I’d like to mark the 150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s birth with a reflection on the contemporaneous reception of a letter she wrote just over 100 years ago. While it may seem anachronistic to be discussing fountain-pen/hand-written letters in this day and age of instant messaging, I would invoke Ernst Bloch who claimed it is precisely the ungleichzeitig (non-contemporaneous) which often requires our attention. In agreement with Bloch and Walter Benjamin, we ought to carefully examine the significance of such incidental material for it is here that the promises of an unfinished past reside. That the letter in question (mid-December, 1917, Breslau Prison) keeps reappearing in commentaries of all sorts on Luxemburg supports the contention that it remains topical today.
Luxemburg wrote the letter to her friend Sophie Liebknecht, the second wife of her comrade Karl Liebknecht who at that time had been in jail for one year. The opening paragraphs attempt to comfort her friend. She attempts to assure her that the situation in Russia is likely not as portrayed in the bourgeois press. But the addressee’s name and these opening paragraphs were not available to the first readers of the letter. They do not figure in the initial reception. However, an informed reader like Karl Kraus could guess to whom the letter was addressed. He names the recipient, Sophie Liebknecht, when he reprinted the letter in his newspaper Die Fackel (July, 1920, p. 6).
As first published, the letter opens directly with Luxemburg’s reflections on having been in prison for the past three years. And, as often seen in Luxemburg’s writings, a fundamental humanity shines through in the juxtaposition of her inner happiness and profound sadness concerning the world around her. Her letter recounts a sleepless night of wonder at the incongruous nature of life in prison. “I lie there quietly, alone, wrapped in these many-layered black veils of darkness, boredom, lack of freedom, and winter – and at the same time my heart is racing with an incomprehensible, unfamiliar inner joy as though I were walking across a flowering meadow in radiant sunshine” (Letters, p. 454). But make no mistake, there is neither resignation nor sentimentality in her sadness or happiness.
Following this is a brief commentary on the beauty of plant life in Steglitzer Park and the beauty of the poetry of Stefan George before she abruptly turns to the polar opposite of having witnessed the beating of Romanian buffalo in the prison courtyard. These beasts of burden were war booty forced to haul, in this case, bloodied and torn soldiers’ uniforms to be cleaned and repaired by the women prisoners for continued use in battle. On this occasion the weight of the wagon and the surface grade of the road proved too difficult for the buffalos. A soldier (“a brutal fellow”) beat one of the buffalos until he broke the skin on its back (“und die war zerrissen”; Luxemburg, 1920, p. 38). Luxemburg would feel sympathy with the animals as certainly many of the readers of this letter. The gate attendant herself asked whether the soldier might at least show some concern for them. To which the soldier replied that no one has any concern for “us humans” as he turned to beat the buffalo even harder. The soldier then underlines his utter lack of compassion by sauntering around the courtyard whistling a popular tune. While this is going on, Luxemburg gazes into the eyes of the abused animal and weeps.
There’s no reason to believe this event didn’t actually take place, but it’s a scene that could well have been written into Bertolt Brecht’s later Mutter Courage – using the context of war to throw into sharper relief the contradictions of humanity. Luxemburg’s narration of life in prison has an ongoing impact precisely because of her skill as a writer. It’s not just what she writes, but how she writes it. She universalizes this particular event in a way that only a poet could. Finally, with what we might in retrospect call a Brechtian flourish for its Verfremdungseffekt, Luxemburg ends the letter thus: “And the entire marvellous panorama of the war passed before my eyes” (Letters, p. 458). No small wonder that this letter would attract the attention of her contemporaries (and continue to draw our attention today). Soon after its publication, the writing style and content of this letter became a topic of discussion in still more letters.
It was Kraus (according to his reckoning) who first recognized the importance of the letter. He recounts having first found it printed in the Viennese Arbeiter-Zeitung, May 23, 1920 on his way to a lecture he was to deliver in Berlin. He then reprinted it in his newspaper Die Fackel around the same time it was printed in a small volume of collected letters, Briefe aus dem Gefängnis, Berlin, July 1920. Later that year, Benjamin writes in a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem that this edition of Luxemburg’s prison letters was given to him as a birthday present (Correspondence, p. 171). Significantly, the gift was from his brother Georg (a USPD then KPD member). Benjamin writes that he “was touched by their incredible beauty and significance” (ibid). Clearly Kraus thought so too. This one letter from December 1917 became, for a time (in the 1920s), part of Kraus’s repertoire in his popular speaking engagements where he read it aloud. The earliest was in Berlin (May 28, 1920), then Dresden, Prague and Vienna for a total of ten times over the course of 1920-1928 (Pfäfflin, p. 3 and 24).
As editor of Die Fackel, Kraus received an anonymous letter on August 25, 1920 which objected to the Luxemburg letter; calling Luxemburg’s description of the brutal treatment of the buffalo in the prison courtyard “larmoyante” (Die Fackel, November 1920, p. 6). The author does not introduce herself, she merely refers to her letter as from “ominous Innsbruck”. Undeterred by the wish of the author to remain nameless, Kraus was able to determine the identity of the letter writer as Ida von Lill-Rastern von Lilienbach; the wife of an Austrian local district officer. Kraus considered the letter a “provocation” and within a short period presented an oral and printed open-letter rebuttal entitled: “Answer to Rosa Luxemburg from an Unsentimental” (ibid, p. 7-12).
It’s clear from Benjamin’s letters that, when he could, he enjoyed attending Kraus’s lecture/reading-performances in the 1920s. Unfortunately, it is not certain from the extant letters whether he actually heard Kraus read the Luxemburg letter. However, he was certainly aware of the buzz and clearly he regularly (though not always uncritically) read Die Fackel. In a letter to Scholem, he mentions Kraus’s reaction to the “ominous” Innsbruck landowner. Expressing agreement with Kraus, Benjamin sees the landowner’s letter as a “shameless attack on the spirit of these letters [of Luxemburg]” (Correspondence, p. 171). Years later he seems not to have forgotten this exchange of letters when he quotes Kraus’s rebuttal at length in an eponymous essay for the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1931. He describes the language of Kraus as “human, natural, noble language” (“Karl Kraus”, p. 456). His alliance with what he sees in Kraus’s defence of Luxemburg is further echoed in a letter to Max Rychner, the editor of the Neue Schweizer Rundschau (March 7, 1931). And lastly, it specifically comes up again in Benjamin’s letters when he uses it to defend his Marxism against a rebuke from Scholem (May 6, 1934).
Note the peculiarity that the discussion about the letter took place among letter writers (two of the three were accomplished authors/freelance journalists in their own right). This one letter generated fascinating correspondences three years after Luxemburg’s death. Each of the letters occasioned by her original letter uses that letter to defend a position. There are defensive gestures all around: Kraus (who wrote the only letter of the lot which was intended to be published) defends Luxemburg on the levels of form and content, the Innsbruck landowner (Frau von Lill-Rastern) effectively defends the actions of the brutal soldier (who, for different reasons, justifies his actions against the attendant’s implied reprimand), Benjamin uses the letter indirectly through Kraus to defend his Marxism, and most importantly, Luxemburg defends the defenceless beast of burden against the forces of barbarism with the motto “vae victus” (Letters, p. 457). Viewed as a set-piece, it is because of the one hostile letter that the other letters ultimately may be read as unorthodox and dissident defences of Marxism.
In the July, 1920 issue of Die Fackel (the one which contains the reprint of Luxemburg’s letter) Kraus reports on the audience’s impression of the first reading-performance he gave in Berlin. While it’s true that Kraus was generally considered a brilliant and charismatic reader/performer, this doesn’t take away from the profound effect the letter had on his audience. While castigating the newly formed Weimar Republic because the letter was virtually unknown there (“shame and disgrace on the republic”), with all modesty Kraus attributes the audience’s appreciation to the quality of Luxemburg’s prose itself. He writes that this “unique document of humanity and poetry” ought to be printed in German schoolbooks alongside Goethe and Claudius. Such is the value of the letter in his estimation: “The entire living literature of Germany cannot elicit such tears as the writing of this Jewish revolutionary. There is no equivalent reaction of breathlessness evoked like that after the description of the buffalo’s skin: ‘and it was torn’ [und die war zerrissen]” (p. 5).
Luxemburg’s letter and Kraus’s accompanying account of his audience provoked the complete opposite reaction from one reader of Die Fackel (who claims to have “accidentally” come across this issue). Completely missing the quality of Luxemburg’s letter, intense ire is expressed by Frau von Lill-Rastern, the Innsbruck landowner. She writes that if the letter were to be printed in German schoolbooks, this should only be done to make an instructive example of Luxemburg. She suggests that in such a case, the letter would require a preface. Students need to learn that Luxemburg would have been spared jail and death-by-rifle-butt had she considered a nicer occupation like attendant at a nursery or zoological gardens rather than as a political agitator. She believes that Luxemburg preached violence and therefore deserved to come to a violent end.
The Innsbruck landowner goes even further. As one who “grew up on a large estate in southern Hungary”, she claims to know all about such thick-skinned, dull faced, animals who “would not be especially surprised to have to haul a heavy wagon in Breslau” and be whipped when necessary. Her admiration goes to those who from “time immemorial” have caught, tamed, and used these animals; for they (the buffalo) “are not always amenable to reason”. God help us, she knows this also as a mother: “I can assure you as a mother that a box on the ear often has a very beneficial effect on strong boys!” Finally, she crosses the line into (perhaps deliberate) absurdity by reading into Luxemburg’s text a “preaching of revolution to the buffalos” and a call for a “buffalo republic”. She concludes her description of this “sentimentality and incitement” from this “hysterical woman” by rhetorically asking Kraus: “Isn’t this also your opinion? [Meinen Sie nicht auch?]”.
Needless to say, none of this is Kraus’s opinion. If he had the same views as Frau von Lill-Rastern, he wouldn’t have printed or performed the letter. His open letter contains a vehement refrain of “what I mean, is…” (“Was ich meine, ist…”). He repeats this phrase ten times in a five-page letter. Each time the phrase punctuates, in a different register, yet another absolute disagreement. It mirrors the structure of his 800-page magnum opus epic drama, The Last Days of Mankind (which he was working on at the time). The play opens with shouts of newspaper vendors and ends in the god-forsaken, spiritually empty, killing fields of World War I and the voice of God who claims: “I did not will it so”. Kraus’s letter from an “Unsentimental” begins with the voice of one who doesn’t care that Frau von Lill-Rastern “accidently” came across his newspaper and ends with the satirical evocation of the divine right of humans to dominate and accumulate.
In the grand scheme of things, this letter to Kraus comes as no surprise to him. It’s yet one more example of the spiritual and cultural bankruptcy he rails against. He welcomes the opportunity to publish for posterity this choice example of all that is wrong in the pre- and post-war period; culturally, politically, linguistically. It’s this letter from Frau von Lill-Rastern that must be made an example of, to show today’s youth the level of depravation of those who would allow to “happen again and again precisely what they did not prevent in 1914”. Kraus takes the concession Frau von Lill-Rastern might make in agreeing to publish Luxemburg in schoolbooks and subverts it. The real problem, Kraus seems to suggest, is precisely that prior to 1914 the schoolbooks were influenced by landowners who steal, tame, and abuse animals and humans alike rather than by “the spirit of the good Rosa Luxemburg”.
There’s authenticity, dignity and integrity in Luxemburg’s writing – she is far more human for having called the beast of burden a “brother”. Kraus compares this to the crass humour that Frau von Lill-Rastern seems to find in the dull passivity and “lack of reason” of the buffalo. Her humour, her language, is that of the bully. Kraus takes umbrage at the arrogance of one who, in the end, displays no credibility in the “gibberish” she espouses against nature. He rails against “this dehumanized brood of estate and blood owners” who willfully miss the point: Luxemburg’s life and prose are powerful indictments against the contradictions of capitalism and war. As such, there should be no surprise that this landowner should react with indignation at seeing her hitherto unquestioned authority being unmasked. It’s an act of desperation on her part to hope that Kraus, the independently wealthy newspaper editor, should have the same views as her (“Meinen Sie nicht auch?”).
