Publication German / European History - Human Rights A Few Good Germans

The little-known German origins of the International League for Human Rights





Jörn Schütrumpf,

[Translate to en:] Deutsche mit Anstand

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948, in the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. Unsurprisingly, the then still harshly totalitarian Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, along with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Saudi Arabia, and Apartheid South Africa abstained from voting. The motivation behind the vote was clear: the German and Japanese crimes against humanity committed during World War II.

Jörn Schütrumpf headed the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Rosa Luxemburg research until his retirement in 2022.

The fight for human rights that began with the founding of the Bund Neues Vaterland immediately after the outbreak of World War I in November 1914 is a largely forgotten chapter in German history. Pre-war pacifists like Kurt von Tepper-Laski and Otto Lehmann-Rußbüldt from the circle of Nobel Peace Prize winner Bertha von Suttner, who died shortly before the war, linked up with Albert Einstein, already a contender for the Nobel Prize in Physics at the time, and younger Social Democrats like Ernst Reuter and Ernst Meyer, the former temporary General Secretary and later Governing Mayor of West Berlin in 1921, the latter Chairman of the KPD in 1921–22. They were also joined by peace-loving bankers and the former anarchist Eduard Fuchs, the “moral fox” who had grown wealthy with his Sittengeschichte, or moral history of Europe. Lilli Jannasch, the daughter of a French woman and a German bank director who shared a role in the general secretariat with Reuter, is one of the few women whose name has survived.

Today, only the left wing of Social Democracy — the so-called Spartacus Group around Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and Karl Liebknecht — is remembered as an anti-war force, if at all. However, the Bund Neues Vaterland, which at times financed the Spartacus Group, was no less dangerous in the eyes of the imperial terror regime and was therefore banned in 1916 — despite or perhaps because of its roots in the educated middle classes. In September 1918, it re-emerged from the underground and developed a wide range of activities.

In 1922, across the still unfilled trenches of World War I, it reached an understanding with the French League for Human Rights, adopted its name, and founded the International League for Human Rights together with Belgian and Austrian human rights activists. They extracted prisoners out of torture cells in Eastern Europe and political prisoners from the USSR, but also took up arms against the German Social Democrats in 1929, who had won the Reichstag elections by opposing an armoured cruiser, but had this very armoured cruiser built by the government.

An incompatibility resolution was then passed: Social Democrats who announced their support for the League for Human Rights were automatically expelled from the party. In addition to those already mentioned, the more prominent members included the publicist Carl von Ossietzky, the writer Kurt Tucholsky, Rosa Luxemburg’s three lawyers Kurt Rosenfeld, Paul Levi, and Siegfried Weinberg, the mathematician Emil Julius Gumbel who uncovered the systematic far-right political assassinations, and many others. Most of them emigrated after the Nazis took power and helped each other abroad until the 1960s. Only Carl von Ossietzky, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936, remained in Germany, where he died of the “consequences of imprisonment”.

In his new book, A Few Good Germans: From the Bund Neues Vaterland to the Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte, author Jörn Schütrumpf tells the history of the two German human rights organizations and their integration into the International League for Human Rights, presents various documents from their work, and provides brief biographies of the most important figures.

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