Rüdiger Rossig | Journalist | Novinar

Karl and Rosa: Glue for the Far Left?

Their successors are still searching for an identity | By Rüdiger Rossig

For the first time since 1945, communists and left-wing socialists from both east and west are seated together as a parliamentary party in the German legislature. But the new German Left still lacks a common identity. Two historical figures might provide it: Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They have been revered as martyrs by communists sinc the day they were murdered, on Jan. 15, 1919.

Red flags and the red star of communism have become a rare sight in Germany. But once a year, on Jan. 15, a sizable number of old leftists dust off the communist symbols they have stored away and take them to the cemetery in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde, to honor the memory of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who were murdered on that day.

"Karl and Rosa" are icons of the German Left. They were Social Democrats in Imperial Germany, but left the party in protest when it supported Germany's military policy during World War I. After the November revolution, in December 1918, they founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). A month later, following the model set by Russia, they staged a communist uprising. The SPD government then in power sent soldiers to Berlin to smash the insurrection: Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and shot on the spot.

Afterwards, the Communist Party of Germany organized annual processions to the graves of these two revolutionaries, in commemoration of the "betrayal by the SPD".

In 1933, the Nazis desecrated the graves. Both Communists and Social Democrats were persecuted during the next 12 years of Nazi rule. From this, both parties concluded that the major reason the Nazis had been successful was the split in the workers' movement, so after 1945, efforts to unify were made by the two leftwing parties.

However, the Communist Party found support only in the Eastern Zone that was occupied by Soviet troops. Most of the German Communist leadership had been in exile in the Soviet Union during the war. Against the opposition of many Social Democrats, these returned leaders forced the unification of the two parties in the Soviet Occupation Zone, creating the Socialist Unity Party (SED). To give the new, common party an identity, the Luxemburg and Liebknecht gravesite was converted into a "Socialist Memorial."

As long as Communist East Germany existed, its leaders met at this memorial every year on Jan. 15. Workers waved banners. And gray party functionaries, including East Germany's first president, Wilhelm Pieck, and the head of the SED, Walter Ulbricht, were laid to rest next to the two heroes.

In 1988 for the first time, East German dissidents participated in the annual event. They carried their own banners with the famous quote by Rosa Luxemburg: "Freedom is always freedom for those who think differently." In doing so, they put their finger in an old wound of the Communist Party. Liebknecht and Luxemburg had welcomed the advent of the Russian Revolution, but did not spare their critique of the brutal oppression that was the hallmark of the new Soviet regime. In the same vein, they rejected Lenin's concept of a party of professional revolutionaries.

Liebknecht and Luxemburg did not want a bureaucratic organization of cadres directed from above, but instead a democratic and revolutionary mass party. Yet once they were gone, Leninists gained the upper hand in the German Communist Party. Liebknecht and Luxemburg's writings were never published in full in East Germany. Their deaths were romanticized, and their criticism of Soviet socialism was hushed up.

One reason for the East German revolution of 1989 was the lack of a diversity of opinion. Members of the SED left the party in droves, and it appeared as though it would dissolve itself. But then Gregor Gysi, a largely unknown East Berlin lawyer until then, managed to get the party to rename itself as the PDS – Party of Democratic Socialism.

"Gysi's motley troupe," which is how the transformed SED presented itself after reunification, was able to win a respectable number of votes already in the first federal elections held in reunited Germany in 1990. The PDS has been represented in the Bundestag ever since. In the east, the PDS provides the majority in many city and town councils, as well as many mayors. In the west, the party has not been able to garner much support. Gysi – because of his charisma and his quick wit – is still the only media star of the PDS, not because of his membership, but despite it.

Things began to change in 1998 when Gerhard Schröder's Red-Green coalition came to power. Not only West German leftists were incensed by what they regarded as a ruthless dismantling of the social welfare state, not to speak of the generous gifts handed to industry by the new government. As a consequence, disappointed Social Democrats and trade unionists in West Germany founded the Alternative Party for Labor and Social Justice (WASG). In Oskar Lafontaine, former SPD chairman, longtime minister president of the Saarland, and briefly finance minister, the new WASG party found a leader already known to the public as well as one the PDS could take seriously. In the September 2005 elections, both parties campaigned together and were surprisingly successful. Their combined parliamentary party, The Left, has 54 representatives in the Bundestag.

Since then, the PDS and WASG have been trying to hammer their different groupings into one single Left Party. This has not proved easy. In the east, the PDS is an established part of political and cultural life, and has supporters and members throughout eastern society. The WASG, by contrast, finds its members mainly in the west and almost solely in trade unions, among leftwing Social Democrats and members of Communist micro-groups. What is missing is a pan-German leftist identity.

Jan. 15, 2006 could be the date when the collective self-conception of the new Left presents itself for the first time. The former KPD-SED celebration has become a prominent event for Berlin's leftwing scene. Until now, Liebknecht and Luxemburg have tended to split the German left more than they have unified it. But perhaps on the 87th anniversary of their deaths, left-winger Lafontaine from the west and left-winger Gysi from the east will stand together at their graves – as symbols of the new concord between the far Left in both parts of Germany.