Die Liebknechts: Karl und Sophie – Politik und Familie

Karl Liebknecht: Socialist, Antimilitarist, Revolutionary

Annelies Laschitza, Die Liebknechts: Karl und Sophie – Politik und Familie (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 2007).

In my history textbook in Denmark in the 1950s, mention was made of the fact that Karl Liebknecht had a Polish-German Jewish woman as his helper. Today we know a lot about Rosa Luxemburg – but who was Karl Liebknecht? Annelies Laschitza is probably the best person to ask this question: she has written a Luxemburg biography in several editions (the latest, 1996). She has also edited Luxemburg’s letters (six volumes), and contributed to the five-volume edition of her works. Furthermore she edited letters and documents by Karl Liebknecht and has published an article about Theodor Liebknecht, Karl’s elder brother.

Karl’s father Wilhelm Liebknecht was the well-known and popular founder of the German Social-Democratic party (SPD) in 1863, a veteran of the revolution in 1848-49. He immigrated to London where he joined the League of Communists. On his return to Germany he became the head of the “Marx-Party” as he was the only “Communist” actively working for the cause in Germany. The Marx party did well and managed to organise a solid bloc of revolutionary workers around the SPD. During the last ten years of his life (he died in 1900), Wilhelm Liebknecht was the revered veteran. In discussions and conflicts he always, at the end of the day, sided with the revolutionary wing of the party.

His two eldest sons, Theodor and Karl, were to become lawyers. Karl was the one chosen to continue in his father’s political footsteps, while Theodor was selected to set up a legal practice. Theodor was forced to earn money as soon as possible while Karl could pursue his studies and earn a doctorate (1897); in May 1899 the two brothers opened their law practice. The following year, Karl married Julia Paradis, the daughter of a long-standing Social-Democrat and rather well-to-do businessman.

Karl Liebknecht began his apprenticeship in the party in 1899. In 1903 he was nominated for election to the national parliament, the Reichstag, in a constituency just outside Berlin. He was not elected until 1912, when the SPD obtained about 34% of the national vote. But in Berlin he was one of the 28 Social-Democrats elected to the 144-member city council in 1901. In 1911, the SPD group had grown to 38, of whom Liebknecht was still one although in 1908, while imprisoned for his anti-militarist writings, he had been elected to the Prussian Diet.1 When he was elected to the national parliament in 1912, he was at the same time a member of the Berlin City council and the Prussian Diet. These burdens, along with his presidency of the Youth International (1907-10) and family responsibilities, left him little time for theory.

He developed an ambitious plan for a theoretical work, but could not limit himself to a job that he could actually carry out. He studied a wide range of subjects, but never in depth. The result (“Die Bewegungsgesetze der gesellschaftlichen Entwicklung” [The Laws of Motion of Social Development] – begun in prison in 1907) was a hopeless hodgepodge of notes, quotations and excerpts, which could not be collected into a readable manuscript. These notes make it abundantly clear that he was not a Marxist; he knew only a few Marxian clichés. He had never taken the time to read let alone study Marx and so never understood the Marxian method. Nevertheless he felt called to criticise Marxism as being too narrow. He did not complete the manuscript during this first prison term. When he was imprisoned for the second time in 1916, he resumed work on it. Two attempts have been made to collect and publish his various notes and drafts. However, it seems that all they can be used for is to understand Liebknecht’s personality and ideas. A theoretician he was not.

But he was undoubtedly a revolutionary socialist. He fought for the emancipation of the working class. He endeavoured to find ways in which this goal could be achieved in the existing circumstances in Imperial Germany. He tried to develop strategies to persuade not only ‘the poor and downtrodden’ but also other strata of society, such as the lower-level civil servants. He did not succeed in this, but his effort brought him into contact with other left-wingers in the SPD who were convinced that means other than ‘the established and proven ones’ had to be found in order to gain allies in the struggle for democratic power. In one of his very few theoretical articles (“Die neue Methode”) he stated that it was not enough to get a reform adopted; the way it was adopted was just as important.

Some years later he realized the necessity of mobilising the masses in support of immediate demands. Although Liebknecht was an ardent supporter of the party and participated in discussions at the yearly party conferences, he did not find a way to cooperate with leftists like Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin. He only met Luxemburg personally in August 1914 (after World War I began), although both had been fighting the new revisionist political tendency. He was a loner and remained one until he was murdered in January 1919.

