At Friedrichsfelde

Harry Stopes

Ernst Thälmann in front of Mies Van Der Rohe’s memorial to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

On the second Sunday in January every year there is a march to the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery in Berlin to commemorate Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The memorial to them at the cemetery entrance was put up by the East German government in 1951. When I got there, two men were handing out leaflets calling for a five-hour working week. Just outside the cemetery a speaker was urging unity. Newspaper sellers from a variety of tiny Leninist groups wandered through the crowd.

I was meeting my friend Frank, who has been active in the German (originally West German) left since the late 1980s. The march used to attract thousands of anti-fascists and autonomists, he told me, but in recent years has been dominated by ‘lame and boring old-school Leninists and authoritarian groups’, and the ‘old-school social democrats’ of Die Linke. In this fracturing, each group commemorates its own version of Luxemburg.

Frank was ten minutes’ walk inside the cemetery, at the site of Mies Van Der Rohe’s 1926 memorial. There were around thirty people – almost all men – standing round in the soft rain. One man, carrying the black and red flag of Antifaschistische Aktion, was talking about Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s murder, and the Sozialdemokratische Partei leadership’s responsibility for it.

Bernd Langer, an anti-fascist originally from Göttingen, led a smaller group around the cemetery, pointing out the graves and memorials of other, less well-known communists and trade unionists. Some were killed in 1919, some by fascists in the early 1920s, others by the Nazis in power. In some sections the gravestones are identical slabs of plain granite, as in a military cemetery.

Van Der Rohe’s memorial was torn down by the Nazis and never rebuilt. The East German government was suspicious of modernism, but it also associated the memorial with the Kommunistische Partei and the interwar split between the communists and social democrats. For the Sozialistische Einheitspartei (Socialist Unity Party) this fatal split was never to be repeated. What stands there now is a much smaller structure, a memorial to the memorial.


  • 21 January 2019 at 7:33pm
    Camus says:
    Their murderers were members of a Freikorps group, ex-soldiers under army command and paid for by the government, led by Ebert and his „bloodhound“ Gustav Noske. Ebert became chancellor on the instructions of the army high command and he promised to fight against the communists to prevent the formation of a socialist government. The revolutionaries were a tiny group around Luxemburg and Liebknecht whose objective was to win the support of the „Workers and Soldiers Soviets“ , whose had ejected the loyalists from the town halls and taken control throughout the country. These „Soviets“ then went on strike in support of Ebert when a Freikorps putsch was imminent, only to be murdered by loyalist army groups. But that was after the deaths of Rosa and Karl.
    The 1918 revolution was a peaceful one. Liebknecht had been a consistent opponent of the war and Luxemburg a courageous campaigner for peace and for women‘s rights. Their murder led to a permanent conflict between the left and the moderates the effects of which could be seen at the Memorial last week. The Freikorps went on to form the basis of the Nazi Party. The conflict on the left led in part to the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933 - hence the mutual enmity between the S.P.D. and the Linke today.

    • 25 January 2019 at 11:18pm
      Rod Miller says: @ Camus
      "The conflict on the left led in part to the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933 – hence the mutual enmity between the S.P.D. and the Linke today."

      Again: Hence? The mutual enmity between the SPD and Die Linke today has less to do with ancient history and far more to do with the wretched shadow of its former self the SPD has become since Gerhard Schröder (see Blair) led it. It's now in ideological and electoral freefall. Pathetic. Die Linke may not be a major party, but its co-leader, Sahra Wagenknecht, is beating the bushes in the SPD, the Green Party and anywhere else where actual leftists might be discovered, in an attempt to cobble together something to hold up against the Reigning Orthodoxy (of which the SPD is part).

  • 22 January 2019 at 4:44pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I’m not sure what history books Camus has been reading, but he seems to have gotten each point in his summary of events wrong.

    The objective of the “Sparticists” (Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and followers) was to establish a Bolshevik-style regime, though Luxemburg had serious disagreements with Lenin’s approach to building a centralized party-State apparatus – she sniffed intolerance and authoritarianism.

    The revolution was far from peaceful, either in its immediate antecedents or its unfolding. Both sides had plenty of recently dismissed soldiers in possession of weapons they were willing to use.

    Though Ebert did use the Freikorps thugs to put down the revolution, the Freikorps were neither the basis nor the core of the Nazi Party; the SA was established as a Freikorps-style paramilitary wing of the NSDAP, which Hitler found useful for protecting Nazi gatherings, intimidating opponents, and eventually engaging in gangland-style street warfare with the paramilitary organization of the German Communist Party (KPD).

