Remembering Rosa Luxemburg Still Popular 90 Years after Assassination

Rosa Luxemburg helped found the German Communist Party and was brutally murdered 90 years ago for her efforts. Today, she continues to provide inspiration to lefties and feminists the world over. But do those who revere her really understand her?
Von Siobhán Dowling

Visitors to Berlin who stroll away from Alexander Platz to take a look at the imposing Volksbühne theater and the Hans Poelzig designed Babylon Cinema nearby may be puzzled to notice a series of metal words embedded at zigzag angles into the pavement. A closer look, though, reveals that the installation is yet another monument to history in a city full of them.

This one is to Rosa Luxemburg, or Red Rosa as she was known, and is made up of quotations from the early 20th century socialist leader. The Polish-born Jewish academic was assassinated 90 years ago this week. But far from having faded into the history books, Luxemburg, one of the founders of the German Communist Party, remains a heroine to many in Germany -- from both the east and west -- as well as to fans across the world.

While some may claim her as a political forebear, for many it is her tragic death rather than her political convictions that continue to evoke the most sympathies. She was murdered in January 1919 by right-wing paramilitaries after her Spartacist group had launched an ill-fated revolution against the nascent Weimar Republic.

Since then, this tiny woman with a limp, who firmly rejected bourgeois society and norms, has exerted a fascination for many searching for an alternative to the status quo. Luxemburg was a combatitive intellectual and brilliant Marxist who opposed World War I and favored revolution over parliamentary democracy. Born in the Russian-controlled part of Poland in 1871, she fled to Switzerland where she studied for a doctorate before moving to Germany and joining the Social Democratic party.

Her life and death were depicted in the 1985 eponymous film by Margarethe von Trotta, which was showered with awards, winning Barbara Sukowa the best actress gong at Cannes for her portrayal of a woman who is not just a socialist heroine but also admired by liberals and feminists.

She has returned to the stage in the form of a musical based on her life, simply called "Rosa," in Berlin. It quickly sold out. But Luxemburg's legacy can be found elsewhere as well -- at last weekend's annual Rosa Luxemburg conference for example. Furthermore, old communists and young lefties march through the streets of former East Berlin every year to place red carnations on her grave. And while many other former communist leaders have had their memory erased from Berlin's street names since the fall of the Wall, Rosa Luxemburg, whose early death left her untainted by the nasty side of communist rule, has retained a place of honor.

A 'Cowardly Murder'

Yet, argues Jörn Schütrumpf, a Berlin-based historian and writer who publishes Luxemburg's works, these people who identify with Red Rosa and regard her a heroine do so mainly because of her terrible death, "that cowardly murder," rather than out of an understanding of her political thought.

The facts of her death are all too gruesome. Its roots lay in the revolt by sailors and soldiers in November 1918 which led to the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy, the establishment of democracy and crucially, the end of World War I just a few days later. Yet these were really two parallel revolutions, one democratic led by the reformist Social Democrats and one by the sailors and workers that formed work councils or soviets, a movement that posed a direct threat to the SPD.

It was Luxemburg's fellow communist leader Karl Liebknecht who famously announced the revolution from the balcony of the Hohenzollern palace in Berlin two hours after Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann's declaration of the "German Republic" from a balcony of the Reichstag. The stage was set for a confrontation between two very different conceptions of what post-Wilhelmine Germany should look like.

Red carnations placed on Rosa Luxemburg's grave in Berlin.

Red carnations placed on Rosa Luxemburg's grave in Berlin.

Foto: AP

Luxemburg, who had broken with the Social Democrats when they supported the imperial drive toward war in 1914, spent most of World War I in prison. In December 1918, her breakaway Independent Social Democrats (USPD) remodelled themselves into the new Communist Party (KPD). While most war weary Germans just wanted peace, these few radicals still favored the establishment of a revolutionary alternative to the burgeoning parliamentary democracy.

When in January 1919 a second wave of revolt broke out, Luxemburg and Liebknecht gave the movement their support in their Red Flag newspaper. In a move that is still highly controversial, the SPD leadership then gave right-wing paramilitaries, the Freikorps, the go-ahead to crush the left-wing revolution. On Jan. 15, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were abducted and taken to the luxury Hotel Eden, where they were tortured. The two were then driven away separately into the nearby Tiergarten park and murdered, Liebknecht was delivered to the city morgue while Luxemburg was shot and dumped into Berlin's Landwehr canal.

Her body was only recovered five months later after the winter ice had thawed and she was buried next to Liebknecht in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetry, the two becoming martyrs to the communist cause. In the former East Germany, the annual march to their graves on the Sunday before the anniversary became a state ritual and today it is still an occasion to commemorate the two early communist leaders.

Schütrumpf agrues that while East Germany availed of the cult status of "our Rosa and Karl," in reality "she was erased from memory." The woman who was feted so much by the communist state's leadership never existed, he says. "They only wanted her as a martyr, not a politician. She presented too much of a challenge," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Luxemburg, who Schütrumpf describes as one of the first "victims of political terror in the 20th century," was used by the very communist rulers who suppressed her writings. After all this was the woman who wrote: "Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently" -- hardly sentiments appreciated in the authoritarian East Germany. Her work "On the Russian Revolution," which was highly critical of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, was only published in the former East Germany in 1974. "That is because she had rejected this type of socialism," Schütrumpf argues.

Highly Relevant or an Opponent of Democracy?

To her the idea of the imposition of "emancipation" from above was a contradiction and she rejected the Bolshevik idea of an avant-garde leading the masses toward the revolution. She wanted the revolution to come from below, Schütrumpf says.

However, eminent historian Heinrich August Winkler of the Humboldt University in Berlin presents a somewhat different image of Luxemburg. Far from being a kind of early democratic socialist, he argues that she was in favor of freedom only for those who shared her revolutionary socialist ideals. Speaking to Deutsche Welle radio on Wednesday, Winkler argued that it would be incorrect to restyle her and Liebknecht as democrats. "They were opponents of the form of democracy that then and now was the only way to create a pluralistic democracy with different social groups," he argues, adding that their support for soviets would have eventually led to a dictatorship akin to that imposed in Russia.

Yet, Luxemburg still casts her spell. Schütrumpf regards her as highly modern and relevant today, and she is increasingly popular with globalization critics, particularly in Latin America. And in Germany, where there is a resurgence of interest in Marxism, with readings of Das Kapital all the rage, she looks ripe for a renaissance.

Last weekend on a sunny crisp Sunday morning tens of thousands turned out to mark the 90th anniversary of her and Liebknecht's murders. And it was not just old people nostalgic for their lost East German past who traipsed out to her snowy graveside but also left-wing radicals in search of answers to today's problems. "Whether it's the banking crisis or the Gaza situation, it's clear we need new alternatives," one 23-year-old woman told the Irish Times. "Luxemburg is more relevant than ever."

The great unknown of course is what would have happened if somehow Luxemburg and Liebknecht had not been killed on that cold January night. Would they have turned the KPD away from its Marxist-Leninist and ultimately Stalinist course? Could a united Left have prevented the rise of the Nazis? Schütrumpf says that in all likelihood they would have been expelled from the party they founded and have ended up back in the SPD, but yielding no power or influence. "In the end there would have been no place for her."

But by taking part in that second revolution in January 1919 Luxemburg sealed her fate and disastrously, the Social Democrats turned to anti-democratic forces to murder their left-wing rivals. Winkler says that the tragedy of their murders was a heavy burden for the German workers movement and ultimately the Weimar Republic to bear. In the words of historian Isaac Deutscher: "In her assassination Hohenzollern Germany celebrated its last triumph, and Nazi Germany its first."

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