Blog post

Rosa Luxemburg: radical revolutionary

Her passion for revolution and justice sent shockwaves through German society

a bronze bust of Rosa Luxemburg stands on a pedestal in a park. Her halflong hair bobs around her face, she stares defiantly into the distance.
Jolan Wuyts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Rosa Luxemburg seemed to have a lot going against her at the start of her life. Born into a lower-middle-class Polish Jewish family in 1871, a hip problem at the age of five left Rosa with a permanent limp. Besides her physical disability, Rosa grew up when Poland was still part of the Russian empire, surrounded by those who wanted to Russify the Poles on one side and those who fought for Polish independence on the other.

black and white photograph of Rosa luxemburg, wearing a white long dress sinched with a belt, and a wide-brimmed hat that droops a bit on one side.

Her parents instilled a deep sense of Polish nationalism in Rosa. She took this with her to school where she secretly attended meetings of Polish writers and poets that used the Polish language, which was forbidden at the time. Rosa joined the also illegal Polish Proletariat Party at the age of 15. She helped organise a general strike, which was met with a bloody suppression from the Tsarist regime: four of the Proletariat Party leaders were put to death.

From a very early age, Rosa had a deep revulsion for humans' inhumanity to other humans. For her, this went along with a deep love for humanity itself, fascinated by natural science and art as well as politics. At sixteen, she wrote:

My ideal is a social system that allows one to love everybody with a clear conscience.

Rosa's political activism made her a wanted woman, so she fled to Switzerland in 1889, aged just 18, where she started studying and became the first Polish woman with a doctorate degree in Economics. In 1898, she moved back to Poland and co-founded the Polish Marxist political party SDKPiL. That same year, she had to flee Poland once more, moving to Germany, where she quickly rose through the ranks of the Social-Political Democrat party (SPD). Rosa became known for her inflammatory speeches which always succeeded in agitating the crowd.

During her studies in Zürich she met Polish revolutionary Leo Jogiches, a young man dedicated to the anti-Tsarist movement. They started an intense and long-lasting relationship, but marrying Jogiches, an underground activist using six different names, was never an option. Nevertheless Rosa enjoyed an active love life wich was considered highly provocative at that time. She and Jogiches split in 1907, and Rosa went on to be in relationships with Clara Zetkin’s son Kostja, and Paul Levi.

a woman stands on a podium surrounded by a throng of people. She's wearing a black dress and wide-brimmed hat, and has her arm raised in front of her, delivering a speech.

Most of her ire was focused on Eduard Bernstein, one of the leading SPD thinkers. Bernstein aimed to re-route the SPD by positing that it should work towards social reform within a capitalist society instead of calling for a revolution and toppling of capitalism. One of Rosa's most famous pieces of writings is the pamphlet called 'Social Reform or Revolution?' where she refutes Bernstein's argument point by point.

This put Luxemburg firmly in the camp of the militant revolutionaries of the SPD, with Bernstein leading the revisionist, reformist faction on the other side. Their discussions and writings would become known as The Bernstein Debate.

a man stands on a cloth-swaddled podium surrounded by a crowd of men in bowler hats and fedoras. He has his arms slightly lifted, delivering a speech to the crowd

Rosa was a prolific writer. She wrote hundreds of letters, pamphlets and magazines in her life. Some of her more well-known writings connect the scourge of capitalism with imperialism and colonialism.

A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. Rosa Luxemburg, the Junius Pamphlet, 1916

a woman stands on a high podium in a white dress and hat, delivering a speech to a crowd. Behind her are seated and standing multiple people, flanked by tall flags of political parties.

Rosa was deeply convinced that emancipation and women suffrage could only be realized as part of a proletarian revolution, as she pointed out in her text „Women suffrage and class struggle“ (1912). This is why she mistrusted the bourgeois women's suffragette movement.

From 1900 onwards, feeling the onset of war, Rosa's writings unceremoniously attacked German imperialism, nationalism and militarism. When World War I did break out in 1914, however, the SPD voted in favour of financing the war and taking up arms. This was hugely demoralising for Luxemburg, who saw that the revisionist side of the SPD had triumphed.

In response to the outbreak of the war, Rosa co-founded Die Internationale together with, among others, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin. The group would later become known as The Spartacus League.

three women are pictured walking down the street. All three are dressed in long black dresses, each wearing a different kind of hat. One is carrying an umbrella.
a stylised wall painting of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht pictured in full profile, looking up to the top right, their faces a mix of anger and defiance.

The group wrote illegal anti-war pamphlets under pseudonyms, opposing the SPD's pro-war efforts, calling for general strikes and proletariat uprisings. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were imprisoned for their illegal writings for two and a half years in 1916, although they kept on writing and publishing from jail.

Rosa and Liebknecht were freed from prison on 8 November 1918, three days before the end of the war. She and Liebknecht founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

The KPD ended up boycotting the elections that would lead to the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1918. In January 1919, another wave of revolution swept through Berlin, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht called on their KPD comrades to overthrow the Weimar government so that a truly left-wing Marxist revolution could take place.

poster with drawings of Liebknecht and Rosa staring into the camera with concerned faces. in the bottom left corner of the poster red lettering reads ''the new era moves with us, 65th birthday of the creation of the KPD'

The revolution failed, and Liebknecht and Rosa were captured on 15 January 1919 by paramilitaries under the command of the SPD chancellor Friedrich Ebert. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were both shot dead on the spot, Rosa's body was thrown in the canal and Liebknecht's corpse was sent to the morgue.

linocut showing a woman in white dress, Rosa Luxemburg, being held by her arms by two men in black uniforms with black caps, one holding a gun to the back of her head.

The murder of Rosa and Karl re-ignited the communist revolution: four months of bloody upheaval and subsequent oppression followed. Rosa's body was later found and buried, together with Liebknecht, in Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery.

a pen drawing of multiple people dressed in  worker's clothing holding flags and guns, having bayonets pointed at them, constructing and standing on barricades

Rosa Luxemburg's testament to social history is one of vehemence, of utter commitment to the cause of worker liberation and a social system of democracy, of conviction that capitalism can only be overthrown through revolution. At the heart of Rosa Luxemburg's activism, however, there always was a core of humanism, a love of humanity. Her struggle had always been to make all humans live better lives, which she worked towards with every fibre of her being.

Being human means throwing your whole life on the scales of destiny when need be, all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.

black and white photograph of rosa luxemburg, body turned three quarters to the left side, looking slightly to the left of the lens. Her face is illuminated from the left, her hair tousled.
black and white picture of Rosa Luxemburg sitting at a writing desk, wearing black clothing. Her long hair is pulled back into a bun, we see the right side of her face in profile