No Judgement About Motives, Only Actions: In Memory of Rosa Luxemburg


January 15 marks the 98th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg's murder by the Freikorps, acting on orders by the German government led by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). 

June 1919 funeral procession for Rosa Luxemburg.

In memory of Luxemburg and her tremendous contribution to international socialism, we present below an excerpt from 
The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

These two letters are the first in the collection to have been written after the August, 4 1914 vote by the SPD's parliamentary group to approve war credits. The first is addressed to Paul Levi, Luxemburg's lawyer during the war and a leader of the KPD beginning in 1918. The second is to Karl Moor, a Swiss Social Democrat and wealthy fundraiser for the Bolsheviks, who by by the time of Luxemburg's murder had become a German military spy. 

To Paul Levi

[Südende, August] 31 [1914]

When your letter came I was just about to send you a telegram to ask why I had been so long without news. The report about the conception put forward by D[issmann]1 gave me the distressing certainty that the clarification of views will be much more difficult than I had already assumed. The distinction between the good-hearted people who approved the war and the evil-hearted ones,2 between the war patriots without chauvinism and those with chauvinism, is all right for evaluating people personally, but unfortunately it’s not appropriate as a political line of orientation. Besides, the position taken by B[ernard] and the Hanau people is simply a reflection of the position taken by Hoch,3 who advocated the same point of view in the SPD parliamentary group. I think your conception would be different and will be different when you find out about the state of affairs within the parliamentary group from the mouths of others. In this matter, where we are talking about the vital nerve center, the “to be or not to be” of international socialism, nuances in the approval of war cannot have decisive weight. Dividing people according to whether they approved out of necessity or did so with a joyful heart isn’t worth a pinch of powder. This is shown by the fact that not one person will admit that he voted for any reason other than being under coercion, being placed before a fait accompli. The only thing left would be to try and read people’s hearts and kidneys as opposed to their actual statements or explanations. No judgment can be made about motives in cases of such world-historical significance, only about actions. On top of that, almost every one of the approvers presents a slightly different motivation, so that not just two, but six or eight, different groups can be distinguished, and thus the supposed line of demarcation disappears in the sand. The reproaches one wants to make against “those on the right” only involve the degree of consistency in their approval of the war, and thus the distinction proposed by D[issmann], in the final analysis, boils down to that between a consistent pro-war policy or one that is not consistent. I am, under all circumstances, in favor of consistency, but I expect nothing but wretchedness from the notion of swallowing approval of the war, and may consistency be damned. Incidentally, I hope as soon as possible to speak with you and D[issmann] about all this. I would like it best if you summoned Dr. Obuch to Frankfurt. Try to do that now, right away. Then I will telegraph you to say when I am coming, and you can inform O[buch] and D[issmann] in good time. — Perhaps Karl Liebkn[echt] will come with me, he has the desire. And so, until we meet again soon!

N.B.: Immediately confirm by telegram the receipt of this letter.

To Karl Moor

[Südende,] October 12, 1914

Dear Karl!

I take the opportunity to send you a few lines by a roundabout route. Above all, many thanks for the newspaper [the Berner Tagewacht] that I also do not receive at home any more. Nowadays it’s a refreshing comfort to have a Social Democratic paper in front of one’s face that speaks in the good old way. From the party press here what one gets most often is — nausea.

