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New Landauer Biography

By Gabriel Kuhn

Under the title Die Politik eines ‘Antipolitikers’ (“The Politics of an ‘Antipolitician’”), the German Edition AV has published the most comprehensive biography of Gustav Landauer to date. The study, authored by Tilman Leder, has been released as volume 10 of Edition AV’s Gustav Landauer edition and has received the prestigious Book of the Year award by the Berlin-based Library of the Free.

The bookimpresses first and foremost with its sheer magnitude and thoroughness. At 900 pages (divided in two parts) and with over 3000 notes, it is not always an easy read, but for anyone interested in Gustav Landauer the effort is well worthwhile. It might surprise that Leder has been rather selective with his sources. In his own words: “Essentially, the study is based on primary sources alone, that is, on Landauer’s letters and the papers he left behind; on the extensive files of the Prussian Political Police in Berlin, of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, and of local authorities; on the anarchist-socialist journals and magazines coedited by Landauer; and on other publications of the time. In addition, selected notes from people close to Landauer have been used. The extensive secondary literature on Landauer has only been consulted when certain claims about his life could be neither confirmed nor refuted by the use of primary sources.”

The reader is led through all of the stages of Landauer’s political life in great detail: his editorship of the journal Der Sozialist; his arrests in the 1890s; his role in the German cooperative movement; his speaking tours as an anarchist agitator; the foundation of the Socialist Bund in 1908 and the subsequent settlement projects; and, of course, Landauer’s involvement in the ill-fated Bavarian Council Republic, which cost him his life in May 1919. Some chapters, for example those about the socialist congresses of Zurich (1893) and London (1896), both of which Landauer participated in and was expelled from, will be of interest to any labor historian. The chapters about the German anarchist movement of the early twentieth century amount to a study on its own.

Leder’s book will without doubt remain the definitive account of Gustav Landauer’s life for a long time to come. It is a shame that its scope will most likely prevent an English translation (or any other, for that matter) in the near future. Yet, the German edition should not be missing in any Landauer collection, no matter where. If one has the slightest inclination to grapple with the language, one will profit from the structure and the notes, not to even mention the biographical references and illustrations.

Die Politik eines ‘Antipolitikers’ is a true labor of love. While Tilman Leder did earn a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg for it, he was neither employed by an academic institution nor did he receive any funds for his research. Instead, he made a living as a metalworker. His study is the result of independent research at its finest and most dedicated; an underrated tradition in times of the institutional cooptation (or shall we say, domestication?) of anarchist research, which, all too often, becomes mere research about anarchism. While the latter has its values, Leder’s approach proves that affiliations to places of so-called higher learning are not required to produce outstanding work. This is an important lesson for anyone fascinated by radical history and eager to explore it.

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