‘Red Rosa’ Luxemburg. The making of a revolutionary icon

Excerpted from Deutsche Welle 1.14.2019

Revolutionary socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were executed 100 years ago in Berlin. In the ensuing century, Luxemburg has become a cult figure for the left — and for feminists, artists and pacifists.

On Sunday morning, some 10,000 people braved the rain and cold to march through eastern Berlin and place red carnations at the graves of Rosa Luxemburg and her comrade, Karl Liebknecht.

The march was commemorating 100 years since the brutal execution of the two revolutionary socialists on January 15, 1919.

In the ensuing century, this diminutive Polish-born Jewish intellectual with a limp has become a cult icon for the revolutionary left. Yet she has also had a broader appeal, admired by feminists, socialists and pacifists.

She has become part of Germany’s cultural memory, immortalized in art, poetry, an award-winning biopic, a musical and a graphic novel. And in her own words too: as well as being a brilliant Marxist theorist, Luxemburg was a prolific writer of letters, and her emotive, lyrical writing has seen her emerge as a literary figure in her own right.

Luxemburg, who as a teenager fled Russian-occupied Poland due to her socialist activities, first attained her doctorate in Zurich before arriving in Berlin in 1898. She quickly rose through the ranks of the Social Democratic Party, the biggest labor movement in Europe at the time. Yet she broke with the SPD due to its support for World War I in 1914, helped form the breakaway Spartacist League in 1916 and spent most of the war in prison.

In November 1918, a revolt by sailors and soldiers led to the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy and the end of the war. In December, the Spartacist League renamed itself the German Communist Party (KPD) and Luxemburg asserted that they would not try to seize power without the support of the majority of Germans. Yet when a second revolt broke out on January 5, 1919, she and Liebknecht gave the movement their full support. The uprising quickly faltered and the SPD leadership ordered the army and right-wing paramilitaries, the Freikorps, to crush it.

On the night of January 15, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were abducted, tortured in the luxury Hotel Eden, and then driven separately to the nearby Tiergarten Park and murdered. Liebknecht was delivered to the city morgue while Luxemburg was dumped into a canal.

Her body was only recovered five months later after the winter ice had thawed. She was buried next to Liebknecht in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery.

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