Juchacz, Marie (1879–1956)

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Juchacz, Marie (1879–1956)

German Social Democratic leader who was chosen to replace Clara Zetkin as women's leader of the party when it split over the issue of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Born Marie Gohlke in Lands-berg-Warthe, Germany, on March 15, 1879; died in Bonn on January 28, 1956; daughter of Friedrich Theodor Gohlke and Henriette (Heinrich) Gohlke; married Bernhard Juchacz, 1904; children: two.

Founded the social welfare organization Arbeiterwohlfahrt (1919); was a member of the Reichstag (1920–33); fled Nazi Germany (1933) and became a member of the German Social Democratic Party in exile; found refuge in the United States (1941); returned to (West) Germany (1949).

Among the few positive achievements amidst the chaos that accompanied the defeat of Germany in November 1918 was the accomplishment of women's suffrage. A woman with impeccable proletarian credentials, Marie Juchacz was among a handful of women elected to the German National Assembly in January 1919. In February of that year, she had the distinction of being the first woman in the history of Germany to address a national parliamentary body:

Through political equality my sex has now been given the possibility to develop fully its potential. Only now may one justifiably speak of a new Germany and of the sovereignty of the whole people.… I would like to say here that in the present climate in Germany the woman question no longer exists in its old form, that it is solved. We will no longer need to fight for our rights with demonstrations, resolutions and petitions. From now on the political struggle will take different forms. Henceforth we women have the opportunity to use our powers within the framework of freely chosen party groups sharing a similar philosophy of life.

But with this we do not give up the right to be different, to be female persons. It is far from our aim to deny our womanhood merely because we have stepped into the political arena.

Although women enjoyed legal political equality in Germany after 1918, there remained immense barriers to the achievement of genuine social and personal equality, obstacles which have yet to be totally removed. A true "child of the people," Juchacz dedicated her long life to realizing these goals. She was born Marie Gohlke in Landsberg, a provincial village in Brandenburg, and grew up in poverty. Her father was a skilled laborer who lost his job for participating in a strike, thus throwing his family into the ranks of the proletariat. Marie's formal education ended when she was 14, and she found work at the local factory. Here she experienced the pains of working-class life ("I still remember with horror, the misery of this night work") made worse when she married Bernhard Juchacz in 1904, soon giving birth to two children. The marriage was not a happy one, and within a few years Marie left both Landsberg and her husband behind, moving to Berlin in 1906 with her children. There she lived with her sister Elisabeth Gohlke and her brother Otto. While Elisabeth remained at home caring for Marie's children, Marie worked as a seamstress. In the evenings, the sisters organized reading clubs for working-class women. During this time, Juchacz was drawn to the ideals of socialism, particularly after having read August Bebel's classic Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Woman and Socialism)—a stirring manifesto of gender equality that had an equally powerful inspirational impact on countless thousands of women, including Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin . The collapse of her marriage created a personal crisis for Juchacz which she was able to resolve at least partially by devoting her energies to the cause of socialism.

After joining the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Juchacz moved up in its ranks, gaining respect from the almost exclusively male leadership for her reliability, willingness to work long hours, and discretion in never taking a controversial stand. In contrast to Clara Zetkin, who was well educated, personally self-confident, and a fiery Marxist zealot, Juchacz was reticent, deferential to the SPD hierarchy, and, because of her impoverished background, deficient in formal education. She received a major promotion in 1913 with her first paid position in the SPD as party secretary of Upper Rhine Province, headquartered in Cologne. The outbreak of World War I in 1914, in which the German government was surprisingly supported by the SPD leadership—and which resulted in soul-searching among many Social Democrats—brought no public statements from Marie Juchacz, who maintained that it was simply not her place to reveal her opinion on matters not directly related to her party tasks.

By 1916, dissatisfaction with the war had brought the SPD to the brink of open revolt. That year, party head Friedrich Ebert called Juchacz to Berlin, asking her to replace Luise Zietz as secretary for women's affairs in the party executive. At first, Juchacz declined, claiming she was not prepared to take the place of a seasoned veteran like Zietz, but at Ebert's urging she finally accepted. The situation she found after arriving in Berlin was catastrophic, with morale low and many female members having abandoned the party for the more radical new Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Day and night, she worked to restore the shattered organization. In 1917, she was asked to take over editorial duties at the women's journal Die Gleichheit (Equality), whose former editor, the legendary Clara Zetkin, was removed by Ebert's executive board because of her increasingly radical views.

German democracy was born under less than optimal circumstances, in an atmosphere of national defeat and humiliation and a bloody civil war that split the working class between moderate Social Democrats and revolutionary Communists. Juchacz hoped to salvage as much from this grim world as possible. Reticent and very much a private person, she was much more "female" from a conservative male point of view than such brilliant militants as Luxemburg and Zetkin. Writing in the SPD flagship newspaper Vorwärts, Friedrich Stampfer confirmed that a new era had dawned in German Social Democracy: "With Marie Juchacz, we have a new and totally different kind of woman. Gone is the era when the activists of the women's movement believed that they had to prove their equality by taking on male characteristics." Although she received much public praise from the SPD leadership, she was never accepted in the party's inner circle, the executive board, and her policymaking influence remained extremely limited.