In reply to my two postcards I have not yet received any word from you, I assume that you did write, but the answer didn’t reach me. At the present time every greeting and every sign of life from co-thinkers in other countries is doubly precious. Here we feel ourselves to be cut off from the world, blocked off, in fact, by a double wall: the state of siege [martial law] and the party officialdom. For your information and for the information of other friends (but not for publication) let it be said only that it would be a great error to think that the official behavior of the [SPD] Reichstag group, the SPD Executive, and the party editors express the thoughts and feelings of the whole party! On the contrary, a growing bitterness is observable on all sides. How far this bitterness extends, which side has the majority, cannot now be determined, even approximately, since it is precisely the opponents of the official party tactics whose mouths are gagged, and the political life of the masses is completely suppressed. Also the mood is shifting more and more: many who favored voting for the war credits have since then, in the face of subsequent developments, been overtaken by healthy fears, and now they are opponents of this policy or will be tomorrow. At the same time another group of comrades with each passing day are backsliding most blatantly, following in the wake of the national-patriotic government policy. Thus the internal development of the party in the midst of the war, although hidden from observation, is undergoing an unstoppable process in which different elements are being sheared off, on the one side, elements actually belonging to the bourgeois camp, who at best would constitute a reformist workers’ party, subservient to the military, with a strong nationalist streak, and on the other side, elements who do not want to abandon the core principles of revolutionary class struggle and internationalism. This silent internal struggle has already begun, although we really did not want to take up the struggle under such unfavorable conditions. Mutual distrust and mutual hatred, however, can scarcely be concealed and are already evident as tiny flames flickering on the surface. No one hides it from himself that as soon as the war and the state of siege have ended, the internal disagreements will break out with tremendous force, and still less would anyone hope that the highly prized unity of the party could be preserved when there is such a deep-going internal rift. It is only the state of siege and the war that artificially shore up the supposed party unity. There is no doubt about it: German socialism, and international socialism as well, are going through a crisis as never before in history and have been placed before a fateful question by this war. If after the war international socialism does not succeed in rejecting imperialism and militarism in all their forms, a real and proper rejection that is meant seriously this time, and that would apply even in the event of war, then socialism can let itself be buried, or rather it will have buried itself already. The process of clarification after the war will decide the “to be or not to be” of socialism. But precisely because this process is of such immense world-historical importance, it must be carried out thoroughly and honestly, with care and deliberation. To this end, it would be important that no hasty, ill-considered steps be undertaken on the part of the International, steps that would to some extent move in the direction of calling a meeting of the International Bureau or a conference as soon as possible. Because, as of now, only one of two things could result: Either the representatives of the different countries would angrily quarrel and refuse to hear any justifications from one another, which would at any rate provide sad documentary evidence of the collapse of the International. Or, on the other hand, all the representatives from the countries at war — perhaps with the blessing of the neutrals — would grant pardons to one another for the atrocities that have been committed and declare in the spirit of mutual toleration that each party understands that the other could not have acted otherwise; that would be even more fatal, because, while preserving the International, or rather a hypocritical semblance of an International, it would actually mean the burial of international socialism. So it would be better that no attempt to artificially patch up the International, or glue it together, be made, not before firm and solid foundations have been laid, and this can be done only by an internal clarification process. One must first allow us time in Germany itself to determine what the party is thinking in its majority and where it stands in regard to the war. The same can be done by the French, English, Italians, etc. Then the International would know where it stands and how it can be rebuilt. All forced attempts to tie together the threads of the International right now, as soon as possible, could only result in a hypocritical slapdash job, if they did not move in an even more harmful direction, like the trips being made to neutral countries from Berlin and Vienna,4 which have the explicit purpose of solidifying the neutrals in the interests of the German-Austrian military leadership and of putting other countries in a mood favorable to Germany and Austria.

When all is said and done, our situation here inside the party is very sad, and every day one must pull together all one’s strength and courage in order to wade further through this morass. For example, the self-surrender of the Vorwärts 5 was a severe jolt for many, and there is sometimes a feeling of shame at going along, even partly, with all this. You can certainly believe that at every opportunity we seek to oppose the backward flow of this stream. Unfortunately all the central institutions of the party, which for the moment have the outward-seeming power in their hands, are dominated by opportunist elements, and the whole opposition has been broken to pieces, because the masses cannot protest and in large part they have been scattered to the various battlefields. N.B.: it made me happy to read my article 6 in your paper. For our part Mehring and I continue to put out our publication [Sozialdemokratische Korrespondenz], and some newspapers have reprinted from it. (The article “Scenes from a Comedy” [Komödienspiele] on September 28 was by Mehring.)7

Now several requests:

1. Be so kind as to have the enclosed declaration 8 printed in your paper as well as in the Volksrecht.

2. Do write to the Volksrecht people conveying my request that they send me a copy [of their paper] every day (give them my address), and also that they forward all the back issues from August 1 on.

