Popp, Adelheid (1869–1939)

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Popp, Adelheid (1869–1939)

Austrian Social Democratic trade unionist leader who championed social reform on behalf of the working class. Name variations: Adelheid Dvorak; Adelheid Dworak. Born Adelheid Dworschak in Vienna-Inzersdorf on February 2, 1869; died in Vienna on March 7, 1939; daughter of Adalbert Dworschak and Anna (Kubeschka) Dworschak; had 14 brothers and sisters; married Julius Popp; children: sons, Felix and Julius ("Jultschi").

Adelheid Popp was born Adelheid Dworschak in a suburb of Vienna in 1869 into circumstances of poverty and ignorance that were typical of the European working class in the days of unregulated industrial capitalism. Her Czech-speaking parents fought a generally losing struggle to provide the bare necessities of food, clothing, and shelter for their 15 children, of whom Popp was the youngest. In her autobiography, she writes:

What I recollect of my childhood is so gloomy and hard, and so firmly rooted in my consciousness, that it will never leave me. I knew nothing of what delights other children and causes them to shout for joy—dolls, playthings, fairy stories, sweetmeats, and Christmas-trees. I only knew the great room in which we worked, slept, ate, and quarrelled. I remember no tender words, no kisses, but only the anguish which I endured as I crept into a corner or under the bed when a domestic scene took place, and my father brought home too little money and my mother reproached him. My father had a hasty temper; when roused he would beat my mother, who often had to flee half-clad to take shelter with some neighbor. Then we were some days alone with the scolding father, whom we dared not approach. We did not get much to eat then; pitying neighbors would help us till our mother returned.

Popp's alcoholic father soon died, throwing the large family into even greater poverty. To find work, they moved into one of Vienna's bleak lower-class districts, renting a tiny apartment. Although a compulsory education law was on the books, Popp would be able to attend classes for only three years. Already working part-time at age six to earn a few kreuzer to help support herself and her family, by age ten she was working long hours for low wages; by her own account, her childhood was over. She worked as a seamstress and crocheting handkerchiefs, the drudgery of which went on for 12-hour days, 6-day weeks, with no vacation or brief holiday. Her pay, based on piecework, was barely enough for the basics. While working for a ready-made clothing factory, she was required to sew silk cords and mother-of-pearl on dresses. When, at the end of a long day, she had not sewn a minimal amount, she would have to take dresses home for several additional hours of work. "Home" for Adelheid was a windowless room that housed four young girls like herself. To help with the rent, they agreed to allow a young man to sleep in one of the beds when it was not occupied. As was often the case in such circumstances, one night Popp found herself forced to resist his unwelcome advances.

After a number of years, Popp "advanced" from sewing piecework to working in an industrial environment. In a bronze factory, her assigned task was to solder together various pieces of metal. By the time she was 14, the long hours in toxic conditions had brought on a collapse of her health. She fainted while at work and was taken to a hospital, where the physicians diagnosed a case of shattered nerves, as well as symptoms of malnutrition and anemia. Oblivious to the reality of her situation, one of Popp's physicians prescribed a therapeutic regimen consisting of fresh air and nutritious meals. Within days, by no means recovered from her illness, she had to return to her factory chores, which brought on more fainting attacks. Back in the hospital, 14-year-old Popp was declared to be "an incurable case" and sent to the municipal Poor House for aged and infirm women. Years later, she would write bitterly of how she, "a child who because of labor and malnutrition had been denied all of the joys of childhood," had been sent by bureaucracy's mindless machinery to "a place meant for the very old and infirm."

Popp sought to escape the realities of her existence by reading at night, under a weak and flickering light, about a better life. At first, she read cheap novels that gave her a few hours' respite, transporting her into a world of Romantic heroes and perfect love. One day, however, she started to read publications of the fledgling Austrian Social Democratic movement. Gradually, the world and its injustices took on a clear, definable shape. Because of her readings on Marxism and trade unionism, poverty for Popp was no longer an inexplicable burden but rather a human creation that could be rectified. At age 17, she became one of the first women to join the ranks of the Austrian Social Democratic Party.

Now a loyal member of a growing movement led almost exclusively by middle-class intellectuals but with a mass membership of workers, Popp felt that she had finally found a warm, caring family. Despite her often precarious state of health—she remained susceptible to fainting spells—and the physical toll exacted by 11-hour workdays, she often spent her evenings at Social Democratic meetings and rallies. By 1890, Popp was beginning to make speeches at working-class gatherings, and it soon became apparent that despite her limited education she could not only persuade her fellow workers, but hold her own in discussions and debates with colleagues from the middle class. She became increasingly confident in her own abilities and the future of the working-class movement, particularly the growing trade unions that created solidarity among the proletariat in their ongoing struggle with capitalism.

