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A Heroine of Revolution

Rosa Luxemburg

by J.P. Nettl
Oxford, 2 vols., 1006 pp., $20.20

The definitive biography in the English style—lengthy, thoroughly documented, heavily annotated, and generously splashed with quotations—is among the most admirable genres of historiography, and it was a stroke of genius on the part of J. P. Nettl to choose the life of Rosa Luxemburg, the most unlikely candidate, as a proper subject. For this is the classical genre for the lives of great statesmen and other persons of the world, and Rosa Luxemburg was nothing of the kind. Even in her own world of the European socialist movement she was a rather marginal figure, with relatively brief moments of splendor and great brilliance, whose influence in deed and written word can hardly be compared to that of her contemporaries—to Plekhanov, Trotsky and Lenin, to Bebel and Kautsky, to Jaurès and Millerand.

How could Mr. Nettl succeed with this woman who when very young had been swept into the German Social Democratic Party from her native Poland; who continued to play a key role in the little-known and neglected history of Polish socialism; and who then for about two decades, although never officially recognized, became the most controversial and least understood figure in the German Left movement? For the success and failure of English biography depend not merely on the chosen person’s fame or the interest of his life story. In this genre, history is not treated as the inevitable background of a given life-span; rather it is as if the colorless light of historical time were forced through and refracted by the prism of a great character so that in the resulting spectrum a complete unity of life and world is achieved. In other words, success in the world seems almost a prerequisite for success in the genre. And it was precisely success—success even in her own world of revolutionaries—which was withheld from Rosa Luxemburg in life, death, and after death. Can it be that the failure of all her efforts as far as official recognition is concerned is somehow connected with the dismal failure of revolution in our century? Will history look different if seen through the prism of her life and work?

HOWEVER THAT MAY BE, I know no book that sheds more light on the crucial period of European socialism from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the fateful day in January 1919 when Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two leaders of Spartakus, the precursor of the German Communist Party, were murdered in Berlin—under the eyes and probably with the connivance of the Socialist regime then in power. The murderers were members of the ultra-nationalist and officially illegal Freikorps, a paramilitary organization from which Hitler’s stormtroopers were soon to recruit their most promising killers. That the government at the time was practically in the hands of the Freikorps because it enjoyed “the full support of Noske,” the Socialists’ expert on national defense, then in charge of military affairs, was confirmed only recently by Captain Pabst, the last surviving participant in the assassination. The Bonn government—in this as in other respects only too eager to revive the more sinister traits of the Weimar Republic—let it be known (through the Bulletin des Presse- und Informationsamtes der Bundesregierung) that the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg was entirely legal, “an execution in accordance with martial law.” This was more than even the Weimar Republic had ever pretended, for it had “punished” the murderers by meting out a sentence of two years and two weeks to the soldier Runge for “attempted manslaughter” (he had hit Rosa Luxemburg over the head in the corridors of the Hotel Eden), and four months to Lieutenant Vogel (he was the officer in charge when she was shot in the head inside a car and thrown into the Landwehr Canal) for “failing to report a corpse and illegally disposing of it.” During the trial, a photograph showing Runge and his comrades celebrating the assassination in the same Hotel on the following day was introduced as evidence, which caused the defendant great merriment. “Accused Runge, you must behave properly. This is no laughing matter,” said the presiding judge. Forty-five years later, during the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, a similar scene took place; the same words were spoken.

With the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht, the split of the European Left into Socialist and Communist parties became irrevocable; “the abyss which the Communists had pictured in theory had become…the abyss of the grave.” And since this early crime had been aided and abetted by the government, it initiated a death-dance in post-war Germany: The assassins of the extreme Right started by liquidating prominent leaders of the extreme Left—Hugo Haase and Gustav Landauer, Leo Jogiches and Eugene Leviné—and quickly moved to the center and the right-of-center—to Walter Rathenau, Matthias Erzberger, both members of the government at the time of their murder. Thus Rosa Luxemburg’s death became the watershed between two eras in Germany; and it became the point of no return for the German Left. All those who had drifted to the Communists out of bitter disappointment with the Socialist party were even more disappointed with the swift moral decline and political disintegration of the Communist party, and yet they felt that to return to the ranks of the Socialists would mean to condone the murder of Rosa. Such personal reactions, which are seldom publicly admitted, are among the small, mosaic-like pieces that fall into place in the large riddle of history. In the case of Rosa Luxemburg they are part of the legend which soon surrounded her name. Legends have a truth of their own, but Mr. Nettl is entirely right to have paid almost no attention to the Rosa myth. It was his task, difficult enough, to restore her to historical life.

SHORTLY AFTER HER DEATH, when all persuasions of the Left had already decided that she had always been “mistaken” (a “really hopeless case,” as George Lichtheim, the last in this long line, put it in Encounter), a curious shift in her reputation took place. Two small volumes of her letters were published, and these, entirely personal and of a simple, touchingly humane, and often poetic beauty, were enough to destroy the false image of blood-thirsty “Red Rosa,” at least in all but the most obstinately anti-Semitic and reactionary circles. However, what then grew up was another legend—the sentimentalized image of the bird watcher and lover of flowers, a woman whose guards said goodbye to her with tears in their eyes when she left prison—as if they couldn’t go on living without being entertained by this strange prisoner who had insisted on treating them as human beings. Nettl does not mention this story, faithfully handed down to me when I was a child and later confirmed by Kurt Rosenfeld, her friend and lawyer, who claimed to have witnessed the scene. It is probably true enough, and its slightly embarrassing features are somehow offset by the survival of another anecdote, this one mentioned by Nettl. In 1907, she and her friend Clara Zetkin (later the “grand old woman” of German Communism) had gone for a walk, lost count of time, and arrived late for an appointment with August Bebel, who had feared they were lost. Rosa then proposed their epitaph: “Here lie the last two men of German Social Democracy.” Seven years later, in February 1914, she had occasion to prove the truth of this cruel joke in a splendid address to the judges of the Criminal Court which had indicted her for “inciting” the masses to civil disobedience in case of war. (Not bad, incidentally, for the woman who “was always wrong” to stand trial on this charge five months before the outbreak of the First World War, which few “serious” people had thought possible.) Mr. Nettl with good sense has reprinted the address in its entirety; its “manliness” is unparalleled in the history of German socialism.

It took a few more years and a few more catastrophes for the legend to turn into a symbol of nostalgia for the good old times of the movement, when hopes were green, the revolution around the corner, and, most important, the faith in the capacities of the masses and in the moral integrity of the Socialist or Communist leadership was still intact. It speaks not only for the person of Rosa Luxemburg, but also for the qualities of this older generation of the Left, that the legend—vague, confused, inaccurate in nearly all details—could spread throughout the world and come to life whenever a “new Left” sprang into being. But side by side with this glamorized image, there survived also the old clichés of the “quarrelsome female,” a “romantic” who was neither “realistic” nor scientific (it is true that she was always out of step), and whose works, especially her great book on imperialism (The Accumulation of Capital, 1913), were shrugged off.

Every New Left movement, when its moment came to change into the Old Left—usually when its members reached the age of forty—promptly buried its early enthusiasm for Rosa Luxemburg together with the dreams of youth; and since they had usually not bothered to read, let alone to understand, what she had to say they found it easy to dismiss her with all the patronizing philistinism of their newly acquired status. “Luxemburgism,” invented posthumously by party hacks for polemical reasons, has never even achieved the honor of being denounced as “treason”; it was treated as a harmless, infantile disease. Nothing Rosa Luxemburg wrote or said survived except her surprisingly accurate criticism of Bolshevik politics during the early stages of the Russian Revolution, and this only because those whom a “god had failed” could use it as a convenient, though wholly inadequate weapon, against Stalin. (“There is something indecent in the use of Rosa’s name and writings as a cold war missile,” as the reviewer of this book pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement.) Her new admirers had no more in common with her than her detractors. Her highly developed sense for real differences and her infallible judgment, her personal likes and dislikes, would have prevented her lumping Lenin and Stalin together under all circumstances; quite apart from the fact that she had never been a “believer,” had never used politics as a substitute for religion, and had been careful, as Mr. Nettl notes, not to attack religion when she opposed the church. In short, while “revolution was as close and real to her as to Lenin,” it was no more an article of faith with her than Marxism. Lenin was primarily a man of action and would have gone into politics in any event, but she, who, in her halfserious self-estimate, was born “to mind the geese,” might just as well have buried herself in botany and zoology or history and economics or mathematics, had not the circumstances of the world offended her sense of justice and freedom.

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