Max Nettlau Papers

Biographical / Historical Note

Born in Neuwaldegg, Austria 1865, died in Amsterdam 1944; anarchist historian, collector and scholar; studied philology and Celtic (dissertation `Beiträge zur cymrischen Grammatik', 1887); lived partly in Vienna, partly in London and travelled all over Europe to collect and to save historical documents on anarchism and socialism and for his studies; member of the Socialist League 1885-1890, active in the Torch and Freedom group; wrote historical works on anarchism with invaluable information and theoretical studies; printed by autocopyist his biography of Michail Bakunin, 3 vols. 1896-1900, and published `Bibliographie de l'anarchie' 1897; lost during the inflation after the First World War the money he had inherited, and lived in poverty in Vienna; continued to collect and to publish e.g. biographies of Errico Malatesta and Elisée Reclus, and a history of anarchism in 7 vols.; sold his immense collection (books, periodicals, archives, documents) to the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in 1935 and lived in Amsterdam after the `Anschluss'.


The IISH acquired this collection in 1935 with financial support of the Centrale Arbeiders-Verzekerings- en Deposito-Bank (the Centrale). The collection was mentioned in the Annual Report of 1948 (p.33). The contract was signed 1935.


The inventory lists Nettlau’s papers, collected documents and documentation, as well as some papers of family and personal friends. Most of these are in German, although there are many documents in English and French, also by Nettlau himself. Fewer documents are in Celtic, Spanish, Italian and a smattering of other languages. Nettlau often wrote in shorthand using the Gabelsberger method (still in use) which means he writes in German, although it may concern notes of an English spoken meeting. In 1919 Nettlau made a very detailed survey of his papers and collected documents (inv. no. 2541). In it he also describes the contents of the series notes written in shorthand.

These include his small diary notebooks which contain notes in shorthand on day to day activities as well as details of the events in the socialist movement in London and Paris and stories about earlier periods and the First International until 1890 (inv. nos. 1-5). From 1891 until 1907 the emphasis shifts to his Bakunin studies and topics like the ‘infamous Coulon provocation’ and the persecution of anarchists in France from 1892-1894 (inv. nos. 6-19).
Apart from the diaries, shorthand notes from this period also include his Bakunin notes partly made during his journeys to Switzerland and Italy (see inv. nos. 1728-1767), the notes in the section Membership and Participation (inv. nos. 1626-1665) and the notes primarily from newspapers on socialism and anarchism (inv. nos. 3142-3145). Based on these shorthand notes he wrote much later, in 1940, an account in regular handwriting covering the period c. 1879-1898 (inv. nos. 21-29).
He continued his diary in the form of letters to his late fiancée Therese Bognar from May 29, 1907 until March 25, 1919. This sizable series, not all written in shorthand, covers a wide range of topics. The daily entries contain accounts of daily events, personal impressions of his contacts with socialists and anarchists, memories of his journeys between 1892 and 1900. He also wrote down ideas, freely discussing anarchism and socialism. When matured, these concepts found their way into letters to Jacques Gross and James Guillaume, sometimes to Jacques Mesnil or Petr Kropotkin and later also to Gustav Landauer. Copies of these and other letters from 1907 are included in the diary, as well as anecdotes, polemics, descriptions, impressions of nature during journeys and trips and care for the flowers on Therese’s grave (inv. no. 30-74).
The diary also contained observations on siskins and excerpts of ornithological literature of the British Museum. Nettlau later took the pages from 1911-1913 out of the series and they have been described separately (inv. nos. 1511-1513). Shorter references to ornithology can still be found in the letters to Therese.
Nettlau had to give up keeping a diary in 1921 because of lack of time. Making a living by writing articles took up too much of it. Next to the diaries he also wrote his memoirs at the end of the 1930s ( ‘Lebenschronik’ inv. nos. 84-89) and another extensive version in the 1940s (‘Erinnerungen und Eindrücke’ inv. nos. 92-123).

As the General correspondence shows, Nettlau also devoted much time to writing letters. It contains letters by over a 1000 correspondents from all over the world, mostly anarchists, initially also many socialists. It is certain that Nettlau kept all his letters from the period 1882 until 1919 (and probably also of the later period) making it a very valuable historical source in its own right. Letters dealing exclusively with collecting often addressed to (antiquarian) booksellers have been organized in a separate series placed in the section Collecting activities (inv. nos. 2181-2459).

