August Reinsdorf and the Niederwald Plot

(7 FEBRUARY 1885)

7 February is the anniversary of the death of a man who played a huge role in German revolutionary history, August Reinsdorf. In 1885 he was beheaded in Halle for an assassination attempt which had it succeeded, might have had an incalculable impact. 

Many matters relating to the Niederwald plot have yet to be clarified, but what we know of it affords us some sort of a handle on the facts.

When Bismarck passed his “Socialist Law” in 1878, he never suspected that social democracy would emerge victorious from the contest and that in spite of that law and largely because of it, anarchy, which had played an insignificant role up to that point, would make rapid progress in Germany.

Its growth could be gauged by the trial of Broder and his comrades, who were charged with high treason. The trial took place in Leipzig in October 1880. A number of German anarchists and socialists, plus the Belgian Victor Dave (the latter being in touch with Most) found themselves in the dock for distributing revolutionary texts and a number of them were sentenced to severe punishments. 

The trial lifted the lid on the underbelly of the police and organized informing.  Questionable individuals such as the tailor Horsch were putty in the hands of officials, particularly of Rumpf, the superintendent of police in Frankfurt-am-Main when it came to setting traps for honourable men whose only crime was being radically-minded. 

This Rumpf regarded Reinsdorf as the real father of anarchy in Germany and was just looking for an opportunity to lay hands on him.


Friedrich-August Reinsdorf was born on 31 January 1849 into a very simple family in Pegau in Saxony. He attended the people’s school where he stood out for his memory and aptitudes and learnt the type-setter’s trade. Whilst working he toured much of Germany. In addition, he had a very pronounced habit of changing location frequently. He carried on with his studies and had soon built up a decent education, but in the mean-time he had developed a strong hatred of all of the social and political practices in place.  He despised Prussia’s policy of violence and this is what prompted him to reject all military service in 1870 and to move away to Switzerland.

He was very often the speaker at social democratic gatherings. One of his comrades, Emile Werner, won him over to Bakunin’s way of thinking and to propaganda by deed. When the Russian revolutionary died in Berne in 1876, Reinsdorf attended the congress held by Bakunin’s followers.

The following year saw him and Werner setting off for Germany again. Ongoing harassment by the police forced them to change their names often; most often, Reinsdorf went by the name of Steinberg or Bernstein. It was under the latter of these that he turned up in Leipzig, actively spreading anarchist ideas and was soon being identified as an anarchist. At that point he had only a small audience; among it was the unfortunate Hoedel whose outrage [the first of two assassination attempts on the Kaiser in 1878] may attract a very different opinion. 

As a rule, Reinsdorf was treated by the social democrats as an enemy and he was often suspected of being a spy. At that point he was a 20 year-old adolescent of average build, broad shouldered, rather skinny and pale; he had a real gift for public speaking and was a good writer. And enjoyed an extraordinary sway over the young. His satires acutely highlighted all of the shortcomings of established society. Driven by an ardent enthusiasm, he was ready to give his all for the Idea. His love of the people was equalled only by his passionate hatred of the rich and powerful. In his view, only violence offered a better option and he cared so little about the choice of means that it did not matter to him if there were innocent casualties. In short, a real, true-believing rebel.

We know that the social democrats vigorously refuted claims that they had had any hand in the 1878 outrages, whereas Reinsdorf and his comrades openly declared their support for Revolution and for the killing of the king.

Relentlessly tracked by the police, he returned to Switzerland where he had dealings with Johann Most during a brief stay in Fribourg. Most took him on as a contributor to Freiheit which was then being published out of London. 

Reinsdorf penned many articles for that paper, especially regarding the theoretical principles of anarchy. It is unlikely that he briefed Most on his plans, as Most claimed, but he always remained devoted to him. Most’s last effort a reconciliation with the social democratic faction having foundered at the Wyden Congress (in the summer of 1880), he and Hasselmann were thrown out of the party. There was a further violent polemic between Freiheit and the Sozialdemokrat, which was published in Zurich. In that paper, Reinsdorf was also accused of being a spy and his name featured prominently on the social democrats’ blacklist.

