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Karl Liebknecht, the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht and Natalie Reh, was born in Leipzig on 13th August, 1871. Two years previously, Liebknecht and August Bebel formed the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany (SDAP) together. They also established a newspaper, Der Volksstaat.
In 1870 the two men used the newspaper to promote the idea that Otto von Bismarck had provoked France into war and called on workers from both countries to unite in overthrowing the ruling class. As a result, Bebel and Liebknecht were arrested and charged with high treason. In 1872, both men were convicted and sentenced to two years in the Königstein Fortress.
Natalie Liebknecht was also heavily involved in politics. Her father, Karl Reh, was a member of the Frankfurt Parliament during the German Revolutions of 1848. On his release in 1874 Wilhelm Liebknecht was once again elected to the Reichstag. The following year he helped the SDAP merge with the General German Workers' Association (ADAV), an organisation led by Ferdinand Lassalle, to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In the 1877 General Election in Germany the SDP won 12 seats. This worried Otto von Bismarck, and in 1878 he introduced an anti-socialist law which banned Social Democratic Party meetings and publications.
After the anti-socialist law ceased to operate in 1890, the SDP grew rapidly. However, Wilhelm Liebknecht had trouble from the left of the SDP. He came into conflict with Rosa Luxemburg over her militant articles in Vorwarts. Her biographer, Paul Frölich, has pointed out in his book, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940): "When Luxemburg published her articles on the Oriental question, even old Wilhelm Liebknecht set upon her with a letter which failed to refute any of her arguments, but which let fly at her a whole quiver of choice invectives, going so far as to make the scarcely veiled accusation that she had been bought by the Russian Okhrana - an action which, somewhat later, the old man admitted to be wrong and regretted."
Karl Liebknecht studied law and political economy in Leipzig. He earned his doctorate at the University of Würzburg in 1897 and moved to Berlin in 1899, where he opened a lawyer's office with his brother, Theodor Liebknecht. In the dispute that took place in the Social Democratic Party, Liebknecht took the side of Rosa Luxemburg against his father.
Liebknecht married Julia Paradies on 8th May 1900. Over the next couple of years the couple had two sons and a daughter. His father died on 7th August 1900 and now August Bebel became the dominant figure in the Social Democratic Party. Liebknecht began to argue for more radical action. In 1904 he joined forces with Clara Zetkin to suggest the use of the political mass strike to overthrow capitalism.
Paul Frölich, a fellow member of the SDP has argued: "He (Liebknecht) threw himself into the struggle with passionate intensity, displaying much independence and initiative which the party leaders tried to bridle, but in vain. He was one of the creators of the socialist youth movement, and was, in fact, the one who assigned it political tasks which went beyond purely educational objectives, namely the struggle against militarism."
Liebknecht was in direct opposition to Eduard Bernstein. He published a series of articles where he argued that the predictions made by Karl Marx about the development of capitalism had not come true. He pointed out that the real wages of workers had risen and the polarization of classes between an oppressed proletariat and capitalist, had not materialized. Nor had capital become concentrated in fewer hands. His analysis of modern capitalism undermined the claims that Marxism was a science and upset leading revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
Paul Frölich has argued: "The SPD divided into three clear tendencies: the reformists, who tended increasingly to espouse the ruling-class imperialist policy; the so-called Marxist Centre, which claimed to maintain the traditional policy, but in reality moved closer and closer to Bernstein's position; and the revolutionary wing, generally called the Left Radicals (Linksradikale)." Liebknecht became a member of the Left Radicals. Headed by Rosa Luxemburg it included Clara Zetkin, Franz Mehring, Karl Radek and Anton Pannekoek.
At the Social Democratic Party Congress in September 1905, Rosa Luxemburg called for party members to be inspired by the attempted revolution in Russia. "Previous revolutions, especially the one in 1848, have shown that in revolutionary situations it is not the masses who have to be held in check, but the parliamentarians and lawyers, so that they do not betray the masses and the revolution." She then went onto quote from The Communist Manifesto: "The workers have nothing to lose but their chains; they had a world to win."
