“What do you want with these special Jewish pains? I feel as close to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations in Putamayo and the blacks of Africa with whose bodies the Europeans play ball… I have no special corner in my heart for the ghetto: I am at home in the entire world, where there are clouds and birds and human tears.”
― Rosa Luxemburg
Berlin is a city haunted by its past. 1848, 1919, 1933, and 1989 are a series of dates that feature into several turning points for the left and right. The 15th of January marks the 100th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s murder by the Freikorps, under the direction of the German Social Democratic Party. Rosa’s death is a requiem for the international Left especially given that our holidays are few and far between.
I first learned about Rosa Luxemburg in 2009 during in a Mass Strike reading group when I was living in Harlem, New York. Harlem is and was a neighborhood layered with the Black radical and literary tradition. Hence, it was no coincidence that the writings of a Jewish Polish Marxist would be acknowledged by Harlem residents. This was a place that Black Communists organized against rental hikes and the vilification of the Scottsboro boys in the 1930s. At the genesis of the economic crisis, New York City provided a political home for me to sharpen my socialist politics in the wake of capitalism’s failure.
Luxemburg’s reception has many lives. The Polish Jewish Marxist is lamented by orthodox Marxists and vilified by conservative social democratic tendencies. What is often missing from hagiographies and defamations is her political and personal complexity—a philosopher, and writer who strove for an international and anti-war socialist movement.
Through a convenience marriage, Rosa was granted German citizenship, which allowed her to live in Berlin during her political activities. For her, this city was a leftist mosaic for trade unionists, feminists, and communists. Berlin was her political home insofar that she had extant debates with her comrade Claire Zetkin and her opponent Eduard Bernstein. Rosa’s legacy survives through place and rhetoric, namely through the German Die Linke (Left) Party foundation appellation in her honor. In 2013, Verso Books published The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, which shed light on her intimate and political commitments (https://www.versobooks.com/books/1441-the-letters-of-rosa-luxemburg). Historian Helen Scott has remarked:
“Luxemburg was a product of these times, but also an unusual degree acted upon them, fighting for socialism and against barbarism. And she left a rich legacy for others who have taken up the struggle.” (Helen Scott, Haymarket Books, 2008, page 2)
For many on the revolutionary left, her premature death was a waterloo for German and European socialism. Yet, it proceeded a failed revolution months early on November 2018.
On 12 January 2019, I joined Ingar Solty and several other comrades on a tour traversing Rosa Luxemburg an Karl Liebknecht’s final days. We began on Budapeststrasse, opposite the Eden Hotel, where the Freikorps interrogated Karl and Rosa.
Picture Taken 12 January 2019 on Budapestrasse, Berlin, Germany by author.
On that grey and wet afternoon, must like the day they were murdered, our group walked towards the Landwehr Canal. One hundred years ago, the group of men transporting Luxemburg, shot her and eventually threw her body in the canal.
Picture taken on 12 January 2019 on Budapestrasse, Berlin, Germany by author.
Her body remained frozen in the canal for several months—probably frozen by the long and protracted winter of 1919. Today, a monument is erected from the edge of the canal, with Rosa Luxemburg’s name bulging from the iron railing. This memorial is reminder of the political crises she relayed to Clara Zetkin, her friend and confidant on 11 January 1919:
“The severe political crises that we’ve experienced here in Berlin during all of the past two weeks or even longer have blocked the way to the systematic organizational work of training our recruits, but at the same time these events are a tremendous school for the masses. And finally, one must take history as it comes, whatever course it takes. —The fact that you are receiving Rote Fahne so infrequently is disastrous! I will see to it that I personally send it to you every day. —At this moment in Berlin the battles are continuing.802 Many of our brave lads have fallen. Meyer, Ledebour, and (we fear) Leo [Jogiches] have been arrested. For today, I have to close. I embrace you a thousand times, your R.” (Rosa Luxemburg. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, Verso Books, 2013)
One can take the history as it comes, and one can also use that history to shape a more radical and equitable future.