Post WW1 german communities
In the years after the first world war, in the period of revolutionary uprisings and the following repression organised by the Social Democrat government and right-wing paramilitary groups, quite a large number of communes were formed across Germany. They were mostly rural settlements, usually trying to get away from the war torn capitalist system, live a natural life, and achieve some form of self-sufficiency. They were often also an attempt to heal the earth after the mass destruction caused by the war.
The youth movements:
A major influence on the formation of communes and settlements in post WW1 Germany was the German Youth Movement. The various groups had an influence on both the left-wing communes and on the “völkische settlements“. The most famous of the youth movements was the Wandervogel, a middle class movement of hikers and campers which was partly influenced by the ideas of the Lebensreform movement. In addition, there was the “Free German Youth” and a proletarian youth movement. Sections of these movements were pacifist during the war, and it was from these groups that many of the communards in left-wing communes came. Some members of the nationalist and right-wing “völkische” settlements were influenced by the feeling of community they had experienced in the trenches at the front during the war.
The Westend Commune:
One of the first communes was started during the war. In the years 1917 – 1918, at least ten young people lived together in an urban commune in Berlin’s Westend. They hid army deserters who were members of illegal workers’ youth groups, published illegal pamphlets against the war, and organised an important conference. When the repression in Berlin became too hard and it was more and more difficult to get food, some of them moved onto the land at Blankenburg.
In his 1978 book, “Frühe Kommunen in Deutschland” (Zündhölzchen Verlag) about the left-wing part of the movement, Gustav Heineke estimated that about 100 communities were founded, and that about 30 of these were left-wing political communes. Several of them were clearly anarcho-communist projects (1), with their membership coming from the FKAD, the German Federation of Communist Anarchists, and/or from the FAUD, the Free Workers’ Union of Germany, formed in December 1919, and which became the german section of the anarcho-syndicalist “International Workers’ Association” in 1922. Other communards in these settlements were council communists or even members of the KPD, the pro-bolshevik “Communist Party of Germany”. Lots of them were left-wing and libertarian workers (often unemployed) without being members of any particular organisation or party. In addition, there was a small women’s commune movement, where attempts were made to create an alternative women’s culture.
Because of their pacifism, and their “Utopian” attempts to immediately achieve communism, it is not surprising that members of the communal settlement movement regularly received criticism from the Marxists, who were trying to build revolutionary parties, e.g. the Spartakistbund/KPD. Some anarchists thought similarly, seeing the need to create and defend the various revolutionary republics that were formed in the couple of years after the war. However, when it was clear that the revolutions had failed and that the anarchist workers’ movement had been decimated in the repression that followed, many of the survivors came to see the communal settlements as a practical way of achieving the awaited new society.
Landauer, the anarchists, and communal settlements:
Many members of the left-wing community movement saw the anarchist, Gustav Landauer, as being the theoretician of the movement. Already before the war, he had proposed and propagated the idea of communal settlements in a number of works, seeing them as being the first practical step to achieving socialism. He believed that groups of activists sharing the communal idea should go out into the country and form communities there. The members would work and live collectively, creating, in miniature, the new “communist” society. The autonomous communities would be linked together in federations, and these in turn would be the building blocks for the new society as a whole.
After the war, the communist-anarchists in the FKAD supported this strategy, but the FAUD, with ca. 150,000 members, was more sceptical, especially the national co-ordinating committee, which was dominated by syndicalists rather than anarchists. They argued that it was important to agitate and organize within the factories and workshops in order to build a mass movement to overthrow the whole capitalist system. They believed that the time was ripe for revolution, and that the creation of communism on a small scale in communes meant that fewer activists would be involved in the important workplace struggles. In the two or three years after the war, this was a valid argument, but after 1921 it was clear to most anarchists and syndicalists that the evolution had been defeated.
General aims and principles:
The main features of these communes were similar to the ideas and principles of the political communes in Germany today. There was an attempt to end the separation of the workplace from living space, and to get rid of the division of the place of production from the place of consumption. There was also the attempt to end the separation of work from leisure. Meals were usually held together as a group in a common room. Work was co-operative, based on the principle of Mutual Aid. Private ownership of the means of production was abolished, and private property was seen as having a negative effect on community. The satisfaction of the basic needs of the members through working together, income sharing and having a communal fund, was seen as an ideal, just as having different wages for different performance and jobs was seen as negative. Simplicity and production for need were seen as being much more important than making a profit. The character of the new communes was thus clearly different from the pre-war communes, which, while sometimes styling themselves as anarchist or socialist, were petit-bourgeois, intellectual, vegetarian, nudist, “bohemian” and “multisexual”; lifestyle anarchists rather than social anarchists.
Although the political, economic and social situation is very different today from that after the first World War, there are two striking similarities between the german Commune movement now and then.
Just as many of the communards in post WW1 Germany came from the youth movements of the time, so many of the founders of the modern movement came from the hippy and new-left movements of the late 1960s.
While it would be wrong to make too close a comparison between the November Revolution in Germany and the revolts which followed (in the Ruhr area, and in central Germany in 1921) with the revolts of 1968 and the seventies (Red Army Fraction), in both periods young people had a feeling that the times were changing. Many of the concerns were the same. Many young people wanted peace instead of war, they wanted co-operation instead of competition, they wanted to get away from the cities and go out to care for the land. They wanted to take control of their own lives, without the interference of the state.
Secondly, as described in the introduction, the ideals that they had and the structures that the post WW1 libertarian communes took, are very similar to the principles and structures of the modern political communes in Germany today. (See the text ” Work in Progress – As we see ourselves” at the Kommuja homepage:
Mutual Aid, collective work, an income sharing communal economy, collective ownwership of the means of production, communal meals, a rejection of marriage and “traditional” family relationships, care of the earth, and social activism are all shared by both movements. Many of the ideas of Landauer and Peter Kropotkin are as relevant to our society as they were to the people at the start of the last century.
Nonetheless, there are big differences between the two periods. The class society has radically changed, and so has class consciousness. The anarcho-syndicalist movement in Germany is almost literally a thousand times smaller, with the present FAU-IAA numbering its members in hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands. The early communes began in a period of hunger, unemployment and then economic depression. The modern movement began in a period of prosperity and nearly full employment.
Moreover, the modern commune movement has achieved a stability that the earlier movement never had. None of the post WW1 communes lasted more than a few years, even though the reasons for their “failure” were very different (direct repression as at Blankenburg, internal conflicts as at Freie Erde and Barkenhoff, or change and transformation as at Schwarzerden). A few of the communes started at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s still exist, and many more date back to the 1980s. Thus, the life-span of modern political communes in Germany today is much longer than that of the ones started after WW1.
1) Part 10 of Hartmut Rubner’s “Freiheit und Brot” (Freedom and Bread), Libertad Verlag Potsdam, 1994.