The Spartacists amounted to a small group of radical socialists who split off from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) during World War I to agitate against the war and prepare workers for a revolution against the imperial state. The Spartacus League derived its name from Spartacus, the Roman slave who led a revolt of gladiators against the Roman Empire from 73 to 71 b.c.e.
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two figures who have become hallowed names in the history of the European Left, officially founded the Spartacus League in January 1916. Luxemburg, born of Jewish ancestry in Russian Poland in 1870, was a brilliant social theorist who moved to Berlin in 1898 and worked diligently to instill a revolutionary consciousness in the German working class. Early on she backed the SPD's efforts to achieve political and economic reforms, but she always insisted that "reformism" could never bring true socialism: a revolution was required. As a humanistic socialist, however, she hoped that the revolution could be achieved with minimal bloodshed. Liebknecht, whose father, Wilhelm, had helped found the SPD, shared Luxemburg's commitment to revolution without her reservations about spilling blood. Like her, he bitterly opposed the SPD's decision to support the German war effort in 1914. The two of them, along with other radicals such as Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring, distributed revolutionary materials they called "Spartacus Letters." The group's inability to reorient mainstream German socialism prompted the decision to establish the Spartacus League as a radical alternative voice on the German Left.
On May Day 1916 the Spartacus League organized an antiwar demonstration in the center of Berlin. The demonstration was nonviolent and not very large. Nevertheless, the government felt sufficiently threatened to arrest Luxemburg and Liebknecht and pack them off to jail. There they remained until almost the end of the war. In their absence the Spartacist movement floundered.
The Spartacists reemerged as one of the contending factions on the Left in October 1918, on the eve of Germany's military defeat and imperial collapse. Liebknecht, recently released from jail, drew up a program inspired by the Bolshevik model; it called for the transfer of power to workers' and soldiers' councils without regard for parliamentary elections and the nationalization of land and property. When the new SPD-dominated republican regime chose instead to postpone a socialization of the economy and to institutionalize parliamentary democracy, the Spartacists claimed that the revolution was being betrayed. In December 1918 they backed a brief and abortive revolt in Berlin by the People's Naval Division, a band of mutinous sailors with which they had ties. The government's suppression of the sailors prompted the Spartacists and their allies to reconstitute themselves as the Communist Party of Germany.
The real moment of truth for the Spartacists came in January 1919, when, in alliance with yet another radical faction, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, they launched a violent insurgency in Berlin. The action, inspired by the dismissal of Emil Eichhorn, the radical leftist chief of police in Berlin, came over the objections of Luxemburg, who argued that the time was not ripe for such a move. She proved to be right. The radicals managed to seize a few buildings, but they failed to gain control of the city. After a few days government forces, backed by paramilitary Free Corps, put down the rebellion. Liebknecht and Luxemburg went into hiding but were quickly run down and subjected to summary justice. Liebknecht was shot "while trying to escape," while Luxemburg was clubbed to death and thrown into the Landwehr canal.
Few Germans at the time lamented the defeat of the Spartacists, whose goals were too extreme for most of the Left, let alone the rest of the population. The brutal slayings of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, however, shocked even jaded Berlin, and in retrospect it becomes evident that the killings helped to make political murder an acceptable way of doing business in postwar Germany. The Spartacist uprising also sharpened divisions within the German Left, because radical leftists blamed the SPD-dominated government for the bloodletting. The division in the leftist camp persisted throughout the Weimar Republic, making genuine cooperation impossible in the face of the Nazi challenge.
With the exception of some historians of the former German Democratic Republic, who hailed the Spartacists as part of their state's pedigree, the scholarly assessment of the Spartacist enterprise has been largely critical. While Luxemburg has received due regard for her theoretical brilliance, the group as a whole is considered to have been dogmatic in its ideology and irresponsible in its actions. The Spartacist uprising helped discredit the German revolution and the young Weimar Republic.
Ettinger, Elzbieta. Rosa Luxemburg. Boston, 1986.
Kluge, Ulrich. Die deutsche Revolution, 1918–1919: Staat, Politik, und Gesellschaft zwischen Weltkrieg und Kapp-Putsch. Frankfurt, 1985.
Ryder, A. J. The German Revolution of 1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1967.
Waldman, Eric. The Spartacist Uprising of 1919 and the Crisis of the German Socialist Movement. Milwaukee, Wis., 1958.
David Clay Large