Luxemburg was born to a Jewish family in Zamość on 5 March 1871, in Russian-controlled Congress Poland. She was the fifth child of timber trader Eliasz Luxemburg and Line Löwenstein. The family moved to Warsaw in 1873. After being bedridden with a hip ailment at the age of five, she was left with a permanent limp. Starting in 1880, Luxemburg attended a Gymnasium. From 1886, she belonged to the Polish, left-wing Proletariat party (founded in 1882, anticipating the Russian parties by 20 years). She began in politics by organizing a general strike; as a result, four of the party’s leaders were put to death and the party was disbanded, though remaining members, including Luxemburg, met in secret. In 1887, she passed her Matura examinations. After fleeing to Switzerland to escape detention in 1889, she attended the University of Zürich (as did the socialists Anatoly Lunacharsky and Leo Jogiches), studying philosophy, history, politics, economics, and mathematics. She specialized in Staatswissenschaft (the science of forms of state), the Middle Ages, and economic and stock exchange crises.
Her doctoral dissertation, The Industrial Development of Poland, was officially presented in spring 1897 to the University of Zurich, which awarded her a Doctor of Law degree. Her dissertation under the title Die Industrielle Entwicklung Polens was published by Duncker and Humblot in Leipzig in 1898. In 1893, with Leo Jogiches and Julian Marchlewski (alias Julius Karski), Luxemburg founded the newspaper Sprawa Robotnicza (“The Workers’ Cause”), to oppose the nationalist policies of the Polish Socialist Party, believing that only through socialist revolution in Germany, Austria, and Russia could an independent Poland exist. She maintained that the struggle should be against capitalism, not just for an independent Poland. Her position of denying a national right of self-determination under socialism provoked philosophic tension with Vladimir Lenin. She and Leo Jogiches co-founded the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, SDKPiL, after merging with Lithuania’s social democratic organization). Despite living in Germany for most of her adult life, Luxemburg was the principal theoretician of the Polish Social Democrats, and led the party in a partnership with Jogiches, its principal organizer.
The recently published Letters of Rosa Luxemburg shed important light on Rosa Luxemburg’s life in Germany. As Irene Gammel writes in a review of the English translation of the book in the Globe and Mail: “The three decades covered by the 230 letters in this collection provide the context for her major contributions as a political activist, feminist and writer. In her controversial time of 1913, The Accumulation of Capital, as well as through her work as a co-founder of the radical Spartacus League, Luxemburg helped to shape Germany’s young democracy by advancing an international, rather than a nationalist, outlook. This farsightedness partly explains her remarkable popularity as a socialist icon and its continued resonance in movies, novels and memorials dedicated to her life and oeuvre.” Gammel also notes that for Rosa, “the revolution was a way of life,” and yet that the letters also challenge the stereotype of “Red Rosa” as a ruthless fighter.
In May 1898 Luxemburg married Gustav Lübeck, obtained German citizenship, and moved to Berlin. There, she was active in the left wing of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), in which she sharply defined the border between her faction and the Revisionism Theory of Eduard Bernstein by attacking him in her brochure, released in September 1898, titled Social Reform or Revolution. Luxemburg’s rhetorical skill made her a leading spokeswoman in denouncing the SPD’s reformist parliamentary course. She argued that the critical difference between capital and labour could only be countered if the proletariat assumed power and effected revolutionary changes in production methods. She wanted the Revisionists ousted from the SPD. That did not occur, but Karl Kautsky’s leadership retained a Marxist influence on its programme.
From 1900, Luxemburg published analyses of contemporary European socio-economic problems in newspapers. Foreseeing war, she vigorously attacked what she saw as German militarism and imperialism. She wanted a general strike to rouse the workers to solidarity and prevent the coming war; the SPD leaders refused, and she broke with Karl Kautsky in 1910. Between 1904 and 1906, she was imprisoned for her political activities on three occasions. In 1907, she went to the Russian Social Democrats’ Fifth Party Day in London, where she met Vladimir Lenin. At the Second International (Socialist) Congress, in Stuttgart, she moved a resolution, which was accepted, that all European workers’ parties should unite in attempting to stop the war.
Luxemburg taught Marxism and economics at the SPD’s Berlin training centre. A student of hers, Friedrich Ebert later became SPD leader, and later the Weimar Republic’s first president. In 1912 she was the SPD representative at the European Socialists congresses. With French socialist Jean Jaurès, she argued that European workers’ parties should organize a general strike when war broke out. In 1913, she told a large meeting: “If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: ‘We will not do it!'” But in 1914, when nationalist crises in the Balkans erupted to violence and then war, there was no general strike and the SPD majority supported the war – as did the French Socialists. The Reichstag unanimously agreed to financing the war. The SPD voted in favour of that and agreed to a truce (Burgfrieden) with the Imperial government, promising to refrain from any strikes during the war. This led Luxemburg to contemplate suicide: The “revisionism” she had fought since 1899 had triumphed. In response, Luxemburg organised anti-war demonstrations in Frankfurt, calling for conscientious objection to military conscription and the refusal to obey orders. On that account, she was imprisoned for a year for “inciting to disobedience against the authorities’ law and order”.
