Rosa Luxembourg was a communist ideologue and a pacifist who would die a violent death, deservedly so to some as a revolutionary martyr to others, in an armed struggle she neither wanted nor believed could succeed.
She was born on 5 March 1872, into a middle-class Jewish family in Zamosc, Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire.
As a shy and studious young woman who was not considered particularly alluring either in features or charm she attracted little male attention so disengaged from the pursuit of love, marriage, and the lifetime of domestic drudgery that would invariably follow she turned her attention to politics, her true interest.
Outspoken and politically active from an early age she first came to the attention of the Authorities while still a schoolgirl and by early 1889, aged just 18, she had already been forced to flee Poland.
Settling in Zurich, Switzerland, the favoured destination of Europe’s revolutionary diaspora she was able with financial support from her family to study law and political economy at the University where through contacts she soon made the acquaintance of the local Russian emigre community which included such socialist luminaries as Georgi Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Alexandra Kollontai, and Leo Jogiches.
In 1893, along with Jogiches, she formed the Social Democratic Party of Poland but unable to operate openly in the county where it was banned, Rosa was forced to edit and publish its journal Sprawa Bobotznica (Workers’ Cause) from Paris and have it distributed illegally. But often forced underground by police harassment in France and the penalties those discovered distributing it in Poland were likely to incur saw it make little impression.
In 1895, Rosa married a German national, Gustave Lubeck, not for love or any reasons of affection but merely to acquire German citizenship.
Soon after she settling in Berlin she joined the German Social Democratic Party and became embroiled in the arguments between the ideologues who adhered to an Orthodox Marxism and no watering-down of the workers cause and those who advocated political and social reform.
Rosa sided with the hard-line Karl Kautsky in opposition to the reformer Edouard Bernstein who believed that socialism could be achieved in a democratic country without the need for revolution. Whether Germany was a democracy or not was moot point, but Bernstein believed that increased parliamentary engagement and trade union activity would be enough on its own.
Rosa did not agree.
In 1905, Auguste Bebel appointed Rosa editor of the party newspaper Vorwarts! Here was the opportunity to directly influence the direction of party strategy but her appointment also coincided with the outbreak of revolution in her homeland and so, though reluctant to do so, she resigned and returned to Poland. No sooner had she arrived however than the revolution collapsed and she was promptly arrested.
Not particularly wanting yet another political radical on their hands, they had quite enough of their own the Authorities promptly deported her back to Germany. Many others were not so fortunate.
Rosa’s experiences in Poland only served to radicalise her even further and she now strongly advocated a General Strike as the spark that would lead to the violent overthrow of capitalism.
This was too extreme for the majority of her S.D.P colleagues who had gradually been moving towards the right and she now found herself both alienated from most of her fellow party members and effectively ostracised by the party leadership. It was also around this time that she first made the acquaintance of Vladimir Illyich Lenin who was at first impressed by this physically slight but intellectually rigorous firebrand but her support for the majority Mensheviks in their dispute with Lenin over future strategy made him suspicious of her motives.
Following the Russian Revolution of October 1917, she had expected to be given the leading role in Poland but Lenin had not forgotten her opposition to him years earlier and instead appointed Karl Radek to that position. She was bitterly disappointed but didn’t dwell on it, there was always work to be done.
Rosa had vehemently opposed the First World War which she saw as simply a struggle of Imperial aggrandisement between competing capitalist blocs, joined forces with the French socialist leader Jean Jaures in his attempt to unify workers from among the socialist parties across Europe to prevent it.
The attempt collapsed on 14 July 1914, when Jaures was assassinated whilst dining at a cafe in Paris and it is easy to imagine Rosa’s despair watching the S.D.P rise almost as one to cheer the Kaiser in the Reichstag and vote overwhelmingly in favour of a War Budget.
Disgusted by the turn of events she resigned and together with Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, and Clara Zlatkin formed the Spartakusbund, or Spartakist League.
They busied themselves in opposing the war as best they could, distributing often by hand anti-war leaflets, spray-painting graffiti, and trying to organise strike action. Indeed, encouraged by the general disillusionment with the war that appeared to be sweeping Germany on May Day 1916 they openly protested on the streets of Berlin and were promptly arrested.
