Wolfgang Fernbach and the “Spartacus uprising”


As the German armies faced defeat in October 1918, the revolution was heralded by a mutiny in the navy. Sailors brought the message to Berlin, where on 9 November the Kaiser abdicated and a republic was proclaimed. Power lay at first with workers’ and soldiers’ councils, but Social-Democratic ministers who took office conspired with the army general staff to maintain order and quash any radical demands. A decisive moment was the so-called “Spartacus uprising” in the second week of January 1919, which led to the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on the 15th – the hundredth anniversary currently commemorated by many articles and events. Four days earlier, my grandfather Wolfgang Fernbach and six of his comrades had been the first victims of this white terror unleashed against the Spartacists.

Wolfgang Fernbach was born in 1889, into a middle-class Berlin family in which Jewish religion had been abandoned as useless superstition. But in his school years, experience of anti-Semitism alienated him from the German patriotism that his parents’ generation still took for granted. He had begun studying medicine, but then opted for the career of a freelance journalist.

Wolfgang had no involvement with the socialist movement before 1914, but revulsion against the war soon brought him in contact with the small group of radical socialists around Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. This was facilitated by the friendship between his wife’s family and Mathilde Jacob, who in late 1913 had become Rosa Luxemburg’s secretary, personal assistant, and soon intimate friend.

Wolfgang’s father Eugen Fernbach kept for over half a century a “family chronicle” in which he recorded both events in the life of his family and his reflections on the world around him.[1] Though far from sharing his son’s radical views, he recorded what he knew of Wolfgang’s illegal activity for the group that first called itself the Internationale group, later the Spartakusbund (Spartacus League), and would form the nucleus of the German Communist Party at the end of 1918.

It was only in the course of 1915 that the new group managed to organize illegal work, producing first leaflets, then Rosa Luxemburg’s famous “Junius pamphlet”, and from 1916 an occasional newspaper, the Spartakus-Briefe. Despite fragile health, Wolfgang was unable to avoid military service, and was posted to Halle with a medical unit. When his parents visited him there in November 1915, writes Eugen, “I found with him a lot of anti-war and radical-socialist propaganda material which was secretly distributed; this was doubly dangerous for a serving soldier, which of course worried me greatly. But there was no way of shifting him either from his political convictions or his propaganda activity.”

Wolfgang managed to get discharged from the army after nine months, and was back in Berlin from May 1916. On 1 May, the Spartacists had called a public demonstration, and though this was quickly repressed, it helped kindle a first wave of workers’ strikes against the war. Wolfgang had proved his dedication to the cause, and was now called on to help in a more central role than distributing leaflets. We have evidence for this again from his father Eugen: “He arranged the printing of the Lichnowsky paper about the causes of the war as well as of the Junius pamphlet... He gave me the former to read in proof.”

In later years, Mathilde Jacob wrote a book-length memoir under the title “Rosa Luxemburg and Her Friends in War and Revolution”.[2] This is an important source on the work of the Spartacus group during the war, and on the early months of the German Communist Party. And it also supplements what Wolfgang’s father wrote about his son’s involvement. The first time that Wolfgang appears here is in connection with the Spartakus-Briefe, which had been edited by Ernst Meyer until his health forced him temporarily to withdraw. The illegal work of Spartakus was coordinated by Leo Jogiches, who had been Rosa Luxemburg’s early mentor and partner, and was greatly respected by the younger generation of Spartakus activists. As Mathilde writes, “Leo Jogiches recommended handing the editing of the Spartakus-Briefe to Wolfgang Fernbach, a young and highly talented friend of ours who had worked with great selflessness during the war. I was to keep secretly in touch with Leo Jogiches over the precise selection of articles.” In the event, Paul Levi, certainly more experienced than Wolfgang, moved from Frankfurt to Berlin to take on this responsibility. But it is clear that Wolfgang by this point worked closely with the Spartakus inner circle. He may himself have written for the Spartakus-Briefe, but all contributions were anonymous and in most cases there is no way of telling their authorship.

Mathilde Jacob makes a rather wry comment on the months leading up to the revolution: “[In April 1918] the people’s representatives from the Russian soviet republic arrived as diplomatic emissaries in Berlin... A feverish common work of Russian and German comrades got under way. As well as the old stock of revolutionary Social-Democrats, others now joined in, attracted either by the high salaries paid by the Russians, or by the power position of the Bolsheviks... They were now glowing champions of Bolshevism in Germany.”

Wolfgang Fernbach, however, though he was offered a paid position on the Spartacus daily paper, Die Rote Fahne, when this was established in November 1918, preferred to keep his work for the party free of material considerations. During the high tide of revolution, he worked through the day for a mainstream press agency, but devoted all his free time to the political struggle.

Surviving letters from Rosa Luxemburg to her Spartacus comrades are almost exclusively to close friends: Clara Zetkin, Franz Mehring, Paul Levi. But on 18 November she wrote a detailed letter to Wolfgang Fernbach, suggesting how he could best contribute to Die Rote Fahne. It is interesting to note that for the first issue of the daily paper Wolfgang had offered an article on the death penalty, but this was precisely the subject that Rosa Luxemburg had herself chosen to launch the new publication.[3]

Throughout the war, Spartacus had been an informal group held together by strong personal loyalty. Its members had remained in the Social-Democratic Party until this split in April 1917, then in the Independent Social-Democratic Party (USPD), which was against the war, but whose majority, including both Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, were set against revolutionary action. Not until November 1918 did the group have formal membership or elected leaders. And Wolfgang Fernbach was then chosen as one of fifteen members of the “Zentrale”.

