Karl Liebknecht
The Future Belongs to the People

Liebknecht's May Day, 1916, Speech

Delivered at the Potsdamerplatz, Berlin, May 1, 1916

(Report by one present at the demonstration)

BERLIN, May 1. Very early in the morning, with three other comrades, I reached Hortensienstrasse, where Comrade Liebknecht lives. We enter No. 14, climb up the stairs, ring his bell. Comrade Liebknecht opens the door himself. He is thin, his hair looks unusually black and his face is deathly pale. He walks like a dead man, walking with grim steps. He leaves us and soon returns with his wife; she is a Russian. She nods welcome to us all. Suddenly a terrible fear comes to me. No one has spoken a word, yet we all feel that we are in the presence of a supreme moment. From Comrade Liebknecht's grim silence we judge that he is about to hurl prudence to the four winds and defy the Government.

He hands out, one to each of us, a copy of the speech which he will deliver. So far not one word has been spoken. While we are hurriedly reading his speech, which is to be delivered within a few hours, he remarks, "I have several thousand of these printed."

We have finished reading the prospectus which will make history and send him to prison. Then we go into conference. We have been with him just an hour. We leave him.

Shortly after 2 P.M. of the same May day, I have taken a hasty lunch at the Central Hotel. As I near the door I hear the footsteps of the great multitudes. As far as I can see, all the streets and side streets are full of surging, silently moving human beings; all moving in the direction where the May Day demonstration is to take place. These are men and women, mostly women. The men among them are mostly over fifty. Suddenly it becomes apparent to me that there are more children in the crowds than men and women together. As they march I notice that I cannot see one in the crowd who has a smile on her or his face. Along the route no one is cheering them. I had never seen such immense crowds in the streets of Berlin. Not even during the Agadir crisis had the streets of Berlin held such multitudes. The crowds move as though they are part of a funeral procession. They are all sad, very sad. I recognize a group of comrades in the crowd. I rush in and join them. Mund halten (keep your mouth shut) is the unwritten rule, and every one seems to observe it strictly.

Some one has turned the head of the procession into Unter den Linden. We do not know why; very few of us have noticed it, anyhow. We suddenly see a platoon of mounted guards dashing through the crowd, but they are riding on the sidewalk. The part of the procession that had been marching on the sidewalk rushes to the middle of the street in order to escape being trampled upon by the mounted guards. Another group of mounted guards rides past hurriedly, and still another follows. The people in the procession all about me do not seem to notice them. Not even a whisper one hears. On reaching the palace grounds I see in the distance five persons. From their elbows up they tower over the heads of the multitude surrounding them. I leave my friends and elbow my way through the thick crowd. I explain my impolite advance on the ground that I am a reporter on a party (Socialist) paper. I finally reach the spot where Comrade Liebknecht and other comrades are standing. The crowds are close where they are standing, and I cannot make out whether they are standing on a raised platform or in a motor car. I am about twenty or twenty-five feet from the doctor.

Suddenly one of the comrades near Dr. Liebknecht raises his hand and at once proceeds to speak. The multitude is anxious to hear him. Every one is sounding "Hush" in order to obtain silence and thus making more noise. Dr. Liebknecht uncovers his head; some one near by offers to relieve him of his hat. Deathly silence reigns all about the grounds. The interior of a cathedral cannot be more silent. The doctor begins: "Comrades and friends." They start to cheer him. He holds up his hand forbiddingly, then he resumes: "Some years ago a witty Socialist observed that in Prussia we Germans have three cardinal rights, which are: we can be soldiers, we can pay taxes and we can keep our tongues between our teeth. The Socialist who made this observation made it with a grim humor, but to-day the humor of it must be disconnected from it – it is all too grim. Especially in these days this observation is too true. To-day we are sharing these three great Prussian State privileges in full. Every German citizen is given the full privilege to carry a rifle in any manner. Even the Boy Scout has been incited to play the ridiculous role of a soldier. They have thus planted the spirit of hate deep in his youthful soul. Meanwhile the old Landsturmer is forced to perform forced labor in invaded countries, in spite of the fact that under the laws of the Imperial Constitution he cannot be called out for any other purpose than for the defense of the Fatherland.

"As for his second privilege – his right to pay taxes – in this respect the German citizen is, up to the present time, far ahead of his brothers in foreign lands whom he is engaged in exterminating. And yet more privileges of this kind are awaiting him in the days to come – after the end of the war. The high taxes which the German people have so far paid are insignificant compared to the great burdens which they must carry after the war, and for which their masters are daily preparing them with such touching delicacy of patriotic sentiment through the medium of the official press.

"The new Germany has the unquestionable right to hold its tongue between its teeth. Recently our official press has been flooded by authoritative and pharisaic exhortations to soldiers' wives that they must, for God's sake, not complain so much about the scarcity of food. Keep your mouth shut tight when hungry. Keep your mouth shut tight when your children are hungry, keep your mouth shut when your children want milk, keep your mouth shut when your children cry for bread, keep your mouth shut and write no letters to the front."