Not that he remained in Switzerland for long. A complaint was brought against him for serious assault on a child. He was only too familiar with the partisanship of the courts and opted to quit Switzerland. Shortly after that, he was convicted in his absence to three and a half years in prison, but the authorities in Bavaria refused to extradite him. Which suggested that the trial had been no more than a sham designed to get rid of him. The grievous wrong done to him merely fuelled his hatred and rebelliousness.

Under the name Gfeller, he settled in Berlin and is supposed to have taken it into his head to blow up the Reichstag building along with all its occupants and to assassinate the police officer Von Madai. He was betrayed by the informer Neumann, the very same Neumann that had tricked Most, and was arrested. He was caught in possession of a dagger, but there was nothing to prove that he had been planning an attentat and he was sentenced to a few months in jail for forged papers and breaching the anti-socialist laws.

After serving that sentence and, having been driven out of Berlin in 1881 and, shortly thereafter, out of Leipzig, he frequently changed location, staying in Munich for a time before moving on to France and then to England. No matter where he went, he was harried by the police and in Freiheit sneered at just how much freedom the French Republic afforded him. 

In London he struck up connections with Joseph Peukert. The latter’s role has yet to be clarified fully, but the supposition is that it was keeping company with him that drew the attention of the spies to Reinsdorf. 

After that, his health started to decline and TB made rapid progress in him, but he was determined not to depart this life without first having demonstrated by some deed the extent of his rebellion against society. 

He then made his way back to Germany and under the name John Penzenbach settled in Wuppertal. The working population, determined to prosecute the class struggle with vigour, raised his hopes that he might find the help he needed for his plans.

He found work on the Elberfeld Noticeboard along with his comrade Emile Kuchler who was devoted to him but who was a clumsy fellow of little means. Mockery coming from the Sozialdemokrat, challenging him to act upon his ideas about violence, merely bolstered his determination. He attracted a small following and held talks with them in the home of the weaver Weidenmuller, the shoe-maker Holzhauer and the weaver Palm. Palm was on the pay-roll of police superintendent Gottschalk. There is, therefore, no question but that the police knew about Reinsdorf’s plans prior to their being acted upon. Much has remained unexplained and in this account we can only make passing reference to what has emerged from the controversies.

He procured some dynamite and buried it in the forest, near Weidenmuller’s home. The likelihood is that Reinsdorf’s initial plan was to set off an explosion during the feast of Sedan, but he abandoned that in consideration of all the innocent casualties that might be caused. There are other suggestions that he gave up on a plan to blow up the debating hall in Wiesbaden. He plumped for the major restaurants in Eberfeld and commissioned the weaver Bachmann to do the deed. Carrying a metal canister packed with dynamite, the latter made his way to the Frankfurt Brasserie on 4 September, only to discover that he could not arm his bomb, what with the premises being too full. Bachmann moved on to the Willemsen Casino where there was a physicians’ congress in progress. The explosion succeeded but the only damage was that the wine-waiter was thrown to the floor and a hole left in the flooring. 

That outrage attracted very little attention. Most of the press deemed it merely a huge scandal. 

Bachmann fled to Luxembourg. 


On 8 September Reinsdorf entered the Saint-Joseph hospital regarding a leg injury. He claimed to have tripped whilst crossing the rails but later argued that he had been injured whilst handling explosives. 

During this enforced rest, he conceived of the most daring plan in his life. On 28 September an enormous statue to Germania was due to be unveiled in Niederwald, in the presence of the emperor, the Crown Prince, many princes, Bismarck, etc. Reinsdorf came up with a plan for mounting a dynamite outrage against the statue or the gathering of princes, or both simultaneously. This plan, if it succeeded, would have had incalculable consequences.

