Today, January 15th marks the centenary of the double murder of Rosa Luxemburg and her comrade Karl Liebknecht by the right-wing Freikorps militia in 1919. Just two weeks earlier, over the New Year period, the pair had attended the foundation congress of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – the German Communist Party. Their sordid executions marked the end of two extraordinary lives that had been dedicated to the cause of socialism.
Rosa Luxemburg was born into a Jewish family living in Russian occupied Poland in 1871. Her early world outlook was from the perspective of an oppressed Jewish female in solidarity with similarly oppressed people from different backgrounds across the globe. A passionate internationalist, her lifetime of political activism spanned across Poland, Lithuania, Switzerland, Germany and beyond. Her life and writings continue to inspire socialists across the planet.
She became politically active as a teenage member of the Proletariat Party in her native Poland. Later, following a period of exile in Switzrland, she would become the primary theoretician of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania
Luxemburg acquired German citizenship through a short lived marriage of convenience in 1897 and moved to Berlin. A feminist and a suffragette, she joined the German Social Democratic Party which was gaining influence but was divided between revisionist elements arguing for a gradual evolutionary route through trade union and parliamentary activity and the more revolutionary agitators. Rosa joined the radical socialist group arguing in her pamphlet ‘Reform or Revolution’ for a revolutionary road to socialism. Rosa knew the limits and distractions of parliamentary politics as she wrote to Clara Zetkin,
“The situation is simply this: August Bebel, and still more so the others, have completely spent themselves on behalf of parliamentarism and in parliamentary struggles. Whenever anything happens which transcends the limits of parliamentarism, they are completely hopeless – no, even worse than that, they try their best to force everything back into the parliamentary mould, and they will furiously attack as an enemy of the people anyone who wants to go beyond these limits.”
The 1905 Russian Revolution inspired Luxemburg and led her to believe that a socialist revolution could be achievable not only in industrialised countries like Germany or France but also in an underdeveloped country like Russia.
Throughout the early 1900’s Karl Liebknecht became a leading figure in the anti-war section of the SDP, which was itself increasingly drifting to reformist policies. Liebknecht campaigned against the arms race with Britain and at the outbreak of the Great War was a lone voice amongst the deputies in the Reichstag protesting against the madness of the war. “This war . . . is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism.”
The revisionist socialists of Europe jumped on the national chauvinist bandwagon of their respective parliaments much to the dismay of James Connolly in Ireland who along with Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Lenin in Russia stood apart from the mainstream leadership of European socialism and saw the capitalist war and the treachery of the workers leaders for what it really was. Connolly wrote “In this supreme hour of our national danger, we call upon the Working Class of Ireland to remember that the only enemy it actually knows of is the enemy that lives upon its labour, that steals its wages, that rackrents its members, that oppresses its women and girl workers, that constantly seeks to encompass its social degradation. All the fleets and armies of the ‘alien enemy’ are not as hurtful to our lives, as poisonous to our moral development, as destructive to our social well-being as any one street of tenement houses in the slums of Dublin.”
By 1916 Luxemburg, freed after a short imprisonment for anti-war activity, founded the Spartacus League, along with Liebknecht, as a breakaway from the SDP. The Spartacus League published an illegal newspaper and, similar to the Bolsheviks in Russia, used it to urge socialists to transform the imperialist war into a revolutionary war. They organised a large anti-war demonstration in Berlin but the police arrested Liebknecht before he could speak and, despite his parliamentary immunity, he was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment. 55,000 munitions worker went on strike at his sentencing prompting the government moved to arrest trade union leaders and sent them to the front.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 inspired the German revolutionaries to keep going, agitating against the war until the collapse of the German war effort in late October 1918. On November 3rd sailors and workers mutinied at Kiel and set off a series of events leading to the German Revolution. Workers and soldiers’ councils were set up across Germany sending the government and its SDP ministers into shock.
The councils, or soviets, were flexible and democratic, elected directly from the factories, farms and offices. A system of dual power emerged with a central committee of councils set up in Berlin. Elected parliament was frozen; the Kaiser fled his Royal Palace. The Chancellor resigned handing over the reins of power to the SDP leader Ebert who was seen as a safe pair of hands. Ebert did his utmost to stem the revolutionary tide, receiving backing from the capitalists and military command. Liebknecht and Luxemburg, who had recently been broken out of prison, demanded the completion of the socialist revolution.
It started to become apparent that the soldiers in the cities were more advanced than the soldiers in the country. There was a growing feeling amongst the officer class that Imperial Germany was being stabbed in the back by the socialist workers. One such group of right-wing officers and fanatical nationalists formed the Freikorps as a counter-revolutionary militia to lash back at those they viewed as traitors to the Fatherland.
After the failure of a military coup on December 6th, the next move they made involved open clashes between regular soldiers and soviet sailors. The defeat of the regular soldiers and the refusal of other soldiers to support them drove the SDP government to desperation. The counter revolutionary forces reorganised and promoted an atmosphere of fear and hysteria about a Bolshevik takeover. The Spartacists were blamed for the defeat of Germany and plunging the country into chaos.
A convention of the Spartacus League met on December 30th and voted to change their name to Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – the German Communist Party . Luxemburg argued for the party to contest the forthcoming elections to solidify the communist base amongst the workers. However she lost the vote and the party instead voted to take power by armed uprising. Luxemburg had recognised that they didn’t have the numerical strength on the streets but Liebknecht had misjudged the support of thousands of demonstrators as a basis for an armed power grab.
On January 5th Ebert called in the German Army and the Freikorps to crush the revolution. Soldiers entered Berlin and machine gunned hundreds of demonstrators. Artillery was brought in to blow open the rebels defenses. By January 13th the revolution was crushed and most of its leaders were arrested. Luxemburg and Liebknecht refused to leave the city and were arrested on the 15th and brought to the Freikorps headquarters.
After questioning involving torture, Liebknecht was taken from the building, knocked half conscious with a rifle butt and then driven to the Tiergarten where he was shot in the head. Rosa was taken out shortly afterwards, her skull smashed in and then she too was driven off, shot through the head and thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr canal. Her body remained in the canal until it was washed up 19 weeks later.
The smashing of the KDP and the decapitation of its leadership left the political landscape barren of effective socialist leaders. This combined with the triumph of the reformist SDP leadership and the feeling amongst the nationalist forces that they only lost the war because they were stabbed in the back by socialists and communists left bitterness and a hunger for revenge that Adolf Hitler would come to exploit a decade later.
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” – Rosa Luxemburg.