EVEN AS INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S Day, which turned ninety-nine yesterday, is being honored in more and more countries around the world (including the United States of all places), a veteran German feminist is now arguing that it should be tossed onto the dungheap of history along with such obsolete holidays as the Kaiser’s birthday and East Germany’s “Day of the National People’s Army.” None less than Alice Schwarzer, editor of the feminist magazine EMMA, wrote on her website yesterday that the holiday “has nothing to do with emancipation.” …
IT’S TAKEN NINE DECADES, but the unclaimed female torso that was fished out of Berlin’s Landwehr Canal in the spring of 1919 has finally been released for burial. It had been kept on display in the pathology department of Charité Hospital as a classic example of a water corpse or “floater” until 2007, when Dr. Michael Tsokos, the department’s director, noticed it and determined that it probably belonged to the murdered German communist leader Rosa Luxemburg.
Tsokos announced his discovery to the press last spring and promptly issued a call for genetic material in order to confirm his suspicions (I have already written about this case here and here). But after over a year of study and nine months of media overkill, Tsokos has finally laid down his scalpel. “There are indications that it could have been Rosa Luxemburg,” the public prosecutor’s office told the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel on Monday, “but they have not been enough to provide conclusive proof.” DNA extracted from the hair of a living relative in Israel did not match that belonging to the cadaver – Tsokos himself stated last summer that the chances of a match stood at only forty percent anyway. Now the remains will finally be buried at an undisclosed location. Testing will continue on tissue samples, however, and a positive identification cannot be ruled out in the future. …
FOR AS LONG AS there have been calendars, specific dates have marked significant historical and spiritual events in their respective societies. The Americans celebrate their independence on the fourth of July, the French mark the storming of the Bastille on the fourteenth of July, and the British commemorate the infamous Gunpowder Plot on the fifth of November. Every other country – and just about every religion – also celebrates certain days that changed the world. New dates can appear at any moment. In today’s America, the magic date of 9/11 now trumps all others and determines much of our national identity. Germany is no exception to this phenomenon, although it is unique for having one day in its national calendar so pregnant with meaning that they have a special name for it: der Schicksalstag der Deutschen (the fateful day of the Germans). They mark this day not on 9/11 but on 11/9, i.e. on November 9. The events that have occurred on this day span the entire spectrum of human experience, from defeat to shame, from the profoundest horror to redemption and rebirth. It is the date itself that ties these seemingly random events into a neat package and gives both structure and an astonishing level of meaning to one of the most turbulent histories any nation has ever experienced – and inflicted on the rest of the world. It wasn’t always this way, but November 9, 1848 happened to be the day that German revolutionary Robert Blum was executed by firing squad in Vienna. His death at the hand of reactionary Austrian soldiers marked the symbolic defeat of the Revolution of 1848, which set the cause of German democracy back by generations. Exactly sixty years later, as a new rebellion broke out among the soldiers and sailors of the defeated German Empire … Continued…
The makeshift refugee camp outside the West German
embassy in Prague, August-September 1989
PRAGUE MEANS MANY THINGS to many people. It is the site of the infamous “defenestration” of 1618, which marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. It is the home of Alfons Maria Mucha and the decadent, absinth-crazed dreamers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s delicious fin-de-siècle. It is the mist-shrouded metropolis of Rabbi Loew and Franz Kafka. It is the seat of “Reich Protector” Reinhard Heydrich, psychopath extraordinaire. To today’s young backpackers it is the party capital of Europe. But for anyone living in Central Europe in those years, the Prague of September 30, 1989 represents a historical turning point none of us will ever forget.
Erich Honecker and his communist German Democratic Republic were living on borrowed time. Encouraged by the growing success of the Solidarnosc movement in Poland and by democratic reforms recently introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, East Germany’s Protestant churches finally took heart in the summer of 1988 . In church gatherings and in small private meetings they called upon their own members and GDR citizens as a whole to ensure that the local elections scheduled for May 7, 1989 be conducted on a democratic basis. As a rule, elections in communist countries are a mere formality – public acclamations of the status quo – and voters stay away from the polls at their own risk. But this time, a new generation of activists were urging their fellow citizens to make use of the limited democratic structures included in the East German constitution by demanding reforms and also by nominating candidates of their own choosing. …
CONRAD SCHUMANN AND Peter Leibing were two young men at the right place and at the right time. The elite border guard and the news photographer, both nineteen years old, had come to Berlin because that was where the action was. For Trooper Schumann, this action was the construction of what the East German government was calling the “Anti-Fascist Defensive Wall,” which he had been sent to the divided capital to help secure. Leibing, by contrast, had left Hamburg for Berlin to take the photo of his life. The West German cub photographer had made enough photos of jumping horses to know that you only got one chance at a winning shot. So for more than an hour, Leibing stood watching the nervous young non-commissioned officer as he paced back and forth, his Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, smoking one cigarette after another. “Come on over, come on over!” the West Berlin crowd on Bernauer Strasse chanted. “He’s going to jump!” one passerby remarked. And at four p.m. on August 15, 1961, Leibing got lucky. Schumann tossed aside his cigarette, then turned and ran for the coil of barbed wire that marked the boundary between East and West. He jumped, flinging away his gun as he flew, and Leibing clicked the shutter. A nearby newsreel cameraman captured the same scene on film. Leibing’s photo hit the West Berlin tabloids the next morning. The rest is Cold War history…
On May 31, 2009 I posted an article about the discovery of a nameless, headless torso in the medical historical museum of Berlin’s Charité hospital. In it I relate how in the spring of this year the museum’s director, the forensic pathologist Michael Tsokos, announced his long-held suspicion that this body fragment could well be the mortal remains of the German-Polish communist leader Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered by government troops and thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal in the wake of the failed Spartacus Uprising of January, 1919.
