Rosa Luxemburg: The Spartacist Uprising and the Final Stand

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism—From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In Germany, the support of the SPD for war led to a Bolshevik coup and the creation of two republics. The country was all set for a socialist civil war. Rosa Luxemburg questioned the timing of the revolt, but since members of the movement were eager to move ahead, Luxemburg reluctantly joined the Spartacist uprising. Why was Rosa Luxemburg skeptical about the revolution in Germany?

The year 1919 in a cast-iron inscription produced during the Sparatacist revolt.
In 1919, from January 6th to 13th, the Spartacus League led a Spartacist uprising in Berlin to seize power. (Image: Hols/Shutterstock)

When the war broke out in 1914, Rosa felt shattered and considered suicide. The Socialist Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) voted in favor of war credits. Only months later would a sole figure from the party, Karl Liebknecht, vote against a new round of funding and denounce the war.

Liebknecht and other radical socialists broke with their comrades to form an International Group opposed to the war. Luxemburg was arrested and sent to the Royal Prussian Prison for Women. Inside, she read and wrote and was confident: “History is really working into our hands.”

In Berlin, without her presence, but based on her advice and counsel, anti‐war socialists founded a new organization on January 1, 1916, the Spartacus League. It was named after the gladiator who led a slave revolt in ancient Rome.

Rosa was released after a year. After five months at large, Luxemburg was rearrested, not for a crime but to be put in ‘protective custody’, as the state called it. While she languished in jail again, the SPD fractured as a party as more deputies refused to vote for funding the war any longer.

These radicals broke from the SPD in spring 1917 and formed the Independent SPD. This new group included Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, Luxemburg’s earlier adversaries in party arguments.

Germany’s war effort was strained and started to buckle, feeding radicalization. A Revolutionary Shop Stewards movement emerged in the factories, stirring growing strike actions. Inspired by the Bolshevik seizure of power in the Red October of 1917, the strikers shouted similar slogans: “Peace, freedom, bread!”

Learn more about revolutionary Russians.

Rosa Luxemburg on the Bolshevik Coup

A portrait of Rosa Luxemburg between circa 1895 and circa 1905.
Rosa Luxemburg urged participating in upcoming elections before taking up arms for the Spartacist uprising. (Unknown author / Public domain)

Luxemburg felt torn about the Bolshevik coup. On the one hand, here at last was truly decisive action. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks had abolished the elected constituent assembly when the vote did not go their way.

In a text that was published years later, she warned presciently: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party… is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently… all that is instructive, wholesome, and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic.” But even with such warnings, she wanted to support the revolution.

After three years of prison, Luxemburg suddenly found her condition overturned, as revolution did take hold in Germany, as Germany moved toward defeat. But in the upheaval that followed, the split within socialism became murderous, a Cain and Abel affair.

In fall 1918, Germany’s generals announced that the war had been lost. To placate the Allies in upcoming negotiations, the Kaiser introduced reforms to make Germany into a constitutional monarchy, but these came too late. Even though German defeat was certainly looming, a naval order went out that the German fleet should sally forth on a suicide mission to clash with the British fleet, in a final splendid battle that would save its military honor.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Creation of Two Republics

This insane suggestion led to sailor mutinies in Kiel, spreading to other garrisons and cities. The Kaiser abdicated, and chaos reigned. On November 9, in Berlin, just blocks from each other, two rival republics were declared. A moderate socialist named Philipp Scheidemann declared the existence of a German democratic republic, which would later be known as the Weimar Republic.

At the same time, Karl Liebknecht, who had only recently been released from jail, declared from the balcony of the royal palace, the birth of a new radical socialist republic. Liebknecht hoped to replicate what had happened in Russia as a prelude to the world revolution.

Karl Radek arrived in Berlin as a kind of expert consultant in seizures of power. The radical socialists advocated forming workers’ and soldiers’ councils, as had been done in Russia by the soviets.

Red Guard units were being organized. The stage was now set for a socialist civil war. The day after the revolution, the moderate socialist government came to an agreement with the army. The socialist minister of defense, Gustav Noske, authorized the setting up of so‐called Freikorps mercenary units to fight the radicals, and he willingly accepted the nickname ‘Bloodhound Noske’.

