If you are a would-to-be revolutionary, it is in fact an extremely big irony to name your movement in remembrance of the leader of one of the most famous, and most obviously, lost causes in History. Well, that exactly is what Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, leaders of the extreme left-wing of the German Social-democrat Party, did when they, and some other party members, decided to make their move in the wake of the Soviet Russian Revolution. They called themselves “The Spartakist League”.
Surely choosing a name is not bound to be so decisive as to mark the fate of a group. But in this particular case, it pervades the constant sensation that Fate had quite a lot to do with the Spartakists and their pitiful end. Somewhat, it was announced in the very name: a glorious revolt, an overwhelming counter-stroke, an ignominious defeat, a horrible death.
When the Spartakists set sail in 1916 they thought their moment coming: something great was happening there in Russia and, amidst the atrocities of war, winds of change were gathering momentum in Germany too. So they took their own road to the left, trying to ride on the increasing malcontent of the population, the scarcities of wartime economy, the suffering of broken families, all the grief and suffering of a long and ever more and more unpopular war which, in their opinion, was mostly taking place at the expenses of the working class.
They relentlessly worked against war until this was over. But that was not the end of the story. For them, it was just the beginning. The Russians had been capable of starting a Revolution, and making it succeed, in the middle of a not particularly successful war; so the most learned German workers must be able to achieved the same goal and beyond now that the war was finally over. Or so they said…
Their leaders, in fact, were saying quite a different thing. They were saying” we must wait”. They were saying not all working class was in favour of revolution; they knew some order was utterly needed, and wanted, after four seemingly never-ending years of cruel fighting and hardships. They wanted to help in the recovering, then use their new strength to gain power. They even must had sensed something, because, judiciously, they changed names to the more standardised (and probably safer, as it showed later) German Communist Party. Leibnekcht and Luxemburg were able politicians of the revolutionary kind,strong-minded and idealistic, yes, but with enough hindsight as to see where their country was moving and how that would affect their party if they were not to follow. But they were not listened to.
As it was, they even didn’t start the revolts. They were willing, that’s for sure, but with a worn down country and the need for some balance after such a long conflict, patience prevailed at the beginning. Anyway, as in Russia before, leftist forces formed a Soviet Congress and opposed Government. The spark for final confrontation was triggered by the pretension of the revolutionaries that the Army would be dismissed as a whole and then replaced with troops selected exclusively by the Soviet. Not being possible to be an acting Government and at the same time putting up with this kind of demands, Chancellor Ebert refused.
In this precise moment, first week 1919, the Spartakists decided that it was about time to give support to the revolution, probably in the idea that it was the best way to control it, and most probably without any direct support from neither Leibnekcht nor Luxemburg. So, united, the German left sent the so-called “Popular Navy Division”(involved in the rebellion which had led to the end of the war) to seize control of the Government Building. So they did, but the energetic response of Ebert, who called in the loyal Potsdam garrison, frustrated their intentions and they got back to their quarters.
Thus, on January 10, 1919, started the final act of this drama, when the Army and the non regular, extreme right-wing troops called “Freikorps” initiated the retaliation. Then ensued what is now known as the “Bloody Week”: the revolt was suppressed with extreme alacrity and appalling violence, specially against the Spartakists who were seen as instigators if not as the master mind behind the curtains, and, above all, were obviously the more coherent, best leaded revolutionary force. A Heaven sent opportunity to erase a major political enemy.
Leibnekcht and Luxemburg were both murdered, as were lots of anonymous citizens whose crime, as it was, had been trying to achieve a better world, or at least what they believed to be a better world after all the suffering that WWI brought to Europe. Closing the circle of irony, and the jokes of Fate, what happened to their bodies was never disclosed. Just as it happened to Spartacus.