Rosa, well remembered?

Every Berliner knows her name, but many are ignorant of who Rosa Luxemburg really was, and there are many misconceptions about her life and ideas. We spoke to historian Jörn Schütrumpf to set the record straight.

© Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung

Every Berliner knows her name, but many are ignorant of who Rosa Luxemburg really was, and there are many misconceptions about her life and ideas. We spoke to historian Jörn Schütrumpf to set the record straight.

Rosa Luxemburg is a household name for most Berliners, but few know her as more than a murdered socialist. Why is that?

That is a product of German history. Rosa Luxemburg could only imagine socialism in conjunction with political freedoms: freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, the freedom to found organisations, etc. In East Germany we had a structure that called itself socialism and relied on not granting these freedoms. So the GDR regime had to make sure the core of Luxemburg’s thinking was forgotten – and its censorship was pretty successful in that respect. So the SED government celebrated her as a communist icon while schizophrenically censoring or not publishing what she had written. They did not want her shown as a flesh-and-blood human being, and in those letters she talks about sex quite a bit. They were censored through and through, that wasn’t corrected until later.

The East German government celebrated her as a communist icon while schizophrenically censoring what she had written.

You first studied history in the GDR. How did you find out such things?

By accident! Having studied in the GDR, I had never thought of her as particularly interesting. In the early 2000s I was heading the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s publishing house Karl Dietz Verlag and we needed an introduction to a new volume about Rosa Luxemburg. None of my colleagues wanted to do it, so I started doing my own research, and what I found was fascinating. I realised how many lies had been spread about her and I started to see who she had really been.

So where did you even start?

Well, I had been doing some research on Paul Levi before and he had been her lawyer in 1913, when she was tried for her famous Frankfurt speech, in which she said, “If we are forced to shoot, we will not shoot our French brothers.” They wanted to lock her up for 10 years for “refusing to obey orders”, but she ended up with only 14 months in prison. During the war and the revolution, Levi was always by her side and they also edited Die rote Fahne together. Then in 1983 her letters to Levi resurfaced (Levi’s family emigrated to the US before WWII, that’s how the letters were saved). And we discovered they also were lovers…

How much of her correspondence and writing is available to readers today?

We now have six volumes worth of letters in German, but Rosa Luxemburg was Polish and about 40 percent of her work is in Polish. And, to put it mildly, in Poland she is not very popular at the moment. The government just had the plaque removed from the house she was supposedly born in, they stripped it from the wall. So in Poland, she isn’t being read today. But in South America she is – people are now experiencing first-hand how right Luxemburg’s theory of accumulation was. Our foundation is about to open a new office in Buenos Aires, where theatres are staging plays about her and there’s a Rosa Luxemburg opera on every Sunday.

Portrait of Rosa Luxembourg. Unknown photographer, 20th century, private Collection Stefano Bianchetti. IMAGO / Bridgeman Images

So what’s so exciting about her theory of accumulation?

Her theory of accumulation was based on Marx’ writing, but transcended it on crucial points. For Marx there were only workers and capitalists. Luxemburg understood that this was only one part of the picture, and that capitalism could only work if it kept expanding. She described how capitalism subjugates whole nations, takes their land step by step and destroys local cultures. Luxemburg miscalculated a few things and could never have imagined the kind of neoliberalism we have now, but in 1913 she was asking questions no one had asked before, and she recognised this capitalist mechanism of expropriation for what it was. You will find all of this in the last seven chapters of The Accumulation of Capital – there is not a single boring line in that.

How did she get into economics in the first place?

You often read that she fled Poland because she had joined socialist groups and was being persecuted, but there is no actual evidence of that. Just one week ago, together with Polish colleagues, we found out more about what had really happened. She finished high school in 1888, top of her class, but didn’t get the medal she was entitled to because she was Jewish. That was the normal Russian antisemitism.

So why did she leave Poland for Zurich?

It wasn’t the original plan. Her father was a merchant from Warsaw dealing in wood. But coming from the educated middle-class, he wasn’t very successful. They were not rich. Luxemburg had an older sister who had a bad hip and could not be married off. So when little Rosa was only five years old, they were worried the same thing could happen to her and put her in a body cast, from which she emerged with one leg shorter than the other. She never forgave her family for that. Anyway, when she graduated from school, she was this brilliant young handicapped Jewish woman and the family tried for a year to get her married, unsuccessfully. Because they couldn’t have another daughter living at home with them, they bought her a ticket to Zurich, hoping she would make some kind of career and not come back.

Well, she certainly did!

In 1892 she met Leo Jogiches who was a migrant from Lithuania and came from a family of extremely wealthy bankers. He became her lover and opened her eyes to the world of politics. For him, money was never an issue, he received a cheque from his parents every month and had several properties across Europe. Later, in the first decade of the 1900s, Luxemburg wrote for the big SPD publications and for newspapers and was among the best paid journalists in the country. But a lot of that money she invested back into politics, especially her Polish party which was strapped for cash. She wasn’t good with money and Jogiches had to help her out from time to time.

