Schlesinger, Therese (1863–1940)

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Schlesinger, Therese (1863–1940)

Austrian Social Democratic leader who was dedicated to the causes of social progress, pacifism, and feminism. Name variations: Therese Schlesinger-Eckstein. Born Therese Eckstein in Vienna, Austria, on June 6,1863; died in Blois/Loire, France, on June 5, 1940; daughter of Albert Eckstein and Amalie (Wehle) Eckstein; married Viktor Schlesinger; children: Dr. Anna Frey (1889–1920).

On November 28, 1905, members of the Habsburg monarchy's conservative elite were both awed and frightened by demonstrations demanding the granting of the ballot to the male working class, who resented being denied this right because of property restrictions. Throughout the nation, which comprised Austria and Hungary, more than one million marched in favor of suffrage. In Vienna alone, a quarter of a million workers wearing red armbands took to the streets. Organized and led by the Social Democratic Party of Austria (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs; SPÖ), their disciplined ranks took four hours to file past the Parliament building on the Ringstrasse. Several years later, an unknown young man from the provinces, Adolf Hitler, watched a similar demonstration in Vienna, later describing how he had observed "with bated breath the gigantic human dragon slowly winding by." Although the anti-Marxist Hitler was convinced that the organized masses had been seduced by their Jewish leaders into becoming "a menacing army," he was clearly impressed by their discipline and the potential power of the organized masses.

How did the SPÖ become a major force in Austrian history, and what role did women play in it? The long and productive life of Therese Schlesinger, one of the most important women in the history of this organization, sheds considerable light on both the successes and the failures of the Austrian Socialist movement. Like most of the leading personalities of European Socialism, she was born into a world of middle-class affluence, in 1863, during Vienna's "golden age" of liberalism. She grew up in a large, loving, and assimilated Jewish family. Therese's father Gustav Eckstein was a successful industrial chemist, inventor and industrialist whose sense of responsibility prompted him to provide significant social benefits for his employees even though in that era of laissez-faire capitalism he was not obligated to do so. Like many members of the liberal bourgeoisie of the day, Gustav was a free thinker in religion and open to new ideas. He was an active member of an influential group of Viennese intellectuals that included the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach and the social reformer Josef Popper-Lynkeus.

Both Gustav and Amalie Eckstein were avid readers of influential new books and enthusiastic

attenders of Carl Brühl's popular Sunday science lectures on such fresh and controversial topics as Darwinism. Although she was never able to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a teacher, Amalie was widely read, with broad cultural interests, and held strong opinions on various facets of public life that she followed with interest to the end of her life. Blessed with parents who were both intellectually engaged and affluent, Therese and her siblings were immersed from birth in an environment that provided them with material comforts and with mental stimulation.

Gustav's business success enabled Therese to be educated at home by private tutors once she had completed elementary school. Of the eight Eckstein children (six girls, two boys), four of them including Therese would play significant roles in the intellectual and political life of Central Europe. Therese's sister Emma Eckstein , who became an outspoken feminist, entered into the history of psychoanalysis as one of the first patients of Sigmund Freud. Therese's brother Gustav, the youngest, left Vienna for Berlin where he became a noted Social Democratic publicist as one of the editors of the party journal Die Neue Zeit (The New Era). Her other brother Friedrich Eckstein was a polymath who because of his family's wealth was able to live the life of a Privatgelehrter (private scholar); he studied music theory with the great Anton Bruckner, and included among his friends Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus, and Arthur Schnitzler.

Born too soon, Schlesinger was denied admittance to both secondary and university education, breakthroughs for women that would not take place until the last decade of the 19th century. Society's discrimination only served to strengthen her desire to amass as much knowledge as possible through intensive reading and discussion. She cherished the classic authors of German literature, particularly Friedrich von Schiller, whose idealism and love of freedom made a lasting impression. Schlesinger's sense of social justice inexorably brought her into contact with the rapidly growing Social Democratic movement, which championed the rights of an impoverished industrial working class. She not only began to regularly read Die Neue Zeit and the movement's daily Arbeiter-Zeitung (Worker's Newspaper) but also mastered the often obscure argumentation that lay at the heart of Karl Marx's massive tome Das Kapital. Years later, Schlesinger recalled that while intensively studying the book she often came down with headaches. Many decades later, she would continue to speak to friends of "how much one still needs to read, to understand, and to accomplish." Throughout her life, she would proclaim that her greatest fear was one of " unwissend zu sterben" (dying while still ignorant).

