Freundlich, Emmy (1878–1948)

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Freundlich, Emmy (1878–1948)

Austrian Social Democratic leader and women's rights activist who advocated social reforms in cooperatives, women's suffrage, and adult education. Born Emma Kögler in Aussig, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (now Usti, Czech Republic), on June 25, 1878; died in New York City on March 16, 1948; daughter of Adolf Kögler and Emma Kögler; had sister Martha and brother Karl; married Leo Freundlich (a Social Democratic journalist), in 1900; children: Gertrude Freundlich; Hertha Freundlich .

Born into an elite German-speaking family in the city of Aussig, Bohemia, Emmy Kögler was far removed from the poverty and insecurity of the workers who toiled in the factories of her hometown and other industrial centers of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Her father, whom Emmy deeply respected for his energy and achievements, was a successful engineer whose career had been linked to the growth of railroads and industry in Bohemia. Adolf Kögler was also deeply involved in local politics, being a leader of the Liberals in his city; he was eventually elected the mayor of Aussig. Despite the family's affluence, Emmy (the name she would always be known by) and her siblings were brought up in a simple if not spartan environment that emphasized the virtues of studiousness and service.

At 13, Emmy was sent to a girls' boarding school with a reputation for its strictness; her life's path was to be one of middle-class propriety and, eventually, a "good" marriage. Emmy regarded her regimen irrelevant and her classmates frivolous, spending much of her free time voraciously reading, particularly about politics (at age 11, she became a confirmed newspaper reader). Her youth ended in 1895 with the death of her father. Devastated, Emmy's mother died the next year, and at the age of 18 Emmy became the head of her family of three orphans.

By 1899, Emmy had spent an extended period in Vienna and now viewed Aussig as being too provincial for her expanding intellectual interests, which centered around the radical reforms advocated by the Social Democratic Party. She had also met and fallen in love with Leo Freundlich, a Social Democratic journalist. As editor of Mährisch-Schönberg's Volkswacht, one of the party's provincial Moravian newspapers, Freundlich was able to secure the publication of Emmy's first article. In view of the hostility of Emmy's extended family to her relationship with Leo Freundlich, to whom they objected because he was both Jewish and an ardent Marxist, the couple eloped and in 1900 were married far away from Central Europe, in Gretna Green, Scotland.

Although Emmy Freundlich was busy raising two daughters over the next several years, by 1904 she was becoming increasingly involved in the educational activities of Mährisch-Schönberg's Arbeiterheim (Workers' Center). Here she helped her husband, the center's director, in organizing various educational activities including language courses and vocational training in cooking and sewing. The election of Leo Freundlich as a Social Democratic deputy in 1907 to the Austrian Reichsrat (parliament) only strengthened Emmy's determination to make her own significant contribution to social progress, particularly in the area of women's political and economic rights. She became increasingly active in the women's trade union movement in Moravia, organizing women textile workers, particularly those working at home in substandard dwellings under miserable conditions. The problems she confronted on a daily basis included employer resistance and the growing tensions between the German-speaking and Czech-speaking sections of the population. Despite immense difficulties, by 1914 she could point to the creation of almost two dozen organizations that had a total membership of about 1,300 women.

The final months of 1911 marked some decisive changes in Emmy Freundlich's life. She and her husband moved to Vienna, ostensibly because their daughter Gertrude Freundlich 's delicate health necessitated the high quality of medical care found in the Austrian capital. Other reasons, however, were behind the move as well. Emmy's marriage to Leo Freundlich was in decline, and they divorced in 1912. She also desired a larger stage on which to carry on her political and educational work within the Social Democratic movement. Inherited wealth made it possible for Freundlich to live as a divorced woman without any financial worries, and once settled in Vienna she threw herself into her work with greater enthusiasm than ever before.

In 1912, Freundlich heeded a recommendation from party leader Karl Renner by becoming active in the Social Democratic cooperative society (Konsumgenossenschaftsbewegung). Here, she was soon convinced, was a key factor that would help to empower working-class women both economically and politically. As the energetic editor of the newspaper of the Austrian women's cooperative society, by 1914 she had been able to increase that journal's circulation to an impressive 120,000 copies per printing. The cooperative movement enabled women to develop managerial skills as well as helping them to improve their family's standard of living. Convinced that the rise of the working classes was not simply a matter of economic improvements, Freundlich emphasized various educational programs aimed at both proletarian youths and adults.

