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Our Red Rosa

Helen Engelhardt
March 3, 2017


by Helen Engelhardt

from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

“If they expect us to murder our French or other foreign brothers, then let us tell them — under no circumstances!”

A SHORT, frail woman with a clumsy limp had taken the stage at Fechenheim, a district within the city of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on September 25, 1913. Her warm and vibrant voice, her confident and urgent arguments, aroused her listeners. This was their beloved warrior, Red Rosa, committed to revolutionary socialism, unafraid to confront any authority.

She repeated her speech the following day at a public meeting in neighboring Bockenheim. One month later, criminal proceedings began against Rosa Luxemburg on the grounds that she had called for a struggle against the imminent war and had urged workers not to fire on their class brothers. Her trial was held four months later at the regional court in Frankfurt am Main, where she declared: “Sir, I believe you would run away [from judgment]; a social democrat does not. He laughs at your judgments. I assure you that I would not flee even if I were threatened by the gallows. And now sentence me!”

Sentenced to a year in the women’s prison in Berlin, she was granted a postponement due to her poor health. By the time she entered prison, Germany had been at war for six months.

Previously, on August 3, 1914, after a heated dispute among the German Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary deputies, SPD had voted 78-14 to approve money for war. The next day, with party discipline forced upon the minority, the SPD voted — with one exception — in favor of the war credits motion of their imperialist government. Karl Liebknecht was that one exception, the only member of the Reichstag to vote against German participation in the war. “Arising out of the armament race,” he declared, “it is a preventative war provoked by German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy.”

After losing the vote, a group of SPD anti-militarists met in the home of Rosa Luxemburg. They decided against forming a new party but determined to continue campaigning against the war. Rosa corresponded about the significance of this: “If after the war, international socialism doesn’t succeed in rejecting imperialism and militarism in all their forms . . . even in the event of war, then socialism can let itself be buried . . .” (October, 1914).

During the first three months of her imprisonment, from February to April, 1915, she fired off a pamphlet on “The Crisis of German Social Democracy,” known as the “Junius pamphlet,” which was smuggled out, published and distributed clandestinely. Junius was a pseudonym used by an English pamphleteer in the 18th century, and was also the middle name of ancient Rome’s Marcus Junius Brutus, the most famous of the assassins of Julius Caesar. Her pamphlet became the manifesto for the International Group, which evolved into the Spartacus League and ultimately became the Communist Party of Germany, led by Luxemburg and Liebknecht. As Junius, Luxemburg argued against nationalism and national self-determination as a diversion from the class struggle: “So long as capitalist states exist . . . so long as imperialistic world policies determine and regulate the inner and the outer life of a nation, there can be no ‘national self-determination’ either in war or in peace.” This view was alarming to Vladimir Lenin, who believed in the revolutionary potential of nationalist struggles among oppressed nationalities — and for whom the principle of national self-determination would prove to be a key justification for the new Soviet Russia’s withdrawal from World War I.

LUXEMBURG’S revolutionary outlook was shaped not only by her own experiences growing up in Zamość and Warsaw, Poland, under Russian rule, but by the experiences of her siblings, parents and grandparents, particularly her father, who was active in both the Jewish Enlightenment and Polish revolutionary movements. According to Rory Castle (, a British historian specializing in her life, “Her background has always been obscure. She was herself extremely reluctant to discuss her childhood, family or personal life and fiercely protected her privacy.” But “newly available archival material and extensive interviews with members of her family offer a new interpretation of Rosa Luxemburg’s Polish-Jewish identity.”

Her grandfather, Abraham Luxemburg, was a timber businessman with links in many German-speaking cities. An ardent maskil (supporter of the Jewish Enlightenment), he used his wealth to contribute to cultural life and educational reforms. Although he advocated for the Polish language and Polish cultural identity, he also, like other maskilim, attended synagogue and sought to defend Jews against anti-Semitism as well as against the mysticism of khasidism.

When Poland’s November Rising against Russian rule began in 1830, the maskilim of Zamość joined with their Christian neighbors to form a city guard. After a year of fierce fighting, the Imperial Russian Army prevailed — but unlike their brethren elsewhere in Poland, the Christians of Zamość did not then participate in the anti-Semitic attacks in their city.

