I still keep a suitcase in Berlin-Part 1

This terrific two-part guest post comes from Aileen Lichtenstein. Aileen is starting her third year of her PhD in History at the University of Glasgow. Her fascinating research examines the transatlantic connections of German anarchism in Berlin, London and New York between 1880 and 1914. She is especially interested in how people and ideas circulated between those three cities, how radicals have built communities in exile, and the newspapers they printed.

Front page of Der Anarchist, August 1903. “Anarchy is Order. Freedom and Prosperity for All.”

Studying transnational radical networks, I realised from the beginning that archival work outside the UK would always be a significant part of my PhD as I unearthed more and more connections between the people. My thesis considers the transatlantic connections of German anarchists before the First World War and especially those residing in exile in London and New York. Although my initial proposal for a PhD was framed with a much wider angle, international travel was always going to be important to complete archival research. While I study radicals living in exile, I also examine their connections to the movement at home, which made Berlin one of the most important destinations for research. Many exiled radicals, just like the actress Marlene Dietrich in the quote above, longed to return to Berlin for a long time after they were expelled and had to make a new home abroad. Thanks to Student Development Funding from SGSAH I was able to spend two weeks in Berlin in July this year to follow the tracks of some of the radicals in my thesis.

The Brandenburger Tor, plus stickers (some of which may or may not be anarchist).

Under Bismarck’s severe Anti-Socialist Laws many social democrats, revolutionary socialists and anarchists had been expelled from Germany and especially Berlin after October 1878. Bismarck employed a very large police force which tightly observed the movement with a level of meticulous detail and efficiency. Anarchists themselves, however, kept very few records and usually destroyed any evidence that could be incriminating. Apart from the wealth of newspapers they published themselves, the only other large source base are the surveillance files of the Prussian Political Police.

Yet, police reports can be tricky as a resource since the information in them may not always be reliable. Bismarck’s spies were often paid well and on the complete opposite end of the political spectrum to those they observed. While anarchists tended to mislead the police with misinformation whenever they discovered spies amidst their own circles, other spies tended to exaggerate or simply make up information in order to keep their employment and regular pay checks. Although these are significant issues, police files are nevertheless a great window into secret meetings of radicals and supply the historian with detail about where meetings were held, who attended, who spoke and what was being discussed.

In order to find out more about the anarchists that I study and track across the Atlantic, I needed a research trip to the Landesarchiv Berlin where the majority of the Prussian Political Police files are kept. Unfortunately, as it is often the case with material relating to anarchism, digital records are rarely available. But this is always a good excuse to travel to Europe, dig in archives and enjoy as many kebabs and Augustiner as possible.

Arriving at the archive I had come with a list of references for files that I wanted to look at over the next two weeks, hoping this would be a good base to build upon. I had previously worked at the Staatsarchiv in Hamburg and thought I would be pretty well prepared with my list. Turns out I was wrong. On the first day I was able to meet with the archivist who had kindly reserved a number of files for me so I could start working on them right away. It turned out that not only were the files much, much larger than the previous ones I had studied in Hamburg, but they were, of course, in old style German handwriting. Not only is this very hard to read but also not every police informer was a gifted calligraphist. Working myself through the mountain of files the archivist had provided me with, and which I thought (far to eagerly) I would be done with during the first day or two, I soon realised that I would be lucky if I made it through the initial load in the ten days that I had.

Thanks Aileen! Part two of this great research trip will be up later this week. In the meantime, as ever, we are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Jimmy via email at james.johnson@stir.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s