Arrest of Gavril Princip, assassin of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand (left) and Rosa Luxemburg with her friend Clara Zetkin (right).
On 2 and 3 August 1914, Rosa Luxemburg led last minute attempts to prevent the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) voting in favour of war credits in the Reichstag.
Following the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia on 28 July. The next day, the leaders of the world’s socialist parties gathered in Brussels to organise anti-war demonstrations and protests. Rosa Luxemburg was at the Brussels meeting, but was not optimistic about the chances of averting a world war. The Italian delegate, Angelica Balabanoff, wrote that “In retrospect Jean Jaures and Rosa Luxemburg seem to me the only delegates who, like [Victor] Adler, realised fully the inevitability of the world war and the horrors it entailed.”
On 31 July, Rosa Luxemburg and the other German delegates returned to Berlin, where they continued to campaign loudly against a world war. But the Russian army had mobilised on 29 July, the Germans on 30 July. On 1 August, the French mobilised and Germany declared war on Russia. A world war was now inevitable.
On 2 and 3 July, Rosa Luxemburg and her friend Clara Zetkin tried in vain to organise anti-war activity within the SPD. Their aim was to prevent the party from voting in favour of war credits at the impending Reichstag vote, scheduled for 4 August. The SPD had always voted against the government’s budgets and campaigned against war for decades. On 25 July, the party issued a typical anti-war manifesto, which proclaimed: ‘The class- conscious German proletariat… raises a flaming protest against the criminal machinations of the war mongers… Not a drop of any German soldier’s blood must be sacrificed to the power hunger of the Austrian ruling clique, to the Imperialist profiteers’. Yet, it seemed increasingly likely that the socialists’ protests would fail and some within the party argued that, as the workers appeared to support the war, they ought to vote in favour and support the war effort. Some even hailed the war as a crusade aganst Tsarist despotism.
Luxemburg and Zetkin were determined that the SPD should send out a strong, clear anti-war message by voting against the war credits. Over the 48 hours leading up to this crucial vote, on 2 and 3 August 1914, the pair contacted twenty SPD Reichstag Deputies, but got the support of just two- Franz Mehring and Karl Liebknecht. Rosa Luxemburg could not believe that the most powerful socialist party in the world, the SPD, could vote in favour of a world war. When the vote came, on 4 August, it gave Luxemburg the greatest political (and psychological) shock of her life…