Berlin 100 years ago: Fateful days of a revolution – The January fights and the double murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

Here they hid themselves from their hunters. From the opposite side, the Haus Mannheimer Strasse 27 in Wilmersdorf looks like many other old buildings: a beige faade with eight balconies inside, five stories high, with the recently built roof six. On the roadside in front of the building a disused Christmas tree waiting for removal. Poinsettias stick behind windows, as a golden, there a red.

Red is also the stain on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the house, a stain that is shaped like a poster and looks ironclad on the pavement. For months, such posters have referred to historic sites of the 1918-19 revolution. It says: “01/15/19. The last hiding place. “A few steps away, in the ground in front of the ground floor of the house, there is a commemorative plaque:” Last haven of the German revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht … “

100,000 mark bounty

For weeks they were on the run, the two heads of the Spartakusbundes. The Spartacists had emerged from the SPD, formed the left wing of the USPD and co-founded the KPD. On both their opponents, especially the Anti-Bolshevik League, financed by large industrialists, had exposed a bounty of 50,000 Reichsmark each; In newspapers, on advertising pillars and on leaflets, they had demanded: “Beat their leaders!”

From hiding place to hiding Liebknecht and Luxemburg. In the house on Mannheimer Strasse – it was then number 43 – they found refuge on January 14, 1919 with a friendly doctor. The following day, members of a “vigilante” arrested both of them, and with them Wilhelm Pieck (later President of the GDR), who had delivered the proof of the next issue of the newspaper “The Red Flag”. A little later, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were dead …

The revolution – a child

Berlin, New Year’s Eve 1918. What will the new year bring? The war was raging, the emperor stole away, the revolution prevailed. But what revolution? Opinions about the political future of the country differ widely: should there be a bourgeois democracy on the Western model or a Soviet republic after Russian? Or something in between?

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Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919).


imago / United Archives Internatio

The Council of People’s Deputies with Friedrich Ebert (SPD) as Chancellor leads the business; Elections to the constituent National Assembly are scheduled to take place on 19 January. Since the end of December, the SPD has held all posts in the council since the USPD withdrew in protest against the Christmas battles. Ebert had sent government-loyal troops against the mutinous People’s Navy Division, without success. There were 67 dead.

“The revolution was uninhibited, unconscious, like a child who sets in without knowing where to go,” says Rosa Luxemburg at the founding convention of the KPD at the turn of the year 1918/19. But who should take the child by the hand?

The old elites are playing for time

The SPD wants only a political revolution, it wants to preserve the social foundations of the empire. Ebert relies on the Supreme Command, headed by Wilhelm Groener, who on 9 November, the day of the revolution, announced that only the troops could eliminate the “Bolshevik danger” (Ebert-Groener-Pakt).

The extreme left – the USPD, Revolutionary Obleute (representatives of the factory workers) and Spartakusbund – wants a revolution that changes the social order. But she is at odds. Some want to copy the Russian model; the others, like Rosa Luxemburg, want to go their own way to socialism. Neither of the two currents knows how to carry along the masses. The old elites want to turn back the clock of history, they play on time.

“Unfortunately, our upheaval has not been caused by an upheaval, but the old state has crumbled because it was a bit too hypocritical and hollowed out to resist the onslaught,” notes diplomat, writer and patron Harry Graf Kessler January 14, 1919 in his diary. “The most terrible thing would be if all this devastation and suffering were not the birth-pangs of a new age, because there was nothing to be born (…).”

Demonstration on the Siegesallee

The year 1919 is still young, when an insurrection breaks out in Berlin; he is inflamed by the dismissal of Berlin police chief Emil Eichhorn (USPD). He is accused of having worked for the overthrow of the government in the Christmas battles. He and his followers are unwilling to give way without a fight.

The Board of the USPD and the Revolutionary Obleute call for a demonstration on the Siegesallee on 5 January. Two representatives of the KPD also sign the appeal: Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck. About 150,000 people follow the call.

