Recently the University of Victoria's Anarchist Archive1 received two boxes filled with journals, pamphlets, books, correspondence, and other items passed on to the donor by someone from Sooke, a small village on the west side of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Going through the contents, it became apparent that many of the publications were once part of an anarchist 'libertarian library', presumably based in that town. These included a rare item published by Freedom Press during World War Two - a portfolio of twenty-two drawings by John Olday (1905-1977) entitled The Life We Live, The Death We Die (1943).
Born Arthur William Oldag in London in 1905, Olday was raised in Germany by his grandmother after his mother left him in her care in 1913 (nothing is known about his father, who is identified as Scottish or Canadian).2 He came of age during the aftermath of World War One and participated in the short-lived 'Spartacist' uprising of January 1919, when a militant faction of the newly formed German Communist Party attempted to seize power in Berlin, only to be crushed by the army and ultranationalist paramilitaries (the 'Freikorps'). Expelled from the Communist Party for 'anarchist tendencies', Olday fought again with 'anarcho-Spartacist' guerrilla militias that ranged through western Germany during the near revolution of 1923-24, when France occupied Germany's industrial heardand (the Ruhr region) so as to forcibly extract war reparations and hyperinflation brought the economy to the brink of total collapse. Again, the insurrectionists were put down by force of arms. Relocating to Hamburg, Olday turned to scripting socially critical cabaret performances and satirical cartooning for newspapers and journals (he also contributed unsigned work to radical publications). Before the Nazis came to power in 1933 he ingratiated himself with high-ups in the Hamburg wing of the Party: protected by these 'friendships', he passed on information to the anti-Nazi underground. Olday continued working as an illustrator until 1938, when the Nazi government implemented a zero-tolerance policy towards all art that did not fit its ideological criteria. Overnight, Olday s brand of satirical art was criminalised; furthermore, he was gay, and this marked him out for special treatment. Learning of his impending arrest, Olday fled to London, where he joined an international network of anti-Nazi exiles engaged in various clandestine actions (including an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1939).
In London Olday got involved with the Freedom collective, which was critical of all countries participating in World War Two, including Britain. Responding to calls in the labour movement and leftist circles to support the British war effort, Italian anarchist Marie-Louise Berneri, editor of Freedom's War Commentary (1939-1945) newspaper (and, like Olday, a refugee from fascism), published this rejoinder, entitled 'A Constructive Policy':
We cannot build [a revolutionary movement] until the working class gets rid of its illusions, its acceptance of bosses and faith in leaders. Our policy consists in educating it, in stimulating its class instinct, and teaching methods of struggle. It is a hard and long task, but to the people who prefer such expedient solutions as war, we would point out that the great world war which was to end war and safeguard democracy, only produced fascism and another war; that this war will doubdess produce other wars, leaving untouched the underlying problems of the workers. Our way of refusing to attempt the futile task of patching up a rotten world, but of striving to build a new one, is not only constructive but is also the only way out.3
As a British born subject, Olday was conscripted after Britain declared war on Germany. He joined a regiment that took German exiles, but deserted in 1943 before being shipped out. The Freedom collective supplied him with false identification papers, safe houses, and an outlet for his political work. …