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035 Rosa Luxemburg and the blazing trumpets of the revolution

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg

Left-wing Germany becomes further divided

It is Sunday 21 February 1915. It is the 35th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Reims cathedral is heavily damaged during a German bombing.

The Germans claim the victory in the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes and take 100,000 Russians as prisoners of war.

The Russians in their turn can boast having seized the Polish town of Przasnysz.

Grand Duke Nicholas promises the British to send the Black Sea navy of the Russians and an army to Constantinople.

After a five-day delay because of bad weather, the British resume their bombardment of Turkish and German artillery units along the Dardanelles.

Besides, British troops land at Sedd el Bahr on the Gallipoli peninsula.

German submarines sink a series of allied merchant ships.

The French make some progress in the Champagne district and the British achieve a modest success at La Bassée

And, lonely in a German prison cell, a small woman is still dreaming of a socialist revolution: Rosa Luxemburg.

In one of her many letters from prison Rosa Luxemburg writes to a friend: ‘Sometimes it seems to me that I am not really a human being at all but like a bird or a beast in human form. I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than at one of our party congresses. I can say that to you, for you will not promptly suspect me of treason to socialism! You know that I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight or in prison. But my innermost personality belongs more to my tomtits than to my comrades.’

Here is the tender side of the high-calibre marxist, the razor-sharp theoretician of Germany’s left wing. The small brave woman who saw in imperialism and militarism the last convulsions of capitalism, but who was hidden away in a prison-cell almost the whole war. She got four years for an inflammatory public statement she made in 1913 against the war that she foresaw.

And yet Rosa Luxemburg kept fighting her class struggle behind bars between 1914 and 1918. Friends succeeded in smuggling her writings under the pseudonym Junius out of prison. In these she gave an outline of the dilemma of society, ‘socialism or babarism’, but she especially dealt with the social-democrats, who had betrayed the cause of the workers according to her. Already before the war she targeted the moderate-left revisionists, who thought they could enter socialist paradise by social reforms.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1871 as the daughter of an emancipated Jewish merchant. After having studied economics in Switzerland, she became a German citizen through a marriage of convenience. So a Jewish, Polish, red-headed woman was the perfect object of ridicule in imperial Germany. Besides having a passion for politics Rosa Luxemburg also leads an active love life. She flirts with Kostja Zetkin who is fourteen years her junior. Kostja is the son of Clara Zetkin, the other woman from the vanguard of the left movement.

She is small and slight of build. A hip impediment causes her to walk with difficulty. But within there is a fire which cannot be put out. She could charm halls full of people. During one of her speeches a police-inspector has to maintain order, but he is so carried away by the flaming argument of Red Rosa that he begins to applaud. Afterwards Luxemburg sends him a note: ‘It is a pity that a man as sensible as you should be in the police, but it would be a greater pity if the police should lose so human an example. Don’t applaud any more.’

In 1904 she is sent to prison for lese-majesty. She said that though the kaiser speaks of a good and secure existence of the German workers, he has no idea of the true facts. In the years after she will issue louder and louder warnings for a war between the European superpowers. Using general strikes the international proletariat will have to change this course. This is also what Jean Jaurès urges France to do. And in 1913 Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd of people as follows: ‘If they expect us to lift the weapons of murder against our French or other foreign brothers, then let us tell them ‘No, we won’t do it’.’

With this Rosa Luxemburg seems to have deserved the monument which she got in Berlin in 2006. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall she was the unsurpassed heroine of the German Democratic Republic, but also after the Wende Rosa Luxemburg continues to capture the imagination of left-wing Germany. Since 2006 sixty dark wooden beams have been hidden in the ground in her very own Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, in nazi times known as the Horst-Wessel-Platz. The beams contain political as well as personal quotes of Luxemburg herself.

A competition was organised for this work of art. The second prize was awarded to the couple that wanted to commercialize the brand name ‘Rosa de Luxe’ as an art form, such as Che Guevara, which you come across on thousands of T-shirts in the streets of Berlin. ‘Rosa de Luxe’ would also be printed on the label for example of the package of cottage cheese. Rosa Luxemburg herself wrapped her left-wing ideals in literary paper. When she wanted to express her categoric rejection of the capitalist system, she aptly chose these words: ‘Die Revolution ist großartig, alles andere ist Quark!’ ‘The revolution is magnificent. Everything else is bilge.’


Parliamentary democracy was of little interest to Rosa Luxemburg. Comrades who had joined the Reichstag were scorned by her. On the first day of the war another divisive issue could be added to this. The entire faction of the SPD, the party to which also Rosa Luxemburg had counted herself, voted for the war loans. On 2 December 1914 SPD member Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag to vote against the new war loans. He would have to give up his place in the SPD faction, of which party his father Wilhelm had been one of the founders.

