Käthe Leichter (1895 – 1942)

On August 20, 125 years ago, Käthe Leichter was born, a Social Democrat, leftist radical, social scientist, trade unionist, women’s politician, Austro-Marxist and revolutionary socialist. In March 1942 she was murdered by National Socialists at the Bernburg extermination centre.

Born as Marianne Katharina Pick into a wealthy and liberal Jewish family in Vienna, she decided against all odds, as one of the first women to study political sciences at the University of Vienna. Among the intellectual inspirations informing her in those years, there are two standing out: like with many Austro-Marxists her intellectual road led her to and through the studies of the Viennese School of National Economics, the probably most intriguing attempt by the bourgeoisie of her days of confronting Marxist political economics with a coherent system of economics; secondly, Carl Grünberg, who later founded and headed the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, opened the path for Leichter to Karl Marx’s sociology and historical philosophy based on development theory.  

In autumn 1917, Käthe Leichter enrolled at Heidelberg University, since women were not allowed to graduate at the University of Vienna, and completed with distinction her PhD-thesis with Max Weber.  

While still a student, she worked as a governess in a proletarian neighbourhood of Döbling, Vienna’s 19th district, during World War I, thus being sharply confronted with the misery of children and working-class people. Her alienation from the bourgeois women’s movement was followed by her feeling increasingly attracted to the Social Democratic workers’ movement.

The major strike of the working class in January 1918 saw her in the lines of the Leftist Radicals who stood in opposition to the party executive body. In the revolutionary movement emerging after the collapse of the Habsburg empire, Käthe Leichter joined forces with the movement for soviet-style republics, where she also met her future husband, the well-known socialist journalist Otto Leichter.

In April 1919 Otto Bauer appointed her research associate at the State Commission for Socialisation. After the far-reaching plans of the Social Democrats to socialise entire sectors of the economy failed in 1919 and the party was voted out of government one year later, Käthe Leichter lost her work at the Commission for Socialisation. Subsequently, she took up work at the Viennese Workers’ Chamber, where she began building the recently formed Women’s Department. Only one year later her research paper entitled Wie leben die Wiener Hausgehilfinnen? [How Do Domestic Workers in Vienna Live?] was published, followed in autumn 1928 by her study Wie leben die Wiener Heimarbeiter? [How Do Homeworkers in Vienna Live? An Examination of the Working and Living Conditions of One Thousand Viennese Homeworkers]. In May 1930, Handbuch der Frauenarbeit [Handbook on Women’ Work] was published, a study comprising 700 pages and compiled by a collective of prominent female researchers headed by Käthe Leichter. Eventually, in 1932, the study on the living conditions of female factory workers, based on interviews with 1,320 women and entitled So leben wir [That is How We Live], was published.

In the beginning of the 1930s, Käthe Leichter was again speaking for the left wing of the party. Long before the party leadership, she saw the catastrophe looming for the Austrian Social Democracy. As early as the party congress of 1931 she demanded the tactics of the past years to be subjected to a critical revision in order to prevent “the economic crisis turning into a crisis of confidence in the party”. During the party congress of 1932, she noted that “only the politics, the conscious power politics that is prepared to apply all weapons, including revolutionary means of struggle, will be able to secure the battle grounds for democracy.”         

After the Austro-fascist coup d’état in February 1934, Käthe Leichter actively involved herself with the illegal socialist movement and joined the Revolutionary Socialists, where she took responsibility for the political education of the members.

In the first weeks after the annexation of Austria in March 1938, with 70,000 Austrians being imprisoned by the Gestapo, a further stay in the country for Käthe Leichter, a Jewish revolutionary socialist and prominent intellectual, was life-endangering. Through a traitor in her closest circle of friends, the Gestapo was informed about each of her steps. Otto Leichter and the two sons Heinz and Franz were able to flee to the USA. Käthe Leichter, feeling responsible for her mother who lived in Vienna, hesitated and postponed her departure which finally led to her being arrested by the Gestapo on May 30, 1938. After two years in prison, she was deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, in spite of numerous international interventions. In March 1942, she was murdered at the Bernburg extermination centre, together with 1,500 fellow inmates. The Nazi-myrmidons stated her day of death as March 17.

The Communist historian Herbert Steiner, who presented a book about Käthe Leichter in 1973, writes at the beginning of his biography of her, “Historical comparisons are always daring undertakings and justly exposed to criticism. The biography of Rosa Luxemburg, one of the most outstanding women in the international workers’ movement, shows similarities [to Leichter’s] so that one succumbs to the temptation to remember it.”    

Recommended literature on Käthe Leichter:

Steiner, Herbert (ed.): Käthe Leichter. Leben und Werk [Käthe Leichter. Life and Work], Wien: Europaverlag 1973

Hauch, Gabriella: Käthe Leichter, geb. Pick (1895-1942). Spuren eines Frauenlebens [Käthe Leichter, née Pick (1895-1942). Traces of a Woman’s Life], in: Hauch, Gabriella: Frauen bewegen Politik. Österreich 1848–1938 [Women Move Politics. Austria 1848-1938]. Innsbruck, Wien, Bozen: Studien-Verlag 2009 (Studien zur Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung, Bd. 10) [Studies in Women‘s and Gender Research], pp. 225-247

Duma, Veronika: Engagierte Wissenschaft. Die Sozialwissenschafterin Käthe Leichter [Commitment in Research. The Social Scientist Käthe Leichter], in: Kranebitter, Andreas/Reinprecht, Christoph (eds.): Die Soziologie und der Nationalsozialismus in Österreich. [Sociology and National Socialism in Austria] Bielefeld: transcript Verlag 2019, pp. 328–342