Doris Ensinger (1944–2020)

Doris Ensinger (1944–2020)

Doris Ensinger was born in Germany during the Second World War. While still young she rebelled against an education based on the old values of a corseted post-war society and this set the pattern for her life.

Her younger days were marked by a committed student activism. And her campaign on behalf of historical memory and human rights led to her familiarizing herself with the reality of the Portuguese and Spanish dictatorships as well as with some people like herself who were out to help build a fairer society.

Her life with Luis Andrés Edo fills the second part of her biography: as a veteran activist in the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist CNT, Luis shared his life and his experiences with Doris, without ever forgetting his principles and political struggle.

“I’m not one of those heroic women who doggedly threw themselves into the fight against tyranny and for a fairer, more humane society and who gambled their lives in doing so; nor am I one of those women who earn their place in history through their lives and achievements. However, the example of so many courageous women prompted me to make some modest contribution of my own to the fight for a better world.

What is special about my life is that one day I met a man whose name was well-known at the time due to his active struggle against Franco’s rule, not merely in Spain but abroad too. I eventually fell in love with that man and had the incomparable good fortune to live by Luis Andrés Edo’s side for thirty years.”


Doris, please say something about how you came to, shall we say, embrace and adopt libertarian beliefs …

It was a very long journey with various factors in play, like my innate rebelliousness (I’m a Scorpio!). Later, the restorationist-authoritarian society of Adenauer’s times with its rules and conventions and norms prompted me to resist and feel outraged. Later still and more thoughtfully, I was politicized during my time at university which coincided with the student rebellion. Most of the students leaned towards Marxist thinking, but I had always been attracted to the maverick, the un-dogmatic, as it was called back then as the term ‘libertarian’ was not much used and anarchism had been falsely associated with violence and terrorism. Above all, it was learning about the social revolution and the CNT that drew me to them.

Since you were born in Germany towards the end of the Second World War, what had you been told about those times and the zone you lived in and how did your people come through the conflict?

The talk in my family about the war years and what followed them related to the same sort of traumas that everybody who has been through a war talks about: separation from family, uncertainty about the situation, my mother and brothers had been evacuated to the countryside, well away from the air raids whereas other families stayed in the city and went through the increasingly horrific air raids. My grandfather’s home was destroyed, my mother’s two brothers perished at the front, other very dear people such as my mother’s best girlfriend were lost and then there was the awful poverty, the hunger, the cold, the scarcity of everything.

And then, at the age of four, you left the soviet-occupied zone behind … tell us how that decision came about and how you managed it. I can’t even imagine it but it must have been tough … It cannot have been easy living under the gaze of the soviets during those first post-war years?

We were living in Magdeburg which fell within the soviet zone as agreed in the Potsdam agreement. The German army had carried out Hitler’s “scorched earth” policy in the Soviet Union as it retreated westwards. They had destroyed the cities, all of the industries, the countryside, not to mention killing upwards of 20 million civilians. In order to rebuild after 1945, the USSR insisted not only on dismantling the factories and claiming the reparations agreed at Potsdam (in the soviet zone and later in the GDR this was carried out to the letter, leaving that part of Germany bereft of means of production for years), they also commandeered specialists for the rebuilding of their own country. And went around looking for such people for several years. My father, being an engineer, was at risk of being transported to the USSR and one day – August 1947 this was – he headed south into the French zone where his parents lived. Of course it was not as simple as just catching a train and moving around because he needed a visa which was essential if he wanted to relocate to a different zone He came back to collect the rest of the family a year later to bring them south. In the summer of 1948 quitting the soviet zone was a very risky business as the Allies had embarked on the Cold War and the borders were closely monitored. So we walked by night along a forested path with a guide, a proper escape. I cannot recall any “visits” by Russian troops, but my mother use to talk about that, about the knock on the door and how scared she was.

So you were aware of your surroundings and that you were moving south as internal political migrants?

