The Mystery of Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse

Of all the famous Marxist leaders, only Marx himself was afforded both a natural death and a dignified burial. His

Of all the famous Marxist leaders, only Marx himself was afforded both a natural death and a dignified burial. His grave is in Highgate Cemetery in London, most of which is a creepy overgrown ruin of toppled marble angels and Gothic crypts. But Marx is in a nice corner of the graveyard where they still trim back the foliage and mow the lawn. The bust of his outsize dome and disapproving frown presides over an area mostly occupied by the tombs of Middle Eastern and Latin American diplomats. Chirpy revolutionary notes and photographs of his followers litter the base of its pedestal. It’s solemn and stately.

Communist dictators tend to be garishly embalmed. The corpses of Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung and Mao have become tourist attractions. Some of them wanted to be cremated. Instead they were placed in ornate coffins of crystal in elaborate, dimly lit mausoleums that are the focal points of vast city squares. Expert undertakers wage a complicated battle against time to keep the dear leaders seemly for the hordes that file past the coffins to pay their respects.

The most romanticized Marxists, though, are the ones that got away, the locations of their bodies not verified for decades: Che Guevara, who was shot in the jungles of Bolivia; Patrice Lumumba, who was shot in the jungles of the Congo; Salvador Allende, who was shot (or shot himself) in the Chilean presidential palace and dumped in an unmarked grave in Valparaíso for the length of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. And finally there is one whose corpse remains officially missing: Rosa Luxemburg, who was also shot, in a car in Berlin, and dumped in a canal.

Luxemburg, a Polish Jew born in 1871, lived a Pan-European political existence in a time of Pan-European tumult. She was educated in Switzerland but spent most of her adulthood in Germany. She participated in the Russian Revolution of 1905 and edited and contributed to a number of leftist European newspapers of the era. Today she is most famous for her role as a leader, along with Karl Liebknecht, of the Spartacus League, a left-wing spur of the Social Democratic Party that diverged from the mainstream to maintain adamant opposition to World War I. As a result of her views, Luxemburg spent most of the war in jail, released only in 1918, when political prisoners were given amnesty.

In January 1919, after an attempted workers’ revolt, German paramilitaries kidnapped Luxemburg and Liebknecht from the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. After an unsuccessful attempt to kill her by a blow to the head, Luxemburg was put in a car and shot in the head, her body thrown in the canal. When spring came, a body was fished out again. An autopsy at the city’s Charité Hospital identified it as Luxemburg’s, and she was buried at Friedrichsfelde Cemetery next to Liebknecht. For the next 90 years–at least the ones when the German government was not actively persecuting them–leftists came to pay their respects to Red Rosa, even though the remains in the mausoleum were said to have disappeared after Nazis desecrated the tombs in 1935. In Communist East Germany, her status was elevated to martyr, and today Berlin’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz U-Bahn stop is at the heart of the glossy consumer district that has sprung up in Mitte since the fall of the wall. The whereabouts of her body, however, remain unknown.

In 2007, the head of Germany’s Institute of Legal Medicine, Dr. Michael Tsokos, was assisting in the effort to clear out the basement of Charité Hospital, part of a process of consolidating the forensic institutes of the former East and West Germany into one building. The building that had housed the East German institute was more than a century old, and the basement was filled with macabre detritus dating back to the institute’s foundation, in 1833. In the days before photographs, doctors had learned anatomy by looking at actual specimens. Hundreds of these remained–tissue samples, ears, brains. There was also a body. Headless, mummified and missing its hands and feet, it had no identification to indicate its age or identity.

But Dr. Tsokos had heard a rumor, one that the oldest employees haunting Charité would talk about from time to time: that Luxemburg’s body had never actually left Charité Hospital and that some other corpse had been fished out of the canal and buried instead. Dr. Tsokos was told that someone had even claimed to have seen Luxemburg’s head, which was cut off post-mortem, in a jar of formaldehyde in Hamburg the 1970s. Unfortunately, this key witness died in 2006. Undaunted, Dr. Tsokos considered the possible connection between the missing corpse with the one he had found and set out to solve a mystery 90 years old.

The story of the missing corpse is only the latest chapter in the collected mythology of Rosa Luxemburg. There’s no shortage of romancing when it comes to her life: She was the subject of a 1986 biopic, Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg, by Margarethe von Trotta; a 2005 historical novel, Rosa, by Jonathan Rabb; and, most recently, a 2010 French musical, Rosa La Rouge. But as the introduction to a new book of her collected correspondence, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 512 pages, $39.95), points out, only a quarter of her written work has thus far been available in English, the rest inaccessible to the unfortunate “Anglophone monoglot.”

The new collected letters is therefore intended as a companion volume to the forthcoming 14-volume collection of her newly translated complete works. It consists of 230 letters to 46 different recipients and spans from 1891 to Jan. 11, 1919, four days before her assassination.

While certainly useful and exciting for the Anglophone monoglot scholar of Rosa Luxemburg, the epistolary Rosa Luxemburg experience can at times be slightly tedious for the casual reader–and this is only a fragment of the 2,800 letters, postcards and telegrams contained in the six-volume German edition.

The Mystery of Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse