Arendsee, Martha (1885–1953)

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Arendsee, Martha (1885–1953)

German Socialist and Communist leader. Born in Berlin, Germany, on March 29, 1885; died in East Berlin on May 22, 1953; married Paul Schwenk (1880–1960).

Served as one of the few female Communist deputies to the Prussian provincial assembly (1921–24); elected to the Reichstag (1924); arrested by the Nazis (1933), escaped to the Soviet Union (1934); arrested in Stalin's purges but survived with husband (1930s); worked tirelessly against the Nazi invasion of the USSR during World War II; became a founding member of the Central Women's Council of the Berlin municipal government (August 1945); elected a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD, 1946), and served as a member of the first party executive committee of the newly created Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED, 1946–47).

Martha Arendsee was born into a working-class family in Berlin on March 29, 1885. Poverty attracted her to Marxism, and she joined the Social Democratic Party in 1906. Starting in 1907, she became active in Socialist activities, and by 1910 she was working full-time in the administration of the Socialist Consumer's Cooperative Society, where her talent and energy soon brought her to the attention of the party leadership. In 1915, Arendsee was chosen to participate in the international women's conference in Berne, Switzerland. A strong critic of German imperialism in World War I, she quit the prowar party in 1917 and joined the vehemently antiwar Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) the same year.

By the end of the war, Arendsee had advanced to the important post of district chair of Berlin's militantly working-class Wedding district (known throughout Germany as "Red Wedding"). An early supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, she participated in the abortive attempt of the nascent German Communist movement to seize power in Berlin in December 1918 and January 1919. In 1919, she was elected as an USPD delegate to the Prussian provincial assembly, a seat she held until 1921. Though Arendsee was a militant Marxist, she was at times critical of the orthodox Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In 1920, she held a leadership position in the central committee of the left wing of the USPD, but finally joined the Communists in December of that year.

Martha Arendsee was one of the leading women in the KPD from the time she joined the party in 1921 until the Nazi takeover of Germany in January 1933. From 1921 to 1924, she served as one of the few female Communist deputies to the Prussian provincial assembly. Throughout the next decade, Arendsee was active in propaganda work, serving on the editorial staff of a number of journals including Die Kommunistin and Proletarische Sozialpolitik. In 1924, she was elected to the Reichstag, serving in that national parliamentary body until 1930, when she did not receive a nomination from the KPD leadership due to suspicions of "rightist deviationism" and insufficient enthusiasm for the party's Stalinist course. She remained, however, in the party and, in fact, had been advanced by 1931 to the important position of central committee member of the International Workers' Aid, a Communist-dominated organization to assist imprisoned revolutionaries.

The Nazi seizure of power in Germany in the first months of 1933 radically changed Arendsee's life. As prominent Communists, both she and her husband Paul Schwenk (1880–1960) were considered "notorious Marxists" by the new regime. He was able to escape the Nazi dragnet and fled to Paris in April 1933, but Arendsee was not so fortunate; she was arrested at the same time in Berlin. Held under the pseudo-legal notion of "protective custody," she was incarcerated from April through September 1933 at the Barnimstrasse women's prison. After her release, she received orders from the KPD exile leadership to prepare for an escape from Germany in order to emigrate to the Soviet Union. Getting wind of this, Nazi police officials released flyers with her photograph in July 1934, but the "dangerous enemy of the Reich" had already fled the country that March. Her husband had arrived in Moscow from France in May 1934.

While he worked as a research associate at Moscow's Marx-Engels Institute, Arendsee eventually found a permanent position at International Red Trade Union Federation; she was also involved in the administration of the Foreign Workers' Club in the Soviet capital. Meanwhile, back in Germany, the wheels of the Nazi bureaucracy ground on, pursuing Arendsee and her husband on paper if not in person. The feared Nazi People's Court tried to discover her whereabouts in 1937, and, by early 1941, her name had been placed on a list of dangerous Communists to be liquidated once the Soviet Union was conquered and occupied. Both she and her husband were stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazi regime, he in July 1939 and she in December 1942.

The bloody purges initiated by Joseph Stalin in 1936 nearly proved tragic for Martha Arendsee. Her husband Paul, who had also worked in Moscow at the Communist International headquarters as well as at Moscow Radio and the Foreign Languages Publishing House, ran afoul of Stalinist orthodoxy and was arrested in 1937. As for Arendsee, she was regarded as one of the 504 leading functionaries of the pre-1933 KPD. Of these, 68 had found what they assumed was a safe haven in the Soviet Union. But as it turned out, only 18 of the 68 survived the Stalinist bloodbath. For still inexplicable reasons, Arendsee was one of the fortunate. Even more incredible, her husband was one of the very few individuals from the group of targeted foreign Communist emigrés in the USSR who survived the terrors of the Gulag. He was released from the prison camp on January 13, 1941. Only a few months later, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. With this violent end to the Hitler-Stalin alliance, German Communist emigrés joined in a full-scale war against the hated Nazi regime in their homeland.

Arendsee worked tirelessly to win over German soldiers and prisoners of war, prophesying that defeat was as inevitable for Hitler's legions as it had been for Napoleon more than a century earlier. Arendsee broadcast to the German lines on Moscow Radio and the German People's Station, and was a signatory to several manifestoes of Soviet policy toward a defeated Germany. She was also a founding member of the National Committee for a Free Germany (NKFD), the Soviet-sponsored organization of German POWs on Soviet territory.

In early June 1945, at war's end, Arendsee returned to Berlin as part of a group of German Communists led by fellow-emigré Wilhelm Pieck (1876–1960), who later became the first and only president of the German Democratic Republic. Arendsee's husband, who was considered politically less important to the KPD, did not return to Berlin until the following year. Arendsee was the most prominent woman among the Communist leadership in 1945 Germany, and thus was chosen as one of the signatories of the revived KPD's June 1945 appeal to the German people, a political document that emphasized a democratic, rather than a Marxist, agenda for the defeated German nation. Immediately immersing herself in Berlin political life, she became a founding member of the Central Women's Council of the Berlin municipal government in August 1945. In 1946, she was elected a member of the Central Committee of the KPD, and until September 1947 served as a member of the first party executive committee of the newly created Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Her husband Paul Schwenk too found a niche in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany during these years, working as an editor and serving for a period as acting Oberbürgermeister (lord mayor) of East Berlin.

During a difficult period of reconstruction and material privation, Arendsee remained a dedicated Communist. Despite the toll taken by advancing age, she was active in virtually all of the important women's councils and organizations affiliated with the KPD and SED. She also headed the social-political branch of the newly founded Communist-dominated trade union organization Free German Union of Labor Unions (FDGB). In the newly founded German Democratic Republic (DDR)—which was created in October 1949 to finalize the Cold War division of Germany—she served as chief executive of the Social Insurance Organization of East Berlin. She retired in 1950 and died in East Berlin on May 22, 1953. The uprising of the workers of East Berlin, which took place less than a month after her death on June 17, 1953, demonstrated how unpopular the DDR regime and the Marxist faith to which Martha Arendsee subscribed had become. In January 1975, the German Democratic Republic issued a postage stamp in her honor as part of its ongoing "Personalities of the German Working Class" series of commemorative issues.


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

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Arendsee, Martha (1885–1953)

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