A fateful night: the murder of Rosa Luxemburg

  • January 15, 2019

Intellectuals & Ideas

Revolutionary icons Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered exactly 100 years ago today. Now, those responsible have finally been identified.

This is an excerpt from “The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg” (Verso, 2019) by Klaus Gietinger.

On January 15, 1919, in the midst of the German Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested on the orders of Friedrich Ebert, leader of the social democratic SPD. They were brought to the Hotel Eden, which served as the headquarters of the Rifle Division of the Cavalry Guards of the Freikorps (GKSD), headed by Captain Waldemar Pabst.

Responding to a tip, a group of five men from the counterrevolutionary Wilmersdorfer Bürgerwehr were sent to a building on the Mannheimer Straße where they believed the two revolutionaries were hiding. “The source of the tip-off remains unknown to this day. Without a warrant of any kind, they forced their way into the apartment,” writes Klaus Gietinger in The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 2019). The report drafted by the public prosecutor at the time describes what happened next:

They stopped a gentleman located in the room who sought to flee upon their arrival, and searched him for his papers. In doing so, they found a residency permit in Liebknecht’s name and his photograph. Because he called himself Marcusson but this did not appear believable to them, Lindner and Moering then took him in the car to headquarters in the Cecilienschule in order to determine his identity.

Rosa Luxemburg was likewise found and arrested in the apartment and driven to the GKSD headquarters. In The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, a gripping reconstruction of the fateful night in which both Luxemburg and Liebknecht were assassinated, Gietinger describes in detail what happened next.


Karl Liebknecht was led through the main entrance and lobby and up to the first floor of the Hotel Eden at around 21:30.

Pabst had installed his headquarters here across two spacious rooms, the “Little Hall”, the former casino, and the “Little Salon”, where he carried out his duties. Liebknecht was led into the Little Salon and presented to Captain Pabst.

The news that the Spartacus leader had arrived created a pogrom-like mood among the hotel’s guests and the officers and men of the GKSD who were there. According to the highly vivid account given by the murderers’ defense lawyer, Fritz Grünspach, a kind of excitement broke out that he called “German fever”, as quoted in Republik, a left-wing magazine of the time.

A collective thrill quivered through the luxury hotel. Liebknecht, fully aware of what lay before him, continued to identify himself to Pabst as Marcusson, but was betrayed by the initials on his clothing. Pabst moved to the Little Hall next door and engaged in consultations with his adjutant, Captain von Pflugk-Harttung; his deputy, Captain Rühle von Lilienstern, was probably also present. It was decided to summon the naval squadron of Captain Lieutenant Pflugk-Harttung from its quarters on In den Zelten Street, in aid of Liebknecht’s further “treatment”.

The captain drove there in an open NSU, the same automobile in which Liebknecht would later be taken away, and returned with his brother and four young officers. These were First Naval Lieutenant Ulrich von Ritgen, Naval Lieutenant Heinrich Stiege, Naval Lieutenant Bruno Schulze, and Naval Lieutenant Hermann W. Souchon. All of them were veritable giants, measuring up to 1.90 meters.

These “shock troops” in military uniform arrived at the Hotel Eden around 21:45. Liebknecht was taken out of the Little Salon by these men at around 22:45. A brief and intense political debate had allegedly taken place shortly beforehand. Liebknecht was then led down the steps to the hotel’s side exit, while guests and men in uniform shouted insults and spat at him.

Soldiers lined the streets in front of the hotel, which was securely cordoned off. Liebknecht and his guards stepped into the car. Liebknecht sat in the back; Stiege was next to him, Kaleu Pflugk-Harttung in front of him, next to the driver, Peschel. Schulze stood on the right footboard, infantryman Friedrich on the left.

Lieutenant Liepmann, also an aide-de-camp to Pabst but not one of the naval officers, boarded the car as well. He regarded himself as the leader of the transport, since everyone but him was wearing squad coats, but was disabused of that notion by Pflugk-Harttung. Another uniformed man, infantryman Runge, who stood guard inside the front entrance to the right of the revolving door, also felt duped — for one Captain Petri, unaware of the “decisions” reached above him on the first floor, had bribed Runge out of fear that Liebknecht would leave the hotel alive.

