Until 1933, on the 15th of January, socialists and communists in Berlin remembered the two German revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg by a mass visit to the Lichtenberg-Friedrichsfelde cemetery. Since 1925, there had been, moreover, commemorations for Lenin-Liebknecht-Luxemburg, mostly with talks which sought to sketch out their ideas and activity. After 1945 and still today again annually the two who were murdered on the 15th of January 1919 are remembered by the working people of Berlin. As different as they are in their ideas and their biographies, they belong to the great tradition of the communist movement. Their thought remains topical and will in every phase of the movement be interpreted anew and sometimes controversially. Annelies Laschitza has now presented us with a further biography of Karl Liebknecht, which relies on extensive material from public and private archives.
In the first three chapters, the significant family and the education of Karl is described; in spite of their limited means his family enabled him to study - until he became established as a solicitor together with his elder brother Theodor, who untiringly supported him and his family and thereby made possible Karl's intensive political activity. It was unavoidable that the son of the co-founder of the SAPD would grow up as a critical thinker in politics, even if in character he was not wholly equal to his father. After advice from Bebel, he wanted to remain financially and politically independent of the party apparatus. Instead however he received, besides Theodor's help, also considerable solidarity contributions from comrades both abroad and in Germany, as well as temporarily from his second wife's family who, for the most part, lived in Breslau am Dom, and who had been wealthy before the Russian revolution.
Not only the earlier intimate relationship to his second wife Sofie (Ryss), but also his solidarity with the persecuted Russian social-democrats, some of whom emigrated to Germany after 1905, led him into solidarity work and strengthened his interest in political developments in Russia.
He soon came into opposition to the reformist bureaucracy of his party, which tried to take the youth organisation under its wing and to do so made use of the law on association, which forbad political activity among the youth. Nationalist and paramilitary youth organisations should be permitted to conduct the "education" of the working class youth. Liebknecht favoured, on the contrary, an independent, critical, anti-militarist, proletarian youth, and supported their political and organisational aspirations particularly intensively; so that he gained a lot of trust among them.
Gradually his party comrades' confidence in him grew and he was obliged to stand for the Berlin city council, then for the Prussian Diet and finally for the Reichstag. In all of these bodies he was always well prepared regarding the subject matter, had pertinent criticism and proposals, and his sharpest criticism was for the policies of the imperial government. Apart from the youth question, the most important theme for him was the policy of German imperialism and militarism: passive rearmament (with its consequences of international cooperation and corruption and for the living standards of the working people), the foreign policy, war preparations; the ever more distinct war danger. With his irrefutable facts he irritated his opponents, put them on the spot. He used the parliaments as a tribune, from which he appealed to the masses outside. He exposed armament scandals, and demonstrated the collaboration of the arms industry of "enemy" countries too.
In order to stop his revelations, in 1907 he was charged with high treason. He saw this political persecution as another opportunity to enlighten and mobilise the working people. His courageous accusations before the court showed his bravery, but of course could not prevent the class-justice from passing sentence. He served his confinement in Glatz (Silesia). Family and friends visited him; he received gifts from friends and was able to undertake his work. Apart from his political work here he started his extensive philosophical studies, on which he produced many excerpts and notes.
On his return from confinement he immediately took up his work again - defending Russian comrades in Leipzig, speeches at mass meetings, criticism in the Prussian Diet. In spite of his complicated extra-marital love-life he constantly provided for his family - for the maintenance and the education of his three children, whom he again and again, in affectionate letters from his confinement, also urged to study and to take up further education. His "family life" took second place only to his political tasks. At the congress of the Prussian SPD in Berlin in 1910, he submitted a programme of democratisation, with which he hoped to democratise the Prussian bastion of the empire. It involved, moreover, a democratic voting system instead of the three-tier one. Rosa Luxemburg, who likewise pursued an intensive struggle over the voting system and mobilised masses, found Liebknecht's proposals vague, perhaps too illusory as well. Could this state with its solidly fixed bureaucracy become democratic through new laws? At this time there was as yet virtually no personal contact; Luxemburg was quietly critical regarding his parliamentary activities.
Evidence of his growing esteem was the invitation from the National Secretary of the Socialist Party of America to undertake an agitational tour, as his father had done 60 years previously. It began on the 1st of October 1910. His well-prepared lectures met with a good response from the listeners and in many newspapers. His criticism was directed against modern capitalism in the USA, as much as against German conditions; reports from informers to the authorities back home, defamation in the reactionary press, bear witness to it. Naturally he used the journey for intensive observation of the social relations and the beauty spots of the country. After more than two months he arrived back in Berlin on the 7th of December 1910.
