Red flags everywhere, hundreds, more hundreds, thousands marched along through the drizzly weather and puddled streets. Many bent figures hobbled with canes, some were in wheelchairs next to a younger set sitting proudly on their fathers’ shoulders or in strollers. Then another big group of young people arrived, some singing or chanting leftist demands. Most spoke German but much Turkish, English and a dozen other languages mixed in. They all moved past the rows of political and snack booths, a majority had red carnations for a ring of graves and, in a brick semicircle, urns with names which once resounded well beyond Germany from 1900 to 1990. One section is for those who fought and died in Spain. But the masses of red flowers for Karl Liebknecht and, even more for Rosa Luxemburg, was higher than I have ever seen them. Both were murdered one hundred years ago.
Why do those two names mean so much to so many people? This year 20,000 were estimated, but who could count the individuals and the group waves during the whole of Sunday. It was far more than last year, when 10,000 were estimated. I have watched the numbers increase or decline over the years, sometimes in official GDR parades, sometimes, afterwards, faced by mounted police, dogs, helicopters, and in one year banned (but defied). There were fewer in recent years as faithful GDR old-timers died out. This year’s increase was due in part to the 100th anniversary, but not only that.
These commemorations began soon after their death and were only stopped fully by the Nazis, who destroyed the monument by the great Mies von der Rohe and destroyed the bodies, or what was left of Rosa after months in the canal into which the killers threw her corpse. Thus the graves are empty, but this cannot lessen the unending admiration and love for Karl, a great, courageous fighter and, undeniably even a little more, for Rosa, a delicate, sensitive woman, limping since childhood, a lover of poetry and the smallest aspects of nature: a tiny bird, a beetle attacked by ants, a nightingale, but then, with her clear, sharp mind, superior to so many of the loud men she was surrounded by, capable of fiery speeches which moved so many audiences and were feared by so many enemies.
What they yearned and fought for – and aroused such love and hatred – was first the war’s end and then a socialist Germany and a socialist world, with wars forever banned. Much of this seemed within reach in November 1918, when navy sailors refused to sail their ships into a final, fatal encounter with the British fleet. Arrested and locked up in port in Kiel, they were supported and freed by the shipyard workers, and the soldiers sent to subdue them turned their guns around, forcing an end to World War One, deposing the Kaiser, and setting off Germany’s November Revolution. The rebellious sailors moved to Berlin, hundreds of thousands of workers joined in, and Karl Liebknecht announced a new Socialist Republic of Germany from the Kaiser’s deserted palace.
But hardly a mile away another state was also created – what came to be known as the Weimar Republic because that is where its constitution was approved. Its president was Friedrich Ebert, the head of the Social Democratic Party, which supported the Kaiser’s war from start to finish. Karl Liebknecht was in 1914 the only Social Democrat to reject the war, or spending one mark for it. His continuing opposition, and that of Rosa, who also insisted that working people should never massacre each other, meant imprisonment for both till they were freed by the revolution.
Events moved fast. Too fast. In secret Ebert and his group joined with the defeated generals to end the monarchy but keep the rule of the wealthy, saving it from the wrath of a hungry country, which demonstrated – a half million in Berlin – but soon yearned for peace, any peace. Ebert called on his Minister of War Gustav Noske, also a Social Democrat, to crush the rebellion. “Someone must be the bloodhound!” he said, and sent in a well-armed mix of aristocrats and thugs to smash resistance. Karl and Rosa, in hiding, who had helped found a Communist Party two weeks earlier, were soon found and killed in the same night. Decades later the responsible officer, never punished, revealed his contact with the government.
The new government soon became a site of compromise and betrayal. When the frightful depression hit, when large numbers of Social Democrats moved toward action and, more alarmingly, millions voted for the Communists, all democratic remains were brushed aside by those same forces – Krupp, Thyssen, Flick, Deutsche Bank and the others – which again turned to the bloodthirsty thugs of Hitler. The result: over fifty million dead and much of Europe in ruins.
Karl and Rosa are admired and loved as revolutionaries. There was also a revolutionary spirit at the annual conference, always arranged for the preceding Saturdays by the newspaper Junge Welt; the 2000-seat auditorium was jammed, listening to forceful speeches by foreign guests and again a taped message from the imprisoned black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, now with just a ray of hope for release.
With the waves of red flags on Sunday, often with hammer and sickle, visitors from another planet might have thought a new revolution was imminent!
They would have been mistaken. No socialist revolution is imminent, violent or non-violent, now or in the next future. A large proportion of working people are indeed dissatisfied, often angry, even many Germans. But few are considering any such revolution, and hammer and sickle emblems are perhaps more likely to alienate than inspire them. The time is not ripe.
As in 1914 and 1919 Germany’s Social Democratic Party is still compromising the principles it stood for when Karl and Rosa were still in it. Now it is part of a government with Angela Merkel’s rightist Christian Democrats, to which it bends, over and over, to the pressures of the mighty, to crooks like the environmental chiselers Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, pitifully proclaiming its love for a working class membership now deserting it, leaving it a fragment of its former size at an anemic 15 percent.
This has happened to many European parties called socialist, while parties to the left, often split and disorganized, have rarely found the fighting spirit and strength to adequately face two dark clouds now adding to CO2 and other poisons wrecking the earth from pole to pole. One is the return in growing strength of the same species of well-financed fascistic thugs which killed Rosa and Karl. The other is the increased maneuvering with ever more modern weapons along the borders of any country standing in the way of the goal of the wealthiest, total world hegemony. This clique, controlled by a diminishing number of mighty billionaires – in pharmaceutics, chemicals, car-making, agriculture, retail sales and mind control, but above all in the manufacture of ever deadlier weapons of war, which now threaten an atomic annihilation far greater in menace even than ecological destruction.
The fervor of some seemed premature, but not all past traditions should be scrapped because of past failures. And the yellow vests worn by so many on Sunday were symbols of solidarity and of new hopes. People in France, fighting mad, have gone into the streets, week for week. Angry demonstrations surprised the world in Budapest, Vienna, in the Nile cities of Sudan and in Zimbabwe. Eager, combative faces are upsetting the old guard in the US Capitol, while teachers in red vests have taken a stand in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Chicago and now in Los Angeles.
Rosa’s words about freedom for those who think differently have been repeated thousands of times – and sometimes misused. Less often quoted is her warning to the world about capitalism:
“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.”
Many of those taking part on Sunday also knew of Karl’s last article, printed after his death:
“Those defeated today will be the victors tomorrow… whether or not we live to experience it, our program will remain alive; it will prevail in a world of a rescued humanity – In spite of everything!
Victor Grossman is Tikkun‘s correspondent in Berlin.