Instead, Kraus (like Luxemburg and Benjamin too) subverts his class interests. His letter to the Innsbruck landowner illustrates, in effect, an unorthodox defence of Marxism which uses no terminology from politics, philosophy or political economy. The following is the pièce de résistance of Kraus’s defence of Luxemburg against the likes of the Innsbruck landowner:
Communism is in reality nothing but the antithesis of a particular ideology that is both thoroughly harmful and corrosive. Thank God for the fact that Communism springs from a clean and clear ideal, which preserves its idealistic purpose even though, as an antidote, it is inclined to be somewhat harsh. To hell with its practical import: but may God at least preserve it for us as a never-ending menace to those people who own big estates and who, in order to hang on to them, are prepared to despatch humanity into battle, to abandon it to starvation for the sake of patriotic honour. May God preserve Communism so that the evil brood of its enemies may be prevented from becoming more barefaced still, so that the gang of profiteers … [who believe that humanity should feel loved enough even if they contract syphilis from them, shall at least go to bed with nightmares!]… If they must preach morality to their victims and amuse themselves with their suffering, at least let some of their pleasure be spoilt!
(translated by J.P. Nettl and used as a motto to his 2-volume biography of Rosa Luxemburg. Square brackets enclose the phrase excised by Nettl).
Strong language! In this “Credo” Kraus celebrates his own apparent contradictions. Benjamin would ally himself with him here, as evidenced in the laudatory use of this passage in his 1931 essay on Kraus. But is this really a contradiction except in the eyes of Frau von Lill-Rastern? Consider this poem from Kraus (“Mein Widerspruch” – “My Contradiction” in Worte in Versen):
Where life to their lie was subjugated
I was a revolutionary.
Where nature in favor of norms was berated
I was a revolutionary.
My bond with man’s suffering I have confessed.
Where freedom to hollow phrases was suited
I was a reactionary.
Where art with their artifice was polluted
I was a reactionary.
And back to the source I have retrogressed.
(translated by Albert Bloch; cited in Harry Zohn, Karl Kraus, p. 127)
The use of juxtaposition here shows Kraus is neither a revolutionary nor a reactionary but rather a defender of the spirit of humanism (whether “classical” or “materialist” goes beyond the scope of this discussion). Benjamin, however, characterizes it best when he portrays Kraus as: “this great bourgeois character … this guardian of Goethean linguistic values … this irreproachably honorable man [who] thought fit to change the world with his own class…” (“Karl Kraus”, p. 455).
As is often the case in Benjamin’s writing, particularly if he is writing on someone for whom he has great respect, one finds a moment of identification with his subject. One can say, quite simply, that Benjamin identifies with Kraus’s defence of Luxemburg. This is clearly the case in his essay on Kraus given the prominence of the “Credo” quote, but equally so in his references to Kraus in his correspondence with others.
For instance, both Rychner and Scholem challenge him to define his position (dic cur hic?) on the question of Marxism and he refers both to his “Kraus” essay where they may find (he says) his position “between the lines”. This oblique response to Rychner appears to have some affinity to Kraus: “I have never been able to do research and think in any sense other than, if you will, a theological one, namely, in accord with the Talmudic teaching about the forty-nine levels of meaning in every passage of Torah. That is, in my experience, the most trite Communist platitude possesses more hierarchies of meaning than does contemporary bourgeois profundity, which has only one meaning, that of an apologetic” (Correspondence, p. 372-373). This is not to suggest that Kraus (or Luxemburg) wrote “communist platitudes”, but anyone who has ever tried to translate Kraus would attest to such an encounter with layers of meaning.
Benjamin shared his letter to Rychner with Scholem. Rather than coming to Benjamin’s defence, however, Scholem thinks Benjamin is engaging in a self-deception bordering on counter revolutionary. He thinks Rychner’s question (dic cur hic?) still requires an answer and he defies him to solve this by joining the Communist Party (ibid, p. 376). And this, coming from the one who introduced Benjamin to Luxemburg in the first place during their 1915 anti-war activities of disseminating prohibited writings (Scholem, Friendship, p. 7). Benjamin has no illusions about this. The “Kraus” essay and these letters were written in 1931; by which time, the KPD is no longer the party of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.
He appeals to Scholem to understand his precarious position as a freelance writer in Germany; this was, after all, during the Brüning regime of rising unemployment and restricted freedom of the press. He judges that a successful German revolution might provide the conditions for him to “write differently” (Correspondence, p. 377) and he believed that clarity of thought might only be achieved through a move further left. He is willing to concede that, from the perspective of the Party, some of his writings may be construed as counter-revolutionary. But he reckons that this does not mean they are necessarily taken up by the counter-revolution. He writes to Scholem: “… do you want to prevent me from hanging the red flag from my window with the comment that it is nothing more than a tattered piece of cloth?” (ibid, 378).
Years later, Scholem continues with the rebuke that Benjamin’s writing amounts to a communist “Credo”. In 1934, Benjamin still refuses to retract his position and reminds Scholem (with even greater justification): “my communism … is a drastic, not infertile expression of the fact that the present intellectual industry finds it impossible to make room for my thinking, just as the present economic order finds it impossible to accommodate my life … it is all this and much more, though in each case nothing but the lesser evil (see Kraus’s letter to the female landowner who declared her opinion of Rosa Luxemburg) …” (ibid, p. 439). The bracketed information is meant to underline Kraus’s defence of Luxemburg’s letter of 1917 as the “lesser evil” – as if anyone needed to be reminded of this in 1934!
What brings all these letters about letters together? I would venture to say, by way of a conclusion, that Benjamin’s suspicion from 1931 is correct. Letters may be subversive even without being overtly political. He knew this when he started to collect letters from the German classical period for a piece in the Frankfurter Zeitung. None of these are well known, even if their authors were. They’re incidental; they are part of a “secret Germany”. This is what made them especially subversive when he published them in 1936 under the title Deutsche Menschen. They bear witness to what Bloch would call an unfinished past. Because of their very personal nature, they often reveal as much about the author as they do about the ostensible subject under consideration. So it is with the letters engendered by Luxemburg’s letter to Sophie Liebknecht. They too bear witness to the lives and struggles of their authors. While the medium may show them to be fragments of a time out of sync with today, their urgency speaks to us as they did to their recipients when they were first penned.
Benjamin, Walter. “Karl Kraus”, Trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume 2, 1927-1934, Ed. Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, Cambridge, MA: 1999, pp. 433-458.
Benjamin, Walter. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, Trans. Manfred Jacobson and Evelyn Jacobson, Ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor Adorno, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Kraus, Karl. Die Fackel, Number 456-550, July 1920, pp. 5-9. https://fackel.oeaw.ac.at/
Kraus, Karl. Die Fackel, Number 554-556, November 1920, pp. 6-12. https://fackel.oeaw.ac.at/
Kraus, Karl. The Last Days of Mankind, Trans. Alexander Gode and Sue Ellen Wright, Ed. & Abridged Frederick Ungar, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974.
Luxemburg, Rosa. Briefe aus dem Gefängnis, 2nd Edition, Berlin: Jugend-Internationale, 1920, pp. 35-38.
Luxemburg, Rosa. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, Trans. George Shriver, Ed. Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza, London: Verso, 2013.
Nettl, J.P. Rosa Luxemburg, Volume 1, London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Pfäfflin, Friedrich. Ed. Karl Kraus – Rosa Luxemburg. Büffelhaut und Kreatur: Die Zerstörung der Natur und das Mittleiden des Satirikers. Berlin: Friedenauer Presse, 2009.
Scholem, Gershom. Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, Trans. Harry Zohn, London: Faber & Faber, 1982.
Zohn, Harry. Karl Kraus, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1971.