Fabian, Dora (1901–1935)

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Fabian, Dora (1901–1935)

German anti-Nazi activist, writer and journalist who, along with fellow political emigré Mathilde Wurm, was found dead in her London flat on April 4, 1935, raising questions that remain unsolved to this day. Born Dora Heinemann in Berlin, Germany, on May 28, 1901; along with Mathilde Wurm, died under mysterious circumstances during the night of March 31–April 1, 1935; daughter of Hugo Heinemann and Else (Levy) Heinemann; no siblings; married Walter Fabian.

Described by the British Socialist leader Fenner Brockway as "one of the most courageous persons I have ever met," Dora Fabian was born into an assimilated German-Jewish family that was strongly committed to the ideals of Socialism. Her mother was Else Levy Heinemann ; her father, the lawyer Hugo Heinemann, enjoyed an international reputation as a defender of political radicals and trade unionists. Deeply interested in political affairs from her earliest years, Dora signaled her opposition to Germany's imperialist policies during World War I by becoming an active member of the Independent Social Democratic Party while still a schoolgirl. She was intellectually precocious as well as politically militant; friends of her family commented approvingly at the time that "she certainly has her father's head." A gift for foreign languages enabled her to fully master English, which would prove to be of considerable value years later when Nazism forced her to flee Germany to seek refuge in Great Britain. In 1928, the academically gifted Dora received a doctorate in economics and political science from the University of Giessen. During her student years she became politically active, on at least one occasion annoying the university administration when she participated in a student demonstration to protest the assassination by Nazis of Germany's Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau.

In 1924, Dora married Walter Fabian, a young Social Democratic activist who like his bride hoped to create a new Germany based on the ideals of social justice and international cooperation. Both were active as journalists and educators, particularly within the Socialist youth movement. Both Dora and Walter Fabian pinned their hopes for the permanent triumph of democracy in Germany on the younger generation of the Social Democratic Party, the Jungsozialisten. Tragically, the top party leadership of a bureaucratically top-heavy Social Democrat Party (SPD) was insensitive to the necessity of finding ways to appeal to politically idealistic young men and women. This neglect was to prove catastrophic in the years after 1929 when an aggressive National Socialist movement won over millions of young Germans for the creation of a dictatorial regime that promised a clean break with the past and the restoration of national honor.

By the late 1920s, Dora Fabian was finding fault with many aspects of the SPD youth organization. In particular, she believed that it had missed countless opportunities to spread Socialist ideals among women, many of whom remained stubbornly attached to conservative, even reactionary, social values and who now were becoming a significant source of political support for Hitler's explosively expanding Nazi movement. As an alternative way of recruiting women of all ages for organized Socialism, Fabian pointed to the successful female organization of the British Labour Party, which she observed firsthand during two visits to the United Kingdom. A gifted public speaker as well as a skilled journalist and writer, Fabian had by the end of the 1920s become a thorn in the side of a Social Democratic leadership.

The early 1930s were difficult years for all Germans, and Dora Fabian too found herself buffeted by both personal and political turmoil. In 1930, she divorced Walter Fabian, although in the next years their relationship would remain strong, both as friends and political colleagues in the struggle against Hitlerism. In the fall of 1931, after both Walter and Dora were finally expelled from the Social Democratic Party for what amounted to acts of insubordination, they and several like-minded militant socialists immediately announced the formation of a new party, the Socialist Workers' Party (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei; SAP). Although Dora and members of the new party were strongly committed to democracy and critical of the dictatorial methods of the German Communist Party (KPD), they were convinced that only a united German labor movement would be able to stand up against the Nazis. An anti-Nazi united front, they believed, could be forged by a new party like the SAP, which took a position between the SPD and the KPD.

During the final years of German democracy before the Nazi takeover of 1933, Dora Fabian worked tirelessly to alert her fellow Germans to the dangers posed by Adolf Hitler and his followers. She was particularly alert to the loss of rights that women would suffer under a Nazi dictatorship, warning them in an April 1932 article on "Hitler and Women" in the SAP newspaper of how they were simply being used by a Nazi Party that regarded them contemptuously as little more than "voting beasts" (Stimmvieh) who could be lied to again and again with impunity. Fabian on more than one instance chose to attend Nazi rallies in order to personally study the mass psychology of Fascism. On one occasion, at a mass rally at Berlin's Lustgarten, a helpful SS man lifted her into the air ("Party Comrade, I'm certain that you would like to see our Führer better!") without realizing that she was in fact a militant socialist and Jewish as well.

Always regarding herself as a political realist, in the first weeks of 1933 Fabian chose to resign from the Socialist Workers' Party, looking upon its efforts to halt the march of Nazism as a failure. Unfortunately, her grim assessment of the situation was all too accurate, for on January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of a near-prostrate German Reich. Although she had become disillusioned by the interminable bickering and leadership feuds of the SAP and never again would join a political party, Fabian was at this point more than ever before a believer in democratic socialism and a bitter foe of the Nazis who were now poised to impose their totalitarian ideals on all Germans.

As a militant anti-Nazi, Fabian had long been regarded as an enemy to be eliminated, and in March 1933, soon after the elections in Germany, she was arrested in Berlin. Among the most incriminating aspects of her situation was the fact that she had once worked as secretary to Ernst Toller, a Jewish writer and radical who was one of the most hated intellectual enemies of National Socialism. After a few days, she was released from prison and fled Germany as quickly as possible (a prudent move since storm troopers planned to re-arrest her); she also took with her into exile a large trunk filled with several of Toller's unpublished manuscripts which would doubtless have been destroyed by the Nazis.