On some themes he was very consistent, the main one being the struggle against war and militarism. His collected material on this subject (published as a pamphlet in 1907)2 led to his indictment for treason. He was convinced that international capitalism linked to militarism – and militarism itself – could only be defeated by a concerted effort of the internationally organised working class in the imperialist countries. After the Russian revolution of 1905, he devoted much time and money to organising help for the Russian revolutionaries. He borrowed a large sum to publish a “Russisches Bulletin” whose reports could be disseminated in the international press. The money was well spent but left him financially strapped. He continued to help the Russians, however, preparing a report on “Russian Prison Atrocities” for a 1914 conference.3

All Liebknecht’s efforts to win the SPD over to an anti-militarist stance failed. By about 1910, the majority of the SPD had chosen a different path; they wanted to gain an influence on events in Germany, and therefore were ready to abandon the revolutionary theories they had previously advocated. This was not an open declaration, as that would have split the party, and nobody was willing to do so at the time. Also the authority of August Bebel was such that an open declaration in favour of accepting integration into bourgeois society would not have been feasible. But Bebel died in 1913, and after that the way was open for the reformists to take over; the process was completed in August 1914, against only isolated resistance. The left wing of the party began to organise just a few days after war was declared. This group included Rosa Luxemburg (the party’s leading Marxist theoretician), Clara Zetkin (president of the SPD women’s organisation), the journalist and historian Franz Mehring, and a number of younger Social-Democrats. But to organise the opposition they needed a figurehead, and they found one in Karl Liebknecht.

In December 1914 Liebknecht opposed the majority of his party and all of German officialdom by voting against further funding of the war effort. The internal opposition in the party numbered more deputies, but he was the only one who openly declared against the imperialist war. He became world-famous for doing so, but it was clear that he could not stay in the party, and the decision to expel him was reinforced by the fact that the leftist minority was growing. The majority was, of course, supported by the government which did everything in its power to prevent Liebknecht from expressing his opinions – he was to serve as an unarmed soldier, which he did until 1916, when he was arrested for participating in a peace demonstration in Berlin. In prison he was effectively isolated – as was Rosa Luxemburg in another prison. But he became the focal point around which the anti-war opposition rallied. The Spartacus League issued an illegal monthly journal but only managed to organise a few thousand workers. Independent groups especially in Berlin organised the first strikes against the war as did the sailors in the Imperial fleet in November 1918. In October 1918 the situation had become desperate for the Kaiser and his government, and so they decided to release Liebknecht.

He arrived in Berlin on October 23 and the next day initiated a relentless campaign to overthrow the imperial government and establish a socialist republic. During the early days of November, Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated and, much to the chagrin of the SPD leaders, the republic was a fact. They would have preferred to establish a government responsible to Parliament and a democratic constitution – of course also enfranchisement of women and other emancipatory provisions. They preferred to have a monarch as a formal head of state so that the break with the right-wing bourgeois forces would not appear to be so radical. But the republic was proclaimed, and the revolutionary forces around the Spartacus League went ahead trying to end the crisis by enforcing a socialist outcome. But the coalition of the various Centre and Liberal parties, including the Majority SPD, proved to be too strong. The Spartacus League established a new party around New Year 1919, viz. the Communist Party (KPD), but within two weeks the KPD’s leading members, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg, had been murdered.

Laschitza’s intention was to write a biography of both Karl Liebknecht and his second wife, Sophie (whom he married in 1912, a year after his first wife had died). In this she has not succeeded; we are told virtually nothing of Sophie Liebknecht’s background, family, education, interests, etc. She remains a cipher, although Laschitza often quotes from her letters – she is the first researcher to have used them. But the book succeeds in showing that Karl Liebknecht was a multifaceted personality, a vain egotist, a man incapable of finalizing his main projects, spreading himself over far too many things, thus wasting energy. He seems, however, to have been a persuasive public speaker in all the three assemblies of which he was a member, and he used them to promote working-class interests.

He was undoubtedly a revolutionary and a fighter for the emancipation of mankind; whether or not he included women in this category remains unclear. But he was confused about his private life as well as about important aspects of his politics. He was convinced that his destiny was to be a public figure and so neglected his family. Sophie Liebknecht seems to have accepted his egocentric attitudes. Although he was an ardent internationalist, he only had a fragmented understanding of what was happening outside Germany. In other words, he was a complex figure, something which Laschitza abundantly demonstrates. This is a new perception of Karl Liebknecht: he is no longer simply a hero and a martyr for the cause, but a man of flesh and blood.

Reviewed by Gerd Callesen


1. Prussia was by far the largest German state in the Reich and was the most influential and conservative political region in the whole of Germany. Electoral rights to the Prussian Diet were restricted, which resulted in the Social-Democrats having only between 5 and 10 members in the Diet while the non-socialist parties had over 380.

2. His speech at the founding congress of the Youth International (http://library.fes.de/si-online/jugend-intro-en.html) was also published in an English translation (Militarism with Special Regard to the International Young Socialist Movement, Glasgow 1917).

3. „Die russischen Gefängnisgreuel” (http://library.fes.de/zweiint/w42.pdf). The international conference, scheduled for Vienna, was pre-empted by the outbreak of war.

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