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Dwight Macdonald

Off the Record

(14 February 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 7, 14 February 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Twenty years ago, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by reactionary army officers acting in collusion with the Social Democratic government of Berlin. As we draw steadily nearer to another world war, as reformism once more prepares a blood bath for the masses, the tragedy of Luxemburg takes on contemporary overtones. I can think of no better beginning for this column of comment on the events of 1939 than to reprint a “newsreel” I compiled last year on the death of Luxemburg in 1919:

From the New York Times, Jan. 18, 1919

Berlin, Jan. 16 (Associated Press) – Dr. Karl Liebknecht was killed by soldiers yesterday while he was trying to escape from custody.

Rosa Luxemburg was beaten into insensibility by a mob and afterward was shot to death ...

Virtually the entire Berlin press regards the fate of Dr. Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg as having “something of divine justice in it,” as the Tageszeitung phrases it ... The press in general deplores the lynching of Rosa Luxemburg, but declares that she fell a victim of the basest passions which she herself had awakened ...

The whole city is now swarming with soldiers, wearing steel helmets, carrying loaded rifles, and with hand grenades hanging on their belts. ... Karl Kautsky, former Under Secretary in the Foreign Affairs Ministry of the Ebert Government ... was arrested yesterday morning. He was liberated later.

From the New York Times, Jan. 19, 1919

Berlin, Jan. 16 (via Copenhagen) – Dr. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were arrested last night and while being transported to the Moabit Prison were thrashed by infuriated people and shot like mad dogs, the latter by an unknown man whose pistol may have saved her from a worse fate ... Their end, however cruel, will certainly do much for the restoration of peace and order ... Military Governor Noske is conducting a sharp investigation for the Social-Democratic government, but it seems that the soldiers’ conduct was faultless in both cases.

From the N.Y. World, Jan. 18, 1919

Berlin, Jan. 17 – I went to Gustav Noske, military governor of Berlin, and asked him how it was possible, with 40,000 troops in the city, that a crowd could get a prisoner away from the soldiers and kill her. Herr Noske replied: “Only a few soldiers were with each automobile, as such an attack was unexpected; the crowd, roused to intense anger by weeks of agitation by both the victims, were too much for the soldiers to handle.” “Unfortunately,” I said, “the incident is going to make a bad impression abroad ...” “It is regrettable,” Herr Noske replied, “but they are dead and we can now only make an inquiry.” ... “Do you expect it will lead to agitation again here?” “If it does,” Gov. Noske replied, “we must put it down.”

From the New York Times, Jan. 25, 1919

Amsterdam, Jan. 24. The body of Rosa Luxemburg, the Spartacist leader who was killed by a mob recently, was found yesterday in the Landwehr Canal, according to a report from Berlin. The body was terribly mutilated. The news is being kept secret for fear of anarchistic reprisals.

From the London Times, May 22, 1919

Berlin, May 21 – The leading facts leaked out gradually, and there was little inclination among those in power to make a fuss over the end of a pair of rebels. But these rebels were the idols of the people, and their passionate sincerity had commended them to many prominent radicals whose support the Government required. And so after months of waiting, the Government decided that some sort of trial was necessary.

Herr Scheidemann remembered that the accused were soldiers and that the Peace had not been signed. The form of trial he selected was a court-martial, the court being appointed by the Garde-Schutzen Division to which the accused men belonged ... The adherents of the victims refused to take any part in the proceedings.

The accused were not brought to the dock in the usual way, but were introduced from the Judge’s rooms. They arrived laughing and radiant, their breasts decorated with orders. Throughout the trial, they conducted themselves nonchalantly, one of them reading a newspaper when he felt bored, another eating sandwiches, a third playfully trying to get hold of some hand-bombs which one of his chums in uniform happened to have in his pocket ...

On the evening of the murders, soon after sunset, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were taken to the Eden Hotel, where they spent some hours in charge of their guardians. There was ... a good deal of conversation, some of it animated, in which the two victims discussed and defended their views. Orders were received that they were to be transferred to the Moabit Prison, and Liebknecht was taken to the back door of the hotel, where a military car was waiting. As they were leaving, one of the company cried out: “See that these swine do not reach the prison alive!”