Rosa’s father, Edward, born in Zamość two months after the November Rising began, was studying in Berlin during the 1848 revolution and became an arms dealer, supplying weapons for the next Polish insurrection against Russian rule, which came in January 1863. This uprising, too, was welcomed in maskilim circles as another opportunity to assert their Polish-Jewish identity and throw off the repressive tsarist regime, but once again the massive Russian army crushed the Poles, and this time their defeat brought the utter destruction of their autonomy and the arrest, deportation and exile of tens of thousands of Poles. Rosa’s father fled to Warsaw to hide from the tsarist police, and moved his entire family there into a rented flat in 1873.

Born two years earlier as the fifth and last child of her parents, Rosa was a beloved daughter in a closely knit family. A childhood hip problem confined her to bed for a year and left her with a permanent limp the rest of her life. Her mother Lina taught her to read and write by age 5 and declared that her precocious daughter would be the child who “will make our family’s name famous.” Until Rosa was 9, she was educated at home. She was admitted to a gymnasium primarily reserved for the daughters of Russian soldiers and nobility. Polish was forbidden, even in conversation. Rosa was the outstanding student of her grade, but the gold medal was withheld from her at graduation because she was Jewish.

At 10, she witnessed a major pogrom in Warsaw. During her school years, she witnessed how revolutionary socialists imprisoned in the citadel near her school were banished to Siberia or hanged, with many young women among them. While still at school, she joined a revolutionary group that rejected terrorism and modeled itself on the German Social Democratic Party. After attempting to organize a general strike, Rosa had to flee over the border to escape arrest.

She followed her youngest brother Josef to Zurich University in 1889. (Josef became a world-renowned expert on contagious diseases.) Possessed of a luminous intelligence and multiple intellectual interests, Rosa first studied mathematics, zoology and botany, which remained enthusiasms the rest of her life. She eventually enrolled in political and economic science and history. While still in college, she co-founded the Social Democratic Party of Poland with fellow students, published articles disagreeing with Lenin’s theories on centralism, and took on Marx himself in a critical appraisal of his second volume of Das Kapital.

ZURICH was an intellectual sanctuary, the only university in Europe that had opened its doors to women. It was also a hothouse for Polish and Russian emigrants and revolutionaries. Luxemburg befriended the leading Polish and Russian Marxists of the time and reunited with revolutionary socialist friends from Warsaw — one of whom, Leo Jogiches (pictured at right), became her longtime lover. Like her, he was the child of a well-to-do, assimiliated Jewish family.

By 1898, when she became one of the very few women of her milieu to be awarded a Ph.D., she was a committed Marxist. She was the editor of a Russian-Polish underground newspaper published in Paris, collaborated and wrote for numerous German socialist publications, and co-founded, with Jogiches and two other comrades, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), which opposed the Polish Socialist Party’s focus on the Polish struggle for national independence. Yet “like Marx and Engels,” writes Rory Castle, she “considered the Poles, like the Germans and Russians, to be ‘historic’ nationalities with the right to exist with their languages and culture, unlike the ‘unhistorical’ nations which included Ukrainians, Baltic peoples, Czechs and Jews.”

Indeed, Luxemburg believed that the Jewish question as such did not exist; it was merely one of a thousand social inequities resulting from a class-ridden society. She wasn’t indifferent to Jewish suffering or anti-Semitism, but believed that when capitalism was defeated and socialism triumphed, anti-Semitism would automatically disappear as a social reality. She told one Bundist leader that Jews “didn’t need Yiddish, but the language of the surrounding people” and “unity with the Christian proletariat.” To the end of her life she dismissed Zionism and referred to Yiddish as a jargon. She and Jogiches wrote, in 1892, that Jewish workers were breaking away from the “narrow traditions and views of the Jewish people” in order to “unite with the great internationalist labour army.” Jews might be the “most enslaved of all the subjects of the tsar,” they wrote, but they didn’t have any “special tasks.”

