On a freezing January afternoon in Berlin, a small group of thugs dragged the body of a woman out a car. The occasional distant crack of gun fire rolled through the otherwise silent woods of Berlin's central park, the Tiergarten
. There was no way of telling if the middle aged woman was still alive, but in any case, she didn't have long to live if she was. The men, all young battle hardened veterans of the trenches or of the brutal fights which plagued the capital's streets, soon reached the silent waters of the Landwehr canal which runs along the edge of the park. They dropped their burden, lashed weights to the battered woman's hands and feet, and with no little contempt, pitched her into the water. The splash seemed to echo unexpectedly loudly in the still winter air, as the waters closed over the body of one of Germany's legendary revolutionaries.
Ninety nine years later, I was biking along the Landwehr canal on an early spring afternoon, travelling in search of the past. As a historian and tour guide, I'm always on the lookout for sights which showcase Berlin's past. Sure, most visitors to the city want to see the big sites like the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, and the site of Hitler's bunker remains a big draw. But I like to take my guests to places which, although little visited, illuminate the nature of this history shattered city's soul. I often find the impressions made by these places last longer than those on the Top Five lists. Rosa Luxemburg
, the woman whose body was dumped in the canal those long decades ago, was a revolutionary and early feminist who, along with Karl Liebknecht, founded the Spartacist League, a far left Marxist movement dedicated to bringing about a worldwide worker's revolution so that mankind could finally, at long last, be freed from the shackles of capitalism. Luxemburg was a polarizing figure in a defeated country wracked by violence over the direction the militarily defeated and newly impoverished nation should take in that fateful state? Or was authoritarianism the answer? Perhaps democracy's moment had come? Luxemburg was determined that Germany should follow in Russia's revolutionary footsteps. In January 1919 she co-founded the Communist Party of Germany and, despite initial reservations about the timing of the revolt, was fully implicated in the uprising wracking Berlin later that month.
Berlin in the months after the First World War was hardly the gleaming city of optimistic young entrepreneurs you see today. New demobilized soldiers, hardened to violence, roamed the streets as a newly installed Socialist government faced the near impossible job of fending off assaults from both the far right and their seeming colleagues on the far left, the Communists. The capital was about to descend into the chaos of uprising after uprising throughout 1919 as Germany and Berlin struggled to make sense of the forces let loose by defeat in war.
Back in the present, I came across a small modern footbridge after a pleasant ride along the canal. Tucked away almost under the bridge, mounted along the guardrails along the embankment, were a series of iron letters which proudly spelled out the doomed revolutionary's name. Rosa Luxemburg
I leaned my bike against the rail and gazed down at the still, barely moving waters and wondered what might have been different had Luxemburg lived. Would Germany have gone to the far left decades before the founding of the communist East Germany in 1949? Would it have provided stable government? If so, would that have meant that Adolf Hitler would have been destined to remain little more than a fanatical wingnut on the sidelines, heard by almost nobody? The silent waters of the Landwehr canal, predictably, held no answer.
What actually happened was clear enough. The Communists launched a bid to seize power from the newly declared republic in early January 1919. Fighting swept through the city as bands of Socialists, nationalists, de-mobbed soldiers and the far left all fought for control. After several days of disorder, the new government went for broke and, in a moment of fateful desperation, released the Freikorps on the striking workers and the Communist revolutionaries. These army veterans, made up of right wing fanatics, nationalists and reactionaries, stormed into the crowds with a startling lack of mercy. Hundreds lay dead by the end of the day. By the 15th
the Freikorps had discovered Luxemburg's hiding place and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today the old towpath is a part of a new Berlin, with latte drinking hipsters rubbing shoulders with tattooed students. I looked around and saw smiling faces, I saw kids chasing each other in the places where murder was once committed, and heard laughter fill the air around me as people seemed to blossom after a long winter.
The iron letters of the long dead revolutionary's name seemed to stand in stark contrast to this modern optimism. Yet the memory of what happened here, while faded, still remains to warn those who would hear. I reminded myself that we live once again in an age where fake news and alternative facts are being swallowed by large numbers of those who would seek to find the sources of their own troubles in the existence of others whose only crime is to think differently. The right is on the rise in Germany again, as the election results of 2017 show, and populism has surged forward just as it did in the 1930s.
And yet, as bleak as all that seems, I remembered that Luxemburg once said "Freedom is always the freedom for the one who thinks differently." Modern Berlin is a city which seems to thrive under that slogan, despite the tensions generated by the far right. I saw walking families from all over the world walking and picnicking within a minute's walk of the Luxemburg memorial. Hipsters and businessmen, the unemployed and the wealthy - to a remarkable degree Berlin embodies Luxemburg's words.
I got back on my bike, with images of those tumultuous days of 1919 playing out in black and white in my mind merging with the vivid impression of the world's people mingled together along the banks of the canal, enjoying Berlin's new reputation as a place where one can "think differently" in safety from persecution. Rosa's memorial reminds us that murder can follow right on the heels of intolerance and that vigilance is always required. Yet the feeling I came away with was hope and pride in the world modern Berlin has made for its people.
Rosa Luxemburg's communism was not then, and is not now, to very many people's tastes. But at a deeper level, Berlin is a place to think and be different if you wish. The old revolutionary beat the odds and, in some understated way, won in the end.
is why I love searching out Berlin's hidden un-touristed spots. Never have any city's stories been so constantly relevant.