As soon as Liebknecht got into the car, Private Runge aimed two blows at him with the butt of his rifle. One blow missed, the other cut his head open. Ober-Lieutenant von Pflugk-Hartung, the officer in charge, then got into the car. (He told the Court that he had taken quite a fancy to Liebknecht in the hotel, thought that for a Socialist he had interesting views and a good way of putting them.) He drew his revolver and told him that he would shoot him if he tried to escape ... Presently, in a dark corner of the Thiergarten, the car stopped ... Liebknecht was shot and killed, and evidence was accepted as satisfactory that he must have been running away. Pflugk-Hartung was acquitted, with great applause ...

About an hour later, Rosa Luxemburg was taken to the front door of the hotel ... There, for some reason that was not inquired into, Private Runge was also waiting for her. As soon as she got into the car, he swung his rifle and clubbed her on the head. It was doubtful if his blows had actually proved fatal, and it was suggested that he was mentally defective. And so he was given two years’ imprisonment.

Lieutenant Vogel, the officer in charge of this party, then got into the car, accompanied by two other officers. “Fraulein Luxemburg,” he testified, “received two violent blows on the head from the butts of rifles of helmeted soldiers. She collapsed, and when we came to a bridge the thought came to us all to throw her body into the river.” According to the other officers, however, she was shot through the head by Lieutenant Vogel. He testified that he threw the body into the river “to save the honor of the Garde-Schutzen Division.” ... He was given a sentence of two years and four months imprisonment. Already, however, his escape had been contrived. A man in officer’s uniform drove up in a motor car to the prison, presented a forged warrant and released the prisoner.

The Freiheit, the organ of the Independent Socialists, is alone in denouncing the proceedings. The other newspapers think that in a case of this kind, “where political feelings are involved,” perhaps the whole story has not been sifted, but they are satisfied that substantial justice has been done.

From a statement, signed “Hussar Otto Runge,” printed in Freiheit, Jan. 9, 1921

On January 15, 1919, between seven and nine o’clock in the evening, I was stationed as sentry before the chief entrance of the Eden Hotel. Cavalryman Drager was with me. About nine o’clock there was a great to-do and excitement: it was rumored that Liebknecht and Luxemburg had been brought in. Several orders were at once given me by officers and sergeants, and the remark was dropped that these creatures must not be allowed to leave the hotel alive.

Concerning Liebknecht, I received strict orders from officers to knock the fellow down with the butt of my rifle ... As for Frau Luxemburg, officers came to me and said: “I order you to see that Luxemburg does not leave the hotel alive. Mind you swallow that!” Lieutenant von Pflugk-Hartung made a note of my name and said to me: “First Lieutenant Vogel will send her straight to you; all you’ll have to do is to strike hard.” When Frau Luxemburg was being dragged into the motor, somebody jumped up behind just as it was driving off and sent a bullet into her head. I could see that very clearly, as I was only a short distance away. He then jumped down and re-entered the Eden Hotel from the Nurnberger Strasse ... Meanwhile the others had returned and were boasting: “We’ve done for Liebknecht nicely. A trick was played on him. We got him to try to escape.” ... Of Luxemburg it was said: “The old sow is already afloat.”

Editorial from the New York Times, Jan. 18, 1919

Lynch Law in Berlin

Regrettable as is the manner of death, the work of private violence, not the law, that came to Dr. Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, it was to be expected, and does a summary, if irregular, justice to the fomenters of robbery, murder and anarchy ... These two leaders, the man violent but weak, the woman a termagant of the familiar revolutionary type, have perished miserably by the sword they drew. The defeat of the imitation Bolsheviks, the victory everywhere where elections have been held of the parties of order – Conservatives, Centrists, Democrats, Majority Social Democrats – are of the best omen for a representative moderate National Assembly, for a responsible and stable government. The Allies and the United States have hardly less interest than Germany itself in such an outcome.

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