This week in history: Liebknecht and Luxemburg are murdered in Germany
On Jan. 15, 1919, in the midst of a communist revolution, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the leaders of Germany's communist movement, were murdered.
By the 1890s, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Social Democratic Party of Germany, or SPD, was the largest political party in the country. A Socialist Party, the movement's primary foundation was the ideology of Karl Marx, which called for revolution in order to destroy the existing nation and build a true communist state.
After Marx died in 1883, a problem arose with this philosophy, however. Socialists were being elected to parliaments throughout Europe, and in Germany's Reichstag they constituted a majority of the deputies. Many, like SPD leader Eduard Bernstein, came to believe that there was now no need for revolution, as democracy catapulted Socialists into power. Bernstein had been a hard-core disciple of Marx, and now he became one of Marx's most effective critics.
This new critique of Marx set off a wider debate as Bernstein set about to revise Marxist theory. The principle question became, should Marx's philosophy be dropped from the party platform? The realities of political power had proven to be a restraining force upon the SPD. Who had time to plot revolution when it was necessary to make sure the power and water were running and other basic needs of the people were being met? What would it be, then? Marx's revolution or Bernstein's revisionism?
In 1899, leaders of the SPD met in Hanover to discuss the course for the party. By a narrow vote, the party decide that Marx would remain a part of the program. The SPD would officially continue to support the idea of revolution.
When World War I broke out in 1914, many wondered if the masses of Europe would fight. After all, most of the men who would be needed in the trenches were working men, most of them Socialists. For years, Socialist dogma had taught that a German worker had more in common with a French or a Russian worker than with the elites in his own country. Instead, the workers of all nations should unite to destroy the corrupt state that served only the few and instead fight for their class interests.
It was not to be, however. Most Socialists, including SPD leaders such as Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske, supported the war effort, disgusting many hard-core Marxists within the party. As the war dragged on and casualties mounted, however, those same workers who cheerfully marched to war in late summer 1914 increasingly embraced the socialist line, which called for peace.
When the kaiser's government collapsed from the stresses of the war in November 1918, a provisional government was formed with Ebert at its head. The kaiser had abdicated, the role of the army was now in question, and the future lay uncertain.
In his book, “The Coming of the Third Reich,” historian Richard J. Evans wrote: “On the extreme left, revolutionaries led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg saw in the events of November 1918 the opportunity to create a socialist state run by the workers' and soldiers' councils that had sprung up all over the country as the old imperial system disintegrated. With the model of Lenin's Bolshevik Revolution in Russia before their eyes, they pressed on with plans for a second revolution to complete their work.”
Dubbing their rebellion the Spartacist uprising, after the historic Roman slave rebel leader, Liebknecht and Luxemburg had hopes that the mainstream SPD might join their crusade, but it was not to be. As president of the provisional government, Ebert saw a revolution as not only unnecessary but also counter-productive. Uncertain as to whether the traditionally conservative army would support his socialist government, Ebert approved the raising of paramilitary units known as the Freikorps, or the Free Corps.
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