With the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and thus the collapse of the German Empire at the end of WWI, revolution broke out everywhere and political movements on both the left and right erupted like a stick of dynamite throughout Germany.
Amid the chaos, violence, power struggles and the possibility of new opportunities, one of the key democratic institutions of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 was the establishment of the council – which had been popular organizations first invented in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Like Germany at the onset of January 1919, the councils were a sign of desperate conditions and a search for new forms of political representation in the age of high industrialization and total war. There would be sailors councils, workers councils, workers and soldiers councils, and even councils organized by artists and by agricultural workers.
Their activities were often confused and chaotic – their politics rudimentary – but they were everywhere, and they were a grassroots form of democracy that allowed a wider range of political participation that was addressed in a broader range of issues that had ever existed in Germany before.
And out of this fray of dramatic change and political uncertainty rose the voices of Social Democratic Party leader Philipp Scheidemann, and famed radical socialist antiwar activist, Karl Liebknecht, as well as his co-leader, Rosa Luxemburg.
Scheidemann, acting on behalf of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), had proclaimed a German republic from the window of Berlin’s Reichstag building at the end of WWI, which would establish democracy for the first time in Germany’s history with the founding of the so-called Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, just just blocks away, Liebknecht proclaimed a socialist republic from the window of the Berlin city palace, which had just been the dynastic seat of the Prince Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, Prussian kings and German emperors of the House of Hohenzollern for centuries.
Luxemburg and Liebknecht had previously founded and led the Spartacist League – a Marxist revolutionary movement established toward the end of WWI which would lay the roots of the establishment of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) on January 1, 1919.
Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s chief aim was simple: They believed that power and wealth should be shared equally among the population. The KPD would quickly refuse to participate in the parliamentary elections, preferring instead to place its faith in the workers’ councils, as expressed in the former Spartacist manifesto:
The question today is not democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda reads: Bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy? For the dictatorship of the proletariat is democracy in the socialist sense of the word. Dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean bombs, putsches, riots and anarchy, as the agents of capitalist profits deliberately and falsely claim. Rather, it means using all instruments of political power to achieve socialism, to expropriate – dispossess of property – the capitalist class through and in accordance with the will of the revolutionary majority of the proletariat.
In short, Germany’s post-war revolution fostered two perceivable paths forward: Social democracy or a council republic – with the latter being similar to the one which had been established by the Bolsheviks in Russia.
In the first week of January in 1919, Liebknecht and Luxemburg decided that the SPD led, young republic was tenuous and vulnerable enough to challenge, so they launched an armed rising in Berlin with the the aim of overthrowing the provisional government and creating a soviet republic.
“Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction” – Rosa Luxemburg
On 5 January, their movement occupied public buildings, called for a general strike and formed a revolutionary committee. They denounced the SPD led provisional government and the forthcoming elections. A few days of savage street fighting took place as workers with rifles haphazardly swarmed the streets of Berlin.
With the model of Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in Russia happening before their eyes, the mainstream Social Democrats feared that the revolutionaries might institute the kind of ‘red terror’ that was now taking place in Russia. According to historian Richard J. Evans:
“Afraid for their lives, and conscious of the need to prevent the country from falling into complete anarchy, the SPD sanctioned the recruitment of heavily armed paramilitary bands consisting of a mixture of younger men, and known as the Free Corps (Freikorps), to put down any further revolutionary uprisings.”
Significantly outnumbering the Spartacists and having the backing of the republic, the Free Corps came storming into to Berlin to suppress the uprising.
Liebknecht and Luxemburg retreated for their lives and escaped to an inconspicuous neighborhood apartment building at Mannheimerstraße 43 (today Mannheimerstraße 27) in the heart of Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district.
After laying low for a couple days, it was on this day – January 15, 1919 – that Wilmersdorfer Bürgerwehr (vigilance committee) members Bruno Lindner and Wilhlem Moering – along with three others – arrived at Mannheimerstraße 43 just after 8:00PM. They rang the Marcusson family’s door bell, where the two had been seeking refuge, forced their way into the building and up to the apartment where Liebknecht and Luxemburg were.
The men had been tipped off and the source of where they’d gotten their information of Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s whereabouts is still uncertain today.
Before the two Spartacus leaders were arrested and eventually taken to the famous Eden Hotel for further questioning, (Liebknecht was first taken to a nearby school in order to determine his identity), Luxemburg had quickly borrowed a pair of wool socks from Mrs. Marcusson before venturing out into the cold Berlin January night.
After hours of torture and interrogation while in police custody, Liebknecht’s and Luxemburg’s lives would be brutally brought to an end at the hands of the Free Corps who had been egged on by the mainstream Social Democrats looking to protect the young republic from the leftist movement; revolutionaries in a number of other German cities were also put down or summarily murdered to eliminate any future threat to the new republic.
While being transported to Moabit Prison, Liebknecht was shot in the back after the car he’d been riding in had pulled over to the side of the road not far from the Eden Hotel. His body was then taken away.
After being gruesomely beaten with a rifle butt and shot in the head, Luxemburg was flung into Berlin’s Landwehrkanal (a canal running east to west immediately south of the city center). Four and a half months later, after the canal’s ice had thawed, Luxemburg’s body was found and Mrs. Marcusson of Wilmersdorf would immediately recognize her stockings and other items of clothing on the corpse when pictures of the body surfaced.
These events would ultimately create a very troubled atmosphere for the next few months and they’d also leave a permanent legacy of bitterness and hatred on the political left for the next several years. Moreover, they would decidedly doom any kind of cooperation between Social Democrats and Communists in Germany’s new republic.
Mutual fear, mutual recriminations and mutual hatred between these two parties became their only common ground with one another from that point onward. And when it came time to combat the rise of National Socialism in the national government years later, representatives of the Social Democrats and Communists still weren’t able to put their differences aside.
Evans, Richard J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin Group ISBN 1-59420-004-1
Uwe Soukup, “Luxemburg und Liebknecht: Das letzte Versteck,” Der Tagesspiegel, January 11, 2010
Weitz, Eric D. (2007). Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press ISBN 978-0-691-01695-5