For the next two decades, she would be an indefatigable campaigner for both the cooperative idea as well as for new working-class educational programs. Starting in 1915, she became one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Kinderfreunde (Friends of Children) organization, which emphasized not only general education but the inculcation of humanistic, secular working-class ideals that would guarantee the lifelong loyalty of Austrian youth to the Social Democratic Party. Like most Social Democrats, Freundlich was profoundly saddened by the onset of World War I, which signalled a significant failure of the workers of the world to prevent a terrible global conflagration. She refused, however, to be demoralized and continued her editorial and educational work of advocating cooperative schemes throughout the war. In 1915, she also began to work for the government as a specialist in the Ministry of Nutrition.

The end of World War I in Vienna signalled not only the end of the Habsburg monarchy and the disintegration of multinational Austria-Hungary but a troubling new era as well. Small and economically weak, the new Austrian Republic appeared to many to be a stillborn commonwealth. Not surprisingly, many Austrians yearned for Anschluss (union) with the much larger German Republic. In this new state, the Social Democratic Party quickly emerged as the only major party on the left (the Communists remained an ineffectual sect). Strongly supported by industrial workers and intellectuals, the Social Democrats controlled the municipal government of Vienna from 1920 to 1934, quickly initiating in "Red Vienna" a sweeping program of public housing projects, comprehensive child care and educational reforms. Emmy Freundlich now emerged as one of Red Vienna's best-known leaders, enjoying a public forum not only through her writings but also by virtue of being a member of the City Council, as well as a deputy to the new National Assembly in which she represented Vienna's districts 2, 20 and 21—all of which were solidly working class and solidly Social Democratic in their voting patterns.

Despite the poverty of postwar Vienna in the early 1920s, for Social Democratic idealists like Emmy Freundlich it was a city brimming with new ideas and much optimism, particularly among its young people. As one of the best-known and influential women within the Social Democratic Party, she was constantly in demand as a lecturer. Her editorial work, and the writing of books, pamphlets and articles, kept her schedule full for months at a time. What leisure time she did have was spent with her two daughters, who continued to live with her into adulthood (neither daughter would ever marry).

As one of Europe's most respected experts on the cooperative movement, Emmy Freundlich was elected president in 1921 of the International Cooperative Women's Guild (ICWG), a global organization with headquarters in London. Her work both within Austria and internationally was highly regarded, and Freundlich was to retain this post until her death. Her privileged upbringing was now of great value to her, since as a child and young woman she had achieved mastery of both English and French. Being able to not only read in these languages but to converse in depth with visitors from abroad enabled her to closely study in the original sources those developments that other party leaders could only discover at second hand. Because of these advantages, Emmy Freundlich was generally regarded as one of the best-informed individuals within the ranks of the Social Democratic leadership. Freundlich was a major asset to her party not only because of her intellectual gifts, but because on at least one occasion her personal wealth enabled her to save the day for Social Democracy. When the leading party newspaper, Vienna's Arbeiter-Zeitung, found itself deep in debt, Freundlich resolved the crisis by making a gift of funds she raised by selling one of her valuable Viennese properties.

Despite the successes of Red Vienna, Austria slid into the abyss of dictatorship in 1934. Although he was opposed to Hitler's Germany, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was an ally of Benito Mussolini and a foe of democracy and socialism. In February 1934, a brief but bloody civil war brought about the demise of parliamentary government in Austria and the destruction of the experiment of Red Vienna. As one of the most prominent leaders of the Social Democratic movement in Austria, Freundlich had long been hated by the country's political and social reactionaries. While some Social Democrats fled abroad and others were executed, a large number found themselves imprisoned. Emmy Freundlich was one of these prisoners, and she was released only because of the strong protests that came from abroad demanding that she be freed forthwith. Although her disdain for the Austrian regime was common knowledge, Freundlich now concentrated her efforts not on the dismal political landscape but instead on broader issues of social change that would one day again prove useful in a free society. It was in this spirit that she wrote in 1936 a study for the International Labor Office of the League of Nations on the role of women in nutritional issues. Three years later, she produced another report for the same body, this time on the status of working women.

The Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938 was a profound shock to humanistic internationalists like Emmy Freundlich. Nazism was not only a political evil for her, but represented a direct threat to her family as well because under the anti-Semitic Nuremberg racial decrees both of her daughters were at great risk, being defined as "half-Jewesses." Fortunately, they were able to escape to Geneva, where their father lived. In May 1939, Emmy was reunited with her daughters in London, where all three had now been able to attain a permanent refuge from persecution. Both daughters found employment in London and were soon able to send their aging father, who lived in poverty in Geneva, a small monthly subsidy. Emmy spent some of her time at the headquarters of the ICWG, where she remained its respected president. Although she took pains to be well-informed on the basic issues, Freundlich chose to avoid involvement in the heated political debates that usually raged within the Austrian exile community. Enjoying respect from the various factions, and with the end of the war beginning to appear an eventual reality rather than merely a wish, in December 1943 she was chosen to chair the economic commission of the representative bodies of the Austrian Committee for Relief and Reconstruction.

It was with a mixture of joy and sadness that Emmy Freundlich celebrated the liberation of Austria that took place only weeks before the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. The shattered condition of occupied Vienna made an immediate return an impossibility but significant relief efforts could be assisted by exiled Austrians living abroad. Freundlich now struggled with achieving a balance between stimulating a broad process of democratization for Austria's Nazicontaminated population and at the same time successfully addressing the immediate challenges of a defeated people's day-to-day physical survival. Despite her advancing years, Freundlich remained active in London's Austrian exile community. Neither did she neglect her activities in the cooperative movement, returning to the continent in 1946 when she traveled to Zurich to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her election as president of the ICWG. The same year, she participated in the plenary meetings of UNESCO.

In the summer of 1947, the ICWG was granted an advisory role in the Economic and Social Council of the newly formed United Nations. As ICWG president, Freundlich chose to represent her organization in the United States at the end of the year. Arriving in a nation that was prosperous, confident and physically untouched by the recent war, Freundlich soon found herself investigating the details of the American way of life, particularly as it affected women. In an article she wrote for a Viennese women's magazine, Freundlich praised the labor-saving devices enjoyed by American women, whom she described as living in a veritable "Hausfrauenparadies" (Housewives' Paradise). Even though she was in declining health and appeared to some to be increasingly fragile in appearance, she refused to slow down her activities. Her friends and admirers were shocked and saddened when Emmy Freundlich died suddenly in New York City on March 16, 1948. "In looking back on my life," she wrote, "I think of the words I read once: Your life's span is three score and ten years, and its worth is measured by the work and the effort you put into them. And I believe that my life was worth while, for it has given me the chance to work and to apply my efforts in a great movement from which I received more than I gave."


Arbeitsgemeinschaft "Biografisches Lexikon der österreichischen Frau," Dokumentationsstelle Frauenforschung im Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst, Vienna.

Bechtel, Beatrix. "Emmy Freundlich," in Edith Prost and Brigitta Wiesinger, eds., "Die Partei hat mich nie enttäuscht … ": Österreichische Sozialdemokratinnen. Vienna: Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, 1989, pp. 88–132.

File 2600, Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes, Vienna.

Freundlich, Emmy. "Frau und Staatsbürgertum" (unpublished manuscript), Nachlass Alma Motzko, Österreichisches Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Vienna.

Gruber, Helmut. Red Vienna: Experiment in Working Class Culture, 1919–1934. NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

——. "Sexuality in Red Vienna: Socialist Party Conceptions and Programs and Working Class Life," 1920-1934," in International Labor and Working Class History. Vol. 31. Spring 1987, pp. 37–68.

King, Linda J. "The Woman Question and Politics in Austrian Interwar Literature," in German Studies Review. Vol. 6, no. 1, 1983, pp. 75–100.

Magaziner, Alfred. Die Wegbereiter. Vienna: Volksbuchverlag, 1975.

Richter, Annette. "Emmy Freundlich," in Norbert Leser, ed. Werk und Widerhall: Grosse Gestalten des österreichischen Sozialismus. Vienna: Verlag der Wiener Volksbuchhandlung, 1964, pp. 159–167.

Weinzierl, Erika. Emanzipation? Österreichische Frauen im 20. Jahrhundert. Vienna and Munich: Verlag Jugend & Volk, 1975.

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