The notes of lectures and excerpts made during his Comparative Studies of Indo-European Languages are often incomplete and only partly sorted (inv. nos. 1346-1372). Proper sorting and identification of the languages would have required expert help and a considerable extra time investment. This was not considered opportune as Nettlau never took the trouble of (re)arranging or identifying them himself. He thought the lectures of little interest with a few exceptions, in particular those of Professor Johannes Schmidt in Berlin, who taught Greek, Gothic, Lithuanian, Sanskrit and Comparative grammar from 1882 until 1885. The excerpts from this period are all from well-known sources (inv. nos. 1346-1372). Papers from his university period have also been reused by Nettlau for later writings as he often did (see inv. nos. 1720, 2026, 2142-2165).
Where his Celtic studies are concerned the volumes of notes still may contain some interesting information according to Nettlau in 1919. These notes are based on books in Berlin and Vienna made in 1883-1886 and on Celtic manuscripts from the British museum made in 1885-1886 (see inv. nos. 1400-1412). Also still of interest to the expert he thought the excerpts and copies in folio made in London and Oxford in 1885-1886, which could not be identified, but if still present can only be mixed in with his notes relating to articles on Welsh and Irish text (inv. nos. 1433-1438). The notes for his dissertation and the published Welsh and Irish articles he no longer considered relevant (inv. no. 2541, p. 31-32).

The section Membership and participation contains many notes (in shorthand) of meetings and conferences until c. 1897 at which Nettlau was present. These notes were often meant for articles published in the Commonweal (London), Freedom (London), Temps Nouveau (Paris), Freiheit (New York) and other publications. In his collection description of 1919 Nettlau has summed up these and later articles he wrote (inv. no. 2541, p. 2-10).

The section Authorship contains the manuscripts of his books and articles published or unpublished, as well as (draft)notes, proofs and some other documents relating to the publication of his works. The manuscripts have been arranged chronologically together with the concepts, different versions and notes belonging to them. Apart from notes made for a specific manuscript there is also a large general series of academic notes which in part covers the same subjects, including Bakunin, Buonarotti, the secret societies and other topics. Nettlau made indices to these notes (c. 11,500 pages in total) and lists to enable him to find the information he needed. He developed a code using the letters A-N, initially for the notes from the period 1887-c.1892 (inv. nos. 2036-2124), assigning each letter to a specific country or subject. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s he added the letters P-RYZ (inv. nos. 2089-2113). He also distinguished between the different series of notes according to paper size, referring to octavo, folio and quarto notes. With some small additions, he continued to use this system all his life. As Nettlau often reused his own papers a (new) manuscript sometimes has been written on the back of an older one or on some other papers.

Nettlau’s catalogues (inv. nos. 2513-2539) listed in the section Collecting activities are written in tiny script in notebooks no larger than quarto because he took them with him on his journeys to facilitate the collecting. They include many bibliographical details, but do not cover his whole collection. Most of the materials received after 1928 are not listed, including the printed material collected for him in London from 1914. There is only one catalogue covering c. 1928 until 1936 (inv. no. 2536).

In the section Collected documents and subject files the documents on persons are a mixture of original papers of these persons combined with notes and excerpts by Nettlau and documentation he collected. The persons concerned were in part his contemporaries, friends and acquaintances, in part they have been the subject of his historical research, and in several cases both. Nettlau received some of the original papers directly from the owner. The file of Petr Kropotkin, which contains a more sizable part of his personal papers, was partly given to Nettlau. Edoardo Milano trusted Nettlau to safeguard some of his papers. Paul Robin probably also gave him his file relating to the First International himself together with the cipher code used by Bakunin (inv. no. 2541, p. 44, 63-64).
Nettlau clearly used most of these files for his writings and some of them, i.e. Ernest Coeurderoy, Errico Malatesta and Elisée Reclus also contained manuscripts. These have been placed in the section Authorship, while some documents relating to Bakunin, found with the manuscripts have been transferred to the section Collected documents and subject files.
Nettlau’s rather holistic approach also showed in his files relating to Elisée Reclus to which his own correspondence with Reclus was added. As the correspondence was not limited to a specific subject it has been transferred to the General correspondence. Apart from ironing out inconsistencies like these the documents in this section have been kept together as much as possible the way Nettlau organized them.
This is also the case with the documents relating to organizations and congresses with part of which he had ties, while others are purely collected. They include a file of records of the Commonweal Group as well as the records of the Anarchist-Socialist and Anti-Parliamentary Committee of the International Socialist Workers and Trade Union Congress held in London in 1896. Nettlau was present at the Congress and involved in the work of the Committee, but Joseph Perry was the secretary. On the other hand, the records of the Freie Lehrerstimme were a chance discovery and he was not in any way involved in it.

