Braun, Lily (1865–1916)

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Braun, Lily (1865–1916)

German feminist who repudiated her origins in the German aristocracy to assert in her 1901 book Die Frauenfrage that capitalism laid a basis for the economic oppression of women. Pronunciation: Brawn. Born on July 1, 1865, in Halberstadt, Germany; died on August 9, 1916, at Zehlendorf; first child of Hans von Kretschman (a captain in the Prussian military) and Jenny von (Gustedt) Kretschman (a descendant of an ancient baronial family); educated by governesses, tutors, and an aunt; married Georg von Gizycki, in 1893 (died 1895); married Heinrich Braun, in 1896; children: (first marriage) one son, Otto.

Father forced to retire from Prussian military (1889); family moved to an apartment in Berlin, where Braun became acquainted with a wide variety of social and cultural reformers (1890); published correspondence of maternal grandmother Jenny von Gustedt, with the German poet Goethe (1891 and 1893); began publishing, with Minna Cauer, the twice-monthly journal Die Frauenbewegung (1894); joined the Social Democratic Party (1895); published her major work Die Frauenfrage (1901); worked in Helene Stoecker's League for the Protection of Motherhood and Sexual Reform (1906–10); on her death, her husband Heinrich marriedJulie Braun-Vogelstein .

Selected writings:

Die Frauenfrage, Ihre geschichtliche Entwicklung und ihre wirtschaftliche

Seite (Leipzig: Hezel, 1901); Memoiren einer Sozialistin (Munich: Albert Langen, 1908–09).

Feminists and Marxists were seldom common allies in late 19th-century Europe. Most Marxists assumed that women's emancipation would automatically occur as part of a proletarian, or workers', revolution. For them, the revolution was the goal, and it was a wasteful diversion of revolutionary energy to focus on the problems of women. By the same token, most feminists came from upper-class or middle-class families, and they avoided parties that advocated total revolution. Lily Braun was an exception. A German aristocrat, she came to the conclusion that feminism and Marxism were natural allies. In several books and more than 100 articles, many translated from her native German and published in up to four other European languages, she argued that feminists and Marxists battled a common enemy: capitalism. Working in the repressive atmosphere of late 19th-century Germany, she anticipated many issues still debated in feminist circles.

Most of Lily Braun's career was a repudiation of her high birth. Both her parents held noble titles. Her father Hans von Kretschman was a Prussian army officer who would eventually become general of the infantry. The family had lived in the city of Nuremberg since the 1500s and had earned its noble title during the 1700s in recognition of service to various princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Her mother Jenny von Gustedt Kretschman 's family was of even older noble lineage, having held baronial titles since the 10th century.

Lily was the eldest of two children, although her sister Maria ("Mascha") was not born until 13 years later. A sickly but independent child, Lily was taught by her mother that though women's virtues included an ability to suffer in silence, women might also dominate and control men. Braun was so afraid of her father, a harsh and authoritarian figure, that she had nightmares about him even after he was dead. She did remember, however, that he could be charming, that he told her about the wonders of plant life during nature walks with him, and that he taught her the ideas of the 19th-century French philosopher Auguste Comte.

What she never forgot was that her father, who spent recklessly on hobbies and financial speculations, had dissipated all of his wife's dowries and an inheritance that Lily was to receive from her mother. He had also used a future inheritance that Lily was expected to receive from her Aunt Clothilde von Herman —a wealthy widow of the Baron Ulyss von Herman—to secure a loan for 78,000 marks, a very large sum at the time.

Like most children of the German aristocracy in the 19th century, Braun studied foreign languages—English and French—and reading and writing. Private tutors came to the home to teach history and a smattering of literature, and governesses taught her to draw and to play the piano. She learned to read the writings of the German poet Wolfgang Goethe, including Faust, the Sorrows of Young Werther, and Iphigenie. She also read Wagner, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Shelley, and Browning.

Despite this, her parents considered manners more important for a woman than education and placed emphasis on the ladylike skills of needlepoint, sewing, and cooking. In order to acquire social skills, Braun was sent, at age 15, to a finishing school near her Aunt Clothilde's. There she was introduced to much of the aristocratic and intellectual elite of southern Germany and Austria. Two years later, she returned home, a slender beauty who was a witty conversationalist and full of social graces.

For eight more years, Braun lived at home, helping her mother with the care of her younger sister Mascha and with household duties. She wrote that, in these years, she felt like a "lap dog" which was periodically "rewarded for good behavior." She was also introduced to officers her father brought to the house, to show off his daughter and perhaps help her find suitable marriage material. Braun attracted men, including Gottfried von Pappenheim and Major Moritz von Egidy, a founder of a movement of socially conscious Christianity. One observer described her as having a "narrow and fine aristocratic face" surrounded by short-cut hair which gave a "radiance" to her face. Marriage was a possibility for such a beauty, but Braun showed little interest. She refused to forego activities which potential suitors found unattractive in a woman, such as horseback riding, smoking in public, and showing an interest in intellectual ideas.

