This year marks the 100th anniversary of the loss of the great German revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. They both died on the night of 15 January 1919, murdered in Berlin by right wing irregular soldiers known as the Freikorps.
Their deaths irrevocably altered the path of the German Revolution, which defeat in turn paved the way for the Nazis. Despite a number of investigations at the time and subsequently, nobody was ever convicted of the murders.
In this book TV screenwriter Klaus Gietinger attempts to identify the killers. He has utilised archives from both the old East and West German governments and has also had access to the private papers of some of those involved at the time.
Most strikingly, the story features interviews with some of those implicated. Most of these are from the 1960s and 70s, with some of the original plotters and perpetrators. This in itself is astonishing, with many of these individuals able to boast openly about their previous exploits with no fear of prosecution.
The author retains a particular bitterness for the supposedly democratic West German regime and it is easy to see why. Indeed, that government released a communique on the Luxemburg/Liebknecht killings as late as 1961 in which the double murder was deemed a “legitimate execution”. This view has apparently never been revoked.
Much of this protracted cover up had to do with protecting the reputation of the German SPD (Labour-type party). The SPD were the party of government in 1919.
While ostensibly a socialist organisation, their leaders were terrified at the spectacle of workers and soldiers uniting and rising up. They armed and protected the Freikorps, who were mainly made up of right wing former officers. These were individuals who had been devastated by Germany’s defeat in the First World War and saw “Bolshevism” as a convenient scapegoat.
In this environment, Rosa Luxemburg was an obvious target for the right. Gietinger shows that the decision to kill both Luxemburg and Liebknecht was made at the highest levels of the SPD. Gustav Noske, a particularly odious individual, who was in charge of military affairs at the time, bears the ultimate responsibility.
Reflecting in 1933 on his role in suppressing the revolution, Noske said “I cleared away the scum and cleaned up as fast as was possible at the time.”
One of the most sickening aspects of the testimony of ex-Nazis quoted in the book is in their high regard for the leadership of the SPD during this period.
This book does a great job of exposing and naming those responsible for the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The research is thorough and meticulous.
It does not purport to be a history of the German Revolution but it does offer a valuable glimpse into those events. The author has also provided us with a timely reminder of the lengths that the ruling class is prepared to go to when threatened with meaningful social change. That lesson is as relevant today as it was a century ago.
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