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A Letter from Rosa Luxemburg on her Birthday

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TO HANS DIEFENBACH

Wronke in Posen, March 5, 1917

(to celebrate the day) [1]

My dear Hänschen!

Your conjecturing about my impulsive nature, youthfulness, and flattering things like that is based on an error. Because, first of all, I did write to you—a beautiful letter, eight pages long—I merely didn’t send it (as proof I’m enclosing the drawing that adorned that letter, perhaps you’ll like it). Second, I was living with the persistent illusion, suggested by my own longing, that any day you were bound to make an appearance here in the flesh. But it seems that Herr von Kessel [2] found out that he could strike at me in the most hurtful ways, and now he wants to put me to the test to see whether I can “withstand” this. Don’t make the “withstanding” any harder by being angry at me, but keep on writing to me untiringly—be kind, loving, and patient with me, even if I’m not worth it—as you always have done. 

Actually, right now I’m going through a rather hard time. Things are repeating themselves exactly as last year at Barnim Street. For seven months I hold up sturdily, [but] in the eighth, [and] ninth [month], suddenly the nerves give way; every day that I have to live here becomes a small mountain that I climb laboriously, and every little trifle causes me painful irritation. In five days a full eight months of the second year of my solitude will be over. Surely then, as happened last year, a revitalization will come of its own accord, especially since spring will soon be on its way. By the way, everything would be much easier to live through if only I would not forget the basic rule I’ve made for my life: To be kind and good is the main thing! Plainly and simply, to be good—that resolves and unites everything and is better than all cleverness and insistence on “being right.” But who is here to remind me of that, since Mimi [the cat] is not here? At home so many times she knew how to lead me onto the right road with her long, silent look, so that I always had to smother her with kisses (in defiance of you!) and say to her: You’re right, being kind and good is the main thing. So if you sometimes notice from my talk or my silence that I am contrary or grim, just refer me to that truthful saying of Mimi’s, and—and you yourself should go ahead of me, setting the example: You be kind and good, even if I don’t deserve it...

Now, before anything else, many thanks—the list has grown quite long: for the booklets, for the saccharin (which is coming back to you with a bonus, because I received a large supply and you need it yourself), for the picture, the thermometer, the sweets, the two most recent books, and the portraits of Roman emperors, which teach by their graphic [negative] example the reaffirmation of republican convictions, but above all, thanks for your letters, which give me great consolation. It was a lot of fun for me to read about your epic adventure in Wronke; only it’s too bad I wasn’t in it with you and couldn’t snatch even one ray of light from it. But my joy became [especially] boisterous at the letter in which, with all your cunning arts, you try to seduce me into someday reading Hebbel and in which you relish in advance the surprise [this would be] to my ignorance. How glad I am that you still remain the same old indestructible Hänschen and cannot possibly suppose that I know anything that did not come from your dear mentoring hands. O Hanneselein, I’ve known Hebbel longer than I’ve known you. I was already borrowing him from Mehring at the time when my friendship with him was passing through its hottest epoch and the region between Steglitz [where Mehring lived] and Friedenau (where I was still living) was like a tropical landscape in which the primeval elephant [Elephas primigenius] was grazing and the slender giraffe was plucking green fronds from the phoenix palm. At that time—when H.nschen did not yet exist for Berlin, even in conception—I was reading Agnes Bernauer, Mary Magdalene, Judith, and Herod and Mariamne [plays by Hebbel]. I didn’t get any further, though, because the tropical climate had to yield to the first great glacial period, and my fat Gertrud [Zlottko] had to travel to Steglitz with a laundry basket full of borrowed books and presents received earlier, in return for a shipment of the same sort which had made its appearance in Friedenau, the kind of thing that occurred customarily with each and every one of our estrangements. So I do know Hebbel, and I have a great, if cool, respect for him. I rank him, however, far below Grillparzer and Kleist. He has a lot of intelligence and beauty of form, but there is too little life and blood in his characters, they are to a great extent merely signboards, though cleverly thought out and subtly refined, merely vehicles illustrating particular problems.If you want to honor me with him [Hebbel] as a present, might I perhaps trade him for Grillparzer? Quite seriously I have a great love for the latter. I wonder if you know him and value him highly enough? If you want to read something magnificent, pick up the short fragment by him, Judith. [3] The purest Shakespeare in conciseness, aptness, and popular humor, along with a tender, poetic touch that Shakespeare doesn’t have. Isn’t it laughable that in person Grillparzer was a dry-as-dust government official and quite a boring fellow. (See his autobiography, which is in almost as poor taste as Bebel’s.) 

But how do things stand with your reading? Are you provided for sufficiently? I, for my part, have in the recent past made a series of new acquaintances that I would very much like to lay at your feet. The us, first of all—in case you’re not yet familiar with it—there’s Emanuel Quint by Gerhart Hauptmann (a novel). Do you know the paintings of Christ by Hans Thoma? You’ll have a similar experience of the image of Christ in this book [by Hauptmann]: the way he [Christ] walks, slender and tall, veiled in a dark-reddish glow, through fields of ripe grain, and to the left and right of his dark figure soft waves of purple flow over the silver tassels of grain. There [in that book] one issue caught my attention, among countless others, an issue that I’ve never seen portrayed elsewhere and one that I have felt deeply in my own life: the tragedy of a person who preaches to the crowd and who is aware that every word, the moment it leaves the mouth, is coarsened and becomes congealed in the minds of its listeners in distorted form as a caricature; and on the basis of this caricature, the preacher is now nailed fast and in the end is surrounded by disciples, who rage around, shouting crudely: “Show us the miracle! That's what you taught us. Where is your miracle?” It’s absolutely ingenious the way Hauptmann portrays this. Hänschen, one should never form a finished and final judgment about people, they can always surprise you, in the bad sense, but also, praise God, in the good sense. I considered Hauptmann a perfect stuck-up nitwit [Fatzke], and now the fellow swings around with a book so full of depth and greatness that I would like best to immediately write him a feverishly burning letter. I know that you would encourage me to do that, just as you wanted me to write to Ricarda Huch. But I am too shy and retiring for such ostentatious confessions. It’s enough for me if I confess to you. 

I have a thousand more things I would like to say to you. When are you finally going to come here? Aff ’ly [4] 

Your R.

[P.S.] Please pass on my greatest thanks to the March[lewskis] for Ingeborg by Kellermann and many best wishes. I hope to visit their domain someday and get to know the charming Jagoda.

[1] March 5 was Luxemburg’s birthday.

[2] General Gustav von Kessel was Supreme Commander of the March of Brandenburg, and it was under his authority that Luxemburg was imprisoned under “military protective custody.”

[3] Luxemburg was referring to the fragment by Grillparzer entitled Esther.

[4] Here where Luxemburg used the abbreviation Herzl., presumably for Herzlich, we have used an abbreviation, “Aff ’ly,” for “Affectionately.”

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The above letter is an extract from the Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, published by Verso. 

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