Gustav Landauer, the son of Hermann and Rosa Landauer, was born in Karlsruhe on 7th April, 1870. His parents owned a shoe store. He was an academic child who spent a lot of time on his own and sought refuge in "theatre, music, and especially books".
While at university he became an anarchist. In his autobiography he wrote: "I was an anarchist before I was a socialist, and one of the few who had not taken a detour via social democracy." He refused to join the fast growing Social Democratic Party (SDP). He later claimed: In the entire natural history I know of no more disgusting creature than the Social Democratic Party."
Landauer was deeply influenced by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1893 he published a novel, Preacher of Death, that was an expression of Nietzche's early liberation philosophy. He also worked with the New Free People's Theatre, a company committed to making educational and cultural projects accessible to workers.
In February 1893, Landauer and some of his friends established the journal Der Sozialist. In 1894 he was sentenced to almost a year in prison for libelous writing in the journal. In one essay, Anarchism in Germany, published in 1895, Landauer declared that "anarchism's lone objective is to end the fight of men against men and to unite humanity so that each individual can unfold his natural potential without obstruction." At this time a German police file called him "the most important agitator of the radical revolutionary movement."
Landauer was also involved in industrial disputes. In 1896 he became involved in a strike of textile workers in Berlin. During this period he became convinced that an "active general strike" could be used to create a revolutionary situation. Landauer was considered to be such a dangerous political figure that he was banned from German universities.
In February 1897 Landauer stood trial for libel after accusing a police inspector in Der Sozialist of recruiting informants from within left-wing organizations. Landauer was acquitted but two years later he was sent to prison for six months for claiming that the police had framed Albert Ziethen, a barber, for murdering his wife.
In the 1890s Landauer went on speaking tours and attended conferences in Zurich and London. During this period he met Peter Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker, Louise Michel, Max Nettlau, Errico Malatesta and Élisée Reclus. Another contact during this period, Erich Mühsam, argued: "Landauer never saw anarchism as a politically or organizationally limited doctrine, but as an expression of ordered freedom in thought and action."
As Gabriel Kuhn has pointed out: "While he did not give up his anarchist and socialist leanings, he framed them in a new philosophical light. This was first characterized by an ever mounting discomfort with over-simplified class-analysis, doctrinism, and a light-hearted embrace of violence as a political means." Rudolf Rocker argued that Landauer's views distanced him from other anarchists: "page 40"
In 1903 Landauer divorced his first wife, Margarethe Leuschner, to marry poet Hedwig Lachmann, who had recently translated the works of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman into German. Over the next couple of years she gave birth to Gudula Susanne and Brigitte, the mother of future film director, Mike Nichols.
In 1907 Martin Buber arranged for the publication of Die Revolution. It has been described by Siegbert Wolf as a "seminal anarchist philosophy of history". However, others have criticised the work for dubious interpretations of past conflicts in history. One of his most important points is that the concept of "utopia" is the driving force behind all revolutionary action.
Landauer and Erich Mühsam established Sozialistischer Bund in May 1908, with the stated goal of "uniting all humans who are serious about realizing socialism". Landauer and Mühsam hoped to inspire the creation of small independent cooperatives and communes as the basic cells of a new socialist society. To support the new organisation, Landauer revived Der Sozialist, describing it as the Journal of the Socialist Bund.
One member of the group saw Mühsam as the "bohemian" and "activist" and Landauer as the "scholar" and "philosopher". Chris Hirte has argued that the made a good combination: "To sit in a chamber and to dream of anarchist settlements, as Landauer did, was not Mühsam's way. He had to be in the midst of life; he had to be where life was at its most colorful, where things fermented and brewed." Other important members included Martin Buber and Margarethe Faas-Hardegger. At its height, they had around 800 people associated with Sozialistischer Bund.
In an article published in Der Sozialist on 1st November 1910. Landauer argued: "The difference between us socialists in the Socialist Bund and the communists is not that we have a different model of a future society. The difference is that we do not have any model. we embrace the future's openness and refuse to determine it. What we want is to realize socialism, doing what we can for its realization now."
