Leichter, Käthe (1895–1942)

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Leichter, Käthe (1895–1942)

Austrian reformer who was one of the most gifted women in the Austrian Social Democratic movement. Name variations: Kathe Leichter; (pseudonyms) Anna Gärtner; Maria Mahler. Born Marianne Katharina Pick in Vienna, Austria, on August 20, 1895; died near Magdeburg in February 1942; daughter of Josef Pick (a prominent attorney); sister of Vally Weigl (1889–1982), an Austrian-U.S. composer and music therapist; attended the Beamten-Töchter-Lyzeum, the University of Vienna (1914); doctorate from University of Heidelberg (1918); married Otto Leichter (1897–1973, a journalist and Socialist politician), in 1921; children: two sons, Heinz (b. 1924) and Franz (b. 1930).

Käthe Leichter was born Marianne Katharina Pick in Vienna, Austria, into a wealthy assimilated Jewish family on August 20, 1895, and grew up in a fashionable apartment house, Rudolfsplatz, 1, in the Inner City. Her sister would one day gain fame as the composer Vally Weigl . From her earliest years, Käthe showed interest in the pressing issues of her day. As was then true of many Jewish intellectuals, she was attracted to the ideals of Marxian Socialism, which promised the creation of a world free of war, economic exploitation, imperialism and sexism. After attending Vienna's esteemed Lyceum for the daughters of higher civil servants, in the fall of 1914 she enrolled at the University of Vienna to begin a course of study in political science. At the time, women could enroll in such courses but could not receive a doctorate (this would be changed after the end of World War I, in 1919).

When the antiwar activist Fritz Adler assassinated the Austrian prime minister, Count Karl von Stürgkh, in October 1916, Käthe was transformed, moving rapidly to a radical Marxist internationalist position. Determined to receive a degree for her studies, Käthe obtained special permission to enroll as a regular student in the fall of 1917 at the University of Heidelberg. She received her doctorate from Heidelberg with honors in the summer of 1918, having learned much more than abstract political theory at that distinguished German institution. War-weary students, radicalized by three years of stalemate and homefront privations, and inspired by the apparent successes resulting from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November 1917, joined radical cells and attempted to spread the gospel of social transformation throughout Central Europe. It was a profoundly idealistic young woman who took these ideas and ideals back with her to a defeated Vienna in the fall of 1918.

The ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution failed to conquer Germany in 1918–19, and in Austria and Hungary, as well, the forces of the extreme Leninist left were largely discredited by the fall of 1919. But starting in 1920, Vienna became a separate political entity within Austria, and a vast social experiment began. For almost 15 years, "Red Vienna" was able to push forward ambitious projects in public housing and public health that greatly advanced the welfare of the working classes of the former Habsburg metropolis. At the center of these reforms was a group of idealistic and dedicated intellectuals, many of them of middle-class Jewish origin, who were convinced that Vienna could point the way to an invigorated form of Marxism that was neither dictatorial like that of Leninist (or Stalinist) Russia, nor devoid of energy and ideas like the German Social Democratic Party that many identified with the defeat of 1918.

In 1921, Käthe married fellow Socialist Otto Leichter, a talented journalist and Social Democratic Party official, and worked at Vienna's Worker's Chamber (Arbeiterkammer), which oversaw the broad system of social welfare initiated by the party. During the 1920s, Käthe Leichter wrote articles for the party press and collected materials for large-scale sociological studies of the working conditions of the Austrian working class. By the late 1920s, Käthe and Otto Leichter had become leaders of the "New Left" faction within the Austrian Social Democratic Party, engaging in numerous and often vigorous debates with the more conservative elements in the movement. In their private life, the couple enjoyed the company of their two sons Heinz and Franz.

But these personal joys began to be clouded in the early 1930s by the economic depression and the rapid rise of radical movements, particularly National Socialism. The Leichter family, being both Socialist and Jewish, was threatened by these developments but both Otto and Käthe remained convinced that their ideals would prevail. They refused to emigrate or to abandon their Marxist ideological position. When the Austro-Fascist dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuss was established in February 1934 and the Social Democratic Party was banned, both Leichters remained in Vienna although their economic status became precarious.

Otto was soon involved in the underground work of the Socialists, who renamed themselves "Revolutionary Socialists," while Käthe assisted her husband, often using the pseudonyms "Maria," "Maria Mahler," and "Anna Gärtner." She was particularly active in the educational committee of the Revolutionary Socialist leadership group. One of her reports on trade union activity was smuggled out of Austria and appeared in print in Brussels in 1936 under her pseudonym "Maria Mahler."

Ever the optimist, a few days after the Nazi annexation of Austria, she told friends, half-seriously:

Everything has its good side. Without Dollfuss, Schuschnigg and Hitler, I would have remained at my desk at the Arbeiterkammer, and friends would have celebrated my fiftieth birthday in the Vienna Rathauskeller with good food and bad speeches, and then slowly but surely have begun to regard me as one of the party's "Old-Timers." This way, however, I will have to start my life over again from point A.

A few weeks later, Leichter was a prisoner of the Gestapo. She had hoped to stay in Vienna to be with her aged mother, and while her husband and two sons were able to escape, first to France and finally, in 1940, to the United States, the Nazis refused to grant her permission to emigrate, regarding her as one of their "biggest catches"—a prominent Jewish female Socialist intellectual. Arrested in May 1938 as her emigration papers were being prepared, she was accused of high treason in September of that year. The sentence of four months' imprisonment, passed on her in October 1939, raised false hopes, since she was not released when her time was served. She was moved instead to the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp, where her unwillingness to recant her views meant that only a miracle could save her. Her husband and many supporters around the world attempted to secure her release, but the Viennese Nazi authorities continued to perceive her as a dangerous foe. Near Magdeburg in February 1942, as they were being ostensibly transferred from Ravensbrück, Käthe Leichter was gassed to death in a railway train along with 1,500 other Jewish female prisoners.


Leichter, Käthe. So leben Wir: 1320 Industriearbeiterinnen berichten über ihr Leben. Vienna: Verlag "Arbeit und Wirtschaft," 1932.

——. Wie leben die Wiener Heimarbeiter? Vienna: Verlag "Arbeit und Wirtschaft," 1928.

Leser, Norbert, ed. Werk und Widerhall: Grosse Gestalten des österreichischen Sozialismus. Vienna: Verlag der Wiener Volksbuchhandlung, 1964.

Lewis, Jill. Fascism and the Working Class in Austria, 1918–1934: The Failure of Labour in the First Republic. NY: Berg, 1991.

Röder, Werner, and Herbert A. Strauss, eds. Biographisches Handbuch der deutschprachigen Emigration. 4 vols. Munich: K.G. Saur, 1980.

Spiegel, Tilly. Frauen und Mädchen im österreichischen Widerstand. Vienna: Europa Verlag, 1967.

Steiner, Herbert, ed. Käthe Leichter: Leben und Werk. Vienna: Europa Verlag, 1973.

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

Widerstand und Verfolgung in Wien 1934–1945: Eine Dokumentation. 2nd ed. 3 vols. Vienna: Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1984.

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