The murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht
Carnations are placed in front of a memorial stone with names of socialists at a cemetery in Berlin, Jan. 13, 2019. Prominent figures from the country's left paid tribute to the founders of the German Communist Party and other socialist heroes. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were killed Jan. 15, 1919, by right-wing militiamen. | Markus Schreiber / AP

This week marks the anniversary of the Jan. 15, 1919, murders of German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They were both born in the same year, 1871, and died on the same day, their names necessarily linked in history.

As members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), they were outraged that their party supported German involvement in World War I. In 1915, they broke from the SPD and co-founded the anti-war Spartacus League (Spartakusbund). Both were imprisoned for their anti-war agitation.

Karl Liebknecht, public domain, Wikipedia.

As the war was coming to an end, they were freed from prison. On Nov. 9, 1918, Liebknecht proclaimed the “Free Socialist Republic” in Berlin. Their Spartacus League published The Red Flag (Die Rote Fahne) newspaper, demanding amnesty for all political prisoners and the abolition of capital punishment. That month the November Revolution broke out as a working-class response to the horrors of war inflicted upon the world by the Kaiser’s government.

From December 29-31, 1918, they took part in a joint congress of the Spartacus League, independent socialists, and the International Communists of Germany (IKD), that led to the foundation on January 1, 1919, of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) under their leadership. Although the new KPD participated in the Weimar National Assembly that founded the post-war Weimar Republic, the KPD decided to boycott the scheduled elections.

On New Year’s Day 1919 Luxemburg declared: “Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction.”

A second revolutionary wave, called the Spartacist uprising, swept Berlin that month. Though she and Liebknecht considered it premature, they felt duty-bound to support it and through their newspaper urged the rebels to occupy offices of the liberal (but counterrevolutionary) press.

Sculpture of Rosa Luxemburg, made by Rolf Biebl, standing in front of the Neues Deutschland building, Franz-Mehring-Platz, Friedrichshain, Berlin / Achim Raschka / Creative Commons

Friedrich Ebert’s majority Social Democratic government crushed the revolt and the Spartacus League by sending in the Freikorps, a government-sponsored paramilitary group consisting mostly of now out-of-work World War I veterans. Freikorps troops captured Luxemburg and Liebknecht without an arrest warrant and summarily executed them. Luxemburg was shot and her body was thrown in the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, only to be found and identified months later, and Liebknecht was shot in the Tiergarten park.

Significant labor actions and uprisings took place in several German cities and states, where temporary “Soviet republics” were established, but the last of them, in Bavaria, was put down in early May 1919.

In her writings, Luxemburg leveled pointed critiques not only at moderate socialism but also at the new Leninist revolutionary model in Bolshevik Russia. “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all,” she wrote. She continued with possibly the most famous of her quotes: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”

Yet the two martyrdoms to Social Democratic reaction—even if the uprising was adventurist and bound to fail—guaranteed them both a hallowed place in the communist pantheon, certainly in the socialist German Democratic Republic (1949-1990), but especially among Marxists. Their ideas and writings continue to be studied with reverence. Socialists and communists commemorate them yearly on the second Sunday of January at the Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery in Berlin, where they are buried.

If the Social Democratic-ordained murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg were not tragedy enough, the lessons learned were poorly applied. For most of the 1920s, during the Comintern period, communist ire was understandably directed at the ruling Social Democrats of the Weimar Republic, whom they named “social fascists,” yet communists ignored or downplayed the threat posed by the gathering Nazi fascist movement.

A demonstration in memory of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in the German Democratic Republic in 1988. | German Federal Archive

It was not until the mid-1930s, after fascism had come to power, that communists belatedly realized their mistake and formed the United Front strategy, which they have generally followed ever since. By uniting, however temporarily, with liberal and progressive forces against the main enemy, fascism could be defeated, as they proved in World War II. This hard-won lesson has still not been embraced by some purists on the “ultra-left” who, for example, failed to draw any distinction whatsoever between the “two capitalists” running for president in 2016 and either stayed home or cast their votes for third, “revolutionary” parties.

Bertolt Brecht’s poetic memorial Epitaph upon her death was included in Kurt Weill’s 1928 composition The Berlin Requiem: “Red Rosa now has vanished too…. / She told the poor what life is about, / And so the rich have rubbed her out. / May she rest in peace.”

Numerous monuments to Luxemburg and Liebknecht have been erected, also streets, schools and public institutions named for them. She has been memorialized in numerous works of literature.

Margarethe von Trotha’s outstanding 1986 film ‘Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg’ is available online with English subtitles. Here it is:


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People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.