by Chris Horner
In May 1919 the remains of a woman were fished from the Landwehr canal in Berlin. The three doctors available must have suspected the identity of the corpse, as they refused to perform a post mortem on it. Identification was in any case made by examination of the clothes on the body. This had been Rosa Luxemburg. She had perished essentially because the leftist uprising in Berlin, initiated by her fellow Sparticist leader Karl Liebknecht without her agreement, had failed. Luxemburg, who had fiercely criticised the Bolshevik approach to revolution as dangerously authoritarian was clubbed and then shot to death by members of the Freikorps, whose repressive violence makes them fitting antecedents to the Nazis.
The great revolutions in ‘The West’ are often seen as turning points, thresholds, new stages in history, and their very dates have a kind of resonance: 1776, 1789 (or 1794), 1917, and so on. History, of course, may make us change our minds about the degree of success, the meaning, the import of those events, but they remain potent as symbols, whatever posterity’s judgment may be. And there is a second sequence, of course, that of the failed revolutions: 1796, 1821, 1848, 1871, 1905, 1918, and 1956. These are the abortive revolutions and uprisings. This second list is the longer one, but like the successful ones, judgment about ultimate meaning, including the meaning of ‘success’ and ‘failure’, remain open to revision and reconsideration.
Of the revolutions that never were, it is the one that began in Germany in 1918 that is most relevant to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, born in 1906, married to Heinrich Blucher (an ex Sparticist) has a biography and a set of concerns defined by the fate of Germany after 1918. Rosa Luxemburg’s life and death – including the nature of the regime that connived in her murder – was the subject of an eloquent and moving essay by Arendt and published in Men in Dark Times in 1966. For all her criticism of Rosa Luxemburg’s mistakes, it is clear that she stands as a kind of exemplar for Arendt. If it had succeeded, if some kind of ‘Red’ government has seized and kept hold of power in the 1918-9 period, the effect on Germany, the nascent Soviet State in Russia, and the rest of the world would have been, one assumes, huge. But it failed, and Hitler and Stalin were the successors to that non-event. Read more »