“The main enemy is at home!” – Karl Liebknecht about those who killed him

The 15th January marks the 100th Anniversary of Karl Liebknecht’s murder. A life long campaigner for peace and socialism, writes Nick Jones.

Karl Liebknecht was born 1871 into a family rooted in the socialist tradition, his father Wilhelm Liebknecht an associate of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and a founder of the German Workers Association and consequently persecuted under the German anti-socialist laws.

Karl Liebknecht trained as lawyer and his first public talk was held on 19th September 1899 on the question of ‘Communism and Women’s Right to Vote’. He joined the SPD in Berlin 1900, where the party had a fifth of its members and was strongly influenced by the ideas of Marx and Engels. He devoted a lot of his time to developing the socialist youth movement and prioritised international campaigns against militarism and war.

In meetings he highlighted the link between those in industry who profit from war, the lack of information about the mistreatment of soldiers, brutal punishments, suicides and injuries.

He published an important work: Militarism and Anti Militarism 1906. He urged action against those who made business from war.

“…The family, relations and friends, the workshop and factory will be transformed by the work of the youth organisations into centres of recruitment for antimilitarism”.

The publication was popular with socialists in Germany and abroad but the Prussian War Minster Karl von Einem demanded Liebknecht be charged with high treason. The police tried to seize the 5000 printed copies in Leipzig, but despite raiding bookshops and house to house searches, succeeded in obtaining only 68 copies. [1]

He was charged with treason in 1907 and sentenced to 18 months prison. Following his imprisonment and subsequent release, Liebknecht embarked on a speaking tour of America in 1910. Speaking to farmers, factory and office workers and visited the 12$ a month slums of New York and the hellish steel mills in Pittsburgh. [2]

He returned to Germany and was selected as prospective candidate for the SPD and campaigned in the enormous electoral district of Potsdam-Spandau-Osthavelland 1911-1912. The SPD organised 165 public meetings, 144 SPD party meetings, distributed 810,000 leaflets, 58,674 newspapers ‘Der Fakel’ (The Torch), 15,000 calendars. Liebknecht spoke for two, sometimes three public meetings each Sunday.

On entering the German Parliament in 1912 , he made clear his opposition to capitalism, monarchy and the military. He exposed corruption in the arms trade on the 19th and 26th April 1913 in a famous Krupp scandal speech to Parliament and fought hard against military spending that would end peace in Europe. [3] Economic and global interests were driving countries to war- the arms manufacturers in Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Russia were keen to expand to new territories in the search of new markets and raw materials.

The socialist movement had grown to be an impressive force over the last forty years across Europe. The Second International had 3,4 million members and 14 million trade union supporters and seven million supporters in its friendly societies and cooperatives. They agreed to do all they could to prevent to drive to war.

Liebknecht was a regular speaker at international events urging resistance:

“Three things they cannot take form workers- your mind, your heart and your hands…it’s the duty of all nations and workers to defend world peace.” [4]

Liebknecht spoke at peace demonstrations addressing 20,000 French and Belgian industrial workers 12th July 1914, then onto Paris. Between the 26th and 31st July 1914 at least 288 anti-war meetings took place in 168 towns and cities across Germany with the participation of 500,000 people. Their voices were ignored.

The collapse of the Second International saw a retreat into nationalism was a terrible blow. Intimidation, threats and isolation followed those who opposed war. Radical socialists met on the 4th August 1914 in Rosa Luxemburg’s flat to plan action, the Spartacist group had begun. On the 5th August armed soldiers raided Liebknecht’s flat humiliating his wife and family.

Liebknecht continued his agitation against war and addressed party and trade union meetings. He was perceived as a threat. Archive documents reveal a decision made by the military and Government to send him to the front. [5] He received his call up papers, a non-combatant battalion, on the 30th January 1915- he was not to be trusted with a gun.

Liebknecht continued to agitate, and produced one of the most impressive agitational illegal Spartacist leaflets published May 1915:

“The Main Enemy is at home!”

