- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.