    The SPD was first split by disgruntled men and women on the left wing of the party who became the USPD toward the end of WWI (Independent Social Democrats). The “war within the left” was exacerbated by a failed attempt at revolution in Hamburg in 1922 or 23, and it went through several phases within Germany, at times following directions and imperatives formulated in Moscow and conveyed through Comintern officials and/or agents. During the 1930-32 electoral campaigns the KPD assailed the SPD as much as it did the Nazis, with Stalin believing the SPD were not truly socialists and had to be defeated so that the KPD’s membership would grow by absorbing unhappy SPD members. After Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, this strategy was altered in the interest of creating a “united front” against fascism – this would entail co-operation among liberals, socialists, and communists in order to defeat Hitler and Mussolini. From the practical political point of view both approaches failed.

    The bitterness between old SPD loyalists and fervent KPD Stalinists lingered, but, after 1945 there was no real hope for any compromise between them in what became East Germany – the Sozialistische Einheitspartei (Socialist Unity Party) was fictional in its name and function, being the communist party under another name. It forcefully absorbed all activists on the left while having its fundamental social and economic policies decided by Stalin and his successors. There was no such thing as a meaningful "independent left" within the DDR until it started to rapidly unravel in 1989.

    Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were, in fact, murdered; an alternative, which most centrists did not wish to see happen, would have been a public trial for treason against the provisional government. Maybe their attempt to seize power was premature (nobody knows how some event or other might have tipped the scales in their favor, so “alternate histories” are useless here, being purely speculative). Luxemburg is a great martyr-heroine of the left (e.g., one of C. Hitchens’ intellectual inamoratas), but in Eastern Europe she has little cachet, the reason being her staunch opposition to the reconstitution of an independent Polish state. In other words, she didn’t take nationalism, one of the main organizing principles of 20th century politics, seriously enough to understand how she was creating opponents to her ideas. She had an inkling of how a socialist regime might become authoritarian (thus her anti-Leninism), but what kind of state would have actually developed under a Sparticist regime in Germany is unknowable, though it seems likely that such an entity could never have been established anyway – there were far too many segments of German society who were conservative and authoritarian in their basic political and cultural orientation to allow such a regime a chance. Not only the defeat of the Left, but also the collapse of the Middle, showed how this played out under Hitler during 1933-1934. Though he never got much more than 40% of the vote in a contested election, by the beginning of 1935 Hitler probably had the strong support of about 70% of the population.

  • 23 January 2019 at 12:13am
    John Cowan says:
    "Hence?" One would have hoped they had learned the oldest lesson of politics: united we stand, divided we fall. But no, it's not "I am Spartacus", it's "He's Brian!"

  • 25 January 2019 at 12:33pm
    Camus says:
    Got it all wrong did I? Must be the books I read. Just two points on the comment above. I stated the 1918 revolution was a peaceful one. The „soviets“ or „Räte“ took control virtually without bloodshed within a few days after the Kiel uprising. They kept the peace and made sure there was no looting. As revolutions go it was very low on bloodshed. The shooting started when the Freikorps were ordered to „restore order“ and rid the country of the „Bolshevik hordes“ and in the Ruhr area thousands of workers who went on strike in support of Ebert were slaughtered by the mercenaries.
    It seems to be that Rogers has been dabbling in the works of Friedrichs and Aly who specialize in quibbling over the roles of the left in the events of 1917-25. Revisionst views are many in German historiography, few pass the test of reliability.

    • 27 January 2019 at 6:43pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Camus
      Yes, it's probably the books you read. As to Friedrichs and Aly, I have no idea who they are (perhaps I should). As to the Councils (= Rat or Soviet) of soldiers, sailors, and workers, what did they take control of other than naval bases? (And briefly at that.) While they saved themselves from futile "death-wish" last-ditch operations, they were also engaging in heavily symbolic politics, with no plan of how to get from A to B. They replaced no municipal or provincial governments and had no particular group party orientation in a country chock full of parties and splinter parties. The SPD's announcement of a Republic on November 9th, 1918 - uncontested by the army's command - would imply that any revolution would be directed against it, not the monarchic system that dissolved rapidly (though its conservative base remained strong). And, indeed, the Sparticist uprising was directed against this provisional republican government which eventually birthed the constitution-based Weimar Republic (a constitution with serious flaws, as was revealed during the late 1920s). An observer at the time commented that the "revolution" of 1918 was basically "the general strike of the German army", which seems about right, if you throw in the enlisted men of the navy as well. The attempted (Sparticist) revolution of 1919 was a bloody struggle of armed factions. The idea that any country or region of Europe in 1918-1921 (a sort of average date for the completion of various civil wars) could have a peaceful revolution is silly. There was too much rancor on all sides, and the war itself had lowered the acceptable threshold of violence.

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