As the Russian army pressed westwards, during the latter months of 1944, a lot of people fled from the easternmost parts of Germany like East Prussia. Later, due to the Potsdam agreement, millions were driven out of Silesia, Pomerania, East Prussia and other territories once inhabited by Germans. Thus we in Germany have always used the terms “refugees” and “expellees” and back then there was never any talk of “internal migration”, although the upshot was the same; first, you lost your family home and surroundings, then you had to abandon just about everything, then arrive in a different area of the country to be looked upon as an outsider, the Other, somebody different, despite all you might have in common, like the history of the country, certain customs, the language … You had to get used to new surroundings which were often quite hostile, where newcomers were not welcomed with open arms, but looked at askance and shunned, because assimilating those 12 million displaced Germans meant having to share what little there was. I do not recall any discrimination, being too young at the time, but my parents often faced it and so did my brother at high-school; and this despite the fact, for instance, that our surname was plainly from the area in which we had fetched up. What made assimilation easier was that we went to live with my paternal grandparents. My parents knew the region well already and had in fact wanted to live there, far away from the debris and from a society reduced to rubble by air raids and various threats in the soviet zone.

So, prior to going to university, where did you spend your childhood and what do you remember of it?

Up until 1964 when I began studying at university, I was living not far from Stuttgart in an area known as Swabia. Up until I turned twelve, I lived surrounded by forests and meadows, idyllic countryside, spending a lot of time in natural surroundings, which made up for certain shortages at the time. I felt very free and I remember my childhood as a happy one.

So off you went to the university in Saarbrucken, to study translation. I’ve always wondered what make people choose their field of study, callings that in the end they carry through their lives … I feel a bit uneasy about their decision-making and its timing. Can you explain to us?

I had no clear inclination or desire to pursue a specific profession, unlike many other youngsters who know from a very early age what they want to be and in the end get their way. I was absolutely clear about wanting nothing to do with schools and teaching, having seen the poor example set by my own teachers. Since I had a fondness for languages, translation was one option. Years later I pursued my interests, my interest in history, say. I have long thought that having to pick a career at the age of 16 or 18 is too early. Young people should get the chance to discover the world and find out what really suits them. These days, especially, there are very heavy pressures brought to bear by society. Everything has to be done in record time. Jacking in a career, for instance, after finding it not to your liking or that it does not live up to expectations is associated with failure when it is very often a very healthy and liberating decision.

I’ve asked you this before, but let us go a little deeper into University which is where you first came into contact with libertarian ideas … What drew you to those ideas? What was it in anarchism that when you identify with it and, as you put it, lived it for the first time, it feels familiar … like something innate?

I wish I could go back in time to the 1960s and relive them and thereby provide you with a detailed answer to those questions because in my mind there is something akin to black holes and foggy areas regarding those times. I can explain why I was not drawn to the left-wing groups or parties with their vertical top-down structures: I would have had to join, play second fiddle to the notion of the leader, whether described as chairman, general secretary or Great Helmsman. Maybe there actually is something innate or intuitive in my being drawn to libertarian ideas. Besides there were other clear influences at work: those were the years of anti-authoritarianism, of questioning people and questioning the authorities which back then were exclusively male and who were in positions of control and that applied equally to the university context – who were our lecturers and above all what was their past record? – as well as to politics and public life generally. I have never had any tolerance for injustice, my own or anybody else’s and the fight for social justice is an essential part of anarchism. There was also the gradually emerging desire to step away from a petit-bourgeois setting, the traditional family, isolation and live a collective life and have a shared purpose and create something as part of a team and live in harmony, free of the never-ending competition and dog-eat-dog.

And how did your life go after that, because you were very active in Munich in anarchist movement circles …?

