Rosa Luxemburg gets jail term

20 Feb 1914
  • Frankfurt
Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg

On 20 February 1914 Rosa Luxemburg was tried by a Frankfurt court for allegedly inciting soldiers to disobedience. The key evidence against her was a speech she had given in the Frankfurt area in September 1913, in which she said:

"If they expect us to lift the weapons of murder against our French or other foreign brothers, then let us tell them 'No, we won't do it!'"

There appears to have been as little basis in German law in 1914 as there would be in most jurisdictions today for construing this as a criminal offence. Rosa Luxemburg's lawyers made that point very convincingly, but she herself took a more assertive approach to the proceedings.

She told the court [1]:

"We think that not only the army, 'orders' from above and blind obeĀ­dience from below will decide on the outbreak and the outcome of war, but that the great mass of the working people will decide and should decide. We are of the opinion that wars can be waged only so long as the working class takes part in them with enthusiasm, because it regards them as just and necessary; or at least patiently puts up with them. On the other hand, when the great majority of the working people come to the conclusion - and to bring them to this conclusion, to arouse this consciousness, is just the task we social democrats set for ourselves - when the majority of the people come to the conclusion that wars are a barbarous, deeply immoral, and reactionary phenomenon hostile to the interests of the people, then wars will become impossible - even if, for the moment, solĀ­diers still obey the orders of their superiors!"

The public prosecutor asked for a one-year prison sentence and her immediate arrest (a step which had a different place in the legal process than in present-day British law). She dealt with this at the end of her speech, saying:

"In closing, just a word on the outrageous attack made on me, an attack which recoils on its originator. The Public Prosecutor said - and I have noted his exact words - that he is asking for my immediate arrest, because 'it would be incomprehensible if the accused did not take to flight'. In other words, he was saying: 'If I, the Public Prosecutor, had to serve a year in prison, then I would try to escape'. Sir, I believe you; you would run away. A social democrat does not; he stands by his deeds and laughs at your punishments. And now, sentence me."

She was give a year's jail sentence. There hadn't been such a fierce attack on political activity in Germany since the Reichstag refused to renew the anti-socialist laws in 1890. But the court didn't order her immediate arrest, so she went straight from her trial to a mass meeting at which she advocated resistance to war in the same terms that she hed used before. More mass meetings followed. It seemed that the court case, far from repressing such talk, had created an appetite for it.