Rosa Luxemburg and Camille Huysmans; a friendship formed on the eve of the First World War
On 23 June 1917, Rosa Luxemburg wrote a letter from her prison cell in the Wronke Fortress, where she was being held for her anti-war activities, to her friend Hans Diefenbach.
In her letter, she described her relationship with Camille Huysmans (1871- 1968), the Belgian socialist leader. Huysmans was the Secretary of the Socialist International (‘The Second International’) from 1905 until the outbreak of war in 1914. In this role, he interacted with Rosa, who represented Poland (and sometimes Germany) at the Socialist International. In this letter, Luxemburg describes her relationship with Huysmans, “the large young man with the dark curly hair and typical Flemish face”, thus:
“For ten years we both belonged to the International Bureau [of the Socialist International], and for ten years we hated eachother.”
She put this down to Huysmans being “unable to stand politically active women”, as well his “impertinent face” getting on her nerves. After ten years of mutually hatred, suddenly their relationship was turned on its head by the terrible threat of was. She recalled:
“And now, this is what happened. It was at the last session [of the Socialist International Bureau] session in Brussels, which was held in the face of imminent war at the end of July 1914.
After the close of the session we were together for a few hours. I was sitting right next to a bunch of gladiolas– it was in some elegant restaurant– they were on the table and I was completely absorbed in staring at them without taking part in political discussion. Then the conversation came around to my trip home [to Berlin], and at that point my helplessness in “earthly matters” came to light, my eternal need for a guardian who would take care of the ticket for me, put me on the right train, gather together my misplaced hand luggage– in short, all of my shameful weaknesses, which have provided you with so many merry moments. Huysmans watched me in silence the whole time, and in the course of one hour a ten-year long hatred changed into a glowing friendship. It was enough to make you laugh. At last he had seen me weak, and he was in his element.
Now he immediately took my fate in his hands, dragged me together with Anseele, the charming little Walloon, to his place to have dinner, brought me a little kitty-kat, and then played and sang Mozart and Schubert for me…
[Later] he brought me to the train, carried my suitcase himself, and on top of that, sat with me in the compartment, and suddenly decided “But it’s not possible for you to travel alone!” as if I was a total greenhorn. I barely talked him out of accompanying me at least as far as the German border, he finally jumped out when the train was already starting to move, and still he called out: “Farewell, until Paris!”
That was on July 31 . But when my train arrived in Berlin the mobilisation was already fully under way, and two days later poor Huysmans’ beloved Belgium had already been occupied. “The winds and the clouds– they play with us.” I had to repeat that to myself… ‘
Rosa Luxemburg to Hans Diefenbach (from Wronke Fortress), 23 June 1917.
Luxemburg and Huysmans never saw eachother again, but they continued to correspond during the war when possible. Many years later, Camille Huysmans became Prime Minister of Belgium (1946- 47) and remained a very popular figure until his death, aged 97, in 1968. He remembered Rosa fondly and he too told the story of their friendship, formed on the eve of the First World War.