Before moving to Munich, I spent two years in Malaga, when Francoism was in its heyday and one had to take appropriate precautions and there were certain things you could not say. At the time, there were protests and actions in some parts of Spain but the dictatorship carried on with its repression and every hint of insurgency or freedom was harshly crushed. There was something important missing in my life: the ability to live in accordance with my beliefs and to engage in political activity. There were remarkable social changes happening in Germany at the time, which is why I went back. The social movements of the 1970s focused on a range of areas, from the world of work and immigration to cultural activities, not forgetting ecology, the prisons, the campaign for decent housing, etc. All of these groups had a clear purpose: changing capitalist society – which is unfair in terms of exploitation of the individual, consumerism and alienation – and conjuring up a new society, with different relations between people and other more humane practices. My Munich friends were very active in a range of groups or collectives and I could see my future inside and alongside that alternative movement.

But Germany back then was anything but tolerant of certain movements that stepped outside of the conventional …

Germany was anything but tolerant, and neither were other countries. We were in the Cold War and the enemy was the communists and the radical left. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the hunt was still on for the “Bolshevik foe” against whom Hitler (and Franco with his “crusade”) had fought. It is interesting and it says a lot about German society and German politicians that their gaze was always focused on the left rather than on the parties and groups of the far right, then as well as more recently. Had the stance on ex-Nazis and neo-Nazis been convincing, had there not been indulgence towards and a measure of justification of Nazi crimes and the ensuing silence, the clash between the two generations, between the perpetrators and their children, might not have been so stark and might not have entailed the consequences it actually did.

I remember, for instance, that even though you steered clear of the ‘Baader-Meinhof Gang’ – I know you had nothing to do with it – something needs saying about what it was undermined the stability that was being taken so much for granted. What can you tell us about that?

The mortar and all the walls came tumbling down with the famous trials mounted against the perpetrators of the crimes against the Jews, like the Eichmann trial, and the trials of Auschwitz camp personnel. More than fifteen years of silence on the authentic nature of Hitler’s regime was breached and a gulf appeared between the generation of perpetrators/parents and their children, as I have said. There were some very conscious and sensitive youngsters around – (Ulrike Meinhof for one; she had become politicized in the 1950s out of opposition to the re-armament of the FRG and the anti-bomb protests. Or Gudrun Ensslin, who began her fight against injustice and authoritarian society in the first half of the 1960s). The trigger in the radicalization and what tilted several people in the direction of violent methods was plainly the conduct of the police against demonstrators, especially in West Berlin. They looked upon the radical student as the enemy that they had to hunt down and eliminate. Their vocabulary was fascist and they employed the same sort of talk– ‘eradicate’, ‘annihilate’ and ‘exterminate’ – as had been used against the Jews and other enemies: and then came the murder of a student on 2 June 1967 in a demonstration against the Shah of Persia. That shooting and the brutal crackdown on a peaceful demonstration changed the situation. Gudrun Ensslin was talking at that point about a ‘new fascism’ and she and a few others reckoned that arms had to be taken up to fight this fascist state and its institutions. All of this has to be seen in the international context of the time, where there was a proliferation of “liberation groups” fighting colonialist rule. It was a mistake, though, to believe that in West Germany, in the European metropolises, a revolutionary situation could be conjured up and the masses induced to follow self-proclaimed leaders. It was also a mistake to be guided by marxist-leninist examples and think oneself as the spearhead of the revolution. Little by little, that faction lost its grasp of reality and this escalated considerably due to their being isolated inside prison and to all the measures deployed against them. The German government and its institutions thought they could sort out the terrorist issue using the penal code and increasingly repressive measures. That was another big mistake. The then chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, stated years later that they had used a sledge-hammer to crack a nut. He forgot to mention that the government had the option of changing German history by making different decisions, but then he was never one to indulge in self-criticism. A daughter of Ulrike Meinhof’s wrote in an article that the Baader-Meinhof group was a media creation as the media turned the terrorists irresponsibly into cult figures, thereby sustaining the existence of the group. Whilst there was a degree of empathy with them, that was due primarily to the inhumane treatment doled out to them – such as the force-feeding during hunger-strikes, a horrible torture, physically as well as psychologically and because of the fact that Article 1 of the German constitution (under which a prisoner remains a person whose human dignity is as inviolable anybody else’s) was not applied in their case.

