Fischer, Ruth (1895–1961)

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Fischer, Ruth (1895–1961)

German-born American political commentator and scholar, founding member of the Austrian Communist Party and major personality of the German Communist Party in its formative years, who became a fierce anti-Stalinist and was regarded as one of the leading experts on Communism in the Western world. Name variations: Elfriede Eisler; "Fritzi" Eisler. Born Elfriede Eisler in Leipzig, Germany, on December 11, 1895; died in Paris, France, on March 13, 1961; daughter of Rudolf Eisler (1873–1926, a professor of philosophy) and Ida Maria (Fischer) Eisler; had brothers, Gerhart and Hanns Eisler; married Paul Friedländer; married Gustav Golke; married Edmond Pleuchot; companion to Arkadi Maximovich Maslow (1891–1941, original name Isaac Yefimovich Tshemerinsky); children: (first marriage) Gerhard Friedländer.

One of Central Europe's most militant revolutionary leaders from the end of World War I to the era of the Third Reich in the 1930s, Ruth Fischer was born Elfriede Eisler into a comfortable bourgeois family; her father Rudolf Eisler was a noted professor of philosophy who accepted a professorship at the University of Vienna when his daughter was still an infant. She grew up in Vienna with her parents and two brothers, Gerhart and Hanns. Fischer's environment was rich in intellectual stimulation, and from their earliest years she and her brothers wanted to not only understand the world, but to change it for the better. Still in her teens, Fischer joined the Austrian Social Democratic Party soon after the start of World War I. Dissatisfied with the pro-war policies of the party leadership, she quickly gravitated to the movement's left wing. At the same time, her brothers Gerhart and Hanns also became politically active as opponents of a war they condemned as imperialistic.

By war's end in the autumn of 1918, Fischer had become a convinced revolutionary Marxist who found inspiration in Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In early November, along with a handful of fellow radicals, she became a founding member of the Austrian Communist Party. Although she was now married to Paul Friedländer and had given birth to a son Gerhart, she was also a student at the University of Vienna and threw herself into revolutionary activities with enthusiasm, editing the women's supplement of the Communist newspaper Die soziale Revolution. As a left-wing Communist, Fischer believed that the world proletarian revolution, predicted more than a generation earlier by Karl Marx, was now at hand. But, after an initial phase of violent working-class discontent, the tide of popular militancy was now rapidly ebbing in Vienna, and in September 1919 Fischer decided to move to Berlin to be at the heart of Central Europe's revolutionary ferment. Her brother Gerhart followed her to Berlin the next year.

There, Fischer quickly found herself at the heart of Germany's most radical political environment and adopted the name Ruth and her mother's maiden name, Fischer, as her nom de guerre (Kampfname), a name she would bear for the rest of her life. Brashly outspoken, Fischer emerged almost overnight as a major personality in the German Communist Party (KPD), having by 1920 secured a post on the editorial board of the influential ideological journal Die Internationale. In 1921, she was elected to the important KPD post of director of the party's organization in Berlin-Brandenburg, the all-important District I of the Communist movement in Germany. Her political collaborator and intimate companion, Ukrainian-born Arkadi Maslow, was also regarded as a rising star in the KPD. Known to Fischer and other intimates as "Issya," Maslow used "Max" as his party name. Born into an assimilated bourgeois Jewish family, he was brought to Germany as a child, where he grew up in Dresden. Maslow could boast of considerable talent both in the areas of mathematics and music. For several years before he decided to devote his life to the cause of world revolution, he had toured Europe as a piano virtuoso.

By early 1923, as leader of the Left Opposition within the KPD, Fischer became a member of the party's Central Committee. Her rapid rise to power was not without controversy, for none other than Lenin himself had criticized Fischer for the ideas contained in her book Sexualethik und Kommunismus, a confident manifesto of the absolute nature of personal sexual freedom for both men and women in a future socialist world commonwealth. At heart a bourgeois conservative in his sexual views, Lenin cast scorn on Fischer's notions as being little more than a green light for a reckless reign of promiscuity that could easily distract the working class from its revolutionary agenda.

No less fanatical in her Communist beliefs than was Lenin, Ruth Fischer propagated her revolutionary perspective at meetings as well as in print. An attractive young woman, she was an inspiring orator who could often sway an audience, but when enmeshed in bitter struggles within the KPD executive circles, her uncompromising nature made her many enemies, including such "rightists" as the venerable Clara Zetkin . The German government also began to take notice of the dynamic revolutionary leader, initiating measures to deport her to Austria. Having already obtained a divorce, Fischer averted expulsion by entering into a marriage of convenience with Gustav Golke, a functionary of the Moscow-dominated Communist International (Comintern), thus becoming a German citizen.

In May 1923, the Comintern placed KPD leadership in the hands of the "rightist" Heinrich Brandler, but the party remained deeply factionalized. Convinced that Germany was on the brink of revolution, Fischer challenged Brandler by initiating a campaign to forge a coalition between KPD leftists and nationalist radicals on the political right, including Adolf Hitler's fledgling National Socialist movement. Simultaneously, she made attempts to create an alliance with left-wing Social Democrats to work toward a German revolution that would destroy both capitalism and the shackles of the Versailles Treaty. Communist-led uprisings in Hamburg and Saxony were quickly suppressed by the authorities.

By the end of 1923, Fischer's grand strategy had failed utterly, ending Lenin's hope of a German revolution. But the political debacle led to her emergence by April 1924 as the undisputed leader of Germany's Communist movement. Since her lover Maslow was in prison at the time, Fischer was now the unchallenged head of the largest and most important Communist Party outside the Soviet Union. Continuing to regard her as a dangerous radical, German authorities issued an arrest warrant for "Elfriede Golke, né Eisler, known as Ruth Fischer." She was prepared to live underground, already having been provided with a false passport under the name of "Liane Bosshardt, teacher." But Fischer was saved from a term of incarceration by being elected to the Reichstag from the second electoral district (Berlin) on the KPD ticket in May 1924. As a parliamentary deputy, she enjoyed a salary, a free railroad pass, and could once again carry on a "legal" existence.

In the course of the speeches she delivered as a Reichstag deputy starting in June 1924, Fischer gave vent to her deep and abiding hatred of bourgeois society and politics. She lived up to her reputation as an unreconstructed Bolshevik, describing Germany's national Parliament as "a comedy theater" and its (non-Communist) members as "capitalist puppets," and she doubtless enraged many of her Reichstag colleagues by declaring, "We Communists are all guilty of high treason." But not all on the left approved of KPD ultra-leftism. The independent leftist journal Die Weltbühne (The World Stage) noted critically in May 1924 that Communist obstructionism in the Reichstag's sessions, which included KPD deputies blowing horns and beating drums, ultimately were the fault of Fischer, "this volcano of radicalism … a will free of all reflection and considered thought."

Although Communism in Germany remained unable to capture the allegiance of the bulk of the working class, most of whom remained loyal to their trade unions and the Social Democrats, Fischer could point to her achievements on the international front. Voted a candidate member of the Executive Committee of the Comintern in July 1924, she now appeared to enjoy the approval of the highest Bolshevik ruling circles in the Kremlin. Not surprisingly, Fischer found herself in prison in November 1924, when the Reichstag was dissolved to allow new elections to be held. But once again she was in luck, being reelected in December to her parliamentary seat by thousands of enthusiastically loyal working-class constituents. As a result, officials grudgingly released Fischer from prison.

Almost from the start, Ruth Fischer's leadership of the German Communist movement was characterized by controversy and bitter struggles. Valiantly, she fought attempts by the Comintern—increasingly under the control of Joseph Stalin—to control the KPD. On her left, a group of dissidents emerged who criticized her leadership as not being radical enough. Fischer was

able to retain her control during the party congress that took place in July 1925, but by November her faction was in disarray and she was removed from her post as party leader. Summoned to Moscow by the Comintern leadership, Fischer soon realized that she was a virtual prisoner of the Stalinists. Her departure from Moscow without Comintern approval led to her denouncement for "a serious breach of discipline." Ominously, she was summarily removed from her high Comintern post.

Few observers of the German radical political scene were surprised when an announcement appeared in the official KPD newspaper Die Rote Fahne on August 20, 1926, revealing the expulsion of both Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. Although Fischer would remain a Reichstag deputy until spring 1928, heading an anti-Stalinist Left Opposition group challenging the KPD, her influence was now vastly reduced. In early 1928, she played a key role in founding the Leninbund, an organization conceived as a last-ditch effort to prevent the total Stalinization of the German Communist movement. Within a year, it became clear that this desperate effort had failed, with the forces of Stalinism celebrating triumph in both the Soviet Union and Germany.

By the middle of 1928, Fischer decided to drop out of political life, although she made an attempt to rejoin the KPD in 1929, when a new party line moved it radically leftwards; her membership application was rejected. Withdrawing completely from politics and needing to earn a living to support her son Gerhard, Fischer found employment as a social worker and teacher in the Berlin working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg. It was here that she observed the sufferings inflicted by the poverty and unemployment of the Great Depression. Fischer and fellow anti-Stalinist Franz Heimann studied the daily lives of working-class families and published the results of their observations in Deutsche Kinderfibel (German Children's Primer) in early 1933, only a few weeks before the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship. The suffering, including malnutrition, of countless thousands of unemployed Germans was documented in detail in a book that remains a classic study of German society on the eve of the Third Reich.

