In Berlin on 15 January, 1919, an un-named man was delivered to a morgue with gunshot wounds. That same night a woman was hit with the butt of a rifle, before being shot in the back of the head. Her body was then thrown into a nearby canal. These two acts of violence were neither mindless nor random. Rather, these two murders were fundamentally linked. The man and woman in question were Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and together they had led the Spartacist Uprising, an attempt to overthrow the post-war government and begin a socialist revolution in Germany.
Their uprising ended with their murder, and begs a number of questions. Who were these two people? What drove them to lead this uprising? And what events led to their violent and tragic deaths? This article will search for the answer to these questions.
Rosa Luxemburg was born on 5 March 1871, in the town of Zamość, in present-day Poland. At the time of her birth, however, it was part of the Russian Empire. Luxemburg’s will-power, determination and political convictions became clear from an early age. Whilst still a small child, she became bedridden with a hip complaint and although she later recovered, she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. As a teenager, she joined the left-wing Proletarian Party and even after the group was disbanded – having fallen foul of the authorities – she remained involved in radical, underground activities.
She went on to play a significant role in the founding of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland, before moving to Germany in 1898 and becoming a leading member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). She published political articles in newspapers, arguing for the socialist cause, and trying to fight against the growing imperialist and militarist tendencies within Germany, which she feared would lead to war.
Sadly, her fears became reality in 1914. The First World War split the German SPD, which officially supported the government. Luxemburg did not budge from her original stance, and threw her support behind the anti-war movement.
Born on 13 August 1871 to a politically-minded family, Karl Liebknecht would surpass his forefathers with his radical, Marxist convictions. Liebknecht trained as a lawyer, and used his legal skills to defend his fellow radicals whose political activities and put them on the wrong side of the law. He joined the SPD, which his father had helped to found, and shared many political and ideological views with his eventual co-revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. In particular, they both took a strong anti-militarism stance.
When war broke out, Liebknecht stood shoulder to shoulder with Luxemburg. Having been elected to the Reichstag (the German parliament) in 1912, he was the only member to vote against Germany’s involvement in the First World War.
Yet regardless of the strength of his convictions, Liebknecht could not avoid the power of the authorities. As an able-bodied man, he was sent to fight on the Eastern Front, although he later returned to Germany as the result of his increasing ill-health. Whilst there, he refused to fight. Instead, he buried the dead.
The Spartacus League
It has so far become clear that both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were long-standing, dedicated Marxists. In addition, their opposition to militarism was evident prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Even after the declaration of war, they refused to become caught up in the highly-charged, patriotic rhetoric, or to toe the official SPD party-line.
It was for these reasons that Luxemburg and Liebknecht – along with others who held similar ideals and sympathies – came together to from the Spartacus League in 1916. They named themselves after the leader of a slave uprising against the Roman Republic, using his name and his actions to symbolise their struggle: the weak against the strong, and the oppressed against the oppressors.
Throughout the war they published articles attacking the war, and many were imprisoned for their actions. However, although peace may have been very high up on the agenda of the Spartacus League, this was not their only dream. It is important to bear in mind the ideological convictions of the members. Although they hoped for peace, they also hoped for a socialist future.
When peace finally came, it was not as peaceful as many would have hoped. The country was in ruins and rife with social unrest. The leaders of the Spartacus League, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, were dissatisfied with the actions of the post-war SPD government. The SPD government had compromised with the conservative military, promising reform rather than revolution in return for their support and aid in returning the country to the semblance of order. Alongside protesting workers, Liebknecht and Luxemburg led the Spartacist Uprising in an attempt to overthrow the government.
Yet as we know, their uprising ended in January 1919. They government drafted in the Freikorps – units of far right, volunteer soldiers – who ended the rebellion and the lives of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
They were revolutionaries and Marxists, and it was their convictions, their belief that a better, socialist world could be created, that drove them to follow the path they did.