Karl Liebknecht, Hugo Haase

Leon Trotsky

Political Profiles

Karl Liebknecht and Hugo Haase

(May 1922)

LIEBKNECHT was not at Zimmerwald; he was already a captive in the Hohenzollern army before he had become a captive in prison but his name was referred to more than once at the conference. It had already become commonplace in the struggle which rent European and then American socialism. Liebknecht was our most important support: a living argument, example and specimen in the campaign of criticism against social-patriotism in the Entente countries. On the other hand the French and Russian social-patriots with an inimitable shamelessness quoted more than once from Liebknecht’s speeches as proof of the criminal guilt of German militarism and of the moral rightness of the Entente governments. In this respect they merely chimed in with the capitalist press.

I knew Karl Liebknecht over many years though I met him relatively infrequently: expansive and easily inflamed, he stood out sharply against a background of the decorous, impersonal and monotonous party bureaucracy. Distinctive even in his appearance, especially his thick lips and dark curly hair which made him look like a “foreigner” although he was a pure German, Liebknecht always remained half a stranger in the house of German Social-Democracy with its inner sense of measure and perennial readiness to compromise. He was not a theoretician. He did not work out an independent analysis of historical developments, nor did he devote himself to theoretical predictions for the following day but his authentic and profoundly revolutionary instinct always directed him, via this or that hesitation, on to the correct path. Bebel knew Karl Liebknecht from his childhood days and treated him right up to his death as an adolescent or a youth—rather in the way Wilhelm Liebknecht for a long time treated Bebel himself. Bebel would treat Karl’s indignant protests against the opportunist policy of the party or of one of its sections not without an ironic sympathy scarcely twisting the corner of his thin mouth but he would give Karl no quarter. And Bebel’s word preserved its decisive force in the party almost until his death.

Liebknecht was a genuine revolutionary and a sincere internationalist. He devoted a considerable part of his time and energy to contacts and interests lying beyond the bounds of the German party. He was closely linked with the Russian and Polish revolutionaries: with some by a personal friendship and with many by personal assistance. Shortly after his first wife’s death he married a Russian. The events of the Russian revolution infected him to an extreme degree. Together with us he lived through the triumph of counter-revolution. As is common knowledge he found an outlet for his revolutionary energy in work amongst the youth and in anti-militarist propaganda. The party bigwigs took an extremely malevolent attitude towards this relentless activity. The public prosecutor turned his attention to him. This conflict with the German courts of law gave Liebknecht a vital tempering in the struggle, for as well as giving him the opportunity of more clearly observing and evaluating the middling German party bureaucrat who would viciously gnash his teeth at the madman who threatened to upset his peaceful trouble-free way of life, Liebknecht seethed and raged, not for himself but for the party.

This was how Liebkhecht met the war. The newly arisen situation at first without doubt perplexed him. For several weeks he sought a path, but having found it he never to the end departed from it. He was killed at his post as a fighter in the civil war, between one barricade and an other, long before he had given the revolution all he could have. But his peerless moral stature was only fully revealed during the war. His struggle against the exultant, all-powerful, victorious, brazen Hohenzollern military machine, against the smugly servile and basely obsequious middle layers of the party which bared its fangs at him, will forever remain an example of magnificent moral heroism. The name of Karl Liebknecht will inevitably echo down the ages.

Hugo Haase was not at Zimmerwald either though at the preceding conferences rumours had circulated that he would come. The conference did not lose much by this as Haase was hardly capable of contributing any more to it than what Ledebour had. Here a few words must be said about Hugo Haase.

Leading the moderate Social-Democratic opposition, he became, during the war, the “leader” of the party, the man whom Bebel had several years before his death crowned his deputy. Haase was a provincial lawyer from Königsberg without a broad outlook, and without a strong political temperament but who was in his own way honest and dedicated to the party’s cause. As a speaker he was dry, unoriginal and had a harsh Königsberg accent. Haase was not in the least way a writer. At the turn of the century when he was still living in Königsberg he was, as far as I remember, enthused by Kantian philosophy but this enthusiasm, I think, left few traces behind in print. As with Liebknecht, Haase had quite broad ties with the Russian revolutionaries: many underground routes passed through Königsberg along which exiles and illegal literature penetrated Russia and when the German police launched a drive against revolutionary contraband (in 1903) Haase spoke out as the most energetic defender of the Russian revolutionaries.

Bebel made Haase his favourite. Haase’s idealism undoubtedly held an attraction for the old man, not a broad revolutionary idealism which Haase did not have, but a narrower, more personal and mundane one; for example, his readiness to abandon his prosperous lawyer’s practice in Königsberg in the name of the interests of the party: a trait which is not so often come by among the top dogs of the Social-Democratic bureaucracy. To the great annoyance of the Russian revolutionaries, Bebel even referred to this God-knows-how-heroic readiness of Haase to sacrifice his remunerative practice for party work in Berlin in his speech to the party congress at Jena I think, and insistently recommended him for the post of second secretary of the Central Committee of the party. Gentle and attentive in his personal relations, in politics Haase remained to the end what he was by nature: an honest mediocrity, a provincial democrat lacking a theoretical outlook and a revolutionary temperament. In any critical situation he was inclined to abstain from irreversible decisions resorting to half-measures and waiting on events. It is small wonder that the Independents elected him one of their leaders. At this post he perished.

War and Revolution, Vol.2, May 22, 1922

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Last updated on: 10.4.2007