Barkenhoff was one of the earliest german left-wing communes in the 20th century. It was in Worpswede, north of Bremen, where there was already an artists colony (See Early Art Colonies). It existed from 1918 to 1923. The Barkenhoff property had been bought in 1895 by an artist, Heinrich Vogeler (1872 – 1942). Influenced by Proudhon, Charles Fourier, Peter Kropotkin and the English Garden City movement, Vogeler also had contact with communists of various types, wrote articles for the “Syndikalist” periodical (organ of the anarcho-syndicalist trade-union, FAUD) and was later to become a member of the KPD (German Communist Party).
The first year.
In summer 1918, Barkenhoff became a meeting place for international prisoners of war, refugees and ex-prisoners, and anti-militarist propaganda circulated there. In November 1918, Vogeler was responsible for food supplies in the revolutionary Bremen Council Republic. At that time, six people were living at Barkenhoff. However, this first commune was shortlived.
The workers’ commune.
At the start of 1919, a new group formed, and, in the spring, having been a refuge for left-wing political refugees after the fall of the Bremen Council Republic, over twenty people were living at Barkenhoff. The “Workers’ Commune” consisted of a carpenter, a black-smith/metal worker, two farmers/market gardeners, an apprentice gardener, a teacher, four houseworkers (all women!), Vogeler himself, and ten, mostly orphaned children, plus various war invalids, unemployed workers and other guests who regularly came and went. The members came from various left-wing organisations, ranging from the anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers Union of Germany (FAUD) to the KPD, as well as Theosophists and Anthroposophists.
The aims and their realisation.
The economic aims at Barkenhoff included producing enough food from farming and market gardening to be self-sufficient, the foundation of small “craft” workshops (joinerery, smithy) for their own needs and those of the local market, and the creation within the settlement of an anti-authoritarian “work school” for orphans.They also aimed to get away from the traditional division of labour into manual and intellectual work, specialists and helpers. The organisational form within the commune was basis democratic council communism. No money circulated within the commune, and there was a financial council responsible for purchasing and dealing with the outside world. The guiding principle was Mutual Aid, everyone helping everyone else in all spheres. Each member had the right to living space, clothing and food, depending on what was available.
The reasons for the commune.
The commune was not to be a goal in itself or for the individual members. It was to be the seed of the communist/communalist society of the future within the existing capitalist system. It was to be a good example and was to propagate its values in the existing society. These values were to be,
(a) production for need instead of for profit, and
(b) collective property, a socialisation of goods and the means of production.
The Barkenhoff commune suffered from several problems. Firstly, their aim of self-sufficiency was hard to realize. They could not produce enough food from the farming and market gardening to satisfy all of their needs. In addition, the small businesses did not bring in enough money. A vital part of the commune’s income had to come from the sale of Vogeler’s art works.
With a large part of their time involved in hard work, the communards at Barkenhoff had problems with inter-personal communication and with living together. There was too much work to do, and few guests helped out. Relationships became strained and there was jealousy between members when changes to sexual relationships took place and people changed partners.
Another area of conflict was over political orientation, with criticism, by the anarcho-syndicalist members, of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which had begun in the USSR after the revolution there. (See also the similar conflict at the Ferrer Colony, Stelton in the USA) The KPD supporters defended this development in Russia, and this was, in the end, an important factor in the break up of the commune. The group also had to deal with repression from the state, with police raids and searches, and a clear police strategy to discredit the “communist” settlement. This involved the local newspaper publishing lies and distorted information about the commune, and influencing public opinion in a negative way. There were also some problems with some of the neighbours, in particular with some of the artists who lived in the Worpswede artists colony nearby.
Lastly, the attempt to end the traditional division of labour at Barkenhoff was largely unsuccessful. A process of specialisation and professionalisation took place, instead of everybody learning and doing all of the jobs. The emancipation of women in the workplace was not dealt with at all.
Contact with the movement.
On the other hand, there was good contact with two neighbouring projects, the “Moorhof” and the “Sonnenhof”, which had both been started by friends of Barkenhoff. There was some material support for each other between the three communes, based on the idea of mutual aid. Furthermore, the Barkenhoff commune was an important stopping off point for many young hikers from the “Free German Youth” movement and from proletarian youth groups. On Sundays there were visits from Bremen by the syndicalist harbour workers and their families. About 600 members of the USPD (the left-wing “Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany) visited, as did many left-wing intellectuals (who, according to Walter Hundt, one of the Barkenhoff communards, “knew everything but could do nothing”).
Contact with the political commune movement of the period was also good. Many lectures and seminars on commune and communist themes took place at Barkenhoff, and from 1st to 3rd January 1921, there was a commune movement conference there, which gave members from different settlement projects the chance to exchange ideas and experiences as well as to attend lectures.
Barkenhoff had a strong influence on the “Siedlerbund Freie Erde” (Settlers’ Union – Free Earth), a group with clearly anarcho-communist ideas that was started in Bremen in 1920 by members of the FKAD. Similarly, it was an influence on the “Volkslandbund e.V. (People’s Land Union Association) in Cologne. This, in turn, influenced and was close to the “Freie Erde” commune in Düsseldorf. The “Volkslandbund” wanted to create a new, socialist culture immediately, from below, taking over uncultivated land and producing food.
The end of the workers’commune.
The years 1922/1923 were difficult ones at Barkenhoff. Even though the harvest had doubled between 1920 and 1922, there were economic problems, partly caused by the failure of other communal businesses to grow and bring in enough money, and the fact that the school could get no official recognition. In addition to economic problems, there was growing tension within the group, both on personal and political levels. The prolonged conflict between the anarcho-syndicalists on the one hand, and the pro-Bolshevik communists on the other, became more acute. The end of the communal phase at Barkenhoff came in 1923, when the female school workers who had been teaching orphaned children in the communal “work school” joined the Red Aid solidarity and anti-repression organisation, Rote Hilfe Deutschland. They became paid workers for the organisation, which meant the end of the communal economy based on self-sufficiency and self-management. The (anarcho-syndicalist) metal workers in the smithy left the commune, as did a couple of the agricultural workers, who started a biodynamic farm of their own. In the same year, Vogeler rejoined the KPD and, in 1924, gave the property to Red Aid to use as a rest home for orphaned children who had lost their parents during the revolutionary struggles of the preceding years and children of political prisoners. This work continued up to 1933.
“Frühe Kommunen in Deutschland” by Gustav Heineke. Zündhölzchen Verlag, 1978.
“Freiheit und Brot” by Hartmut Rübner. Libertad Verlag Potsdam, 1994.
“Die Rote Hilfe” edited by Sabine Hering and Kurt Schilde. Verlag Leske und Budrich, Opladen, 2003.