Rosa Luxemburg & Karl Liebknecht: Murdered 100 Years Ago Today — & Paul Celan’s Poem “You Lie.”

Her corpse was found only 4 months after her assassination, in the Landwehrkanal in Berlin where her murderers had thrown her on January 15 1919. The place is memorialized by a sculpture (you’ll see at the end of the video below). She was shot together with Karl Liebknecht (whose body was delivered anonymously to a morgue) — the two being socialists (& the founders of the Spartacus League) during the revolutionary days that followed the end of WWI in Berlin. On the night of January 6, a revolutionary council under Liebknecht’s direction declared the government of social-democrat Friedrich Ebert as deposed. A few days before the elections of 19 January, the mass demonstrations in the capital escalated to open civil war, which was bloodily suppressed by the government & the military under the leadership of Gustav Noske (“someone has to be the bloodhound” he’s supposed to have said) as Ebert ordered the Freikorps — former soldiers still had weapons and military equipment from World War I, which gave them a formidable advantage — to attack the spartacists. They quickly re-conquered the blocked streets and buildings and many of the insurgents surrendered. 156 insurgents and 17 Freikorps soldiers died during the fighting. On the evening of 15 January, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who has tried to go into hiding after the repression, were discovered in a Berlin-Wilmersdorf apartment, arrested and handed over to the largest Freikorps unit, the heavily armed Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division (which the Nazis later merged into the SA.) Their commander, Captain Waldemar Pabst, had them questioned. That same night, both prisoners were beaten unconscious with rifle butts and shot in the head.

In 1967 Paul Celan wrote a poem, “Du liegst | You lie” commemorating Luxemburg’s fate; in 2003, poet & Celan-scholar Michael Speier & I tracked Celan’s 1967 walk to & into the Tiergarten on the traces of Rosa Luxemburg. Nicole Peyrafitte videoed our walk & added my reading of the translation of “You lie” as soundtrack. The poem & my commentary (as found in Breathturn Into Timestead) are reprinted below the video:



Du liegst im großen Gelausche,
umbuscht, umflockt. 

Geh du zur Spree, geh zur Havel,
geh zu den Fleischerhaken,
zu den roten Äppelstaken
aus Schweden – 

Es kommt der Tisch mit den Gaben,
er biegt um ein Eden – 

Der Mann ward zum Sieb, die Frau
mußte schwimmen, die Sau,
für sich, für keinen, für jeden – 

Der Landwehrkanal wird nicht rauschen.


You lie in the great listening
ambushed, snowed in.

Go to the Spree, go to the Havel,
go to the butcher hooks,
to the red apple stakes
from Sweden —

Here comers the table with the presents,
he turns around an Eden —

The man became a sieve, the woman
had to swim, the sow,
for herself, for none, for everyone —

The Landwehr canal will not roar.



Written 12. 22-23. 1967. Berlin. This poem narrates a walk Paul Celan took in Berlin (carefully documented by Peter Szondi) in company of the psychiatrist Walter Georgi that led to the banks of the rivers Havel and Spree and to Plötzensee, as well as to a Christmas market. During his stay Celan read the newly published book Der Mord an Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Dokumentation eines politischen Verbrechens (ed. by Elisabeth Hannover-Drück and Heinrich Hannover, F.a.M 1967).

Plötzensee: the place where the conspirators of the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler were executed and hung on butcher hooks.

Äppelstaken / aus Schweden | apple stakes / from Sweden: In a first version sent to Peter Szondi 12. 22/23. 1967, the word “Äppelspaken” is used rather than “Äppelstaken,” & was titled “Winter Poem.” (PC/PS 232). The reference is to Advent & Christmas decorations using apples and candles at a Swedish market stand.

er biegt um ein Eden | he turns around an Eden: Szondi had shown Celan the ex-Hotel Eden in the Budapester Strasse, which had served as general quarter of the Cavalry Guard Division in 1919 and where the Spartakist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht spent the last hours of the lives.

Der Mann ward zum Sieb, die Frau / mußte schwimmen, die Sau | The man became a sieve, the woman / had to swim, the sow: cf. the documentation gathered in the Hannovers’ book: “I approached the table and asked if Dr. Liebknecht was in fact really dead, to which one of the comrades answered that Liebknecht had as many holes in him as a sieve. (p.99)” And: “About Luxemburg it was said: ‘The old sow already swims.’ (p. 129)”  [my translation].

Landwehrkanal: An 11 kilometer canal parallel to the Spree river and crossing much of Berlin. After Rosa Luxemburg was murdered on January 15, 1919, her body was dumped into the Canal, where it was not found until June 1. Today a memorial marks the site.

nichts / stockt | nothing / stops: here Celan is most likely referencing a line (he marked marginally) in Büchner’s Dantons Tod, where Lucille says just before the execution of her husband (IV, 8. Büchner, p. 132): “The stream of life should stall if but one single drop is spilled. The earth should receive a wound from that blow. / Everything moves, the watches tick, the clocks advance, the people run, the water seeps and so on everything there up to there — no! it must not happen, no — I want to sit down on the ground and scream so that, scared, everything now stands still, everything stalls, nothing any longer moves.” [my translation].

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2 Responses

  1. Adam Cornford says:

    Thank you, Pierre. Wonderful discovery. One small correction needed. The organization Luxemburg and Liebknecht led was the SPARTACUS League (Spartakusbund) not the “Spartacist League,” a notoriously annoying Trotskyist sect based in the US.

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