UC Santa Barbara > History Department | Courses > Faculty > Prof. Marcuse > Projects > Oral History > Dietzgen Family History Page
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Josef Dietzgen

Vera Dietzgen Feldmann on
Josef Dietzgen (1828-1888)
and the Dietzgen Family

A Family Perspective on a
German Socialist Philosopher

oral history project by Joshua Morris
(History major at UC Santa Barbara)
May 2008
advised by Prof. Harold Marcuse

page created December 20, 2011, last updated 2/26/12

Dietzgen Family Biography
Interview Summaries
Josef - Eugen Dietzgen Correspondence,

Introduction (back to top)

  • In March 2008 a member of the Santa Barbara Historical Society approached the UC Santa Barbara Public History program to find someone who could conduct an interview with the 93-year-old granddaughter of a seminal communist philosopher, Josef Dietzgen, a contemporary and intimus of Karl Marx.
  • Undergraduate student Joshua Morris from San Diego, a very engaged senior history major who was applying to graduate programs in history, took on the task. In April he conducted two recorded interviews with Mrs Vera Feldmann, in the presence of her granddaughter Ruth Campbell. At times Ruth's husband Dan and her father Peter Feldmann were present as well.
  • In addition to the two interviews, for which Joshua compiled brief summaries, he wrote a biography of Vera. All of these are included below.
  • Joshua used the information he gleaned about Josef Dietzgen (often spelled Joseph, although he was named Peter Josef at birth) to augment the Joseph Dietzgen wikipedia page in May 2008. (He also made a Eugene Dietzgen page.)
  • This thumbnail biography of Dietzgen was found on the Fernwood Publishing webpage:

"Born near Cologne in 1828, Joseph Dietzgen worked most of his life as a tanner. A self-educated man, he participated in the Revolution of 1848 where he first read the writings of Karl Marx and became one of his supporters. Exiled from Germany after the failed revolution, he spent time in both America and Russia, where he wrote his most famous work The Nature of Human Brain Work, published in 1869, before returning to Germany. In 1884 he moved to the United States for the third and last time after being imprisoned in Germany for his political writing. He became editor of the anarchist Chicagoer Arbeiterzeitung when its previous editors were hanged in response to the Haymarket bombings. When he died two years later he was buried beside them in Chicago."

Dietzgen Family Biography (back to top)

    Vera Dietzgen Feldmann was born Vera Dietzgen in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1916. She currently lives in Santa Barbara, California with her daughter Ruth and her son-in-law Doug Campbell. She is currently the oldest living descendant of the 19th century socialist philosopher Josef Dietzgen. Her life story is compelling, it gives us a deeper look into the Dietzgen family descendants as well as provides more information about Josef himself. Mrs. Feldmann was interviewed to document her life story in an attempt to complete the history of the Dietzgen family and preserve her memories for future historical studies.

    Josef Dietzgen was born in 1828 and grew up near Cologne, Germany. He inherited a tannery business near his hometown on the Rhine River. Throughout his early life he was well known in the German socialist movement and eventually became one of the famed '48ers along with many other German socialists, including Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. After the failed 1848 revolution, he traveled across the United States South and wrote on the lynching and persecution he witnessed during the tense years leading up to the US Civil War.

    During the 1860s, Josef took his son Eugene to Russia while he was working with the Czar on building tanneries and perfecting Russian tanning methods. Here he wrote a book titled The Nature of Human Brain-Work, which was published in late 1869. During these travels his wife managed the tannery business back in Germany. By 1870, Karl Marx had announced that Josef Dietzgen was the philosopher of the socialist movement, and praised him extensively in the introduction to his 2nd edition of the first volume of Das Kapital. Most of Dietzgen's articles however could not be published in Germany after 1871[?], so he moved his newspaper to Switzerland.

