year-old son recent­ly said, “Life is a com­e­dy.” Then he quick­ly added: “Isn’t it?”

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin and Cadaqués. His nov­el Cadaqués was pub­lished in 2014.