The Last Days of Karl Liebknecht

A modern mural reminiscent of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Photo: IMAGO / Klaus Martin Höfer

Last Sunday, thousands marched to the graves of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The two founders of the Communist Party of Germany were murdered 103 years ago, but people still come out with red carnations and red flags to remember them. It’s hard to think of another historical figure whose death still resonates with so many – except for this Palestinian cult leader, of course.

Rosa Luxemburg is more popular than ever, with movies and graphic novels about her life. To learn more about Karl Liebknecht and his last days, I would recommend a great film made during the German Democratic Republic. Trotz Alledem! (In Spite of Everything) had its premiere exactly 50 years ago on January 13, 1972. The two-hour film is available for free on Youtube with English subtitles.

East German film studio DEFA has a mixed reputation. The two-part biopic about Communist Party Chairman Ernst Thälmann (1954-55), for example, is remembered as a groaning Stalinist hagiography. Each scene shows Thälmann saving the day (and being congratulated for it). The director himself later admitted that some parts of the film were “absolutely inaccessible”.

Liebknecht’s biopic, however, shows that the GDR had liberalized in the 1970s. We are shown a revolutionary hero, but who struggles with doubt and suffers defeats. The film’s most impressive set shows the congregation at the Circus Busch. (The giant circus hall stood on the banks of the Spree next to Hackescher Markt, in a triangle now called James-Simon-Park.) On November 10, 1918, 4,000 workers and soldiers gathered here to decide the aftermath of the revolution. . We see Liebknecht arguing passionately to advance the revolution and expropriate the capitalists. But he loses the big fight. The Social Democrats overwhelmed him with cynical maneuvers and he was booed off the stage. Leaving the room, Liebknecht is almost in a trance and later seeks arguments to win over the working masses.

Some might see this as a cliché: brave communists versus evil reformers. But I am a historian of the German revolution of November 1918-1919, and I can affirm that this film sticks to the facts, almost wrongly. SPD leaders like Friedrich Ebert and Philip Scheidemann were really conspiring behind closed doors with right-wing military officers. As the record undoubtedly shows, they ordered the most infamous assassination of the 20th century.

Like many Eastern Bloc productions, a lack of funding is offset by a surplus of manpower. The assembly, for example, was recreated with thousands of East German extras shouting, clapping and booing.

Liebknecht proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic from a balcony of Berlin’s City Palace. By 1972, of course, the building was no longer there: after heavy war damage, the ruins were swept away in 1950. The producers were able to show this scene using clever editing to make the palace look like it was still standing.

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Karl Liebknecht addressing a crowd Trotz Alledem

Today this ugly palace has been rebuilt, and you can see a completely new copy of the balcony where Liebknecht stood (Portal IV). Prussian nostalgia would have us believe that the palace was destroyed by the Communists. This film recalls the historical truth: the first to bombard the palace were monarchist troops under the command of the SPD, who tried to kill the revolutionary sailors quartered inside. It makes the scene the funniest Trotz Alledem!: While the reactionaries fire machine guns on the palace, destroying the paintings on the walls, a sailor laughs: “Fortunately our Kaiser is no longer here to see that!”

The film is not free from censorship. Liebknecht comrades who took on prominent roles in the GDR, such as Wilhelm Pieck and Hermann Duncker, are elevated, while figures like Richard Müller make no appearances. In 1918 everyone referred to the leaders of the Russian Revolution as “Lenin and Trotsky” – but the latter name is missing.

It’s a wonderful biopic. See if you can hold back your tears when Liebknecht gets into a car destined to take him to his doom. The story was so well known from history that the director didn’t feel the need to show it. When thousands of funeral procession workers start chanting “Auf auf zum Kampf”, it seems just as relevant as it did 50 or 103 years ago.

Movies today tend to ask the question, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” So we all need a film showing workers trying to change the world. Allow me to give the final word to the working-class mother played by Erika Dunkelmann who takes Luxemburg and Liebknecht underground. Why is she risking her life: “It’s not a life to let things go on as they are.” Hear hear!