The Mystery of Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse

In early 2010, I happened to be in Berlin wandering around Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and I started to wonder what had happened

In early 2010, I happened to be in Berlin wandering around Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and I started to wonder what had happened to the corpse, so I called Dr. Tsokos and, on a frozen January day, went to the Institute of Legal Medicine to meet him. His office was located in a compound of older brick buildings arranged around snowy courtyards that were scattered with birch trees. It had the feel of a sanitarium, and I half-expected to see nuns pushing invalids around in antique wheelchairs with blankets on their laps, but the sidewalks were empty.

Dr. Tsokos was a media-savvy guy, casually dressed in a sweater and jeans and cavalier about the more chilling aspects of his life’s work. His interest in the mystery corpse seemed purely technocratic–he was somebody who was obsessed with his job, and not too concerned with leftist politics. Sitting before a dark wooden cabinet filled with skulls, he proceeded to tell me of all the unsuccessful attempts that had been made to identify the corpse.

He had begun with the original autopsy report from June 1919, which was riddled with inconsistencies. It had noted no signs of head trauma, and witnesses to Luxemburg’s murder had said that she had suffered a blow to the head with a rifle before her death. There was no notation of hip disease, but Luxemburg had walked with a limp from a degenerative hip disease she had as a child. The autopsied body was shorter than Luxemburg’s recorded height (even though she described herself as “Lilliputian”), and, most curiously, the doctors had not followed autopsy protocol–strange, because one of them was responsible for teaching it.

“I thought, ‘Oh, shit, this is really interesting,'” Dr. Tsokos said. He went to the state archive to search for a postcard with a stamp she might have licked, leaving DNA evidence. But Luxemburg had always used water to wet the adhesive. He searched for a hat or a coat that she might have worn and left a stray hair on, but he found none.

He decided that he would instead operate on the exclusion principle, and prove that the body was not hers, but every step he took seemed only to affirm that the corpse was Luxemburg’s: radiocarbon dating revealed that the woman had lived at the turn of the 20th century; a CT scan of her internal organs revealed that she was 47 when she died; the body had evidence of hip degeneration and was sufficiently Lilliputian.

Dr. Tsokos sent tissue samples to Munich, where a method of identifying trace isotopes in bones revealed that the corpse had lived in Poland, Switzerland and Berlin, and that it had signs of malnutrition that corresponded with Luxemburg’s extended stints in prison. He issued a public call for information and received more than 100 emails in response. Nothing came of the 10 or 20 that were actually of interest: Luxemburg had kept a herbarium as a hobby, and four of her botany books were discovered in an archive in Warsaw, but they had only male DNA on them. A grandniece was located in Israel, but since she was not a direct descendant there was only a 50 to 60 percent probability that they were related. Luxemburg never had children.

Dr. Tsokos was in a bind: He could not prove that it was her, but he could not prove that it wasn’t her, either.

“For me I don’t care if it’s her or not her,” he said. “It’s just an amazing story. It’s a murder case that was 90 years old. I wanted to try and ID whoever it is.”

So he did what he had to do: The body was turned over to the police and buried anonymously.

The Mystery of Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse