Clara Josephine Eißner
5 July 1857
|Died||20 June 1933 (aged 75)|
|Other names||Klara Zetkin|
|Occupation||Politician, peace activist and women's rights activist|
|Political party||SPD (until 1917)|
USPD (1917-1922; Spartacus wing)
|Ossip Zetkin (1850-1889)|
Georg Friedrich Zundel (1899-1928)
|Children||Maxim Zetkin (1883-1965)|
Konstantin "Kostja" Zetkin (1885-1980)
Until 1917, she was active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. She then joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and its far-left wing, the Spartacist League. This later became the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which she represented in the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic from 1920 to 1933.
Clara Zetkin was born Clara Josephine Eissner as the eldest of three children in Wiederau, a peasant village in Saxony, now part of the municipality Königshain-Wiederau. Her father, Gottfried Eissner, was a schoolmaster, church organist and a devout Protestant, while her mother, Josephine Vitale, had French roots, came from a middle-class family from Leipzig and was highly educated. In 1872, her family moved to Leipzig, where she was educated at the Leipzig Teachers' College for Women. While in school she established contacts with the infant Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD; Social Democratic Party).
Because of the ban placed on socialist activity in Germany by Bismarck in 1878, Zetkin left for Zurich in 1882 then went into exile in Paris, where she studied to be a journalist and a translator. During her time in Paris she played an important role in the foundation of the Socialist International group. She also adopted the name of her lover, the Russian-Jewish Ossip Zetkin, a devoted Marxist, with whom she had two sons, Maxim and Konstantin (known as Kostja). Ossip Zetkin became severely ill in early 1889 and died in June of that year. Following the loss of her husband, Zetkin moved to Stuttgart with her children. She was married to artist Georg Friedrich Zundel, who was eighteen years her junior, from 1899 to 1928.
Clara Zetkin's political career began after being introduced to Ossip Zetkin, whom she later married. Within a few months of attending and taking part in socialist meetings, Zetkin became entirely committed to the party, offering a Marxist approach to the demand for women's liberation. Around the time of 1880, due to the political climate in Germany, Zetkin went into exile in Switzerland and later in France. Upon her return to Germany, nearly a decade later, she became the editor of the Social Democratic Party of Germany's newspaper for women, Die Gleichheit (Equality), a post she occupied for twenty-five years.
Having studied to become a teacher, Zetkin developed connections with the women's movement and the labour movement in Germany from 1874. In 1878 she joined the Socialist Workers' Party (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei, SAP). This party had been founded in 1875 by merging two previous parties: the ADAV formed by Ferdinand Lassalle and the SDAP of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. In 1890 its name was changed to its modern version Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
Around 1898, Zetkin formed a friendship with the younger Rosa Luxemburg that lasted 20 years. Despite Luxemburg's indifference to the women's movement, which absorbed so much of Zetkin's energies, they became firm political allies on the far left of the SDP. Luxemburg once suggested that their joint epitaph would be "Here lie the last two men of German Social Democracy." In the debate on Revisionism at the turn of the 20th century they jointly attacked the reformist theses of Eduard Bernstein, who had rejected the ideology of a revolutionary change, towards "revolutionary socialism".
Zetkin was very interested in women's politics, including the fight for equal opportunities and women's suffrage, through a socialist means. She helped to develop the social-democratic women's movement in Germany; from 1891 to 1917 she edited the SPD women's newspaper Die Gleichheit[a] (Equality). In 1907 she became the leader of the newly founded "Women's Office" at the SPD. She also contributed to International Women's Day (IWD). In August 1910, an International Women's Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark. Inspired in part by American socialists' actions, Zetkin, Käte Duncker and others proposed that "a special Women's Day" be organized annually, although no date was specified at that conference. Delegates (100 women from 17 countries) agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote equal rights including suffrage for women. The following year on 19 March 1911, IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland.
However, Zetkin was deeply opposed to the concept of "bourgeois feminism," which she claimed was a tool to divide the unity of the working classes. In a speech she delivered to the Second International in 1889 she stated:
She viewed the feminist movement as being primarily composed of upper-class and middle-class women who had their own class interests in mind, which were incompatible with the interests of working-class women. Thus, feminism and the socialist fight for women's rights were incompatible. In her mind, socialism was the only way to truly end the oppression of women. One of her primary goals was to get women out of the house and into work so that they could participate in trade unions and other workers rights organizations in order to improve conditions for themselves. While she argued that the socialist movement should fight to achieve reforms that would lessen female oppression, she was convinced that such reforms could only prevail if they were embedded into a general move towards socialism; otherwise, they could easily be eradicated by future legislation.
During the period of the First World War, at the international women's peace conference in Switzerland, activists, revolutionaries, and supporters gathered to confront the concern for unity among workers across the battle lines. There, Zetkin spoke:
Around that time Zetkin, along with Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Luise Kähler and other influential SPD politicians, rejected the party's policy of Burgfrieden (a truce with the government, promising to refrain from any strikes during the war). Among other anti-war activities, Zetkin organized an international socialist women's anti-war conference in Berlin in 1915. Because of her anti-war opinions, she was arrested several times during the war, and in 1916 taken into "protective custody" (from which she was later released on account of illness).
In 1916 Zetkin was one of the co-founders of the Spartacist League and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) which had split off in 1917 from its mother party, the SPD, in protest at its pro-war stance.
In January 1919, after the German Revolution in November of the previous year, the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) was founded; Zetkin also joined this and represented the party from 1920 to 1933 in the Reichstag. She and Paul Levi were the first communists to enter the Reichstag.
Until 1924 Zetkin was a member of the KPD's central office; from 1927 to 1929 she was a member of the party's central committee. She was also a member of the executive committee of the Communist International (Comintern) from 1921 to 1933. She also presided over an international secretariat for women, which was created by the Communist International in October 1920. In June 1921, the Second International Conference of Communist Women, which was held in Moscow and was chaired by Clara Zetkin changed the date of the International Women's Day to 8 March. This remains the date of the IWD until today. In 1925 she was elected president of the German left-wing solidarity organisation Rote Hilfe.
In summer 1922, Zetkin was part of the prosecution team during the Trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries in Moscow, but at other times, she was critical of Moscow's influence over the German Communist Party, within which she was part of the right wing. She was removed from the Central Committee of the KPD when the left, led by Ruth Fischer took control. She opposed a policy decision made in Moscow in 1928 to get communist trade unions in Germany to split from the main, socialist dominated federation and form the rival Rote Gewerkschaftsbund. When Joseph Stalin put this to the executive of Comintern, in December 1928, Zetkin was one of only three members of the executive to vote against. The other two, Angelo Tasca and Jules Humbert-Droz), were publicly humiliated the following year, but Zetkin retained her position as a member of the executive, and the Praesidium of Comintern.
In August 1932, despite having recently fallen gravely ill in Moscow, she returned to Berlin to preside over the opening of the newly elected Reichstag, as its oldest deputy. She used her opening address to call for workers to unite in the struggle against fascism, stating:
When Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party took over power, the Communist Party of Germany was banned, following the Reichstag fire in 1933. Zetkin went into exile for the last time, this time to the Soviet Union. She died there, at Arkhangelskoye, near Moscow, in 1933, aged nearly 76. Her ashes were placed in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, by the Moscow Kremlin Wall, near the Red Square. The funeral was attended by leading communists from all over Europe, including Joseph Stalin and Nadezhda Krupskaya (Lenin's widow).
After 1949, Zetkin became a much-celebrated heroine in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and every major city had a street named after her. Her name can still be found on the maps of the former lands of the GDR.