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The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg

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An excerpt from the Introduction to The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg  40% off until January 21st to mark 100 years since her death. See more here

The murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht constitutes one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. No other political assassination in German history stirred public passions and transformed the political climate of the country like that killing on the night of 15 January 1919, in front of a hotel with the paradisiacal name of Eden. Their murders marked the prelude to further political assassinations and a great deal more. As Paul Levi observed, in his famous plea written three years before the victory of German fascism, ‘here began that unearthly train of the dead, which resumed its course in March 1919 and dragged on for years and years ... murdered and killed’.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s case epitomized a veritable fall from grace, ‘in which murderers went about their work in full knowledge that the courts would fail’. Distortions, obfuscations, aiding and abetting, false accusations and self- incrimination surrounding the deed would follow for years to come. In particular, the trial preceding the court martial of the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division (the military division to which the perpetrators belonged, hereafter GKSD) – ‘a travesty of justice which must be described as one of the greatest legal scandals of our century’ – transformed the tragedy into a farce in which quite a few Social Democrats were deeply involved.

Although one participant ’s admission of guilt in the 1920s and several trials in the late 1920s and early 1930s would begin to shed some light on the case, these efforts remained hampered by legal wrangling and political setbacks, leading the renowned historian of German Communism, Ossip K. Flechtheim, to conclude resignedly that ‘the precise political, moral and legal responsibility of the various protagonists will most likely never be known.’

Yet one of the responsible parties spoke out – at first privately in 1959, then publicly in 1962 – betraying secrets and sparking furious protests with the shamelessness of his admissions, while at the same time earning the approval of some sectors of society, including the West German government of the time. The final act of this tragic comedy began when the historian Joseph Wulf discovered the GKSD court-martial files, along with additional files of the prosecution dating from 1921 to 1925, and provided them to the West German journalist and filmmaker Dieter Ertel.

Ertel not only studied the files, but also interviewed the dubious responsible parties, before turning the affair into a docu-drama which aired exactly fifty years after the murder.These actions promptly got him into trouble, and he would find himself involved in two questionable trials before Stuttgart district courts in 1967 and 1970 against the men he identified as Rosa Luxemburg’s assassins. Ertel lost the case and was forced to retract his accusation. The farce had reached its final, pathetic climax – a climax only made possible because the Social Democratic government in 1919 had no interest in revealing the truth behind this crime. The military court system was in turn able to obfuscate the facts, allowing subsequent lawyers to defer to the seemingly logical and legal actions of their predecessors in a gigantic monocausal legalistic chain, stretching on for over fifty years.

In this process, the sham trial before the GKSD court martial consistently served as the point of departure. For, according to the logic of subsequent lawyers, nothing that had been signed and sealed by a German court could possibly be untrue.

This is why so much confusion continues to reign among historians even today, as the scholar Ernst Rudolf Huber knows all too well: ‘Even later efforts failed to adequately illuminate the darkness of the circumstances surrounding the deed.’

While Helmut Trotnow’s biography of Karl Liebknecht suggests that Otto Runge was the assassin, and Wolfram Wette’s biography of Gustav Noske points to First Lieutenant Vogel,whom Hagen Schulze in turn identifies as Liebknecht’s murderer,the East German Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Novemberrevolution (Illustrated History of the German November Revolution) would identify a Vice-Feldwebel Krull as an accomplice as late as 1978,who Jakow Drabkin in turn identifies as the lieutenant on the murder vehicle’s footboard.While Leonidas Hill reports that Pflugk-Harttung never stood before a military courtand Eberhard Kolb and Reinhard Rürup’s compendium of source materials from the Central Councilintroduced a mysterious sailor as the ‘alleged’ perpetrator, Sibylle Quack concluded in 1983 that to advance any definitive statement on the matter would be ‘problematic’.

Alongside the lack of clarity concerning the identities of the perpetrators, rumours have continued to swirl and re-emerge with regularity. Some, for example, claim that leading SPD functionary Philipp Scheidemann placed a bounty on the two socialists’ heads,while others assert that fellow leading Communist Wilhelm Pieck, like Judas, betrayed ‘Karl and Rosa’ on that fateful night.Speculation concerning further potential accomplices also ran wild– and not entirely without justification.

That even today’s politicians are ill-equipped to confront this generalized confusion was demonstrated when the author of this volume presented his findings at a public event, and was immediately accused by a well-known member of the SPD and veteran of 1968 of peddling a ‘cock-and-bull story’. Against this confusion, the present volume seeks to clarify specific political, moral and legal responsibilities for the notorious double homicide.

- read more in The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg: 40% off until January 21st to mark 100 years since her death. See more here

The cold-blooded murder of revolutionary icons Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in the pitched political battles of post-WWI Germany marks one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. No other political assassination inflamed popular passions and transformed Germany’s political climate as that killing on the night of January 15–16, 1919, in front of the luxurious Hotel Eden. It not only cut short the lives of two of the country’s most brilliant political leaders, but also inaugurated a series of further political assassinations designed to snuff out the revolutionary flame and, ultimately, pave the way for the ultra-reactionary forces that would take power in 1933. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of their untimely deaths, Klaus Gietinger has carefully reconstructed the events of that fateful night, digging deep into the archives to identify who exactly was responsible for the murder, and what forces in high-placed positions had a hand in facilitating it and protecting the culprits.