Although no longer politically active, Fischer remained distinct in the minds of many Nazi leaders who recalled her time of leadership as a "Bolshevik Jewess" within the hated KPD. When Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, it was obvious that radicals like Fischer could only look forward to severe treatment in a Nazi state. The February 28 fire that destroyed the Reichstag building, used by the Hitler government to immediately scrap constitutional guarantees and initiate a reign of terror, was the signal for Fischer, Maslow and many other anti-Nazis to flee for their lives. Fischer's apartment was vandalized by a gang of Nazis, and her teenage son Gerhard Friedländer was held as a hostage for several weeks, refusing to divulge his mother's hiding place despite being mistreated by brownshirted Nazi thugs. After his release, Gerhard went to Vienna, where he found temporary refuge with his grandparents. Fischer, determined to find a safe haven for her son, established contact with the Jewish Refugees Committee in London, securing safe passage. Gerhard arrived in London in August 1934 and was able to begin a new life in the United Kingdom where he eventually became a mathematics professor at Cambridge University.

Fischer and Maslow fled to Paris, where many refugees from Nazism hoped to organize an effective movement against Hitlerism. Infuriated because they had not been able to capture her, the Nazi regime stripped Fischer of her German citizenship in August 1933. In order to remain in France, she entered into a marriage of convenience with a French Marxist, Edmond Pleuchot. Both Fischer and Maslow were founding members of the militantly anti-Stalinist splinter organization, Gruppe Internationale. Working with other oppositional Communist groups, Fischer established alliances with the Fourth International of Leon Trotsky. By 1936, ideological and personal differences led Fischer and Maslow to break with the Trotskyites. That same year, she was sentenced to death in absentia by one of Stalin's purge trials.

The start of World War II in September 1939 impressed upon Fischer the urgent necessity of escaping from a European continent controlled by two dictators, Hitler and Stalin, who regarded her as a mortal enemy. After the German conquest of France by Blitzkrieg in late spring 1940, Fischer and Maslow fled for their lives, living briefly in Marseille, then going across the Pyrenees through Spain and Portugal. Arriving in Cuba in late 1940, Fischer and Maslow applied for admittance to the United States, but only she received permission to actually enter the favored land of refuge for anti-Nazi activists. Remaining behind in Cuba, Maslow died there suddenly in November 1941. Although his death certificate specified a heart attack as cause of death, he had in fact been discovered in an unconscious state on a street near his hotel. To the end of her life, Fischer remained convinced that Maslow had been murdered by Soviet intelligence agents.

The fact that Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union transformed the Stalinist dictatorship into an ally of the Western democracies did not change Fischer's attitude toward the Soviet system and its domination of the world Communist movement. Working as an independent scholar and journalist, she took an often unpopular position during the war years by reminding readers of the cynicism and brutality of Stalin's brand of "socialism." She supported herself by writing articles for anti-Stalinist publications like Politics, while also editing several limited-circulation but influential journals, including The Network: Information Bulletin about Stalinist Organizations and Organizational Forms as well as The Russian State Party: Newsletter on Contemporary Communism.

Fischer's dramatic break with Stalinism during her years in Germany resulted in profound personal as well as political changes in her life. Whereas she rejected the ideals and regime of Joseph Stalin, her brothers Gerhart and Hanns Eisler remained dedicated orthodox Communists, adhering loyally to the party line as propagated from Moscow. Gerhart was a professional revolutionary, and both he and Hanns—who achieved world fame as a film composer—settled in the United States in the late 1930s. By the early 1940s, the break between the Eisler siblings had become permanent and bitter. Settling in New York City, but often found at Harvard University, where she carried out her research projects, Fischer lived a life based on the premise that the world movement that claimed her brothers' loyalty was capable of carrying out her own assassination. She informed friends that since she had been found to be in good health by three physicians, if she were to die suddenly such an event would have to be regarded with deep suspicion. For her personal security, Fischer requested a special telephone number from the New York police so that she could contact them if she feared for her life.

By 1945, the world Ruth Fischer saw from such a distrusting perspective had in fact been proven to be evil beyond measure. The discovery of the Nazi death camps revealed aspects of human depravity few had believed possible. Fischer was personally as well as philosophically impacted by these revelations. She now was informed of the deaths in Nazi captivity of several men who played important roles in her earlier life. Her first husband Paul Friedländer lost his life in Auschwitz, while Werner Scholem and Ernst Thälmann, friends and foes within the KPD, were killed at the Buchenwald concentration camp. In the Soviet Union, Stalinist purges led to the death of her Communist party comrades Hugo Eberlein, Heinz Neumann and Hermann Remmele.

