He was educated in literature, philosophy, and social sciences at several universities in Germany and Switzerland. While still a student at Berlin, he participated in radical and socialist activities.
At age tventy-one, he edited and wrote for Der Sozialist, a journal which advocated a change in the political system and a reorganization of society more extreme than was advocated by the Social Democratic party and closer to anarchist thinking. Soon the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Landauer emerged as the chief theoretician of a utopian anarchist philosophy.
In 1893 and 1899 he was imprisoned for propagating subversive causes. In his thirties, he matured as a writer and translator. He popularized the works of Peter Kropotkin, whose anarchist views resembled his own. He gave a modern rendering of the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart. From English, he translated Shaw, Wilde, Whitman, and Tagore. He collaborated with Fritz Mauthncr in the critique of language as an inadequate expression of thought and joined with Martin Buber in efforts to forestall a possible world conflict.
However, World War I erupted before a conference they planned could take place. Drawn to the theater as an artistic medium of communal expression, he lectured to receptive audiences on Shakespeare, lectures which were collected posthumously in two volumes (1923). Though not a Zionist, he advocated the establishment of workers’ communes, such as later found realization in socialist kibbutzim in Palestine.
During the revolutionary upheavals that rocked Central Europe after the War, a Bavarian soviet republic came into existence for a few months. Its leader, Kurt Eisner, invited Landauer to join the government as minister of public relations. After the collapse of the Communist regime following the assassination of Eisner, he was captured and shortly thereafter taken from prison by reactionary officers, brutally tortured, and trampled to death by their iron-shod boots. His last words to his killers are reported to have been: “To think that you are human!"
Landauer's affirmation of Jewishness made him a lifelong target for anti-Semites, despite his greater emphasis on his German roots and the utopian vision of a world brotherhood of peoples. This affirmation best came to the fore in his essay “Sind das Ketzerquedanken?” (“Are These the Ideas of a Heretic?”; 1913).
He faulted the Zionists for negating the Diaspora and for concentrating all their efforts on Palestine, then an impoverished Turkish province. In accordance with his utopian philosophy, he forsaw in the not-too-distant future the transformation of existing states, based on oppression, exploitation, and violence, into juster and freer governmental structures that would liberate the creative energies now dormant in many groups.
Jews, united by fate, history, and common ideals, regardless of whether they were in possession of territory, would be afforded an opportunity to place their national contributions at the service of the world at large, alongside other national groups, large and small. The Jews would be redeemed when mankind was redeemed.