Max Adler, A Socialist Remembers, Duckworth, London, 1988, pp174, £16.95
This memoir, with its dedication:
is distinguished by many features, features lacking in similar books dealing with the same period and circumstances. Although certainly not a theoretical work, it is objective, self-critical and devoid of self-pity or hysteria. The writing is clear, especially on the complicated national and ethnic problems following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into which the author was born, in Pilsen, now Plzen, in western Bohemia.
The story of his school life is a tale of constant revolt against teachers and parents. He relates how:
Czechoslovakia was very tolerant in religion. At 14 you could go to a government office and declare, either that you wanted to change your religion, or that you wanted to contract out of a religious community altogether without entering another. There is even a German and a Czech term for this which does not exist in English: you could become ‘konfessionslos’, in Czech ‘bez nabozenstvi’, i.e. without any religion. On my fourteenth birthday I promptly declared myself ‘Konfessionslos’. As a consequence I no longer had to attend religious instruction. There was a rabbi in Pilsen, a Dr Golinsky, a wise and learned man. Like most of the clergy he was underpaid and poor, and to supplement his income he undertook religious instruction himself. According to the educational laws there had to be a minimum of 10 pupils for a non-obligatory class. We had been 10, and when I left there were only nine. The rabbi was not a very religious man: he was far too wise and worldly for that. But he needed the money, and he went to my father, who had had no idea that I had renounced my religion, and told him the story.
My father took a step which shows what a good and intelligent man he was. He did not scold me, for he knew that I had the backing of the law, but he appealed to me by pointing out how poor the rabbi was, that he needed the money and that I, as a Socialist, should support him. The result was that I agreed to attend the class on condition that I need not prepare the lessons, and that I kept quiet.
As a student in Vienna he was an active member of the Austrian Socialist Party. He collected the dues of the party members in his district, one of whom was Otto Klemperer, the conductor. The Prague Social Democratic paper appointed him their Vienna correspondent. He gave lectures at the Austrian party school, where he also studied ‘Marxian economics’ under Dr Benedikt Kautsky, son of Karl Kautsky. As a member of the Schutzbund (the military section of the Socialist Party) he took part in the 15 July 1927 ‘Bloody July’. Here is his account:
It is a sad story. In the smallest of the Länder of which Austria was composed, the Burgenland, which formerly belonged to Hungary and in which Germans, Magyars and Croats lived together peacefully, two members of the Social Democratic Party, simple workers, were murdered by the Austrian Fascists. This was at the beginning of July, and the whole working class movement was deeply shocked. At the trial the murderers were discharged, in spite of all the evidence, by reactionary judges. When it became known in Vienna that the murderers of Schattendorf had got off scot free, tens of thousands of workers assembled before the Ministry of Justice. At first there were peaceful demonstrations. The Schutzbund was mobilised to keep them in order, and I was in the middle of it.
Suddenly the building was set on fire. We in the Schutzbund tried our best to prevent it, but we could do little with an enraged working class who felt that the judgement of Schattendorf was directed against the whole working class movement, as in fact it was. This gave the police a good excuse to shoot at the demonstrators. Eighty-five were killed outright and hundreds were wounded ...
I will never forget the burial of the victims at the cemetery in Vienna when Otto Bauer, the party leader, spoke before the 85 coffins of the victims. It was very moving. We felt that a chapter in the history of the Party was closed. In fact, this event was the beginning of the end of the once-powerful Austrian working class movement. A few years later they lost the civil war.
Next year he was involved in a less serious incident:
There was a strike of the waiters in the Cafe Pruckl, a well-known coffee house in the Ringstrasse patronised by the rich. To help the strikers the Socialist student organisation arranged for about 40 students to go there early in the morning, order a glass of soda water (the cheapest drink available, served by blacklegs) and sit the whole day to prevent paying patrons finding a place. We took food and books with us, and remained completely silent so as not to give the police an excuse to expel us. Also present were various prominent Social Democrats, including a member of parliament. It was no good: at five o’clock the police attacked the coffee house and arrested a number of students, among them myself. We were taken to the police prison, which I had known well enough from previous arrests, accused of having offended the police by shouting at them (which was not true) and then released.
The case made a stir in Vienna, and all the newspapers reported the trial. Of course they slanted their reports according to their political leanings. Thus the Nazi Deutschösterreichische Tagezeitung ran the headline “Prague Jew demonstrates against Cafe Pruckl”. Even the Communist daily, the Rote Fahne (Red Flag), printed a hostile report.
While still studying in Vienna he was offered, and accepted, the co-editorship of a new paper, Friegeist in Reichenberg (now Liberec). Opposite Reichenberg on the German side was a small town in which was advertised a Fascist meeting. In spite of the notice at the entrance, “Entry forbidden to dogs and Jews”, Max attended and reported. The speaker was Adolf Hitler. The year was 1930. In 1931 Max took over the secretaryship of the German Social Democratic party in Slovakia and the Carpatho-Ukraine. In the chapter headed Gun running for the Schutzbund, is the following report:
In 1932 the situation in Austria became critical. There was danger of a civil war between the Socialist Schutzbund and the Fascist Heimwehr; a year later it broke out. Czechoslovakia had an extensive common frontier with Austria, and it was in her interest to help save democracy in that country. In real terms this meant that the Schutzbund should be provided with weapons. Having been a member of the Schutzbund myself in my Viennese days, I knew a good deal about this organisation.
The problem was how to smuggle weapons over the border. The German Social Democratic Party urged the government to make Pressburg the focal point of the weapon smuggling, because Pressburg was close to the Austrian border, and there was also the Danube. My comrade Wagner and I were the central figures in this affair. Money was plentiful, because it came from the government.
Railway carriages were secretly loaded with rifles, ammunition, dynamite and machine guns near the Pressburg railway station. The problem was how to get all this into Austria, and into the right hands. There were two possibilities: either to send the stuff by way of the Danube to Vienna, or to use lorries to take it over the Austrian border. We dispatched several loads on Danube boats, and the rest by lorry.
My wife proved very brave. Many times she went to Vienna to the Austrian Party Presidium, especially to the leader, Otto Bauer, and to General Deutsch who was in command of the Schutzbund. In her overcoat were sewn messages noting when a new load was ready for dispatch.
After the civil war in Austria, which the Socialists lost, many members of the Schutzbund were sentenced to imprisonment or death. Otto Bauer sent a letter to Max warning him not to cross into Austria, as his name was prominently mentioned in the Schutzbund trial. With the Munich agreement and the Nazis’ occupation of the Sudetenland, Chamberlain gave the German Social Democratic Party 1,000 visas for the same number of families. Adler’s wife obtained one for themselves and their five year old son. They flew out of Prague to Britain. There the book ends.
One of the first places he stayed in Britain was a Welsh village, where, with his aptitude for and interest in minority languages, he learned Welsh from the village school mistress. With his knowledge of statistical methods, which he had studied at Vienna, he got himself a job as a statistician with the Daily Herald, where he was elected Deputy Father of the NATSOPA Chapel (National Amalgamated Society of Operative Printers). From about 1952 he was a member of the Workers’ League, and assisted in its publication, the Workers News Bulletin. I am indebted to a member of the Workers League at that time, Joe Thomas, for the above information.
I have also before me a copy of a letter Max wrote to the Jewish Socialist Group in March 1985, when he was 80 years old, saying he would like to join their organisation, but, because of his frail health, he would not be able to attend meetings, demonstrations, etc, but he would support them modestly with some contributions, and had recently been supporting the miners’ strike with a contribution of £100 a month.
He died in 1986.