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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)

005 Jean Jaurès and the last strawberry tart

Jean Jaurès

Jean Jaurès

The socialists, too, prefer war

It is Sunday 26 July 1914. It is the fifth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Emperor Wilhelm II prematurely returns from his holidays, without being informed that his government has declined an English attempt for mediation.

The Russians proceed to partial mobilization.

The Austrian emperor declares war on Serbia.

The German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg is put out and announces that this declaration of war is against the German advice.

Meanwhile Winston Churchill has started preparing the navy for action.

Also the French have their troops standing by.

British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey is outraged about the offer of Germany that it will not touch France, if England stays neutral. 

Before war has even been declared, German troops cross the Luxembourg border at Troisvierges.

Germany declares war on Russia.

Belgium again announces loud and clear that it wants to remain neutral.

And in Paris a patriot named Raoul Villain ends the life of the leader of the socialists Jean Jaurès.

Jaurès is one of Jacques Brel’s most touching chansons. It is a tribute to ‘our grandparents’, as Brel calls the labourers who were completely used up when fifteen years old, who ended before they had even started life. Their faces had turned ashen as a result of toil and labour. ‘And if they happened to survive, it was only to be sent to war, dying in blind fear in the field of horreur.’

The chorus is one single question which Brel poses the audience twice. ‘Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès? Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?’ ‘Why have they killed Jaurès? Why have they killed Jaurès?’ They killed Jaurès on 31 July 1914. Well, in fact the murderer was an individual, he was not a member of a group of loyals like Gavrilo Princip a month earlier in Sarajevo. There is no conspiracy theory which makes it plausible that this Raoul Villain got his orders from above.

Villain was a lonely patriot who shared an ardent desire with many: to recover Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, which was something a true Frenchman should not speak about, but which was always on his mind. ‘Y penser toujours, n’en parler jamais’, according to the national commandment as formulated by Léon Gambetta. He was the man who made his name by flying over the capital in a hot-air balloon during the Siege of Paris in 1870. Erasing the disgrace of the lost war against Bismarck’s Prussia was the one thing any Frenchman should bear in mind. Bismarck had even been the very person presenting the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Now that France was about to undo the injustice in a new war against Germany, Raoul Villain saw only one danger on this road: Jean Jaurès, leader of the socialists. Jaurès who was a threat to the union sacrée, the sacred unity in France. Jaurès, the pacifist, who had opposed the introduction of the three year conscription with the same ardour he had used when making a stand for Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who was wrongly convicted for high treason. His case had divided France to the bone, a cause célèbre.

Ultimately the French Republic was also to Jaurès worth defending. But to him internationalism principally came before nationalism. French-German overtures were no utopia to him. Seventy years after the outbreak of the First World War Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand were to prove Jaurès right in this respect by striding hand in hand across the battlefields of Verdun.

Then why did they kill Jaurès? Why did the working classes go to war in high spirits, in France as well as in Germany? Where was the international solidarity of the proletariat? Why did the most socialist of France’s socialists, Jules Guesde, take a place in the war cabinet? And why did all the German socialists in the Reichstag vote in favour of giving war loans on the very day that Jaurès was put in his grave?

The socialist leaders of Europe had debated endlessly in the preceding years about the question how to prevent a war. Time over again Jaurès had made a case for general strike as a means to bring war to a standstill. But especially the German socialists had not expected any good to come from that.

Now that the moment suprême was approaching, the socialist vanguard could not withstand the advances of the wargod Mars.The pressure of the masses was too big. A socialist member of the Reichstag described the atmosphere of the July days of 1914 in a very apt way. On his way to the vote on the war loans he ended up at the railway station in a group of reservists. ‘Think about us in the Reichstag’ they said. ‘Get us what we need, do not be mean and vote in favour of the loans.’ He did, to the satisfaction of the emperor, who said: ‘From now on there will be no more parties, only Germans.’

Would Jaurès finally have collapsed under the wave of patriotism that washed over France? Would he have agreed to a ‘defensive war’ after all? Who knows. Anyway, they killed Jaurès.


Jean Jaurès obtained his doctorate as a philosopher with two theses. One of them, written in Latin, is about the origins of socialism with four German thinkers: Luther, Kant, Fichte and Hegel. ‘Socialism was born in the German mind long before the abnormal growth of its big industries and the other conditions which are necessary for economic socialism,’ so goes Jaurès’ motivation.

The miners’ strikes at Carmaux, which drag on from 1892 till 1895, turn him into a socialist once and for all. There in the southern French department of Tarn he grew up in a bourgeois social background. His mother shaped him with her love and tolerance. ‘He had absolutely no idea of the essential absurdity which is normal practice in everyday life’, explained the novelist Jules Romains when talking about the trust in mankind which Jean Jaurès held on to in a not altogether unmelancholy way.

