What can we learn from Rosa Luxemburg, 100 years after her murder?

Rachel Loxton
Rachel Loxton - [email protected]
What can we learn from Rosa Luxemburg, 100 years after her murder?
Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Photo: DPA

A century has passed since revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered in Berlin. We explored Luxemburg’s legacy and what we can learn from her.


Today in Europe, January 15th, 2019: A Brexit vote is taking place that has been fuelled by anti-immigrant rhetoric and is creating European divisions. Support for far-right populism is on the rise in the form of parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is now in every state government across Germany and the Bundestag. A migrant crisis, though not now at its peak, is happening outside the continent, and has fiercely split European countries on how to deal with it.

Meanwhile, about 10 years have passed since the global financial crisis that wrecked havoc with economies and has ultimately plunged many ordinary people into poverty or suffering due to austerity measures, while banks and firms - although bruised - continued to hand out bonuses and look after board members.

I can’t help but think Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary, socialist, communist, activist, politician, writer, journalist, thinker, anti-war campaigner and all-round do-er would have a lot to say about the current state of affairs if she were here today. 

On Sunday morning, about 10,000 people got out their beds and ignored the rain to stand together in Germany’s annual Luxemburg-Liebknecht march through Berlin. It marked 100 years since the brutal execution of the two prominent political figures - a testament to their long-standing influence. 

SEE ALSO: German left remembers murdered Rosa Luxemburg

“They were tremendously important people within the revolution,” Johanna Bussemer, head of the Europe unit at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin, tells The Local. “From what they wrote, how they organized the different sections of the Left (movement), they played a big role.

“I guess German history is unthinkable without Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.”

Unlawful killing

Both born in 1871, Luxemburg, who was Jewish, came from what is now Poland but was then the Russian Empire, while Liebknecht came from Leipzig, eastern Germany.

Originally members of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) they broke away from the SPD over its support for World War I and helped to form the Spartacist League, which became the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1918.

Luxemburg was imprisoned in 1916 during the war, although her friends smuggled her articles on political topics and published them during this time. On her release in 1918 she travelled back to Berlin in the chaos that had swept Germany after its defeat in the war as different sides scrambled to take the reigns of a flailing country. 

As the so-called November Revolution or German Revolution raged on, historians say Luxemburg and the KPD kept with the motion that they would not try to seize power without the majority support of Germans.

Yet in January 1919, in the second wave of unrest involving the uprising of tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and workers around Germany, they gave their support to the chaotic revolt.

The shaky SPD government which had taken power after the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm then ordered right-wing paramilitaries, the so-called Freikorps, to crush the uprising. 

Although they had gone into hiding, on January 15th Luxemburg and Liebknecht were discovered.

Luxemburg, who was 47, was tortured and killed and her body was dumped in the Landwehr Canal in Kreuzberg. Her corpse was only found months later. Liebknecht was taken to the Tiergarten park in the west of the city, where he was executed with a bullet in the head

Her body was recovered months later and she was buried alongside Liebknecht in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery.

At the march for Luxemburg and Liebknecht on Sunday, demonstrators held solidarity posters for the Yellow Vest movement in France. Photo; DPA

Ambiguous figure

Luxemburg, dubbed by some as "Red Rosa", has become a somewhat ambiguous figure through the years, from being held up as a martyr in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) era, to being lauded as a feminist role model in modern times.

Immediately after their deaths, unrest carried on in Germany, leading to the rise of the Nazis, the persecution of Jews, and many other groups of people including political opponents like Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

Then during the division of Germany, another phase of their memories was born. 

“Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were used as models in the GDR even if, especially Rosa, they would never have liked the style of socialism invented in the GDR,” said Bussemer.

“She would have criticized that system.”

Bussemer adds that they were not really accepted in western Germany.

Now, because 100 years have passed, society is able to look at the revolution with fresh eyes again and come back to Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s original ideas and thinking, to question it and compare it to theories today, leftist thinkers believe.

'Strong internationalist'

So what did they stand for?

Luxemburg, an advocate of Marxist theory, believed a revolutionary movement led by workers would lead to socialism. Essentially she believed that people hold the power, and in her writing she covered a whole range of topics, from the power of mass strikes to democracy and the effect of capitalism on imperialism.

“Social rights for all and the rule of the working class,” says Bussemer, describing Luxemburg's aims. She also advocated for freedom of speech and for inclusion no matter what kind of background people came from or their nationality, Bussemer adds.

It’s this kind of thinking that seems valid in today’s world.

“She would have something to say about the situation in Europe today,” said Bussemer.

Luxemburg was a “strong internationalist” who was against “strong nation states there to support their own interests,” says Bussemer.

Luxemburg believed that groups across Europe should work together to  “provide social rights for everybody,” she adds.

And she was against right wing attitudes. “Rosa Luxemburg was totally against the right,” says Bussemer.

She adds that Luxemburg’s way of thinking in a bid to win people over would be to explain why internationalism is one of the core values of leftism, rather than focusing on pointing out why the right is xenophobic.

Another part of Luxemburg’s way of working that we could learn from today is her critical mind, her unwavering ability to question things, even her own ideas.

“She never stopped criticizing and rethinking things even they were developed by herself,” said Bussemer. “This is something which could have a big impact today.”

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to idolize Luxemburg and Liebknecht too much, and look upon the past with rose-tinted glasses. The revolution resulted in a lot of blood-shed, of ordinary German civilians. 

“They have an impact on today, but it is complicated,” says Bussemer. “They made a lot of mistakes and failures in their thinking.”

A demonstration in East Berlin on January 17th 1988. Photo: DPA

'Unbelievably smart'

Luxemburg’s determination, though, cannot be underestimated. She devoted her life to writing and educating, getting information out and mobilizing.

Bussemer cites her education and family life as being critical to her motivation - and the fact she was “unbelievably smart”, says Bussemer.

There is a theory, says Bussemer, that due to Luxemburg being bed-ridden for a year as a child, she had a lot of time to read and learn, and also formed the strength to get through difficulties in a strong way. We don’t know if this is true though.

She was also “fluent in many languages” adds Bussemer. “She was able to communicate in so many directions.”

Interestingly, Bussemer says that Luxemburg never considered herself to be a strong feminist or campaigner for women’s rights, although one of her best friends was Clara Zetkin, a key figure in the German women's right movement.

Yet by today’s perspective she would be the very definition of a feminist.

“She was for women’s rights even though she herself was not that much engaged in the development of women’s rights,” says Bussemer.

“But her behaviour, her style of life, she was very self determined, lived with different men. She was among the first German woman to study and finish a PhD, which she did in Zurich," adds Bussemer.

'Knowledge and background'

Luxemburg and Liebknecht are still today associated with Die Linke, Germany's Left party, which is currently experiencing a low political point after faring badly in recent elections, with many working-class voters preferring to opt for populist or parties that stand to the right.

Sunday's march was attended by Die Linke's Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Die Linke stalwart Gregor Gysi was to read some of Luxemburg's letters in an event held near where her body was dumped in Kreuzberg a century ago.

Bussemer says it's useful, especially for leftist movements in Germany which identifies with some of  Luxemburg and Liebknecht's ideas, to use an anniversary like this as a chance to look back and reflect on Luxemburg's work.

"Reading Rosa Luxemburg today doesn't mean she gives us answers for the problems that we have to sort ourselves," says Bussemer.

"She can, though, give us a lot of knowledge and background which we can use for our current thinking."


Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2019/01/15 18:43
I knew there was something I was supposed to celebrate today!<br /><br />Thanks for the reminder!

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