Therese Eckstein married Viktor Schlesinger, a bank employee, on June 24, 1888. The happy marriage produced one child, a daughter Anna; it also brought tragedy. At the time of Anna's birth in August 1889, the midwife in attendance infected Therese with erysipelas, a streptococcus infection which made the new mother acutely ill, causing her to be confined to a wheelchair for the next two years. The lifelong aftereffects of the illness included a permanently stiff hip joint and a right leg that shrank significantly. Less than two years after she became ill, in February 1891, Viktor died of tuberculosis. Over the next several years, Schlesinger created a new life for herself. Although self-taught, she had a broad education. This, along with the economic independence that her family's wealth provided, gave her the resources to begin a career dedicated to helping others. Years later, she described this phase of her life as one of "psychological rescue." Recalling the difficulties she had had to face as a single mother, Schlesinger claimed that her growing involvement in public issues had enabled her to rise above "the poverty of a merely personal circle of interest."

Within a few years, Schlesinger became an active member in Austria's most important women's rights organization, the Allgemeiner Österreichischer Frauenverein (General Austrian Women's Association or AÖF), whose members generally came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds similar to her own. Most of her time as an AÖF member went into journalistic work, writing articles for the newspaper Die Volksstimme (The Voice of the People). Generally, Schlesinger's publications were impassioned essays in favor of two of the most important items on the agenda of Austrian feminists, namely women's suffrage and women's admission to all institutions of higher learning. Her first significant non-journalistic activity took place in 1896, when Schlesinger became a member of an investigatory commission under the auspices of the Ethical Society (Ethische Gesellschaft), a reform organization whose ideology was based on a concept of progress free of both religion-based morality and political party allegiances. Comprising 35 members, the commission was charged with gathering detailed information on the life and employment conditions of Vienna's working-class women. One of only five women members of the commission, Schlesinger and her colleagues heard often chilling testimony of economic exploitation and sexual harassment from 300 women. Although the commission's final report was a convincing indictment of the atrocious conditions under which many thousands of women had to work and live, the immediate impact of the study was minimal in a society still dominated by notions of laissez-faire "economic freedom" that perpetuated the problems of the laboring classes. Desiring to bring the details of Viennese working women's misery to as broad a public as possible, Schlesinger traveled to Berlin to present to the First International Women's Congress a report on the degrees of social injustice she and her colleagues had uncovered.

Having become convinced that appeals to middle-class social consciences would never bring about significant improvements in the lives of the working class, in 1897 Schlesinger became a member of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs or SPÖ). She was convinced that Socialism, a doctrine in her eyes grounded in values of cooperation, compassion, and rational planning, could bring about a more just society. Schlesinger quickly became known in Social Democratic circles as one of the most dedicated, enthusiastic women in the movement, and she caught the attention of SPÖ founder and leader Victor Adler. In 1901, she was one of the founding members of the Association of Social Democratic Women and Girls (Verein Sozialdemokratischer Frauen und Mädchen), an organization in which she would play a significant role for the next three decades. From the late 1890s, Schlesinger would also be an important member of the women's trade-union movement, which was dominated by the SPÖ, and was active in the secretariat of the bookbinder's union, as well as in the women's section of the large clerical workers' union. At the same time, Schlesinger remained active as an orator and journalist, publishing articles in such SPÖ organs as Der Kampf (The Struggle), Die Unzufriedene (The Dissatisfied Women), and the always important Arbeiter-Zeitung. In 1907, along with her party colleagues Anna Boschek and Adelheid Popp , Schlesinger represented the SPÖ at the first International Socialist Women's Conference, held that year in Stuttgart, Germany. In March 1911, she chaired the first SPÖ Women's Conference in Vienna, at which she, Popp, and Adler delivered major addresses.