August Bebel, the leader of the SDP, did not share Luxemburg's views that now was the right time for revolution. He later recalled: "Listening to all that, I could not help glancing a couple of times at the toes of my boots to see if they weren't already wading in blood." However, he preferred Luxemburg to Eduard Bernstein and he appointed her to the editorial board of the SPD newspaper, Vorwarts (Forward). In a letter to Leo Jogiches she wrote: "The editorial board will consist of mediocre writers, but at least they'll be kosher... Now the Leftists have got to show that they are capable of governing."
Liebknecht became a leading figure in the anti-militarist section of the SDP. In 1907 he published Militarism and Anti-Militarism. In the book he argued: "Militarism is not specific to capitalism. It is moreover normal and necessary in every class-divided social order, of which the capitalist system is the last. Capitalism, of course, like every other class-divided social order, develops its own special variety of militarism; for militarism is by its very essence a means to an end, or to several ends, which differ according to the kind of social order in question and which can be attained according to this difference in different ways. This comes out not only in military organization, but also in the other features of militarism which manifest themselves when it carries out its tasks. The capitalist stage of development is best met with an army based on universal military service, an army which, though it is based on the people, is not a people’s army but an army hostile to the people, or at least one which is being built up in that direction."
He then went on to argue why the socialist movement should concentrate on persuading young people to adopt the philosophy of anti-militarism: "Here is a great field full of the best hopes of the working-class, almost incalculable in its potential, whose cultivation must not at any cost wait upon the conversion of the backward sections of the adult proletariat. It is of course easier to influence the children of politically educated parents, but this does not mean that it is not possible, indeed a duty, to set to work also on the more difficult section of the proletarian youth. The need for agitation among young people is therefore beyond doubt. And since this agitation must operate with fundamentally different methods – in accordance with its object, that is, with the different conditions of life, the different level of understanding, the different interests and the different character of young people – it follows that it must be of a special character, that it must take a special place alongside the general work of agitation, and that it would be sensible to put it, at least to a certain degree, in the hands of special organizations."
The authorities became very concerned about the possible impact of Militarism and Anti-Militarism. In 1907 Karl Liebknecht was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months in Lower Silesia. While in prison he was elected to the Prussian Parliament. In 1912 Liebknecht was elected to the Reichstag and was seen as one of the main leaders of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
The author of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) has argued: "He (Liebknecht) never seemed to get tired... besides speaking at meetings, doing office work, and acting as defence counsel in court, he could still spend whole nights debating and drinking merrily with the comrades. And even if the street dust did cover his soul at times, it could not stifle the genuine enthusiasm which imbued all his activities. It was this devotion to the cause, the passionate temperament and this capacity for enthusiasm that Rosa valued. She recognised the true revolutionary in him, even if they sometimes disagreed on details of party tactics. They worked together and complemented each other very well, especially in the struggle against militarism and the danger of war."
Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the First World War. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy."
Paul Frölich, a supporter of Liebknecht in the SDP, argued: "On the day of the vote only one man was left: Karl Liebknecht. Perhaps that was a good thing. That only one man, one single person, let it be known on a rostrum being watched by the whole world that he was opposed to the general war madness and the omnipotence of the state - this was a luminous demonstration of what really mattered at the moment: the engagement of one's whole personality in the struggle. Liebknecht's name became a symbol, a battle-cry heard above the trenches, its echoes growing louder and louder above the world-wide clash of arms and arousing many thousands of fighters against the world slaughter."
Clara Zetkin later recalled: "The struggle was supposed to begin with a protest against the voting of war credits by the social-democratic Reichstag deputies, but it had to be conducted in such a way that it would be throttled by the cunning tricks of the military authorities and the censorship. Moreover, and above all, the significance of such a protest would doubtless be enhanced, if it was supported from the outset by a goodly number of well-known social-democratic militants.... Out of all those out-spoken critics of the social-democratic majority, only Karl Liebknecht joined with Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and myself in defying the soul-destroying and demoralising idol into which party discipline had developed."
Immediately after the vote on war credits in the Reichstag, a group of SDP anti-militarist activists, including Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein met at the home of Rosa Luxemburg to discuss future action. They agreed to campaign against the war but decided against forming a new party and agreed to continue working within the SPD.
Over the next few months members of this group were arrested and spent several short spells in prison. On the release of Rosa Luxemburg in February 1916, it was decided to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). The Spartacus League publicized its views in its illegal newspaper, Spartacus Letters. Like the Bolsheviks in Russia, they began to argue that socialists should turn this nationalist conflict into a revolutionary war.
