Photo: German Communists and revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht (left) and Rosa Luxemburg (right)
The Proletarian History series chronicles the stories of the revolutionary class struggle and the lives of important figures from a working class perspective.
By Peter Cherry
On January 15, 1919, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were assassinated in Berlin, robbing the working class of Germany of their main leaders at the height of revolutionary ferment.
Liebknecht and Luxemburg were the founders of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), formerly known as the Spartacus League. One week after its founding congress (December 30, 1918 to January 1, 1919), the German masses rose up in what is known as the Sparticist Uprising. While it only lasted one week, the bourgeois German state (Weimar Republic) saw the real threat that the nascent KPD posed and in response made the Party illegal, ordering the assassination of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Their execution was carried out by the reactionary Freikorps militia, ordered by the new government headed by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Luxemburg and Liebknecht, like their contemporary the Great Vladimir Lenin who orchestrated the Great October Socialist Revolution, denounced the Second International in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, when French and German social democrats voted for war credits for their respective countries and agreed to block any strike activity levied against the war. Previously, the Second International had adopted revolutionary sounding slogans, claiming that if their imperialist governments decided to go to war, they would declare “war against war,” before being exposed as opportunists for their capitulation.
In the Junius Pamphlet, which served to demarcate her from the social chauvinism of the Second International, Luxemburg lambasted the “euphoria” and “patriotic noise in the streets” as the SPD subsumed itself under the royal military command. In January 1916, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Clara Zetkin formed an anti-imperialist faction within the SPD named the Spartacus League. Both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were eventually imprisoned for anti-war activity as the German ruling class conducted its imperialist war.
Soon, in the shadow of the Great October Socialist Revolution, strikes in all the war-making countries increased drastically in 1917 and into 1918, but increased most of all in Germany. After the failure of several offensives on the western front, Germany started negotiating an armistice with the Entente countries (at this time France and Britain). On October 23, 1918, amnesty was declared for political prisoners leading to Luxemburg and Liebknecht being released from prison.
By October 30, sailors of the Germany North Sea Fleet had mutinied and a wave of strikes spread through the major cities in defense of the sailors. German revolutionaries began setting up Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils inspired by the Russian Soviets. On November 4, the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council of Kiel was formed. Several days later in Bavaria, King Ludwig III fled Munich as revolutionaries took the city and declared Bavaria a republic.
By November 9, there was a general strike across the whole country, and Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils took control of Berlin and other major cities. With contradictions reaching new heights, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne on the same day. Soon after, the rightwing SPD leader Philipp Scheidemann stood before the masses and proclaimed Germany a republic. The new Weimar government was formed with the reactionary Catholic Center Party, which wanted to make sure the ongoing social conflagration did not fall into the hands of the Communists.
Rosa Luxemburg spoke at a mass rally in the City of Breslau before heading to Berlin to begin talks for constituting the KPD after she was released in 1918. In a letter to KPD comrade Zetkin in December, the flurry of activity and danger at the time is captured well by Luxemburg:
“I am chained to the editorial office, and every day I am there until midnight…on top of that almost every day, from early in the morning, there are conferences and discussions, and public meetings in between, and as a change of pace every few days there come urgent warnings that Karl [Liebknecht] and I are threatened by gangs of killers…I have been living this way, in the midst of tumult and turmoil and all in a rush from the first moment…“
The SPD, appealing to the bourgeoisie and middle strata, had started to shift the greater part of the tax burden on the working masses, left private property untouched, dissolved the Workers’, Sailors’, and Soldiers’ Councils, and ultimately left power in the hands of the imperialist bourgeoisie. When the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD, at that time a leftwing faction which included the Spartacus League and had broken from the SPD during WWI) decided to join this same government, the Spartacus League broke away.
After a general strike was called in Berlin on January 7, 1919, the German Communists were inspired when half a million workers amassed in the streets. It became an armed demonstration, as many brought firearms to defend against police attacks. A Revolution Committee was formed between the major parties involved to coordinate activity including the USPD, with swiftly-formed militia regiments moving to occupy the site of a German capitalist newspaper and set up barricades in neighborhoods where they had support.
When the USPD moved to negotiate peace with SPD German President Friedrich Ebert, however, the KPD left the Revolutionary Committee and ordered an improvised offensive on government installations and transportation infrastructure. That very same day, the Freikorp were called in by Ebert and went on a rampage, indiscriminately firing heavy mortars and laying down gunfire into the barricades.
One week later, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were found and arrested. Both were briefly interrogated and then murdered, with Luxemburg’s body thrown into the Landwehr Canal. Her body was not recovered until almost five months later after the winter ice had melted. Both were rightfully declared revolutionary martyrs to the Communist cause and the KPD was reorganized.
Luxemburg is often noted by opportunists for her opposition to Lenin and his thought, which would years later be synthesized into Leninism by Joseph Stalin. Luxemburg, like Trotsky, often occupied a centrist position within the Social Democratic movement, but unlike Trotsky she came to see the need for an organized vanguard and centralized international in the final years of her life.
The International Communist Movement, then as now, does not shy away from line-struggle. Lenin recognized her as a revolutionary martyr, as a great daughter of the German proletariat, which is how the international proletariat and oppressed people of the world recognize her and Liebknecht today.
Lenin said that: “In spite of her mistakes she was—and remains for us—an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works… will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. ‘Since August 4, 1914, German Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse’—this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working class movement.”
The murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht stands today as a prime example of the treachery of social democracy and the collaboration between so-called ‘socialists’ and the imperialist bourgeoisie. The SPD-led German government unleashed the reactionary Freikorps militias to put down the threat posed by the KPD, ultimately leading the way for the Nazi’s rise to power in the 1930s. The Communist International eventually adopted the term ‘social fascism’ to expose social democracy as the twin of fascism, a definition informed heavily by this precautionary episode of German history.
Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s graves remain a shrine of revolutionary martyrdom to this day, visited every winter by a procession of German Maoists, revolutionaries, and the masses in what is known as the ‘Luxemburg-Liebknecht-Lenin demonstration.’ They march through the streets of Berlin and lay red carnations on their gravestones in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery. They do so as part of the revolutionary struggle to reconstitute the KPD.