This Day in Jewish History

1919: A Communist Revolutionary Is Murdered by the Weimar Regime

Rosa Luxemburg was shot together with her co-founder of the Communist Spartacus League, which smashed their uprising.

People put down flowers on the memorial for socialists to commemorate the deaths of German communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (right), in Berlin January 10, 2016.
Reuters and Wikimedia Commons

On January 15, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg, co-founder of the Communist Spartacus League, was murdered in Berlin, as the revolt her movement has fostered in post-World War I Germany was put down.

Rosa Luxemburg was born on March 5, 1871, in the city of Zamosc, Poland, then under control of czarist Russia. Her father, Eliasz Luxemburg, was a prosperous timber trader, who had inherited his business from his father, Abraham.

The Luxemburg family was active in the life of Zamosc’s Jewish community, and both father and son were supporters of the Enlightenment movement, which called for integration into the larger society, combined with continued observance of Jewish traditions.

Rosa’s mother was Lina Loewenstein, the daughter of a traditional rabbi and sister of a Reform rabbi. Rosa, who grew up speaking German, Polish and Yiddish, was the youngest of the couple’s five children. As a young child, she suffered from a hip ailment, which left her permanently afflicted with a limp.

A family history of revolt

During Poland’s 1863 uprising against Russian rule, Eliasz supplied the independence movement with weapons, so that for several years after the revolt’s failure, he had to remain in hiding from czarist authorities. In 1873, the family moved with him to Warsaw, where Rosa attended the gymnasium.

Even during high school, Rosa was drawn to politics, becoming active in the Proletariat party, a forerunner to the Polish Socialist party. After several of her comrades in the party were arrested and executed, she decided to pursue her higher education in Switzerland.

Luxemburg began at the University of Zurich as a student of zoology but ended up focusing on economics, philosophy and law. Her doctoral thesis, completed in 1897, was on the industrial development of Poland.

Throughout her political career, Luxemburg consistently opposed Polish nationalism, believing that socialist action had to take place on the international level, and that a separate revolution in Poland would be self-defeating. Part of that conviction may have derived from her father’s experience in 1863.

Similarly, she was opposed to Jewish nationalism or separatism. Though she was sensitive to the problem of anti-Semitism, she was sure it would disappear with the overthrow of capitalism.

A marriage of convenience

After finishing her studies, Luxemburg moved to Germany, gaining citizenship via a marriage of convenience and joining the Social Democratic Party. She split with the party, however, in 1914, when it decided to support Germany’s entry into the world war.

Her ideological partner Karl Liebknecht had been the only member of parliament to vote against fighting. It was against the background of their opposition to the war that they founded the Spartacus League in 1918, a predecessor to the German Communist Party.

Though Luxemburg was militant about the idea of proletarian revolution, she was anti-militarist. She believed in democracy and was an outspoken opponent of the Bolsheviks’ belief that a small cadre of bureaucrats should made political decisions on behalf of the proletariat: Revolution had to be political as well as economic, she felt.

In November 1918, after World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, and SDP leader Friedrich Ebert was tapped to succeed the resigning premier, Max von Baden. Dissatisfaction with Ebert led to the creation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at year’s end, led by both Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

Luxemburg supported the party’s participation in parliamentary elections planned for that winter. But Liebknecht won a vote within the KPD with his call for a general strike and the overthrow of the interim government.

Ebert hired members of the Freikorps, a proto-Nazi paramilitary organization that had retained its arms from the war, to suppress the strike. It was the Freikorps that arrested Luxemburg and Leibknecht in Berlin on the night between January 14 and 15. At the orders of the corps’ commander, Waldemar Pabst, the two were both beaten and shot in the head. Liebknecht’s body was then dropped at a morgue, but Luxemburg's was dumped in the Landwehr Canal, and was only discovered the following July.

The Spartacist uprising was quelled that same day, January 15, and elections to the Weimar National Assembly were held four days later.