Dick Howard has argued: "Agitation continued throughout the war; yet the Spartacus League was never very strong. All agitation had to be carried out in strict secrecy, and the leaders were more often than not in jail." Members included Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Clara Zetkin, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein.
In May 1915, Liebknecht published a pamphlet, The Main Enemy Is At Home! He argued: "The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists. We think as one with the German people – we have nothing in common with the German Tirpitzes and Falkenhayns, with the German government of political oppression and social enslavement. Nothing for them, everything for the German people. Everything for the international proletariat, for the sake of the German proletariat and downtrodden humanity."
Rosa Luxemburg argued that it was important to stop the First World War through mass action. This brought her into conflict with Lenin who had argued that "the slogan of peace is wrong - the slogan must be, turn the imperialist war into civil war." Lenin believed that a civil war in Russia would bring down the old order and enable the Bolsheviks to gain power. Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches took the side of the Mensheviks in their struggle with the Bolsheviks. As a result Lenin favoured the Polish section led by Karl Radek over those of Luxemburg.
Karl Liebknecht was arrested and then conscripted into the German Army. Refusing to fight, Liebknecht served on the Eastern Front burying the dead. His health deteriorated and in October, 1915, he was allowed to return to Germany. He immediately became involved in political activity in Berlin. Rosa Luxemburg told a friend that Liebknecht was "always ready to jump from the commuter-train into the tram, and from the tram into a car; every pocket stuffed full of memo pads, his arms full of the latest newspapers which, of course, he never finds time to read; body and soul covered with street dust, and yet always with a kind and youthful smile on his face."
On 1st May, 1916, the Spartacus League decided to come out into the open and organized a demonstration against the First World War in the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. One of those who attended reported: "It was a great success. At eight o'clock in the morning a dense throng of workers - almost ten thousand - assembled in the square, which the police had already occupied well ahead of time. Karl Liebknecht, in uniform, and Rosa Luxemburg were in the midst of the demonstrators and greeted with cheers from all sides." Several of its leaders, including Liebknecht were arrested and imprisoned.
Karl Liebknecht was released on 23rd October, 1918, when Max von Baden granted an amnesty to all political prisoners. In January, 1919, Liebknecht joined with Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches and Clara Zetkin in the Spartakist Rising that took place in Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democrat Party and Germany's new chancellor, called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. By 13th January the rebellion had been crushed and most of its leaders, including Liebknecht were arrested.
Karl Liebknecht was executed without trial on 15th January, 1919. On the morning of the funeral Käthe Kollwitz visited the Liebknecht home to offer sympathy to the family. At their request, she made drawings of him in his coffin. She noted that there were red flowers around his forehead, where he had been shot. She wrote in her journal: "I am trying the Liebknecht drawing as a lithograph... Lithography now seems to be the only technique I can still manage. It's hardly a technique at all, its so simple. In it only the essentials count."
Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial for Karl Liebknecht (1919)
(1) Karl Liebknecht, Militarism and Anti-Militarism (1907)
Militarism is not specific to capitalism. It is moreover normal and necessary in every class-divided social order, of which the capitalist system is the last. Capitalism, of course, like every other class-divided social order, develops its own special variety of militarism; for militarism is by its very essence a means to an end, or to several ends, which differ according to the kind of social order in question and which can be attained according to this difference in different ways. This comes out not only in military organization, but also in the other features of militarism which manifest themselves when it carries out its tasks.
The capitalist stage of development is best met with an army based on universal military service, an army which, though it is based on the people, is not a people’s army but an army hostile to the people, or at least one which is being built up in that direction.
Sometimes it appears as a standing army, sometimes as a militia force. The standing army, which is not peculiar to capitalism appears as its most developed, even as its normal form.
The army of the capitalist social order, like the army of any other class-divided social order, fulfils a double role.
It is first of all a national institution, designed for external aggression or for protection against an external danger; in short designed for use in cases of international complication or, to use a military phrase, for use “against the external enemy”.