Tsokos was pinning his hopes on a DNA test for which he needed samples. Unfortunately, the possible sources I listed in the article, including a distant relative in Poland and a lock of Luxemburg’s hair supposedly preserved in the United States by descendants of one of Luxemburg’s lovers, all turned out to be dead ends. In the meantime, however, a previously unknown relative has surfaced in the Negev desert. 79 year-old Irene Borde is the granddaughter of Luxemburg’s brother. She grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to Israel in 1973. Today she works as a professor of process engineering at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba. In mid-July she sent a lock of her own hair to Tsokos for comparison with genetic material extracted from the parched liver of the museum’s unidentified “floater.”
Is this “floater” all that is left of the
revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg?
One might expect a descendant of the woman whom the German Left today regard as their patron saint to cash in on her celebrity. And yet it shouldn’t surprise us that Borde has not exactly sought the limelight. Under Stalin, Luxemburg (who is best known for her anti-Leninist remark that “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”) was as hated as Trotsky, and even East German communists were less than comfortable with her legacy. “In the Soviet Union, our association with the name Luxemburg brought us nothing but disadvantages,” she told the German tabloid Welt am Sonntag. All the same, Borde calls herself “the guardian of the Luxemburg family legacy,” with a collection of photo albums, memorabilia, and family stories. Regardless of the results of the DNA test, she may prove to be a valuable source of information for historians.
As William Dean Howells once told Edith Wharton, “Americans only want tragedies with happy endings.” And not just Americans, it seems, but also Germans along with everyone else on this punch-drunk planet who is able to afford the price of a movie ticket.
Whenever I tell people that I once lived for sixth months in old East Berlin and even wrote a whole book on ideology and propaganda in that troubled society, they almost always tell me how much they adore Florian Henckell von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others. To them, this movie tells the true story of the East German experience and has redeemed their faith in humanity. Hmm, I always say. How can that be? Because to my mind the young West German director’s debut epos is not just manipulative filmmaking but presents a profoundly flawed history lesson. Is my negative take on this Oscar winner – which made number one on The National Review‘s “list of the 25 best conservative movies of the last 25 years” – merely a product of my imagined superior taste in movies or did the totalitarian experience sour me on “humanity” in general? Or is the scholar and history instructor in me rearing his head again? Since it is hard to explain my feelings to its devotees during a brief elevator ride, let alone amid the hubbub of a cocktail party, I think I owe an incredulous world a thorough explanation of why this movie is reactionary, radioactive rubbish and why they too should consider giving it a miss the next time it hits their local art house.
Before doing so I feel obliged to point out that my disdain for The Lives of Others does not in any way extend to fans of the film. On the contrary! Anyone who is willing to sit through two hours of gloomy Central European melodrama with colorless sets and pretentious subtitles has earned my respect. I also suspect that if I did not have such an intimate acquaintance with the realities of the East German regime, there is at least an outside chance that I might also think it was “the best movie I ever saw” (William F. Buckley). But I think nothing of the kind – and here’s why.
