Leading Lights
of Austrian Social Democracy:
Adelheid Popp & Friedrich Adler

Founding of the Party.  In Europe during the 19th century, industrialization brought people from the countryside into cities where they found jobs in an increasingly capitalist economy.  In metropolises like London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, working people often experienced the new conditions of their labor as harsh and cruel.   They sought to organize and bargain collectively in order to improve their work situations, but the obstacles were formidable.

In Vienna, for example, protesting workers encountered not only the resistance of the owning class but also the repressive apparatus of the Hapsburg state, whose police and laws were deployed to defeat their unionization drives and their strikes.  Vienna’s residents had come to the city from the diverse “crown lands” of the Empire — Hungary, Bohemia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and regions of Poland, Romania, and Italy — and consequently differences of language, education, religion, and custom also stood in the way of successful working-class collaboration.  On top of that, strategies for social change were at loggerheads.  Moderates made concrete demands: decent wages, prohibition of child labor, the right to form a union, free public education, an eight-hour day,  universal suffrage.  But such reforms were dismissed as pointless by radicals like Johann Rismann, who argued that only the overthrow of capitalism could put an end to workplace exploitation: “As long as today’s economic institutions exist, our political rights will be a zero, a plaything that those in power can deal with as they please and lure the masses.”

In the second half of the 19th century, however, it became evident to reformers and revolutionaries alike — however vehemently they disagreed with one another — that opposition to Empire policies would be much more effective if the forces of resistance were united.   The Social Democratic Workers Party of Austria was inaugurated at a 3-day working class congress that convened in the town of Hainfeld on December 30, 1888.  The meeting was organized by a Viennese physician,  Victor Adler, who convinced contending factions to accept a common program that stated the principles of  Austrian social democracy:  international solidarity, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, trade union protection, public education, separation of church and state, and participation in parliament.


Dr. Victor Adler at the inaugural congress in Hainfeld.  He was elected as the first chairman of the new Social Democratic Workers Party and would continue to provide leadership for three decades, through World War I.

Victor Adler was the father of Friedrich Adler — about whom, much more below.

Among the leaders of the social democratic movement in Austria was Adelheid Popp, born into an impoverished weavers family in 1869.   At age 40, she published an autobiography, The Story of a Young Woman Worker,”  that chronicles her life experiences, first as a maid and seamstress and then as an industrial worker in Viennese factories.  The book was read by a large audience in Austria, received international recognition as well, and is still widely read today.

Adelheid Popp

I was taken into a workshop where I learned to crochet shawls.  I earned from five pence to six pence a day, working diligently for twelve hours. If I took home work to do at night, it was a few farthings more.

How often on cold winter days, when my fingers were so stiff in the evening that I could no longer move my needle, I went to bed aware that I must wake up all the earlier. Then, after my mother had wakened me, she gave me a bed seat so that I might keep my feet warm, and I crocheted on from where I had left off the previous evening. 

At an age when other children play with dolls or go to school, when they are guarded and cherished — at this age I had to go out to bear the hard yoke of work….  In later years a feeling of unmeasured bitterness overwhelmed me, because I had known nothing, really nothing, of childish joys and youthful happiness.

Adelheid Popp explains in her autobiography the political path that led her to the doorstep of Austria’s Social Democratic Party.  Once she had joined, she embraced the cause wholeheartedly and advocated publicly on its behalf.   Her book proved immensely popular, and she spoke to large audiences everywhere in Austria and abroad too.

The “unmeasured bitterness” that Adelheid Popp experienced as a young woman may have influenced the militancy of her activism, but not in a sectarian direction.  She welcomed into the women’s movement individuals with very diverse backgrounds — including relatively privileged women of the upper classes with whom she argued but collaborated.  And she brought that same spirit of tolerance and reconciliation into the Social Democratic Party as a whole.   “Every yoke is broken, every chain torn away,” she said, “when those who bear the yoke, who moan under the clanking of chains, stand together for common action.”

For the sake of that “common action,” Adelheid Popp counseled always the reconciliation of differences on the left.   Together with her comrades in Austria’s Social Democratic Workers Party, she recognized that a divided left delivers victory to the right.  Subsequent decades in the history of Austria and Germany would testify to the terrible correctness of that insight.

Adelheid Popp founded the Social Democratic “Working Women’s Paper” in 1892 and served as its editor until 1934.  At times, its articles were censored by state authority, and this was represented in the paper itself by a blank space and explanation to the readers: “Here a half-page has been censored.”

Popp was brought before the judicial system in 1895, accused of publishing an article that was an  “assault on marriage and the family.”  She defended the article vigorously and passionately in court but was found guilty and went to prison for two weeks.

Adelheid Popp speaking at a meeting for unemployed women, 1892

In 1919, women representatives were for the first time elected to the Austrian Parliament.  Among them, Adelheid Popp at the lower left.

Friedrich Adler

When Adelheid Popp or Victor Adler spoke in public on behalf of social democratic cause, their appeal was not only emotional; they counted on the capacity of working people to think for themselves and be moved by the better argument.  This optimistic approach to political persuasion found favor also with Victor’s and Emma’s son Friedrich.  As a young man he had taken an interest in the natural sciences and had prepared to pursue a career in physics (he became good friends with Albert Einstein).  Friedrich Adler believed that, at the end of the day, evidence and reason can win a debate, whether it takes place in a scientific laboratory or in a political meeting hall.   That confidence would, beginning in the fall of 1916, be severely tested by his extraordinary life experience.

The following account has been adapted from an essay written by historian Douglas D. Alder: “Friedrich Adler: Evolution of a Revolutionary.”

Friedrich Adler is known in European history chiefly for his war-protest assassination of the Austrian prime minister, Count Karl Stürgkh, during World War I. Though he was further to the left than his famous father, Friedrich did not sympathize with Bolshevism. He was a member of Parliament, pacifist, party leader, theoretician, and editor in the Social Democratic Party headquarters in Vienna. He abandoned a hard-won start as a physicist to become a party official and aide to his ailing father who led Austrian Socialism from 1889 to 1918. The ever proper but testy relationship between these two men, who looked almost identical and revered each other deeply, was a powerful test of wills. Beyond being a classic father-son confrontation, their clash was pivotal in Austrian socialism.

The Adler family, Vienna, 1910. Friedrich’s mother Emma was a journalist, biographer, and translator.

Friedrich Adler’s childhood was clearly dominated by his colorful father who, as a physician turned politician, became a living legend to the working class. The family dining table in this secular Jewish home was a place where Fritz (as he was called throughout his life) heard about proletarian demonstrations, confrontations with the police and his father’s continuing courtroom defense of arrested demonstrators. These, he said, “gave me the impression that it was my natural duty to oppose the police and power of the day.  I didn’t have a very clear picture of the specific goals of the program of the Social Democrats; rather I saw the daily activity of my father, whom I greatly admired, who kept fighting against political oppression.”

Young Adler was considered to be a sensitive and physically infirm child, and his parents wished to shield him from the anxieties and harshness of political life. He was nevertheless allowed a child’s portion of participation, folding the party newspapers and sitting in the gallery at party conventions.  At the age of ten he accompanied his father to the town of Hainfeld and witnessed the birth of Austria’s social democratic party.  By his early teens he was consuming the basic documents of socialism – Marx, Engels, and Kautsky. The movement became everything to him. He developed a total commitment to the cause, yearning for a life of party involvement, with what he later described as a religious dedication.  Of course he listened to the party’s father figure, Victor Adler — Fritz idolized him “not because he was my father but because of his exemplary position in the workers’ movement.”

Victor did not want Fritz to enter politics. He was convinced that the bright but frail boy could not endure the pressure – that his emotional inheritance left him prone to psychological illness. (Friedrich’s mother, uncle, and sister had all suffered emotional breakdowns.)  So very early Victor made a vocational choice for Friedrich that would divert him from university subjects and public affairs. He hoped Fritz would become a capable technician or engineer and achieve stable independence, avoiding a vocation of ideology and politics. Out of respect Fritz initially gave in, but he was not convinced. He regularly sought a reversal of his father’s wishes during a ten-year cycle of negotiations. Fritz finally extracted an agreement that allowed him to go to Zürich where he could gain university admission without the preparatory Latin courses.

Victor reluctantly agreed to the Zürich proposal but he did not loosen reins on Fritz, intending to influence his son’s professional development through financial control and regular correspondence. Despite this, young Friedrich began another round of self-assertion, as soon as he arrived in Zürich. He worked conscientiously at the chemistry that they both agreed would be his field of study, but his heart was not in it. Instead he spent long night hours in serious political discussions. He was active in a club of Austrian Socialists in Zürich and soon became its president. By mid-year his ideological exploits led to a wild brainstorm: he would leave academia and go to work in the Swiss mines where he could get practical experience of oppression. He wanted to win a legitimacy as a champion of the workers he could not claim as the son of a middle class doctor-politician.

Such romantic fantasies brought a blistering veto from Victor which Fritz grudgingly accepted. During the day he devoted himself to work in Professor Alfred Kleiner’s physics laboratory – so successfully that he became the professor’s assistant. He soon published two experimental studies in a scientific journal. By 1902 he had completed a doctoral dissertation, “The Temperature Dependence of the Specific Heat of Chromium” and was on his way toward a research career, which could lead eventually to a position as a professor.

In the evenings Fritz continued his political activities.  He debated with anarchists and supporters of Lenin, opposing them in favor of a socialism more like his father’s. He favored the cooperative politics found in the Second International rather than the factionalism of the Bolsheviks. He befriended those journalists of Zürich’s Social Democratic newspaper, Volksrecht, who opposed anarchism, and he engaged his physics friends in these continuing ideological dialogues.

Two of those friendships developed into permanent ties. The first was with Albert Einstein, Jewish classmate and socialist comrade. Their relationship was intertwined in both physics and socialism, and it endured long beyond their school years. Very early Fritz recognized that his new friend was a great scientist. He wrote to Victor about him saying that Einstein was the clearest and most independent of physicists even though few scholars understood him.  Iı was a time when scientists in German universities were inaugurating the contributions that revolutionized physics and much of the scientific world.

The second relationship was even more intense and consequential.  Katharina Germanischkaja was a Russian Jew who had come to Zürich to study physics because Jews were denied admission to Russian universities. Fritz invited her into his political circles, believing that her bright mind could be won for socialism.  Shortly thereafter, he proposed marriage. His father was initially jolted by Fritz’s request for permission to marry before completing his academic training, but he withdrew his opposition when Fritz brought Kathia to Vienna to meet his parents. They were married in January 1903. At first it was a euphoric relationship. After the birth of their first son they moved into a modest apartment in the same building where the Einsteins lived with their baby daughter. They enjoyed many hours together, sharing physics, socialism, and secularism, as well as economic austerity.

As a second and third child came, Fritz found his status increasingly difficult. He still depended financially on his father and others in the family. He was impatient with the long apprenticeship necessary to become a university professor. So in 1905 he accepted and applied for a physics post in Munich. The only value of the job in Fritz’s mind was the independence it promised.  But he soon found the routine and boredom unbearable. He again began to vacillate. He rekindled his dream of a political career, sending notes to his father about a party post in Vienna, and to their friend Karl Kautsky about party work in Germany as a journalist. Both ideas died aborning. So Fritz decided once more to try theoretical physics.

Professor Kleiner welcomed him back to his assistantship. Adler had published a major scientific paper that was well received in 1905, and Kleiner felt that Fritz could be seriously considered for an academic career. So Adler reentered voluntary poverty, renewing the long endeavor toward academic certification. He selected Ernst Mach’s scientific positivism as his research subject.

Then in 1908 an unexpected opportunity arose: the canton government in Zürich decided to add another chair of physics at the university. A committee of public officials was appointed to make the selection.  Fritz’s position as docent and senior assistant to Kleiner made him an obvious candidate. They offered Adler the appointment.  He was pleased but had a misgiving: he knew that Social Democrats were the majority on the selection panel and began to suspect that his father’s stature, not scientific factors, was considered in his evaluation.   This suspicion was confirmed when Fritz discovered that Einstein was also a candidate and would have accepted the chair if it had been offered. Fritz searched his soul and responded to the committee:

If it is possible to obtain a man like Einstein for our university, it would be absurd to appoint me. I must quite frankly say that my ability as a research physicist does not bear even the slightest comparison to Einstein’s. Such an opportunity to obtain a man who can benefit us so much by raising the general level of the university should not be lost because of political sympathies.

Einstein was appointed. Once his anguishing decision was reached, Fritz candidly wrote to Victor,

I had the feeling of great relief. . . I believe I must abandon theory and search for a practical activity, and that practical work can only be a party activity. That is the only thing that is more important to me than theoretical science.  I could not stand to give up both science and politics and become a family father pure and simple.  My life could not stand that.

Though he continued to study the work of Ernst Mach, Fritz began to look for a practical political post. In 1910, it surfaced. The Swiss Social Democratic newspaper Volksrecht in Zürich was experiencing ideological quandaries. The party wanted to be free of its anarchist editor and find one who could mediate fractious ideologies.   The son of Victor Adler, they anticipated, would serve this role well.  Early in 1910, they offered him the job and he accepted without consulting his father, although he quickly justified his decision to Victor: “Today the chief editorship of the Volksrecht was formally offered to me….  I am actually the only one here who can undertake the job in even a minimal fashion and the people here were very delighted when I accepted.”

Though he experienced modest success, Friedrich soon discovered that, as a foreigner, he could not harmonize the Swiss factions.  Like the Germans, the Swiss socialists were intractably fragmented.  Nor was the rest of his life satisfactory.  He established meaningful, intimate, relationships in Zürich, but they were impermanent. Einstein chose science, Fritz, socialism –their friendship was reduced to casual contact. His relationship with his wife was also challenged.  Their marriage became increasingly strained, and he began to consider separation. Then a pivotal event occurred: in 1911 Fritz unexpectedly received an invitation to return to Vienna for a major party appointment as one of four full-time party secretaries. The leadership wanted a journalist to edit a party periodical, prepare campaign literature‚ and serve in Parliament. Fritz accepted without hesitation.

The invitation came from Karl Seitz, another Viennese social democrat who later became the mayor of Vienna.  Victor acquiesced in the appointment, admitting the reality that his son had given up science. Once his twenty-year-old plan for diverting Fritz from politics had gone awry, Victor agreed that the Austrian party that had parented Fritz deserved his contribution. In the perennial father-son confrontation, Fritz appeared finally to have won.

When Friedrich Adler moved to Vienna his long search for identity ended. It culminated in the fulfillment of his boyhood dream and a return from his detour in science. He believed, moreover, that his appointment in Vienna was based on an evaluation of his ability, not his status as the party leader’s son. He entered into  leadership of the party as an experienced activist, a capable journalist, and a potential theoretician like Karl Kautsky.  Possibly he would one day assume his father’s leadership position, but that was just an outside chance. There were many seasoned leaders as well as a rising generation, including the capable Karl Renner and Otto Bauer.  Still, the appointment elevated young Dr. Adler’s status in the party.  And he was joining the leadership on his own merit.  In his own mind he had achieved independence.

Productivity was the theme of Adler’s life between 1911 and 1914. He energetically and capably edited the party newspaper, Das Volk. He and staff wrote and produced election propaganda. He gave many lectures in workers’ night schools and at party rallies. In 1913 he worked alongside Renner and Bauer in writing for a new theoretical journal, Der Kampf. He became active in the Karl Marx Verein, a small organization of academically minded young social democrats who were more radical than their elders.  He advocated for international solidarity as a remedy for provincialism within Europe’s social democratic parties.

In all these endeavors, Friedrich worked at the elbow of his father. The hero of his childhood now became the mentor for the enterprising activist in his early thirties. For three years this was a successful relationship. They met almost daily for lunch in the family apartment where political conversation was the main fare.  Victor soon admitted to himself that their relationship was the right prescription for his conflict-ridden life. In a letter to Kautsky, he wrote, “Our rising generation is better than we could possibly have expected.  I just don’t know how [Otto] Bauer and Fritz could be replaced.”

On the son’s side also, these were glorious years.  His lifelong dream of meaningful, full commitment was at last being realized. With Kathia and the children living alternately in Switzerland and at the Adler summer home in Bohemia, he could devote eighteen hours a day to his work. His thinking and writing flowed freely and insightfully. He won respect from esteemed peers.  And his belief in the importance of education seemed confirmed.  Unrest in the Balkans and in African colonies called for intervention by the Socialist International, which he strongly supported, in order to prevent a European War. The plight of the workers at home also testified to the need for Social Democratic Party opposition to the ruling elites.

In 1914 Friedrich Adler was appointed as chairman responsible for hosting the August convention of the International in Vienna. This project combined his two loves — international solidarity and social democracy.  But plans were thrown into confusion when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Serbia in July.  The Adler family was stunned by the likelihood of war, which would not only rule out the upcoming convention but also  might decimate the International itself. War was utterly inimical to the entire Austrian socialist movement. For a few days there was some hope that the crisis might be resolved. Nonetheless, Friedrich called an emergency planning meeting for the 23rd of July to consider moving the international conference to Paris; Austrian officials were acting in a hostile manner: they had confiscated an issue of the Arbeiterzeitung, the party’s daily newspaper, a few days earlier. Two hours after that session, the Hapsburgs announced their famous ultimatum to Serbia.

Social Democrats all across Europe realized what war and out-of-control nationalism would mean.  The drafting of men into the military would immobilize the working class. Emergency powers usually seized by governments in wartime would liquidate social democratic opposition.

“God with us!”  “The Kaiser called, and all, all came.”

The government administration in Vienna, directed by Prime Minister Karl Graf Stürgkh, had suspended Parliament in March of 1914 and refused to call new elections. It had also instituted press censorship. Victor felt that it would be unwise for the party to call for an antiwar demonstration or present the government with demands because any such action would be quickly suppressed and severely punished. He believed that the Habsburgs would welcome the opportunity to declare the party illegal and jail its leaders, representing itself as patriotically protecting the nation.

Jean Jaures, the esteemed French leader, tried to influence the Austrians. He appealed to Friedrich, who he knew was personally committed to pacifism and the ideals of the International. But then, while the emergency  meeting was still underway, the Austrian government declared war, and the delegates scattered back to their countries.   The International fell apart.  Friedrich felt that the socialists had sold out their values and lost their way, seduced by the crisis to abandon their long-standing pacifism, their class solidarity, and their conscience. He recognized that the party could not halt the war, but he detested its passive acceptance and even collaboration with the rampaging militarism.

Austrian soldiers on their way to the front

When the Adlers arrived back in Vienna they discovered that the Arbeiterzeitung, far from opposing the war, was welcoming it in jingoistic editorials. Friedrich realized that socialist workers, as much as Catholics and flag-wavers, could be swept away by patriotic sentiment.  They marched behind colorful banners and sang socialist songs as they marched to the Russian front.  Friedrich recognized that party leaders who did not join in the hysteria might lose popular support in the present moment, but he claimed that in response to war-making enthusiasm, social democratic values needed re-affirmation. He demanded that the newspaper editors be censured. He asked his father to request that the party directorate mount at least a token protest against the war.

Victor Adler did not see the situation in the same way that his son did.  Early in October he convened an emergency party conference and presented his tortured rationale: the war was terrible but defeat would be worse.  He explained that although he detested the Habsburg rulers, he had even less sympathy for the Czar, Russia’s cruel dictator. He could not stand by and watch his beloved countrymen killed by the Russians. If and when Parliament was reconvened, he said, the Social Democratic representatives, like the Majority Socialists in Germany, would have to approve funds for the war even though doing so went against their principles.

Friedrich Adler resigned from the party at once and penned a fiery attack on the party leadership. He argued that the war would kill democracy and devastate the working class, regardless of which side — Czarist militarism or Prussian militarism — won.   Thus Friedrich broke his ties with the party and with his father.

During the first years of the war, Friedrich felt very alone and uncertain about his path forward.  Party officials spoke out against him, calling him unpatriotic, even fanatical. There were forebodings of emotional collapse that Friedrich’s family had worried about when he was a child.   But worst of all was the political powerlessness. When the 1915 Party convention met, Friedrich’s fiery invective against the Party’s war policy drew the support of only 10% of the delegates. A year later that number was no larger, nor did he receive support from party leaders like Karl Renner, Karl Seitz, Friedrich Austerlitz, and especially Victor Adler.

In the darkness of the war years, Friedrich Adler decided that he would trust his own evaluation of Austria’s situation, while acknowledging that his depressed emotional state might be distorting his perception. He decided that an act of radical resistance could amplify antiwar sentiment and help to unlock the shackles that bound the masses of people to a war they were beginning to hate. Although he continued to favor mass protest over individual action, he decided that he would assassinate Prime Minister Count Stürgkh.  He knew that he might not succeed, and would be vilified and condemned to die if he did.   He recognized that this act would contradict his own lifelong argument for pacifism and commitment to parliamentarianism.

The Prime Minister incarnated the Habsburg war policy and was becoming increasingly authoritarian as head of the war cabinet.  Stürgkh obliged Friedrich by making an insulting decision in the third week of October, 1916, forbidding the Vienna University faculty from meeting to discuss the suspension of Parliament, which, at the command of Stürgkh, had not met since 1913.  This action against the faculty violated Austria’s freedom of assembly law that had been established in the 1880’s, repudiating a tradition that was sacrosanct to politicians as well as academics.  Thus, the attack on Stürgkh would be timely resistance to arbitrary rule. Friedrich had been told that the Count lunched every day at the Hotel Meissel and Schaden near the Hofburg Palace. So, on Saturday, the 21st of October, Friedrich went there for lunch, patiently waited a few tables away until they both had finished dining, and then walked calmly over to Stürgkh and shot him. Within a few hours Friedrich Adler was in prison, Stürgkh was dead, and the whole empire was appalled at the “fanatic’s deed.”

Friedrich Adler after his arrest. From the “Illustrierten Kronen Zeitung,” 1916.

Victor Adler had no warning. No one did. Friedrich’s feat was a solitary, completely surprising act. Yet within a few hours Victor had to pen an editorial stating the official party response. Essentially Victor had to choose between his son and the party. He still loved his son and respected his politics. But if the Social Democrats were implicated in this assassination, the government could use that to strike against, perhaps even eliminate, the entire party. The war was going none too well, and domestically Austria faced shrinking food supplies, unrest in the factories, and widespread disenchantment with the government.  This was not the time to discredit the only significant opposition to that government: the social democratic movement.  Victor painfully decided that protection of the movement required the ideological sacrifice of his son. Victor’s editorial condemned his son’s act as psychopathic. It denied that Friedrich acted in concert with anyone in the party or was justified in any way.

Once Friedrich arrived in jail he said he was entirely satisfied with what he had done, stating,

When I carried the assassination out I did so with the knowledge that thereby my life would end. I have not for one second regretted my action. I believe that I have fulfilled my duty and I feel no regret, because the act was justified. I weighed the reasons beforehand and have reviewed them time and time again, and have always come to the same conclusion.

Despite his commitment to pacifism, Fritz was convinced that his country’s tyranny could only be thwarted through force. In the spirit of William Tell, whose arrow felled the Swiss tyrant Vogt, he felt that an extreme act could inspire massive resistance to Austria’s war policy.  He candidly explained his strategy to police interrogators:

I do not intend to defend myself, rather to explain myself, acting in opposition to the capitalist society of mass murder, especially in opposition to the government in Austria that has ignited a fire of mass murder and has destroyed all justice and law. Finally, my act is a protest against Stürgkh, who has destroyed the normal form of opposition, through Parliament, and has prohibited its restoration.

 Both his father and the government wanted Friedrich declared insane— for opposite reasons. Victor saw this as a way to save Fritz’s life, while the state aimed to discredit his act. This meant that both the state prosecution and the defense (hired by Victor) would block expression of Friedrich’s political message.   Friedrich did not panic. First he calmy took on his parents, trying to convince them that he must be executed to convey the authenticity of his deed. He wrote to his mother, instructing her that she should consider herself one of the thousands of parents whose sons were sacrificed in the war. To his father he gently but consistently explained his thinking and his rejection of Victor’s appraisal of the situation:

I do not want to accuse you of exerting excessive influence on the determination of my mental stability. I only want to make it clear to you again that there is no purpose to be achieved by treating me as mentally ill, even though you thereby wish to protect me.

I have the feeling that, just as with the issue of the war, you do not understand the assassination as I wish you would.

I did not want to hurt you but that was unavoidable, and will happen again during the trial. You were fantasizing when you thought you could convince me of the rightness of Realpolitik and of a party in which Renner, Leuthner and I could be together…. I am quite clear about the limits of my deed, and quite sure there will be another year (1918) of war, but then perhaps we will say: are not four years enough?

letter from Albert Einstein to Friedrich Adler, offering to testify on his behalf.  April 13, 1917

Among Friedrich’s supporters was Albert Einstein who quickly wrote and pled with Fritz to have him called as a character witness:

“I ask only one thing of you. When your case comes to court, I would like to be called to testify; please arrange this. Don’t think that it is senseless. It is not only required that witnesses establish the facts around the event and those which are connected directly to it, but it is also essential that testimony should be brought to light about the personality of the accused.”

“How much I would like to talk with you about the relativity question. Hopefully we can get that in sometime. I am most anxious to read your essays [written in jail] …”

A surprise source of support came from Kathia. She rallied immediately. In the months leading up to the trial she visited Fritz and then tried to convince Victor to understand his son’s perspective. Her success could only mean Fritz’s death, but she turned away from despair and cynicism. She became heroic in Fritz’s eyes. Their love sprang forth anew as though the depressing waning of their relationship had never occurred.

Fritz realized that his most effective strategy would be to convince the state’s examiners of his sanity. Beginning with his first day of police interrogation, he was entirely open and truthful. He explained the assassination in detail and the motivation leading up to it. He patiently led his police interrogators through the complexities of social democratic theory and his analysis of Austria’s wartime predicament.  Doctors Bischoff, Hövel, Kusterer, and Jakob examined the police records and interviewed him personally. He remained completely open. The psychiatric panel concluded that “none of his political views appeared to indicate madness… He has the mind of a fanatic but is never senseless or illogical…. he considers himself not as a martyr but as someone who has done his duty … he is not pathological nor is there any mental disturbance.”

Friedrich had won round one: the state would grant him a trial. Though the Habsburg officials did not anticipate any difficulty in obtaining a guilty verdict, they were worried about giving Friedrich a forum. They insisted that he be charged before a military court, thus avoiding a jury trial, and hoped for some intervening military victories to sustain the public disgust with the young Dr. Adler.

The days in jail were not tiresome for Friedrich. He reached an inner peace that he had not felt since the beginning of the war. He felt no remorse for his deed nor fear for his future. He returned to his study of physics, putting in fourteen-hour days with a library of scientific books which his family brought him. He produced an elaboration of his study on Ernst Mach which he sent off to Einstein. He was calm and creative.

Five months after the first psychiatric examination the government ordered a second. This one, signed by the Dean of the Medical Faculty, Dr, Hutandler, was not flattering; it exposed some negative aspects of his personal sex life, but it also established that Friedrich was legally responsible. The report discounted manic depression or any other mental disability as a cause of his action. It described him as an idealist and fanatic with a psychopathic character, but as fully in command of his faculties.

So on May 18,1917, Friedrich Adler went to trial. His advantages had grown geometrically. First he had a limited objective – to be heard, not to be saved. Second, he was given a trial; that was a major victory for which he could thank the psychiatrists. He further hoped to foil the censors by speaking from the witness stand and not as a journalist.  And he hoped that the Habsburgs’ chances of winning the war would continue to decline.  This gamble worked out well for him.  Emperor Franz Joseph died and his heir, Karl, was as peace-motivated as Friedrich.  Adler hoped also to shock his party into understanding that social democracy’s  antiwar tradition could play an essential role in establishing the party’s post-war legitimacy. Here too, time was on his side. By the spring of 1917, many social democrats who in October had repudiated Friedrich were now ready to abandon the party’s “wait out the war” tactic.

The trial became a cause celebre. Friedrich had to deal with his own defense attorneys which he did by simply rejecting their case in court and offering his own, aimed at discrediting the government instead of saving his life. The assassin was allowed six hours to testify and he used the time wisely.  With his father in the court room, he warned his party that its war policy would soon be rejected by the rank and file members and that the leaders must return to their revolutionary heritage or the party would be swept away in the debris of war. He testified that he had committed the same crime as the government— killing without consent of the people. For that he must be executed, but so should the Emperor’s ministers:

The ministry has torn the constitution apart; the ministry has given up its legality; the ministry has given up its job of concerning itself with the laws of Austria, and that leaves only force as an alternative.

Individual citizens, in my opinion, are justified in resorting to force when the laws are destroyed. Everyone is justified in grasping justice out of necessity which the government has caused. Yes, every citizen has not only the right to use force, in a situation like mine, but even the obligation to intercede at that moment when all constitutional approaches fail: there is no parliament, there is no assurance of justice, all these have been taken away. Only a demoralized citizenry that has allowed its conscience to be seduced and removed will stand aside. At issue is not law, but moral duty.

Thus a violent attack, that was viewed by most Austrians of all three political parties — Catholic, German Nationalist and Social Democratic — as a violation of fundamental social norms, was presented by its agent as a principled and patriotic deed.  And the case he made would receive some support from the Austrian public in the following months. As for Friedrich Adler, he was satisfied: he had been heard and was ready for the gallows. As expected, the court found him guilty and condemned him to death.

There are many ironic twists in history. The convoluted journey of Friedrich Adler through socialist ideology, political tactics, quest for career, marital estrangement, and a father-son confrontation would might have ended at this point. But it did not. Dr. Adler was never executed. The government chose to avoid making him a martyr: Kaiser Karl vetoed the death sentence and then, as the war continued to turn against Austria, commuted it to eighteen years at hard labor.  Following negotiation with Victor, the Kaiser pardoned the son on November 1, 1918.

Friedrich stepped out of prison a folk hero. During the long months between his arrest and pardon, he had became the object of international leftist adulation. Peace crusaders in Austria and Russia called for Dr. Adler’s release. Radicalized workers and soldiers greeted his release with a call for him to be the Austrian Lenin, leading the Bolshevik revolution in Vienna.  Although Bolshevik rebellions were developing in nearby Budapest, Munich, and Berlin. Friedrich rejected them.  He urged the workers to rally instead behind the new Austrian Republic and the Social Democratic Party that Victor Adler’s death, on Armistice Day 1918, left in the able hands of Otto Bauer.

Since the assassination and trial, the party had moved significantly leftward, toward a repudiation of the war.  For two years Friedrich, following in the footstep of his conciliatory father, worked to prevent a split in the Austrian Social Democratic Party.  Thereafter he left the leadership to his friend Bauer and took up the the cause of internationalism. He went to Brussels and led the weak but renewed Socialist and Workers’ International. He continued his social democratic activism until his death in Switzerland in 1960.  At considerable risk to himself, he helped Jewish refugees escape from Hitler during World War II.

“Red Vienna.”  As for the new Austrian Republic, its policies fulfilled many of the demands made in the Hainfeld Social Democratic program of 1889: freedom of speech and assembly, universal suffrage, free public education, an eight-hour work day, factory councils giving workers more control over the conditions of their labor.  These reforms improved the lives of  Austria’s working and middle classes substantially, despite extremely adverse economic circumstances and fierce right-wing opposition.  Vienna, the capital of the new republic and the fourth largest city in Europe, became a showcase for economic, political, and cultural achievements enabled by municipal social democracy.  These achievements were undone when fascists seized power in the 1930s, but came back to life when World War II ended.

In the 1920s, Vienna’s municipal government became the largest landowner in the city and funded a massive project to provide public housing for the poor. Among the 370 so-called “people’s palaces” that were built, this one, Bebelhof, contained 301 apartments. Its courtyard, shown above, encouraged cooperative activities.

Main courtyard and facade of the Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna, built between 1926 and 1930.   The area shown here was partly destroyed in 1934 when working-class residents of Karl-Marx-Hof fought to defend their new home from assault by fascist militias.

Appendix: Friedrich Adler’s Description of the Assassination

Friday at noon, I received a call in my office and Dr. Hartman informed me that the [university] meeting was forbidden and … I was infuriated. With full temper the thought came to me that one must not under any conditions allow this to go unanswered. Now was the time to implement the long-weighed plan: to kill Stürgkh. This decision remained constant until the completion of the act, and from Friday mid-day I began earnestly to figure out the action and set myself to it,

My intention was above all to continue my work in the normal way in order not to allow myself to become suspect. In the evening I even went to a meeting that had long been agreed to (which had nothing to do with the assassination, but was about the question of the press commission). As I came home that evening I had the clear thought that this would be the last time I would sleep in my apartment. On Saturday morning early I put the revolver in my pocket and dressed myself in style to go and eat in the Hotel Meisnel and Schaden. I had known for a long time that Stürgkh normally ate his mid-day meal there.  I considered it a likely possibility that I could implement my intention.  I also knew that Stürgkh often patronized a certain coffeehouse, but I could not remember which one it was.  So, having forgotten the café, I decided on the hotel as the only possibility.

I concluded my work on Saturday morning in the normal way and believed that no one suspected anything except for my mother. I called her on the telephone and informed her that I would not be coming to eat and she concluded from my voice that there must be something wrong. She assumed that I did not want to come to lunch. I believe that I answered her by saying: Yes, I am upset and in fact frustrated. Only following the assassination was it clear to me that my mother understood me and that she noticed even the slightest variation in my condition. I left the office a few minutes before one and went quickly back to my apartment to retrieve the keys from the maid who cleaned the room, because I did not want her to have the keys in case I was captured. I then rode the tram into the city, and I still remember that I was very impatient while I was getting off at Neuermarkt; I was anxious to get in the hotel because I was afraid that the mid-day hour  had already passed. I thought to myself, however, that according to the normal working hours of the ministry offices it was most likely that the Minister was eating a little late.

Naturally there was a whole row of conflicting ideas in my mind as I entered the hotel. On the one hand I had the feeling that it was very important that the assassination should be concluded on this Saturday because it would be associated with the forbidding of the university meeting.   In this way the assassination would be politically useful.  On the other hand, naturally, there was still the hope: perhaps it will not work and it won’t be necessary to act. Perhaps he won’t be there or it just won’t be possible to carry it out. I had no idea where he sat or what kind of safety rules might get in the way or how I could approach him.

With these feelings I passed through the lower restaurant and did not see him. Then I went up the stairs, took off my hat and coat in the outer hall, and went into the dining room. He was the first person I saw.  At this moment I was struck by the recognition: “Now the decision has come.” I tried with all my power to control myself. I took the table that was the first empty one near his. It was opposite the doorway, two tables separating me from him. I ordered a meal in rather mild words as I remember and took the greatest efforts to gather myself. The first words I uttered were with the waiter: in the most common, casual manner I asked, ”Is that not the Minister President?” He affirmed that it was. I asked this question because in my upset condition I wanted an objective affirmation that it was in fact Stürgkh, whom I had not seen since the closing of Parliament in January, 1914.

An hour and 15 minutes passed until the enactment of the assassination. There were always things happening that got in the way, that made me keep putting off the act. At first I noticed that at the next table, a lady was sitting separated by a pillar from Stürgkh.  I couldn’t tell if she was alone or with company but I told myself that a possibility existed that one of the shots would go between the wall and the pillar and hit an innocent person. I decided to wait until Stürgkh stood and was leaving the room, which would bring him past my table. I thought that I would shoot him in that moment. Stürgkh, however, remained seated; he entertained first one man and then another came to him. I had paid the waiter right after receiving my food and became impatient. I feared that my sitting so long after having paid would make me noticeable; I didn’t know if my nervousness inside was visible.

At about 15 minutes after two, the table behind Stürgkh became free. I said to myself, “Now the moment has come.” But I found again small external situations (people coming and going) that got in the way of my decision. Finally, it was nearing 2:30 and for a moment there was no one in the near vicinity. I stood up and went to the table of Stürgkh, and pulled the revolver out of my right coat pocket. I had removed everything else from it during the meal so that I could grab it easily, and I had also reached into my pocket to undo the safety lock. I went to Stürgkh and fired three or four shots into his head, as far as I know. I then yelled loudly: “Down with absolutism, we want peace!”  I had come up with this motto for my deed while I sat at the table.  Shouting it required great effort.  Then I was exhausted and did nothing further. I only know that my thoughts were I would have return to the crowd below and the officers would surely draw their swords and go at me. I therefore went into the foyer ….

I did not see Stürgkh fall; the only impression that I have of him is a blot of blood, I believe, on the left cheek, during or after the shots. I also know that I held my arm half forward with the revolver in my hand as long as I was in the hall. Whether I changed the position of shooting or not I do not know. In the foreroom I was immediately surrounded by many people who pressed at me from all directions. I know that someone hit me on the collar from the back and then an officer hit me with a sword and someone pulled off my glasses. At that moment I had only one thought – to get away in order not to be sacrificed to lynch justice. I shouted at the people: “I will place myself before a judge, I am Dr. Adler.” All of a sudden I had some space and could take a few steps forward. A man came to me and said, “My name is police agent Muller.” I declared, “Please I will go peacefully with you.” He took me by the arm and we went into a nearby room. While I was surrounded by people, before police agent Muller came, I heard one more shot, whether I had the revolver in my hand or whether it had fallen earlier I do not know. I could not even say whether the shot was in the same room as I was or whether it was in the dining hall.  A minute or two after the police agent Muller had arrived I was given my hat and coat and taken into the restaurant office.

During the hour while I waited for the actual enactment of the assassination I was very upset, hence at times I felt a strong pounding of my heart. Hesitations about the act came into my consciousness. These hesitations arose not because I was going to end Stürgkh’s life, but because it was clear that I was going to take my own life. But next to that came the thought of my duty to complete the assassination. Every man is full of the lust for life, which holds one in the world; the organs clamor to live.

This termination of my life was difficult to countenance. Following the final decision to act my soul’s balance turned, and I felt a definite peace replacing my other feelings. This consciousness came to me as I sat in the office, especially in discussion with the police president who had arrived, completely out of sorts.

While I sat in the office for about five or ten minutes (that is just a guess) I heard of the President’s request for a police ambulance. I had the strongest feeling that the assassination had not been successful and that Stürgkh might only have been injured. This upset me and I feared that thereby the intended impact of the assassination would fail to occur, that Stürgkh might be able to remain in office despite his injuries, and that the foreign public and the Emperor would not get the message. On the other hand I had the thought that if he died from the injuries, he might have to suffer a great deal, which had not been my intention…. I did not want to ask whether he was dead and did not really have absolute confirmation for several days … When I perceived that I had succeeded, a condition of complete peace and acceptance came to me.