Mathilde Wurm (1874- 1935) was a close friend of Rosa Luxemburg. She was a socialist, feminist and passionate anti-fascist. Through journalism and in the German Reichstag, she campaigned for the rights of women, workers and for democracy. In 1935, she died in exile in London in what was either a desperate suicide or an assassination by Gestapo agents.
Born on 30 September 1874 in Frankfurt-am-Main, Mathilde Adler was the daughter of well-off Jewish parents and received a good education. Her eyes were opened to inequality and poverty when she worked as a social worker in Berlin from 1896. Mathilde joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and around the same time married Emanuel Wurm (1857- 1920), a socialist member of the Reichstag and journalist.
Mathilde Wurm and her husband Emanuel (l) and with fellow socialists, including the Kautskys, Anton Pannekoek and Georg Ledebour in 1907 (r)
Mathilde and Rosa became firm friends, with their friendship continuing after the latter fell out with Mathilde’s husband, Emanuel, politically. In 1906, whilst imprisoned in Warsaw, Rosa wrote to Emanuel and Mathilde thanking them for their help in trying to secure her release- ending her letter ‘… don’t allow yourself to be depressed by anything. The revolution is grand; everything else is rubbish!’
In 1916, Rosa, Mathilde and Sophie Liebknecht (wife of Karl), made a ‘delightful excursion to Lichtenrade’ at Whitsuntide, where Rosa ‘picked the tassels of grain for Karl [Liebknecht] and the marvellous sprig of birch catkins.’ A year later, then in prison, Rosa remembered ‘in the evening we went for another walk through the fields of Sudende, with roses in our hands like the “three noblewomen of Ravenna.” While Rosa languished in prison for her anti-war activities, Mathilde sent her books and letters. Their relationship remained close, although at the end of 1916 Rosa let vent her fury at what she perceived to be Mathilde’s cowardice and weakness in the anti-war struggle:
‘You people do not march; you do not even walk; you creep… Luckily, world history, up until this point, has not been made by people like yourselves.’
‘The world is so beautiful’, she ended the letter after several pages of stormy accusations and rage, ‘even with all its horrors, and it would be even more beautiful if there were no weaklings or cowards. Come, you still get a kiss, because you are a sincere little dear. Happy New Year!’
Mathilde did not take these accusations lying down however. Although her reply does not survive, it is evident from Rosa’s next letter to her. ‘I had to smile: you want to “fight” me. Young lady, I sit tall in the saddle. No one has yet laid me low, and I would be curious to know the one who can do it.’
Despite this apparent falling out, Rosa and Mathilde continued to correspond throughout the war, and their disagreements were soon forgotten. It was to Mathilde that Rosa wrote her oft-quoted lines about Jews in 1917 (after the former sent her a novel by Spinoza):
‘What do you want with this particular suffering of the Jews?… I have no special corner of my heart for reserved for the ghetto: I am at home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds and human tears…’
In April 1918, Rosa gratefully received books from Mathilde, including Goethe, and one on botany from Emanuel. In November, Rosa was released and in less than three months was dead.
Mathilde with K. Krasin in Riga, 1923
Mathilde had joined the Independent Social Democrats (USPD), when they split from the SPD in 1917. In 1920, her husband Emanuel died and she stood in his stead as a USPD candidate in Thuringia, winning a seat in the Reichstag which she held until 1933. Having rejoined the SPD in 1922, Wurm was an active member of the party’s left-wing, particularly in the field of women’s rights and, later, in the anti-fascist movement.
In 1933, following the Nazi seizure of power, Mathilde Wurm fled to Britain via Switzerland, where she was active in the SPD-in-exile and in assisting refugees escaping Nazi Germany. On 1 April 1935, she and her friend Dora Fabian died in their London flat. The official verdict was one of double suicide, but there were strong suspicions at the time that Gestapo agents were responsible.
Sources and further reading:
Rosa Luxemburg, Adler, Hudis and Laschitza (eds.), The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (London & New York: Verso, 2011)
Rosa Luxemburg, S. E. Bronner (ed.), The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (USA: Westview Press, 1978)
Charmian Brinson, The strange case of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm (Berne: Lang, 1996)
All photographs from the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam.