Her murder was couched in terms of “Hohenzollern Germany celebrat(ing) its last triumph and Nazi Germany its first”, by socialist historian Isaac Deutscher. He was referring to the 1919 political assassination of Rosa Luxemburg.
Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were turn-of-the-century anti-imperialist, anti-war revolutionaries. Together, they led the pursuit of a socialist future for a Germany transitioning from an imperial state to a republic post-WWI.
Rejecting the alliance of the new socialist government with the old-order monarchists and military, Liebknecht and Luxemburg led an uprising to overthrow the government. However, they failed.
They were then murdered on government orders. These orders were carried out on the same day by a unit of the brutal Freikorps, comprising disillusioned war veterans. The Freikorps later became the Nazi Party’s SA (Sturmabteilung).
The government tried to cover up the executions of the pair. Liebknecht was shot at the Tiergarten with the faked excuse he tried to escape. His body was brought back to the morgue as an “unknown corpse”.
Luxemberg was shot and her body dumped in the Landwehrkanal near the Tiergarten, several hundred metres away from the site of Liebknecht’s murder. The official communique was that she was “killed by the crowd”. Her body was found four months later.
Both bodies were eventually buried in a pauper’s cemetery in Berlin.
However, 71 years later, another “unknown corpse” was found in the cellar of a hospital. It was suspected to be that of Luxemburg’s. DNA tests proved inconclusive.
Today, Luxemburg and Liebknecht are icons and even martyrs of socialism and are memorialised in numerous ways all over the world. What we found poignant was a pair of private memorials on the sites where they were disappeared.
We did not know it at that time, but we actually first saw the memorial to Rosa Luxemburg on the centenary of their murders, in 2009. What’s more it was a cold wintery January, the month they were executed. But it wasn’t till Autumn that we went back to photograph it.
The memorial is striking for featuring only her name on the spot where her corpse is believed to have been thrown into the Landwehrkanal. The adjacent bridge, designed by the same architects, has a section which has been symbolically renamed after her.
On the site is also a plaque that describes the political murder. An identical plaque appears at the partner memorial to Karl Liebknecht by the Neuer See in the Tiergarten.
We didn’t get round to seeing the Liebknecht memorial until it was Winter again. And again, by chance, it was January, the anniversary of their execution. As per the year before, the trees were bare and it had been snowing heavily. And once more, letters spelt out the approximate spot where the passionate pacifist and justice-seeker was executed by Freikorps soldiers. ω
The context of the murders is brilliantly covered in Dorion Cope’s essay ‘The Murder of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht’ in On This Deity.
A detailed rundown of the execution appears in a testimony of one of the participants, listed on the website of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, one of the largest political education institutions in Germany.
The memorials we saw were the work of Ralf Schüler and Ursulina Schüler-Witte, influential West Berlin architects from the 1960s–80s, whose footprint includes the quirky Bierpinsel in Steglitz.