Books

'The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg' Gives Slivers of Her Life, Bound Together

Artist unknown

An in-depth insight into the inner life of one of the early 20th century's most tragic and influential German revolutionaries.


The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

Publisher: Verso
Length: 609 pages
Author: Rosa Luxemburg
Price: $39.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-02
Amazon

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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia, East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.