A Marxist-Leninist Christmas Carol
The Lives of Others tells the story of Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler, a professional spy and manipulator, who in 1984 receives orders to bug and then personally eavesdrop on the apartment of a politically suspect playwright called Georg Dreyman in order to detect suspicious activities or statements that could be used to prosecute him. The real reason for this mission, Wiesler soon learns, is that an East German government minister wants to eliminate Dreyman – King David-style – in order to make a move on the writer’s girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland, who also happens to be a personal favorite of Wiesler. The more Wiesler learns about the couple and their ultra-cool intellectual lifestyle (complete with a luxurious bourgeois apartment, zillions of books, a vibrant social life, and plenty of hot sex), the more he sympathizes not only with the lovely Christa-Maria, but also with her lover, Dreyman. Then, after listening to Dreyman play a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man” on the piano and discovering the poems of Bertolt Brecht, Wiesler is spontaneously transformed into “a good man” himself and begins falsifying his reports to protect the couple from the Stasi and the minister. Tragic events ensue, both Christa-Maria and Wiesler sacrifice themselves, each in their own way, but Dreyman survives unharmed until reunification and dedicates his latest novel – appropriately entitled Sonata for a Good Man – to his invisible guardian angel. Not exactly a happy ending, but certainly a redemptive one that makes everyone feel really, really good about themselves.
“THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD,” William Faulkner once wrote. “It’s not even past.” How true. Germans were just getting used to the bizarre news that the policeman who killed student activist Benno Ohnesorg in 1967 was not an unreconstructed Nazi but rather a Stasi agent when they were rocked by a new blast from their undead past: Rosa Luxemburg, the celebrated co-founder of the German communist party who was murdered by German Freikorps soldiers in 1919, may not have spent the past ninety years lying honorably in her tomb at the “Memorial of the Socialists” in East Berlin after all, but instead… a few miles away in a glass display case in the pathology department of Charité hospital.
As a political icon, Rosa Luxemburg is located somewhere on a line running from Che Guevara to Joan of Arc. Nine decades after her death, this unlikely visionary is still the patron saint of the German left. Today she is the one communist everybody loves to love. But it was not always so.
Rozalia Luksenburg was born in 1871 in the town of Zamosc near Lublin in the Russian section of partitioned Poland. Her cultural identity was typically muddled for that corner of the world – she was Jewish, Polish, Russian and, most notably, German, all tied up in one diminutive package. Like so many other spiritually displaced persons, she became active in left-wing politics and co-founded the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland in 1893. Five years later she married a German and moved to Berlin as a German citizen, where she joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD), pushing it in an increasingly revolutionary, antiwar direction. Despite her gender, her accent, her small stature and a painful limp dating back to childhood, she quickly became one of the party’s most sought after speakers.
Luxemburg’s theoretical writings focused on political economy and her own concept of imperialism. Her own principal contribution to Marxism was the notion of “spontaneity,” i.e. the need for grassroots organization of the workers’ movement rather than centralized leadership by a party elite. At the outbreak of the First World War, Luxemburg joined with other radical members of the SPD in calling for an international general strike and an immediate end to hostilities. This “International Group” developed into the revolutionary “Spartacus Group,” later renamed the “Spartacus League,” which formed the core of the future communist party. She was duly arrested and sent to prison for several months in 1915 and then placed in “preventive detention” in 1916, where she remained for the duration of the war.
Luxemburg got out of prison just in time for the revolution of November, 1918 and immediately joined forces with her colleague Karl Liebknecht in the workers’ and soldiers’ council movement. Her health was poor and the global transformation she had been dreaming of for so many years was now flying to pieces before her eyes. Luxemburg criticized Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and feared the predominance of this authoritarian Russian clique over the grassroots revolutions that were breaking out across Europe. She believed that the movement should gain popular legitimacy by taking part in Germany’s first democratic parliamentary elections scheduled for January, but her party (now officially the Communist Party of Germany or KPD) rejected this idea in favor of a nation-wide uprising to topple the provisional government and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. Luxemburg let herself be persuaded and pledged the unpopular and utterly hopeless “Spartacus Uprising” her full support…
EVERY MORNING, about halfway into my daily jog along Gartenstrasse towards the old West Berlin district of Wedding, my feet pass over a double row of bricks set into the pavement. A metal plaque identifies this seam, which zigzags through the German capital, as the route of the former Berlin Wall. Turning onto Bernauer Strasse, I pass by the weathered gray slabs of the Wall itself and then encounter the cylindrical Reconciliation Chapel, built on the site of the old brick Reconciliation Church, which used to stand smack in the middle of the free fire zone between the two halves of the city and which the East German regime consequently dynamited in 1985. After working up a good sweat, I double back onto Strelitzer Strasse. There I catch a glimpse of a plaque marking this gray East Berlin house as the endpoint of the famous 1964 tunnel which, the sign notes, was shut down after a Stasi agent betrayed the escape route to his minders. A few minutes later I step into the shower and am soon ready to begin a normal working day.
And yet, I can remember a time when this routine jog would have been even less plausible than a non-stop sprint to Vladivostok. It was the summer of 1987. After spending a few weeks with my new East German girlfriend in Berlin, I headed back to the States to continue my graduate studies. As the weeks passed, our suspicion turned to fact: she was pregnant. And not just pregnant, we learned as autumn turned to winter, but pregnant with twins…