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Kautsky archives reunited

In 1938, the Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky and his wife Luise deposited their enormous archive at the IISH. It survived the war sheltered in the institute's British section. In the fifties, when the papers were sorted and described, they were filed in two separate categories: a Kautsky archive and a Kautsky family archive. Despite their obvious relationship, the two collections have been leading separate lives under these different headings. These collections have now been reunited electronically via a hyperlink on the Web that contains a description for each of the archives.

The Kautskys were aware of the importance of these documents when they were alive, and made a habit of preserving any piece of paper that came to their attention, no matter if it was a one-line postcard, a visiting card, or a huge correspondence file. Not only their own manuscripts and fragmentary texts were added to their ever-growing archive, but those of family members and other important acquaintances as well. And all was packed and transported throughout their moves through Europe. Several members of the family wrote their personal memoirs at different stages of their lives. When Karl was writing his own memoir, he explicitly asked himself what later generations would think of him (Kautsky-FA no. 2137).

Thanks to their passion for preservation, the Kautskys have left an archive that now holds about 15,000 letters sent by 3,000 people, books of letters with copies of the Kautskys own letters, manuscripts of published and unpublished texts, and many files of family members. A beautiful collection of photographs from the early years of photography until ca. 1940 accompanies the archive. It can be consulted in the IISH online catalogue (search 'Kautsky' under special collections).

As a result of the present compilation of archives, the history of the Kautsky clan and the role of Luise Kautsky-Ronsperger, Kautsky's second wife, emerge very prominently. This extended family of nineteenth-century German-Austrian-Czech background, with its many talented scions and ramifications all over the world, deserves the attention of historians. Up to now the focus has been on Karl Kautsky as a socialist theoretician. Prominent among the papers of family members are the diaries of Karl's mother Minna Kautsky-Jaich, a novelist who was very popular in her time.

Minna Jaich (1837-1912) was born in Graz but spent her youth in Prague, and at the age of fourteen started a career as an actress. Her early marriage with the Czech ornamental painter Johann Kautsky and the consequent birth of four children, "disturbed this career," as she put it. Minna quite often suffered from disease, but she used her time in bed efficiently by studying and reading with the children. In 1870 her first publication Moderne Frauen (Modern women) appeared. Recurring themes in her novels were the liberation of mankind through socialism and the emancipation of women. Her figures of speech and writing techniques were often in the style of potboiler novels, but her heroes were proletarians. She wrote drama as well, but they were not very successful.

She was particularly fond of her eldest son Karl, who admired her. She advised him on everything, including love and women. His first marriage with Louise Strasser ended in 1889 with a divorce. Louise became Friedrich Engels' housekeeper, which led to a temporary distance between Kautsky and Engels. In 1890 Kautsky remarried Luise Ronsperger, his mother's friend.

Luise Ronsperger (1864-1944) worked as a manager in a Viennese Konditorei (pastry shop) owned by her parents. She was a friend of Minna Kautsky. After her marriage to Karl in 1890 she became his collaborator as well; in addition, she was a publicist, translator, editor, and archivist and last but not least, the mother of three sons. She published in the feminist periodical Gleichheit from Clara Zetkin and translated the work of Marx, Engels, and others. She conducted her own political correspondence, and at times took care of her husband's correspondence as well. Her close friendship with Rosa Luxemburg began around 1900 and survived the political separation between Luxemburg and Kautsky. After Rosa Luxemburg's death, Luise edited her letters and later published a memorial volume.

The Kautskys were truly internationalist in their way of living and orientation. At home and in their correspondence they led a "salon" with visitors from all over the world. By the end of the nineteenth century Kautsky was regarded as an authority on the strategy and tactics of social democracy. Socialists from all countries asked him how to proceed. They addressed him with boundless respect and great emotional involvement, calling him "Verehrtester Meister!" "Genosse und Lehrer" in their letters. Kautsky always responded to these queries and wrote back. As editor of his theoretical monthly, Die Neue Zeit, Kautsky dispatched about a thousand letters a year. Part of Karl and Luise's correspondence is printed and annotated in a series of source editions.

In 1917 Kautsky ended his work for Die Neue Zeit, the platform of the European socialist intelligentsia he had established in 1883. He published Die materialistische Geschichtsauffassung (1927) and Sozialisten und Krieg (1937) among other monographs and started to write his memoirs, but only got as far as 1883. Forced to move by the Anschluss of Austria, the Kautskys left Vienna for Amsterdam in March 1938. There, shortly after his 84th birthday, Karl died in his sleep on October 17, 1938. Luise arranged the transfer of the archive to the then three-year-old IISH. Born as a Jew, she did not escape deportation despite her marriage to a non-Jew. She died in Auschwitz on December 8, 1944.

Biographical data in:

  • Dick Geary, Karl Kautsky (Manchester 1987)
  • Till Schelz-Brandenburg, Eduard Bernstein und Karl Kautsky: Entstehung und Wandlung des sozialdemokratischen Parteimarxismus im Spiegel ihrer Korrespondenz 1879 bis 1932 (Köln [etc.] 1992)
  • Marxismus und Demokratie. Karl Kautskys Bedeutung in der sozialistischen Arbeiterbewegung, Jürgen Rojahn, Till Schelz, Hans-Josef Steinberg (Hg) (Frankfurt, New York 1992), Quellen und Studien zur Sozialgeschichte, Bd. 9

Text: Margreet Schrevel