The Freikorps were brutalized veterans of the war who simply wanted to lash out at those they saw as internal enemies. Many of them would later go on to join the Nazis. The German socialist and labor movement supported the government. For many of the moderate socialists, what was happening in Russia was Bolshevik disorder, something they wanted to avoid rather than imitate.

To Luxemburg, civil war seemed inevitable. So now socialists of different stripes engaged in firefights in city streets, while the Freikorps mercenaries rampaged.

Activists of the Spartacus League formed the new German Communist Party on December 30, 1918. From January 6th to 13th, 1919, they led a revolt in Berlin to seize power for radical socialism. Luxemburg was skeptical about whether this was a good idea. When she saw the newly arrived Radek, she told him this was a German revolution that did not need Bolshevik commissars.

Most of all, Luxemburg questioned whether the timing was right for revolt in Germany and urged participating in upcoming elections first, before taking up arms. Radek actually shared her skepticism but since members of the movement were eager to move ahead, Luxemburg reluctantly joined the revolution.

She wrote a revolutionary cry in the newspaper Die Rote Fahne: “Disarm the counterrevolution, arm the masses, occupy all positions of power. Act quickly! The revolution demands it!” She was putting all her stakes on spontaneous action, as she had avowed earlier. In the next days of street fighting, the Freikorps and their machine gun squads wiped out the uprising.

Learn more about World War I as a revolutionary opportunity.

The Last Article

Exhausted in the extreme, in one last newspaper article, Luxemburg bitterly admitted defeat but still defiantly clung to the promise of final victory. She wrote: “The leadership failed. But the leadership can and must be created anew by the masses and out of the masses… [You say] ‘order reigns in Berlin’. You stupid lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. The revolution will ‘raise itself up again…’; and in your horror, it will proclaim to the sound of trumpets: I was, I am, I shall be.”

The graves of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, Friedrichsfelde Cemetery, Berlin.
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were both murdered by soldiers after the Spartacist uprising was crushed in 1919. (Image: Permission given by Alexander Fiebrandt, grandchild of the photographer Herbert Fiebrandt/Public domain)

On January 15, 1919, the soldiers tracked her down and arrested her. She was taken to their headquarters and assumed that she faced imprisonment as before. But as she was led away, one soldier smashed her in the head with his rifle. She was dragged to a car, and as it pulled away, another soldier fired his pistol through the open window, at close range, at her temple. Then they drove her body to the Landwehr Canal and dropped it in. She died at the age of 47.

Shortly afterward, the soldiers also murdered Karl Liebknecht, her ally. Leo Jogiches, Luxemburg’s former lover, was hunted down and murdered as well. Karl Radek was arrested and later released to Russia.

At the end of January, a funeral procession took Liebknecht’s body to the Friedrichsfelde for burial. Alongside it lay an empty coffin, to honor Luxemburg, whose body was still missing. Her friends desperately sought her remains but could not find them, hampered by the ice in the canals during the wintertime. Finally, only much later, her body was spotted in the filthy water in late May.

The memory of Luxemburg lived on. The revolutionary fratricide of 1919 led to lasting bitterness between the socialists and communists in Germany, between the SPD and the KPD or Communist Party of Germany. This later meant they did not cooperate to oppose the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s.

The fact that Luxemburg’s tragic end came before she faced any of the inevitable challenges of putting her politics into practice has made her a martyr figure in the idealized communist tradition. Decades later, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, protestors in East Germany would invoke her words about the importance of those who think differently.

For the Bolsheviks, another hope had perished when the German communists were defeated. But despite this disappointment, Lenin and his comrades were still convinced that the world revolution was near. It was necessary to hold out and to prepare for global civil war, to build a red bridge to more industrialized countries.

Learn more about Red October and how the Bolsheviks seized power.

Common Questions About Rosa Luxemburg: The Spartacist Uprising and the Final Stand

Q: What did Rosa Luxemburg believe in?

Rosa Luxemburg believed in the international struggle against capitalism, and not just the nationalistic struggle for independence.

Q: Where is Rosa Luxemburg buried?

Rosa Luxemburg is buried in Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde, Berlin, Germany.

Q: Who were the Freikorps in Germany?

The Freikorps were former soldiers who had fought in the First World War. They became unemployed after the First World War due to the restricting Treaty of Versaille.

Q: How long did the Spartacist uprising last?

The Spartacist uprising was a general strike followed by an armed battle that lasted in Berlin from 6th to 13th January, 1919.

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