Images of a revolutionary life

June 4, 2009

An online exhibition by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation chronicles, with images and words, the achievements of the revolutionary's life.

NINETY YEARS after Rosa Luxemburg's death, the suspicions about the whereabouts of her corpse have resurfaced.

After her murder by proto-fascists, by order of ruling right-wing social democrats, Luxemburg's body was thrown into a canal; it was supposedly retrieved five months later and buried in Berlin. Huge crowds attended her funeral, and many have subsequently visited her grave.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, the corpse was exhumed, and an autopsy fueled doubts that this was Luxemburg's body. Now pathologists at a Berlin hospital have discovered an unidentified torso in their mortuary, which they think could be her actual body. It seems a cruel indignity, a further blow after such a brutal death.

The best antidote to this grizzly story is to look back to the extraordinary achievements of her life, and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation's current exhibition does exactly this.

It provides a clear narrative of the key events in Luxemburg's life, illustrated with images from contemporary paintings and photographs, quotations from Luxemburg's writings and speeches, and comments from people in and around her life. The inclusion of so much detailed historical testimony gives an imaginative and emotional depth to the biography.

For example, it is generally known that one of Luxemburg's first tasks after joining the German Socialist Party (SPD) was to go to the rough industrial regions of Upper Silesia to organize among the miners and steelworkers. But the exhibition allows us to picture this. First, we see a photograph of Silesian coalminers at the turn of the century--some mere boys, some prematurely aged, all somber and obviously used to harsh conditions.

We also get an extract from one of Luxemburg's letters, to her longtime partner and comrade Leo Jogiches: "I'd just about made up my mind to go to Upper Silesia. I've thought it over again and again, and I see no other solution...So there's nothing to do but grab my little suitcase and be off." There's something about that reference to a "little suitcase" that brings the event into focus and makes you wonder about the journey, where she stayed, what the physical conditions were like.

Then we get the simple but moving commentary: "This first tour as political agitator amongst the Polish-speaking miners and steelworkers in Königshütte, Katscher, Gleiwitz, etc. was a great success. Those who listened brought her flowers and did not want to let her go."

Luxemburg then immersed herself in the life of the party, editing and writing for several publications, touring Berlin's working-class bars, attending meetings "in the whole of the Reich" and debating at party and international congresses. A series of photographs show her in action, invariably one of the few women at a time when the political realm was overwhelmingly male. And, we learn, she served her first prison sentence in 1904, "for offending the sovereign."

Next came her battle with the revisionists who wanted to sever the SPD from its revolutionary roots, famously taken up in her Reform or Revolution. She brilliantly responded to her critics, including the reformist, anti-Marxist leader of the Bavarian SPD, Georg von Vollmar, at a party conference in Stuttgart in 1898:

Vollmar has reproached me bitterly of wanting to instruct the old veterans, as only a young recruit in the movement. That is not the case...I know that I must first collect my epaulettes in the movement; but I want to do this in the left wing, where one wants to fight with the enemy, and not in the right wing, where one wants to compromise with the enemy.

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The 1905 Russian Revolution saw Rosa crossing the border to participate. She sent a postcard to friends in Germany, an image of Warsaw scrawled over in her hasty handwriting:

Yesterday at 9 o'clock I arrived happy in an unheated and unlit train escorted by the military...The city is like a ghost town. General strike, soldiers at every turn. Work is going well, I am starting today. Affectionately. Your Rosa.

AFTER THE defeat of the revolution, Luxemburg was imprisoned in the dreaded Warsaw Citadel. Seeing her prison mug shot--her number on her sleeve--next to her description of the conditions--"they put you in a cage consisting of two layers of wire mesh"--again brings you closer to the experience.

But her indomitable spirit is expressed in another postcard home

My dearest. On Sunday 4th in the evening, fate caught up with me: I was arrested. I had already had my passport stamped for the return journey and was about to go. But now, that's life. I hope you don't take the matter too much to heart. Long live the re...!

After her release, "Rosa Luxemburg discussed her experiences in the revolution and her views on the mass strike with Lenin, Pawel Axelrod and Wera Sassulitsch. They all met up in their hideaway in Kuokkala, Finland." On her return to Germany, at a meeting in Mannheim, she "was called upon by the enthusiastic masses to speak about the revolution in Russia. At the end of her speech she said: 'I can tell you without exaggeration and in total honesty that the months I spent in Russia were the happiest of my life.'"

The section on her work as teacher at the party school includes more photographs and lovely details: "She gave extra tuition, one-to-one counseling, invited students to her home and organized lecturer's conferences." And testimonials from students, such as this from the socialist worker Wilhelm Koenen: "She was as popular as she was feared, because in her role as brilliant lecturer and teacher, she was relentlessly strict in her expectations and insisted on thoroughly working through each individual problem. A few superficial students were given a hard time. She left them with no place to hide."

Her antiwar activism is documented with photographs of large crowds listening to her speak, as well as chilling images of the police arresting protesters. When she was charged, in June 1914, for "insulting the military," because she referred in public speeches to the "systematic abuse of soldiers," 30,000 soldiers attested that "[t]hey were victims or witnesses of such abuse and agreed to give evidence in court."

Luxemburg spent most of the war in prison, and the photographs of the various sites of her incarceration give an all too grim picture of what that was like.

The highpoints of both the Russian and German revolutions are well documented. Photographs of masses of armed German workers occupying the newspaper district in Berlin, and women giving food and drink to revolutionary soldiers in the street, contextualize Luxemburg's unbroken confidence in working-class revolution: "relentless revolutionary energy and the most tolerant humaneness, this alone is the breath of socialism."

The exhibition continues through Luxemburg's murder, to brief biographies of some of the people who were closest to her, and then on to images of how she has been memorialized. It ends with a useful biography of works by and about her. The final section is headed with the apt quotation: "Her work is a piece of the history of socialism and the international labor movement."

Further Reading

From the archives