- Rosa Luxemburg: An Intimate Portrait by Mathilde Jacob, translated by Hans Fernbach
Lawrence and Wishart, 143 pp, £9.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 85315 900 9
In the feverish atmosphere that gripped Europe after the Russian Revolution, there were many who saw insurrection as a gateway to the future: 1919 brought revolutionary uprisings in Budapest, Munich and Berlin. In Germany, the newly installed Social Democratic Government bloodied its hands suppressing the revolts. Since the regular troops could not be relied on, the SPD Defence Minister Gustav Noske gave the notorious Freikorps – forebears of Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen – carte blanche to act against the insurgent crowds. During the weeks of terror that followed, two of the revolutionary leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, went into hiding in Berlin. Betrayed, they were arrested on 15 January 1919, taken to the Freikorps divisional headquarters at the Hotel Eden, interrogated and beaten. Luxemburg was thrown, dead or dying, into the Landwehr canal where, months later, her body was found floating; on Noske’s orders, it was hurriedly transported to a military base outside Berlin. The woman who talked her way past the grey-coated guards to identify the body – from a scrap of velvet dress, a golden clasp and a ‘pair of gloves which I had bought’ – and who determinedly drove away with the coffin, ensuring Luxemburg the full honours of the public funeral the Government had been so anxious to avoid, was Mathilde Jacob.
In the biographies she is always described as ‘Luxemburg’s secretary’. Her name flits through accounts of the Spartakus League and the early days of the German Communist Party: a foot-soldier in the German opposition to the First World War; a mute, almost faceless presence, waiting outside prisons or bent over a typewriter, banging out the anti-war ‘Letters from Spartakus’. The year after Luxemburg’s death, staying at the house of Luxemburg’s great friend and comrade Clara Zetkin to recover from a bad spell in prison, Jacob began work on a memoir. No great writer, she seems to have been dissatisfied with the result, and made several more attempts over the next decade and a half. Various unfinished drafts went off in the suitcases of friends and colleagues fleeing Germany in the late 1930s; in 1939 she entrusted the earliest manuscript – liveliest and most immediate of all, although perhaps, to her anxious eyes, lacking in historical weight – to Ralph Lutz, to deposit at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. (Her own increasingly desperate applications to US Immigration met with no success and in 1942 she, too, was rounded up by grey-coated soldiers; she died at Theresienstadt on 14 April 1943.) First published in Germany in 1988, under Jacob’s original title, Rosa Luxemburg and her Friends, in War and Revolution 1914-19, this urgent little book is compiled mainly from later drafts, with excerpted material from the first version bracketed <thus> in the text. It turns out to be a love story, as one might have guessed.
Jacob was born in Berlin in 1873, a Jewish butcher’s daughter, the eldest of eight. Socially and politically fearful, she grew up in rough streets, alert to ‘the pogrom mood’. In photographs she is watchful and anxious, a guarded glance at the camera from a sensitive, fleshy face. A conscientious student – she had to leave the sixth form when her father went bankrupt, and later supported her widowed mother and younger sisters as a stenographer, running a typing and duplicating service from their flat. Luxemburg first came banging on the door in January 1914; and here the memoir begins.
Luxemburg was nearly 43. For more than two decades she had been one of the leading theoreticians of the Socialist International’s Left: an eloquent, caustic voice, urging on Lenin and the Bolsheviks something of the West’s understanding of mass democracy, while trying to infuse the huge Social Democratic Party with some of the revolutionary energies of the East. Dumpy, sharp and charismatic, she limped round Jacob’s flat, trying to help with the duplicating machine. The effect on Jacob was immediate: Luxemburg’s ‘all-understanding eyes . . . made my heart beat faster for her’. With respectful restraint she explains how a conversation with Luxemburg, followed by that ‘understanding look’ and a warm handshake, would leave her ‘with hopes renewed’.
Luxemburg decided to recruit her in the autumn of 1914. War hysteria was at its height. Cheering crowds flocked to the stations to wave the troops off to the Front; SPD leaders pledged that the German Empire would take civilisation to Russia on the points of its bayonets. The Socialist International was in ruins, and beleaguered oppositionists had to restart their political agitation from scratch, in the teeth of military censorship and rigid party discipline. Luxemburg was expecting arrest for her anti-war speeches at any moment. Before it came, she invited Jacob to attend her Sunday lecture, and afterwards took her home for a talk. Jacob was shown her paintings and prints – she liked the Turners – and introduced to the cat, who would become her special responsibility. Luxemburg was imprisoned early in 1915 and condemned to spend most of the rest of the war ‘admiring world history’, as she put it, ‘through the bars of my cage’. Her closest colleagues (Zetkin, Franz Mehring, Leo Jogiches) recognised that Jacob, anonymous and reliable, was better suited than any of them to play the role of official prison visitor. Tersely, Jacob explains her own dedication: ‘If there was anything to be done for her, my motto was, “enough is not enough.”’