    In 1880, Josef sent his son Eugen (born May 6, 1862) to the United States to avoid the Kaiser’s military draft. Eugene was 19 years old when he arrived in New York. After moving to Chicago, he started a drafting company known as Eugene Dietzgen Corp, which still is in operation today under different ownership. This drafting business specialized in designing and manufacturing tools used for architecture and scaling, such as a large wooden protractor. Mrs. Feldmann has an original Dietzgen Corporation protractor, as well as a complete catalog of their products from various time periods. During this time, Eugene kept in contact with his father Joseph through many letters. All of these letters, from May 1880 until May 1884, were transcribed by Eugene in 1904 and have been kept in a bound notebook by Mrs. Feldmann. Joseph died in early 1888 and was unable to continue helping his son. Eugene, however, was successful with his business for many years (he died in 1929). His American wife could not bear children, so he divorced her, packed up and moved back to Europe to meet with his family in 1912. There he met Vera’s mother, Magdalena Janssen (born 10/10/1888). They were married, but the outbreak of WWI changed their plans. The family was forced to relocate into the heart of Switzerland. Eugene had originally planned on taking his family back to the United States, but because of the U-boat menace leaving Europe was not a safe option. Because Eugene was no longer in the States, the Eugene Dietzgen company did not receive any military contracts. As a result, in 1929 Magdalena Dietzgen sent her children to the United States in order to study English and keep up the family business. These were Vera’s brothers Joseph, Eugene Jr, and Walter.

    Vera remained in Switzerland for two reasons. First, she had become attached to Switzerland as the home of her upbringing. Second, Eugene Dietzgen died that same year (in 1929), and Vera preferred to remain with her mother. During the early 1930s, Vera met Fritz Feldmann; whom she married in 1940. In 1936 Vera and her mother traveled to see the Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany in Berlin. There they supported the Swiss athletes, including Fritz Feldmann, who defeated the Nazis in the rowing competition, taking a silver medal after the US team of 8. Fritz Feldmann, like every other male in Switzerland at the time, was a member of the armed militia. At the outbreak of WW2, Fritz joined the Swiss air corps to fly captured Messerschmitts, while Vera enlisted with the anti-aircraft divisions, which at the time were made up predominantly of women. Both individuals served the Swiss military throughout the duration of the war. Vera’s middle brother Walter served in the US army, in bombing raids late in the war.

    After the war was over Fritz Feldmann needed to finish his master’s degree, so he decided travel with Vera and her mother to the United States. Vera’s mother suggested that they leave immediately and not wait for Vera's husband’s discharges to finalize. They made it to New York in the summer of 1946. Vera had to stay in New York for a while with help from her brother Walter, who was attending Harvard at the time. They moved to California, settling in Los Angeles, where they waited a full year to hear back from Fritz. Finally in 1947, Vera flew to New York, bought a car, and drove herself and her husband back to their home in California in August. Vera says that after only two days she was homesick for Switzerland, but had accepted the turn of events as what was best suited for her. The Feldmanns lived together for a while off PHC in West Los Angeles in a house made famous by a 1930s comedy featuring two men attempting to carry a large piano up an exorbitant number of stairs.

    Vera Dietzgen Feldmann now lives in Santa Barbara, California.
    In 2008 she is 93 years old, and still in great health.

Interview Summaries and Audio Recordings (back to top)

    Interview with Joseph Dietzgen's Granddaughter,
    Vera Dietzgen Feldman

    Joshua Morris interviewed Mrs. Vera Dietzgen Feldman on April 16th, 2008 at 1pm her daughter’s residence in the hills above Santa Barbara, California. (1 hr 2 min .wma file)