This function of the army is in no sense eliminated by the latest developments. For capitalism war is in fact, to use the words of Moltke, “a link in God’s world order”. In Europe itself there is admittedly something of a tendency for certain causes of war to be eliminated: the probability of war breaking out in Europe is decreasing, in spite of Alsace-Lorraine and the anxiety caused by the French trinity of Clemenceau, Pichon and Picquart, in spite of the Eastern question, in spite of Pan-Islamism and in spite of the revolution taking place in Russia. On the other hand new and highly dangerous sources of tension have arisen in consequence of the aims of commercial and political expansion pursued by the so-called civilized states, sources which have been handed down to us by the Eastern question and Pan-Islamism in the first instance, and as a consequence of world policy, and especially colonial policy, which - as Billow himself unreservedly acknowledged in the German Reichstag on November 14, 1906 - conceals countless possibilities of conflict. This policy has at the same time pushed forward ever more energetically two other forms of militarism: naval militarism and colonial militarism. We Germans know a few things about this development!
Navalism, naval militarism, is the twin brother of militarism on land and bears all its repulsive and virulent features. It is at present, to a still higher degree than militarism on land, not only the consequence but also the cause of international dangers, of the danger of a world war.
(2) Karl Liebknecht, Militarism and Anti-Militarism (1907)
The attempt to develop special anti-militarist propaganda in Germany has been resisted by influential leaders of the movement, who say that there is no Social-Democratic Party in the whole world which fights militarism as hard as German Social-Democracy. There is much truth in this. Ever since the German Reich has existed ruthless and tireless criticism has been levelled by the German Social-Democrats in parliament and in the press against militarism, the whole of its content and its harmful effects. It has collected material to indict militarism, enough to build a gigantic funeral pyre, and has waged the struggle against militarism as part of its general agitation with great energy and tenacity. In this respect our Party needs neither defence nor praise. Its deeds speak for themselves. Nevertheless, there is more to be done.
We by no means deny that the struggle waged against militarism has met with great success and that the form of the struggle has been well adapted to the goal. Nor do we deny that this kind of struggle will remain useful, and even indispensable, in the future, and bring more successes. But that does not settle the question. It does not resolve the problem of the education of young people, which is the most important part of the fight against militarism.
It is of course true that our general agitation opens people’s eyes, and every anti-capitalist and Social-Democrat is per se an excellent and reliable anti-militarist. The anti-militarist side of our general educational work leaves no doubt on this point. But to whom is our general agitation directed? It is and was rightly and necessarily designed for the adult man and woman worker. But we want to win over not only the adult workers, but also the children of the proletariat, the working-class youth. For the working-class youth is the working class-to-be, he is the future of the proletariat. “He who has the youth, has the future.”
At this point someone will retort: He who has the parents has the children of these parents, he has the youth! In any case it would be a wretched Social-Democrat who did not try his best to fill his children with the Social-Democratic spirit, and bring them up as Social-Democrats. It may be that the influence of the parents – together with the influence of the economic, social and political conditions under which the working-class youth grows up, but which, though the most important and obvious means of agitation and enlightenment, cannot be influenced by Party activity and must therefore be disregarded here – can easily overcome all the cunning of the attempts of reaction and capitalism to capture the child’s mind. But this fact clearly does not refute our point. One cannot settle things so easily. In fact it is precisely a careful examination of the above trend of thought which shows where the failing in our present agitation lies, a failing which is growing continually more serious and urgently demands a solution.
“Every Social-Democrat brings up his children as Social-Democrats.” But only to the best of his ability. This is the basis of the first important failing. How many people have a general understanding of how to teach, even if they have the time and inclination, and how many Social-Democratic workers, even if they have the best of intentions, have the necessary leisure and the necessary knowledge to educate their children? And in how many cases do the women and other politically backward members of the family rather unfortunately constitute a serious counterweight to whatever educational influence the class-conscious father may possess? If the Party wants to do its duty properly it must go into every nook and corner to help with home education. What is required is general educational and especially agitational work among young people, which must have an anti-militarist aspect.
But further: how many proletarians are really educated in Social-Democracy, educated to the point where they themselves can educate others on the fundamental principles of the standpoint and goals of the movement? How many workers are there in time of peace so ready for sacrifice and so tireless that they are even willing to undertake, to the best of their ability, the tough, painful, continuous hourly and daily work of education? And apart from those who are a quarter or half-educated, and the lukewarm who form an enormous mass: what a huge number of workers are total strangers to Social-Democracy! Here is a great field full of the best hopes of the working-class, almost incalculable in its potential, whose cultivation must not at any cost wait upon the conversion of the backward sections of the adult proletariat. It is of course easier to influence the children of politically educated parents, but this does not mean that it is not possible, indeed a duty, to set to work also on the more difficult section of the proletarian youth.