Rosa and her colleagues were released from jail during the general amnesty for political prisoners which followed the Kaiser’s abdication in October 1918, and inspired by the events in Russia they swiftly formed the Kommunist Partei Deutschland (K.P.D) to fight the elections that November.
The elections were in large part being held to forestall revolution and were to result in the formation of the first socialist S.D.P Government.
Germany had voted overwhelmingly for the left and the K.D.P had picked up around 10% of the vote but The S.D.P was no longer a revolutionary party and had no wish to co-operate with those who wanted to see a Soviet style Government based on the Russian model.
The end of the Hohenzollern Monarchy and election of a Socialist Government had gone a little way to pacifying an impoverished and starving people even if they could do little to alleviate their pain. It was perhaps then not the time for revolution but with the British blockade of German ports still in place and no short-term prospect of the hunger coming to an end it remained there to be exploited, just not yet.
In early January 1919, however, a second-wave of unrest swept across Germany and the Spartakists came under pressure not only to participate but take the lead role.
Both Rosa and Karl Liebknecht were opposed believing that the conditions for revolution did not yet exist – the workers were ill-prepared, badly organised, poorly armed, and would be easily crushed but cajoled by trade unionists and radicals within their own party, with Lenin insisting upon the spread of revolution, and even the Spartakists newspaper Red Flag demanding action they had little choice but to respond.
But the failure of communism in Germany, the industrial and economic powerhouse that lay at the heart of Europe even at a moment of subjection and defeat, would see the World Revolution effectively strangled at birth; and the Spartakists had neither the support of the workers the majority of whom had voted for the S.D.P Government they were now seeking to overthrow, nor the network of alliances to make revolution a reality, and both Rosa and Karl Liebknecht knew it.
They could only hope that they would provide the spark to light the fire that would attract others to the flames – it was forlorn hope.
Widespread disturbances had already been underway for sometime in Berlin but other than the usual agitation from party cadres little organisation had gone into them and any aims were vague other than the expression of a general discontent and the demand for food.
By the time the Spartakists declared for armed revolution the anger had largely dissipated.
Calling for a General Strike and factory lock-ins that were little heeded they organised small groups of militant party members into armed combat units to erect barricades and seize key positions in Berlin such as the radio station, telegraph and post office, and railway station but in this they were thwarted by police and army units.
In the meantime, the Government had reacted to the threat by calling on, not the police or the army, but the Freikorps, paramilitary units made up mostly of ex-army officers and right-wing volunteers.
After a week of sporadic but often bloody street fighting Spartakist support began to melt away and any prospect of revolution with it.
The Freikorps were now given a free-hand to restore order in Berlin and the President of the recently formed Weimar Republic Friedrich Ebert aware of the precariousness of his own position was willing to turn a blind-eye to their actions and with no oversight in place the Freikorps roamed the streets of Berlin as de facto murder squads.
On 15 January 1919, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were captured by a Freikorps unit led by Captain Waldemar Pabst who blaming the Left for Germany’s surrender in November, 1918, not defeat on the battlefield had no sympathy whatsoever for communists, pacifists and those he considered traitors.
Both Rosa and Karl were roughly treated during a short interrogation after which having extracted all the information he could from them Pabst ordered their execution.
Rosa was beaten to ground at the butt of a rifle before being shot, her bullet-riddled body being thrown into the Landwehr Canal.
Karl Liebknecht’s body was later discovered shot through the head in a nearby park.
Interviewed in 1962 by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Waldemar Pabst stated that he had been ordered to execute Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknect on the direct orders of President Ebert and the Defence Minister Gustave Noske, an ex-pupil of Rosa’s.
This has to be taken with a pinch of salt given Pabst’s well-established far-right connections and his oft repeated boast that he alone had been responsible and that as a Jewess he had wanted Rosa beaten to death, rather than waste a bullet.
If it was the case that he had been acting on direct orders from the Government (and it is true that an attempt to prosecute Pabst for the murders was later quietly shelved) then their execution had been ordered by those they would previously have considered to be colleagues and friends.
They were perhaps not the last victims either, for it was rumoured that Leo Jogiches was later murdered whilst trying to track down Rosa’s killers and bring them to justice.