A convinced pacifist before 1914, Schlesinger often cast a critical eye at the middle-class pacifists led by the redoubtable Bertha von Suttner . Like a number of other leading Social Democrats in Germany and Austria-Hungary, Schlesinger was shocked and disappointed when the SPÖ leadership gave its support to the Habsburg government when war broke out in August 1914. Almost from the onset, Schlesinger was active in antiwar circles within the left-wing Vienna SPÖ leadership, and was one of the chief organizers of these dissident groups. Along with Friedrich Adler, the physicist son of Victor Adler, Schlesinger was able to create a viable organization of Marxist internationalists opposed to the official "patriotic" line of the party's leaders. A number of prominent women became active in the antiwar group, including Gabriele Proft, Helene Popper, Isa Strasser, Berta Becker, Marie Bock, Mathilde Eisler , and Anna Ströhmer .

By 1916, Schlesinger was playing a key role in expanding the network of antiwar activists within the Vienna SPÖ. In that same year, she was the founder of an even more activist antiwar circle, the Verein "Karl Marx." Schlesinger supervised the publication of a secret and illegal newsletter for members of the Verein "Karl Marx," which kept them informed of antiwar activities similar to their own that were developing in other warring nations. As Austria-Hungary's people became increasingly weary of the war, the Verein "Karl Marx" increasingly came to the attention of the police, which regarded its antiwar attitudes as subversive if not treasonous. The assassination of the Austrian prime minister, Count Stürgkh, in October 1916 by Schlesinger's close friend Friedrich Adler, brought on harsh government repressive measures. These included suppression of the Verein "Karl Marx," many of whose members were imprisoned. Schlesinger defended Friedrich Adler in public when he was placed on trial for his life in 1917, even though such actions might result in her own imprisonment.

In 1917, she traveled to Stockholm, in neutral Sweden, to represent the antiwar faction of the SPÖ at the third Zimmerwald peace conference of European Social Democratic parties. At this time, she took the radical position that the best way to end the war that was ravaging Europe was to hasten the transformation of the continent's social order. Schlesinger did not approve of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917, and although critical of its leadership, particularly on the issue of the war, remained a loyal member of "her" party, the SPÖ. In 1918, with the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and the creation of a republican regime in Austria, women finally received the vote. Along with six other women, Schlesinger served in 1919–1920 as a member of Austria's constituent National Assembly (Konstituierende Nationalversammlung). From 1920 through 1923, she served as an SPÖ delegate to the new republican National Assembly, and from 1923 until 1930 was a delegate to the upper house of the Austrian Parliament. A number of important pieces of social legislation in the field of women's education can be attributed to her efforts during this period. Public success was however shadowed by a personal tragedy, the death by suicide in 1920 of Schlesinger's only child, her daughter Anna (Dr. Anna Frey ).

Throughout the 1920s, Schlesinger spoke for women within the SPÖ. Her prestige allowed her to raise issues that others could only hint at, including the fact that women continued to play a subordinate role within the party. Sometimes frustrated, she could at times leave the problems of Vienna behind when she, along with her old friend Friedrich Adler, worked—not always with success—to recreate the unity of the world Social Democratic movement through the organization of the Socialist International. After 1918, the Socialist International attempted to embody the ideals of democratic socialism in opposition to the Third International, which had its headquarters in Moscow and proclaimed the ideals of proletarian dictatorship along Leninist (later Stalinist) lines. In 1926, Schlesinger helped to formulate the SPÖ position on women's issues for the so-called Linz Program which was published that same year. During these years, she began to prepare for the day when she would no longer be able to carry on her work, the day she would "pass the torch" to the next generation of women Social Democrats. Among Schlesinger's closest friends and collaborators in this group in Vienna was a young woman of talent and stamina, Käthe Leichter .

The Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933, and the piecemeal but inexorable decay of parliamentary democracy in Austria at the same time, would culminate in the bloody suppression of Austrian Social Democracy in February 1934. By this time, Schlesinger was old and sick, so the Austrian dictatorship did not arrest her. She was still alive when Hitler's forces occupied Austria in March 1938, but now, despite her advanced age and physical frailty, she was in great danger, stigmatized by the Nazi regime as " eine rote Jüdin" (a Red Jewess). Fortunately, Schlesinger was able to secure an exit permit from the Nazi authorities in 1939, fleeing to France, where she entered a sanatorium-nursing home. On June 5, 1940, she died in the small French town of Blois/Loire, at a time when France had already been militarily defeated by Nazi Germany, and less than two weeks before the swastika would fly over occupied Paris. Fortunately, fate had decided that she would die a natural death instead of being murdered in one of the Third Reich's death camps.


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

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Schlesinger, Therese (1863–1940)

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