The need for agitation among young people is therefore beyond doubt. And since this agitation must operate with fundamentally different methods – in accordance with its object, that is, with the different conditions of life, the different level of understanding, the different interests and the different character of young people – it follows that it must be of a special character, that it must take a special place alongside the general work of agitation, and that it would be sensible to put it, at least to a certain degree, in the hands of special organizations. Our agitational work, with the growth in its volume and the increase in the Party’s tasks, and at a time when the decisive struggles are drawing ever nearer, has become so extraordinarily extensive and complex that the need for it to be divided up becomes more pressing – a division of labour of whose relative, but only relative, difficulties we are not by any means ignorant.
(3) Justice (17th December 1914)
The Berner Tagewacht publishes the full text of Karl Liebknecht’s protest in the Reichstag against the voting of the war credits. The protest was suppressed in the Reichstag, and no German paper has published it. It appears that seventeen Social-Democratic members expressed their opposition to the credits on December 2, but Karl Liebknecht’s was the only vote recorded against them.
(4) Karl Liebknecht, The Main Enemy Is At Home!, leaflet (May 1915)
The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.
We think as one with the German people – we have nothing in common with the German Tirpitzes and Falkenhayns, with the German government of political oppression and social enslavement. Nothing for them, everything for the German people. Everything for the international proletariat, for the sake of the German proletariat and downtrodden humanity.
The enemies of the working class are counting on the forgetfulness of the masses – provide that that be a grave miscalculation. They are betting on the forbearance of the masses – but we raise the vehement cry: "How long should the gamblers of imperialism abuse the patience of the people? Enough and more than enough slaughter! Down with the war instigators here and abroad!"
(5) Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Hans Diefenbach (30th March 1917)
You probably know how he (Karl Liebknecht) has lived for many years: practically only in parliament, meetings, commissions, conferences; running and rushing, always ready to jump from the commuter-train into the tram, and from the tram into a car; every pocket stuffed full of memo pads, his arms full of the latest newspapers which, of course, he never finds time to read; body and soul covered with street dust, and yet always with a kind and youthful smile on his face.
(6) Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940)
He (Liebknecht) never seemed to get tired... besides speaking at meetings, doing office work, and acting as defence counsel in court, he could still spend whole nights debating and drinking merrily with the comrades. And even if the street dust did cover his soul at times, it could not stifle the genuine enthusiasm which imbued all his activities. It was this devotion to the cause, the passionate temperament and this capacity for enthusiasm that Rosa valued. She recognised the true revolutionary in him, even if they sometimes disagreed on details of party tactics. They worked together and complemented each other very well, especially in the struggle against militarism and the danger of war.
(7) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969)
Karl Radek had furnished me in Moscow with introductions to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the famous Spartakist leaders in Germany. So I began to search for them and, after a while, I found the headquarters of the Spartakusbund, the most revolutionary of all the German Left parties. After my credentials had been carefully inspected, I was taken to see Rosa Luxemburg.
A slight little woman, she showed at once a powerful intellect and a quiet grasp of any given situation. She had heard about me and of the fact that I had taken up a strong stand against the Allied intervention in Russia. She proceeded to question me about the situation in Russia. I told her how the White Counter-Revolution had been beaten on the Volga and thrown back to Siberia, but that Lenin had spoken to me not long before with some apprehension of the possibility of Allied military support for the Russian Whites in South Russia, now that the Dardanelles and Black Sea were open to British and French warships. Then she asked me a question, the significance of which I did not appreciate at the time. She asked me if the Soviets were working entirely satisfactorily. I replied, with some surprise, that of course they were. She looked at me for a moment, and I remember an indication of slight doubt on her face, but she said nothing more. Then we talked about something else and soon after that I left.
