Posts tagged ‘world war i’

October 1, 2010

The last installment: Germany to repay WWI debt on birthday

UNITED GERMANY IS CELEBRATING its twentieth anniversary on Sunday, and the happy occasion cannot help but focus attention back on the many bizarre and dramatic events that led to unification in the first place: the peaceful revolution in East Germany in 1989, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the founding of two German states in 1949, and the partition of the German Reich into four occupation zones at the end of the Second World War. Yes, nothing occurs in a historical vacuum, and thus it is perhaps fitting that on the same day as the country marks its anniversary it will also be paying the final installment on the reparations bill imposed on it in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919…


June 1, 2009

Who is buried in Rosa Luxemburg’s tomb?

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg

“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.

Patron saint

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…