Once a politician on a national level he is taking great pains to overcome the differences of opinion between moderate and radical socialists, in much the same way as he is looking for a synthesis of French and German socialism. As representative of the socialist party he tries to stem the tide of patriotism in his country. In his newspaper L’Humanité he calls for the immediate halt of imperialist politics in France.

On 7 July 1914 the French president  Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani ask parliament for a loan for their state visit to Russia. The Austrian-Serbian feud after the shooting at Sarajevo overshadows the debate. Jaurès gets up to speak on behalf of the socialists. ‘We think it inadmissible that France gets drawn into wild adventures in the Balkans because of treaties whose words, meanings, restrictions and consequences it does not know. (..) When the tsarist counter-revolution had executed or imprisoned the brave Russians who had conquered their basic liberties in an heroic manner, France lost its only guarantee that the treaty with Russia served a just purpose’, Jaurès said. Only the socialists voted against the 400,000 francs.

On 29 July, two days before his death, the socialist leaders of Europe convene in Brussels for an emergency meeting. On behalf of Russia Lenin fails to come. But the Austrian Viktor Adler, the German Hugo Haase, the Briton Keir Hardie, the Belgian Emile Vandervelde and also the Dutchman Pieter Jelles Troelstra all look for a possibility to turn the tide. But they do not find it. It is painfully clear that the socialists on both sides only rate their own governments among the peaceloving parties.

At night during a mass meeting Jaurès will put his arm around the German Haase’s shoulders before the workers of Brussels. And he starts a glowing speech. This man has charisma. There is more than his beard to remind us of Karl Marx. The masses wave white cards on which is written ‘guerre à la guerre’, ‘war on war’.

When Jaurès leaves, he speaks reassuringly to the Belgian Vandervelde. There have been crises like these before. ‘It is impossible not to find a solution’, he says. Jaurès even suggests to visit the museum to admire the art of the Flemish Primitives.

On the night of 31 July, the day of Germany’s final warning to Russia, Jaurès orders a strawberry tart in the Café du Croissant, Rue Montmartre in the centre of Paris. Raoul Villain walks past the window and fires two bullets at Jaurès. Europe’s most prominent socialist dies within minutes. He will be called ‘the first war casualty’.

In the afternoon he had opened up his heart in the presence of journalists. ‘Are we going to start a world war, because Izvolski is still angry about Aerenthal’s deceit during the Bosnian affair?’ Even Louis Malvy, the interior minister, had been accosted by Jaurès. The soothing tone which was meant for the Russians should be stopped. The danger for France was much bigger than for Russia.

Many years later the writer Roger Martin du Gard gave the following impression of the dead body of Jaurès being sped off through the streets of Paris. ‘When the horse trotted away and the ambulance, escorted by policemen on bicycles, rattled into the road towards the Paris Bourse, a noise rose up from nothing, like the roar of an angry sea drowning the jingle of the bell. It was as if the sluices had opened and the bottled-up emotions of the masses were now released: Jaurès! Jaurès! Jaurès! Jaurès forever!’

The news shocks the French government, especially prime minister Viviani, an old comrade of Jaurès. Together they had founded the daily newspaper L’Humanité. The ministers fear that the murder of Jaurès will lead to riots. On no account can France face Germany as a divided nation. But it was not so bad as all that. There is sadness everywhere because the ‘mighty oak’ has been cut down, though this sadness is not translated into resistance to war.


‘Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?’ Jacques Brel quite rightly poses his question twice. Why have they killed Jaurès the father? And why also his only son? Louis Jaurès voluntarily signs up with the army in 1915 when he is seventeen. He explains this as follows. ‘When you have the honour to be the son of Jean Jaurès, you should set the example. Philosophical internationalism is not incompatible with the defence of the country when the future of the country is at stake.’ Louis Jaurès is killed on 3 June 1918 when the French army tries to stop a German advance at the Chemin des Dames.

Raoul Villain, who killed Jaurès the father, has not fought in the front line for his country. He spends the entire First World War in a cell in custody. The matter is taken to court after the war. And the incredible happens. Villain is acquitted. The jury thinks he has saved his country from ruin by his act. Jaurès’s widow is ordered to pay the legal costs. Villain leaves for Ibiza, where he leads an inconspicuous life. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, republicans must have mistaken him for a Franco accomplice. He is found dead on the beach. A bullet shot in the neck of the man who killed Jaurès. Why?

Next week: Albert I

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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