Runge watched through the glass of the revolving door as Liebknecht was led through the side exit. He ran around the Hotel Eden together with the chauffeur Güttinger, reaching the automobile just as Liebknecht sat down between the two disguised officers. Runge struck him with the butt of his rifle. Hit hard, Liebknecht instinctively ducked the second blow. As he did so, blood sprayed onto Stiege’s trousers. Liebknecht cried: “I’m bleeding!” The automobile started up.

A man wearing a sailor’s cap and a pilot’s jacket, von Rzewuski, jumped onto the automobile, punched Liebknecht in the face with his fist, and jumped back off. The officers only thought to take Liebknecht to the first-aid station after he had been murdered and they returned from the Tiergarten.

Shortly after 22:00, Rosa Luxemburg and Wilhelm Pieck arrived at the hotel and were led through the lobby, mobbed by frenzied hotel guests and uniformed men — Luxemburg was insulted as a “whore” — and brought to the first floor. Pieck was made to wait in a cramped nook between the rooms, under heavy guard, while Rosa Luxemburg was presented to Pabst in the Little Hall. At this time, Liebknecht was still next door in the Salon.

Pabst recalls their encounter: “Are you Frau Luxemburg? In response, she said: Please decide for yourself. Then I said, according to this picture it must be you. To this she countered: If you say so! I thus knew just as much as I had beforehand.” Shortly thereafter — Liebknecht had just been ushered out of the Little Salon — she was most likely brought in through the side door to that room. In front of Pabst, whose office it was, she mended the hem of her skirt which had been damaged during the journey and read a bit of Goethe’s Faust.

Liebknecht was left at the first-aid station near the Berlin Zoo, as an unidentified dead body, at 23:15. The naval officers drove back to the hotel and delivered their report to Pabst in the Little Hall. Rosa Luxemburg was taken away at around 23:40. Retired First Lieutenant Vogel, who had been appointed to lead the transport, picked her up and led her through the lobby to the main entrance.

As he had with Liebknecht (and again unbeknownst to Pabst), Runge lay in wait, determined to earn Captain Petri’s promised reward. He had even refused the change of guard at 23:00. Vogel let Luxemburg walk ahead of him through the propped-open revolving doors. Runge struck her violently with the butt of his rifle. Knocked unconscious, she fell backwards, losing a shoe and her handbag. The soldier Kurt Becker took it as a trophy. One of the guarding officers, Albrecht Freiherr von Wechmar (later a military advisor on Dieter Ertel’s television film about the murder), stole out of the same bag a letter from Clara Zetkin, which he would sell to the historian Hermann Weber for several hundred marks in 1969.

Lying on the ground, Luxemburg received a second blow from Runge. Only then did Vogel feel obliged to “intervene”. She was dragged to the car, “hauled in” and thrown onto the back seat as “blood streamed from her nose and mouth”.

Infantryman Max Weber sat down to her left, while to her right sat infantryman Willy Grantke. Infantryman Hermann Poppe stood on the left footboard. The driver, Hermann Janschkow, sat in front (the steering wheel was on the right side), and the front-seat passenger and co-driver was Richard Hall. Vogel also boarded the car. As the open-topped Priamus rolled down the driveway, von Rzewuski again leaped forward and punched the unconscious Luxemburg twice in the face, before jumping off. The automobile headed towards the Cornelius Bridge. At the level of Nürnberger Straße, roughly forty meters from the hotel entrance, a shot was fired at close range, which “entered on the left side before the ear and exited on the other side slightly lower down”, leading to a “separation of the base of the skull” and a “severing of the lower jaw”.

Rosa Luxemburg was killed instantly. It was 23:45 on January 15, 1919.


The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg by Klaus Gietinger is now available from Verso.

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Klaus Gietinger

Klaus Gietinger is a German screenwriter, film director and historian based in Frankfurt am Main. He has published several books on German fascism, the Communist movement, and a history of car crashes.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/fateful-night-murder-rosa-luxemburg/

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