Two events in 1889 proved pivotal in her life. The first was the forced resignation from the German army of her father, who had angered the German emperor Wilhelm II. During the emperor's games, Hans von Kretschman and the men under his command had had the temerity to defeat a mock army commanded by the emperor.

The second development was the death of her maternal grandmother Jenny von Gustedt . Included in Lily's inheritance were papers, letters, and poems written by, or to, her grandmother, who had lived in the royal court at Weimar and had drawn the attentions of Goethe. Braun chose to edit and publish many of the papers and correspondence. While researching the volumes, published in 1891 and 1893, she was welcomed at the Goethe Archive, treated royally, invited to dinner with the grand duke of Weimar, and even offered a position at the archive. She turned it down, regarding both the scholarly life and marriage as being too sedate for her taste.

Characteristically, Braun kept only a minority of the royalties for herself; the remainder she sent to her family, which was badly in need of money. When the family moved to a Berlin apartment in 1890, Braun was fascinated by the variety of radical causes and reformers in the city, including Russian emigres and religious and social reformers. She had already decided that she did not want to become a "social parasite" like many of her class, whom she accused of participating in charities mainly as a way to keep the poor from flocking to socialism.

One of the organizations she joined during her early years in Berlin was the German Society for Ethical Culture—copied after a similar United States organization. One of the Society's German founders drew her attention. He was Georg von Gizycki, an associate professor of moral philosophy at the University of Berlin. Gizycki was one of the "Socialists of the Chair," the name given to German professors of socialist leanings. Paralyzed from the waist down by a childhood illness, Gizycki nevertheless lived an active life. As editor of the Society's journal Ethische Kultur, he furnished a platform for many of Braun's early articles.

When Lily married him in the summer of 1893, she was also marrying the causes he championed, including the emancipation of women and religious skepticism. The marriage, however, alarmed Braun's family, which already had become uncomfortable with Lily's articles expressing sympathy for the working class and crusading for an end to the tradition that each German city sponsor a municipally owned brothel.

In the early 1890s, Braun also became active in the Frauenwohl (Association for Women's Welfare), founded by the feminist Minna Cauer (1841–1922). Frauenwohl conducted courses in secondary high school subjects and taught trade skills to women who wished to become financially independent. The organization went beyond asking for legal rights for women, campaigning instead for the right to vote, for an end to state sponsored prostitution, and for the addition of an equal-rights amendment to the German constitution. In 1894, Braun and Cauer founded the twice-monthly journal Die Frauenbewegung (The Women's Movement). Braun's "calm, alto voice" was often heard at feminist rallies in "clipped, concise" sentences. The years of the 1890s and after were also years of travel (London in 1896 and Paris in 1900), and on these trips she met socialists and feminists such as Leon Blum and George Bernard Shaw.

Gizycki died in 1895. Lily's second marriage, to the socialist Heinrich Braun, created a bit of a scandal. In early 1895, two months after winning custody of his two sons in a heated divorce proceedings with his first wife, Heinrich had married his housekeeper. Lily visited him a short time later to seek financial advice, and the two fell in love. Following rumors that Heinrich and Lily had tried unsuccessfully to convince his new wife to accept a menage a trois, Heinrich divorced his second wife and married Lily in 1896.

The marriage completely alienated Braun from her family. Relatives stopped corresponding with her; some returned her letters. Her father, in a heated argument, produced a gun. She was also cut off from the possibility of a future inheritance of Aunt Clothilde. As the years went by, the rift with her family widened. Mascha generously shared her inheritance from Aunt Clothilde with the Brauns. Eventually, Mascha gave them more than 40,000 marks. When she later found herself in financial trouble and asked for the return of the money, however, the Brauns refused, and an ugly court battle followed.

Women became aware of being oppressed only after their many chores as housewives were taken over by industry, so that the women of the propertied classes … came to feel superfluous.

—Lily Braun

One thing that alarmed Braun's family was that Heinrich was a full-fledged member of the Social Democratic Party, the Marxist party in Germany. Lily had joined the faction in December 1895. When a party representative had spoken to an Ethical Culture meeting, Lily had been impressed enough to ask for more information. Excited by the prospect of converting such a high-born German to their ranks, the leaders of the party had provided Braun with royal treatment, including a tour of working-class districts in Berlin. She concluded that the Marxist movement stood for what she believed in: radical liberalism, feminism, concern for the oppressed, and a self-sacrificing idealism. The Brauns were considered a major "catch" for the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

But they were never fully accepted by many party leaders. One reason was the mixed reputation of Heinrich himself, a brilliant scholar. The son of a middle-class Jewish family, he had so impressed his professors when he obtained a doctorate in economics at the University of Berlin that they offered him an academic appointment, which Heinrich refused. An early Marxist, he was a founder, along with SPD leaders Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky, of the journal Neue Zeit. He also corresponded with Marx. His aggressive, argumentative nature made enemies, however; he was accused of enjoying making other people look foolish, and his writings were often viewed as overly preachy. He was also accused of being unreliable in financial dealings.

