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Clara Zetkin

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Clara Zetkin
Clara Zetkin (c. 1920)
Clara Josephine Eißner

5 July 1857
Died20 June 1933 (aged 75)
Arkhangelskoye, near Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Resting placeKremlin Wall Necropolis, Moscow
Other namesKlara Zetkin
Occupation(s)Politician, peace activist and women's rights activist
Political partySPD (until 1917)
USPD (1917–1922; Spartacus wing)
KPD (1920–1933)
Partner(s)Ossip Zetkin [de] (1850–1889)
Georg Friedrich Zundel (1899–1928)
ChildrenMaxim Zetkin (1883–1965)
Konstantin "Kostja" Zetkin (1885–1980)

Clara Zetkin (/ˈzɛtkɪn/; German: [ˈtsɛtkiːn]; née Eißner [ˈaɪsnɐ]; 5 July 1857 – 20 June 1933) was a German Marxist theorist, communist activist, and advocate for women's rights.[1]

Until 1917, she was active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.[2] She then joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and its far-left wing, the Spartacist League, which later became the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). She represented that party in the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic from 1920 to 1933.[3]


Background and education[edit]

Clara Josephine Eißner (Eissner) was born the eldest of three children in Wiederau [de], a peasant village in Saxony that is now part of the municipality of Königshain-Wiederau.[4] Her father, Gottfried Eissner, was a schoolmaster, church organist and a devout Protestant, and her mother, Josephine Vitale, had French roots, came from a middle-class family from Leipzig and was highly educated.[4][5][6] In 1872, her family moved to Leipzig, where she was educated at the Leipzig Teachers’ College for Women. There, she established contacts with the infant Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD; Social Democratic Party).[citation needed]

Zetkin during a congress in Zürich in 1897

Because of the ban placed on socialist activity in Germany by Otto von Bismarck in 1878, Zetkin left for Zürich in 1882 and 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.[1] She also adopted the name of her lover, the Russian-Jewish Ossip Zetkin [de], 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. After the loss of her lover, 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.[7]

Early engagement in Social Democratic Party[edit]

Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg on their way to the SPD Congress in 1910

Her 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, which offered 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 that she occupied for 25 years.[8]

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).[citation needed]

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".[9] 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 in favour of "evolutionary socialism".[10]

Fight for women's rights[edit]

Zetkin was very interested in women's politics, including the fight for equal opportunities and women's suffrage, through socialism. 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).[12][13] In August 1910, an International Women's Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark.[14] Inspired in part by American socialists' actions, Zetkin, Käte Duncker and others proposed that "a special Women's Day" be organized annually, but no date was specified at that conference.[15][12][13] Delegates (100 women from 17 countries) agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote suffrage for women.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] In a speech that she delivered to the Second International in 1889, she stated:

The working women, who aspire to social equality, expect nothing for their emancipation from the bourgeois women’s movement, which allegedly fights for the rights of women. That edifice is built on sand and has no real basis. Working women are absolutely convinced that the question of the emancipation of women is not an isolated question which exists in itself, but part of the great social question. They realize perfectly clear that this question can never be solved in contemporary society, but only after a complete social transformation.[19]

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 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.[20]

She interviewed Vladimir Lenin on "The Women's Question" in 1920.[21]

Opposition to First World War[edit]

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.[8] There, Zetkin spoke:

Who profits from this war? Only a tiny minority in each nation: The manufacturers of rifles and cannons, of armor-plate and torpedo boats, the shipyard owners and the suppliers of the armed forces' needs. In the interests of their profits, they have fanned the hatred among the people, thus contributing to the outbreak of the war. The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them.[8]

Zetkin, along with Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Luise Kähler and other influential SPD politicians, rejected the party's policy of Burgfrieden (a truce between political parties the government and a promise to refrain from strikes during the war).[22] Among other anti-war activities, Zetkin organized an international socialist women's anti-war conference in Berlin in 1915.[23] Because of her anti-war opinions, she was arrested several times during the war and was in 1916 taken into "protective custody" from which she was later released on account of illness.[1]

Joining Communist Party[edit]

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.[1]

In January 1919, after the German Revolution in November of the previous year, the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) was founded. Zetkin also joined it and represented the party from 1920 to 1933 in the Reichstag.[24]

Memorial bust of Clara Zetkin in Dresden

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 her, changed the date of the International Women's Day to 8 March. That has remained the date of the IWD.[19]

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.[25]

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:

The most important immediate task is the formation of a United Front of all workers in order to turn back fascism [..] in order to preserve for the enslaved and exploited, the force and power of their organization as well as to maintain their own physical existence. Before this compelling historical necessity, all inhibiting and dividing political, trade union, religious and ideological opinions must take a back seat. All those who feel themselves threatened, all those who suffer and all those who long for liberation must belong to the United Front against fascism and its representatives in government.[26]