In August 1914, Luxemburg, along with Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring, founded the Die Internationale group; it became the Spartacus League in January 1916. They wrote illegal, anti-war pamphlets pseudonymously signed “Spartacus” (after the slave-liberating Thracian gladiator who opposed the Romans); Luxemburg’s pseudonym was “Junius” (after Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic). The Spartacist League vehemently rejected the SPD’s support for the war, trying to lead Germany’s proletariat to an anti-war general strike. As a result, in June 1916 Luxemburg was imprisoned for two and a half years, as was Karl Liebknecht. During imprisonment, she was twice relocated, first to Posen (now Poznań), then to Breslau (now Wrocław).
Friends smuggled out and illegally published her articles. Among them was “The Russian Revolution”, criticising the Bolsheviks, presciently warning of their dictatorship. Nonetheless, she continued calling for a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, albeit not the One Party Bolshevik model. In that context, she wrote “Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden” (“Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently”). Another article, written in 1915 and published in June 1916, was “Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie” (“The Crisis of Social Democracy”). In 1917, the Spartacist League was affiliated with the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) (anti-war, ex-SPD members, founded by Hugo Haase). In November 1918, the USPD and the SPD assumed power in the new republic upon the Kaiser’s abdication. This followed the German Revolution begun in Kiel, when Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils seized most of Germany, to put an end to World War I and to the monarchy. The USPD and most of the SPD members supported the councils, while SPD leaders feared this could lead to a Räterepublik (“council republic”) like the soviets of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
Luxemburg was freed from prison in Breslau on 8 November 1918. One day later, Karl Liebknecht, who had also been freed from prison, proclaimed the Freie Sozialistische Republik (Free Socialist Republic) in Berlin. He and Luxemburg reorganised the Spartacus League and founded the Red Flag newspaper, demanding amnesty for all political prisoners and the abolition of capital punishment. On 14 December 1918, they published the new programme of the Spartacist League.
From 29–31 December 1918, they took part in a joint congress of the Spartacist League, independent Socialists, and the International Communists of Germany (IKD), that led to the foundation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and Luxemburg on 1 January 1919. She supported the new KPD’s participation in the Weimar National Assembly that founded the Weimar Republic; but she was out-voted, and the KPD boycotted the elections. In January 1919, a second revolutionary wave swept Berlin. Unlike Liebknecht, Luxemburg rejected this violent attempt to seize power. But the Red Flag encouraged the rebels to occupy the editorial offices of the liberal press.
In response to the uprising, Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert ordered the Freikorps to destroy the left-wing revolution. Luxemburg, and Liebknecht, were captured in Berlin on 15 January 1919 by the Rifle Division of the Calvary Guards of the Free Corps (Freikorps’ Garde-Kavallerie-Schützendivision). Its commander, Captain Waldemar Pabst (1880–1970), along with Lieutenant Horst von Pflugk-Harttung (1889-1967), questioned them under torture, and then gave the order to execute them. Luxemburg was knocked down with a rifle butt by soldier Otto Runge (1875–1945), then shot in the head, either by Lieutenant Kurt Vogel (1889-1967), or by Lieutenant Hermann Souchon (1894–1982). Her body was flung into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. In the Tiergarten Karl Liebknecht was shot and his body, without a name, brought to a morgue.
After the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, a new wave of violence began in Berlin, and across Germany. Thousands of KPD members, other revolutionaries, and civilians were killed. Finally, the People’s Navy Division (Volksmarinedivision), and Workers’ and Soldiers’ councils, which had moved to the political left, disbanded. The last part of the German Revolution saw many instances of armed violence, and strikes throughout Germany, which lasted until May 1919. Significant strikes occurred in Berlin, Bremen Soviet Republik, Saxony, Saxony Gotha, Hamburg, the Rhinelands, and the Ruhr region. Last to strike was the Munich Soviet Republic, which was suppressed on 2 May 1919.
More than four months after the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, on 1 June 1919, Luxemburg’s corpse was found and identified after an autopsy at the Berlin Charité hospital. Otto Runge was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment (for “attempted manslaughter”) and Lieutenant Vogel to four months (for failing to report a corpse). However, Vogel escaped after a brief custody. Pabst and Souchon went unpunished. The Nazis later compensated Runge for having been jailed (he died in Berlin in Soviet custody after the end of World War II), and they merged the Garde-Kavallerie-Schutzendivision into the SA. In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel in 1962 and again in his memoirs, Pabst maintained that two SPD leaders, defence minister Gustav Noske and chancellor Friedrich Ebert, had approved of his actions. This statement has never been confirmed, because neither parliament nor the courts examined the case. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were buried at Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery in Berlin, where socialists and communists commemorate them every year, on the second Sunday of January.
- March, 05, 1871
- Zamość, Poland
- January, 15, 1919
- Berlin, Germany
Cause of Death
- shot in the head
- Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde
- Lichtenberg Berlin, Germany