Rosa Luxemburg addressing a meeting after the Second International Social Democrativ Congress, Stuttgart, 1907. Copyright: xPhoto12/AnnxRonanxPicturexLibraryx. IMAGO / Photo12

So, she wrote a lot but she was also an active campaigner, wasn’t she?

Yes, she was relentlessly sharp in her speeches, that is why she got nicknamed “bloody Rosa”: men either loved her or they were scared of her. Whenever she came to talk somewhere it was a big event and drew thousands of people. At the time Luxemburg was one of the SPD’s stars. During campaigns, she sometimes gave two to three speeches a day. That’s tiring and she did it for weeks on end. At the same time she taught at the SPD party school during winter semesters and she also wrote an article or two a day. And letters. So one often wonders: when did that woman sleep?

You mentioned “bloody Rosa”. She also has an image of being this dry, cold-blooded theoretician and thinker.

Yes, and it’s a very long-standing misconception. There are letters of hers from 1889, when she made her first big tour to Silesia, and she was announced as a speaker and the workers were completely shocked, asking “You are Rosa Luxemburg?” They were expecting an old quarrelsome beast, and now there was this cute girl. So this is the same image the workers had 120 years ago.

Was she a victim of political propaganda? Sexist prejudices?

Yes, of the intellectual woman. She could be charming, she could wrap men around her finger, but usually she tried to appear like a man, write and talk like a man, in striking contrast with the style of her private letters. It’s funny because she was such a little doll that was trying to be tougher than the guys. And intellectually she did it with ease. She played with this.

Let’s talk some more about her reception. After years of censorship, oblivion or rejection, she was met with renewed popularity after the fall of the Wall, right?

Yes, 70 years after her death there was another revolution using her slogan of “the freedom of the dissenters”. It was quickly forgotten, but somehow the positive associations stuck. The other thing is that she died early enough not to ever get into a leading position in the socialist government and she was only part of the communist party for about two weeks. On top of that she had been murdered, adding a hallow of martyrdom to her stature. She lends herself to all kinds of projections, to the point where people make up things she supposedly said. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation had a mug that read: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains. – Rosa Luxemburg”. She never said anything that silly! I don’t know where that came from, but I saw it in photos of the demonstrations of 1989. She is a frequent reference in protest movements, like in 1968.

What about pacifism? Was she a pacifist?

I wouldn’t call it pacifism. She was against war, against imperialist war. But she knew that in a revolution there might be armed violence. She didn’t want that though, her ideal was to empower the people enough so that the use of weapons against them would become impossible. Her ideal was a peaceful revolution. And she categorically rejected the idea of terrorism. Those are some basic principles which she held on to until her last breath.

Then there is the controversial question of whether or not Luxemburg was a feminist.

She was friends with Clara Zetkin and had seen what happens when you get confined to women’s politics. Because that is what happened in those days: Zetkin was in charge of women’s issues and men did politics. So when Luxemburg came back from her first political campaign in Silesia in 1889, the SPD’s general secretary asked her if she didn’t want to join Zetkin and work with women. She was asked several times, but she always said: “No, I’m a politician.” She did write occasionally for Zetkin’s paper, Gleichheit (“Equality”), but she didn’t want to be pushed into that corner. At the same time, she was leading a more emancipated life than many women today.

She was a serial monogamist, and she knew that a romance can end and was okay with that.

How was she emancipated?

Well, she was married once from 1898 to 1903, but that was only in order to gain citizenship in Prussia. She didn’t know the guy, they just went to the registry office once and outside Jogiches was waiting to take her to the Alps. So, she was divorced and then she had different relationships, one of them with Kostja Zetkin, Clara Zetkin’s son, who was 15 years her junior. She was a serial monogamist, and she knew that a romance can end and was okay with that. There are beautiful letters illustrating that. But she kept these things private and many of the letters were only published after reunification.

But, talking about the politics of memory, she did get one of Berlin’s central squares named after her.

Yes. The Platz, which the Nazis had named after one of their own martyrs, Horst Wessel, was completely destroyed during the war. The area, including the Karl Liebknecht Haus, which the KPD had bought in 1927, was rebuilt. And since Liebknecht and Luxemburg were always mentioned together, they gave her the Platz. That wouldn’t have happened after 1947 though, because Moscow didn’t want to make her too big. Still, they didn’t dare to change the name, it would have looked bad. Other than that, there were Rosa Luxemburg streets in every town, and holiday homes named after her. And once every 10 years there was a stamp for her birthday. Every second Sunday in January, there also were big processions. The entire Politbüro gathered in Friedrichsfelde on a heated tribune as the people marched past. There were army troupes and combat unions – the kind of thing Rosa Luxemburg was especially fond of. But of course the most important name on that date was not Rosa Luxemburg but Karl Liebknecht. It was always Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, not the other way around.

Do you see a new interest in her now, 100 years after her death?

Going by the interviews I’ve given since the summer, we have a big Luxemburg renaissance. All bollocks. It’s pure anniversary tourism and in three months’ time nobody will speak about it anymore. People only turn to such historic figures in times of unrest.