SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 227 April 2019

Who killed Rosa Luxemburg?

The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg

By Klaus Gietinger

Published by Verso, 2019, £14.99

Reviewed by Helen Pattison

In great detail, by piecing together the reliable evidence, The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg pin points who dealt the final blows to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on 15 January 1919. While this is important, those who see the murders as political tragedies will also want to know where the orders came from to kill them and how and why the murders were covered up. This book goes into some of that too.

It exposes the role of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the rifle division of the cavalry guards (GKSD) of the Freikorps – far-right volunteer paramilitary groups – who captured Luxemburg and Liebknecht on the night they were murdered and orchestrated their deaths. The GKSD had travelled through to Berlin with the aim of putting down the Spartacist uprising taking place from 5-12 January 1919. The book highlights individuals who were involved in the assassinations and then went on to play leading roles in the rise of fascism in Germany.

In a book of a couple of hundred pages it is impossible to give a full political picture of the period and the battles Luxemburg and Liebknecht were involved in at the time. Liebknecht had voted against war credits in the Reichstag (parliament) in December 1914, the only SPD deputy to do so at that stage. Luxemburg and Liebknecht understood the importance of socialist opposition to the imperialist world war. At the end of 1914, they helped set up the Spartacist League with the aim of building support for revolutionary socialist democracy.

Klaus Gietinger does not cover these issues, instead focusing on the interesting details of the day of the assassinations and the subsequent trials. He proves that it was Hermann Souchon, a GSKD officer, who shot Luxemburg in the head as she was being driven away. Transport officer Kurt Vogel then dumped her body in the Landwehr canal. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, in his writings at the time, lamented the terrible loss and impact that Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s deaths had on the movement.

A battle raged in Germany in the decades after the murders to try and keep the truth under wraps and to stop any attempt to uncover it. There are many myths around the murders, so the book plays its role in busting these as well as shining a light on doctored evidence from the Freikorps in military trials and other legal developments.

Gietinger highlights a tragic irony around the murders. Apparently, a member of the GKSD had heard Rosa Luxemburg speak not long before she was killed. Having been inspired by her words he reported to his superior, General Waldemar Pabst, chief of staff and leading GKSD counter-revolutionary, and asked for Luxemburg to be invited to speak to the soldiers.

Without knowing it this inspired young solider was signing Luxemburg’s death warrant. Pabst was infuriated and later commented: "At that moment I completely understood the danger Frau Luxemburg posed. She was more dangerous than all others, even those bearing arms". Pabst went on to orchestrate the murders, seeking and receiving support from leaders of the SPD, notably Gustav Noske, an SPD representative in the parliament – renamed the Council of People’s Deputies following the revolution that brought down the Kaiser – and government minister responsible for military affairs.

By 1919 the GKSD was operating out of an upmarket hotel in Berlin. Pabst had travelled with his volunteers to put down the widespread Spartacist uprising and mutinies against war, poverty and the suffering of ordinary people. This is beautifully tracked in the book as the real starting point and reason for Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s murders.

Understandably, many readers will wonder why the SPD deputies supported the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. In addition, many will ask how a party in power could get away with the collusion. Trotsky wrote that "the possibility of betrayal is always contained in reformism". The revolutionary ideas defended by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – of the need for the socialist transformation of society to end poverty and war – threatened the SPD’s power.

Mass radicalisation had erupted at the end of the first world war in 1918, with the example of the Russian revolution little more than a year old. The SPD leaders, who claimed to stand on a Marxist basis, could not openly oppose the workers’ revolutionary demands. So, for example, the SPD used the slogan ‘all power to the people’ to cut across the demand for ‘all power to the soviets’, the democratic councils set up by workers and soldiers to defend the gains of the revolution.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s murders also exposed the lack of control the SPD actually had over the military and justice system. Ultimately, the SPD leaders were terrified at the prospect of having to take real power – or of being pushed aside by a revolutionary force from below willing to go much further. They were, after all, under huge mass pressure and this was being mobilised by revolutionary socialists such as Luxemburg and Liebknecht – albeit, at times, too loosely politically and organisationally.

Following the murders, the SPD was further exposed on issues such as the military. Against the calls for a civil trial, the SPD leadership ignored the party’s own policy of support for independent courts, triggering an outcry at its response. It allowed the murderers’ own commanders to run the trial, and the judges were their personal friends, part of the same capitalist ruling class. In the end, the real killers were not identified, and only nominal sentences were handed down. The close links between SPD leaders and the GKSD were covered up, and those complicit in the killings were protected, absolved of blame or punishment.

The flawed trial is just one of the many charges that could be levelled against the SPD. It revealed how few gains had actually been made by working-class people and how much power remained with unappointed opponents of socialism. These people were still in charge of the judiciary, for example, and the SPD leaders refused to go further. Vogel was even helped to escape from prison and smuggled into the Netherlands. When he was found years later, no real effort was made to extradite him so that the truth would finally come out.

The left-wing newspapers that reported more accurately the events of that night and the trial were struck with repeated libel cases and taken though the courts. Although these originally backed the papers, Germany’s highest court sided with the military.

With a million supporters at the time and over a hundred people’s deputies, as well as many other positions, the attitude of the SPD leadership in supporting and then covering up the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht exposes their political bankruptcy. While Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had made mistakes in building the forces of Marxism, they could have played a vital role in the gathering revolutionary movements in Germany at that time and helped change the course of history.

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