Through the good offices of Kuchler, he made contact with the young Franz Rupsch, a young saddler afflicted with high-falutin’ notions and let him in on the plan. Rupsch was all for it and agreed to take charge of the actual implementation of it. He was due to be helped by Kuchler. Such was Reinsdorf’s sway over the pair that the showed no one minute’s hesitation over the plan, even knowing that they were risking the scaffold. 

The details were discussed with a few comrades. Holzhauer got hold of the dynamite. Kuchler procured some mining cable. However, contrary to what Reinsdorf had urged, Kuchler secured only some tarred hemp cord rather than some Rickford cord, all to save 50 centimes. And it was this that would doom the attack to failure.

There is one point not to be overlooked. I refer to Pahn [Palm] who coughed up the 40 marks required for travel costs and who unquestionably received that money from the hands of the police.

The final meeting was held on 25 September. The next day, Kuchler and Rupsch set off for Assmannhauser and then onwards on the 27th to Rudesheim. There, they booked into a tavern, setting the parcel of dynamite on top of a wardrobe and then headed off to Niederwald to reconnoitre the location. Execution of the original plan (planting the dynamite under the monument) proved unfeasible, as work on the plinth was still ongoing. They therefore decided that the bomb ought to target the imperial party. They swiftly chose where to plant it, in a spot where the railway line ran near to a forest; the dynamite charge could be concealed in a ditch. Off they went to collect the parcel and they planted it in the chosen location that same evening. Here it is worth noting just how small the dynamite charge was, in that it could be placed in a ditch; had the explosion gone off successfully, it certainly would not have been enough to blow up the train, but would have shaken it badly, or, at worst, derailed it. Yet Reinsdorf must have briefed his comrades on how much was needed.

The fuse wire was positioned in the ditch running from the track to the edge of the forest; the end of it, near a tree trunk, was then covered up with leaves and dirt and Rupsch carved a mark into a different tree trunk to mark the location. They failed to notice that a fine drizzle had begun to fall; it must have soaked the cable and rendered it, so to speak, unuseable, supposedly. Supposedly, because it would be extraordinary if the police, doubling up on their precautions in these circumstances, had not found anything, especially as they must have been au fait with Reinsdorf’s plans.

Rupsch and Kuchler spent the night in Rudesheim, making their way back to Niederwald on the morning of the 28th, to find everything as it should have been. The train was approaching, Kuchler gave the signal. Rupsch applied his lighted cigar to the fuse wire and … nothing happened. There was no explosion. Loud cheering and a chorus of the national anthem informed them that the emperor had arrived at his destination. 

They were stunned that the fuse had failed to ignite, but had not abandoned hope entirely. When the train was on its way back, they found a dry spot in which to set the fuse alight. It caught fire, but after a few centimetres, it began to sputter. Rupsch then lost heart entirely and rejected Kuchler’s suggestion that they plan a bombing of the Wiesbaden theatre where the emperor was scheduled to attend a gala evening.

A further attack targeting the festival hall in Rudesheim was planned. Curiously enough, the fuse wire that had refuse twice to ignite worked fine. However, the explosion caused very little damage; a partition collapsed, two men were knocked off their feet, a number of glasses and bottles were shattered and the magnificent roast veal was left inedible! That was the full extent of the Niederwald plot. 

Irked, the two friends made their way back to Elberfeld. We can readily imagine the anxiety with which the hospitalized Reinsdorf awaited news of a big outrage and how crestfallen he was on discovering the abject failure.  However he was not at all hard on his comrades when they reported to him. Holzhauer found it hard to accept.

Discharged from hospital on 23 October, Reinsdorf headed for Frankfurt and must have busied himself with further plotting. Among other things, he was credited with an explosion that occurred in a police building in Frankfurt. Oddly enough, no one had been inside the building and the premises were so well insured that the compensation more than covered the costs of the damage, by some margin.

Reinsdorf’s health was deteriorating. At the beginning of that winter he set off for Hamburg, intending to travel abroad. But he was arrested on 11 January 1884, at Rumpf’s instigation.

