A Heroine of Revolution

Rosa Luxemburg

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

Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg; drawing by David Levine

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…

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