Within a few years, Popp had become one of Vienna's most promising Social Democratic personalities. Besides speaking before crowds, she could also be persuasive in small-group settings, and was one of the founding members of the influential Lese- und Diskutier-klub "Libertas" (a reading and discussion circle). Because of her dynamism as an agitator, the political police often would detain her after meetings, citing "subversive" phrases in her speech. As a militant trade unionist, she organized a strike of 600 women in a clothing factory near Vienna. More important, she now had caught the eye of Social Democratic leaders both in Austria and Germany. Even Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's friend and collaborator, visited her on one of his trips to Vienna, indicating to his Austrian colleagues that she possessed remarkable talent for leadership, particularly in view of her humble beginnings.

In 1893, Adelheid Dworschak married Julius Popp (1849–1902), a Social Democrat who, despite frail health, had become a gifted party journalist and editor. The marriage would be extremely happy, producing not only two sons but a strong sense of shared ideals. With her husband's support, which included a will-ingness to share domestic chores that was rare for the time, Adelheid Popp became increasingly active in Social Democratic affairs. Her oratorical skills led her to address crowds of women not only in Vienna but in other parts of Austria as well. To further disseminate the Social Democratic message, in 1892 Popp became editor-in-chief of the newly founded Arbeiterinnen-Zeitung (Working Women's Newspaper). In the 1890s, besides agitating for reduced work hours and improved working conditions, Popp also began to demand suffrage for all Austrian women. While convinced that workers should labor together regardless of gender, she also believed that in some situations social progress could be accelerated if women were in charge of their own organizations. In 1896, her proposal that the Austrian Trade Union Congress support an official women's section failed to pass by one vote. In 1898, the Social Democratic leadership acknowledged her role in the movement by appointing her to a seat on its important Frauenreichskomitee (National Women's Committee). In 1904, she was elected to membership in the party's policy-making Parteivor-stand (executive committee).

In December 1902, Popp suffered a grievous loss with the death of her husband. She chose to find an outlet for her grief in her work, which included editorial activities and agitation on behalf of women's suffrage, equal pay for equal work, protective legislation for industrial workers, equal legal rights, divorce reform, and state-provided nursery care. Greatly admired and respected, Popp hoped that Socialism would come to power in Austria and indeed throughout the world through education, the ballot box, and the growing strength of the working class. For her, a high point was the first International Conference of Socialist Women, which took place in Stuttgart, Germany, in August 1907. Popp, Anna Boschek , and Therese Schlesinger represented Austria at a conference that included such global luminaries of the Marxist movement as Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin .

In 1909, Popp published her classic autobiography Die Jugendgeschichte einer Arbeiterin (The Story of a Young Woman Worker), which told not only of her harsh early years, but of her discovery of the ideals of Socialism. These ideals would prove to be illusory when the onset of World War I in 1914 revealed how fragile the veneer of civilization's "progress" really was. A new reality, that of Total War, now pitted peoples against peoples in a conflict of unprecedented destructiveness. The war was much more than an abstract disappointment for Popp, for in 1916 her son Julius ("Jultschi") was reported missing in action; he would never return. Later, in 1924, her surviving son Felix died of an infection.

Popp's personal tragedies were part of a larger crisis that shook her once optimistic world. By the end of World War I, the people of Europe had suffered serious moral and psychological damage, not least of which was the permanent split within the working-class movement. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia resulted in splits within all of the Social Democratic parties in Europe, creating new Communist parties out of the prewar movements. In many cases, the working class emerged weaker and divided, making it less able to deal effectively with the crises that appeared with the end of World War I in 1918. A weakened working class often found it difficult to respond to the new political movements that sprouted like evil weeds in the early 1920s, particularly Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany and Austria.

In post-1918 Austria, the new nation struggled to survive economically and was never able to create a viable national identity for its impoverished citizenry. But in the city of Vienna after 1918 Social Democracy thrived and created a social experiment based on public housing, free medical care, and serious attempts to create a working-class culture. Popp played a significant role in the newly created Republic of Austria. In 1918, she was elected a member of the Vienna City Council, followed in 1919 by her election first to the constituent national assembly and then to the Nationalrat (Parliament). Among her legislative achievements as a member of this body were laws that reformed the working conditions of domestic employees (the law in force dated back to 1808). She also played an active role in attempts to reduce the legal restrictions against abortion and to restore the pre-1914 unity of the international working-class movement. In 1926, she accepted the position of women's representative on the executive board of the Socialist International. During these years Popp, long widowed and still in mourning for her sons, relied on her friends for emotional support. Perhaps her deepest friendship was with Emma Adler .

In the early 1930s, the world economic depression and the rise of Nazism clouded Popp's life. When her health declined, she decided in 1933 to retire from the Parteivorstand, of which she had been a member for almost three decades. Increasingly frail and despondent over the destruction of both democracy and her beloved Social Democratic Party in February 1934, she lived a retiring life. She had the misfortune to still be alive when Adolf Hitler rode in triumph through the streets of Vienna in April 1938. Popp, a remarkable woman who had risen from poverty and ignorance to become one of Central Europe's most respected working-class leaders, died of a stroke in Vienna on March 7, 1939.

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