Rosa Luxemburg (c. 1915, Berlin)
Ninety-eight years ago today, on 4 August 1914, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) voted in favour of war credits in the Reichstag, thus demonstrating their support for the Imperial German government in its war against the Russian Empire, France and Great Britain.
For twenty-five years, the socialist parties of Europe had sworn that in the event of war, they would do everything in their power to prevent a conflict and to maintain solidarity with their brothers and sisters in other nations. Rosa Luxemburg herself was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for telling a crowd in Frankfurt:
“If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: ‘We will not do it!'”
Rosa Luxemburg speaking at the Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International in 1907
In a resolution drafted by Rosa Luxemburg and V. I. Lenin, the Socialist International, which acted as a ‘parliament of the world’s workers’ had proclaimed in 1907:
“If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.
In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”
On 4 August 1914, these promises of international solidarity dissolved, as did the ‘Second International’ itself. Only a handful of the socialist leaders stuck to the spirit of the resolution, including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and others in Germany, V. I. Lenin and Julius Martov in Russia and the Serbian socialists. One of the most famous and popular leaders of the Second International, French socialist leader Jean Jaurès, campaigned passionately against war. But on 31 July, he had been assassinated in a Parisian cafe by a extremist French nationalist.
When the vote came in the German Reichstag, the choice facing the socialist MPs was stark; either stick to international socialist principles and vote against the government (which would almost certainly mean the banning of the party by the Kaiser and harsh repressive measures) or the abandonment of international socialism by voting for war. The 110 Socialist MPs gathered for a caucus meeting… and the majority voted for war. The minority of anti-war MPs, including Karl Liebknecht, Hugo Haase and Eduard Bernstein, were compelled by party discipline to vote for war credits in the actual Reichstag vote, which followed soon after. As a result, the Kaiser and his government received a unanimous Reichstag endorsement for war and the position of the SPD as the most important socialist party in the world disintegrated into thin air.
Spartacists: Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Kathe Duncker, Leo Jogiches, Julian Marchlewski, Franz Mehring, Ernst Meyer, Wilhelm Pieck and Clara Zetkin
When Rosa Luxemburg heard the news she was stunned. Her own SPD had voted for war?! When Lenin received the same news, he refused to believe it- demanding that it must be propaganda designed to demoralise socialists. Back in Berlin, Rosa was so distressed by her party’s betrayal that she contemplated suicide, as did her friend Clara Zetkin. Shaking herself off, Rosa organised the first anti-war meeting of the First World War. However, she managed to assemble just eight people. These men and women were the founding members of the ‘Internationale Group’, which later became the Spartacus League. They were Rosa herself, her comrade and ex-partner Leo Jogiches, elderly journalist and historian Franz Mehring, Rosa’s old Polish comrade Julian Marchlewski, Hermann and Kathe Duncker, socialist newspaper editor Ernst Meyer and the young Wilhelm Pieck, later President of the German Democratic Republic.
The Spartacist Rising (Berlin, January 1918) and Lenin in Russia
The Reichstag vote on 4 August 1914 was the first stage in the disintegration of the SPD, which by the end of 1918 had split into three factions; the Social Democrats (SPD), Independent Social Democrats (USPD) and the Communists (KPD). It also spelt the end of the Second International, the embodiment of international working-class solidarity, which was never successfully resurrected. For Rosa Luxemburg, it was the start of four years of illegal anti-war work, much of which was conducted from prison cells, and the beginning of a crisis of capitalism which would lead to the deaths of over nine million people (including many of Rosa’s friends and relatives) and bring down the empires of Europe in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918- 1919, for which she gave her life.
The horrors of war and revolution; victims of the trenches (left) and of the counter-revolution in Berlin (March 1919)