Liebknecht, Karl

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LIEBKNECHT, KARL (1871–1919), German revolutionary.

Karl Liebknicht was the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826–1900), cofounder of the political branch of the German socialist movement (the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland [SPD]). Despite his father's frequent absence from the family because of political activities, the senior Liebknecht largely determined Karl's education, career, and eventually his politics. Karl became a lawyer, as did two of his four brothers, and concentrated his practice in defending the poor, especially members of the working class. He delayed taking an active role in politics until after he had attained his doctorate in law and qualified for the bar, fearing that socialist activities would prejudice his chances for success in the highly discriminatory Bismarckian Reich. However, in part because Wilhelm died in 1900 and in part because Karl followed his own particular inclinations in his political career, the son cannot be said to have lived and acted in the shadow of the father.

While he was not a leader of the prewar SPD, Liebknecht did serve for a number of years in the Prussian Landstag, representing a poor working-class constituency, and in 1912 he was elected to the German Reichstag. He was neither a major theoretician nor journalist, but rather concentrated his socialist activities in two major areas, antimilitarism and the youth movement, neither of which was a significant concern of the majority of the party. Liebknecht was primarily an activist, working the streets, picket lines, strikes, and other forms of protest, rather than a theoretician, journalist, or politician who talked or wrote about the issues important to particular elements of the working-class movement. In this capacity, he won little support from the party mainstream, but seems to have generated considerable sympathy and following among the underrepresented and often-ignored elements of the pre-1914 German working class. His legal activities in support of the underprivileged considerably reinforced his reputation as a defender of the underdog in Wilhelmian Germany.

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, Liebknecht was best known for his 1907 book Militarism and Anti-Militarism, the most systematic and thorough critique of Prussian and international militarism made by any German socialist up to the time. His analysis of the dual and contradictory roles of the military in modern society, as both a defender of the nation from foreign attack and instrument by which the dominant class maintains its control of other classes, especially the proletariat, doubtless rang true for many young German workers who faced the prospect of serving in the military. However, to contemporary historians this study seems to be filled with contradictions and confusions (for example, Liebknecht contended that the discipline and intelligence demanded by modern industry made proletarians the best soldiers and that the proletariat was most oppressed and perverted by militarism). Despite obvious evidence of strong Marxian influences (capitalism as the "last" stage of class society, proletariat as gravediggers of capitalism, etc.), it is highly doubtful that his positions were informed as much by a systematic understanding of Marx's critique of modern capitalism as they were by a deep humanism and commitment to democracy in its most fundamental form.

Militarism and Anti-Militarism earned Liebknecht a prison sentence for treason, but this only more firmly secured his place in the left wing of the SPD where his closest ally was the fiery Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919), with whose name he was destined to be linked forever. Though he submitted to party discipline and voted in favor of the first war credits requested by the government in August 1914, by December he moved to a militant antiwar position that once again won him a conviction for treason. Gradually, Luxemburg and Liebknecht moved ever closer together in their critique of the response of the SPD mainstream to the war and then the Russian revolution. In the end, both were executed by the notorious Freikorps (private paramilitary) of Gustav Noske (1868–1946) and Friedrich Ebert (1871–1925), postwar leaders of the SPD, who sought to limit and secure the gains of the German revolution of 1918.

Of all the figures of pre-1914 German social democracy, Liebknecht's legacy is perhaps the most ambiguous. Long hailed by the German Democratic Republic as one of the founders of the German Communist Party, Liebknecht slipped into relative obscurity in the west. Although he lacked the theoretical substance of Luxemburg, he was doubtless earnest and sincere in his opposition to Prussian militarism. However, he never seems to have grasped the contradiction inherent in his own antimilitarist position and his espousal of the violent overthrow of the old order.

See alsoBebel, August; Kautsky, Karl; Labor Movements; Luxemburg, Rosa; Second International; Socialism.


Primary Sources

Liebknecht, Karl. Militarism and Anti-Militarism: With Special Regard to the International Young Socialist Movement. Translated by Alexander Sirnis. Glasgow, 1917. Reprint, New York and London, 1973.

Secondary Sources

Meyer, Karl W. Karl Liebknecht, Man Without a Country. Washington, D.C., 1957.

Trotnow, Helmut. Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919): A Political Biography. Hamden, Conn., 1984.

Gary P. Steenson

Liebknecht, Karl

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Liebknecht, Karl (1871–1919) German communist revolutionary, son of Wilhelm Liebknecht. He vigorously opposed Germany's participation in World War I, and was imprisoned (1916–18). With Rosa Luxemburg, Liebknecht was a leader of the communist group known as the Spartacists. After the failure of the Spartacist rising (1919), they were murdered while in police custody.