In August 1916 Karl Kautsky, a prominent social-democrat on the German side, wrote in a letter to his Austrian colleague Viktor Adler, that he knew who was the most popular man in the trenches at that moment: Karl Liebknecht. ‘The dissatisfied masses understand nothing of his policy’, Kautsky declares. ‘But they see him as the man who is working for an end to the war, and this is what counts for them.’

Against the war and for the revolution is the line which Rosa Luxemburg has followed right from the start, just like Vladimir Lenin. But there are also big differences with the Russian bolsheviks, who have a thorough understanding of the importance of a well-organised revolutionary vanguard, a party elite. Rosa Luxemburg thinks that the masses will revolt all by themselves after some agitation and propaganda. That will prove to be Rosa’s fatal mistake.

Red Rosa  has never succeeded in reaching the masses, let alone setting them in motion. The Spartacus League, of which she and Karl Liebknecht were the figureheads, merged into the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands on the last day of 1918. This League remained a rather insignificant left-wing splinter, even in the turbulent months after the fall of the empire.

Spartacus was the man who had led a rebellion of slaves in the Roman Empire of the first century B.C.. But the German wage slaves of just after the Great War would rather identify with the middleclass citizen and social-democrat Friedrich Ebert. He was proclaimed the first president of the new German republic. It is his government that will restore order and authority with the help of paramilitary troops, the Freikorps, at the expense of red rioters such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

They both die in the same manner.  On 15 January 1919 Luxemburg and Liebknecht are dragged to the Berlin Eden Hotel by men of the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division. They do not carry a warrant for their arrest. Rosa Luxemburg managed to put a couple of her favourite  books in her suitcase. After all, she is used to being apprehended. But this time it ends differently. In the hotel there is a brief interrogation and a brutal molestation. A soldier does his job and smashes their skulls with the butt of his rifle. They are dragged into a car half dead. Liebknecht is thrown out of the car near the zoo and gets  killed. The offical reading is that he was shot when on the run. Rosa Luxemburg, 47 years old, gets a bullet through her temple. The public is informed that she was lynched by an angry mob. The death squad dumps her body into the Landwehr canal. The corpse does not turn up until months later.

It has never become clear who was really behind the double murder. Leader of the death squad was someone called Waldemar Pabst, who was never convicted. Arms trafficking made him rich and he died a wealthy man in 1970. Pabst maintained that he had the full support of the social-democrat Gustav Noske, under whose direction the leftist revolt was ended. But did in the background also president Ebert agree with the murder? Note that Ebert was one of those who had been taught the socialist  tricks of the trade at the party school of the SPD by teacher Rosa Luxemburg in the years before the war.

It is highly unlikely that Luxemburg and Liebknecht would have succeeded in claiming the revolution, if they had been granted more time to live. Barely released from a prison cell of the empire, they could hardly get a grip of the revolutionary developments in the new republic. They worked as if possessed, furiously turning out their articles for Die Rote Fahne.

Rosa Luxemburg’s final article ended as follows: ‘Tomorrow the revolution will rear its head once again, and, to your horror, will proclaim, with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I will be!’. Revolutionary rhetoric that does not really sink in outside the editorial office. The author Sebastian Haffner disagrees with the notion that the German revolution of 1918-1919 should coincide with the Spartacus Uprising of January 1919. Haffner refers to Luxemburg and Liebknecht when he says that was exactly how everything would have happened, if they had not been there. According to Haffner, even one-day wonders such as seaman Karl Artelt and officer Heinrich Dorrenbach have had a stronger influence on the developments than the two famous revolutionaries.

That is why the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was mainly of symbolic importance in January 1919. Covenient violence, however, became the general spirit in Germany for the next decades. Sebastian Haffner placed the double murder forty years ago in that particular perspective. He writes: ‘The murders of January 15, 1919, were a prelude – the prelude to murders by the thousand in the following months under Noske, and to murders by the million in the ensuing decades under Hitler. They were the starting signal for all the others. Yet this one crime remains unadmitted, unexpiated and unrepented. That is why it still cries out to heaven in Germany. That is why its light sears the German present like a lethal laser beam.’

Historically speaking the twofold scandalous act of 15 January 1919 is so significant,  because it sealed the division within the leftist family for good. Social-democrats and communists, members of the SPD and of the KPD were to continue their struggle for power stubbornly when the Brownshirts were already marching the streets of Germany. Would Hitler have been able to seize power, if the left had formed a single front against him? This is one of many questions history asks without supplying the answer.

Next week: Anton Kröller

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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