Give Peace a Chance – Clara Zetkin

This week’s articles shall provide a look back on pacifist actors out of the social democratic sphere. Who have shaped generations, therefore, they will be honored and their virtue described here by the “Graduates of Democracy”, a group of young and enthusiastic future change makers.

The perception and remembrance of historic figures can change over time. The contemporary view of them can be altered by more in-depth knowledge about their actions, e.g. achieved through scientific research, or through the portraying of abridged versions often used for political gain.

Their actual significance can even diminish to an accessoriness. Especially when they are simply used as a gauge for ‘pro or contra’ any political position. As happened with the persona of Clara Zetkin (1885 – 1933), a social democratic politician, anti-fascist, peace activist and woman rights advocate.

The conservative Finance Minister of Saxony (a Federal State of Germany) proposed recently to change the street name of a provincial revenue office, from ‘Clara-Zetkin-Street’ into ‘Orphanage-Street’, as the building appears to historically have been one. The politician of the CDU explained that he deems the name Clara Zetkin, as the taxation location address, “not quite motivating to pay taxes”[1]. However, Georg Unland might be also stimulated by a profound dislike of a communist heroine.

Besides the scorn of the public, it didn’t take long for a proper, although ironic, retaliation from the local Young Socialist Group in nearby Dresden. They were quick to demand a name change also at the Federal Finance Ministry located in the state’s capital at ‘Carolasquare’. Because Carola’s name tag, wife of King Albert of Saxony (1828 – 1902), apparently considered by the JUSOS (german Abbreviation of the Young Socialists) is not very ‘engaging to pay taxes either’. Stefan Engel chairman of the youth organization explains: „There is probably hardly a group in history who paid less taxes than the then ruling royal house.”[2] Consequently, the group not only suggests but has already composed a new street sign and presented to the public. They propose ‘Clara-Zetkin-Square’ for the new address of the Ministry of Finance. Claiming that the name of a democratic elected parliamentarian, antifascist and resistance member shall be a preferable choice.

To get an understanding of this person and which parts of her work are still meaningful for us today, we shall dive into her biography. Her ancestry is already a story of Europe and the migration of its people, of course not uncommon, while these family stories seem too often forgotten or ignored. The father of her mother took part in the French Revolution and served subsequently in the Napoleonic Wars. She personally lived in Leipzig, Zurich, Paris, Stuttgart and Moscow.

Born as Clara Eißner in a village in east Saxony, she was influenced by her educated mother and later by the en vogue socialist thinkers in Leipzig.  At the age of 21 she became a member of, then just three years existing, Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschland (predecessor of the Social Democratic Party Germany, SPD). Active in the far-left wing of the party and keen to keep women’s rights at the forefront of the causes guiding the party, she worked closely with Rosa Luxemburg (1871 – 1919). She was eager to criticize bourgeois feminism, as this one did not focus enough, in her perception, on the emancipation not only from men but also from the dependency on capital.[3]

On the congress oft the Second International 1989 in Paris, she was one of only six female delegates out of the 400 total. Her well acknowledged speech on the „Question of workers- and Women rights in the present” had a tremendous impact on the female emancipation theory. It was a milestone of the explicit inclusion of woman into the socialist movement.

On the first International Conference of Socialists Women, she was elected chairwoman of the International Woman Secretariat. In 1909 at the Second International Socialist Woman Congress she proposed successfully to implement an International Woman’s Day. This day is worldwide known and adhered to, especially after the renewed proclamation through the United Nations General Assembly in 1977. Her action and agitation was also a reason why this day over the years was constantly an occasion to express opposition against discrimination, armament and the War in general and not merely for claiming woman (voting) rights.

While the First World War raged through Europe, she rejected the party’s policy of Burgfrieden (a truce with the government, promising to refrain from any strikes during the war).[4] Against the Party Leaders will she organized in March 1915 a conference of women from all war part-taking countries in Bern. Her consequent agitation to stop the war led to her imprisonment, which was quickly overturned after massive public protest. The constant discontent among leading figures led to a party split and created the Spartacist League, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, which became the German Communist Party (KPD). Mrs. Zetkin followed her close friends and then was engaged more in the communist international movement. Here she became even a member of the executive committee.

1919 she was among the very first female parliamentarians getting elected into parliaments. In the constitutional assembly of Wurttemberg, she held the first speech ever by a woman in front of a German parliament. 1920 to 1933 she was a member of the Reichstag. In the age of 75, as president of seniority, she constituted the last democratic elected parliament of 1932 bearing the NSDAP as the majority party. She warned that the capitalistic social order will soon collapse and fascism will take over if not all democratic forces join the fight against them.[5] A year later she died in exile in Moscow.

To conclude with the name tagging, it is worth it to mention that besides many statutes, streets, parks and women activism related prices in Germany, also the chamber of the party Die Linke (The Left) within the German Bundestag bears her name.

Clara Zetkin sets an example, a life fully devoted to improving the life of disenfranchised members of the working class. Along historic influence exercised onto the politics of woman rights, she showed a clear unalterable standpoint against war. Her peace activism still sets an example of how to believe in communication and exchange among people despite the darkest prospects. Against all odds, she kept on working and promoting her firm beliefs.

Pacifism, a virtue not often publicly endowed by politicians these days, especially in our western liberal democracies. We live in a time where ‘the responsibility to protect’ has unanimously become the justification for the use of lethal force. Governments are killing innocent people along ‘dangerous terrorists’ through drone strikes in Yemen, ‘preventing humanitarian disasters’ by a bombing campaign and subsequently regime change (into chaos) in Libya or if not deemed sufficient to invade or bomb like in Syria, arming rebel groups instead.

However, politicians who bring forward very diplomatic, disengaging policies for international relations are popular among young people though, if we consider Bernie Sanders for an example. Admittedly not such figures on the left and with more or less pacifistic ideals have arisen in Europe. Actually many are either befriending or practice disdain towards foreign powers.


Sebastian Stölting is studying political science at dresden university. He attended the 2016 edition of the School of Democracy.




[3] Marilyn Boxer, “Rethinking the Socialist Construction and International Career of the Concept “Bourgeois Feminism” American Historical Review. Feb2007, Vol. 112 Issue 1, p131-158.

[4] Timeline of Clara Zetkin’s life, at German History Museum



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