  • 0:45 – Mrs. Feldman describes her birth in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1916, to her "2nd hand" German-American father who fought in World War I. Her father, Eugene Dietzgen, was advised to go home to Germany after his tour [to renew his German dual citizenship?], but he went to Switzerland instead, attempting to gain tickets to America for the rest of the family.
  • 2:08 – The U-Boat menace of that year made it difficult to travel across the Atlantic, so the family decided it would be better to remain in Switzerland until the war was over. They remained long enough to become full Swiss citizens after 12 years in 1929; Mrs. Feldman’s father also died the same year in December.
  • 2:59 – Joseph Dietzgen sent his son, Eugene, to America after he finished his studies at the Gymnasium. His primary reason is that he did not want his son to serve in the Kaiser’s military.
  • 3:30 – Eugene Dietzgen was 19 when he arrived in New York. He worked for [Kauefle & Essen?], a drafting/drawing corporation in New York run by Germans. During this time, Eugene’s father Joseph kept in contact with his son via letters. Mrs. Feldman has retained all of these letters and kept them in good condition.
  • 4:36 – Eugene eventually moved to Chicago to start his own factory, which is now a historical monument. He was a socialist, and actively looked after and cared for his workers. He had restrooms separate for women, flowers on windowsills, and a general sense of a working community.
  • 5:28 – Unfortunately Eugene had tuberculosis at a young age. At this point he had been married to a woman who was unable to bear children. He decided to travel Europe to meet with the family. Because he wanted heirs for his business he traveled to Germany first, where he met Mrs. Feldman’s mother. During this time World War I broke out and Eugene with his family made their way over to Switzerland, as explained earlier.
  • 6:09 – By the time they became Swiss citizens in 1929, there were 3 boys and 3 girls who had been born, Mrs. Feldman being one of them. They all grew up in Switzerland as Swiss citizens. They moved to the United States in 1946, after World War II. Two sons stayed in Germany, and one moved to Budapest Hungary.
  • 7:17 – During World War I, Eugene Dietzgen’s company did not receive any U.S. military contracts because he was living in Germany. As a result, Eugene’s wife had to send Mrs. Feldman’s brothers back to the United States in order to go to school. First they went to prep school to learn English, then the oldest went to MIT, Eugene Jr. went to Northwestern, and Walter went to Harvard.
  • 8:14 Joseph Dietzgen inherited a tannery in Siegburg, his hometown on the Rhine near Cologne. He did very well as a philosopher and met with Karl Marx personally, as well kept in contact with all the other major socialists at the time throughout Germany and Austria. He traveled a lot while his wife ran the tannery business. Since his socialist articles could not be published in Germany, he sent them to Switzerland.
  • 9:13 – With his son firmly established in the United States, he went to Chicago with his two daughters. He ran for public office in Chicago, but Mrs. Feldman cannot remember which office this was for. Unfortunately, he never won. He died when he was 60, here in the United States. He was buried in the Waldheim [Forest Home] cemetery in Chicago, near the famous US socialist Anna Goodman.
  • 10:35 – While still living in Germany, Joseph Dietzgen worked with the Tsar of Russia, working with new types of Tanneries. During this time, Joseph took Eugene to St. Petersburg Russia, where he studied Russian while his father worked out business. He did not like the philosophies that were coming out of Russia so he eventually left and returned to Germany.
  • 11:50 – What Mrs. Feldman knows about her grandfather is limited to what her father had told her before his death in 1929. She never knew Joseph personally [he died 30 years before her birth]. What stood out to her was that her grandfather was really one of the first socialist theorists, who really looked out for his workers. He was very involved in politics, but in Germany he was directly involved with the socialist movement. He knew Karl Kautsky [1854-1938], who was imprisoned in a Nazi camp. Kautsky later visited Mrs. Feldman to help her sort out her grandfather's library. [There may be some confusion with Kurt Schuschnigg (1897–1977, chancellor of Austria 1934-38, in the Christian Socialist Party, who was imprisoned in Dachau and after 1945 lived in the US).]
  • 15:13 – During the Civil War Joseph Dietzgen traveled around the United States. He wrote letters home about the lynchings in the South, but Mrs. Feldman does not know if he supported the North or the South.
  • 17:12 – Joseph suggested that Eugene Dietzgen start a pharmacy, using his wife's inheritance. Eugene died in 1929.
  • 18:17 – After WW2, Mrs. Feldman’s oldest sister was sent to the French-speaking park of Switzerland to learn to speak French. Then she traveled to England, and finally to the United States to work with the Dietzgen company. Mrs. Feldman was supposed to follow her footsteps, but she decided to remain in Switzerland. During the war, Mrs. Feldman’s mother decided that remaining in Switzerland was the best decision to do, in 1939, since the only way of getting out of Europe was by hiding your valuables and cutting losses.
  • 20:48 – During the war Mrs. Feldman served with the Swiss military service. She has a son who graduated from Annapolis but refused to give up his Swiss citizenship. Discussion of how that was possible. Also family trip to Soviet Union during Nixon administration to demonstrate a model hydroponic greenhouse.
  • 21:27 – By this time Mrs. Feldman was already married to her late husband, Mr. Feldman, and had two children. She was married in 1940. They had a large home in Switzerland where Mr. Feldman flew Messerschmitts for the Swiss air force against the German Luftwaffe. Switzerland had managed to purchase 50 of these advanced planes from Nazi Germany prior to the outbreak of war. The Swiss pilots, including Mr. Feldman, engaged the Germans in a few skirmishes, which were attempts by Nazi Germany to test the borders of Switzerland’s resistance.
  • 22:00 – 35:00 Discussion of Ruth Feldman's trip to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Showing of primary sources: Brockhaus encyclopedia entry, original photographs
  • 36:11 – One of Mrs. Feldman’s friends said that the leader of East Germany during the 1940s owed him a favor, and wrote him a letter. Mrs. Feldman received a letter back saying that she was requested in East Berlin to pick up her package of East German stamps.
  • 36:50 – 38:00 – Mrs. Feldman expresses interest in providing the University with her original documents/letters/invoices she retained over the years
  • 37:55 – Mrs. Feldman only visited Berlin during the 1936 Olympics, but she never went to the East after that and never visited anywhere in the Soviet Union. She went to the Olympics because her [future] husband was part of the rowing team for Switzerland. They came back successful, beating the Germans, and the Soviet Union, but lost the Gold Medal to the United States. German women's hurdles: Germany was ahead, but the last girl dropped the baton. Was she shot?
  • 39:26 – Mr. Feldman also participated in the Winter Olympics which also took place in Germany. He is in the opening scene of Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia.
  • 39:50 – 41:00 More general viewing of source material
  • 41:00 – Mrs. Campbell found a collection of original photographs of Joseph Dietzgen, the most important being the one which is the most reprinted. It has the original date printed on the photo. one is dated 1846.
  • 41:30 – During WW2, one of Mrs. Feldman’s brothers served in the Navy, one was married, one was in the army. Walter, the middle brother, was a navigator on a bomber who participated in air raids on Germany for the Americans.
  • 42:40 – In order to give money to her mother's sister, who was still living in Germany, Mrs. Feldman smuggled Swiss Francs to Hamburg via automobile. (WW2)
  • 43:53 – Mrs. Feldmann’s husband, at the end of the war still had to finish his master’s degree. He had gotten side tracked by his service in the war, and they saw the benefit of moving to the United States where Mrs. Feldmann’s mother, Mrs. Dietzgen, suggested that she sell her house in Switzerland and move to the United States prior to her husband. She flew, in 1946, from Switzerland to Amsterdam, and from there to New York (23 hours), with all her children.
  • 45:00 – Mrs. Feldman thought that it would be easy to get out to Los Angeles where her family was, but unfortunately she was stuck due to the cost of the travel. They remained in New York for 2 weeks, with help from her brother who was attending Harvard University. 46:00 – Once making it to LA, she remained with her mother and waited over a year for her husband to return from Europe. He finished his tour and came by boat to New York. Mrs. Feldman met with him in New York, bought a car, and drove from New York to Los Angeles. 46:50 – They arrived in Los Angeles in August of 1947. She states that already after two days in LA, she was homesick for Switzerland. From then on they remained on the West coast.
  • 47:00 – 49:00 Mrs. Feldman and Mrs. Campbell explain the house that Mrs. Feldman lived in for a period of time off the side of PCH in West LA. It happens to be the same house made famous by a 1930s comedy reel where two men had to lug a large grand piano up the 27 foot staircase that ascended the building. Anthony Quinn lived about three houses from them, she says, and was a friendly neighbor. The rest of the interview is background noise while viewing more primary source documents presented
  • 53:00 Discussion of typescript of Josef Dietzgen's correspondence with his son Eugen, May 1880-May 1884.
  • 58:00 discussion of the drafting instruments, slide rules, and catalogs that various members of the family have from the Dietzgen company.
  • 1:02:00 -- End of recording.

