Written by: Ingrid Sharp, Professor, University of Leeds
It’s been 100 years since the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was brutally murdered in Germany. On January 15 1919, she was beaten and killed by the anti-revolutionary Freikorps. Her body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, only emerging six months later.
Fluent in Polish, French and German, a revolutionary theorist, economist and leading opponent of militarism, Luxemburg was an outstanding figure in the German revolution that helped bring World War I to an end in November 1918 and established the first democracy on German soil.
She remains a powerful symbol of resistance today. Her claim that freedom must always include the freedom of those who think differently has been used as a slogan by protesters across the world.
There have been many films, books and even a graphic novel celebrating Luxemburg’s life and commemorating her death. But as our research has highlighted, there were other women who played an active role in the German revolution in cities across the country. Their names are far less known and many were written out of history even as they were making it.
In November 1918, Gertrud Völcker and Martha Riedl were both in the maritime city of Kiel, where the revolution started. Völcker had been involved in trade union activism and worked at the trade union headquarters, which became the heart of the revolution.
Riedl, who was only 15 at the time, decided to risk her life carrying messages for the revolutionaries across the city. Her family had always been active in the trade union movement and when her father found out that she had chosen to undertake such a dangerous role he supported her decision. Both Riedl and Völcker remained involved in local politics and social work in Kiel for the rest of their lives.
Hilde Kramer was another young woman whose left-wing political activism during the war gave her the skills and networks needed to play a leading role in the revolution. Raised by an anti-war foster family on the outskirts of Munich, she was aged 18 during the revolution. On November 7 1918, she joined a huge protest marching through the streets calling for the end of the war, the overthrow of the local monarchic family and the Kaiser to abdicate. In her memoirs, she says she even met Luxemburg in Berlin.
The revolution in Munich culminated in the declaration of the Bavarian Soviet Republic and Kramer became the official secretary in the city commander’s office. When Munich was brought back under government control, after days of bloody violence, she was arrested for her revolutionary activities. She worked in Moscow and Berlin for various communist groups before fleeing to the UK in 1937 where she worked for the Labour Party.
The writers Lola Landau and Cläre Jung were in Berlin during the revolution. Landau had written and distributed anti-war material and saw the revolution as a chance to create a new, peaceful world order, founded on democratic principles and social justice. Jung had helped deserters from the German army with money and accommodation. When the revolution descended into counter-revolutionary violence she described procuring guns and carrying them through the streets at great personal risk.
Landau emigrated to Palestine in 1936 and worked for welfare organisations. Jung remained in Nazi Germany but used her contacts and skills from her time as a revolutionary to participate in resistance activities against the Nazis.
Written out of history
These are just five of the 256 women our research has identified – women who played significant roles in the revolution and in the shaping of Germany’s new, albeit short-lived, democracy. Their eye-witness accounts reveal that they were fully involved in the revolutionary events and certainly didn’t see themselves as onlookers to a male spectacle. The revolution was not just a fleeting moment in their lives but a stepping stone between their radical roots and later activist careers. They often took huge risks and lived precarious lives as a result of their convictions and their stories deserve to be more widely known.
The revolution of 1918 is an important event and 100 years on it is being commemorated across Germany. Especially in Kiel, seen as the starting point for the revolution, the uprising is being celebrated as the cornerstone of German democracy, as a moment when German citizens took their fate into their own hands and emerged as historical subjects.
What’s missing from the commemorations is the contribution of women – time and again choices are made by historians, museums, art galleries and politicians that exclude women’s voices and marginalise or deny their presence in revolutionary spaces. This isn’t just a distortion of historical facts, it excludes women from their own history, erasing them as historical subjects and turning them into the passive beneficiaries of masculine actions. In Schleswig Holstein, for example, a new exhibition touring schools, towns and cities carries the message to women and girls everywhere that the revolution is Germany’s democratic history – but that they weren’t part of it.
Recovering women’s stories and writing them back into their own revolutionary history is vital – without their voices, a key part of this story is simply not being told.
This article used research from Kiel Uprising: Women's activism and the German Revolution November 1918, an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project.