The events of the so-called “Spartacus uprising” of January 1919 are complex and still argued over. Workers and soldiers found the power they had won being eroded, and the dismissal by the SPD government of the Berlin police president, Emil Eichhorn, a leading figure in the USPD, triggered a mass demonstration and the occupation of the newspaper district by revolutionary soldiers. The Spartacists (as people still called the newly baptised Communists) were a small minority, and Rosa Luxemburg had made clear in the party’s founding programme that – unlike the Bolsheviks in Russia – it would never take power without the support of the majority of workers. But an adventurist wing of the movement stumbled into the dangerous position of calling for the overthrow of the government without having the force to achieve this. The SPD government called on the army general staff to put down the rebellion, which it did with a massive show of force.

In the occupied building of the SPD newspaper Vorwärts, a group led by Eugen Leviné produced a Spartakist Rote Vorwärts. On Wednesday 8th January, the party ordered a retreat from the “overthrow” slogan, but the Vorwärts building remained a stronghold it was loth to abandon. Mathilde Jacob reports in her memoir how Wolfgang Fernbach came to the party office in Wilhelmstrasse, where she was working with Jogiches. “He was full of confidence, and inquired of Leo Jogiches what he could do in the service of the revolution. ‘Would you like to stand in for Eugen Leviné with the editing of the Rote Vorwärts?’ Leo asked, somewhat hesitantly, on account of the danger this involved. ‘There is no editor there.’... ‘Of course,’ came the answer.”

Wolfgang Fernbach and the worker-poet Werner Möller produced the final issue of the Rote Vorwärts, for which Wolfgang wrote an editorial titled “Blutschuld” (blood guilt). On the night of Friday 10th, government troops opened fire on the building with mortars and machine-guns. The soldiers defending the occupation were overwhelmed, and the only course left was to minimize casualties by surrendering. Wolfgang Fernbach, Werner Möller and five other envoys left the building on Saturday morning, 10th January, holding white flags made out of newsprint. But the besieging soldiers dragged them to their headquarters, the Dragoon Guards barracks a few hundred metres away, where they were brutally beaten before being summarily shot. Though there had already been armed clashes between revolutionaries and government forces in December, the SPD ministers had now given the military a free hand to repress all radical activity. The death of the Vorwärts envoys was the first time that opponents of the government were murdered in cold blood, marking the start of a white terror that would claim nearly two thousand victims over the coming months – most notably Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht just four days later. The officers responsible for these atrocities would later play an active role in the Nazi party.

Mathilde Jacob’s memoir attests to the particular sympathy that Rosa Luxemburg felt for the death of Wolfgang Fernbach. She was already in hiding when Mathilde brought her the news, but sobbed and wrote a note of condolence to Wolfgang’s wife Alice, stating that her only wish for herself now was also to die in the struggle.

As with the Spartacus leaders, the military sought to cover up their deed by putting out more than one false claim, notably that the Vorwärts envoys had fired on the soldiers with dum-dum bullets. Wolfgang’s father was able to disprove this by citing a number of witnesses, in a report that he presented to an investigating committee of the Prussian parliament.[4] But as with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the officers who ordered the murders were never brought to justice, and it has taken a hundred years until the current SPD leader, Andrea Nahles, has for the first time acknowledged the responsibility for these murders of SPD defence minister Gustav Noske.

With the memory of this bitter experience, my grandmother prepared to emigrate as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, accompanied by her two grown-up children. Sadly, Mathilde Jacob was less fortunate. She continued her work with Rosa Luxemburg’s close associates – Leo Jogiches until he was himself killed in March 1919, then Clara Zetkin and Paul Levi, who led the KPD for two more years. After the disastrous “March action” imposed by Comintern in 1921, Mathilde Jacob was one of the group around Paul Levi who broke with a KPD that had departed from Rosa Luxemburg’s line of “majority revolution”, and she continued to work for him until his death in 1930. She and Paul Levi also preserved Rosa Luxemburg’s surviving papers, enabling Levi to publish among other texts Luxemburg’s essay on the Russian revolution. But already in her sixties when the Nazis came to power, her attempts to emigrate were unsuccessful. In 1942 she was deported to Theresienstadt, where she perished the following April.

It took until the 1990s before Mathilde Jacob’s close connection with “Rosa Luxemburg and her friends” was fully recognised. And only more recently has Wolfgang Fernbach’s role in the Spartacus movement been the subject of attention. But a short video about his life is now part of the “Berlin 1918/19” exhibit in the Märkisches Museum, to be transferred to Berlin’s new Humboldt-Forum when this opens in a few months time.


[1] The Family Chronicle of Eugen Fernbach, Heretic Books, 1999. A complete version in German is Assimilation—Zionismus—Spartakus, Hentrich & Hentrich, 2019.

[2] Mathilde Jacob, Rosa Luxemburg: An Intimate Portrait, Lawrence & Wishart, 2000.

[3] This letter is in the Verso edition of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, 2011, p. 479. Unfortunately, a mistranslation suggests that Rosa Luxemburg was refusing Wolfgang an “opening on the editorial board”, when she actually wrote rather humorously about “not yet having editorial offices”.

[4] This report is discussed in detail by Mark Jones, Founding Weimar, Cambridge University Press, 2016.