Rosa Luxemburg died when she was just 47 years old, and was described as a small, frail woman. But in those 47 years she managed to pack enough in for two lifetimes and leave a huge impression on the world which she left behind.
Rosa was born in Russian-ruled Poland to a Jewish family in 1871, the youngest of 5 children. She was a keen learner from a young age, learning to read and write by the time she was 5. At the same age she suffered a hip complaint which left her with a limp she would live with for the rest of her life. She was home educated until she was 9 when she was accepted to a prestigious girls’ gymnasium. Rosa performed well at school, but was denied the recognition she deserved; she wasn’t given the gold medal that other girls earned for their achievements because of what the school called ‘an oppositional attitude toward the authorities’ – an attitude which wouldn’t leave her any time soon! There was a lot of anti-Jewish and anti-Polish sentiment at the school, which was mostly full of the daughters of Russian soldiers and nobility. She wasn’t allowed to speak Polish while she was there, only Russian.
She became progressively more politically involved throughout her teens, and joined the Proletariat Party in 1886. In 1889 she fled to Switzerland to escape Russian rule, hiding in the back of a farmer’s cart. Once there she enrolled at Zurich University, the only Swiss university at the time to admit women. During her first year Rosa studied a wide range of subjects, including maths, botany & zoology. In her second year she focussed in on her real passion, politics and economic science. She finally obtained her doctorate in 1898 becoming a Doctor of Law. In the years between, while not completing her dissertation, she continued to grow in her own political activity. In Switzerland she met important Russian and Polish socialist leaders, including Leo Jogiches – who would become a lover and comrade, and Clara Zetkin who became a life long friend and supporter (and was also the woman who founded International Women’s Day!)
The same year that Rosa earned her doctorate she moved to Germany, where she could be closer to the political action. She married, not out of love, but as a way to gain German citizenship. She never actually lived with her husband, Gustav Lubeck, and they divorced 5 years later.
Once in Germany Rosa didn’t waste any time, she arrived on 16th May 1898 and just over a week later she headed to the Socialist Democratic Party’s (SPD) offices to join the party and offer her services. She was sent to the remote region of Upper Silesia to rally the workers there. She was a big success and the miners she spoke with grew to admire her.
From then on her political involvement in the SPD continued to increase. She wrote for various papers and journals, eloquently outlining her fervent socialist beliefs. It soon became clear that she didn’t agree with everything the party leaders were calling for. Where they spoke of social reform, Rosa called for revolution as the only way to create a lasting change for the working people.
In a letter to her friends Mathilde and Robert Seidel she wrote,
“I am dissatisfied with the fashion in which most of the articles in the party press are written. The style is conventional, wooden, stereotypical … I know, the world is different and different times need different songs, but songs are exactly what they need and our writing is mostly not a song, just a colourless, dull sound like that of a running engine. To my mind the reason behind this is that when people write they mostly forget to reach deep into their own selves, to relive the importance and truth of the subject. I think that with every new article one should experience the subject matter through and through, get emotionally involved, every single time, every single day. Only then will the cold, familiar truths, expressed in words new and bright, go from the writer’s heart to the reader’s heart.”
In 1904 Rosa served what would be the first of many jail sentences. This one was just two months for ‘offending the sovereign.’ The following year revolution was stirring in Russia, with waves of uprisings and protests against the empire. Rosa was inspired when she heard reports of the strikes and mutinies, giving her support to the workers and fanning the flames with her writing, hoping the revolution would spread to other countries. Eventually in December 1905 she travelled to Warsaw to take part herself. After just a few months she was again arrested in March 1906; she describes in a letter how she was kept in a small cage and went on hunger strikes. After paying bail and several bribes, she was released in June. She was able to flee to Finland, where she went into hiding with several other socialist leaders. She wasn’t in hiding for long however, and began advocating for a general strike, urging the SPD to support such a mass walk out. Sadly, they didn’t agree with her and rejected the motion.
In 1907 Rosa started teaching at the SPD party school in Berlin. She was a popular teacher, lecturing in Marxism and economics, and was the only female member of staff. At the International Socialist Congress that year she began speaking about what she felt was an imminent war. She urged the people to do everything that they could to prevent such a war, once again calling the workers to a mass strike. In the event of such a war starting, she called for opposition from the party and the people.
