The Mystery of Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse

As Luxemburg wrote, “It’s the German thoroughness that prevents a true picture of life or of the times from being

As Luxemburg wrote, “It’s the German thoroughness that prevents a true picture of life or of the times from being created, a picture that should be tossed off with light strokes.”

The bulk of the letters in the first part of the book are addressed to Leo Jogiches, an activist who was also murdered in 1919 and was Luxemburg’s lover from the 1890s to 1907. Luxemburg variously refers to Jogiches as “precious gold,” “my bobo” and “my little mite.” Following their protracted arguments and reconciliations via one-sided letter is rather like trying to act sympathetic toward a friend whose boyfriend you hate. “He’s a controlling asshole!” you want to tell her. But then you remember that this is a woman who devoted her life to things much greater than mere boyfriends.

There is some soap-operatic satisfaction to be gleaned, however, when she recounts “a brief and soft-spoken but frightening confrontation–during a trip on an omnibus” when, after he has learned that Luxemburg has taken a new lover (the dashing physician Kostya Zetkin), Jogiches declares that he would sooner kill her than lose her. After the bus ride, Luxemburg and Jogiches meet friends at a nice restaurant.

“A fine orchestra was playing, in the gallery, music from the last scene of Carmen,” she writes, “and while they were playing L softly whispered to me: I would sooner strike you dead.” Yikes!

As for the momentous political developments Luxemburg lived through and her stints in and out of prison, history comes through only in fragments–“Dear Vladimir,” she writes to Lenin in Dec. 18, about a month before she died. “I am taking advantage of my uncle’s trip to send all of you heartfelt greetings from our family, Karl, Franz, and the others. God grant that the coming year will bring us great fulfillments.”

Footnotes assist in historical orientation, but in many ways the letters serve to remind that political movements are made up of incremental bureau
cracy and banal accounting as much as soaring speeches or dramatic marches.

Her best letters, then, are those written from prison, where she was held for almost all of World War I. Here monotony and loneliness provoke a literary unity between the smallest details of her everyday life and the larger political endeavors that she has tried to accomplish. She must face the depth of her commitment, and finds she has “become as hard as polished steel and from now on will neither politically nor in personal relations make even the slightest concession.”

But she is drowning in memories. A wasp flies into her cell and she writes, “It’s such a reminder of summer, of the heat, and of my open balcony in Südende with the broad view out onto the fields and the groves of trees shimmering in the heat, and of Mimi [the  cat] lying in the sun all folded together like a soft package, blinking up at the buzzing wasp.”

She recalls the moving shadows of tree limbs across a cafe table in Berlin, the jubilation of Karl Liebknecht on a country outing one summer, the minutia of a frozen bumblebee “cold and still as though dead, lying in the grass with its little legs drawn in and its little fur coat covered with hoarfrost.” In her letters to her friends, who sent her, it seems, a near constant supply of flowers and cookies, she constantly asks them to join her in her remembrance:

“Do you remember the fabulous full-moon night in Südende,” she writes, “when I was walking you home, and to us the gables of the houses, with their sharp black outlines against the background of a tender blue sky, seemed like the castles of knights of yore, do you remember?”

She describes singing an aria from Figaro to a flock of titmice on her windowsill, the blackbirds that she feeds, her advances in her botanic studies and a ladybug she has wrapped in cotton wool to protect from the frost. But as soon as one is tempted to begin thinking of her as a nice Disney character who sings to birds, she brings us horribly back to earth.

In her most powerful letter, which must also be one of the most powerful letters of the German experience of World War I, she is merely describing the regular delivery of bloodstained army uniforms that come to the prison to be cleaned and mended for reuse. On one delivery, the cart is being pulled by a yoke of undomesticated water buffaloes, spoils of war from Romania. The buffalo must be heavily beaten to obey, to the extent one’s hide had split.

“The one that was bleeding kept staring into the empty space in front of him with an expression on his black face and in his soft, black eyes like an abused child,” Luxemburg writes. “How far away, how irretrievably lost were the beautiful, free, tender-green fields of Romania! How differently the sun used to shine and the wind blow there, how different was the lovely song of the birds that could be heard there, or the melodious call of the herdsmen.” She begins to cry. The prisoners unload the sacks of bloody uniforms while the soldier who beat the oxen paces in a corner, whistling to himself. “And the entire marvelous panorama of the war passed before my eyes.”

I first read about Dr. Tsokos and the body from the basement that might be Luxemburg’s corpse in the papers. After the discovery, a search ensued for sentimental tokens that might have traces of Luxemburg’s DNA. A leftist member of the German parliament styled her updo in honor of Luxemburg. In a photo made public after the discovery, the corpse looked Classical in its repose, lying on white cotton drapery at the mouth of a scanner like a headless Venus de Milo, its surface the color of a used tea bag. The legs ended just below her bended knees and the upraised arms were cut off above the elbow. After 90 years in a cellar, one would expect a skeleton, but the body had served as the object of study for medical students as exemplary of a natural mummification process called adipocere that occurs in corpses that have been immersed for extended periods in an anaerobic environment–such as mud at the bottom of a canal.

The Mystery of Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse