For over 90 years, Rosa Luxemburg has been an inspiration for leftists and feminists the world over. A communist revolutionary in post-World War I Germany, her grave is a shrine of sorts, visited every year by a procession of old communists and young left-wing activists, who march through the streets of former East Berlin to lay red carnations on her gravestone in Berlin's Friedrichsfelde Cemetery.
But now, a startling discovery indicates that Rosa Luxemburg may never have inhabited that much-hallowed grave. If Michael Tsokos, head of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences at Berlin's Charité hospital, is correct, then Luxemburg's body has been stored in the hospital's basement since 1919.
Tsokos recently found a corpse -- with no head, feet or hands -- stored in the cellar of the hospital's medical history museum. He found the autopsy report suspicious and decided to perform a computer tomography test.
The result was something of a surprise. The body showed signs of having been waterlogged, and the test indicated that the body belonged to a woman who was between 40 and 50 years old at the time of death and that she had suffered from osteoarthritis and had legs of different lengths.
After further consideration, Tsokos told SPIEGEL, he concluded that the corpse bore "striking similarities with the real Rosa Luxemburg."
At the time of her death, Luxemburg, known also as "Red Rosa," was 47 years old. She suffered from a congenital hip ailment that left her with a permanent limp, which in turn caused her legs to be of different lengths. And after her violent death at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries, her body was thrown into Berlin's Landwehr Canal.
A laboratory in the northern German city of Kiel also tested the body using carbon dating (C-14 testing), confirming that the cadaver came from the correct period.
A Well-Known -- and Gruesome -- End
The story of Luxemburg's death is one of the most famous in modern German history. Originally a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Luxemburg broke with her party when it supported the imperial drive toward war in 1914. After spending most of World War I in prison, the Polish-born academic emerged to help found Germany's Communist Party (KPD) with fellow leftist leader Karl Liebknecht.
In November 1918, a revolt by sailors and soldiers led to the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy, the establishment of Germany's first democracy and the end of World War I just a few days later.
But, in January 1919, a second wave of leftist revolt broke out. After Liebknecht and Luxemburg voiced their support for what they hoped would be the long-awaited establishment of a communist Germany, the SPD leadership had had enough. With the recent fate of the Russian czar and his family (who were killed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918) fresh in their minds, they gave right-wing paramilitaries, the Freikorps, the go-ahead to crush the revolt.
On Jan. 15, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured at a hideout and taken to Berlin's luxury Hotel Eden, where they were interrogated and 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 the icy waters of the canal.
Her body was only recovered almost five months later after the winter ice had melted. Then, after an autopsy at the Charité hospital, she was allegedly buried in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery next to Liebknecht. The two have been honored there ever since as martyrs to the communist cause.
Inconsistent Autopsy Findings
Surprising inconsistencies from the report on the original autopsy, performed on June 13, 1919 on a body said to be that of Rosa Luxemburg, seem to lend credence to Tsokos' hypothesis.
On the one hand, forensic examiners at that time reported details that did not agree with the anatomical peculiarities of Luxemburg's body, Tsokos told SPIEGEL. The autopsy explicitly noted the absence of hip damage and also said there was no evidence that the legs were of different lengths. The autopsy also revealed no traces on the upper skull of the two rifle-butt strikes soldiers reportedly inflicted on Luxemburg.
Regarding the gunshot to the head that killed Luxemburg, the original medical examiners did note a hole in the corpse's head between the left eye and ear, but they did not find an exit wound nor did they note the presence of a bullet in the skull. Tsokos is sure this was not just an oversight. "There's no way that that could have happened with people of their professional skills," he says, noting that the head pathologist, Fritz Strassmann, had written the standard textbook of the time on performing autopsies.
One thing that puzzled Strassmann and his colleague Paul Fraenckel, however, was the "severe wound to the base of the skull," as they wrote in the autopsy report. While the two scientists drew no definitive conclusion about the wound, Tsokos thinks he knows what it is. "It looks to be the type of fracture that occurs when someone falls from a great height," he said. Could Strassman and Fraenckel have been examining the body of a suicide victim?
Fraenckel himself appears to have had his doubts that the corpse he examined really belonged to Rosa Luxemburg. In a signed addendum, he distanced himself from the findings of his highly respected colleague, "a very unusual occurrence," Tsokos says. "Just as today," he adds, "colleagues worked out their differences in face-to-face conversations."
As Tsokos explains, it was this addendum and the inconsistencies between the report and the facts known about Luxemburg that made him take a closer look at the remains.
Furthermore, rumors had long been circulating at the Charité that the body of Red Rosa never actually left the hospital. Some say that Luxemburg's head was preserved in the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences. Even the missing hands and feet fit with Tsokos' theory. When the revolutionary was thrown into the canal, eyewitnesses say weights were wired to her ankles and wrists. They easily could have severed her extremities during the months her corpse spent under water.
The Search for Further Clues
Tsokos and his colleagues are now searching for more clues to help solve the riddle. One place that it won't help to look, though, is inside Luxemburg's grave itself. In 1935, anti-communist Nazis attacked Luxemburg's and Liebknecht's graves, and the remains vanished. Subsequent searches for them by cemetery workers in 1950 were unsuccessful.
Tsokos has already extracted DNA from the corpse and is looking for material to compare it to. Saliva from stamps on letters mailed by Luxemburg has not been able to provide enough material for testing. He is now trying to locate a mentally handicapped niece of Luxemburg, who allegedly lives in Warsaw, to compare genetic material.
Reporting by Frank Thadeusz