Rosa Luxemburg on trial for defaming the German Army

29 Jun 1914 to The start of the month Jul 1914
  • Berlin
Erich von Falkenhayn
Erich von Falkenhayn

On 29 June 1914 Rosa Luxemburg went on trial for allegedly defaming the German army. The trial opened the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. News of the assassination pushed the trial off the front pages, but it nevertheless received extensive coverage in German newspapers.

Rosa Luxemburg had been convicted in February for inciting soldiers to disobedience, but had continued to speak out against militarism. The new charge arose from a speech she had given at Freiburg in March, in which she said that the treatment of recruits in the German army amounted to torture. The Berlin state prosecutor indicted her in May for insulting the honour of the German officer corps.

War minister Erich von Falkenhayn was amongst the plaintiffs. On learning of this, Rosa Luxemburg wrote to her lover (and lawyer) Paul Levi:

"What do you think, darling, how fantastic! It's a prosecution from War Minister von Falkenhayn."

Rosa Luxemburg accepted that she had made the "insulting" statements but set out to prove that they were correct, a valid defence under German law. This was a political strategy as well as a legal one. She aimed to put an overwhelming volume of evidence before the court to embarass the War Minister and the military.

An influencial section of the SPD (the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to which Rosa Luxemburg belonged) disagreed with this strategy, believing it to be unwise to challenge so openly the myth that courts were apolitical. Nevertheless, Rosa Luxemburg and Paul Levi pressed ahead with their plan, placing prominent announcements in SPD papers for witnesses to army abuse.

They also unsuccessfully challenged the fitness of the two judges - reserve officers in the armed forces - to try the case.

The defence lawyers used their opening address to the court to give details of the abuse suffered by army recruits, with the result that these details were widely repeated in the press, even in conservative newspapers.

Over a thousand defence witnesses were registered in court, and Levy threatened to present 30,000. It is not clear whether this was an aspiration based on the success of the witness appeal, or whether he really had 30,000 names at that point.

In any case, it was clear that abuse was widespread in the German army. It was also clear that soldiers were willing to blow the whistle to a degree that would be rare in present-day armies.

Several days of legal wrangling ensued. On 4 July a front-page article in the Vossische Zeitung - a well-respected liberal newspaper - declared the prosecution case effectively lost. Proceedings were subsequently adjourned indefinitely.

For more about the case, see Courtroom to Revolutionary Stage: Performance and Ideology in Weimar Political Trials, Grunwald, Henning , (2012)