[1 April 2011]
For four months I saw her name almost every day. I knew in the broadest of strokes who Rosa Luxemburg was: some sort of left-wing activist, right? Killed by the Nazis or something? Living in Berlin, I’d sort of come to assume everyone from a certain era had been killed by the Nazis (although Rosa Luxemburg’s murder came before Hitler’s rise to power even began). More than anything, I knew that many of my radical leftist friends and comrades loved her. Indeed, one of them made me promise to take a picture of her statue for her. That would be easy, I thought, since the subway line that went to my apartment passed right through Rosa Luxemburg Platz, I could just pop out, snaps some pics, and e-mail them.
But there is no statue of Luxemburg in the platz that bears her name. There’s a giant theater where Brecht used to stage plays. There’s a cinema where Stasi chief to be Erich Mielke hid after shooting a police officer. There’s the headquarters of the former German Communist Party, which Luxemburg co-founded. But alas, there was no Fredrick The Great style equestrian monument to the great Marxist thinker and communist organizer. My friend was going to be disappointed.
Yet there were these long, thin strips of bonze or brass scattered all over the place, like sticks that had been cast out across the sidewalks and open spaces and left to sink into the ground. They were plaques, most of them several feet long, with whole sentences on them, all of them quotes from the murdered Rosa Luxemburg. What better memorial for a powerful writer and movement-head than to immortalize her words where every downcast gaze in the plaza would see them.
The book, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is a similar kind of memorial, a kind of sliver of one woman’s life bound together in one place. Like walking through the platz, reading it won’t give anyone a full appreciation for the author’s life and its significance, but it will give you an important sense of what she stood for. Unlike the memorial, it will also evoke like nothing else can, how completely and utterly human she was. And of course for the best heroes, its their humanity that inspires us, for that’s how we can see ourselves in them and hopefully try and emulate some of their best achievements despite our many failings.
Reading any collection of letters ends up feeling more like solving an incomplete jigsaw puzzle than it does reading a traditional narrative. I can’t say how the book reads for someone who doesn’t already know a lot about Luxemburg’s life, and I think having a fair amount of context for the letters will make the book much more enjoyable. This is an academic tome, suitable for serious researchers, but the editors here do an excellent job of providing some basic context upfront and then provide continuous and copious footnotes throughout the book’s 500 pages of letters. A long and detailed glossary at the end provides brief bios of seemingly every person mentioned in the letters, for easy references. All of this added material provides the much-needed context for appreciating the letters themselves.
Despite the completest seeming title, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is by no means the compilation of her surviving letters. It contains a choice selection of 230 letters spanning from 1891 to just four days before her murder in January, 1919. Not all of it will grip the casual reader, as there are plenty of long segments about organizing and coordinating various radical left wing groups and the resulting internecine squabbling. I personally find that kind of thing fascinating, but its not for everyone. And of course these were personal letters, so the prose doesn’t always sparkle, but this possible deficit is more than made up for by the hundreds of small insights into the real woman behind the legendary figure. From figuring out how to pay the rent to her swings in mood, Rosa Luxemburg comes alive in these pages in ways she never can in bronze plaques in the platz or even in her own well-crafted published analyses of Marxist thought.
The end strikes home all the more, because we know what she does not, although her fear for the future and the dangerous times she lives in is apparent. “And finally,” she writes in that last letter, “One must take history as it comes, whatever the course of it.” It’s impossible, after 500 pages, not to get a lump in your throat, not to want to take to the streets and man the barricades, when she concludes, “At this moment in Berlin the battles are continuing. Many of our brave lads have fallen…For today, I have to close. I embrace you a thousand times, your R.”
I would imagine any reader will have made up their mind by now whether they’re interested in this book or not. It’s an expertly assembled piece of raw history, presented in a precise and useful form. For those unfamiliar with the times, the people, or the politics, it requires first a history lesson. For anyone interested in this crucial period of the battle between Left and Right, a time before Soviet totalitarianism became synonymous with communism and before Hitler rose to power, it’s a fascinating read. And if you love or admire or are just fascinated by Rosa Luxemburg, then you’ve no excuse not to buy this excellent book.