While Luxemburg had nothing to say in praise of religious Jews of Eastern Europe, she nevertheless spent her life surrounded by Jews with backgrounds similar to hers. The SDKPiL was led mostly by Jews, and her closest friends were Jewish, including Luise Kautsky, Mathilde Jacob, Mathilde Wurm, Sophie Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, and Paul Levi. “Accusations that Rosa was a self-hating Jew or hated Jews are sheer nonsense,” concludes Castle.

But neither Luxemburg nor Jogiches had much understanding of the lives of Yiddish-speaking, working-class Jews, who mostly chose to join the Bund rather than the SDKPiL. Anti-Semitism might be “the common banner of political backwardness and cultural barbarism,” she wrote in “After the Pogrom” (referring to the notorious Kishinev pogrom of 1903), but even while serving her second prison sentence during the Great War in 1917, she asked in a letter to her comrade and friend Mathilde Wurm, a member of the civic council in Berlin, “What do you want with this ‘special suffering of the Jews’?* I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch . . . Oh that ‘sublime stillness of eternity,’ in which so many cries of anguish have faded away unheard, they resound with me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”

In order to remain in Germany and dedicate her life to the most powerful socialist party in Europe, Luxemburg had to arrange a marriage of convenience in May, 1898, with a German Jewish family friend, Gustav Lübeck. The couple separated as soon as Rosa established herself in her adopted country, though she still used her married name as one of her pseudonyms whenever it was useful. By the end of May, she was a member of the SPD and was tasked with moving to the remote, miserable region of Upper Silesia to become a political agitator and educator of the neglected Polish speaking workers and miners, who would soon come to adore her.

A whirlwind of political energy as a speaker, debater, pamphleteer, and journalist, she became an eloquent advocate for revolution, a scathing critic of reformism within the SPD, and an embarrassment to the established party leaders eager for careers in the government. A woman, a Polish Jewish woman at that, she embodied everything they disliked and distrusted.

WITHOUT READING The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza (Verso, 2013, 656 pages), it is easy simply to associate Luxemburg with a mass of slogans, stereotypes, and historical dates. Her letters, however, reveal her also to be a writer with a passionate and tender heart, who paid appreciative attention to the world. (Her letters also contained drawings and sketches that reveal her to have been a very talented artist.)

“Dearest,” she wrote from Wronke Prison to Luise Kautsky, her close socialist comrade (the wife of Karl Kautsky) who would die in Auschwitz in 1944, “when one has the bad habit of looking for a drop of poison in any blossom, one finds good reason, as long as one lives, to be moaning and groaning . . .”

If you take the opposite approach, and look for the honey in every blossom, then you’ll always find reason to be cheerful. …I am of the opinion that one should, without trying to be too crafty or racking one’s brains too much, simply live the way one feels is right and not always expect to be repaid immediately with cash in hand. Everything will come out all right in the end. And if not, to me it’s all the same. I say oh well; either way, I am enjoying life so much. Every morning I thoroughly inspect the conditions of the buds on all my bushes, and every day I visit a little red ladybug with two black spots on its back, which in spite of the wind and the cold, I have been keeping alive for a week on a little bough warmly surrounded by cotton wool, and I observe the clouds, how they are constantly being renewed and becoming ever more beautiful and — on the whole I feel that I am no more important than the ladybug and I am inexpressibly happy with this sense of my insignificance.
—April 15, 1917

Later that year, on Christmas Eve, she wrote from Breslau Prison to Sophie Liebknecht, the German socialist and feminist (wife to Karl Liebnecht) who would live out her later years in the USSR: “I’m lying here in a dark cell on a stone-hard mattress . . . wrapped in these many-layered black veils of darkness, boredom, lack of freedom and winter . . .”

and at the same time my heart is racing with an incomprehensible, unfamiliar inner joy as though I were walking across a flowering meadow in radiant sunshine. And in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness, and all the while I am searching within myself for some reason for this joy, I find nothing and must smile to myself again — and laugh at myself. I believe that the secret is nothing other than life itself; the deep darkness of night is so beautiful and as soft as velvet, if one only looks at it the right way; and in the crunching of the damp sand beneath the slow heavy steps of the sentries, a beautiful small song of life is being sung — if one only knows how to listen properly. . . . I would only like to pass on to you inexhaustible inner cheerfulness, so that I could be at peace about you and not worry, so that you could go through life wearing a cloak covered with stars which would protect you against everything petty and trivial and everything that might cause alarm.