The police strove in vain to extract a confession from him. Asked “Herr Reinsdorf, what do you have to say about this or that?” he invariably answered: “To you, Herr Reinsdorf has nothing to say.”

But the authorities had grounds enough to make a start on trying him and his comrades.

The police claimed that the matter had only been uncovered due to bragging by close associates and the seizure of a letter from Bachmann. This is entirely unlikely as we should never forget that informers played a crucial role in the entire affair.

Most of Reinsdorf’s associates were rounded up and Bachman was brought back from Luxemburg. Bachmann must have taken complete leave of his senses and made statements. Gottschalk then set nearly all of the accused free on temporary release, in order to have them followed.

Unfortunately, they walked into the trap, meeting up with one another and thereby feeding precious intelligence to the police. Weidenmuller fled to America after making statements. He vanished and in any case the search for him was tokenistic. The others were soon rearrested. Thoughtlessly, Rupsch owned up: he was taken to Niederwald and gave a break-down of the whole plan. Nearly everything that he said tallied with what was apparent on the spot. Among other things that tree marked by a knife was located. To save his own neck, he claimed that he had deliberately thwarted the attack by touching an unlit cigar to the fuse wire.

Gradually the outrage was leaked to the newspaper, especially when Eugene Richter raised the affair in the Reichstag. 

A lot of papers even cast doubt upon the matter and hinted that this was just a straightforward police ploy. True, in the long run there was no denying that Reinsdorf and may of his comrades were genuine rebels and had been looking to this attack making a serious impact.

After rumours spread of an anarchist plot to free the prisoners, they were transferred to Leipzig


Once the prosecution case was ready, trial was scheduled for 15 December and the days thereafter before the Imperial Court. The emotion triggered by the case resulted in a huge demand for admission cards. Journalists were instructed by the foreign press to sit in on the proceedings. Yet the audience was quite small as the strictest precautions were taken, a written threat having reached the authorities in the interim. So tight were those precautions that on 20 December presiding judge Drenkmann had all sorts of problems gaining access, having forgotten to bring his card with him. 

Those in the dock were Reinsdorf, charged with organizing the bombings; Bachmann, charged with carrying out the Casino attack; Kuchler and Rupsch, charged with the attempted bombings in Niederwald and Rudesheim; Holzhauer, charged with aiding, abetting and providing the dynamite; Reinbach, Soehngen and Toellner were charged as accessories.

Reinsdorf admitted to being an anarchist and defended himself bravely and with aplomb, quibbling over his offences as long as the others had not given too much away.

Bachmann took full responsibility for the Willemsen attack but claimed that he had not been aware of the gravity of the matter, as all he had been wanting to do was teach the bourgeois a lesson.  

The most pitiful accused were Kuchler and Rupsch. They admitted to having taken part in the Niederwald plot, but they each claimed to have deliberately frustrated the attack and saved the Kaiser’s life.  Kuchler claimed that he had purposely bought faulty fuse wire and planted the dynamite in a ditch. Rupsch claimed that he had extinguished his cigar before touching it to the fuse wire and cutting that wire. His claims were plausible, whereas Kuchler frequently tripped himself up.

Reinsdorf did his best to shift the blame from them. With a degree of contempt, he stated: “Such was the human material one had to work with!”

He also underlined Rupsch’s stupidity, raising his hands to his head.

Reinbach, Soehngen and Toellner faced only minor charges. They had been present at meetings, but seemed not to have greatly appreciated the decisions that were arrived at. Toellner even claimed that at the main meeting, he had been completely drunk. The informer, Palm, played a most sordid role in the affair. Questioned as to the 40 marks, he admitted that these had been handed to him by a certain Hoehse but refused to disclose the latter’s whereabouts. In addition, he regularly availed of his option of declining to answer; from which it might be argued that none of the accused had as much on their consciences as he had on his.

Gottschalk proved to be very well versed in every aspect of the affair and alluded on several occasions to confidential messages emanating from sources he was unable to name. 