Landauer and Mühsam often argued about politics and morality. According to Gabriel Kuhn: "There were a few points of contention. The most important concerned matters of family life and sexuality. Landauer, who saw the nuclear family as the social core of mutual aid and solidarity, repeatedly drew the ire of Mühsam, who was a strong believer in free love and sexual experimentation. The conflict came to a head in 1910 over the publication of Landauer's article Tarnowska, a biting critique of free love, which Landauer saw as a mere pretext for moral and social degeneration. For a while, Mühsam even saw the friendship threatened, but the two soon managed to work out their differences."
Landauer was also in constant conflict with the German Anarchist Federation. This group was committed to class struggle as the central means for the revolution, whereas Landauer did not believe the working-class would ever be able to fulfil its proposed role of overthrowing capitalism. Such was his dislike of the organization that he refused to advertise its journal, Der Freie Arbeiter, in Der Sozialist.
Landauer also damaged his relationship with Margarethe Faas-Hardegger when he criticized her for an article questioning the nuclear family and arguing for communal child rearing. He admitted to Mühsam that "it has always been difficult for me to adopt and execute the ideas and plans for others". Mühsam pointed out: "Only those who see him as a determined and fearless fighter, kind, soft, and generous in everyday relations, but intolerant, hard, and head-strong to the point of arrogance in important issues, can understand him the way he really was."
Landauer was often in conflict with the followers of Karl Marx over the concept of revolution. He argued that a political revolution favoured by Marxists would never be enough. In an article, Who Shall Begin?, published in 1911, Landauer argued: "We believe that socialism has no bigger enemy than political power, and that it is socialism's task to establish a social and public order that replaces all such power." Landauer argued that for a real revolution to take place there had to be an "inner" change in the individual. As Mühsam pointed out: "Landauer's revolutionary activity was never limited to the fight against state laws and social systems. It concerned all dimensions of life."
Landauer and his wife, Hedwig Lachmann, were both pacifists and on the outbreak of the First World War they immediately became active in the anti-war movement. Erich Mühsam initially took a very different view. He wrote: "I am united with all Germans in the wish that we can keep foreign hordes away from our women and children, away from our towns and fields." Most of those on the left disagreed with Landauer and Lachmann on this issue. Siegbert Wolf has argued: "Hedwig Lachmann and Gustav Landauer were barely able to make their anti-militaristic stance comprehensive to friends and acquaintances."
In 1915 Landauer joined the New Fatherland Federation. Other members included Albert Einstein and Kurt Eisner. According to Landauer's biographer, Gabriel Kuhn: "Landauer entered a new phase of disappointment and loneliness. This, however, did not stop him from tireless anti-militaristic agitation. The anti-war and anti-nationalism pieces published during this period are ardent warnings against senseless brutality and slaughter, and passionate pleas for the unity of humanity, rather than its division."
On 28th October, Admiral Franz von Hipper and Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, planned to dispatch the fleet for a last battle against the British Navy in the English Channel. Navy soldiers based in Wilhelmshaven, refused to board their ships. The next day the rebellion spread to Kiel when sailors refused to obey orders. The sailors in the German Navy mutinied and set up councils based on the soviets in Russia. By 6th November the revolution had spread to the Western Front and all major cities and ports in Germany.
On 7th November, 1918, Kurt Eisner, leader of the Independent Socialist Party, declared Bavaria a Socialist Republic. Eisner made it clear that this revolution was different from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and announced that all private property would be protected by the new government. The King of Bavaria, Ludwig III, decided to abdicate and Bavaria was declared a Council Republic. Eisner's program was democracy, pacifism and anti-militarism.
Eisner, who got to know Landauer in the New Fatherland Federation, asked him to join his government in Munich. He wrote in a letter dated 14th November: "What I want from you is to advance the transformation of souls as a speaker." Others who arrived in the city to support the new regime included Erich Mühsam, Ernst Toller, Otto Neurath, Silvio Gesell and Ret Marut. Landauer became a member of several councils established to both implement and protect the revolution.
Eisner's government was defeated in the January 1919 election by the right-wing Bavarian People's Party. Eisner was on his way to present his resignation to the Bavarian parliament on 21st February, 1919, when he was assassinated in Munich by Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley. It is claimed that before he killed the leader of the government he said: "Eisner is a Bolshevist, a Jew; he isn't German, he doesn't feel German, he subverts all patriotic thoughts and feelings. He is a traitor to this land."