…Oh Sonyichka, I lived through something sharply, terribly painful here. Into the courtyard where I take my walks there often come military supply wagons, filled with sacks or old army coats and shirts often with blood stains on them…Recently one of the wagons arrived with water buffaloes harnessed to it instead of horses. This is the first time I had seen these animals up close . . . They come from Romania, the spoils of war . . . it was a lot of trouble to catch these wild animals and even more difficult to put them to work . . . because they were accustomed to their freedom. They had to be beaten terribly before they grasped the concept that they had lost the war and that the motto now applying to them was woe unto the vanquished . . .

[T]he soldier . . . a brutal fellow, began flailing at the animals so fiercely . . . that the attendant on duty indignantly took him to task asking him: Had he no pity for the animals? “No one has pity for us humans,” he answered with an evil smile and started in again . . .

Sonyichka, the hide of a buffalo is proverbial for its toughness and thickness, but this tough skin had been broken . . . the one that was bleeding kept staring in the empty space in front of him with an expression on his black face and in his soft, black eyes like an abused child . . . I stood before it and the beast looked at me; tears were running down my face . . . oh my poor buffalo, my poor beloved brother! We both stand here so powerless and mute, and are as one in our pain, impotence, and yearning . . . R.

These extraordinary letters are reminiscent of an interview Albert Einstein gave to the Forverts in 1946, in which he expressed a belief that Jews shared both a sense of social justice and an ability to face the world with a sense of awe and joy. Yet Luxemburg would probably not have located her joy and awe, or her own dedication to social justice, within her Jewish heritage. For all her brilliance, she was incapable of rethinking her beliefs about anti-Semitism or Jewish self-determination. In 1906, she wrote that pogroms would no longer continue now that revolutionary workers were on the rise — and when they persisted, she attributed it to the backwardness of rural Russia. In 1917, when a Russian friend told her that pogroms were occurring even in revolutionary Russia, she believed the reports to be fabricated. “I can sooner imagine pogroms against Jews here in Germany,” she wrote to Sophie Liebknecht.

ULTIMATELY, her life would be taken on the order of Gustav Noske, the German defense minister, who came from the very SPD she had helped to lead, yet accused East European Jews of “turning Marxism into a secret science which was incomprehensible to the German workers.”

Before then, the Russian army had already turned their backs on the battlefields and walked home to their revolution. On November 3, 1918, German sailors mutinied in Wilhelmshaven, the principal German naval base in the North Sea, and on November 9, workers and soldiers all over Germany flew the red flag in solidarity with the Russian soviets.

Released from Breslau prison the following day, an ill and aged Rosa arrived in Berlin and began editing Die rote Fahne (The Red Flag). On November 11, Germany surrendered unconditionally, and on November 30, Wilhelm II, the last German kaiser, abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. (When Hitler’s army conquered the Netherlands in May 1940, Wilhelm sent a congratulatory telegram urging the Fuehrer to restore the German monarchy.)

Germany’s hungry and humiliated soldiers returned to a country in upheaval. To secure support from the military, the Social Democratic government promised reform rather than revolution. On January 4, 1919, Emil Eichhorn, a leftist member of the SPD, was dismissed as head of the Berlin police. Revolutionary workers and soldiers protested in a massive rally, then armed themselves for the Spartacist Uprising, led by Liebknecht and Luxemburg. “The severe political crises that we’ve experienced here in Berlin during all of the past two weeks . . . have blocked the way to the systematic organizational work of training our recruits,” she fretted in a letter that revealed the ill-preparedness of the revolutionaries, “but . . . one must take history as it comes, whatever course it takes . . .”