Such a love does not paint a living portrait. Luxemburg springs from these pages in her own words – in the prison letters, quoted here at length, and in the histrionic prose of the anti-war leaflets that Jacob smuggled out from her cell – rather than in her friend’s descriptions. But Jacob’s account of the Spartakus opposition makes a useful corrective to a story often told in triumphalist terms. She stresses instead the apparent ‘hopelessness’ of the time, the seemingly unending war, the merciless state machine that turned against anyone who resisted, threatening penal servitude if evidence could be produced against them, or the trenches if it could not. By 1917, she writes, many were too frightened to continue the campaign against the war, while ‘many others withdrew, tired of fighting, because everything seemed so useless,’ or because they could no longer cope with the strain. Jacob’s role pitted her against state bureaucracy: any tiny thing she might bring the prisoner – pencils, biscuits, socks – required a judge’s permission, and she spent hours in cold waiting rooms and polished corridors, wangling permits and filling out forms. Luxemburg herself could be difficult on prison visits, temperamental or paranoid by turn, ill from the isolation and stress. She was plagued by dreams in which she found herself having to take a stand on her own:
I dreamt I was to sing a song and play my own accompaniment on the piano, at a concert . . . Suddenly, at seven o’clock in the evening, I realise that I can’t play the piano. Who will accompany me? I must quickly fetch my niece. Then I remember that my niece does not play the piano but the violin – and in horror, I wake up.
When Jacob came to see her, Luxemburg would climb onto her lap and bury her face in her shoulder to cry – ‘intimacies she would never normally have allowed’; or refuse to see her at all if she suspected Jacob had made some concession to a prison supervisor she loathed.
As the war entered its third year, with food shortages, a deteriorating military situation and growing discontent, Luxemburg was transferred from the capital to the old fortress in Wronke. Feeling ‘like a foreign interloper’, Jacob made the journey deep into occupied Polish territory to find local SPD members (a bargeman and his wife) who would cook for the prisoner, and walked through the forests to gather flowers for her cell: asters, rowan leaves, golden rod, Turkish cherry and willow-leaved sea buckthorn – ‘the whole bouquet a veritable autumn painting’, Luxemburg wrote in her thank-you note, now regaining something of her warm and professional prison persona. They planned holidays together, Jacob writing from a brief trip to Württemberg – this is an account of her own development, too – extolling the museums, Engels’s Peasant War in Germany and, with proto-feminist enthusiasm, Charlotte von Stein. To which Luxemburg replied that it would be a punishment to visit museums and the like – they would just give her a headache. ‘The only relaxation for me is to stroll about or lie in the grass in the sun, where I can examine the tiniest bugs or stare up at the clouds.’ As for Frau von Stein, ‘God punish me, but she was a cow. When Goethe gave her her marching orders she behaved like a screeching washerwoman, and I stand by my opinion that the character of a woman does not show itself where love starts but where it ends.’
Where it ends: paradoxically, the most intimate portrait in Jacob’s memoir is that of Luxemburg’s éminence grise and former lover, Leo Jogiches. Tall and domineering, with dark blond hair and (according to Luxemburg) golden eyes, Jogiches took control of the underground opposition network in 1916, after Liebknecht’s arrest. He came to Jacob’s flat every night to dictate the anti-war bulletins that made their way through a web of clandestine distributors to the factories, the railways and the Front; and her account of him is written with warmth, directness and understanding. Proud and ultra-secretive, with much of his political career still shrouded in mystery, Jogiches has had the misfortune to become known to the world largely through the letters of his ex-mistress (sadly, his letters are lost). Lovers since their student days, they had a 16-year affair which ended in 1907 in a painful and protracted break – death threats the least of it – with Luxemburg accusing him of being cold and dictatorial, of squandering his life, manipulating others, and being incapable of a single generous act (he would never let her give him a baby).
Most striking in Jacob’s account is Jogiches’s patience and tenderness. His responsibilities were phenomenal: shouldering the tasks of those in prison, he took charge of the entire underground anti-war network, as well as determining the political direction of the Spartakus League, yet Jacob remarks on how calmly he used to work. After three or four hours’ dictation he would break off, stretch his arms and relax by telling silly stories about the old days – tales that end with Luxemburg having to sit down on the pavement because she is laughing so much. Then again, speaking of her ‘extraordinary kindness’, he remembered how, as a student in Zurich, he had complained to Luxemburg about not having any tea to drink – his addiction. ‘Take this,’ she had said at once, handing him a packet that her parents had just sent from Warsaw. Nearly thirty years later, he was still wondering at this – ‘Naturally,’ he quickly adds, ‘I didn’t take it.’ This, Jacob suggests, was the real story of their relationship: ‘It was always impossible to get him to accept anything.’
