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John Riceburg: The first demonstration of the year

It’s been 95 years since Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by the Social Democratic government of 1919. Remember them - and take part in a uniquely Berlin institution - at their annual commemorative demonstration this Sunday at 10am.

Image for John Riceburg: The first demonstration of the year
Photo by Die Linke (Flickr CC)

Do you have plans for this Sunday at 10am (as the MDMA is starting to wear off)? I’m going to a real Berlin uniquity  and also the first demonstration of the year.

It’s been 95 years since Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered. She was a Polish Jew who was known for her unmatched polemical tongue; he was a son of the founder of the SPD and was the only member of the Bundestag to vote against the credits for the First World War in 1914.

When the revolution reached Berlin on November 9, 1918, this duo – who had spent most of the war in prison – became instant heroes of the insurrectionists. They founded the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD) on the first day of 1919 and worked tirelessly to drive the revolution forward.

It was Liebknecht who reminded the masses that the revolution hadn’t ended with the abdication of the Kaiser: the workers’ and soldiers’ councils needed to take power, destroy the old state and create a socialist order. For the ancien régime it was clear: in order to cripple the communist revolution, Liebknecht needed to be eliminated.

The government was now composed of Liebknecht’s former comrades of the SPD, who had expelled him for his anti-war stance. They didn’t want to take the responsibility for a political murder – this job fell to Waldemar Pabst, commander of a proto-fascist Freikorps unit. But as Pabst revealed decades later, the order to pull the trigger came from the SPD leadership itself.

The funeral procession turned into a mass protest, and for the last 90 years the second Sunday in January has seen a commemorative demonstration. The original monument at the cemetery in Friedrichsfelde was destroyed by the Nazis but rebuilt by the East German government in 1951. In the GDR, hundreds of thousands would bring red carnations to the grave (kind of like a communist version of “poppy day”).

Now, of course, the event is much smaller. Up to 80,000 retirees will come in the morning to bring flowers. At 10am, a few thousand will gather at Frankfurter Tor for the LLL-Demonstration and proceed to the cemetery (the third “L” stands for “Lenin”, who died in January of 1924). Observers have called this demonstration a “carnival parade of sects”, since there are countless Maoist groups from Turkey who only seem to come out once a year. Recent years have seen fighting around a memorial to the victims of Stalinism opposite the graves – for the more hardcore Stalinist groups, this is an insult to the beloved leader.

Clearly it’s a bit weird. But it’s fun. And it’s a uniquely Berlin tradition. It gives us a chance to think about long-dead revolutionaries at a time when the struggle for a world free from oppression seems even further away than in 1918. Nonetheless, in the midst of this capitalist metropolis, their words can seem eerily modern. As the revolution was beaten down by reactionary troops, the rulers were enthralled about “re-established order”. Luxemburg, in her last written words, countered:

“‘Order prevails in Berlin!‘ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again, clashing its weapons, and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!”

I hope she was right! See you on Sunday!