Adler, Emma (1858–1935)

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Adler, Emma (1858–1935)

Austrian socialist leader of the women's movement in the Habsburg Empire. Born Emma Braun in Debrecen, Hungary, on May 20, 1858; died in exile in Zurich, Switzerland, on February 23, 1935; married Victor Adler, in 1878; children: three, including Friedrich (Fritz) Adler, who assassinated the Austrian Prime Minister, Count Carl Stürgkh.

Editor of anthologies aimed at youth, particularly the influential Buch der Jugend; forced to flee Vienna with the advent of fascism; died in exile at the home of her son Fritz Adler in Zurich.

Selected writings:

Jane Welsh Carlyle (Vienna: Akademischer Verlag, 1907); Die berühmten Frauen der französischen Revolution, 1789–1795 (Vienna: C.W. Stern, 1906); Goethe und Frau von Stein (Leipzig: Toeplitz & Deuticke, 1887); (editor) Feierabend: Ein Buch für die Jugend (Vienna: Verlag der Wiener Volksbuchhandlung, 1902); (editor) Buch der Jugend: Für die Kinder des Proletariats (Berlin: "Vorwärts," 1895).

Emma Braun was born in Debrecen, Hungary, on May 20, 1858, where she grew up in an assimilated middle-class Jewish milieu. Her father was an official of the Hungarian National Railroad. In 1878, she married Victor Adler (1852–1918), a Jewish intellectual from a wealthy Prague family. Deeply moved by the suffering of the working classes in an era of unchecked capitalism, her husband studied medicine in order to minister to the material needs of the urban proletariat of Vienna. Determined to bring medical care to the city's slum dwellers, Emma supported her husband in his political and social aims. The Adlers were so convinced that they should practice what they preached that they chose to live with their three children in extremely modest quarters in one of Vienna's working-class districts while Victor used up his family inheritance to bring medical assistance to the poor.

Sharing the same socialist ideals, they traveled to London in the 1880s to observe a conventional parliamentary system in practice as well as to debate the finer points of Marxist theory with the recently deceased Karl Marx's closest collaborator, Friedrich Engels. The couple also shared a love of adventure. In the early years of their marriage, the Adlers regularly swam across the Attersee—an unusual accomplishment in the late Victorian era for a "delicate" middle-class bride.

The socially progressive Emma Adler was a Marxist agnostic, like her husband. Fellow socialist Rosa Jochmann related an anecdote from the last decades of the 19th century when the Adlers customarily spent their holidays in the charming village of Nussdorf on the Attersee. Taken by Emma's delicate beauty, an artist working on the decoration of the local church asked her to pose as model for the Virgin Mary. She agreed, and the painting has remained in the church for over a century. Few, if any, of the Catholic worshipers have ever realized that the Mother of God was posed for by a young woman who was both Jewish and a Marxist agnostic.

In the late 1880s, Victor Adler was the undisputed leader of the Austrian socialist movement, tirelessly supported by Emma. Despite the responsibilities of childrearing—she was mother to two sons and a daughter—much of her time and energy was spent teaching and writing. She was a foreign-language instructor in the Arbeiterbildungsverein, the ambitious system of adult education courses created under Socialist Party auspices. A strong believer in the popularization of knowledge, Emma published a number of clearly written works, including a history of the role of women in the French Revolution and a biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle , wife of the famous Romantic historian. Emma's abiding interest in the problems of young people motivated decades of work as an editor of juvenile anthologies, particularly the influential Buch der Jugend. Her best friend was the remarkable Adelheid Popp whose journalistic career lasted over 30 years in the Arbeiterinnen-Zeitung, the Social Democratic newspaper aimed at the female working class.

The last two decades of Emma Adler's life were marked by crisis and tragedy. By the time World War I began in August 1914, Victor Adler had worn himself out in the cause of Socialism. He, Emma, and the socialists had expected working-class solidarity, instead of a flocking to national colors. The war showed that the ideal of proletarian internationalism was an empty slogan, further undermining Victor's fragile health. In October 1916, their son Friedrich assassinated the Austrian prime minister, Count Carl Stürgkh, while he was dining in one of Vienna's exclusive hotels. The trial of Fritz Adler in 1917 was a terrible ordeal for his parents, and he barely escaped the death sentence.

In November 1918, the Adlers were filled with joy when the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and the end of World War I brought about their son's release from prison. That same month, Victor was appointed foreign minister, but he died on the very day Austria was proclaimed a Republic. Although she was greatly respected for decades of work in the socialist cause, tragedy continued to dog Emma Adler. Her only daughter died during the Great Depression and the specter of Fascism and war loomed over Central Europe. Fritz now lived in Switzerland, where he worked as a theoretical physicist and attempted to create a militant international force that would be able to combat both Fascism and Stalinism. Democratic Socialism was suppressed in a bloodbath in the Austrian Republic in February 1934, forcing the elderly Emma Adler to flee to Switzerland to live with her son. She died on February 23, 1935, in Zurich. With the passage of time, many of the ideals Emma Adler fought for became institutionalized social programs. A visionary and idealist like her husband, she was a woman before her time. Many of the ideals Emma Adler fought for as a leader of the socialist movement are taken for granted in the industrialized world.


"Adler, Emma" file, Arbeitsgemeinschaft "Biografisches Lexikon der österreichischen Frau," Vienna.

Ellenbogen, Wilhelm. Menschen und Prinzipien. Edited by Friedrich Weissensteiner. Vienna: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1981.

"Emma Adler," in Volksrecht [Zurich]. March 9, 1935.

Florence, Ronald. Fritz: The Story of a Political Assassin. NY: Dial Press, 1971.

Hahnl, Hans Heinz. Vergessene Literaten. Vienna: Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1984.

Leser, Norbert, ed. Werk und Widerhall. Vienna: Verlag der Wiener Volksbuchhandlung, 1964.

Sporrer, Maria, and Herbert Steiner, eds. Rosa Jochmann: Zeitzeugin. Vienna: Europaverlag, 1983.

Tausk, Martha. "Emma Adler," in Arbeiter-Zeitung [Vienna]. May 16, 1948.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia