Walter Ulbricht

The Historical Role of Karl Liebknecht

(12 August 1951)

Source: Walter Ulbricht, Zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Vol. I (1963 edition), Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1963.
Translation: The Red Path.
HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Karl Liebknecht! This name is for millions of peaceful people in the whole world symbol of fearless, heroic struggle against the imperialist war. His “No!” in the darkest night of chauvinist baiting has saved the honor of the German workers movement.

From the begin of his political activity he led an untiring struggle against imperialism and did all he could to mobilize the masses of the working people, specially the working youth, for this struggle.

“This name”, wrote Lenin on Karl Liebknecht in his Letter to the Workers of Europe and America, “is the symbol of truly honest, truly willingness for sacrifice, relentlessly struggle against capitalism. This name is the symbol of the irreconcilable struggle against imperialism, a struggle not in words, but in deeds, which specially then needs highest willingness for sacrifice, when the ’own’ country is grabbed by the frenzy of imperialist victories.” [1]

Like Thälmann in the time after the First World War was a leader of the German working class a leader in the struggle against the worst enemy of mankind, imperialism, so consequent and tough was Karl Liebknecht, the warning caller in struggle against German imperialism before First World War and during war.

The conditions of that struggle were very hard, because the German imperialism was the most aggressive, most predatory and most violent imperialism. The reason lies in the fact, that the German capital found an already apportioned world, when it was starting to conquer new markets and influence spheres. The hunger of the German imperialists for colonial extra profits was on basis of the fast industrial development of Germany specially high. Therefore they demanded a “place on the sun” and were ready to enforce it with all means of blackmailing and war and to suppress every inner resistance.

Another characteristic of young German imperialism was, that it was not only backed by the bourgeoisie, but also the Prussian Junkers [2], who always had war, plundering and conquering as life elixir. The Junkers ruled in Wilhelminist Germany [3] over the state apparatus and so the whole public life. The army was completely in their hands. Because of their tangle with the industrial and bank capital, they formed with the great-bourgeoisie a reactionary junkerly-great-capitalist block, which led Germany by its whole foreign and inner politics on the path of conquering wars.

The most dangerous tool of the bourgeois-junkerly German imperialism, its strongest support was the militarism, which poisoned the whole public life and was doing the preparation the military for the war of new apportioning of the world.

“For sure”, wrote Liebknecht 1907 in his famous book Militarism and Antimilitarism, “also the ruling class of capitalism wants to seize their profit interests with full comfort. But this comfort is neither harmonic with the capitalist concurrence, the national and international, nor it is the taste of those, who get stripes of their skin cut out by capitalism, so capitalism creates an armed, brutal bastion of violent rule to protect the wage slavery, the most holy of profit.” [4]

Untiring Liebknecht indicated, that the imperialist conquering politics endangers the existence of the whole people:

“This politics serves directly or indirectly the exploitation interests of the ruling classes of capitalism. She is trying to pave the way for the random-wild production and the senseless-murderous concurrence of capitalism with more or less skillfulness over the world, by trampling on all duties towards the lower developed people; und she succeeds nothing, but a crazy endangering of the existence of our culture by the summoning of world-war-like implications.” [5]

Also other leftists in the German social democracy have repeatedly indicated the big dangers of the heavily armed junkerly-bourgeois regime, they revealed during the debate about the military budget the scandalous conditions in the army and unmasked the war-mongering activities of the ruling plot. But Karl Liebknecht was the only one, who knew, that only protests or general declarations would not succeed.

He recognized early, “that the enemies of the workers cook their soup mostly at the fire of restricted chauvinism” and that “the military mass suggestion or also mass psychosis” means a big danger for the working class and the whole people. Therefore he campaigned so persistent for an awakening, untiring education of the masses against the role of militarism which is hostile to the people. “It is so true, that the development works for us, but it is also so untrue, that everything would come from alone”, he warned from opportunism in the social-democratic leadership, which spoke about the danger of a world war, but did nothing to prevent it. There was almost no party congress since 1904, where Liebknecht did not repeat his demand for a special propaganda against the Prussian-German imperialism. For him the struggle against militarism was a task of national importance for the social-democratic workers movement, which served the preserving of peace:

“So true the peoples peace stands in the interest of international proletariat and also above that in the culture interest of whole mankind, so true is also the struggle against militarism, which is the baiting of the people against each other, the sum and the extract of all peace-disturbing tendencies of capitalism, which is a serious danger of a world war, a cultural struggle, on which the proletariat is proud to lead it, which it must lead in its own interests and no other class as such ... has an interest which would be similar as big.” [6]

The compact majority of the reformists in the party leadership was decisively against the struggle against militarism, but Liebknecht has recognized the importance of struggle against militarism as part of the anti-imperialist struggle. Therefore he did not restrict himself on appellations to the social-democratic party leadership, but appealed directly towards the part of the people, which was designated by the military camarilla, to be forced to shoot one day on their fathers and mothers, towards the working youth.

Against the will of the party directorate he supported the founding of independent proletarian youth organizations and guided for the youth the path of struggle against militarism and war. He was the founder of the socialist Youth Internationale, whose members struggled in the first ranks as fighters against the imperialist war, when the world war began. In the Reichstag he always campaigned for the interests of the working youth and struggled against their deprivation of rights. With the whole sharpness of his spirit he debunked every time he could, that all youth-caring actions of the reactionary government, but also the hypocrisy of the church, just have this one goal: to make out of the children of the working people abulic soldiers for the interests of the ruling class.

The history has proven, how right and necessary the struggle of Karl Liebknecht against the war politics of ruling feudal-imperialist clique was. Karl Liebkencht wrote over the imperialist war prospects a la Krupp already in 1913:

“Brutal, robust, totally cynical scorn against all arguments and methods of a so to speak finer attitude, like militarism self, this concentrated, systematized rawness of violence – so is the arms industry ... And not prospering during happiness, freedom and peace of the people, but dissension, war danger, war, is their food; more hate among the people means more profits!” [7]

Karl Liebkencht shows us, how every chance must be taken, to untirely educate the people about the war mongering of profit-greedy imperialists. Because the freedom of press and assembly got more and more restricted, he mainly used the Reichstag as tribune, to brand the anti-national actions of the armament capital. So he debunked shortly before the war the canon-king Krupp, who bribed high officials and officers, to get military secrets and to start with its help a nationalist propaganda campaign for rising the military budget.

On hand of this example Liebknecht debunked the connection of armament capital and the state apparatus of imperialist Germany, but also proved the connections of German and foreign armament capital. He understood, that the war must be prevented before its outbreak. Therefore he warned the party already in 1907 to systemically organize the struggle against the imminent danger of war.

“Or should”, so he asked, “... the German socialdemocracy, the German workers movement, the core troop and elite of the new Internationale, like she loves to praise herself, close in too much carefulness and trust to that task ... until she stands unprepared in front of the in some measure avoidable fact of an upcoming world war by use of all forces and methods of struggle ... for which she would have to take the responsibility too?” [8]

Karl Liebknecht stood back then almost alone, and so his untiring and fearless struggle could not prevent the war. But he teaches us, how much toughness and skill the struggle for peace needs, how concrete the propaganda against war has to be and how she has to differ fitting on the conditions.

In August 1914 everything became reality, what Karl Liebknecht feared for years: The German imperialists started the war for the redistribution of the world, which was prepared long time before. Like Liebknecht predicted, the heavy joint guilty fell on the social democracy. Ebert, Scheidemann, Noske and co defected openly into the camp of imperatorial imperialism. But Liebknecht stood loyal to his views. In the Reichstag faction he directly stood up against the support for the war credits, but complied at first towards the majority. Soon the behavior of the social-chauvinist party leadership destroyed his last hopes on a change of their politics and he began to struggle along with Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and others against the party leadership. At the next vote for the war credits in Reichstag, on 2. December 1914, Karl Liebknecht refused as only one the credits. He concluded a declaration in the soocial-democratic Reichstag afction, in which the real reasons of the war are debunked:

“It is an imperialist war”, it is said in it, “and specially on the German side with the goal of conquests in big style.” [9]

Liebknecht proved by his acting, that he was the greatest patriot of the German people. Or can there be a greater patriotic deed, than saving his people before the horror of genocide? Which courage belongs to it, standing alone under millions of “fatherland-defenders”, who are drunk by chauvinism and victory reports, to raise his voice for putting an end to the war, shows the fact, that even his best friends and comrades – Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring und Karski (Machlewski) – dehorted him one day before the vote, to vote alone against the war credits, because they feared, that his voice would not be heard and his sacrifice would be senseless.

In one thing his fiends were right: The whole brutal violence of the military dictatorship now went against the group of the left. Karl Liebknecht was conscripted as an reinforcement solider. Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned. Liebknecht was declared as a foreign agent and insulted as a fatherland-traitor. But the class consciouss workers and the working people, who became doubtful due to the war politics of the socialchauvinist party leadership, Liebknechts acting gave them new courage and hope.

Liebknecht was untiring in his struggle. His Reichstag declaration was spread as an illegal flyer. Already in Mai 1915 he told the workers: “The enemy stands in the own country!”

On 1. January 1916 Karl Liebknecht and his struggle-comrades had a meeting, to found the Group “Internationale” – the Spartakus Group. On the historical importance of the founding, Lenin wrote in his Letter to the Workers of Europe and America:

“With Liebknecht and the Spartacists are all those German socialists who have remained honest and really revolutionary, all the best and dedicated men among the proletariat, the exploited masses who are seething with indignation and among whom there is a growing readiness for revolution.“ [10]

Again and again Liebknecht called in word and script for the revolutionary ending of war. In his call to mass demonstrations on 1. May 1916 he wrote:

“And for which purpose all these horrors and bestialities? Therewith the East-Elbian [11] Junkers and their familiar capitalist profit-makers to fill their pockets by suppressing and exploiting new countries. Therewith the baitors of the heavy industry, the army suppliers, to generate golden harvests from the bloody corpse fields. Therewith exchange speculators to make profiteering deals with war bonds. Therewith food speculators to make profits on costs of the starving people. Therewith the militarism, the monarchy, the darkest reaction in Germany gets power as never before and becomes the unshared rule.” [12]

During the first big mass demonstration on 1. May on the Potsdamer Platz [13], Karl Liebknecht showed clear and precise, who are the war-interested and called to the masses: “Down with the government! Down with the war!” Karl Liebknecht was imprisoned. The class justice sentenced the Reichstag deputy Karl Liebknecht to long time in jail, but his voice could not be silenced. From the jail he sent secretly his articles for the Spartakusbriefe, for the Jugendinternationale, for flyers and calls.

The biggest influence on Karl Liebkencht had the victory of the Great Socialist October Revolution in Russia. Karl Liebknecht was instantly conscious of the world-historical change, which the Russian proletariat has won by that. The victory of the Bolsheviki gave him new strength and confidence of victory for the struggle against the German war criminals. Karl Liebknecht always felled deeply connected to Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, which has shown the German working class, how to be victorious.

At the eve of the November Revolution Karl Liebknecht was released from jail. On 9. November he proclaimed the in Lustgarten [13] the German Socialist Republic, which was bloody chocked by the Noske guards. Karl Liebknecht already demanded on 10. November the tighest friendship with Soviet Russia and concluded the approach of diplomatic relations.

The vanguard of the German working class has struggled in the November Revolution heroically. Her courage succeeded to push through some democratic demands and diverse social improvements. But the November Revolution staid a bourgeoise revolution, the capitalist class rule kept in power. That had its main reason in the fact, that the majority of the working class still had bourgeoise prejudices and thought to be able to overcome the power of monopoly capital and great landowners by the ballot. The November Revolution did not solve the historical task of the overthrow of German monopoly capital and the great landowners, because there was no revolutionary workers party of new type, which had been able to liberate the masses from the influence of the socialchauvinist leaders. Now the underestimation of the party by the left revenged, who staid till December 1918 with the Kautskyanists in a party. [14]

“A true revolutionary party”, wrote Lenin, “the Germans workers did not have in the moment of the crisis, because of the too late split, because of the damn tradition of ’unity’ with the corrupt ... and characterless ... gang of lackeys of the capital.” [15]

Despite everything! Liebknecht titled his article, when the Berlin workers were quelled in the too early provoked struggles.

“But our ship sails a straight course and is proud of it till its goal. And when we will still live, when its is reached – our program will live; it will rule the world of the liberated mankind. Despite everything!” [16]

When this article was published on 15. January 1919, Karl Liebknecht was already murdered by the blood-thirsty soldiers. But his spirit could not be killed by them. Karl Liebknecht is for the German youth the role-model of the fearless, sacrifice-ready fighter against the imperialist war.


1. W.I. Lenin, Werke, Vol. 28, p. 445, German.

2. Junkers were the German feudal landlords.

3. German Empire (1871–1918).

4. Karl Liebknecht, Militarismus und Antimilitarismus unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der internationalen Jugendbewegung. In: Gesammelte Reden und Schriften, Vol. I, Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1958, S. 319, German.

5. Ibid., S. 274, German.

6. Ibid., S. 360, German.

7. Karl Liebknecht, Was ist? Was wird sein? In: Ausgewählte Reden, Briefe und Aufsätze, Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1952, pp. 227/228, German.

8. Karl Liebknecht, Militarismus und Antimilitarismus. In: Gesammelte Reden und Schriften, Vol. I, pp. 450/451.

9. Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Series II, Vol. 1, p. 59.

10. W.I. Lenin, Werke, Vol. 28, p. 445, German.

11. The Elbe is a river in East of Germany. East of that river most land was owned by great-landowners.

12. Spartakusbriefe, Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1958, pp. 174/175, German.

13. In Berlin.

14. Ulbricht means the USPD.

15. W.I. Lenin, Werke, Vol. 32, p. 538, German.

16. Karl Liebknecht, Ausgewählte Reden, Briefe und Aufsätze, p. 530, German.


Last updated: 28 October 2017