    Follow-Up Interview, May 2, 2008

    Some days later Joshua Morris again interviewed Vera Dietzgen Feldman, asking her some questions that arose out of the first interview. At the end of the formal interview there was general conversation with Vera's granddaughter Ruth Campbell and Vera's son Peter Feldmann. (1 hr 22 min .wma file)

  • 0:48-1:00 – Informing Mrs. Feldmann about the purpose of the 2nd interview
  • 1:10 – Mrs. Feldmann mistakes her grandfather’s letters to Eugene for his books which were published in England
  • 2:25 – Mrs. Feldmann details her siblings’ full names and their birthdates
  • 4:41 – Mrs. Feldmann details her children’s full names and birthdates
  • 7:31 – Mrs. Feldmann confirms Wiesbaden as her hometown
  • 9:46 – Mrs. Feldmann confirms year Eugene moved to Switzerland in 1917
  • 10:03 – Mrs. Feldmann confirms birthday of Eugene (1862) and when he arrived in the US, 1881
  • 11:33 – Mrs. Feldmann cannot recall the name of the tannery her father inherited in the United States, and cannot remember the exact dates of when he worked in Russia. The information however was found via external source, and matches Mrs. Feldmann’s timeline.
  • 11:50 -17:30 – Intermission
  • 17:45 – Mrs. Feldmann confirms 1912 as the year her father Eugene met her mother in Cologne
  • 18:00 – 20:00 – Mrs. Feldmann explains how and why her father moved to Wiesbaden, Germany
  • 21:12 – 22:30 – Mrs. Feldmann confirms dates of when her brothers moved out of Switzerland to study at Ivy League schools in the U.S. (1930s)
  • 24:00 – 26:00 Mrs. Feldmann explains her service in the Swiss military during WW2
  • 28:12 – Mrs. Feldmann confirms that her sister moved to Ann Arbor to study at the university in late 1933, married an American and became a citizen.
  • 28:50 – Mrs. Feldmann confirms that her sister was sent to Switzerland in 1935

