Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht murdered: 100 years on

This week marks the centennial of the Jan. 15, 1919, murders of German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They were both born in the same year, 1871, and died on the same day, their names necessarily linked in history.

members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), they were outraged
that their party supported German involvement in World War I. In 1915 they
broke from the SPD and co-founded the anti-war Spartacus League (Spartakusbund).
Both were imprisoned for their anti-war agitation.

As the
war was coming to an end, they were freed from prison. On Nov. 9, 1918,
Liebknecht proclaimed the “Free Socialist Republic” in Berlin. Their Spartacus
League published The Red Flag (Die Rote Fahne)
newspaper, demanding amnesty for all political prisoners and the abolition of
capital punishment. That month the November Revolution broke out as a
working-class response to the horrors of war inflicted upon the world by the
Kaiser’s government.

December 29-31, 1918, they took part in a joint congress of the Spartacus
League, independent socialists, and the International Communists of Germany
(IKD), that led to the foundation on January 1, 1919, of the Communist Party of
Germany (KPD) under their leadership. Although the new KPD participated in the
Weimar National Assembly that founded the post-war Weimar Republic, the KPD
decided to boycott the scheduled elections.

On New
Year’s Day 1919 Luxemburg declared: “Today we can seriously set about
destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a
position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the
proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society
from destruction.”

second revolutionary wave, called the Spartacist uprising, swept Berlin that
month. Though she and Liebknecht considered it premature, they felt duty-bound
to support it and through their newspaper urged the rebels to occupy offices of
the liberal (but counterrevolutionary) press.

Ebert’s majority Social Democratic government crushed the revolt and the
Spartacus League by sending in the Freikorps, a government-sponsored
paramilitary group consisting mostly of now out-of-work World War I veterans.
Freikorps troops captured Luxemburg and Liebknecht without an arrest warrant
and summarily executed them. Luxemburg was shot and her body was thrown in the
Landwehr Canal in Berlin, only to be found and identified months later, and
Liebknecht was shot in the Tiergarten park.

labor actions and uprisings took place in several German cities and states,
where temporary “Soviet republics” were established, but the last of them, in
Bavaria, was put down in early May 1919.

In her
writings, Luxemburg leveled pointed critiques not only at moderate socialism
but also at the new Leninist revolutionary model in Bolshevik Russia. “Freedom
only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one
party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all,” she wrote. She
continued with possibly the most famous of her quotes: “Freedom is always and
exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”

Yet the
two martyrdoms to Social Democratic reaction—even if the uprising was
adventurist and bound to fail—guaranteed them both a hallowed place in the
communist pantheon, certainly in the socialist German Democratic Republic
(1949-1990), but especially among Marxists. Their ideas and writings continue
to be studied with reverence. Socialists and communists commemorate them yearly
on the second Sunday of January at the Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery in
Berlin, where they are buried.

If the
Social Democratic-ordained murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg were not tragedy
enough, the lessons learned were poorly applied. For most of the 1920s, during
the Comintern period, communist ire was understandably directed at the ruling
Social Democrats of the Weimar Republic, whom they named “social fascists,” yet
communists ignored or downplayed the threat posed by the gathering Nazi fascist

It was
not until the mid-1930s, after fascism had come to power, that communists
belatedly realized their mistake and formed the United Front strategy, which
they have generally followed ever since. By uniting, however temporarily, with
liberal and progressive forces against the main enemy, fascism could be
defeated, as they proved in World War II. This hard-won lesson has still not
been embraced by some purists on the “ultra-left” who, for example, failed to
draw any distinction whatsoever between the “two capitalists” running for
president in 2016 and either stayed home or cast their votes for third, “revolutionary”

Brecht’s poetic memorial Epitaph upon her death was included
in Kurt Weill’s 1928 composition The Berlin Requiem: “Red Rosa now
has vanished too…. / She told the poor what life is about, / And so the rich
have rubbed her out. / May she rest in peace.”

monuments to Luxemburg and Liebknecht have been erected, also streets, schools
and public institutions named for them. She has been memorialized in numerous
works of literature.

Margarethe von Trotha’s outstanding 1986 film ‘Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg’ is available online with English subtitles. Here it is:

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