In response, the SPD gave the green light to the Freikorps, rightwing paramilitaries that were roving Berlin’s streets. On January 15, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Wilhelm Pieck, cofounders of the Spartacists, were tracked down, arrested, and taken to the Hotel Eden for interrogation and torture. Pieck managed to escape (he ultimately became the first president of East Germany). Liebknecht was shot dead in Berlin’s central park and delivered to Moabit morgue. After an unsuccessful attempt to kill her with a blow to her head with a rifle butt, Rosa was shot in the head by a Lieutenant Souchon, and thrown into the icy waters of the Landwehrkanal. Her corpse washed ashore in June. Rosa’s friend Mathilde Jacob identified her by what remained of her clothes, and was required to pay a ransom to recover the body.

Their murders were reported as follows in the newspaper: “Liebknecht shot while fleeing; Luxemburg killed by crowd.” However, Leo Jogiches tracked down the murderers and published a notorious photo of them feasting after their deed. Only one of them served time, two years in prison. Through a combination of judicial corruption and government cover-up, the others continued their military careers, and several played leading roles in Nazi Germany before dying peacefully in their beds, as late as in the 1980s. Jogiches himself was tortured and shot by the police on March 10, 1919.

Käthe Kollwitz, the socialist artist of the working class, wrote one sentence in her journal on January 16: “Malicious and outrageous murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.” Sophie Liebknecht asked the artist to honor her husband, which she did by attending the burial for nearly forty victims of the blood-letting. “I was permitted to make a drawing,” she wrote, “and went to the morgue early. He was on a bier among the other caskets. Red flowers covered the shot forehead, a proud face, his mouth slightly opened and distorted with pain. A somewhat surprised expression in his face. The hands closed on his lap, a few red flowers on the white shirt….”

Some Spartacists objected to Kollwitz’s woodcut because she was not a communist. In October 1920 she wrote in her journal, “As an artist I have the right to extract the emotional content out of everything, to let things work upon me and then give them outward form. And so I also have the right to portray the working class’s farewell to Liebknecht, and even to dedicate it to the workers, without following Liebknecht politically.”

After Rosa’s corpse was recovered, it was buried next to Liebknecht in Friedrichsfelde cemetery in Berlin. In 1926, a memorial designed by Mies van der Rohe was dedicated to them and their fellow martyrs. It was made of broken, hand-burned red brick from demolished buildings and incorporated the Soviet star, hammer and sickle, and a poem by Bertolt Brecht:

Here lies buried
Rosa Luxemburg
A Jew from Poland
Who fought for the
German workers
Murdered on the orders of
German oppressors. You
who were oppressed
Bury your differences!

The Nazis demolished it in 1935. A new monument was installed in 1951, and has served as an annual gathering site for thousands of Germans.

Her family continued to suffer unto the next generation because of their connection to their notorious relative. They endured house searches and constant suspicion, and many of them died in concentration camps or were executed as members of the Polish resistance. Others ended up in Siberian exile in the USSR, where, as a critic of Leninism, Luxemburg was a banned writer.

Rosa was murdered on January 15, 1919. Ninth months later, almost to the day, Adolf Hitler gave his first public speech, in a beer cellar in Berlin, on behalf of the seven-member German Workers’ Party. Over one hundred men attended, attracted by an ad in an anti-Semitic newspaper.

In her last article, written in hiding in Berlin the night before her murder, Luxemburg compared the doomed Spartacist Rising, of which she was a reluctant leader, with the Polish November Rising of 1830-31: “‘Order reigns in Berlin’ is the triumphant announcement of the bourgeois press, of Ebert and Noske, and of the officers of the ‘victorious troops’. . . ‘Order reigns in Berlin!’ You stupid lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. The revolution will ‘raise itself up again clashing,’ and to your horror it will proclaim to the sound of trumpets: I was, I am, I shall be.”

Helen Engelhardt, a member of our editorial board, last appeared here with a profile of Muriel Rukeyser. Her audio drama, “No More War: The Sacrifice of Käthe Kollwitz,” which aired on National Public Radio, has been awarded a Gracie by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation. Named in honor of Gracie Allen, the awards honor individual achievement and programming by, for and about women. She is also the author of The Longest Night: A Personal History of Pan Am 103. The audio version of the book was an Audie Finalist for Original Work in 2010.