The remains of the small middle-aged woman were found in June; her brutalized body had been dumped into the Berlin canal in January. That was in 1919. Ninety years later many Germans and people on every continent still speak her name — Rosa Luxemburg — with real affection.
Born in 1871 into a well-to-do Jewish family in a part of Poland ruled by czarist Russia, she began her fight for oppressed working people while still in high school. Threatened with arrest a few years later, she fled to Switzerland, where she obtained a doctor’s degree and, at 26, was already a leading theoretician on political and economic issues. Although in exile, she helped found a new, revolutionary party in Poland.
After marrying a German citizen and moving to Berlin she was soon prominent in the Social Democratic Party there, then the largest in the world. Despite her small stature and slightly handicapped by a limp, left by a childhood illness, “Red Rosa” as she was often called, defied male domination to become one of the most popular left-wing speakers in the country, while her newspaper articles were as fiery and eloquent as her speeches.
She soon ran into difficulty with both. Many leaders, holding seats in parliament or the large party apparatus, were losing enthusiasm for passionate speeches and daring programs. They tended to roll their eyes when people like Luxemburg spoke of revolution; they preferred reforms in the “free enterprise” system which maybe some day might lead to some kind of socialism. General strikes alarmed them and, as WWI approached, they began downplaying ideas of cross-border solidarity to prevent working class people from shooting at each other.
True enough, when the murderous war began in 1914, social democratic parties in Germany, France and elsewhere forgot their anti-war pledges, jumped on “patriotic” bandwagons and supported the war of the corporations and the generals.
Only one deputy in the German Reichstag, Karl Liebknecht, a friend and collaborator of Luxemburg’s, had the guts to vote against money for the war. Rosa, Karl and like-minded comrades immediately began organizing to end the war, maintaining contact with anti-war socialists from France and other “enemies” through neutral Switzerland. They named their group Spartakus Bund, after a slave rebellion leader in ancient Rome.
But in 1915 Luxemburg was arrested, jailed, briefly freed and in 1916 locked up again until war’s end.
Luxemburg was soon smuggling texts for anti-war leaflets out of the prison. She wrote diary entries and many letters, not only on political questions but on literature, history, and even delightful descriptions of songbirds and even beetles observed from her window.
Many letters included personal matters, often to the wife of Karl Liebknecht, who was also arrested in 1916, and to a son of the great German feminist and socialist Clara Zetkin, Maxim, one of Luxemburg’s great loves, all of which ended — for her — tragically.
The anti-war movement mushroomed. In November 1918 the revolt of naval units in Kiel kicked off a revolution which forced the German Kaiser to abdicate, ended the war, and nearly created the socialist republic which Karl Liebknecht, like Luxemburg just out of prison, proclaimed from a balcony of the ex-Kaiser’s palace.
But within hours Friedrich Ebert, the Social Democratic leader, who supported the war until the very end, seized leadership in Germany and joined with reactionary army generals to prevent any socialist solution to the chaos which followed the lost war.
On New Year’s weekend 1918-1919 the Spartakus leaders founded a new Communist Party. But the last ditch revolt a week later in Berlin’s newspaper district, fought with bales of newsprint as barricades, was quickly defeated; hundreds were massacred and the revolution was ended.
With the press openly demanding their murder Liebknecht and Luxemburg went into hiding. They were soon betrayed; rightwing military men bludgeoned and shot them. Later confessions showed that the governing Social Democrats had OK’d the lynching. The government which resulted, known as the Weimar Republic, was discarded 14 years later when the Nazis embarked on their path of murder and mass annihilation.
Countless German workers mourned the death of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.
After WWII the East German Democratic Republic revived the pre-Hitler tradition of marching in mid-January to the site of their graves; a new monument replaced the one destroyed by the Nazis.
Even after the Wall went down, and with it the GDR, every year tens of thousands, young and old, still place red carnations around the big stone and plaques of other German socialists and communists, as leftists from all Germany and other countries demonstrate their determination to keep fighting for a better world.
Some people still try to depict Luxemburg as an anti-communist, quoting her words: “Freedom is always freedom for those who think differently.” But although she differed with Lenin on several issues, she steadfastly supported the October Revolution in Russia and never recanted her belief: “The overthrow of the rule of capital, the establishment of a socialist social system — this and no less than this is the historic theme of the present revolution.”