Trained from his youth in tsarist Vilna in the disciplines of clandestinity, Jogiches clearly felt safe enough with Jacob to think aloud with her. He was doubtful about the strategy of splitting the SPD to found the German Communist Party (KPD), critical of what Jacob calls ‘the putschist tendency’ – he and Luxemburg inserted a clause in the infant KPD’s programme declaring that it would never attempt to take power without the majority support of the German working class – and highly sceptical, later, of Liebknecht’s tactics in the uprising of 1919. Almost the last words Jacob records him saying come from the period of strikes and street fighting some months after Luxemburg’s murder, just before he himself was beaten to death – in some accounts, shot in the back – in a police cell: ‘When all this is over, I might go to Scandinavia. It’s the only place I liked that I’ve been to without Rosa. Anywhere else, I would miss her too much.’
The enormous events that form the background to this memoir are, for the most part, curiously unseen – as if either taken for granted or else too vast to be discussed. The February and October Revolutions, the American intervention, the collapse of the German offensive amid a wave of strikes and mutinies, the abdication of the Kaiser and proclamation of the Republic in November 1918 – all figure mainly by inference here. The last few insurrectionary months after Luxemburg’s release from prison rush by in confusion, Jacob toiling non-stop in the ill-lit Rote Fahne office, typing, collating, organising, while the half-starved crowds of soldiers and workers surge through the street below. There are non-stop meetings, the revolutionary committees sit in permanent session, the word ‘Bolshevik’ – as threat or example – is brandished everywhere. The SPD Government, struggling for control; the High Command, regrouping in defeat; the Empire in ruins; inflamed ranks of loyalists calling for revenge; the chaotic founding of the KPD; the Government’s move against Berlin’s leftist police commissioner and the occupation in protest at this action of Vorwärts, the SPD’s newspaper, by Liebknecht and the KPD – all this passes in a blur. More important for Jacob is a tragically one-sided breach with Luxemburg. She, it seems, had invited another young woman to come and live at the Südende flat – ‘offering her “my” room’. When the girl arrived, Jacob immediately packed her bags and left. ‘From then on I could no longer bring myself to visit . . . when I occasionally did so, I suffered such torments that I decided to stop.’
At the end of the KPD founding conference in late December 1918, Luxemburg formally asked for Jacob to be assigned as her assistant, but then kept her waiting; in the crush of events there was a falling out and ‘no time left for mutual understanding’. Jacob stormed off to work with Jogiches instead. Luxemburg had no idea what was going on. ‘I can’t understand why you don’t come to see me,’ she complained to Jacob, who coldly replied that she ‘worked till late every evening with Leo’. Jacob describes a final meeting in the clandestine flat where Luxemburg and Liebknecht were in hiding, after the January uprising. They read Tolstoy and Goethe together, and Jacob makes an impassioned confession: ‘Rosa, I was always in the wrong when I felt offended . . . it is madness to want to claim you for myself.’ ‘But Mathilde, don’t you understand . . . my relation with that young girl is a completely different one.’ As they said goodbye – it would be final – ‘I kissed her hand. As usual she pulled it away, embraced me and kissed me heartily on the mouth.’ Here, for the first time, one’s confidence in Jacob’s account falters: is the reconciliation simply wish-fulfilment? More convincing is the agony of remorse Jacob describes after Luxemburg is killed, her belief that had she persuaded Luxemburg to leave the intransigent Liebknecht, she might have been saved from the Freikorps, the Hotel Eden and the canal. As she writes to Clara Zetkin, ‘My hatred for Karl is well-founded. It is an emotional thing, but despite my political immaturity my emotions have never betrayed me.’
Luxemburg’s worries about the Berlin uprising are well known (‘But what about our programme, Karl?’): they are not Jacob’s. Arrested for the last time, Luxemburg was not expecting to die – perhaps she did not quite realise that the Bolshevik Revolution had changed everything. All the same, defiance was her choice. ‘Sun, peace and liberty,’ she had exulted on her release from prison in 1906, ‘the finest things in life – apart from sun, storm and liberty.’ ‘And in the end,’ she wrote in her last letter to Zetkin, ‘we have to take history as it comes.’