She continued to urge for strikes for the next few years, becoming more and more alienated from the SPD leadership. She told a large meeting: “If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: ‘We will not do it!'” In 1913 she was once again arrested for speaking out about the looming war. In her defence speech she said:
Throughout 1914 she played a key role in leading anti-war protests and demonstrations, but it was all to no avail. When war erupted in August of that year she was sorely disappointed. By this time, she had split from the SPD who supported the war.
She broke off with other dissenters, including her friends & comrades Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht and Franz Mehring. They launched Die Internationale newspaper, which was banned as soon as it was published! This group of radicals eventually became The Spartacus League, writing and distributing socialist pamphlets, resisting the war and continuing to call for revolution.
In her 1915 pamphlet, The Crisis in the German Social Democracy, she expressed her disgust at the war:
“The world war today is demonstrably not only murder on a grand scale; it is also suicide of the working classes of Europe. The soldiers of socialism, the proletarians of England, France, Germany, Russia, and Belgium have for months been killing one another at the behest of capital. They are driving the cold steel of murder into each other’s hearts. Locked in the embrace of death, they tumble into a common grave.”
Rosa was soon sent to prison yet again, but was able to continue writing, smuggling out her work, which was written under the pseudonym ‘Junius’. She was released in 1916, but not for long. As was the pattern of her life by then, she was re-arrested in July and sent to prison for the remainder of the war.
From prison she heard of the new wave of uprisings sweeping across Russia. She was encouraged and revived to hear of this fresh revolution. However, when she was released from prison in 1918 she took a very critical view of how things had been managed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks since the revolution.
She arrived back in Berlin in 10th November, more frail than she had ever been before, weakened by the harsh conditions of Breslau prison where she’d been held. But although her body was debilitated her spirit hadn’t diminished. She immediately took up the editorial post of the Rote Fahne (Red Flag), encourage by the spreading revolution. Rosa and Karl Liebnecht reorganised the Spartacus League and campaigned for the release of political prisoners. They eventually merged with the Independent Socialists and the International Communist Party of Germany to form the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
As unrest spread throughout Germany the Social Democratic leader, Friedrich Ebert, ordered the German Army and the Freikorps to put down the revolution. Violent struggle broke out. Rosa and Karl had been moving to a different address each day to avoid capture, but eventually they were discovered. Taken and briefly interrogated, they were then brutally murdered by soldiers. Rosa’s body was thrown into the canal, and not discovered until it washed ashore 6 months later. By then the uprising had been crushed. Rosa was buried in a Berlin cemetery next to Liebknecht. To this day, each January people gather at their graves to commemorate them.
Rosa’s life may have been cut short, but her ideas and her words lived on, inspiring many others and continuing to cause a stir, even to this day.
Clara Zetkin summed up her life perfectly;
“In Rosa Luxemburg the socialist idea was a dominating and powerful passion of both mind and heart, a consuming and creative passion. To prepare for the revolution, to pave the way for socialism – this was the task and the one great ambition of this exceptional woman. To experience the revolution, to fight in its battles – this was her highest happiness. With will-power, selflessness and devotion, for which words are too weak, she engaged her whole being and everything she had to offer for socialism. She sacrificed herself to the cause, not only in her death, but daily and hourly in the work and the struggle of many years. She was the sword, the flame of revolution.”
Our wonderful cover image of Rosa was kindly created for us by Julie from the Illustrated Women in History blog. You should definitely check it out for many more great illustrations of brilliant sheroes!
Find out more…
The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation have an incredible PDF ‘exhibition’ which follows the timeline of Rosa’s life, with photos, letters and more. It’s fascinating and free to download here.
I also found this wonderful Rosa Luxemburg blog with loads of information about her life and links to lots of resources.
If you want to read Rosa’s words yourself, you can access nearly all of her published writing online. The Marxist Internet Archive is a good place to start.
I also discovered a wonderful graphic novel of Rosa’s life called Red Rosa. You can get it here.
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