She was a recipient of the Order of Lenin (1932) and the Order of the Red Banner (1927).[7]

Exile and death[edit]

Banknote of the GDR
A plaque commemorating where Clara Zetkin once lived in Jena, Germany

Soon after Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party took power in 1933, the Reichstag fire gave the Nazi government opportunity to outright ban the KPD and other dissenting political parties. 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.[1] Her ashes were placed in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis,[1] 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).[27]

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.[7] A street in Tula, Russia, named for Zetkin (ул. Клары Цеткин) as well as a street in Belgrade, Serbia (ul. Klare Cetkin).[citation needed]


Posthumous honors[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Die Gleichheit had appeared in early 1890 as Die Arbeiterin (The Worker), a successor to the short-lived Die Staatsbürgerin (The Citizenestatic.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2012/7/31/1343750637045/Zetkin-profile-001.jpgss) founded by Gertrud Guillaume-Schack and banned in June 1886. Zetkin renamed the paper Die Gleichheit when she took over.[11]
  1. ^ a b c d e f "Zetkin, Clara * 5.7.1857, † 20.6.1933: Biographische Angaben aus dem Handbuch der Deutschen Kommunisten". Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur: Biographische Datenbanken. Retrieved 15 November 2014.
  2. ^ Clara Zetkin | bpb
  3. ^ Gilbert Badia, Clara Zetkin: Féministe Sans Frontières (Paris: Les Éditions Ouvrières 1993).
  4. ^ a b Young, James D. (1988). Socialism since 1889: a biographical history. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-389-20813-6.
  5. ^ Encyclopedia of World Biography: Vitoria-Zworykin. Gale Research. 1998. pp. 504. ISBN 978-0-7876-2556-6.
  6. ^ Zetkin, Klara; Philip Sheldon Foner (1984). Clara Zetkin, selected writings. International Publishers. pp. 17. ISBN 978-0-7178-0620-1.
  7. ^ a b c Clara Zetkin biography from the University of Leipzig (in German)
  8. ^ a b c Schulte, Elisabeth (7 November 2014). "Clara Zetkin, Socialism and Women's Liberation".
  9. ^ Nettl, J.P. (1966). Rosa Luxemburg. London: Oxford U.P. p. 371.
  10. ^ Clara Zetkin biography, Fembio.org. Accessed 14 October 2022. (in German)]
  11. ^ Mutert 1996, p. 84.
  12. ^ a b Kaplan, Temma (1985). "On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day". Feminist Studies. 11 (1): 163–171. doi:10.2307/3180144. JSTOR 3180144.
  13. ^ a b "History of International Women's Day". United Nations. Retrieved 26 May 2012.
  14. ^ Ruthchild, Rochelle Goldberg (2012). "From West to East: International Women's Day, the First Decade". Aspasia. 6: 1–24. doi:10.3167/asp.2012.060102.
  15. ^ ""International Socialist Congress, 1910; Second International Conference of Socialist Women". p. 21. Retrieved 7 March 2020.
  16. ^ "About International Women's Day". Internationalwomensday.com. 8 March 1917. Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  17. ^ "United Nations page on the background of the IWD". Un.org. Archived from the original on 11 March 2012. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  18. ^ Boxer, M. J. (2007). "Rethinking the Socialist Construction and International Career of the Concept "Bourgeois Feminism"". The American Historical Review. 112: 131–158. doi:10.1086/ahr.112.1.131.
  19. ^ a b Gaido, Daniel; Frencia, Cintia (2018). ""A Clean Break": Clara Zetkin, the Socialist Women's Movement, and Feminism". International Critical Thought. 8 (2): 277–303. doi:10.1080/21598282.2017.1357486. S2CID 158348988.
  20. ^ Holland, Shelly. "The IWD Story". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  21. ^ The interview transcript (in English) is available at The Emancipation of Women: From the Writings of V.I. Lenin, interview with Clara Zetkin, International Publishers, on the Marxist Archives
  22. ^ Heynen, Robert (2015). Degeneration and Revolution. Radical Cultural Politics and the Body in Weimar Germany. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. p. 80. ISBN 978-90-04-27626-0.
  23. ^ Timeline of Clara Zetkin's life, at the Lebendiges Museum Online (LEMO)
  24. ^ Marxist Internet Archive Biography
  25. ^ Drachkovitch, Milorad M.; Lazitch, Branko (1966). The Comintern - Historical Highlights. New York: Frederick A, Praeger. p. 227.
  26. ^ Zetkin, Clara. "Fascism Must Be Defeated". The Socialist Worker.
  27. ^ "Clara Zetkin facts". Your Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2 April 2019. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  28. ^ Clara-Zetkin-Park - Stadt Leipzig


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]