By Vejas Liulevicius Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Rosa Luxemburg was drawn toward socialist ideology quite early in her life. She championed the cause of many people in the world rather than one nation. Then, why did she have such a cruel end?
The scene is Berlin in 1919, soon after the end of the First World War. A revolt has broken out against the new government, the kind of revolt that Lenin and his Bolsheviks were expecting, and that they saw as essential to the world revolution. Indeed, Lenin is reported to have said, “Without the revolution in Germany, we are doomed.”
Rosa Luxemburg has been drawn into this German communist revolt, though she has cautioned against the timing. She is proven correct, as the uprising is soon quelled. And in the dark on the evening of January 15, 1919, two German soldiers come to arrest her. She’s already spent years in jail in wartime Germany for opposing the imperial government, and she assumes that a similar stretch of incarceration awaits her. Suffering from a headache, she does not notice murder in the eyes of her captors.
Rosa Luxemburg gathers books to put into a suitcase to take with her, to read in jail, and then she is hustled off to a waiting car. Her captors interrogate her, tell her she is being taken to prison, and then shoot her through the head. Her body is thrown into a canal in downtown Berlin and only discovered drifting in the murky waters four months later. How has it come to this cruel end?
The Polish‐German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, who is known as ‘Red Rosa’, is perhaps the most famous woman radical in history. Like Lenin’s, her life was totally committed to revolution. She personified internationalism by entirely rejecting national or ethnic loyalties. In her revolutionary activities, which spanned Russia, Switzerland, Poland, and Germany, she underlined the elemental power of spontaneous revolt rather than centralized conspiracy.
This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Early Life of Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg was born March 5, 1871, the very year of the Paris Commune. Her given name was Rozalia Luksenburg. She was born as a subject of the Russian Empire, in the Russian part of Poland. Her parents were an assimilated Jewish family in Zamo. Although her official name was Rozalia, she was called Roozha as a nickname.
Her father was a timber merchant, and in 1873, when she was small, the family moved to the bigger city of Warsaw. As a young child, she had a hip dislocation that was misdiagnosed and treated very badly. This condition healed wrong; so for the rest of her life, she had a painful and strong limp. Today we would say she was disabled, and this set her apart.
Though her family was not religiously observant, their ethnic origins set them apart in heavily Christian surroundings. In 1881, there was a wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire after the emperor Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. Jews were blamed. Rosa never later talked about fearing these howling murderous mobs, but some scholars argue that this was a formative experience for her that made her identify with victimized people everywhere and reject national belonging as too narrow and exclusive.
She also grew distant from her Jewish heritage, arguing that she had just as much in common with plantation workers in South America, persecuted Africans, and others. She rejected religion in favor of political activism. In fact, on at least one occasion she said ugly things about Russian Jews, further exemplifying her break with her origins.
In high school, she and friends got involved in radical circles, which were banned by the Russian secret police. Here she learned about Marxism as an ideology. After graduating in 1888, she was supposed to receive a gold medal for excellence in studies, but she did not receive it, either because she was Jewish or because of her activism.
After playing a role in organizing strikes with the recently established Proletariat Party, she attracted the attention of the tsarist police and felt that she needed to flee. The University of Zurich was one of the few in Europe that accepted women. With the support of her proud family, who saw themselves as launching her into higher education, she moved to Switzerland in 1889.
She would hardly see her family again. In Switzerland, she was also drawn into exile politics, since many German socialists had gone there as a result of Bismarck’s anti‐Socialist laws.
And now her independent life began in earnest. She was so dynamic and energetic that people quickly forgot that she was small, only five feet tall, and burdened with a disability (in spite of it, she could walk faster than many of her male comrades).
It was said that while she did not have beautiful features when she talked and argued, she showed true charisma. But her identity as a woman also made her an outsider in this radical movement, whose leadership was almost entirely male. She sought to make her mark on her own terms and did not want to be relegated only to women’s issues.
Learn more about how the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917.
The Personal Life of Rosa Luxemburg
At the university, she studied science and math, then later economics, finally earning a doctorate in law and political economy. She had a tight circle of friends, and a lover, Leo Jogiches, who already was a rising socialist in Poland. He was from a prosperous Jewish family in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the Russian Empire. There, he’d been in an active radical circle and then had to flee to Switzerland. He and Rosa were united in politics.
In 1893, they were among the founders of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP). Factionalism divided Polish socialists over the question of whether to prioritize Polish independence or global class conflict. Rosa believed deeply that socialists should only be internationalist. At the 1893 Zurich Congress of the Second International, she was expelled from the Congress over the same internationalist question, and she never forgot it. It made her determined to be a better Marxist than anyone else.
At first, Jogiches was the dominant part of this couple, but then she became more famous, and over time this created a tortured passive‐aggressive dynamic between them. She wanted children, he did not. He insisted their relationship be kept secret. She relied on him for financial help, and he sought to micromanage her and keep her financially dependent. Eventually, this would drive them apart.
She threw herself into journalism and continued work on her dissertation on the topic of Polish industrialization. For research, she went to Paris; and while there alone, she gained a sense of independence from Jogiches. In 1896, she spoke at the London Congress of the International and urged it to reject Polish independence as a priority, saying that all sorts of other national questions would intrude.
Despite her fierce argument, the London Congress still endorsed the self‐determination of all nations through socialism.
Later, when she was in Berlin and Jogiches was traveling, the couple drifted apart. The relationship with Jogiches ended when he discovered that she had taken another lover, Konstantin Zetkin, the son of her friend Clara Zetkin. He was 15 years younger, but unfortunately also an aimless slacker like Jogiches. Jogiches was furious and stalked her, threatening to kill her. She had other lovers, too, but her cat, Mimi, held a special place in her life.
Despite her tumultuous personal life, Rosa soon became active in the revolutionary activities in Germany. She became the legendary Red Rosa and got famous for criticism and frequent fights with other socialist leaders, like Lenin.
Learn more about the life of Lenin.
Common Questions About Red Rosa: The Early Makings of a Revolutionary Martyr
Rosa Luxemburg is buried in Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde, Berlin, Germany.
Luxemburgism is a revolutionary theory based on the writings of Rosa Luxemburg. It belongs to the Marxist and communist school of thought.
Rosa Luxemburg believed in the international struggle against capitalism, and not just the nationalistic struggle for independence.
The quote is attributed to Friedrich Engels, but it became widely known through Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet of 1916.