3. Write to Angelica Balabanoff that a letter is currently on its way to her by the same route and that she should confirm by a postcard to me whether she received the letter (give her my address). Actually Klara [i.e., Clara Zetkin] already wrote to her a month ago, to Mussolini’s address, but has received not a word in reply.9

4. You yourself should confirm to me immediately, with an unobtrusive postcard, the receipt of this letter and [let me know] whether you will carry out all my requests.

5. Send a request from me to the editors of [the Italian socialist publication] Avanti,10 that they should send me a copy of their paper [regularly], and that they should do so right away.

6. Send the declaration to Avanti also, because there is no way of knowing whether it will reach them by any other means.

And now many heartfelt greetings and handclasps to you and all our friends there and others, who with all their heart have remained true to the International. Write soon, and in detail, although with caution, to this address: Mr. Hugo Eberlein, Esq., Berlin–Mariendorf, 82 Ring Street; nothing more. That way I will get it.

Give my greetings especially to Otto Lang from the bottom of my heart.


1. Robert Dissmann was seeking to justify the action of the SPD parliamentary group in the Reichstag, which had voted for war credits.

2. On August 4, 1914, the SPD parliamentary group — with group discipline applied against the minority — voted in favor of the war-credits motion of the imperialist government. The decision to approve money for war was made on August 3, after a heated dispute within the SPD parliamentary group, by a vote of 78 to 14. The support given by the majority to the war meant that an open split in the SPD was inevitable

3. In the caucus sessions of the SPD’s Reichstag group before August 4, 1914, Gustav Hoch actually spoke in favor of approving the war credits, and he was part of the commission assigned to draft the final wording of the declaration that was made by the SPD parliamentary group on August 4.

4. Shortly after the World War began the SPD Executive sent Albert Südekum to Italy, Richard Fischer to Switzerland, Philip Scheidemann to Holland, and Wilhelm Jansson to Denmark and Sweden, while the Executive of the Austrian Social Democratic Party sent three representatives to Italy — their purpose being to justify the pro-war conduct of the German and Austrian party leaderships in the eyes of the Social Democrats of the neutral countries and win them over to the German-Austrian position.

5. On September 27, 1914, under martial law, the high command of the March of Brandenburg (the region including Berlin) banned the main SPD newspaper, the Vorwärts, for an indefinite length of time, because of an article entitled “Deutschland und das Ausland” (Germany and the Outside World), in which it was suggested that the German workers, and the workers of other countries, had been forced to take part in the war against their will. After the SPD Executive gave a written pledge to edit the Vorwärts, from then on during the war, in such a way that the topics of “class war and class hatred” would not be touched on, the ban was lifted, on September 30. In this way the SPD Executive blatantly demonstrated its submission to the military dictatorship.

6. Luxemburg’s unsigned article “Gegen den Franktireurkrieg” (Against Guerrilla War) appeared in the September 17, 1914, issue of Sozialdemokratische Korrespondenz. It was reprinted on September 19 in the Volkswacht in Halle (Saale), from which it was taken for publication on September 30 by the Berner Tagewacht in Switzerland. For the German text, see Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4 (Berlin, 1990), pp. 6–8.

7. Mehring’s article appeared unsigned in the Sozialdemokratische Korrespondenz of September 22, 1914, and was reprinted by other publications, including the Bremer Bürger-Zeitung on September 24 and the Berner Tagewacht on September 28.

8. A declaration signed by Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring, and Clara Zetkin, dated September 10, 1914, was sent to various foreign newspapers. For the German text, see Luxemburg’s Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, p. 5. It was published in the Berner Tagwacht on October 30, 1914, and in the Zurich newspaper Volksrecht on October 31, 1914. For an English version of this brief declaration, see J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford, 1966), p. 610.

9. At the start of World War I in August 1914, Benito Mussolini was a leading member of the left wing of the Italian Socialist Party and strongly opposed the war. Unbekownst to Luxemburg, shortly afterwards, in October 1914, he swung sharply to the right and became a leading proponent of Italian intervention in the war, on the side of the Entente. As a result, he was expelled from the Italian Socialist Party in November 1914.

10. Mussolini was the editor of Avanti! from 1911 until his expulsion from the Italian Socialist Party in November 1914, a month after the composition of this letter.