That concluded the Question and Answer portion of the interview, which was to fill in gaps of information from the first interview. The rest of the audio file records conversation with the family while looking at photographs, Eugene Dietzgen Drafting Company materials, and the notebook of Joseph’s letters to Eugene.

Josef - Eugen Dietzgen Correspondence, 1880-1884 (back to top)

    After sending his 19-year-old son Eugen to the US in 1880 so that he would not have to serve in Kaiser Wilhelm's army, Josef Dietzgen kept up a regular correspondence with Eugen until the father came to the US himself in 1884, after having been imprisoned in Germany. In 1904 Eugen transcribed his father's letters with a typewriter, and sent copies to his siblings. The letter below accompanied the bound volumes, one of which is in the possession of Mrs. Vera Feldman. She allowed Joshua Morris to scan it, so it is available as a 143-page pdf. (I also used OCR to recognize the text, so this cropped and optimized version is searchable.)

    The collection ends with Josef selling his tannery to collect sufficient funds to make a new start in the U.S. He arrived in New York at the end of June 1884.

To my siblings,

Like all of his writings, these letters by our father Josef Dietzgen exude the elevated art of dialectical thinking in which he was an unsurpassed master.
Only dialectical understanding can prevent uninitiated readers of these very private things from coarse misunderstandings.

Please correct the many small typographical errors. Otherwise the transcription is word for word and unabridged.


Locarno, May 22, 1904

Meinen Geschwistern,

Wie sämtliche seiner Schriften atmen auch diese Briefe unseres Vaters Josef Dietzgen die hohe dialektische Denkkunst, in welcher er ein unübertroffener Meister war.
Allein das dialektische Verständnis kann dem fremden Leser dieser Privatissima vor groben Missverständnissen schützen.

Die vielen kleinen Schreibfehler bitte ich zu korrigieren. Im übrigen ist die Abschrift wortgetreu und unverkürzt.


Locarno, 22 Mai 1904

Eugen Dietzgen 1904 letter

Links and Bibliography (back to top)

Books and Articles

  • Joseph Dietzgen, Some of the Philosophical Essays (Chicago, 1906).
    includes: Eugene Dietzgen, "Joseph Dietzgen: A Sketch of His Life."
  • Josef Dietzgen, Sozialdemokratische Philosophie: Eine Artikel-Serie (Berlin: Vorwärts, 1906) (17.50Euros at amazon.de)
  • Ernest Untermann, "A Pioneer of Proletarian Socialist Science," in: International Socialist Review (Chicago, April 1906), p. 609 (ISR available at web archive--many hits in each issue!)
  • Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Letters to Americans, 1848-1861, (New York, 1953)
  • Fred Casey, "Josef Dietzgen,' in: The Plebs (London, Dec. 1928)
  • John Keracher, "Josef Dietzgen: His Life and Work," in: The Prolerarian (Chicago, Dec. 1928)
  • Anton Pannekoek, "The Standpoint and Significance of Josef Dietzgen's Philosophical Works" (Introduction to Joseph Dietzgen, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy) (Chicago, 1928).
  • Frank P. Murphy, ''Dietzgen Recalled on Anniversary of Burial in Waldheim," Industrial Worker (Chicago, Apnl 17, 1937).
  • Loyd D. Easton, " Empiricism and Ethics in Dietzgen," Journal of the History of Ideas 19:1 (Jan. 1958), pp. 77-90 (pdf)
  • Adam Buick, "Joseph Dietzgen, The Workers Philosopher" in: Radical Philosophy 10(Spring 1975), posted on A Johnston's blog in April 2007.
    This is an excellent, in-depth article.
  • Larry Gambone, Cosmic Dialectics: The Libertarian Philosophy of Joseph Dietzgen (Red Lion Publishing, 2009).[full text with notes]
  • Joseph Dietzgen, The Nature of Human Brain Work: An Introduction to Dialectics with an afterword, notes and bibliography by Larry Gambone (PM Press, 2010)

Joshua Morris

Feb. 26, 2012: 1 views Feb.

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