Lily's membership in the party was often criticized by Clara Zetkin , the leader of the women's movement in the SPD. Zetkin's motives were partly personal and partly ideological. Believing that working women should fight against class oppression, and that equal rights for women would come only when class oppression was ended, Zetkin argued that there should be a "clear separation" between the party, which she saw as highly dedicated, and outside groups, which she saw as "dilettante groups in reform." Zetkin also thought that Braun's bearing was more fitting for an aristocratic organization than a proletarian one.

Although Braun would remain in the party until a few years before her death, she was involved in numerous disputes with Zetkin. Zetkin insisted that working women did not need any special legal protection on their jobs; they would be revolutionized by experiencing the same working conditions as their husbands. Lily argued otherwise, noting that the minimum number of working hours for women over 16 in German industry in 1891 was 65 hours. Even pregnant women were required to work such hours. Such conditions, she insisted, led to an increased number of miscarriages and premature births. She demanded that pregnant women be protected from dangerous working conditions, and that furloughs be given both before and after birth, with regular wages during this time. She also wanted women to have a guarantee of a job when they returned to work after pregnancy.

In ideological terms, the dispute between Braun and Zetkin illustrated a basic split that was developing within the SPD. As a Marxist party, the SPD regularly committed itself to work for a proletarian revolution which would completely transform European countries. In the 1890s, however, "a revisionist" movement, led by Eduard Bernstein, argued that the party, rather than waiting for a revolution, should work actively within the German political system to bring about reforms to help the workers. Some revisionists even thought that Marxist goals might be achieved through such change—"evolution instead of revolution."

Like Bernstein, Braun believed that the party should participate in day-to-day politics, fighting for improvements in workers' economic and cultural conditions. She also wanted the party to broaden its base of votes by appealing to many middle class, more moderate, reformers. She believed that progressive elements in the middle class were looking for a political home but that the esoteric language of the party's journals too often turned such people off.

Braun's Marxism was outlined in her major book, Die Frauenfrage. The book discussed the historical development of "women's work," beginning in ancient times. The growth of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, it argued, had a negative effect on women of all classes. Because of the Industrial Revolution, upper-class and middle-class women were free to spend increased time at leisure but lived lives that seemed "empty" and "superfluous"; working-class women were coerced to leave their homes and work in a place "removed from home and family," at degrading, unsafe, and demoralizing factories. Capitalism created a "dependency relationship" for women of all classes, so that "even those with strong personalities" lost their sense of identity.

The book argued that upper-class and middle-class women—though their lives contained less unpleasantness than working-class women—would be the natural leaders of a movement to improve working conditions. "The women who first became aware of the repression and suffering of their sex," she wrote, "were not those likely to be the worst treated, but those who had gained a certain amount of education and understanding of the situation."

Between 1904 and the start of World War I in 1914, Braun emphasized the importance of motherhood for the women's movement. She joined the League for the Protection of Motherhood and Sexual Reform, an organization headed by the feminist Helene Stoecker . In 1906, Braun became vice-chair of the organization. Her main contribution to the platform of the organization was the idea of motherhood insurance—paid leave and stipends for pregnant women. She called motherhood the "epitome" of womanhood; she went so far as to say that a woman without a child was a "second-class woman."

Her emphasis on motherhood continued during World War I. She was openly critical of German feminists who insisted that women should oppose the war by carrying out a "pregnancy strike." Instead, she suggested that the German government, for eugenic reasons, should "do all in its power" to encourage motherhood. In some ways, she moved politically rightward during the war, as in her staunch defense of proposals to annex to Germany some captured foreign lands. In other ways, she moved leftward. She resigned her membership in the SPD, complaining that it had lost its hostility to capitalism.

When Lily Braun died in 1916—in a way, a merciful death, since it came less than two years before the death in battle of her beloved son Otto—she left behind a legacy of writings which argued that Marxism might become a central theme to unite women of all classes. She insisted that women should demand more than the right to vote; they should also examine all institutions of their society for signs that they contributed to the oppression of women. They could do this even without the important right to vote:

Of course we women do not have the power to make our convictions speak through the use of the ballot. The government in its paternalism has declared us to be the same as minors, the insane, and criminals. Nevertheless we are able to make our influence felt; with the strength of our convictions and enthusiasm we can prod our brothers, our husbands, and particularly our sons forward rather than let them wallow in timid ignorance.


Braun, Lily. Selected Writings on Feminism and Socialism. Trans. and ed. by Alfred G. Meyer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

——. Memoiren einer Sozialistin. Munich: Albert Langen, 1909.

Meyer, Alfred G. The Feminism and Socialism of Lily Braun. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

suggested reading:

Evans, Richard J. The Feminist Movement in Germany, 1894–1933. London and Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1976.

Quataert, Jean J. Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy, 1885–1917. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.


The correspondence of Lily Braun is housed in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York City.

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal-Bloomington, Illinois

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Braun, Lily (1865–1916)

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