In 1912, following an intensive election campaign he won the imperial constituency of Potsdam-Spandau-Osthavelland and now had the possibility to advance his accusations in the Reichstag. Soon the dominance of reformism - August Bebel had died in 1911 - showed itself very clearly within the parliamentary group. Liebknecht's insistence on upholding the old principles led to huge tensions over the bill for the military budget. On the 4th of August 1914, he stuck to discipline and against his own conviction voted for the war credits, which was a greater shock to his left-wing friends than the assent of the others in the group. After the German occupation of Belgium he went there to demonstrate against his government and to show his solidarity with the Belgian comrades. In December his was the only vote opposed. In 1915, others began to follow his example.
Liebknecht suffered the vilest abuse from his opponents, not just the bourgeois ones. He was even accused of insanity on account of his opposition to the madness of the imperialist war. Hermann Molkenbuhr, of the SPD Executive, remarked in his diary, that he was "not mentally normal"; the president of the Reichstag spoke of an "obvious mental sickness".
The critics were excluded and set up the Sozialistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft (Socialist Working Fellowship). Liebknecht was unable to enjoy opposition in parliament. On account of him being an active anti-militarist he was called up into a labour unit, "unworthy" to bear German arms and he had to dig trenches close to the front unarmed. He helped found the Gruppe Internationale (later known as the Spartakusbund) and on the 1st of. May he demonstrated on the Potsdamer Platz with the call "Down with the government! Down with the war!" Arrest and sentencing to 2½ years penal servitude followed, which he had to serve until shortly before the end of the war in Luckau. Again he used the time for studying and attempts to formulate his philosophical ideas in writing, but also concerned himself greatly over his family and the intellectual development of the children.
Liebknecht had never found the time to set out his philosophical works in writing systematically. He had wrestled with society's laws of motion. Its publication met with difficulties both political and regarding comprehension. Annelies Laschitza has taken great pains to present them in an understandable form for the average reader. In some points Liebknecht nears Marxism; taken as a whole they remain a fragment not easily understood. However, the author states self-critically, that she has "judged arrogantly" in a previous biography of Liebknecht in documents.
Finally released from Luckau on the 23rd of October 1918, he was enthusiastically received and immediately threw himself into political activity, which the last two chapters deal with. The author sums up the period from October until his murder on the 15th of January 1919 precisely and impressively. The facts are well known. The close collaboration of the SPD leadership with that of the defeated army, its militant anti-communism and anti-Soviet attitude, the brutality of the Minister of War Gustav Noske (SPD), the full political responsibility for the two murders on the 15th of January 1919 and the many to follow, the traces of blood of the German counter-revolution, that later also swept along many of the strongest opponents of the revolution (i.e., Matthias Erzberger), is very clear.
Laschitza shows furthermore the indecisiveness of the USPD, which rejected the lack of clarity of the revolutionaries and in addition, the lack of a good organisation of the revolutionaries, who only at the end of the year united a few groups into the KPD. The German counter-revolution was once more organised, well-armed, instantly prepared to ruthlessly employ confused soldiers returning home against the "enemy within", to hinder the revolution, which could have meted out the historically justified punishment for the crime of the imperialist war begun in 1914 - removal from power. The war-weary workers and soldiers were unable immediately to see through the sham socialist propaganda of the SPD.
The book is honest also in showing the differing evaluations of the actual situation and the great differences between Liebknecht and Luxemburg, between the hyper-active revolutionary, who to his great credit was seduced into the belief that his solo activity could change the relationship of forces, who in his activity found no time for reflection or for conversation with his comrades. Laschitza also informs us about the debates among the leading Spartakists and the criticism of Karl's free-lancing: "Surrounded by pugnacious rejoicing masses, he orated himself into a revolutionary intoxication. The discrepancy between his effect and reality was not clear to him." (p. 429). Quite different the revolutionary Marxist Luxemburg, showing solidarity in spite of her misgivings and criticism, up until the tragic end of them both, who were to be followed into the grave by many revolutionaries. The discreet criticism of Karl by no means prevented the loving and patient care for his wife Sofie (Sonja), who in her difficult situation was nevertheless helped in various ways.
The great revolutionary Karl Liebknecht was hardly a Marxist, but in those times there was tolerance among Marxists, as long as the socialist goal and the desire for revolution were held in common by the revolutionaries. With Stalinism it was wholly different: faithful to the line, no critical thought - that was the criterion. The earlier tolerance must surely be learnt once more.
In the last chapter Annelies Laschitza deals with the difficult lot of the Liebknecht family. Her biography, critical and self-critical, splendidly researched over a considerable period, does justice to the great revolutionary and humanist. Thus both here and in the international labour movement he still lives at the side of Rosa Luxemburg.
The fates of the leading social-democrats of that period were wholly different. Friedrich Ebert Sr. was of course President of the Republic; soon his ungrateful cronies included him among the "November criminals", and he complained in vain against this unjust insult. Gustav Noske reports in his memoirs, that Minister of the Interior Hermann Göring assured him in 1933, "one does not leave a man like you in the lurch"; he received his full pension as a previous lord lieutenant of the Prussian province of Hanover. Phillip Scheidemann fell out with his party and abandoned it while in exile.
Theodor Bergmann. (Translation Mike Jones)