The one arena in which Juchacz wielded significant power was in the area of SPD social welfare activities. In 1919, she declared that because of the collapse of the monarchy and the creation of the Weimar Republic, German women had become "the freest in the world." In December of that year she was instrumental in founding what would become the party's permanent institution for proletarian social welfare work, the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (AW). The founding of this organization represented the overcoming of major obstacles, since many SPD leaders looked upon welfare as essentially a bourgeois activity—of "the rich giving to the poor." Juchacz, on the other hand, saw social welfare activity as a rich field for recruiting new members for the party as well as an area for making an immediate impact on society. Above all, the working class was to be encouraged to be less passive, taking welfare work out of the hands of the well-meaning daughters of the upper classes.

In the view of historian Jean H. Quataert, the creation of the AW as a welfare bureau within the SPD bureaucracy "irrevocably welded women to municipal reform activity," setting aside a sphere of activity primarily for socialist women. As early as 1917, Juchacz had advanced a body of ideas that as a package amounted to an alternative to the theory of women's emancipation formulated by Zetkin. Rejecting the orthodox Marxist concept of class struggle, Juchacz substituted the notion of "practical activity in the service of socialism." Over the next years, this reformist ideal would serve to infuriate Marxist purists like Zetkin, now a leader of the German Communist Party, who dismissed it as being little more than a capitulation to capitalism.

By 1930, Juchacz's efforts were yielding impressive results. Over 2,000 AW local organizations across Germany provided many kinds of social services, including child-care centers, homes for teenage girls, children's camps, soup kitchens, care for pregnant women, and household assistance for women who were ill, pregnant or had recently given birth. Juchacz worked tirelessly to keep alive the varied activities of the organization, which assisted "children and young people in their development, [supported] mature people in their struggle for existence, and [gave] the old and invalid economic help and a little sunshine." Looking ahead, she also hoped that AW training courses for its female staff would make women more confident in their skills. By preparing them to break down traditional barriers and inhibitions, such training could help women to be more effective leaders in the nation's public life. Always a realist, Juchacz had no illusions about the ultimate strengths of the AW organization in the face of the nation's immense and growing social ills. The onset of the world depression and rapidly growing unemployment made it clear to her that only the German state itself could bring about a lasting change: "other powers have to work on changing economic and social conditions."

Despite its good intentions and noble ideals, by 1930 the SPD found itself to be more and more out of touch with conditions in Germany. The party executive, increasingly middle class in its attitudes, presided over a mass but aging organization with only 18.1% of members in 1930 under the age of 30, compared with 31.8% for the Communists. More ominous still was the fact that many Social Democrats, including Juchacz, grossly underestimated the threat of Nazism. During the crucial election campaign of 1930, she gave speeches in which, remarkably, the Nazi threat was not mentioned even once.

Too late, the Social Democrats tried to reform themselves on the eve of the Nazi takeover in 1933. Even then, many hoped that they could remain within Nazi Germany as a passive "loyal opposition," but in June 1933 the SPD was banned by the Hitler regime. Juchacz was not invited to join the SPD executive when it fled to Prague—an omission she would remember with bitterness for the rest of her life, even though she chose never to raise the subject in public. She fled instead to the Saar District, still under French administration, where she worked with refugees from Nazism. Then in January 1935, when the region reverted to Germany after a plebiscite, she had to flee into France. Working with other anti-Nazi refugees in Mulhouse, Alsace, over the next few years, Juchacz organized resistance groups within Nazi Germany. By the late 1930s, however, most of these organizations had been infiltrated and destroyed by the Gestapo.

With the invasion and occupation of France by Nazi Germany in 1940, Juchacz's life was in danger. She was able to flee to the unoccupied zone of southern France and from there went to the United States on an emergency visa in May 1941. At first supported by American Quakers, living in the town of Scattergood, Iowa, by the autumn of 1942 she moved to New York City. Here she quickly became active in the passionate world of German exile politics, often disagreeing with the SPD leadership on policy issues. Sympathetic to the left-wing group calling itself Neu Beginnen (New Beginnings), she also became an active member of the Council for a Democratic Germany, among whose members was the theologian Paul Tillich. Now over 60, Juchacz learned English and became involved in welfare work. She was particularly active in both the Workmen's Circle and the Jewish Labor Committee, eventually being elected chair of the latter organization despite the fact that she was not of Jewish origin.

After the defeat of Nazism in May 1945, Juchacz made plans to return to Germany. While waiting for a visa, she became a leading personality in relief efforts for German Social Democrats who had been persecuted during the Nazi period, and she set up a U.S branch of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt to raise funds as well as collect food and clothing for these often destitute individuals and their families. In early 1949, she returned to a Germany still in ruins. Juchacz was received with great respect as one of the veterans of the SPD and was elected honorary chair of the reconstituted Arbeiterwohlfahrt organization. In her final years, she wrote a book entitled Sie lebten für eine bessere Welt (They Lived for a Better World), a biographical study of 29 women who had fought for social betterment and justice. As a legacy for the next generation, Juchacz hoped with this work to leave behind "a treasure of tradition, which lies hidden away.… We should bring that tradition to life, we should find the spirit which moved the socialists of the past to their great accomplishments. We must attempt to understand and learn from them. Especially we women in our present need and distress should know that before us, bold women fought gladly and fearlessly for their human rights and women's rights." Marie Juchacz died in Bonn, Federal Republic of Germany, on January 28, 1956. The Federal Republic honored her with a commemorative postage stamp issued on August 11, 1969.


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