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This week in history: Liebknecht and Luxemburg are murdered in Germany

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 15 2014 5:00 p.m. MST

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.

The Freikorps drew its strength from soldiers returning from the front as well as those who had been too young to serve. Just as Liebknecht and Luxemburg represented the extreme left wing of post-war German politics, so did the Freikorps represent the extreme right wing. Tension existed between the Freikorps and Ebert's Socialist government, but the two had a common enemy. Generally well-armed, well-trained and well-led, the Friekorps set about battling the Marxists in the streets. Atrocities on both sides proved common, and most residents of larger cities dealt with everyday violence on their doorstep. Ebert's government fled to the small German town of Weimar to draft a constitution for a new German republic.

Liebknecht and Luxemburg soon made the split between their movement and the SPD official. On Jan. 1, 1919, the pair announced the formation of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, Communist Party of Germany, or KPD. The street battles for Germany's cities, and its largest prize, Berlin, were conducted in an improvised, ad hoc fashion in which one hand often didn't know what the other hand was doing.

Both Ebert's government and the communists could claim support of some military units, though effectively using them proved more difficult than it seemed. By mid-January, finding the communist agitators was priority No. 1 for the Freikorps, and Liebknecht and Luxemburg had gone into hiding. Late on Jan. 15, a Berlin Freikorps unit had tracked them down to an apartment in the Wilmersdoft district and placed them under arrest.

Waldemar Pabst, Freikorps captain, soon took them into custody. Interrogating them in the Eden Hotel, Pabst made a decision. The two agitators were too dangerous to be left alive. He marched Liebknecht and Luxemburg downstairs, where they were set upon by a soldier who believed Pabst was letting them go. The communist agitators were severely beaten, then Liebknecht was thrown into an automobile.

In his biography of Nazi Germany's spy chief, “Canaris: Hitler's Master Spy,” historian Heinz Hohne wrote: “At about 10:45 p.m. the vehicle containing Liebknecht and his naval escort drove off. The murder went according to plan. In the middle of the darkened Tiergarten, the car stopped, ostensibly because of a flat tire. Liebknecht was compelled to proceed on foot ahead of his escorts, who opened fire at once. … Rosa Luxemburg's liquidation, which took place an hour later, went awry. … Her escorts dispatched the half-dead woman only a hundred yards from the Eden, where the shots could be heard by the hotel guests.”

Luxemburg's body was thrown into a canal, and the murderers claimed that she had been set upon by an angry mob and killed. Liebknecht had supposedly been shot while attempting an escape. Hohne wrote that “It was typical of the moral decline of the time that few of the dead Communists' opponents protested against this double murder.” Hohne also noted that when Pabst made his report to Noske on what he had done to the agitators, the SPD leader shook his hand.

In May 1919, a few courts-martial took place for some of the soldiers involved, though they were sentenced to what amounted to a slap on the wrist. Weimar-era courts, both civilian and military, were notoriously light on right-wing political offenders. Adolf Hitler himself would only be sentenced to five years imprisonment for treason in 1924, and only serve nine months. Pabst himself was never brought to trial for the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

Bitterness continued to exist between the SPD and the KPD for years, as both claimed to be the true representative of socialism in Germany and both believed that they had been betrayed by the other. One of the reasons Hitler's movement would be so successful is that the two most powerful parties on the political left hated each other far more than they hated the Nazis. Members of the SPD and KPD would eventually reconcile, of course, but only when they were all behind the barbed wire of Hitler's concentration camps.

After World War II, the KPD and the SPD would merge in East Germany to create the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, Socialist Unity Party of Germany, or SED. The KPD would be outlawed in West Germany in 1956. In 1957, the West German SPD would officially vote to remove Marxist philosophy from its party platform.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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