Well, what a term that was: the longest that I have ever experienced in the several years that I’ve been teaching. On completing my sessions in the final week (of a bumper 8 week half-term!) I was considering just what would be the most fitting post for the blog before Christmas. I considered one focusing on the origins of Father Christmas, perhaps expanding on how the American and British myths inter-twinned in the Victorian period (which would have connected to the History with English FdA programme that we run on the topic of Americanisation). Or perhaps it could have delved into the A-level course on how those in Tudor society celebrated Christmas. But despite those ideas being quite intriguing, I’ve instead gone with something completely different: the Spartacist Uprising and the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. Such an eclectic choice, I feel, is more at home with the feel of this blog; especially when considering the variety and odd choices of blogs that I’ve made since its inception back in April of this year.
I recently covered the Spartacist Uprising in the A-level course ‘Democracy & Nazism: 1919-1945’ (an AQA module). It has been a few years since I last delved into it, and on coming in with refreshed eyes it completely struck me just how the rebels of the left were treated in Germany when compared to those on the right. Those on the left were slaughtered, whilst those on the right – as in the case of Hitler after the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 – were leniently dealt with. As such, I thought a post outlining the Spartacist Uprising and the brutal murder of one of its leaders – Rosa Luxemburg – would be of interest.
To understand the context we must first understand the problems that affected Germany at the end of the First World War. By the autumn the German military admitted defeat, and they started putting pressure on the German government to reach out to the Allies and America in order to save their territory and empire as best as possible. The following events include the attempted – and failed – October Reforms, and the ensuing November Revolution. The leader of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, abdicated for a quieter life in the Netherlands, whilst Germany appeared ready to crack with all the divergent political voices. However, it just about held together towards the end of 1918 with the leadership of the biggest political party in the Reichstag: the Social Democrat Party (SPD). Under Ebert, the SPD led the way to the creation of what would become known as the Weimar Republic: January 1919 was scheduled for the holding of national democrat elections which would then formulate a brand new constitution.
However, not everyone was happy with this turn of events. The far-right harboured aspirations of bringing the Kaiser back and in restoring the old reich; although the likes of Adolf Hitler had not yet entered politics there were more than enough conservative elements who despised the SPD and all of this talk of democracy. And then, on the far-left, came a split with the old socialists: the SPD fractured, with many standing as independent Social Democrats. But others were yet even more extreme: the Spartacists believed in a Communist revolution and wanted further reforms than those offered by the SPD. The Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were incensed at the feeling of socialist betrayal (especially with the SPD cosying up to right-wing elements), and at the turn of the new year into 1919 they readied themselves for revolution.
There is no doubt that the Spartacists were buoyed by the actions that had recently taken place in Russia: the old empire had been dismantled with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It had seemed that Karl Marx’s predictions of the workers rising up against the rulers was unfolding. Therefore, Luxemburg urged the Spartacists to strike whilst the iron was hot. Unfortunately for Spartacist ambitions, they never enjoyed mass support. This was for several reasons: their extremist rhetoric and the general ill-feeling against Communists during this time period. They wanted a revolution to completely re-shape society when most Germans – ravaged by years of war – simply wanted a return to a more peaceful time.
In January 1919 the Spartacists struck. However, their attempt at seizing the key organs of government failed. The SPD-led government called in help to put down the rebellion; this came in the form of the right-wing Freikorps – former soldiers who were now left without pay and angered with the collapse of all that they had fought for. The action taken against the Spartacists was brutal, as detailed in the fate of Luxemburg (as told by Frolich in his 1940 book Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work):
A short while after Liebknecht had been taken away, Rosa Luxemburg was led out of the hotel by a First Lieutenant Vogel. Awaiting her before the door was Runge, who had received an order from First Lieutenants Vogel and Pflugk-Hartung to strike her to the ground. With two blows of his rifle-butt he smashed her skull.
Her almost lifeless body was flung into a waiting car, and several officers jumped in. One of them struck Rosa on the head with a revolver-butt, and First Lieutenant Vogel finished her off with a shot in the head. The corpse was then driven to the Tiergarten and, on Vogel’s orders, thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal, where it was not washed up until 31 May 1919.
The attempted revolution failed. But the revolutionaries did not falter in their defeat. They continued onward with attempted putsch after putsch, notably including actions in the Ruhr in 1920 and in Hamburg in 1923. Such tenacity is demonstrated in the various pictorial evidence of the period, notably in the image below of a young Spartacist man defiantly standing against the soldiers before him. He is moments from death, but yet his faith in creating what he believes to be a better Germany has not wavered.
The death of Luxemburg and the image above provoke many emotions when studying this time period; it is a time where the world was turned upside down and chaos ensued. This era of German history was one of disappointed and fear, with assassinations and attempted overthrows of the government a constant feature of life during the 1920s. The Weimar Republic lunged from one crisis to another, all before Hitler and his Nazi Party took advantage of the disastrous economic situation in the early 1930s. The eventual collapse of democracy in 1933 offers an alternative view of what the Spartacists fought for in 1919; although Luxemburg and Hitler were ideologically opposed, their very efforts to bring down the government and to radically re-alter German society highlight the deep divisions in the post-First World War period.
Hi Dave, thanks for the writing. Have you got an opinion on the rumour that the picture was staged? Only one of the soldiers appears to be taking aim and some of them have clearly never fired a rifle in their lives!
This sounds like a very interesting idea. I’ve had another look at the image again and this fresh perspective has made me re-evaluate it. Originally I noted how the young man appears to stand in defiance, but perhaps another way to describe is indifferent/bored.
I’m going to do a bit of reading further into this. It is always the worry with any photograph: how authentic is it? Thanks for the info.
Omg, it is totally staged. One, you would never place a firing squad that close to the victim. That part is photographically staged to enclose everyone in the frame. The three closest shooters have not the slightest clue how to hold a rifle from hand grip to pressing a rifle against the shoulder. Lastly, the leaning back versus leaning forward would be a common noob stance. The victims shoes, pants and perhaps jacket appear to be the same as the soldiers.