Call for the overthrow of the government

The initiators of the demonstration are surprised by the extent of the action. In the evening they advise in the police headquarters on the further procedure. And they are surprised again: armed demonstrators occupy printing houses, publishing houses and the Wolff telegraph office. And: The leader of the People’s Navy Division reports that all Berlin regiments are ready to overthrow the government of the Reich – the message will turn out to be wrong.

Karl Liebknecht then explains that “in this state of affairs, not only the strike against Eichhorn must be averted, but the overthrow of the Ebert-Scheidemann government is possible and absolutely necessary.” A revolutionary committee is formed. Its members call for a general strike, the overthrow of the government and the assumption of power.

“Violence can only be fought with violence.”

Half a million people demonstrate January 6, headless, aimless, meaningless.

The revolutionaries lacked the ability and the will to overthrow the government; they had neither plan nor power.

“Only the personal attachment of Eichhorn, whom he had united in the police headquarters, and a few thousand utopian-radical Spartacists were really determined to fight,” writes the historian Arthur Rosenberg, then a member of the USPD (later the KPD). Already in the evening the “miserable failure of the revolutionary action initiated with so much passion” had been obvious.

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Captain Waldemar Pabst has Liebknecht and Luxemburg murdered.


ullstein picture / Getty Images

The government is determined to put down the rebellion: “Violence can only be fought by force.” The People’s Deputy Gustav Noske (SPD), in charge of the army and navy, receives the supreme command of the troops in and around Berlin on 7 January. He takes over the task with the words: “All right! One must become the bloodhound …! “

Who shoots who?

There are negotiations, they fail. The rebels then issue the slogan: “Use the weapons against your mortal enemies!”

The government acts, Gustav Noske arrives on January 11 in Berlin. The city is transformed into “a fantastically dangerous jungle”, its inhabitants fall into “a Dadaist nightmare” (historian Hagen Schulze): sometimes fall here, sometimes there are shots, on streets, intersections and squares, of houses and of roofs; It is seldom clear who shoots whom.

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Karl Liebknecht and other revolutionaries are buried on 25 June. The body of Rosa Luxemburg will not be found until May 31st.


Bettmann / Getty Images

But the Berliners behave as if they do not care about all that. “The Babylonian, immeasurable depth, chaotic and mighty of Berlin became clear to me only by the revolution”, writes Harry Graf Kessler in the diary, “as it turned out that this tremendous movement in the much more monstrous back and forth of Berlin only small local Disruptions caused, as when an elephant gets a stab with a penknife. He shakes himself, but walks on as if nothing had happened. “

This “sting” kills 156 people.

“They have to go!”

The order is largely restored on January 13th. Nonetheless, two days later, Gustav Noske invites the Free Corps stationed on the outskirts of the city, volunteer groups of nationalist, monarchist and anti-revolutionary frontline soldiers. Noske had ordered after the defeat in the Christmas battles to form more Freikorps, “to protect the homeland” against domestic opponents.

“The city is occupied by government-loyal troops, so to speak,” writes Harry Graf Kessler on January 15. “Soldiers in the balaclava with attached bayonet and a paddock full of hand grenades stand at every intersection. (…) Now the government may still be sitting on unsteady convictions, but on a number of obedient bayonets. “

Also, the Guards Cavalry Rifle Division led by Waldemar Pabst obediently bayonets, a variety of free corps comes out of the Great Association. Pabst, First Division General Staff Officer, is based at the Hotel Eden am Kurfrstendamm. The captain has a special task: Grasping Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. And to eliminate: “They have to go! They are so dangerous, if we have them, then there’s nothing to whimper, then we have to be judges ourselves. “

A political murder

Here they feared for their lives. “Here stands the Hotel Eden”, which stands on the commemorative plaque in the granite paving in front of the fountain at the Zoo Aquarium on the corner of Olof-Palme-Platz and Budapester Strae. And: “Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were interrogated and beaten up here immediately before their assassination on January 15, 1919.”

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Gustav Noske (SPD) can suppress the rebellion.



The situation of the stainless steel panel irritated, because the triangular hotel Eden was located across the street, on the square that once Kurfrstendamm (now Budapester Strae, there was the main entrance), Nrnberger Strae and Kurfrstenstrae formed. An office and commercial building is currently being built there.

In front of the entrance to the aquarium, a snake is waiting for admission, children are climbing on the fountain, pedestrians are walking along the sidewalk pavement. Hardly anyone takes notice of the plaque, not even from the red spot on the pavement a few meters further: “15.01.19. Political murder. “

“Shot on the run”

Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck are driven to Eden after being arrested in Mannheimer Strasse, where Waldemar Pabst interrogates them. The captain writes a report for the divisional staff that night: Liebknecht tried to escape to the Moabit detention center on the way from the hotel and was shot dead; Luxembourg had been snatched from its bewitchers by angry citizens and abducted for unknown purposes.

Newspapers report on January 16: Liebknecht shot dead on the run! Rosa Luxemburg killed by the crowd! Doubts about the circumstances of death of the two politicians do not come to the press; it conjures up once again the “Bolshevik danger” – and that is now eliminated. The “Vorwrts”, the central organ of the SPD, writes that Luxemburg and Liebknecht have become “victims of their own bloody terrorist tactics”; the “Vossische Zeitung” that “a kind of people’s court was executed on the two terrorist leaders”.

The “red flag” reveals the act

On the same day, the government orders Waldemar Pabst to report to the Reichskanzlerpalais. Pabst will say later that there was “quite a stir” there. “Ebert said angrily that we had made the two martyrs. Landsberg and Scheidemann demanded arrests to appease the restlessness of the working class. Only one of the gentlemen has understood correctly what we have done for our German fatherland. Noske. He shook my hand. “

The case takes a turn, as “The Red Flag”, once the central organ of the Spartakusbundes, now the KPD, banned in the meantime, on 12 February headlines: “The murder of Liebknecht and Luxembourg. The deed and the perpetrators. “

The murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg

The sequence of the deed presents itself today: Karl Liebknecht is led out of a side exit from the hotel at around 11:00 pm, beaten with a rifle butt, half dragged into a car, driven to the Tiergarten, dragged out of the car at the New Lake, shot and shot As a found “unknown” brought to the emergency room at the Zoological Garden.

A quarter of an hour later, Rosa Luxemburg was taken out the same way, struck with a stroke of the butt, dragged unconscious into a car, shot in the temple, weighed down with stones at the Lichtenstein Bridge in the Tiergarten and thrown into the Landwehr Canal.

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The Hotel Eden is the quarter of the Guards Cavalry Rifle Division in January 1919. Here Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg are interrogated before their murder. The picture was taken during the March disturbances of the same year.



Wilhelm Pieck was supposed to be handed over to the authorities and was able to flee on the way.

The Reich Ministry of Justice does not mandate criminal justice with prosecution, but the field court of the Guards Cavalry Rifle Division. The accompanying commandos who abducted Liebknecht and Luxembourg are being arrested. There is a process. The maximum sentence, pronounced against a lieutenant, is two years and four months; The convicted man flees three days later in a fake transfer to another prison under a false name in the Netherlands.

A contract murder of the government?

Several soldiers claim after the process of killing Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

One says no more than he has to say: Waldemar Pabst. In court, he stands only as a witness. “I let them judge,” he admits years later, in January 1962, the far-right “German student scoreboard”. And justified his actions as follows: The victory of Communism in Germany in 1919 would have “brought the entire Christian West to collapse. The termination of this danger certainly weighed much more than the elimination of two political seducers. “

The double murder was planned by a long hand and carried out by a cold hand, most likely with the knowledge of government officials. “The fact that I could not carry out the action without Noske’s consent – with Ebert in the background – and also had to protect my officers, is clear,” says a letter from Pabst, which was found in his estate in 1970. “But very few people have understood why I have never been interrogated or charged. As a cavalier, I quit the behavior of the SPD at that time by keeping my mouth shut over our cooperation for 50 years. “

A cooperation in the arrest and murder of Liebknecht and Luxembourg Noske has always denied.

The disturbed last rest

Here they found their last unrest, in the north of the central cemetery Friedrichsfelde. From their graves and those of other revolutionaries, nothing remained, as well as the revolutionary monument from 1926 – the National Socialists have eliminated everything.