Fabian first spent a short time in Prague, then found herself in another nation of refuge, Switzerland. After a short stay in Zurich, she went to Geneva, where she hoped to find employment with the League of Nations which was situated in that city. When these hopes were dashed, she arrived in Great Britain in early September 1933. She was able to prove to British immigration officials that she could support herself financially and was given permission to remain temporarily in the country until May 31, 1935. Because of her two earlier visits and the fact that she was able to speak the language, she rapidly integrated into British political life. With her knowledge of both German and English, and her extensive experience in the struggle against National Socialism, Fabian was more likely than most refugees to find immediate uses for her skills. She soon found employment working as an editor and translator for another refugee from Nazism, the noted pacifist activist and writer Otto Lehmann-Russbüldt.

Once settled in London, Fabian continued to work for the cause of anti-Nazism. Because of her years of political activism and her undisputed knowledge of German affairs, she soon became an important source of information on Nazi Germany for the politically alert leaders of the British Left. Fabian could rely on numerous sources of information on the situation in Hitler's Reich, including her former husband Walter Fabian, who had chosen to remain in Berlin as a member of an ever-diminishing anti-Nazi underground until he was compelled to flee to Paris. Determined to bring the facts about Nazi barbarism to the attention of the world, Fabian worked in London as a researcher and translator and also helped to co-author a publication on the situation of women in both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. She was encouraged in her work by her roommate Mathilde Wurm (1874–1935), a fellow refugee from Nazism who could look back on a distinguished career in Germany's Social Democratic movement.

By 1935, Dora Fabian had become acclimated to her new life in London, writing to a political friend in Prague: "I no longer feel like a stranger here." Starting in March 1935 several events took up most of her time. One was preparing the details for the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture scheduled to take place in Paris in July of that year. The other event, which took place in Switzerland in March, was of a much more ominous nature, namely the kidnapping by Nazi agents of the noted anti-Nazi journalist Berthold Jacob. Both Dora Fabian and Berthold Jacob were regarded by the Nazi regime as being among the most dangerous Germans in exile because of their contacts with anti-Nazis within the Third Reich. Fabian's informants within military circles enabled her to collect documentation on the rapid rearmament that was then taking place inside Nazi Germany. Her work was known to the German Embassy in London, and in 1934 two highly suspicious "burglaries" took place in the flat she shared with Mathilde Wurm. One of Fabian's neighbors, the Labour Party activist Ellen Wilkinson , recalled later that the flat "had been ransacked … [and] … every scrap of paper had been looked at." Even after the break-ins, Fabian received a number of threatening letters and was convinced that she was under Nazi surveillance.

The bodies of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm were discovered in their Great Ormond Street flat on April 4, 1935. Their bedroom door was locked, their apartment appeared to be in good order, and the inquest declared that they died of veronal poisoning, most likely as a double suicide. Yet from the very start, there were doubts as to whether or not Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm had taken their own lives. There was some evidence that Fabian had become depressed because her planned marriage to Karl Korsch, a German exile in London, had been cancelled. Furthermore, it appeared that Fabian was in serious financial straits, having fallen into debt and having written a number of checks on Mathilde Wurm's account. Lack of funds would have endangered both Fabian's and Wurm's right to remain in Great Britain. A few in the German exile community went beyond accusing Dora Fabian of embezzlement, even accusing her of being a spy for the Nazis. These facts in the case convinced some, but by no means all, that the two political exiles had taken their own lives.

There was, however, evidence on the other side. Neither woman had acted suspiciously during the final days of their lives. Both had been active in assisting a British anti-Nazi, Roy Ganz, in his inquiries into Nazi activities in the United Kingdom. It was well known that the Nazi regime feared and hated the German exiles, many of whom were busy exposing its atrocities, rearmament programs and general inhumanity. The Nazis were known to strike out at their foes abroad, not only kidnapping some like the journalist Berthold Jacob, but also eliminating several of the most vociferous of the anti-Nazi exiles, including Professor Theodor Lessing, who had been dramatically murdered in Czechoslovakia in 1933.

In retrospect, it became clear that the British authorities were less interested in solving the case of the deaths of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm than they were in depoliticizing it, so as to render it harmless on both national and international levels. In 1935, the British government was simply not ready to antagonize Nazi Germany, hoping instead that Hitler could be appeased. The deaths of two anti-Nazi women were inconvenient at best, and to emphasize the unanswered aspects of the case would only serve to inflame diplomatic relations between the two nations. After a week or two of intense press coverage of the case, the British public was eager to move on to a more pleasant subject, namely preparations for the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the start of the reign of King George V. To this day, despite intensive research by scholars, the cause of the deaths of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm remains a mystery.


Brinson, Charmian. The Strange Case of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm: A Study of German Political Exiles in London during the 1930's. Berne: Peter Lang, 1997.

——. "The Strange Case of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm," in German Life and Letters. Vol. 45, no. 4. October 1992, pp. 323–344.

Brockway, Fenner. Indien. Translated by Dora Fabian. Dresden: Kaden & Co. [1931].

[Browning, Hilda, and Dora Fabian]. Women under Fascism and Communism. London: M. Lawrence Ltd. [1934].

Fabian, Dora. Arbeiterschaft und Kolonialpolitik. Berlin: E. Laubsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1928.

Hertz, Paul. "Frauentragödie: Zum Tode von Mathilde Wurm und Dora Fabian," in Neuer Vorwärts. April 14, 1935, p. 2.

Kantorowicz, Alfred. Politik und Literatur im Exil: Deutschsprachige Schriftsteller im Kampf gegen den Nationalsozialismus. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1978.

Lehmann-Russbüldt, Otto. Germany's Air Force. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1935.

Schröder, Wilhelm Heinz. Sozialdemokratische Parlamentarier in den Deutschen Reichs- und Landtagen 1867–1933: Biographien, Chronik, Wahldokumentation. Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1995.

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