Outside of Germany these phrases might sound like the stock phrases of a professional agitator, but not so in Germany, at least not in those days. I carefully watched for the effect of these remarks all about me, and I saw no dry eyes.

Amid tense silence the doctor continued: "In a recent issue the mouthpiece of the Pharisees, the "Muenchener Neueste Nachrichten," complains thus (reading from a clipping)

" 'Our soldiers do not always receive from their dear ones at home the best encouragement to hold on. A soldier on furlough who, before obtaining leave, had performed for his Fatherland unflinchingly, went through many hardships with good humor, but after a visit home returned to the front with a sad face, worrying day and night about his dear ones and the pretended scarcity at home.'

" 'Pretended' scarcity certainly is palatable, especially when one is reminded of the fact that our police is weighing the bread, that butter is out of the market, that fat, meat and margarine have reached a price that is beyond the probable reach of the workingman!

"Another well-nourished Pharisee exhorts in the columns of the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung by asking, 'Where is scarcity to be found?' and no doubt after having partaken of a good dinner he preaches with these words: 'We must teach ourselves at home how to manage to get along in our homes with as little as possible. But of course in large families with children the small earnings of the breadwinner being now totally absent, this sum must be replaced by the creation of a relief fund so that there may not be any serious want.' Exactly, but under no circumstances must the people complain of hunger. It annoys the soldier terribly and cripples his fighting power. Therefore do not write complaining letters to the front. In other words, you wives of soldiers, hide the truth from your husbands; in fact, lie to them. "The old proverb says, `The mouth speaketh out of the fullness of the heart,' and if her children's stomach is empty it is hard for the wife not to mention to her far-away soldier husband that it is hard to provide for his children with food while he is offering his life for his country. But if it is not found possible for your masters to prevail upon you to 'keep your tongue between your teeth,' then they resort to a more practical means. They have a very simple means of stopping these annoying complaints. The Prussian censor is now supervising these letters of wives at home to their husbands at the front. They simply do not allow this objectionable correspondence to go through. Poor and unfortunate German soldier! He deserves pity! At the command of the militarist Government he has gone into the enemy country, and at the command of the Government he must steal from other nations. He is required to perform difficult services. The sufferings that he endures are past description. About him everywhere shells and bombs sow death and destruction. His wife and children at home are suffering want and hardship; she looks about her and finds her children crying for bread. She is desperate, but she must not appeal or complain to any one. She must hold her tongue and suffer inwardly. But how can she silence her children? She must not even share the sympathy of her husband at the front, because that cripples her soldier husband's fighting powers. Her soldier husband must `hold on' and 'steal' in the land of her neighbors. He must hold on and 'suffer' because the capitalists, the hurrah patriots and the armor-plate kings have willed it so. Every one must keep his or her tongue between the teeth, for the war profiteers must make money out of the want and misery of the wives and their husband soldiers at the front.

"By a lie the German workingman was forced into the war, and by like lies they expect to induce him to go on with war!" A mighty shout went up from a thousand throats – "Hurrah for Liebknecht." Liebknecht raised his hand for silence. Then steadily, though knowing the cost, he said: "Do not shout for me, shout rather 'We will have no more war. We will have peace – now!' "

Scarcely had he finished speaking when, as if by magic, a tremendous tumult arose. Near the spot where the doctor and his friends had been standing the crowds surged back and forth. The great multitudes in the palace grounds had the appearance of an immense sea whose surface was every inch covered with human heads, those of men and women. The children became terrified. The shouts of the grown-ups and the terrified shrieks of the children added vehemence to the scene. The next moment I see Comrade Liebknecht pulled down from the stand. His friends also follow. Then I see fists raised. I suddenly discover that the jostling of the crowds about me has carried me further away from the spot where a riot is in progress. I again elbow my way toward where the doctor and his companions have been pulled down from the stand. I had made some progress when suddenly I find myself being swept backward by a huge human wave.

In spite of my wish to see what is going on behind me I am being carried away further and further. Several hundred thousand panic-stricken souls are rushing towards the streets and avenues that lead to the grounds. The scene is frightful. Every one is shouting. I steal a glimpse of the spot which is now the center of the sudden panic. I gasp with fright. I see numberless mounted soldiers with large black whips in their hands lashing the crowds. Their mounts are so close to the struggling and frightened men and women, yea, even children, that it is a miracle that thousands are not pinned to the ground. I cannot tell whether they are killed or whether they fainted. But there are many of them. I myself was forced to step over several persons. I tried to lift up a body, but in the next moment I was carried away. . . .

May Day evening. Twenty-five or thirty meet secretly at the home of a comrade in ---------- street. We all know what the report is. Herr Doctor is arrested. We are all sad, very sad. We have met to exchange views as to what step to take next. Every one is laboring with heavy thoughts within himself. The silence is sickening. With the exception of four the men who come together to exchange views are all soldiers in the active army. Not all of them are privates. We have spent the entire night, sometimes in heavy silence and again in deliberation. It is decided that we ---------- ---------- ----------. Are the German workingmen thinking? Their present thoughts are tragic. They hurt.

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