Fritz Kater

“Frank and direct in the presence of friends or enemies, he was one of those men who knew their limits; he was never blinded by ambition and honestly recognised the merits of others”. Rudolf Rocker

The son of a day labourer farmhand, Kater was born on December 19th 1861 in Barleben. His mother died when he was two years old. From the age of five, he had to work on the farm or at home in order to support his family. His mother in law who looked after the children, treated them harshly. During his final two years in school, he also worked in a local sugar factory during the winter for a derisory wage. He worked as a farm boy and then started an apprenticeship as a mason. He still had to help his father on the farm as the elderly man was frequently ill. However this had its benefits as his father was able to plead successfully for Fritz’s exemption from military service because of this situation. He was barefoot in summer and wore clogs in winter until the age of 14. Only during the winter did Fritz have spare time to read and educate himself. He joined the masons’ trade union in Magdeburg in 1883 at a time when the Anti-Socialist Laws forbade most union activities. This had been set up by a socialist carpenter expelled from Berlin that year. He came into contact with socialists from Berlin and Hamburg soon becoming a socialist himself under their influence. Kater soon began spending much of his spare time reading illegal socialist literature, and became active in the union’s clandestine activities. In 1887, Fritz joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). In the same year he also founded a masons’ union in Barleben, becoming the organization’s first chairman. His unionist activities, which included trying to organize workers from the sugar factory he had worked in in his youth, attracted resentment from the local authorities, especially from the head of the district authority, an extremely conservative Junker. In 1889 he was sentenced to a two-month prison term for holding an illegal meeting and in the following year he served even more time in jail for giving a speech held to be seditious. After the expiration of the Anti-Socialist Laws in 1890, Kater had close contacts with the opposition political movement Die Jungen, which was influenced by anarchist ideas, though he never joined it. He personally knew some of its leading Berlin members like Bruno Wille, Carl Wildberger and Max Baginski. Kater was one of the founders of the Magdeburger Volksstimme, a social democratic newspaper started soon after the end of the Anti-Socialist Laws. The editors of the newspaper included several members of Die Jungen, Hans Mueller, Fritz Koester and Paul Kampffmeyer. These argued their case well, causing the leadership to remove them from these positions. At the 1891 SPD congress, Kater voted against expelling the Jungen from the party. Nevertheless, he remained in the party and did not join the new organization formed by Die Jungen, the Association of Independent Socialists ( Max Baginski, Wilhelm Werner, Rocker and Landauer were active in this.)

In 1892, Kater moved to Berlin. There he worked as a mason, was elected a delegate for the city masons’ union, and became an agitator. During the debates over the organisational structure of the union, he supported the “localist” concept as well as the creation of the Representatives Centralization of Germany in 1897 (which renamed itself the FVdG in 1903). He became the first chairman of the federation’s Business Commission.

In 1907, after Kater refused a staff job with the centralized trade unions and declined to run as a delegate to the Reichstag delegate, he left the SPD. Though critical toward anarchism and syndicalism at first, Kater soon became a leading anarcho-syndicalist figure in Germany. He attended the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam in 1907. During a speech at the 1908 FVdG congress, Kater openly professed syndicalism for the first time. In 1913, he was a delegate at the First International Syndicalist Congress at Holborn Town Hall, London. It was only a prison stay alongside Rudolf Rocker in 1920 that led him to a complete break with social democracy, however. Fritz was instrumental in the production of the FVdG paper Einigkeit, as he was in sustaining the FVdG’s structures during World War I. The FVdG, the Anarchist Federation of Germany and several small pacifist groups were the only opponents of the war, the FVdG opposing it on the grounds of proletarian internationalism. For this they suffered severe persecution from the State, whilst the loyal SPD and its unions were allowed to carry on as before. Fritz was pivotal in maintaining the illegal network of the FVdG, and produced a newsheet, Mitteilungsblatt, and then Rundschreiben up to 1917. It was thanks to these structures that the FVdG was able to re-assemble so quickly after the war, and to have its first national meeting at Berlin, on 26th and 27th December 1918) and to produce a new paper Der Syndikalist, from 14th December.

Fritz was one of the founders of the FAUD [Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands] after the war. He worked for the FAUD as a speaker and author, representing the union at various congresses of the International Workers Association. Indeed he was one of the founders of the IWA in 1922, attending all bar two of its congresses. He was a popular speaker. He gave much assistance to the many Russian anarchists in exile in Berlin. He gave his publishing house Fritz Kater Verlag over to the FAUD and it published over one hundred libertarian texts. In 1930, he resigned as chairman of the FAUD at the age of seventy to give place to those younger than himself, as he himself said. However he continued to work for the movement until the Nazi takeover smothered all opposition.

On May 8, 1945, Kater, whilst working in his garden, attempted to defuse an incendiary bomb. It exploded, causing severe burns to his face and chest. Kater died twelve days later in the hospital. Even if he had survived, he would have been blinded, and he was also spared another great grief: his son Hans, his daughter in law and one of his granddaughters were killed by a bomb just a few days before his death.NICK HEATH