Though at the moment when she asked me that question I was a little taken aback, I soon forgot about it. I was still so dedicated to the Russian Revolution, which I had been defending against the Western Allies' war of intervention, that I had had no time for anything else. But a week or two later I began to hear that Rosa Luxemburg differed from Lenin on several matters of revolutionary policy, and especially about the role of the Communist Party in the Workers' and Peasants' Councils, or Soviets. She did not like the Russian Communist Party monopolizing all power in the Soviets and expelling anyone who disagreed with it. She feared that Lenin's policy had brought about, not the dictatorship of the working classes over the middle classes, which she approved of but the dictatorship of the Communist Party over the working classes. The dictatorship of a class - yes, she said, but not the dictatorship of a party over a class. Later, I began to see that Luxemburg had much wisdom in her attitude, though it was not apparent to me at the time. Looking back, it seems that she was not so critical of Lenin's tactics for Russia. She did not want them applied to Germany. Alas, she never lived to use her influence on her colleagues in the Spartakusbund for more than a few weeks after I saw her.
(8) Karl Liebknecht, speech (January, 1919)
Friends, Comrades, Brothers! From under the blows of the world war, amidst the ruin which has been created by Tzarist Imperialist society - the Russian Proletariat erected its State - the Socialist Republic of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers. This was created in spite of an attitude of misconception, hatred and calumny. This republic represents the greatest basis for that universal socialist order, the creation of which is at the present time the historic task of the International Proletariat. The Russian revolution was to an unprecedented degree the cause of the proletariat of the whole world becoming more revolutionary. Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary are already in the throes of revolution; revolution is awakening in Germany. But there are obstacles in the way of the victory of the German proletariat. The mass of the German people are with us, the power of the accused enemies of the working class has collapsed; but they are nevertheless making all attempts to deceive the people, with a view of protracting the hour of the liberation of the German people. The robbery and violence of German Imperialism in Russia, as well as the violent Brest-Litovsk peace and the Bucharest peace have consolidated and strengthened the Imperialists of the Allied countries; - and this is the reason why the German Government are endeavouring to utilize the Allied attack upon Socialist Russia for the purpose of retaining power. You have no doubt heard how Willhelm II, who, now that Tzarism has perished, is the representative of the basest form of reaction, - a few days ago made use of intervention in the affairs of proletarian Russia by the Allied Empires for the purpose of raising a new war agitation amongst the working masses. We must not permit our ignoble enemies to make use of any democratic means and institutions for their purpose; the proletariat of the Allied countries must allow no such thing to occur. We know that you have already raised your voice to protest against the machinations of your governments; but the danger is growing ever greater and greater. A united front of world Imperialism against the proletariat is being realised, in the first instance, in the struggle aga inst the Russian Soviet Republic. This is what I warn you against. The proletariat of the world must not allow the flame of the Socialist Revolution to be extinguished, or all its hopes and all its powers will perish. The failure of the Russian Socialist Republic will be the defeat of the proletariat of the whole world. Friends, comrades, brothers arise against your rulers! Long live the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants! Long live the Revolution of the French, English, American proletariat! Long live the liberation of the workers off all countries from the infernal chasm of war, exploitation and slavery!
(9) Bertram D. Wolfe, Strange Communists I Have Known (1966)
In the third week of December, the masses, as represented in the First National Congress of the Councils of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, rejected by an overwhelming majority the Spartacan motion that the Councils should disrupt the Constituent Assembly and the Provisional Democratic Government and seize power themselves.
In the light of Rosa's public pledge, the duty of her movement seemed clear: to accept the decision, or to seek to have it reversed not by force but by persuasion. However, on the last two days of 1918 and the first of 1919, the Spartacans held a convention of their own where they outvoted their "leader" once more. In vain did she try to convince them that to oppose both the Councils and the Constituent Assembly with their tiny forces was madness and a breaking of their democratic faith. They voted to try to take power in the streets, that is by armed uprising. Almost alone in her party, Rosa Luxemburg decided with a heavy heart to lend her energy and her name to their effort.
The Putsch, wth inadequate forces and overwhelming mass disapproval except in Berlin, was as she had predicted, a fizzle. But neither she nor her close associates fled for safety as Lenin had done in July, 1917. They stayed in the capital, hiding carelessly in easily suspected hideouts, trying to direct an orderly retreat. On January 16, a little over two months after she had been released from prison, Rosa Luxemburg was seized, along with Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck. Reactionary officers murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg while "taking them to prison." Pieck was spared, to become, as the reader knows, one of the puppet rulers of Moscow-controlled East Germany.