The air is fresh-spicy, enriched with the smell of wet-moist soil. The sun struggles through the cloud cover. A saw roars nearby, traffic roars in the distance.

Where until 1935 stood the revolutionary monument, a block of twelve by four by six meters, blinded with forward and recessed Hartbrandziegeln and provided with a Soviet star with hammer and sickle, there is a memorial since 1983. Its clinker bricks, which reshape the foundations of the old monument, are weathered, partly mossy.

A few hundred meters further on, at the other, the southern part of the cemetery, there is the “Memorial of the Socialists” since 1951. Those who come straight to the towering stone with the inscription “The dead admonish us” in the middle of the roundabout, find two grave slabs lying next to each other with the names Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

The government is blocking the city center

On the day of the funeral of Karl Liebknecht and other revolutionaries on January 25, 1919, the government is closing down the city center to prevent the funeral procession from leaving Siegesallee at 12 noon.

“There was a huge military service, guns and machine guns on the Siegesallee, at the Reichstag, at the Potsdamer Platz, to locks that could only be passed with ID,” writes Harry Graf Kessler in his diary. “(…) the funeral procession moved from the Volkstheater am Blowplatz to Friedrichshain, past it and on to Friedrichsfelde.”


Insurgents have entrenched themselves in front of the Mosse publishing house in the Schtzenstrae.



Six days ago, on 19 January, the elections for the National Assembly took place, and for the first time women were allowed to vote. With 37.9 percent, the SPD is the strongest force, forming the Weimar Coalition with the Center Party and the German Democratic Party (DDP); Friedrich Ebert becomes Reich President, Philipp Scheidemann Prime Minister, Gustav Noske Reichswehr Minister.

The USPD receives 7.6 percent; The KPD had opposed its participation in the elections, against the advice of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

“Landing” of the corpse costs 3 marks

Berlin does not come to rest. In early March, a general strike spreads to an armed uprising. The goal is the same as in the January Uprising: overthrow of the Reich government.

The Reich government imposed the state of emergency, Reichswehr Minister Noske orders every armed man to shoot immediately. The order, justified by no law, is based on the hoax that insurgents have murdered 60 police officers in Lichtenberg. The thirteen-day uprising claims 1,200 lives.

Rosa Luxemburg is rescued from the Landwehr Canal on 31 May and buried in Friedrichsfelde on 12 June. Without the stockings she had received from her last hostess and passed before her arrest, she would not have been identified. For the “landing” of the corpse, her secretary has to pay a fee of 3 marks.

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Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919).


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There is no doubt that the KPD leadership has “shaken a measure of guilt” in the catastrophic January events, according to historian Hans Mommsen. However, the KPD had been “quantitatively meaningless”, “it would have been possible to isolate them politically”.

What would have been if

The fighting and murders in January 1919 made the division of the old social democracy unbridgeable, drove the KPD into the arms and dependency of Moscow and thus weakened the entire left in the political struggle with right forces – so already contributed to the beginning of the Weimar Republic its end in itself ,

It is idle to speculate what would have been if. History does not know the subjunctive. But: “The people’s representatives would probably have to risk more change than they considered responsible from their point of view,” said Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) in his speech in the German Bundestag on 9 November 2018 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the revolution remarked. “Too many sworn opponents of the young republic retained their offices in the military, judiciary and administration.”

And the extreme left could not have fallen into blind actionism and spontaneous radicalism.

Obstetrics for the Third Reich

“This civil war,” wrote the journalist Sebastian Haffner, “sets the course for the unfortunate history of the Weimar Republic, born of him, and the emergence of the Third Reich, which was begotten in him.”

Karl Liebknecht is dead for a few hours when his last article appears in the newspaper “Die Rote Fahne”. In it he writes: “The beaten people of today will be the winners of tomorrow (…) And whether we will still live, if it is achieved – will live our program; it will dominate the world of redeemed humanity. In spite of all!”

It has turned out differently. The idea of a better world but – that lives.

  1. Fateful days of a revolution
  2. “Violence can only be fought with violence.”
  3. The murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg