Rosa Luxemburg

Tam Eastley investigates the life and death of Berlin’s famous revolutionary, “Red Rosa”…

Rosa Luxemburg. Image via wikicommons.

To those of us living in Berlin, Rosa Luxemburg’s name rings through our ears every time we hop on the U-Bahn heading towards Mitte. Rosa Luxemburg Platz, named after her in 1969, is in the centre of it all—home to the Babylon Kino, Volksbühne, and situated just around the corner from Alexanderplatz.

Wandering around the square, one stumbles upon quotations from the woman some fondly refer to as “Red Rosa”, after the epitaph Bertolt Brecht wrote for her in 1919. Imprinted on the ground in bronze characters, taken from her works and letters, the scattering of quotations (there are 60 in total) express her revolutionary zeal and beliefs.

They are a quiet reminder to the residents and tourists of Berlin of Luxemburg’s monumental impact on the political scene in the early twentieth century. One of her most famous statements, to be found directly to the left of the Volksbühne, reads:

Freiheit nur für die Anhänger der Regierung, nur für die Mitglieder einer Partei – mögen Sie noch so zahlreich sein – ist keine Freiheit. Freiheit is immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden.”

“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of a party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”

Life & Politics

Rosa-Luxemburg Platz. Photo by Tam Eastley.

Luxemburg was born in Zamosc, Poland in 1871. From a young age she worked within the socialist movement, eventually having to flee the country due to her political activities. She lived in Zürich for a few years, where she studied natural sciences, math and economics. After earning a doctorate, she involved herself heavily in workers’ movements, gaining notoriety in the local labor circles. Later, she married Gustav Lübeck as a matter of convenience, in order to gain German citizenship. She then headed to Berlin, where she joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Once in Berlin, Luxemburg became a dominant and increasingly active figure in the party. She rose to be a respected and sought-after speaker and leader, all despite her limp, gender, religion (she was Jewish), nationality and Polish accent. She taught at the SPD training school, which was located on Lindenstrasse near Hallesches Tor.

She later moved into an apartment just next door to her place of work, and wrote for a number of different SPD publications, penning many pamphlets, books and papers. In 1913 she published The Accumulation of Capital, prompting politician and historian Franz Mehring (the namesake of Mehringdamm) to declare Luxemburg “the most brilliant head that has yet appeared among the scientific heirs of Marx and Engels.”

The theories of Luxemburg can, and do, span numerous books. One of her best-known contributions to the study of Marxism was the idea of “spontaneity”, i.e. her belief in the power of bottom-up, grassroots organisations that start within the workers’ movements. These revolutions, she postulated, spur change and growth, allowing workers to dictate their own forms of government. Her beliefs stood in opposition to those of Lenin, who argued for the importance of centralised leadership, which would enable his government to:

“[name] all the local committees of the party. […] [The Central Committee] should also have the right to impose on all of them its own ready-made rules of party conduct. [It] would be the only thinking element in the party. All other groupings would be its executive limbs.”

Luxemburg believed that Lenin’s way of thinking would lead to a dangerous communist dictatorship—an idea that, like many of her other predictions, was eventually proven correct. Her radical politics gradually isolated her from her colleagues in the SPD. She called for the overthrow of capitalism and later, in 1914, with Germany on the brink of war, she teamed up with a handful of fellow left-wingers to stage anti-war demonstrations.

Amongst them was Karl Liebknecht, a like-minded revolutionary and the only member of the Reichstag to vote against Germany’s participation in World War One. Berliners may recognize his name, given that the street running alongside Alexanderplatz is named after him. It was this core group of activists who later became the Spartakusbund, the Spartacus League. As an underground political organization, the Spartacus League published an illegal, anti-war newspaper called the Rote Fahne (Red Flag) in an effort to spur mass action against the war.

Because of their political views and activities, members of the league were often jailed. Luxemburg was sent to various prisons around Eastern Europe a total of nine times. In 1916, when members of the Spartacus League officially revealed themselves, by holding an anti-war demonstration on Potsdamer Platz, the authorities put Luxemburg in jail once again.

Frauengefängnis 1931, courtesy of the Bundesarchive
Berlin’s Frauengefängnis 1931, courtesy of the Bundesarchive

Berlin’s Frauengefängnis (women’s prison) on Barnimstrasse, which stood in operation between 1868 and 1974, housed Rosa Luxemburg twice: once in 1907 and again from 1915 to 1916. Although the jail no longer exists, a small plaque and a downloadable audio tour commemorate the prison.

A Double Murder

By the end of World War One, Berlin was in chaos. Poverty, homelessness, and hunger were rampant. The city was on the brink of civil war, and revolutionary ideas filled the air. Upon the conclusion of the war, Luxemburg was released from prison due to an act of amnesty and used her freedom to immediately dive back into the political conflict. No longer a part of the SPD, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and their fellow Spartacists, founded the German Communist Party (KPD).

As the Spartacists turned toward communist activism, the German empire was crumbling, paving the way for the Weimar Republic. Revolts spread through the country in response, the most famous of which was the Spartacus Uprising of January 1919.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht hoped the revolt would bring about a communist Germany, but the ruling SPD government decided instead to crush the uprising, giving the Freikorps (Germany’s paramilitaries) permission to forcefully put an end to the protests. Among those captured were Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Captain of the Freikorps, Waldemar Pabst, said in 1962:

“In January 1919, I attended a KPD meeting where Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were speaking. I gathered the impression that they were the intellectual leaders of the revolution, and I decided to have them killed. Following my orders, they were captured. One has to decide to break the rule of law… This decision to have them both killed did not come easy to me…I do maintain that this decision is morally and theologically legitimate.”

Considering the notoriety their deaths received, details of their capture and murders are surprisingly varied. Some reports say that at the time of their capture, the two were staying at the luxurious Hotel Adlon on Pariser Platz. Others say they were staying at the Hotel Eden on what is now Budapester Strasse, while still others place them in an apartment. No matter where they were, the two were apprehended and murdered on January 15th, 1919.

The reports on how exactly this happened are again murky. Some reports say they were shot in a car on the way to prison; others say Luxemburg was beaten outside the offices of the SPD; others still say that she was hit on the head with the butt of a rifle and then dragged into a car half-dead. Regardless, at the age of forty-seven, she was driven alone to the Landwehr canal in Tiergarten, where she was shot, her body then thrown into the water under the Lichtensteinbrücke.

Rosa Luxemburg memorial on the Landwehr Canal. Image by Manfred Brückels via Wikicommons.

Today, a cast iron memorial with her name in raised capital letters commemorates her death. Luxemburg’s corpse was pulled from the canal a number of months later. Close by, on Grosser Weg, a commemorative brick pillar is dedicated to Liebknecht. The text associated with the pillar states that Liebknecht was shot where the pillar now stands.

It’s an odd feeling, to walk around Tiergarten with the joggers and the bikers and the well-dressed business people surrounding, to then suddenly stumble upon these memorials. To stand on the very soil where someone was killed is a rare and disturbing opportunity. So often when it comes to Berlin’s past, the deaths are en masse and faceless—but in Tiergarten, the memorials to two of Berlin’s great revolutionaries remain visible and tangible pieces of Berlin history.

Luxemburg’s Corpse

Admirers of Luxemburg were stunned in 2009 when Michael Tsokos, head of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences at Berlin’s Charité Hospital, revealed that Luxemburg’s grave at the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery in Lichtenberg may not, in fact, house Luxemburg’s body. Tsokos made further waves when he stated that he suspected a limbless, headless corpse in the basement of the hospital’s medical history museum to be that of Luxemburg.

There were a number of reasons for his controversial conjecture. First, Luxemburg was known to walk with a limp due to a childhood disease which left her with legs of different lengths. According to the poorly-conducted autopsy from the time of her death, the body reported to be Luxemburg’s did not have this obvious and distinctive characteristic. Also, the body did not reveal damage to the skull.

After conducting a number of tests and using radiocarbon dating, Tsokos was able to determine that the hospital’s limbless body belonged to a woman in her late forties who had lived around the time of Luxemburg. Damage to the hip was also consistent with Luxemburg’s lifelong impairment.

As for injuries to the base of her skull, their source and overall presence was impossible to determine, because the head had been removed and stored in a jar of formaldehyde in the basement of the institute, along with many others.

Luxemburg’s grave. Image via wikicommons.

After the news broke, Tsokos was reported to have been searching the world for relatives of the childless Luxemburg in order to conduct DNA testing. An article in the New York Observer reported that after a series of failed leads, Tsokos was unable to prove one way or another that the body belonged to Luxemburg. So he gave the body to the police and i1t was buried anonymously.

Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s story ends anti-climactically. As it turns out, Luxemburg’s grave is actually empty, so comparisons between the bodies cannot be made. Der Spiegel reported that “in 1935, anti-communist Nazis attacked Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s graves, and the remains vanished.”

To this day, the body of Luxemburg remains undiscovered. However, her grave, like the memorial in Tiergarten, like Rosa Luxemburg Platz, and like the plaque at the women’s prison, serves as yet another tribute to her brave and inspiring life.

For more on the contemporary legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, check out the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, based here in Berlin, or watch Margarethe von Trotta’s 1986 film, Rosa Luxemburg, chronicling her life and the events of the Spartacus Uprising. 

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