Assassination of Rosa Luxemburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rosa Luxemburg’s assassination elevated her to the status of a martyr for Marxism.

Summary of Event

The murder of Rosa Luxemburg in January, 1919, can best be understood in the context of Luxemburg’s entire life, career, and political philosophy. Born in Zamose, Poland, on March 5, 1870, of Jewish parentage, and handicapped by a limp at an early age, she left her home in Warsaw for Zurich, Switzerland, in 1889, and enrolled at the university. In Zurich she met Leo Jogiches, who throughout her life would be her confidant, her collaborator, and, intermittently, her lover. Luxemburg graduated from the university in 1897 with a doctorate in law and political science; her thesis, The Development of Industry in Poland, was published in July, 1898, and an article she wrote, “Step by Step,” a study of the Polish middle class, appeared in an important German newspaper. Assassinations;Rosa Luxemburg[Luxemburg] [kw]Assassination of Rosa Luxemburg (Jan. 15, 1919) [kw]Luxemburg, Assassination of Rosa (Jan. 15, 1919) Assassinations;Rosa Luxemburg[Luxemburg] [g]Germany;Jan. 15, 1919: Assassination of Rosa Luxemburg[04660] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 15, 1919: Assassination of Rosa Luxemburg[04660] [c]Terrorism;Jan. 15, 1919: Assassination of Rosa Luxemburg[04660] Luxemburg, Rosa Ebert, Friedrich Jogiches, Leo Liebknecht, Karl Runge, Otto Vogel, Kurt

In April, 1898, in order to obtain German citizenship, Luxemburg married Gustav Lübeck (they were divorced in 1903). The next month she left Zurich for Berlin, where she immediately became involved in the activities of the German Social Democratic Party. Social Democratic Party (Germany) She was sent to Upper Silesia, a part of Poland annexed by Prussia, where she campaigned for Social Democratic candidates for the Reichstag. One of her most important contributions to socialist thought, Social Reform and Revolution, Social Reform and Revolution (Luxemburg) appeared in six installments in September, 1898. In contrast and in conflict with the arguments of Eduard Bernstein, Bernstein, Eduard who advocated a policy of peaceful social and political reform in Germany, she restated and refined Marxist doctrine, insisting on the need and inevitability of social revolution.

Luxemburg’s speeches and writings, her organizing on behalf of the Social Democratic Party of the kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania, and her participation in international socialist conferences attracted the attention and reaction of both German and Russian authorities. In May, 1903, addressing audiences in twelve cities, she spoke to fifteen hundred people in Bydgoszcz, five hundred the next day in Pila, and two thousand in Liechtenstein a few days later. Her speeches were usually two hours in length, followed by question-and-answer sessions and long meetings. A few months later, in 1904, Luxemburg spent two months in prison for insulting Emperor William II of Germany. In 1906, along with Jogiches, she was arrested by the czarist police and for a time incarcerated in the Warsaw Citadel.

Between her two prison terms, mass strikes had erupted in Germany, Poland, and Russia in 1905, and Czar Nicholas II was forced to permit the organization of the Duma, a representative assembly. Luxemburg spoke out against a policy of caution urged by the leadership of the General Commission of the German Trade Unions. At the Jena Party Congress in September, 1905, she argued that “we must remind ourselves that for us the final words of the Communist Manifesto are not merely fine phrases . . . but that we are in bloody earnest when we appeal to the masses [saying] the workers have nothing to lose but their chains—but a whole world to gain.”

Luxemburg believed strongly in the importance and spontaneity of mass strikes ushering in the socialist revolution; for the German opposition to her ideas, she would become known as “Bloody Rosa.” Despite another imprisonment in Berlin in 1907, and despite arguments in the factional struggles of the German and Russian socialist parties, Luxemburg persisted and persevered. She found time to write The National Question and Autonomy, National Question and Autonomy, The (Luxemburg) published in 1908, condemning nationalistic movements in Poland, India, and Latin America as middle-class obsessions, unworthy of the support of Social Democrats. “Social Democracy,” she said, “is called to realize not the right of self-determination of nations [but] the self-determination of the working class.”

Increasingly, Luxemburg was at odds with the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party, embittering her relations with Karl Kautsky, Kautsky, Karl one of Germany’s most prominent Marxists, and humiliating him in the party press. There were charges and countercharges between Luxemburg and other radicals, accusations that she betrayed the party; she was being politically isolated, finding difficulties in placing her articles in party journals and disseminating her viewpoints. She was determined to remain within the party, however, and discouraged efforts by her supporters to form a new political organization.

The beginning of the final rupture with the German Social Democratic Party came during World War I. In the Reichstag, the Social Democratic deputies, adopting the position that the German declaration of war against France and Russia was a defensive posture against czarist despotism, voted to endorse the government’s appeal for war credits. Despite another conviction for pro-republican and anti-imperial sentiments, Luxemburg, along with Karl Liebknecht, denounced the policy of the Social Democratic majority. With Liebknecht, she formed the “International Group,” soon to become known as the Spartacists, Spartacists (Germany) and published the group’s own newspaper. Luxemburg wrote “The Crisis of Social Democracy,” "Crisis of Social Democracy, The" (Luxemburg)[Crisis of Social Democracy] an analysis of the events that led to the European War and criticizing the mistakes of the Social Democratic Party “in the abdication of our will to struggle, of our courage, our fidelity to our convictions.” Luxemburg herself did not lack a “will to struggle . . . courage . . . fidelity.” She was in prison for a year, from February, 1915, to February, 1916; later, she was placed in “protective custody” in July, 1916, where she remained until November, 1918. She was in prison during the March Revolution of 1917 in Russia, remained there during the Bolshevik Revolution in October, and was still incarcerated when mass strikes took place in Germany in March, 1918, as its leaders prepared to leave the war.

By the time of Luxemburg’s release on November 9, 1918, the German emperor had abdicated his throne and gone into exile in neutral Holland, and Social Democratic deputies had joined the new government. On her return to Berlin, a republic had been proclaimed by the Social Democratic deputy, Phillip Scheiderman, and the Social Democratic deputy Friedrich Ebert had become chancellor.

Neither Liebknecht nor Luxemburg was satisfied with the establishment of a republic, however. While Luxemburg was still in prison, the Spartacists had joined in an uneasy coalition with the Independent Social Democratic Party Independent Social Democratic Party (Germany) of Germany, the pacifist wing of the Social Democrats, after their expulsion from the party in 1917. In December, 1918, after a government attack on the People’s Naval Division, which had mutinied in Kiel a year before, the Spartacists demanded that the Independent Social Democrats convene a party congress. The refusal of the Independent Social Democrats led to the establishment of the Communist Party Communist Party;Germany of Germany.

On January 4, 1919, the Ebert government discharged Emil Eichhorn, the radical Berlin police chief. A protest demonstration was held; the Spartacists took control of the offices of the Social Democratic newspaper, and Liebknecht joined a revolutionary commission that declared the end of the Ebert government. The Spartacists had acted too precipitously in fomenting an insurrection, however. The army supported the government, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht went into hiding, moving from place to place as hunted fugitives with a price on their heads.

The end came on the evening of January 15, 1919. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested by army troopers and taken to the Eden Hotel, the headquarters of the Guards Cavalry Rifle Division. There, they were informed that they would be transferred to the Moabit Prison. Liebknecht went first. As he left the hotel under army escort past jeering guests, an army rifleman, Otto Runge, struck Liebknecht with his rifle butt. Luxemburg then followed, also past whistling and spitting guests. Runge also hit her with his rifle, and blood poured from her nose and mouth. Dragged into a waiting car, Luxemburg was shot in the left temple by Lieutenant Kurt Vogel. Her body was then thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal. At approximately the same time, Liebknecht was killed “while attempting to escape.”


In May, 1919, a military court-martial sentenced Runge and Vogel to two years in prison for killing Luxemburg. Liebknecht’s escorts were acquitted of all charges. Two months earlier, in March, 1919, Jogiches, who had revealed the identities of the perpetrators of the Luxemburg-Liebknecht murders, was taken into custody, severely beaten, and then shot “while attempting to escape.”

Luxemburg’s assassination, along with the light sentences meted out to her killers, served to elevate her status among leftists. She came to be known as a martyr for the Left, and her theoretical writings attained lasting respect among Marxists. Assassinations;Rosa Luxemburg[Luxemburg]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abraham, Richard. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life for the International. Oxford, England: Berg, 1989. A concise analysis of Luxemburg’s life and thought. Includes an extensive and helpful bibliography and a guide to political parties and factions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bronner, Stephen Eric. Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. Biography focuses on Luxemburg’s political thought and work, connecting both with socialist theory and practice at the end of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ettinger, Elzbieta. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Biography focuses on Luxemburg’s personal life and her relations with Leo Jogiches and other men.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geras, Norman. The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. London: NLB, 1976. Four essays on the political theories of Luxemburg, including a study of her views on the mass strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Le Blanc, Paul, ed. Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings. New York: Humanity Books, 1999. Collection presents essays on Luxemburg by various intellectuals and activists as well as selected writings by Luxemburg. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nettl, John Peter. Rosa Luxemburg. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. Excellent comprehensive biography.

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Categories: History