Tuesday 15 January 2019

Remembering Rosa Luxemburg 100 years on

Would Rosa Luxemburg have changed the world? We'll never know, because she was murdered in the act of doing so, 100 years ago, by men who would go on to join the Nazis party, in the midst of an uprising she didn't really believe in.

She is known to school history students the world over as a leader of the revolutionary Spartacist League, who had a go at emulating the Bolshevik Revolution on the streets of Berlin in January 1919. Apparently, she considered it misconceived from the start, but supported her comrades in their bid to forge a Communist state from the ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm's war-ravaged regime.

The uprising lasted a few days; the new democratic government turned to paramilitary WW1 veterans for help, and looked on in horror as the men with guns dispensed their own bloody justice. A book published 20 years ago in Germans and just now in English found that the men who murdered Luxemburg faced little in the way of justice themselves, and found gainful employment in the Nazi state and its post-war successor. 

It seems doubtful that Luxemburg could have made much of a mark on inter-war Germany if she'd lived longer - her's was one of a number of attempts to establish a German workers' state, all of which ended abruptly and brutally. But as I've turned over her image and fate in mind, it's seemed to me that she has stayed with us as a tragic symbol of an era when idealism was cheap, and life cheaper still. Looking back, her end was a bell-weather for a generation of Europeans who wanted a lighter world at the precise moment that others were engaged in shrouding it in darkness.

Also on my mind on this day is Frederic Rzewski's hour-long piano work The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975), which puts a Chilean political song through the ringer, for it to emerge after 60 minutes tinged with the pain of experience and sacrifice. The idealism and the terrible cost are all there, just as they are for anyone who cares to glance back at the century that separates us from Rosa Luxemburg.

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