Eugen Levine, the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) in Bavaria, fearing a counter-revolution, established a Bavarian Socialist Republic. Mühsam supported Levine's decision to establish the Soldiers' and Workers' Councils that took over the government from the National Assembly. Inspired by the events of the October Revolution, Levine ordered the expropriated of luxury flats and gave them to the homeless. Factories were to be run by joint councils of workers and owners and workers' control of industry and plans were made to abolish paper money. Levine, like the Bolsheviks had done in Russia, established Red Guard units to defend the revolution.
The Social Democratic Party government fled to the northern Bavarian town of Bamberg. A week later the SPD sent troops to Munich to overthrow Levine. During the fighting Erich Mühsam was captured and transported to Ebrach Prison. Landauer managed to avoid capture and on 16th April, 1919, he wrote to his daughter: "As far as I am concerned, I am all right staying here, although I am starting to feel rather useless."
Friedrich Ebert, the Chancellor of Germany, now ordered the German Army and the Freikorps into Bavaria. This force of roughly 39,000 men had little difficulty taking control of Munich. On 1st May, 1919, Gustav Landauer was captured. Rudolf Rocker explained what happened next: "Close friends had urged him to escape a few days earlier. Then it would have still been a fairly easy thing to do. But Landauer decided to stay. Together with other prisoners he was loaded on a truck and taken to the jail in Starnberg. From there he and some others were driven to Stadelheim a day later. On the way he was horribly mistreated by dehumanized military pawns on the orders of their superiors. One of them, Freiherr von Gagern, hit Landauer over the head with a whip handle. This was the signal to kill the defenseless victim.... He was literally kicked to death. When he still showed signs of life, one of the callous torturers shot a bullet in his head. This was the gruesome end of Gustav Landauer - one of Germany's greatest spirits and finest men."
Landauer was an anarchist; he called himself an anarchist all his life. However, it would be utterly ridiculous to read his various ideas through the glasses of a specific anarchist branch, to praise or condemn him as an individualist, communist, collectivist, terrorist, or pacifist. First, Landauer, like anyone who is not dogmatically frozen, has gone through developments and changes during the thirty years of his anarchist commitment; second, Landauer never saw anarchism as a politically or organizationally limited doctrine, but as an expression of ordered freedom in thought and action.
Gustav Landauer was without doubt the greatest mind among all of Germany's libertarian socialists; it was in a certain sense his curse that, of all places, he had to live and work in Germany. The majority of the era's German anarchists understood him even less than others did; most of them had no idea what a precious gift he was. Landauer remained alone in the circle of people who should have been closest to him.
There were a few points of contention. The most important concerned matters of family life and sexuality. Landauer, who saw the nuclear family as the social core of mutual aid and solidarity, repeatedly drew the ire of Mühsam, who was a strong believer in free love and sexual experimentation. The conflict came to a head in 1910 over the publication of Landauer's article Tarnowska, a biting critique of free love, which Landauer saw as a mere pretext for moral and social degeneration. For a while, Mühsam even saw the friendship threatened, but the two soon managed to work out their differences.
After the end of the first council republic, which he had dedicated his rich knowledge and abilities to wholeheartedly, Landauer lived with the widow of his good friend Kurt Eisner. He was arrested in her house on the afternoon of May 1. Close friends had urged him to escape a few days earlier. Then it would have still been a fairly easy thing to do. But Landauer decided to stay. Together with other prisoners he was loaded on a truck and taken to the jail in Starnberg. From there he and some others were driven to Stadelheim a day later. On the way he was horribly mistreated by dehumanized military pawns on the orders of their superiors. One of them, Freiherr von Gagern, hit Landauer over the head with a whip handle. This was the signal to kill the defenseless victim. An eyewitness later said that Landauer used his last strength to shout at his murderers: "Finish me off - to be human!' He was literally kicked to death. When he still showed signs of life, one of the callous torturers shot a bullet in his head. This was the gruesome end of Gustav Landauer - one of Germany's greatest spirits and finest men.