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Clara Zetkin: The grande dame of socialist feminism

Her funeral was attended by 400,000 people, but today few people know the name of the legendary socialist feminist Clara Zetkin.

Clara Zetkin was a pioneer of socialist feminism in Berlin. Photo: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

Rosa Luxemburg is known around the world as a revolutionary woman, but she was never actually a part of the women’s movement.

Since 2019, Berliners have had a public holiday on March 8. If you got to sleep in on that day – or better yet, if you went to one of the many feminist demonstrations – then you have Clara Zetkin to thank. Fourteen years older than the Red Rosa but a close friend nonetheless, she led the socialist women’s movement in Germany, enormous as it was – and, back in 1910, proposed creating an international day of struggle for working-class women.

Zetkin was not exactly a Berliner. Born in Saxony, she spent a big chunk of her life in Stuttgart, with long exiles in Paris and Moscow. In an ancient recording, you can hear her Saxonian accent. It was only at age 72 that a white-haired Zetkin moved to Berlin. Like generations of Saxons and Swabians before her, she needed to be where the action was. Given her poor health, however, she ended up in a spacious house in Birkenwerder, just north of the city.

A Pioneer of Socialist Feminism

That is the oppressed sex! What on earth will happen when they are free and equal?

Zetkin (née Eißner) was born in a Saxonian village in 1857. Her mother, an early feminist, insisted that her daughters get an education. While training to be a teacher in Leipzig, the young Clara joined the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAPD) and, fatefully, hung out with exiled Russian students.

When the Russian revolutionary Ossip Zetkin was expelled from Saxony, Clara followed him to Paris. The couple never married, but Clara took the name Zetkin anyway, undeterred by what the German state thought her last name should be. In Germany, the SAPD had been banned by the Anti-Socialist Laws, and Zetkin was among the many activists who published revolutionary literature abroad and smuggled it into the Reich. Next to that, she raised two sons, Maxim and Kostja, and when time Ossip died in 1889, Zetkin was a single mother and a revolutionary leader.

After the Anti-Socialist Laws had been lifted, the little family returned to Germany in 1890 and settled in Stuttgart, where Zetkin met the artist Friedrich Zundel. This time, she decided to marry, but – still in spite of the German laws – stuck with her chosen name. At that time, Baden was one of the few parts of Germany where women were allowed to take part in political meetings. Zetkin became editor of the Social Democratic women’s bimonthly, Die Gleichheit (Equality).

Along with Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin helped establish the left-wing Spartacus League. Image: IMAGO / UIG

Die Gleichheit was no ‘women’s magazine’ in the bourgeois sense; it informed readers about the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the growing danger of imperialist war. But it was no feminist magazine, either. Zetkin always maintained that there were two women’s movements – a bourgeois one and a proletarian one – that were irreconcilably opposed. She wanted women workers to join in struggle with their male colleagues, and reject any alliances with women capitalists. “If the proletarian woman wants to be free,” Zetkin wrote, “she must join forces with the general socialist movement.”

Feminists Against War

Along with Luxemburg, Zetkin was among the sharpest critics of her party’s slide to the right. After one political thrashing by Zetkin, Ignaz Auer, a leading reformist, objected: “When I heard comrade Zetkin rattling off her attacks yesterday, I said to myself: ‘That is the oppressed sex! What on earth will happen when they are free and equal?’”

When World War I began, the SPD (formerly SAP; the name was changed in 1890) leadership threw all their anti-war resolutions into the bin and cheered on the war effort. When Rosa Luxemburg, who lived in Berlin, sent out 200 telegrams asking who would protest publicly against this betrayal, the only answer she got was from Stuttgart. As a result of her anti-war views, the SPD fired Zetkin as editor of Die Gleichheit in 1917.

Zetkin maintained that there were two women’s movements – a bourgeois one and a proletarian one

The very first protests against the war came from women workers. On International Women’s Day in 1915 (already March 8 back then), hundreds of women gathered in front of the Reichstag for an illegal demonstration. Women were soon carrying out ‘butter riots’, peace demonstrations and international conferences against the war.

Zetkin was not among the founders of Rosa Luxemburg’s new Communist Party of Germany (KPD), but she joined a few months later. Zetkin was one of the KPD’s first two representatives in the Reichstag, where she remained a member until she died, even when, after an attempted communist insurrection in 1923, Zetkin had to flee to the Soviet Union.

Zetkin in Berlin

At the grand old age of 72, Zetkin moved to the German capital, as she wanted to avoid the long train rides from Stuttgart to attend the Reichstag sessions, and moved into a spacious house in the village of Birkenwerder – just 30 minutes from the city centre on the S-Bahn.

On August 30, 1932, Zetkin opened the Reichstag as its honorary president – a strange honour for a communist, but she was simply the oldest member. The now 75-year-old was almost blind, but her spirit was more alive than ever. In her 40-minute speech, she called for a “United Front of all workers in order to turn back fascism”. The threat was clear – inside the Reichstag, 230 deputies wore Nazi uniforms, and Hermann Göring was the assembly’s president.

Photo: Clara Zetkin opens the Reichstag on August 30, 1932. Photo: IMAGO / United Archives International

Even at 75, she carried on Luxemburg’s revolutionary convictions: “The way to overcome the economic crises and all threats of imperialist wars is solely by the proletarian revolution,” she said. And she remained optimistic: “I am opening this Congress in the fulfilment of my duties as honorary president and in the hope that despite my current infirmities, I may yet have the fortune to open as honorary president of the first Soviet Congress of a Soviet Germany.”

But, as we know today, Zetkin’s hopes were not fulfilled. Just half a year later, Germany’s elites handed power to the Nazi party. Zetkin had already left Germany, for her third and final exile. She died in a Moscow sanatorium in June 1933; her funeral on Red Square was attended by 400,000 people.

Over the Red Bridge

Not even Clara Zetkin was exempt from writer’s anxiety!

If you get off the train at Birkenwerder and head north, you will cross a street named after Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and another for Erich Mühsam. The Rote Brücke leads over the train tracks before you reach Zetkin’s house on Summter Straße. The house was confiscated by the Nazis in 1933 and returned to her sons after 1945. Maxim Zetkin bequeathed the building to the town. In East German times, it was turned into a pilgrimage site – the grande dame of socialist feminism was a secular saint of the German Democratic Republic.

Today, the building houses the Birkenwerder public library. The Clara-Zetkin-Gedenkstätte is limited to a few rooms upstairs, where you can see some of her books as well as her shawl and walking stick. It is obvious that Zetkin was a private person and even instructed her sons not to say much about her personal life. However, the museum has one particularly interesting panel about Zetkin’s self-image. In a letter from her Parisian exile, she wrote about her “insurmountable shyness and dissatisfaction with herself”. Whenever she sent off a manuscript, she felt an urge to run to the post office and hold it back. Turns out not even Clara Zetkin was exempt from writer’s anxiety!

  • Visit the Clara-Zetkin-Gedenkstätte at Summter Str. 4, 16547 Birkenwerder.

Nathaniel Flakin’s anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available from Pluto Press and all bookstores.