Max Nettlau

The name of the International Institute of Social History (1935) very nearly was the Max Nettlau Institute, after the first and greatest historian of the anarchist movement, Max Nettlau (1865-1944). But Nettlau himself detested such honored accolades.

In well-informed circles, Max Nettlau was known as the 'Herodotus of Anarchy', the first and greatest historian of the anarchist movement. The name of the International Institute of Social History (1935) very nearly was the Max Nettlau Institute. But Max Nettlau himself detested such honored accolades. Unlike the Wichtigmacher, he preferred the humble and marginal phenomena that are on the verge of disappearing. He wrote his PhD on Celtic languages, Welsh in particular, and as an amateur bird-watcher he thoroughly researched the species of the tiny siskin.

But most of all he collected documents on social history, preferably not the general surveys and monographs, but rather the handouts, pamphlets, bulletins, and papers from the social movements themselves. At the end of his life, Nettlau, with his enormous collection of archives and printed materials, brought the Institute into blossom.

Formative years
Max Nettlau and his parents Max Nettlau was born on 30 April 1865 in Neuwaldegg (Austria) in a well-to-do family. His father, a prince's court gardener, taught him to love nature. Nettlau became a student of philology and specialized in Welsh, which brought him to the British Museum. In 1887 he obtained his doctorate with a thesis called Beiträge zur cymrischen Grammatik.
Even as a child, Nettlau noted in his memoirs, he 'somehow considered the supporter of any government system as a seriously defective person'. As a student he became interested in socialism, and in London he became a member of the Socialist League, the only organization he was ever to join. Nettlau regarded himself as an anarchist-communist amidst socialists of various national and denominational backgrounds. He began to write articles for John Most's Freiheit, and he befriended famous anarchists like Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, and Errico Malatesta.

Biographer of Bakunin
Freedom Press Office In 1892, a considerable inheritance enabled Nettlau to start research on the patriarch of anarchism, Michail Bakunin. He traveled througout Europe to interview people who had known Bakunin (1814-1876) personally and to collect materials. This resulted in a three-volume biography (1896-1900) and many subsequent publications on Bakunin. Fifty copies of the biography were 'autocopied' by Nettlau himself on the precursor of the mimeograph. He later described his Bakunin biography as a 'piece of furniture which I sent to some people's home address but they had no room for it ... I gave it as a present to libraries and the majority stocked it properly, but probably it has disappeared from the shelves, in some cases just as well...'

At the same time Nettlau compiled a Bibliographie de l'Anarchie (Brussels 1897). Another voluminous work of his, Geschichte der Anarchie [History of Anarchism] was published in phases: the three first volumes came out from 1925 to 1931, three others during the 1980s, and the remaining volumes have yet to be published. Characteristically, Nettlau did not bother to promote this work, which is still an authoritative history of anarchist ideas. Many smaller contributions by Nettlau were published, mainly in Freedom.

The siskin
The siskin Nettlau's interest in the tiny siskin began to grow at the beginning of the twentieth century. Possibly there is a connection with the untimely death of his fiancée, Therese Bognar, in 1907. Only a small number of his friends knew about her. In general Nettlau hardly spoke about personal matters at all. From 1907 to 1920 he would write his diary in the form of letters to his deceased fiancée.

Back in the British Museum he scrutinized and inventoried the fifty species and subspecies of the siskin worldwide. The plumage of one particular siskin in South America had his special attention. Nettlau memorized these explorations into the world of animals, for they 'showed him the uselessness of stereotypical explanations, no matter whether they were from Marx, the Darwinians, or Kropotkin'.

Nettlau hated training animals and he pitied timid circus lions equally with fleas in flea circuses. There is probably a parallel here in his rejection of Leninism and Stalinism, the hair-splitting and fanaticism among Marxists. Nettlau preferred to make people feel personally responsible in an ethical sense. 'Anyone who fails to liberate himself spiritually and morally can only expect to fall victim to submission one way or another.'

Collecting materials
Max Nettlau September 1890 All his life Nettlau combed through bookstalls, antiquarian bookshops, and private collections in search of special documents. He set himself the task of purchasing at least a thousand items a month. This is how he described his acquisitions policy in 1920:

'I noticed how often libraries purchase general surveys about particular subjects and how any serious research is bound to have endless gaps; how pamphlets, periodicals, and collections of flyers tend to disappear or become dispersed and can only be partially reconstructed with great difficulty. This does not count manuscripts, letters and other material, or oral traditions of short duration. For this reason I tried to collect these rare materials from the beginning....'

Unknowingly, Nettlau defined the acquisitions policy of the IISH up to the present.

The First World War and the inflation that followed nearly reduced Nettlau to penury. Parts of his collection had been stored in various depositories, and this cost money that he did not have. Nettlau searched for a proper library that would shelter his collection, but various initiatives ran aground. In 1935 the librarian of the IISH, Annie Adama van Scheltema, tactfully drew up a contract with him. Finally Nettlau was able to buy the coal heater he so badly needed, whereas the Institute now owned the largest collection on anarchism in the world, as well as many other fine materials.

In 1938, when the Anschluss took place in Austria, Nettlau happened to be in Amsterdam and he decided to stay there. He was pleased to work on describing his own collection and other relevant archives. The Nettlau collection filled three large classrooms at the IISH. Sadly, though, he had to witness the occupation of the Institute and the transport of his collection by the Nazis to the East. He did not live to see the return of his papers after the war, as he died on 23 July 1944.

After his death his private papers came to the IISH. The Institute can also thank Max Nettlau for many other important archives: the manuscripts of Bakunin and the archive of the Socialist League are but two examples.

  • Text: Margreet Schrevel, with the kind aid of Ursula Balzer


  • 'Biographische und bibliographische Daten von Max Nettlau, März 1940', a manuscript edited by Rudolf de Jong in International Review of Social History Vol. 14 (1969) 444-482
  • Heiner Becker, 'Einleitung' in Max Nettlau, Geschichte der Anarchie, vol 1-3 (Reprint Der Vorfrühling der Anarchie, 1925; Der Anarchismus von Proudhon bis Kropotkin, 1927; Anarchisten und Sozialrevolutionäre, 1931), hrsg. von Heiner Becker (Münster 1993, 1996), p. VII-XXIII; p. VII-XVI; p. VII-XVIII
  • Maria Hunink, 'Das Schicksal einer Bibliothek. Max Nettlau und Amsterdam' in International Review of Social History Vol. 27 (1982) 4-42