As the list of charges met the requirements, the prosecutor-general was able to ask for the death penalty for Reinsdorf, Rupsch and Kuchler and the harshest penalties for the rest, excepting Toellner.

Reinsdorf’s defence counsel, counsellor Fenner went to great lengths in defending his client. Among other things he spoke of Reinsdorf’s dubious health, which meant that he was not long for this life. But Reinsdorf refused to hear tell of clemency and proudly insisted upon a martyr’s death. He thanked his counsel for his efforts and shouted: “Had I ten heads, I would gladly give them all for the sake of anarchy”. 

On 22 December Reinsdorf, Kuchler and Rupsch were sentenced to death, Hozhauer to 15 years in prison, Bachmann to 10 years. Reinbach, Soehngen and Toellner were acquitted. Reinsdorf did not react. Kuchler fainted and Rupsch broke down in tears. The men acquitted shook hands with the convicted men who were immediately transferred to Halle. Kuchler and Rupsch put in appeals but Reinsdorf steadfastly refused to do so and begged his counsel in a very dignified letter not to make any such effort.

Before the Kaiser’s final decision was reached, news broke of a serious attentat. On the night of 14 January 1885, Rumpf was discovered in his home in Frankfurt-am-Main with a dagger through his heart. It was assumed that this was the anarchists taking revenge. The fact is that serious journalists cautioned against over-hasty conclusions, hinting that the assassin might have come from certain circles that had always looked upon Rumpf as an enemy. In Freiheit (which by then was being published in America), Johann Most took exception to this and loudly claimed the killing as the work of anarchists. Thereby unintentionally pointing the police in the direction of the anarchists. In the end, they arrested a young anarchist, the shoe-maker Lieske from Bockenheim.
It is unlikely that Reinsdorf ever heard about the murder of Rumpf, but, if he did, it must have greatly gratified him. 

Reinsdorf waited serenely for death.

The assumption had been that the Kaiser would endorse all three death sentences, but Wilhelm I exercised his right of clemency in the case of Rupsch, most likely on account of his being very young, but sentenced him to life imprisonment. When informed of this decision, Rupsch, far from rejoicing, descended into despair and begged to be released. Kuchler’s courage deserted him and he accepted spiritual counsel. Only Reinsdorf held firm. He wrote a long and genuinely touching letter to his brother, Bruno, begging him not to mourn for him but to devote himself to their parents and siblings and keep them away from vulgar pleasures. 

The following morning, the gallows were erected. Reinsdorf was quietly sleeping and to the very end he retained his full composure. He ate a hearty breakfast and drank some wine then strode firmly towards the gallows. When handed over the executioner’s assistants, he called out loudly: “Down with barbarism! Long live anarchy!” After which the axe glinted and it was all over.

Kuchler, breaking down completely, kept struggling and resisted right up until the final blow fell.

Two of the victims of this affair came to tragic ends. On 19 September 1885, Holzhauer was found hanged in his cell.

Lieske was hauled before the court in Frankfurt-am-Main, charged with the killing of Rumpf. He denied everything and the only evidence against him was relatively flimsy. He was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed in Wehlsheiden near Cassel on 17 November, protesting his innocence to the end.

It ought to be mentioned that prosecutor-general Frehse, who secured that death sentence, died a few years later, a madman.

Of the 1884 convicted, Bachmann served out his sentence. Rupsch is still [1931] in prison.

Palm, by contrast, soon found himself a well paid position as a prison guard in Brausweiler and is currently employed by the Cologne garrison administration. His name came up in connection with the Ziethen murder affair. Persons handling that murder enquiry asked that Palm be required to explain the role he had played in 1883 in Gottschalk’s employment, so that Gottschalk’s scheming could be cleared up. Unfortunately, this was all in vain, which provides grounds for all manner of hypotheses.

The story of August Reinsdorf and the Niederwald plot is rich in a variety of lessons.

From: Le Réveil (Geneva), 7 February 1931, 21 February 1931 7 March 1931. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.