So why did you come to Spain and, specifically, Barcelona …?

Something drew me to Spain and it had to do with anarchism, the CNT, the events of 1936. In 1968, I had come to Madrid to improve my Spanish, after those two years spent in Malaga. In 1977, on completion of my second degree course, I wanted to spend a year in Barcelona in order to witness the political and social changes in the country, a change for which so many had been waiting through 40 years of dictatorship. Unfortunately, such hopes were soon dashed, but I met up with Luis Andrés (Edo).

Right, You met Luis Andrés Edo during the first phase of the Transition … very tough times, but, at the same time, full of high hopes  … Or how do you see them, with the benefit of hindsight?

When I arrived in the autumn of 1977, one could feel the euphoria and the dreams of creating what people had been dreaming about for so many years, rebuilding the CNT, for one thing. But there was no unity between militants and too many hurdles on every side. Come the Scala nightclub arson attack, everything suddenly changed, radically. The security forces and [Interior minister] Martín Villa achieved their purposes: discrediting the CNT and depicting its members as common terrorists. The upshot of that, we now know: the CNT lost membership and significance and the path was left clear for the reformist unions which then signed up to all the agreements, starting with the Moncloa Pacts, having forgotten that their own purpose was defending the interests of the workers. Those were very trying times for Luis because he failed to rally enough support for his arguments and his aims, which looked to a clean break with Francoist rule. He was surrounded by too many comrades who were too narrowly-focussed or indeed who hampered everything.

Anarchism had been badly mangled by 40 years of dictatorship and by a tough time in exile as well as by its own idiosyncrasies which sometimes also militated against a “certain unity” … and paid more heed to “obedience to the general secretary”. What can you tell me about that?

The entire history of Spanish anarchism, since the foundation of its very first organization back in 1870, is characterized not by unity but by factionalism, internal struggles, splits and also by the power struggle within the organization … which could scarcely be any more un-anarchist. During the years in exile, the organization expelled a lot of members and this almost weakened the organization more than those lost to natural wastage. It was actually an authoritarian general secretary that started harassing and alienating a lot of CNT members and anarchists who had been committed to the organization since their youth. They were forever debating the “right line”, but, as you say, given its very essence, and the idiosyncrasy of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, such unity was unachievable because every individual, every union, every local federation is autonomous and thus not bound by the determinations of any general secretary or national committee. If something is decided at local level, with full autonomy and by a clear majority (and never just 50% plus 1) it has to be accepted, provided that the decision is not at odds with the overall anarchist idea or the overall organization. Despite disunity and differences of opinion, on 19 July 1936, millions of CNT personnel and anarchists took to the streets to thwart a fascist coup, but it is equally true that, after 40 years of dictatorship and exile, and the changes that occurred within society from 1968 onwards, only a few people still displayed that mentality and commitment to the organization.

And what were they like, the years you shared with Luis Andrés Edo, from the point of view of the sort of activism to which a couple might commit?

I was very involved in my profession, lecturing at the university, which demanded full commitment of me and did not leave me a lot of time for political activity. Luis and I were in total agreement in terms of our ideas, but he had a record of much more commitment than mine. He had been battling for decades against Franco-fascism and part of that struggle had always been a defence of dignity, including in such difficult circumstances as one finds in the prisons.  I was content with Luis’s activity being lived out through his union and in the organization. That was not a problem for me, because I realized that that was his life and I supported him insofar as I was able. I was involved to the extent that my job allowed me to be and involved at any rate in the major cultural events organized in Barcelona.

Do you think that Luis Andrés’s work, effort, commitment, thinking and ideals have not been properly appreciated or not received the recognition they deserved?