Far from blood-drenched Europe, Fischer fought her battles with a pen, working in libraries and archives to find materials to unmask the evil at the heart of Stalinist socialism. Still regarding herself privately as a Communist, Fischer rapidly achieved a reputation as one of the best-informed individuals in the European, and particularly the German, Communist movement. Unlike many political emigrés who lived a life of financial deprivation, Fischer was able to command handsome royalties and lecture fees, and received a generous monthly stipend from Harvard University Press. In 1948, the Harvard Press published Fischer's massive study Stalin and German Communism. Although regarded from the beginning by most historians as a problematical work because it represents an attempt to combine historical assessments with autobiography, the book nevertheless remains an important source for any serious investigation of the Stalinization of Europe's largest Communist Party in the interwar period.

In 1947, Ruth Fischer became a naturalized citizen of the United States. That same year, she became a media personality when she appeared as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Earlier that day, February 6, 1947, Fischer's brother Gerhart Eisler had appeared before the committee in response to a subpoena and refused to be sworn in unless he could make a public statement; because of the position he took, Eisler was cited for contempt. Later that day, Ruth Fischer testified about several matters, including her "hostile" relationships with her brothers Gerhart and Hanns, then described Gerhart as "a most dangerous terrorist, both to the people of America and to the people of Germany." Among his many crimes, she claimed, was his role in the deaths of the German Communist leader Hugo Eberlein, as well as the Russian Communist intellectual Nikolai Bukharin, during Stalin's purges. Magnifying her brother's influence considerably, she announced that were he to appear in Germany, he would play a key role in the creation of "another Nazi system" whose only difference from the Third Reich would be that its "Fuehrer's name will be Stalin."

One of the more interesting aspects of Ruth Fischer's February 1947 testimony was a question from committee member Richard M. Nixon, who voiced his suspicion that, while she appeared to disagree vehemently with Stalinist methods of achieving socialism, Fischer gave the impression that she still retained "some sympathy with the Marxist philosophy and the ends which Communism attempts to achieve." Fischer sidestepped Nixon's comments by calling for a struggle against Stalinist terrorist methods, urging that the United States "do everything in [its] power to hinder that movement." Privately, she was disturbed by a growing anti-Communist hysteria in America that did little to distinguish between Stalinist totalitarianism and independent radical and socialist movements. Although she continued to publish and lecture, and even served for a while as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State, Fischer felt less and less at home in an adopted country that had succumbed to the chill winds of Cold War paranoia.

In 1955, Fischer left New York for Paris, where she had lived for most of the 1930s and where she would now remain for the rest of her life. She was highly critical of developments in both German states. East Germany, which she regarded as the very embodiment of Stalinist rigidity, responded in kind when the official newspaper of the ruling Socialist Unity Party,Neues Deutschland, attacked her as "Enemy Number 1." West Germany, which had become a staunchly anti-Communist member of the Western world, also was regarded critically by Fischer, particularly when Communists who had spent years in Nazi concentration camps once again found themselves in prison because of their beliefs.

Now a doting grandmother to her son Gerhard's children, Fischer became increasingly hopeful about the prospects for change that would come from the next generation. A small but growing radical student movement in West Germany was viewed positively by Fischer, who remained convinced that the course of history would always be changed by small groups of dedicated idealists. Developments in Yugoslavia, where experiments in worker-based socialism were being attempted in the 1950s and 1960s, seemed to meet with her approval. Her intellectual independence seems to have come to the attention of both French and American intelligence services, which discreetly kept tabs on the aging ex-revolutionary's activities.

During the last decade of her life, Fischer remained active as a journalist and commentator. Her perspective on the world became less and less Eurocentric and more global, at least in part because of her extensive travels, which included trips to Asia in 1951–52 and 1955. The post-Stalinist evolution of the Soviet Union also made her increasingly hopeful concerning the prospects of a renewal of a socialist construction of society that was essentially democratic and humane. Respected in France in scholarly circles as well as by the educated public, in 1957 she began to teach a course at the Sorbonne on the history of Soviet Communism, which in 1960–61 resulted in her also teaching a seminar on the problems of imperialism and colonialism, an issue that was highly topical in view of France's continuing conflict in Algeria. Though Fischer enjoyed her work, decades of stress and personal tragedies began to take their toll on her body. A sanatorium visit to Germany in the summer of 1960 appeared to have a restorative effect, but Fischer died suddenly in Paris on March 13, 1961. She was buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse, where her grave is decorated with a work of sculpture by her friend Joseph Erhardy.


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