Rosa Luxemburg: Guiding light and controversial figure of the Left | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 15.01.2019
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Rosa Luxemburg: Guiding light and controversial figure of the Left

Social democrat, Spartacist, communist and revolutionary: The politician Rosa Luxemburg was murdered 100 years ago. She remains as controversial as she is admired — and so does her contemporary, Karl Liebknecht.

Germany, 100 years ago. The First World War has just ended and the Kaiser has fled, but the country is still not at peace. On November 9, 1918, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the German Republic. But the revolution, initiated by soldiers and supported by workers, is still ongoing — and people are still dying, because Germans are killing Germans, each fighting for the form of government he or she believes is right. Things come to a head in January 1919. History records the events as the Spartacist Uprising, because of the involvement of the Marxist Spartacist League.

German socialist theorist and anti-war activist Karl Liebknecht (picture-alliance/dpa)

Due to his anti-war stance during WWI, Karl Liebknecht was thrown out of Germany's SPD — which today stands as the country's oldest political party

By early 1919, mass demonstrations were the order of the day. The provisional German government — with the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Friedrich Ebert, at its head — was a coalition of the SPD and the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). The popular demonstrations put it under tremendous pressure, compounded by the newly established German Communist Party, whose main protagonists were two former SPD politicians: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

Unfulfilled dream of democratic socialism

Their uncompromising anti-war stance had resulted in them being isolated within their former party early on, when the SPD voted in favor of a war loan in 1914 to finance World War One. Luxemburg and Liebknecht left, and joined the USPD instead. In the revolutionary winter of 1918-19, their dream of a socialist Soviet republic seemed, briefly, to be coming true.

Read more: 'Red Rosa' Luxemburg and the making of a revolutionary icon

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Thousands honor Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht

The role model was Russia, where the revolution of 1917 had already succeeded — but had swiftly led to dictatorship by the Party. Rosa Luxemburg rejected this. The Hamburg-based historian Marcel Bois says that Luxemburg always considered democracy and socialism to be "indivisible."

Speaking to DW, Bois explained that Luxemburg believed the German economy must also be structured democratically, not just the political landscape. That was why she supported the Soviet movement, but was opposed to a coup d'etat. This had also been the KPD's position at the outset: Its manifesto declared that governmental power would never be assumed except "by the clear, unequivocal will of the great majority of the proletarian masses in Germany."

Karl Liebknecht addresses Berliners in 1918 (Getty Images/Boury/Three Lions/Hulton Archive)

Karl Liebknecht addresses Berliners at one of the many mass demonstrations of the revolutionary winter of 1918-1919

'Karl, is this still our program?'

Historians today still disagree as to the role played by Germany's two most prominent communists in the Spartacist Uprising in January 1919. Marcel Bois believes the primary impetus came from revolutionary forces in the industrial sector, and that Liebknecht "allowed himself to be caught up in the general mood." Liebknecht was aiming to topple the government, whereas Luxemburg is said to have asked her comrade, "Karl, is this still our program?"

This episode, as reported, indicates how Luxemburg and Liebknecht struggled to decide what would be the right course of action. Their violent deaths then plunged the Left as a whole into even greater turmoil.

On 15 January the two politicians were brutally murdered. Liebknecht was shot by rightist Freikorps soldiers acting on the orders of the ruling SPD: The official version said he was shot "while trying to escape." Luxemburg was also shot dead and her body thrown into Berlin's Landwehr Canal.

Read more: Germany marks 100 years since Luxemburg-Liebknecht murders

Rosa Luxemburg's funeral in 1919 (picture-alliance/akg-images)

Luxemburg's body, flung into Berlin's Landwehr Canal after her murder, was found months after her death and buried in June 1919

'Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters'

Socialists and communists still commemorate her every year with a silent demonstration. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to the socialist memorial in the Friedrichsfelde district of Berlin, usually on the second Sunday in January. During the years when Germany was divided, the communist regime in the East insisted on holding the ritual — a contradiction in terms. It commemorated a woman and a man who had rejected a one-party dictatorship, yet from day one East Germany (GDR), with its all-powerful Social Unity Party, was precisely that.

The historian Marcel Bois, who is an expert on communism, reminds us that, toward the end of the GDR, dissidents chose to invoke the memory of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. The year before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they used the traditional ceremony of remembrance to challenge the state government, carrying banners that called for radical societal change with quotations from Rosa Luxemburg herself. One of the slogans was her famous comment made in criticism of the Russian revolution: "Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters."

Read more: Understanding East Germany is a never-ending process

A demonstration in 1988 in East Berlin honoring Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (picture-alliance/dpa)

Gone, but not forgotten: A demonstration in 1988 in East Berlin honoring Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht

Luxemburg Foundation: 'A small way of making amends'

Today, the spiritual legacy of Rosa Luxemburg is continued by the foundation established in her name. The chair of the organization, Dagmar Enkelmann, thinks naming the educational institution, which is politically close to the Left Party, after the murdered revolutionary was "a small way of making amends." In an interview with DW, Enkelmann said it was regrettable that East Germany put Luxemburg "on a pedestal." As a result, she says, people at the time paid far too little attention to her theoretical ideas, which can be found in her newspaper articles and letters.

Read more: Is Germany's political left coming apart at the seams?

When looking ahead to the European elections in May of this year, Enkelmann is uncomfortably reminded of the disunity that always seems to plague the Left. Right now it is still unclear whether the Left will manage to unite to form a joint parliamentary party. Right-wing parties quickly manage to reach an agreement, says Enkelmann — herself a former member of parliament for the Left — whereas 200 years of experience show "that the [political] left is always very quick to erect barricades within itself" and does far too little work on "what actually unites us." Rosa Luxemburg found this, too — and paid for it with her life.