The History of Riley and the Great War: Berlin

By all accounts, Rosa Luxemburg was a warm, passionate, humorous woman with a lifelong dedication to the cause of Communism, the writings of Karl Marx, and the struggles of the working class. She inspired love and loyalty from her friends, intense hatred from her enemies. She loved children and animals. She was fearless in the face of the most extreme adversity. While her writings on economic theory appear dry to the modern reader, Rosa Luxemburg clearly had a vivid personality that long remained in the memories of her colleagues.

Luxemburg was born in 1871 in a small Polish town near the Russian border. Her family moved to Warsaw in 1873. At the age of five, Rosa suffered a hip ailment that left her with the permanent limp described in the novel. She came to liberal politics at a very young age, having helped organize a general strike at the age of fifteen. While at university in Zurich, Luxemburg met the fierce Russian ideologue Leo Jogiches, who became her lover for a time and her friend for life. With his help, Luxemburg spent her life mixing heavy intellectual labor with dangerous political activism. She did not hesitate to criticize Lenin when she disagreed with him, but she was a great admirer of his and, in turn, he respected her. Luxemburg, who moved to Germany in 1898, dreamed of creating a Marxist state there that would improve upon Lenin’s work in Russia.

Luxemburg and her fellow activists fiercely opposed Germany’s initiation of war in 1914. She, along with Karl Liebknecht and others, formed an organization to advocate for peace and for workers’ rights. It came to be called the Spartacist League, after the slave who rebelled against the Roman Empire. In 1916, Luxemburg and Liebnecht were imprisoned in “protective custody,” to keep them out of the way during the balance of the war. As the Armistice approached, Liebknecht was released on October 23, 1918 and Rosa on November 8.

The comic opera foolishness of the Spartacist Revolution described in the novel is supported by history. Following its surrender to the Allies, Germany was a chaotic mess. Kaiser Wilhelm skulked out of the country, as did the prominent general Erich Ludendorff, who later was the chief promulgator of the “stab-in-the-back” theory which claimed that Germany only lost the war because it was betrayed by Marxists and Jews at home. In the vacuum, leadership of the German nation nominally fell to a Socialist named Frederich Ebert. Disgruntled and impoverished ex-soldiers banded into groups called Freikorps (“Free Corps”), pillaging and bullying throughout the country. As the novel indicates, one of the Freikorps leaders was Waldemar Pabst, a right-winger with an abiding hatred of Communists and Jews. Street fighting among Freikorps, Communists, Socialists, and miscellaneous mobs became common.

In this toxic mix, the short-lived Spartacist Revolution was born. After being released from prison, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the creation of a Free Socialist Republic from the window of the Kaiser’s palace, the Berliner Stadtschloss, the same day that a representative of the Socialist party proclaimed a rival republic from a window at the Reichstag. Once Rosa arrived on the scene, she urged caution, knowing the Communists were in no way ready to mount a revolution and sustain a government. She, Liebknecht and others founded the Red Flag, a journal that published articles promoting their cause. Luxemburg was the journal’s dominant writer.

Then, in December, a group of dissident sailors from the German Navy took over the central Berlin post office, protesting the government’s failure to provide back pay to the military. Ebert ordered his troops to attack on Christmas Eve, 1918, but the sailors drove them back. This event came to be known as Bloody Christmas and enflamed the passions of the Communists, who called the first Congress of the German Communist party. Luxemburg was one of the main speakers and reportedly drew a strong response. Shortly afterward, again against Rosa’s advice, the party announced a rebellion, which came to be called the Spartacist Revolution, or Spartacist Uprising, since many of the leaders were in the Spartacist League.

As Luxemburg feared, the rebellion played into the hands of the Freikorps and the right-wing Prussian officers who wished to distance themselves from the recent defeat and return to power in Germany. The Freikorps made quick work of the rebels. Luxemburg and Liebknecht went into hiding, but were arrested at a residence in the Berlin suburb of Wilmersdorf. They were taken to the Eden Hotel, where Waldemar Pabst interrogated them. He later admitted that he also ordered their execution. Soldiers took them (some accounts say separately) to the Tiergarten, where Liebknecht was killed and his body taken as an “unknown person” to a morgue. Luxemburg was shot and her body thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal. Two months later, her great friend Leo Jogiches was also killed.

Otto von Kleist is not mentioned in any account of these events other than that of Riley and Cornelius. Nor is there any mention of the tiger’s fate, although it is true that the Zoologischer Garten Berlin is located in the Tiergarten, not far from the Landwehr Canal.

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