One of the bravest and most outspoken voices ever to be raised against war
was that of German socialist
, Karl Liebknecht.
Across Europe at the beginning of the last century there were socialists and trade unionists attempting to combat nationalism and warmongering. For Karl Liebknecht in Germany, being against militarism was particularly difficult. The German state was highly repressive and obsessed with attempting to clamp down on the growing socialist movement. Nevertheless he put his neck on the line, and in doing so became a beacon for those wanting to hold to the spirit of international solidarity between workers of the world.
Karl Liebknecht was a lawyer who took up cases on behalf of the German Social-Democratic Party - which in the first decade of the Twentieth Century was a broad socialist organisation of both revolutionaries and reformists. He first came to national attention in 1904 in a case to defend the right of the party to organise - his strategy was not simply to pursue the case in the courts, but also through public meetings and rallies, in Berlin he spoke about the issues to a crowd of 4,000.
The issue for which Karl Liebknecht became internationally renowned was his challenge to Europe's warmongers. In 1906 he made a speech which became the basis of a pamphlet: Militarism and Anti-Militarism.
In this booklet Karl Liebknecht made some powerful points about the role of capitalism in promoting war.The first issue that he addressed was that war was not something that was natural to humanity. He pointed out that in the earliest human societies it made no sense to have weapons. Militarism, he argued, appeared with the division of society into classes, as a the ruling class required arms for use both against external enemies and its own exploited population. Warfare is not specific to capitalism, but "capitalism, like every other class-divided social order, develops its own special variety of militarism."
In this pamphlet Karl Liebknecht was one of the first writers to point out that the new phase of capitalism, in which the major powers were engaged in a race to establish colonies around the world, threatened to produce a world war.
"New and highly dangerous sources of tension have arisen in consequence of the aims of commercial and political expansion pursued by so-called civilised states, and as a consequence world policy, and especially colonial policy conceal countless possibilities of conflict."
His 1907 words were prophetic.
"The capitalist policy of expansion and its colonial policy have placed countless mines under the edifice of world peace. The fuses lie in the most varied hands, and the mines may easily and unexpectedly explode."
In words which have a great resonance to our own times, Karl Liebknecht challenged the hypocrisy of the super-powers:
"colonial policy under the deceptive mask of spreading Christianity and civilisation profits and deceives with pious gaze in the service of the colonial interests of the capitalists, murders and assaults the defenceless, burns up their property, robs and plunders their goods and possessions, and scorns and shames Christianity and civilization."
Against the nationalism and warmongering of the capitalist class, Karl Liebknecht appealed for the international solidarity of workers.
"the proletariat of every land has only one real enemy: the capitalist class which oppresses it and exploits it; because of its special interests the proletariat of every land is closely united with the proletariat of every other land; all national interests recede before the common interests of the international proletariat; the international coalition of exploitation and slavery must be opposed the international coalition of the exploited, the enslaved."
Militarism and Anti-Militarism exposed the extent that Europe was devoting massive and increasing resources to armaments. It concluded with a round up of the anti-war movements across the continent, urging their further progress.
Just two months after publication of this pamphlet Karl Liebknecht was arrested by order of the Prussian War Minister and charged with high treason. The German state attempted to seize all the printed copies they could.
Despite the doubtful legality of the proceedings Karl Liebknecht was sentenced to fortress imprisonment for 18 months and his pamphlet was banned. As he was led from court to prison thousands of supporters cheered him, and the fact that the state had failed to censor his message was shown by his election to the Berlin Municipal Council during his months in prison.
No sooner was he released than Karl Liebknecht threw his energies back into organising against militarism and in campaigning for the SPD. As a well known civil liberties lawyer and enemy of the warmongers, Karl Liebknecht was tipped off about a scandal concerning Germany's biggest arms producer. The giant Krupps company had been putting about the rumour that the French army had doubled its machinegun armaments. Krupps had paid a spy to find out what was going on the War Ministry and to bribe civil servants. Karl Liebknecht was able to provide documentary proof of this and in 1913 force a prosecution of those concerned as well as expose the dirty dealings of the arms industry.
But it was Karl Liebknecht's response to the outbreak of war in 1914 for which he is justly famous.
All over Europe, trade union leaders and social democrats had forgotten their resolutions of internationalism and had become caught up in war fever. Only a handful of revolutionaries attempted to speak out against the impending slaughter - such as James Connolly in Ireland.
In Germany Karl Liebknecht failed to persuade the SPD to vote against the government's proposed war credits. For the first vote in the parliament he held back from splitting from his party, but he quickly realised that he could not let party discipline prevent him from speaking out against the war.
On December 2nd, to howls of outrage from the right and the left, Karl Liebknecht stood up - alone despite the presence of 110 SPD deputies - and voted against the war.
Karl Liebknecht immediate became the target of vilification from both the conservative and social-democratic press. It was hard for him to answer back, the anti-war forces of the socialist movement being so small. But slowly those socialists who had not abandoned internationalism began to regroup.
By March 1915 Liebknecht had persuaded one other deputy, Otto Ruhle to join his protests in the Reichstag, but more dangerously as far as the German state was concerned, he had linked up with revolutionaries outside parliament including the talented and unwavering Rosa Luxemburg. Early in 1916 a new publication was rallying the anti-war movement, the Spartacus Letters.
On May 1st, the new organisation, known by this time as Spartacus, organised an illegal anti-war demonstration attended by a several thousand workers. Liebknecht was imprisoned for shouting "down with the the government! Down with the War!". Although he was sentenced to four years in jail, Karl Liebknecht was released in October 1918. Four years of war had transformed the political situation in Europe, a huge backlash against the warmongers was underway, beginning with the Russian Revolution of February 1917 a storm of protest and revolution broke across the continent.
On November 5th 1918 it was Germany's turn to be plunged into revolution - and the newly radicalised workers and sailors remembered the principled stand and persecution that Karl Liebknecht had faced. The day the Kaiser fell thousands of workers in Berlin called for Liebknecht who climbed up to the balcony from which the monarch had previously addressed patriotic crowds to shout:
"The day of Liberty has dawned. I proclaim the free socialist republic of all Germans. We extend our hand to them and ask them to complete the world revolution. Those of you who want the world revolution raise your hands."
Thousands of hands rose up.
Tragically for Karl Liebknecht, and indeed the fate of socialism across the world, it was one thing to call for a socialist republic, but another to achieve it. The leaders of the SPD veered sharply to the left to keep in touch with the radicalism of the population, but at the same time they devoted their vast resources to attempting to halt the revolution.They declared a 'revolutionary government' but in fact staffed it with conservative members of the SPD. Karl Liebknecht was offered a place in the government but refused. This was the biggest danger to the right, that outside of the government the revolutionaries would manage to rally the workers to a complete take-over of society. So secretly the SPD formed an alliance with the military to decapitate the revolutionary left before they gained too great an influence.
On 9th November the 'revolutionary government' provoked a mass protest by sacking a radical, Eichorn, from his newly gained position of Berlin police chief. 200,000 workers responded to this attack on their gains from the revolution, but dispersed as lack of organisation introduced confusion as to whether they were trying to overthrow the government or not.
Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg believed that the moment was premature for workers to conduct a Bolshevik style revolution. But their revolutionary organisation was still too small to shape such massive events. They were accused of having attempted a coup, and the semi-fascist volunteers held in readiness near Berlin were unleashed upon the city. During their vicious pogrom against the left these squads found the two great revolutionaries - who had refused to go into hiding - and murdered them without trial.
The SPD had managed to achieve a deed which the Prussian State never could, silence Europe's greatest anti-war voice.