Revolutions spreading across Europe in 1848 brought a wave of liberal immigrants full of anti-statist fervor into the United States, many of whom settled in central Texas, Cincinnati, and Chicago. Fleeing autocracy in Europe, and with the words of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, published that year, still ringing in their ears, they brought a culture distinctly different than that prominent among the city’s first settlers, who were largely of New England Congregational stock. Germans and German-Americans constituted around 15% of the population in 1850, and grew steadily to around 20% by the 1880s.
Germans were unapologetic in their appreciation of brewed alcoholic beverages, liberal in their politics, and they formed an insular population largely concentrated in North and West side neighborhoods. American-born Chicagoans were suspicious of these immigrants, many of whom spoke no English and rarely dealt with non-Germans. Germans suffered discrimination at the hands of government and police, as during the Lager Beer Riots of 1855.
Chicago largely escaped the spectre of Communism that haunted Europe during the 1850s and 1860s, but the prolonged recession of the 1870s brought greater conflicts between workers and employers throughout America. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which was really a general strike, not confined to railroads, strangled the country’s transportation system from coast-to-coast, and illustrated graphically the ability of workers to unite and wreck havoc on the economy if their demands were ignored. Early labor leader Samuel Gompers called the ’77 strike “the tocsin [alarm bell] that sounded a ringing message of hope to us all.”
At the time, Chicago had two German language newspapers: the Staats-Zeitung (“state newspaper”), and the Neue Freie Presse. The Staats-Zeitung was Republican in its politcs, while the Freie Presse was Democrat. In 1877, a third paper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung (“worker’s newspaper”), began publishing, with editorials expressing socialist perspectives, edited by Paul Grottkau. The Arbeiter-Zeitung’s original headquarters was on S. Wells st. (then Fifth Ave.), where it became America’s first regularly-published Socialist publication. The editors of the three papers despised each other, and were frequently embroiled in libel suits based on personal attacks published in their pages.
In its early stages, socialism in Chicago was largely dismissed as the wild ranting of those who went tilting at windmills. A Tribune editorial on the occasion of a socialist picnic took the tone of mild mockery:
There was neither murder, nor arson, nor robbery. Several unoffending beer-kegs were valorously stormed at the point of a nickel; many innocent blades of grass – aristocratic grass, perhaps – were trodden under the heel of the proletariat; muslin dresses were frayed and tumbled in the rude clasp of labor while whirling in the waltz; contributions of 25 cents were extorted from the capitalists and city officers who visited the grounds; the grinding monopolies of the land were taken by the throat by Parsons and other speakers and choked until they howled again; and in the dim recesses of the grove wild work was done with the sausage and the ham-sandwich.Over time, however, the Arbeiter-Zeitung became increasingly radical, ranging from socialist to anarchist under the influence of noted New York radical Johann Most, who edited his own publication there. While the Arbeiter-Zeitung was largely unreadable to most Chicagoans, who did not speak German, incendiary fragments would occasionally be translated for publication in English-language newspapers, which generally condemned the violent rants.
A July, 1879 editorial in the Tribune was not exactly impartial towards’ the Zeitung’s editor, Paul Grottkau:
The acknowledged leader of the Socialistic party in the City of Chicago is Paul Grottkau, a fugitive from Berlin, Germany. He is extreme in his views, narrow, ignorant, and in a measure, shrewd and eloquent. He is a man of much personal magnetism, though cowardly in his instincts and methods. Though for many years a resident of Chicago, he does not speak the English language, and, apparently does not care to learn. He knows little of American institutions, and is an agitator and a revolutionist by instinct and education. He is more to be feared, perhaps, than any man of his class in Chicago, not because he has the courage to carry out his schemes, but because he has the power to sod a movement on foot which he may not be able to control or stop.The Tribune then went on to quote the editor of the Neue Freie-Presse at length regarding Grottkau’s supposedly cowardly history and violent tendencies.
In 1880, the Arbeiter-Zeitung was on the verge of bankruptcy, and a young, well-educated and successful upholsterer from Wicker Park, August Spies, was brought on as business manager. Spies, who had immigrated to New York in 1872, came to Chicago in 1876, and was successfully supporting his mother, sister, and three brothers, all of whom he helped bring to America in the 1870s. Spies had become a socialist during the Railroad Strike of 1877, and had begun associating with its most radical elements in Chicago, including the militaristic Lehr-und-Wehr Verein (roughly, the “education and resistance committee”). By 1880, when he began work at the Arbeiter-Zeitung, he was a committed anarchist.
(Pictured: August Spies, who was considered exceptionally handsome)
It was in that year that Cook County Recorder of Deeds James W. Brockway sued the editorial staff of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, including Grottkau and Spies, for besmirching his character. The radical newspaper had printed an editorial urging votes against Brockway, claiming he had fired most of the male workers in his office, and that “he now has at times from twenty-five to thirty unfortunate female beings about him, who have to submit to his beastly desires.”
Grottkau and Spies were arrested and placed under $1,000 bail. The Tribune, never a friend to socialists, described the scene:
The Communistic journalists found difficulty in procuring bail, and remained in the Justice’s office several hours, when [Socialist Labor Party] Alderman Frank Stauber signed their bonds, and they were again at liberty to set their smut-mill in operation.The violent rhetoric of the radicals, led by the editors of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, which became increasingly insurrectionary over time, inflamed sentiments against German-Americans in Chicago, and gave the impression that vast cabals were being formed to overthrow law and
It was in this mood that the public witnessed the role of the Arbeiter-Zeitung at the Haymarket massacre. August Spies, who upon the retirement of Paul Grottkau in 1883, was named editor of the paper, was one of the featured speakers at the meeting that evening. On May 5, 1886, the day after the riot, police showed up at the newspaper’s editorial office to arrest Spies, along with Michael Schwab, the associate editor. In their search of the Wells St. offices, they claimed to find a large stash of dynamite and other explosive materials in a closet adjoining Spies’ office, which the police toted to the lakefront at Randolph Street and destroyed.
(Pictured: Michael Schwab, associate editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung)
In the red scare that followed Haymarket, some questioned whether authorities should have allowed the incendiary publication to continue unregulated. In a speech that could have been given today (though with a different terrorist target in mind), Mayor Carter Harrison
argued for a “blowback” theory:
Talk about my encouraging Socialism and Anarchism! They [my opponents] ought to recollect when I was elected to the Mayoralty there were 11,000 and odd votes for the Socialistic candidates. By allowing them free speech, by not interrupting them – treating them as if they were citizens – the best element got out from among them and today Spies himself doesn’t claim that there are over 3,000 Socialists in the city, and I doubt if there are 1,000 Anarchists….I still believe the best thing to do is not to oppress that class of people where there is no violence – not to give them the feeling that they are being oppressed, because opposition always causes that class to grow.Spies and Schwab, along with Adolph Fischer and Oscar Neebe, who were also employed at the paper, were convicted of murder in the Haymarket matter, supposedly bring dynamite to the meeting and handing it to the bomb-thrower. Spies and Fischer were hanged, and Neebe was sentenced to 15 years, while Schwab asked for, and received, a commutation to life sentence from the Governor. Both Schwab and Neebe later received full pardons and were released from prison.
After Haymarket, the Arbeiter-Zeitung’s printer, which was located on the same block in Wells Street, refused to work with the radical paper’s editorial staff, and so headquarters was moved to 727 W. Roosevelt (at the time, number 274 12th St.), near Halsted, the site of which is pictured above, deeper into the working-class neighborhoods where anarchist sympathies were
maintained. The paper continued publishing material despised by most Chicagoans, including an annual jeremiad against the Thanksgiving holiday, and increasingly anti-Christian rhetoric. An editorial in the Arbeiter-Zeitung on the date of the hangings of Spies and Fischer indicated
We are honest, and acknowledge that we have lost a battle….We mourn the loss of these eloquent, true, brave, and proud men , sacrificed to Mammon….Up, comrades, and begin the work anew. Hear not the specious promises of peace which sentimentalists whisper in your ear. We are at war – at war with a society that has at its throat a moral cancer like that destroying the throat of the German Crown Prince. The forces of Nature are with us, or, as they used to say, God is helping. Nevertheless, we rely neither upon God, who mocks and fools such as hope and dally, nor upon Nature; we ourselves are Nature’s masterpiece, on which we must depend.After Spies' departure, the paper was edited by Gustav Belz, who had been active in the riot at the McCormick Reaper Works, which was the inspiration for the Haymarket meeting where the massacre occurred. Consistent with Mayor Harrison's theory, Belz claimed that the Haymarket massacre doubled the circulation of the Arbeiter-Zeitung in less than six months, and in August 1886, he claimed 6,000 subscribers.
Despite their unsentimental rhetoric, Belz (as well as his successor, Jens Christiansen) disavowed violence, and urged workingmen to seek their rights through the ballot and the pen. This led to some divisions within the paper, and the more radical elements of the socialist movement departed from the Arbeiter-Zeitung after Haymarket.
This didn’t stop the Tribune and other conservative elements from heaping scorn on “the flaming torch,” as the Arbeiter paper became known. After a November, 1891 speech by an anarchist, Weissman, at the graves of the four men hanged for their roles at Haymarket, the Tribune editorialized in a column headlined, “Is This Kind of Free Speech to Be Allowed?”:
Do the demagogue papers which are truckling to the Anarchists of Chicago and the boodle Aldermen who are in the same vile business think that speeches of this Weismann stamp are the proper mental food for excitable, ignorant foreigners who may act any minute on the bloodthirsty advice given them by these revolutionary orators?The Arbeiter-Zeitung continued publishing into the 20th century. In 1917, its offices were raided by the police during the wave of anti-German fervor that swept the country during WWI. The police stated that the editors had “grown bold in their criticisms of the government.” In 1918, the U.S. District Attorney for Illinois seized the books of the paper after a flyer supporting the Russian Bolshevik revolution was printed and distributed from the Arbeiter-Zeitung offices.
The Arbeiter-Zeitung continued publishing until 1933, the need for an expressly German press in Chicago having waned and other, nationwide, socialist newspapers having supplanted the role of the country’s first continuously-printed radical publication.
Where the Arbeiter-Zeitung once officed after Haymarket, the new and beautiful UIC Forum convention center now stands.