The section Documentation contains all kind of smaller printed documents collected by Nettlau, i.e. leaflets, bulletins, circular letters, programs, statutes, announcements etc. Finally Nettlau’s collection of clippings has been kept the way it was. Nettlau had sorted his clippings into files by country and subject. The descriptions in the inventory are based on the superscriptions he wrote on them. Within this substantial amount of files the clippings were not in a specific order. This has not been rectified.


Although most of the Nettlau collection was recovered after World War II it did not come through unscathed. Some important unpublished manuscripts were lost from the part sent to England according to the IISH Annual Report of 1948. It is not clear if any or how many papers were not returned from Poland in 1956.
Some documents listed in his collection description of 1919 are missing. He mentions a manuscript ‘Geschichte meiner Sammlung’ (2 Vol., quarto, 490 pages) written in 1915-1916 which is no longer present. It included a survey of his life from 1890 until 1907 because as he stated, his life revolved more and more around his collection (inv. no. 2541, p. 29). Of Nettlau’s collection of postcards originally 7 boxes and a packet, only a small part is still present, although it had been moved to Amsterdam in the 1930s (inv. no. 1518). His stamps are missing too (inv. no. 2541, p. 50).
Relatively much is missing from his parents’ papers probably because Nettlau did not keep the documents for reasons of privacy. No appraisal has taken place during the process of arrangement.


Personal documents; correspondence with his fiancée Therese Bognar 1901-1907, after her death in 1907 continued in the form of letters to her with the character of a diary 1907-1921; diaries, handwritten memoirs and notes until 1944; correspondence with many persons and organizations, including Diego Abad de Santillán 1922-1937, Annie Adama van Scheltema 1935-1944, Marussia Bakunin 1901-1940, Alexander Berkman 1908-1936, Luigi Bertoni 1900-1939, Gustave Brocher 1923-1931, Fritz Brupbacher 1912-1940, Varlaam and Frida Čerkezov 1892-1934, Lilly and Christiaan Cornelissen 1897-1938, Victor Dave 1887-1922, A. Davies 1898-1912, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis 1896-1913, Stephanus Fabijanović 1896-1933, Raphael Friedeberg 1933-1939, Emma Goldman 1899-1939, Jean Grave 1888-1934, Jacques Gross 1893-1928, Lucien and Louise Guérineau 1897-1938, James Guillaume 1891-1915, Gertrud Guillaume-Schack 1887-1903, Charles Hotz 1921-1937, Thomas H. Keell 1904-1938, Harry M. Kelly 1899-1940, Petr Kropotkin 1892-1913, Gustav Landauer 1893-1919, Arthur Lehning 1924-1936, Errico Malatesta 1889-1932, Alfred Marsh 1895-1911, Theodor Mauthner 1897-1921, Elena Malatesta-Melli 1932-1937, Vero Merlino 1920-1938, Saverio Merlino 1892-1921, Jacques Mesnil 1897-1940, Louise Michel 1895-1898, Federica Montseny 1927-1940, Siegfried Nacht (Stephen Naft) 1907-1937, Boris Nikolaevskij 1925-1940, Joseph Presburg (Perry) 1896-1900, Pierre Ramus 1904-1933, Elisée Reclus 1892-1904, Paul Reclus 1895-1939, Rudolf Rocker 1895-1941, Alfred Sanftleben 1895-1938, Alexander Schapiro 1906-1936, Augustin Souchy 1923-1937, Paraškev Stojanov 1891-1939, Max Winkler 1922-1933 and Albert Zibelin 1892-1914; manuscripts of his books and many articles, and of unpublished studies; bibliographical and other notes of his studies; files on Kropotkin, consisting of some manuscripts and printer's proofs of Kropotkin's `Memoirs of a revolutionist', `Mutual aid' and of a study on Russian literature, transcripts of letters from Kropotkin to James Guillaume, Luigi Bertoni, Victor Dave, Paul Robin and others, letters from Fritz Brupbacher, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, Saverio Merlino, James Guillaume, Alfred Marsh, Marie Goldsmith, Čerkezov and others to Max Nettlau, concerning Peter Kropotkin 1912, notes, manuscripts; files on Ernest Coeurderoy, Errico Malatesta, Elisée Reclus and others; documentation on anarchist and socialist persons and organizations in Great Britain (Socialist League, Freedom, Fabians), France, Russia, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, International Socialist Congresses 1889-1907, etc.; leaflets, press clippings, etc.

Processing Information

Inventory made by Tiny de Boer, Atie van der Horst and Ursula Balzer in 2007

Revised for purposes of digitization by Eva van Oene in 2015.

Alternative Form of Material

Complete Papers digitized as part of the Centrale Project 2012-2016.
Security microfilms (2007) 325 microfilms of invno. 1-3910