Rosa Lux­em­burg died 100 years ago. Farce fol­lows tragedy in a study of the so­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary’s mur­der

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Lara Feigel

“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

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