Liebknecht’s cry of defiance in a military court

July 13, 2016

One hundred years ago, on June 28, 1916, 55,000 metalworkers in Berlin went on strike to protest the sentencing of German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht to two-and-a-half years in prison. It was Germany's first mass protest strike of the First World War.

Liebknecht enjoyed wide support in Germany and beyond as the first German socialist to vote against parliamentary allocations to pay for government war spending. He had been arrested at an illegal May Day demonstration organized by the Spartacist League, just after calling out, "Down with the war! Down with the government!"

Two days after his arrest, Liebknecht explained the goals of the May Day demonstration and the Spartacist League in the following statement at his trial in a Berlin courtroom, published here as part of the series marking the 100-year anniversary of the war, compiled by John Riddell, who wrote this introduction.

I WISH to clarify the record of what I said during the investigation of my case as follows:

In terms of both its historical and social character, the German government is a tool to oppress and exploit the working masses. Both its domestic and its foreign policy serve the interests of the landed aristocracy, capitalism and imperialism.

By ruthlessly pursuing global expansion and vigorously promoting the arms race, it is among the most significant forces contributing to the causes of the present war.

Together with the Austrian government, it instigated this war and thus bears the main immediate responsibility for its outbreak.

It staged this war by deceiving the masses and even parliament, by keeping secret its ultimatum to Belgium, publishing the German justification for the war and concealing the Tsar's [conciliatory] telegram of July 29, 1914. It uses despicable means in attempting to maintain popular support for the war.

The government conducts the war with methods that are monstrous even by comparison with previous practices...

Germany revolutionary Karl Liebknecht speaks to a crowd from on top of a car
Germany revolutionary Karl Liebknecht speaks to a crowd from on top of a car

It has made use of martial law to greatly increase the economic exploitation of the masses and the denial of their political rights. It blocks any serious political or social reform. And meanwhile, the government puts out phrases about supposed equality of all parties, rejection of political or social discrimination and a supposed "new orientation"--all in an attempt to keep these masses obedient to its imperialist war policy.

Its subservience to landlord and capitalist interests has resulted in an utter failure to provide for the economic needs of the masses, leading to scandalous extortion and misery among the population.

Even today the government holds firmly to its war aim of conquest, thereby posing the main obstacle to immediate negotiations for peace on the basis of no annexations and of respect for national rights. By illegally maintaining the state of siege (censorship, etc.), it prevents the public from learning of inconvenient facts regarding its policies and blocks socialist criticism. Its system of seeming legality and sham concern for the population are thus exposed as nothing more than a cover for true violence and genuine hostility and ill-will toward the masses.

What else to read

This is part of a series of articles and reprints compiled by John Riddell documenting the developing socialist response to the First World War 100 years ago. Other installments include:

John Riddell
Capitalism's world war and the battle against it

V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky
Two calls to struggle against the war

Karl Liebknecht
Liebknecht's historic appeal against war

Women's conference statement
Socialist women unite against war

Socialist Youth International
The youth challenge to war

John Riddell
The Zimmerwald resistance emerges

Karl Liebknecht
A letter to Zimmerwald

Zimmerwald Left
Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left

Zimmerwald Conference
The Zimmerwald Manifesto

Vladimir Lenin
Ireland's fight for self-determination

Karl Liebknecht
Liebknecht's cry of defiance in a military court

Käte Duncker
A call for workers' power to end the war

For a comprehensive collection of other documents from the period, see Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, edited by Riddell.

My call "Down with the government" serves to brand the totality of its policies as disastrous for the popular masses. This call also signifies that every socialist, every champion of workers' interests is duty bound to carry out an unremitting class struggle against the government.

The present war is not being waged to defend the integrity of nations, the liberation of oppressed peoples, or the well-being of the population.

From the point of view of the proletariat, this war serves only to greatly increase and intensify the political oppression, economic exhaustion and military slaughter of the working class for the benefit of capitalism and absolutism.

The working class of all countries responds to this with a single cry:

Redouble the international class struggle against the capitalist governments and ruling classes of every country.

Eliminate every form of oppression and exploitation.

Bring the war to an end through a peace based on socialist principles.

This class struggle embraces everything that socialists are pledged to defend in order to serve their true fatherland, the International.

By my call "Down with the war!" I seek to express my fundamental opposition to and hatred of the present war in terms of its historical character, its overall social causes, the precise way in which it broke out, the manner in which it is conducted and the goals that its seeks to achieve. Everyone who wants to defend working people's interests is obligated to take part in an international class struggle to end it.

As a socialist, I am fundamentally opposed both to this war and to the existing militarist system. I have always upheld the struggle against militarism as a particularly vital task--indeed, a matter of life and death--for the working class of every country (see my text, Militarism and Antimilitarism, published in 1907, and the international youth conferences in Stuttgart 1907 and Copenhagen 1910). The war demands that we redouble our efforts to oppose militarism.

Since 1889, the First of May has been dedicated to demonstrations and education for the basic ideas of socialism and its opposition to every form of exploitation, oppression and violation of human rights. May Day stands for the common interests of workers of all countries, a solidarity that is not negated but strengthened by war. It stands opposed to war and fratricidal slaughter and committed to peace.

The sacred duty to proclaim these principles is especially urgent for every socialist in time of war.

The policies I advocate are laid down by the decision of the Internationalist Socialist Congress in Stuttgart (1907), which obligated socialists in every country, if war could not be prevented, to employ every means in bringing it to a rapid conclusion and to utilize the social conditions it creates to hasten the end of the capitalist social order.

This policy is internationalist to the core. It sets down the same duty that I and others have fulfilled in Germany for socialists in the other belligerent countries with regard to their governments and ruling classes.

Carried out internationally, this policy inspires workers in each country through the example set in other lands and promotes an international class struggle against the war.

I have been among those who have publicly advocated this policy at every opportunity since the war began. In addition, to the degree possible, I and others have entered into contact with our co-thinkers in other countries. To this end we undertook trips to Belgium and the Netherlands in September 1914, wrote a Christmas letter to the Labour Leader in 1914, and held conferences in Switzerland [at Zimmerwald and Kienthal], although I was unfortunately prevented by government repression from in personally taking part.

I will stand by this policy come what may. However, it is not mine alone; it is the policy of a constantly increasing portion of the population in Germany and in other warring and neutral countries. Soon it will be the policy of the working class of every country. That is my hope and also the goal for which I am determined to strive without letup. And when that is achieved, the working class will possess the power to break the will of the present imperialist ruling classes and remake the relationships and conditions of all peoples in the interests of all.

Liebknecht, Soldier, Corps of Engineers

Source: Translated by John Riddell. First published in a different translation in Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, edited by John Riddell, New York: Pathfinder, 1984, pp. 454-6. Source: Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Berlin: Dietz, 1958, series 2, vol. 1, pp. 380-3.

Further Reading

From the archives