“The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: the German imperialists, the parties of war, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.”[6]

The Spartacists continued to produce illegal leaflets that went from hand to hand. One leaflet read 1916:

“Those who oppose war- meet 1st May Potsdamer Platz (Berlin)- Bread! Freedom! Peace!”

Karl Liebknecht

Police forces were outnumbered when 10,000 protesters appeared and were addressed by Liebknecht. After he shouted the words “Long Live Peace! Down with the Government!”, he was struck on the head with truncheon by officer von Jagow and placed under arrest and charged with treason. The crowd was brutally dispersed.

Liebknecht was to spend the rest of the war in prison and was not released until 23rd October 1918, the mutiny and unrest was spreading across Germany.

He received a telegram from the Russian Embassy in Berlin on behalf of the Bolshevik Central Committee on the 24th October expressing gratitude and inviting him to party a to celebrate his release. The former Tsarist Guard of Honour was renamed the Karl Liebknecht regiment in his honour.

During his time in prison Liebknecht has tried to make sense of the betrayals of SPD members and trade union leaders. A particular reason stated his prison notes [7] was the role of the bureaucracy- a group whose very existence depends on the party or trade union they belong to -who pays their wages and guarantees employment. They were no longer were willing to make sacrifices and had a vested interest in the status quo. They had become interested in maintaining their party and their union structures and no longer saw a radical transformation of society by workers as their goal. Strikes and unnecessary interruption.

As the German revolution began to unfold the differences between those trying to organise from below, ensuring production and distribution was placed under the democratic control of Workers and Soldiers Councils came into direct conflict with trade Union leaders, labour leaders, business and the old order. Liebknecht was certain that the only way forward to banish poverty and war was to establish a socialist republic. The foundation of the German Communist Party 1st January 1919 had to be suppressed.

The reformist leaders of the German Social democratic party chose the status quo- the foundation of the German Communist Party 1st January 1919 and demands for a Socialist republic had to be suppressed.

The last article written by Karl Liebknecht for the Communist newspaper, Die Rote Fahne, 15th January 1915 read:

“Down with Spartakus”, they shout in the streets.

“Take them, beat them, shoot them, slaughter them, trample them, rip them to shreds!”…

“Spartakus defeated!” indeed, the revolutionary workers of Berlin have been defeated! A hundred of the best have been murdered! Several hundred have been thrown into prison…the day of reckoning will come for the Ebert-Scheidemann-Noske and the capitalists hiding behind them.” [8]

On the 15th January 1919, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were arrested. A secret telephone call made to the SPD War Minster Noske. After the call, both were murdered that evening. Order was restored, Noske unfortunately did not face justice.

[1] P129, Die Liebknechts-Karl und Sophie- Politik und Familie, Annelies Laschitza, Aufbau, 2007

[2] Pp179-181 Die Liebknechts-Karl und Sophie- Politik und Familie, Annelies Laschitza, Aufbau, 2007

[3] Pp201-210, Ausgewählte Reden, Briefe und Aufsätze- Karl Liebknecht, Dietz Berlin Verlag, 1952

[4] P212, Die Liebknechts-Karl und Sophie- Politik und Familie, Annelies Laschitza, Aufbau, 2007

[5] P263, Bundesarchiv R43/1395, BL17, Die Liebknechts-Karl und Sophie- Politik und Familie, Annelies Laschitza, Aufbau, 2007,

[6] P.301 , Ausgewählte Reden, Briefe und Aufsätze- Karl Liebknecht, Dietz Berlin Verlag, 1952

[7] P10-13, K Liebknecht, Prison, November 1916, Meinungsverschiedenheiten in der deutschen Sozialdemokratie , Die Rätebewegung Band 1, Rohwolt, März 1971

[8] P530, Die Liebknechts-Karl und Sophie- Politik und Familie, Annelies Laschitza, Aufbau, 2007

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