Rosa Luxemburg died 100 years ago. Farce follows tragedy in a study of the socialist revolutionary’s murder
“Here is a world in disorder,” the chorus chant in an unfinished play that Bertolt Brecht started in 1926, “Who is then ready / To put it in order?” The answer was Rosa Luxemburg, but she wasn’t given a chance to do so. She and fellow Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered in January 1919, just when their moment seemed to have come. Germany had surrendered, 40,000 German sailors had mutinied in Kiel and the kaiser had fled, leaving the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to take control in what they branded a revolution. But for the Spartacist League (breakaway communist members of the SPD) this wasn’t enough. Germany needed to follow Russia in a full-scale transformation. On 4 January the government dismissed the communist-sympathising chief of police, sparking a widespread general strike. This became violent when the government instructed the GKSD (an elite paramilitary unit) to suppress the communists, prompting the Spartacists to urge armed revolt. On 15 January the GKSD captured Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Berlin; they were dead within a few hours.
Who killed them? At the time, the GKSD claimed that it was an angry throng. It quickly became clear that it was the GKSD who had carried out the murders, but the identity of the killers remained uncertain. In 1993 Klaus Gietinger published a book in Germany identifying the particular soldiers responsible for giving the orders and pressing the trigger. Now it has been published in English to coincide with the centenary of the murders, translated by Loren Balhorn.
Luxemberg’s killer is identified as Hermann Souchon, a GKSD officer. As Luxemburg was getting into the car transporting her to prison, Otto Runge struck her on the head with his rifle butt and Souchon then leapt on to the left footboard, placed a pistol against her left temple and shot her. She died instantly and her body was thrown into the canal by the transport officer Kurt Vogel.
History repeats itself
“first as tragedy and then as farce”, as Marx said, and by Klaus Gietinger, translated by Loren Balhorn, Verso, £14.99 Gietinger is good at bringing out the absurdity of the farce that followed the murder. There was a series of trials in which the SPD leaders colluded with the killers, appointing their collaborators as judges. When Vogel escaped to the Netherlands, the authorities failed to extradite him, frightened he’d expose the identity of his accomplices. Shockingly, even in 1960s West Germany, the government issued a communique labelling the double homicide a “legitimate execution”.
Gietinger is less adept at exploring the significance of the murders, which he seems to think we can take as read. He tells us that these killings were “one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century”. But why? What could Luxemburg and Liebknecht have achieved had they been allowed to live?
In 1919, the revolution they dreamed of doesn’t appear to have been as imminent as the SPD feared. For one thing, the Spartacist leaders were divided on how to bring it about. Luxemburg still favoured parliamentary democracy while Liebknecht favoured direct action. They didn’t have a clear model to follow. She thought that the revolution in Russia was flawed by Lenin’s centralising of power and suppression of the opposition. “Freedom for supporters of the government only, for members of one party only … is no freedom at all,” she wrote in The Russian Revolution in 1918. If Germany was going to emulate Russia, if communism was going to be the international phenomenon she believed it had to be, it was going to take time, and the general strike in Germany could only be a tentative first step.
Would the Spartacists have given her this time, even if the SPD had been prepared to do so? It seems unlikely. Nonetheless, Gietinger is right to call their deaths a tragedy. This was a moment when the “Sozial” in the SPD name meant something, in a way that the “sozialismus” in National Socialism did not. What if Germany had splintered apart into its former states, allowing a selection of political systems to jostle against each other? What if the allies had been less harsh in their peace terms? What if the vision of an internationalist world ushered into being by the League of Nations had been more compelling? What if Luxemburg had returned to Russia, the land of her birth, and tried to influence events there?
There are many alternative worlds where she could have made a difference, with her combination of charisma, articulacy and logic, her willingness to learn from the past and remain optimistic about the future, her dual commitment to the local and the international. Gietinger writes that when the SPD sank Luxemburg’s body in the Landwehr Canal, they were “sinking the Weimar Republic along with it”. And certainly, alongside Luxemburg, we can mourn a world in which the radical left had a role to play in democratic government and in which internationalist, pacifist principles remained more important than national self-determination.
Lara Feigel’s Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing is published by Bloomsbury.
The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg
Charisma and logic Rosa Luxemburg