Born into an assimilated socialist Jewish German family, Dora Fabian herself became a socialist and anti-Nazi activist. Her present day fame is more attached to her death in Bloomsbury (in Guildford St), London in 1935 and the questions that still raises as to whether it was murder or suicide. But in this very short political biography, my focus is her political role first in Germany, then the UK.1
Initially a member of the SPD, she opposed the First World War. Active in the student movement, she participated in a student demonstration to protest the assassination by the Nazis of Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau in 1924. She was very aware that women could move right politically and was concerned about the SPD’s lack of focus on the position of women, highlighting the British Labour Party’s successful female organisation. In an April 1932 article on “Hitler and Women” in the SAP newspaper, (which she had joined by then), she argued that the Nazis were only using women as “voting beasts”.2
Expelled from the Social Democratic Party in 1931, she, and others formed a new party, the Socialist Workers’ Party (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei; SAP) which was critical of both the KPD and SPD and campaigned for a united anti-Nazi labour movement..
Fabian was detained by the Nazis in March 1933, immediately after the Reichstag fire, at least in part because she had been a friend of and worked as secretary to much hated Ernst Toller. Quickly released, she fled, taking with her into exile a large trunk filled with several of Toller’s unpublished manuscripts which she had rescued from Toller’s study and which would doubtless otherwise have been destroyed by the Nazis. She fled, first to Prague, then Paris and finally to London in September 1933.
Her primary reason for coming to London was give support and act as translator at the Reichstag Fire Counter Trial, started in London in August 1933, the brain child of Munzenberg and intended to shed light on the real but fraudulent trial about to begin in Germany. 3 The Reichstag had been burnt down and the Nazis were about to put on a show trial of Dimitrov and other leading Communists to prove they were behind the fire. Münzenberg, a leading member of the KPD and of the Comintern and a brilliant publicist, organised the Reichstag Counter-Trial, even though this was still under the Comintern’s ‘Third Period’ line. Amidst much publicity, the Counter Trial concluded that the ‘defendants’ were innocent and the true initiators were likely part of the Nazi Party elite. Remember this is still 1933 when the Nazis were still far more tolerated. The trial was an anti-Nazi propaganda victory.
For Fabian to become involved was deeply risky. She was a skilled linguist but she had only been granted a visa to enter the UK on the grounds she would not participate in political activity. Fabian was taking a great personal risk. The Counter trial received worldwide media attention: MI5 must have known of her activities which could have resulted in instant deportation. (This happened to a few German exiles in the UK, although a significant number of refugees appeared before the trial, suggesting MI5 was not too exercised by these proceedings. Munzenberg however was denied a visa so was not at the trial!)
Secondly, although the Counter Trial drew in many non-Communists and was supported by much of the British left, its inspiration was Munzenberg, who, at the time represented the Comintern line, under the guise of the ‘The League Against Imperialism’. One of the main – false -allegations against the Counter Trial was that it was a Communist plot. Fabian was however committed to revealing the horror of Nazism.
Over three brief years, Fabian threw herself into anti-Nazi politics in the UK. She became an important source of information on Nazi Germany for the left. Her (ex-) husband, Walter Fabian, who was still part of the anti-Nazi underground and of the SAP, was an invaluable source, passing on information from within military circles. She helped to co-author a publication on the situation of women in both Nazi Germany and the USSR. From March 1935, she prepared the details for the –unsuccessful- International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture (under the patronage of Maxim Gorky!) to be held in Paris in July, promoting popular front politics. She also renewed her contact with Toller, who was living nearby.
She crucially raised money for the defence of SAP prisoners being tried in Germany (despite having formally left the SAP), with the help of Fenner Brockway and the ILP (which was aligned with the SAP) and managed – critically- to arrange for a British lawyer to attend the trial of Max Kohler and 25 other SAP members which was held in November 1934 (Brinson and Dove).4
Probably nobody will ever know for sure what caused her death. One real possibility is that she was murdered by a Nazi agent. This is not as farfetched as it sounds. Dora Fabian was regarded by the Nazi regime as dangerous both because of her earlier reputation from her time in Germany but also, crucially, because of her continuing contacts with anti-Nazis. The German anti-Nazi journalist Berthold Jacob had been kidnapped by Nazi agents in Switzerland, probably by Hans Weserman, who had been passing himself off as a German socialist refugee in Britain (Jacob survived the first but not the later kidnap.) The refugees will have been terrified of Nazi spies in their midst. Dora had especial reasons to worry: she seems to have obtained secret documents early on which indicated Weserman was a spy and she had been helping the Swiss police to look into his British based activities.
But there were others who had been killed or threatened in exile. Dr Georg Bell, who appears to have known about the splits in the Nazi leadership had been pursued over the German border into Austria and killed there. Theodar Lessing, a long-standing and vociferous German anti-Nazi, had been murdered in Czechoslovakia in 1933. The German embassy was also suspected when there were two burglaries in Fabian’s flat and every bit of paper turned over (Brinson and Dove).
The inquest into Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm who died at the same time in the same flat has attracted a great deal of interest ever since.5 The hearing was attended by Fenner Brockway and James Maxton. Toller travelled especially from Paris to attend. The verdict was suicide, but neither her friends nor comrades ever really believed this.
1 Anybody interested in more detail, check out Brinson, Charmian The strange case of Dora Fabian and Mathulde Wurm: a study of German political exiles in London during the 1930s,which this is partly drawn from.
2 The SAP: the Socialist Workers Party, many originally members of the SPD who left in 1931,was a strongly anti-Nazi group who saw the SPD leadership as having vacated the anti-Nazi stage. In early 1933, its membership was 25,000-30,000, including a significant number of young people.
3 Münzenberg (1889-1940) broke with Stalin in 1937. Found hanged in suspicious circumstances in 1940. It has been suspected ever since that Stalin had him murdered because he knew too much (Mike Jones).
4 Max Kohler (26.6.1997 -15.12 1975) Joined the Spartakus Jugendverband. Sentenced to six years jail in 1917 but released 1918. Joined KPD. Editor of Junge Garde. Expelled 1928 from the KPD as a leading ‘rightists’ for refusing to agree to give up his opposition to ultra-leftism. Joined KPO, then SAP in March 1932. Arrested and sentenced to three years prison in 1933, a sentence which would almost certainly have been far worse had it not been for being legally represented . Upon release, he fled to Denmark. He returned to Berlin in 1955, joined SPD in 1956 and was expelled in 1961 (Mike Jones).
5 Mathilde Wurm (30 September 1874 – 4 April 1935) was a German socilaist, representing first the SPD, then the USPD in the Reichstag from 1920 to 1933. In 1933, Wurm initially remained in Germany but when her property was confiscated, she fled first to Switzerland and then, in February 1934, to London where she lived in the same flat as Dora.