Like all genuine, direct people with powers of analysis and foresight, Luis was sometimes an awkward cuss to those who did not share his opinions. A lot of them regarded him as a polemicist and disagreed with him and tended to hinder or give his work a wide berth. He had his adversaries and defamers and there were even a few who reported him to the police. Then again, I have known very many, inside and outside the CNT, who admired him for his willingness to talk, his coherence and his integrity, who were appreciative of his analyses and opinions, who have never forgotten how he conducted himself inside prison vis à vis the defenceless; a lot of them thought of him as a father-figure and it is this side of him – his deeply humane, genuinely anarchist behaviour – that will be remembered.

When you live with a loved one whose ideology and commitment one shares … there are many aspects to that, right?

The first years I spent with him were pretty tough. We subscribed to the same ideas and fought for the same things, but I was the girl from the alternative movement and he was the veteran militant with years of struggle against the dictatorship and tyrant to his credit and who had risked his life times out of number. But, you know, we grew through those difficulties and I grew a lot at his side. I have an entry in my diary from the mid-80s, about how he saw me. He told me then that I was a great support in his militant activity, meaning that I was not just the object of his affections but, as the word suggests, was his companion in everything. And that made me stronger.

And now, Doris, what is life like for you now, with those unforgettable memories of Luis Andrés?

The love and affection one feels for someone does not evaporate when they die, as is well known to those who have ever lost a loved one. The grief and the initial pain diminish over time but the emptiness Luis left behind still persists and I will yearn for his presence until the day I die. There are some people and some circumstances that have prevented me from lapsing into a permanent depression – things like the business of writing about my life with Luis. That has been a great help in focussing my thoughts on other facets of life, although, in the background, I always return to the starting-point, to wit, Luis.

Let us say something about the libertarian ideal. No matter how the laws, political backdrop and its protagonists may alter, the one thing that does not change is the libertarian ideal. What has been your experience of that, Doris, as an activist linked to that ideal?

Increasingly, the rejection of power is spreading because it is plain that corruption goes hand in hand with power and comes in all shapes and forms. It destroys human relationships, belief, ethics and morality … everything. The imagined ideal has not yet been achieved because it always runs into obstacles, the adversary had and still has all the power and all the machinery needed to prevent libertarian ideas from thriving too much. Moreover, the libertarian world is made up of human beings and as such they are wreathed in contradictions and imperfections. However, in the almost forty years I have been living in Barcelona now I have met lots of veteran comrades who fought in the Civil War and who looked to social revolution to effect that radical change in society. They were faithful to their ideals unto death. I have also known a lot who were younger people at the end of the 1970s and who fight on for those ideals and are not disillusioned by the turn taken by the sham Transition and who still fight on, campaigning for their ideals. And above all there are lots and lots of youngsters living out those ideas.

And these days that ideal is more sorely needed than ever, would you say?

Our friend José Maria Nunes, the movie-maker, argued that anarchists are the most conservative of all ideologies because they want to preserve nature as it stands and to see it improved and evolving for men’s benefit. Only Anarchy can rescue Humanity. It starts from the basis of people being equal in the sense that everybody should enjoy equality of opportunity and rights, solidarity, and ‘mutual aid’ is another key notion that anarchists have always lived by. Capitalism conserves nothing and is destructive and I think it obvious that the vast majority of people have no desire to live a life of subjection, exploitation and enslavement. The so-called democracies are a farce because elections do no good (as witness Spain) and prevent engagement and the law of the jungle is all there is. And I draw some hope from the fact that, here and there, there are more and more people who no longer believe in certain promises and who want to run their own lives and are actually doing so.

Interview with La Librería de Cazarabet, Mas de las Matas (Teruel) as part of the promotion of Doris’s book, Amor y Anarquía. Mi vida en Alemania y con Luis Andrés Edo (Icaria), 2016, 464 pages, 23 euro

Doris Ensinger died of renal failure on 8 August 2020 in the Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona. We send our thoughts to her family, friends and comrades.

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.