NL 2009/09a

"The law forces thousands to die this way ... frightened to death ... can no one help us?"

80 years ago Friedrich Wolf's play "Cyankali" premiered

"Don’t go there, girl, you'll be given potassium cyanide or be injected with soft soap. You'll be injured by unsanitary instruments and you'll die cramping with childbed fever. Don't go there, I warn you!"

Exactly 80 years ago, the play "Cyankali" (potassium cyanide) premiered in Berlin's Lessing Theatre – and immediately became a scandal and a success. In the play, physician and dramatist Friedrich Wolf describes everyday dramas just before the world's economic crisis ("Black Thursday"). You can read about these dramas in the newspapers of the 1920s: 500.000 to 800.000 illegal abortions, leading to 10.000 deaths and 50.000 complications. This vast number resulted from the ban on contraception and abortion, in connection with unbearable poverty, unemployment, and lack of housing. A working-class family of four had to make do with one and a half rooms.

Heater Paul is being pursued by the police, because he has broken the canteen's door to feed the wives and children of workers locked out during the labour disputes. His girl friend Hete has lost her job as well. In the middle of this crisis, she learns she is pregnant. They can't afford a child — they can barely survive themselves. The doctor turns down Hete's request for an abortion, pointing out that it's illegal. Frantic and stressed, she finds an abortionist who provides her with "a means": "Come closer, I'll help you. Take five drops of this. Five drops, do you understand? Careful, it’s toxic. But in a weak solution, it helps. Potassium cyanide."

The desperate act ends tragically – Hete dies and her mother is arrested.

Friedrich Wolf (1888 – 1953) triggered a public discussion on the abortion ban with his play. When it became a movie, it was heavily restricted by censorship. (

Wolf was even arrested and himself sued for abortions. But with public pressure and support from prominent colleagues like Bert Brecht and Carl von Ossietzky, he was released on bail. From 1918 on, he was a member of Dresden's council of workers and soldiers (Arbeiter- und Soldatenrat) and campaigned as a physician for the right of rural people to primary medical care. In 1928, he joined the Communist Party and the Union of Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers. In Stuttgart (Germany) in the spring of 1932, he founded "Spieltrupp Südwest" (actor's squad Southwest), a communist Agitprop-group of lay actors, who produced high-quality plays on political issues.

Wolf was not the only one in his time who gave artistic voice to the desperate situations of women needing an abortion: In 1930, Berlin saw the play "§218. Tortured people", written by socialist physician Carl Crede. It was advertised with a poster created by lithographer and painter Käthe Kollwitz. Another poster was created by communist graphic designer Conrad Felixmüller. Along the same lines was Max Klinger's etching "The blemish" and Jeanne Mammen's "The child murderess".

With the start of the Nazi-regime, the liberalisation of abortion practice stopped abruptly and the pendulum swung back. The activists involved were fired from their jobs and faced persecution. The movie "Cyankali" was forbidden and Wolf emigrated to Moscow. Abortionists were arrested, sentenced to death and executed – right up to the end of WW2.

Come and learn about Friedrich Wolf in Vienna's Museum of Contraception and Abortion. Wednesday through Sunday 14 -18 h. Mariahilfer Guertel 37, A-1150 Wien (Austria)