‘The most precious thing' said Rosa Luxemburg, 'in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary waves is the proletariat's spiritual growth.' Jenny Farrell presents two letters by Rosa Luxemburg, murdered one hundred years ago in Berlin by the proto-Nazi Freikorps.
Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, founder members of the German Communist Party and fearless anti-war activists, were murdered on 15 January 1919. It is not difficult to discover the details of their political and public lives. However, we would like to honour their memory by highlighting their spiritual and ecological awareness, through presenting two private letters by Rosa Luxemburg to the Russian-born Sophie Liebknecht, wife of Karl Liebknecht.
These letters reveal the private person, the inner landscape of Rosa, an aspect rarely explored in the letters of Marxist writers. The correspondence highlights her sensitivity towards the way we express our humanity in our relationship with the natural world, and that our political, economic and cultural struggles for a humane existence are not ends in themselves, or merely material struggles. They are also moral and psychological struggles for an empathic, compassionate life, for an almost ecstatic, peaceful unity with oneself, with others and with nature.
1. Vronke, 2 May 1917
My dearest little Sonyusha!* Your dear letter arrived here in perfect time yesterday, 1 May. It and two days of sunshine have done much to cheer me up. For my heart was very sore these last few days, but now things are looking up again. If only the sun would stay that way! I am outside almost all day, strolling around in the bushes, searching every corner of my garden and finding all kinds of treasures. So listen: Yesterday, May 1st, I met – guess who? – a radiant common brimstone! I was so happy that my whole heart pounded. It flew up to my sleeve – I wear a purple jacket, and the colour probably attracted it – then it bobbed up and down the wall. In the afternoon, I found three different beautiful feathers: a dark grey one from a redstart, a golden one from a yellowhammer and a greyish-yellow one from a nightingale. We have many nightingales here, I heard the first one early on Easter Sunday, and since then it comes to the big silver poplar in my little garden every day. I put the feathers in a lovely blue box for my small collection: I also have feathers there that I found in the yard of Barnimstraße** – from pigeons and chickens, and also a beautiful blue one from a jay in Südende***. The “collection” is still quite small, but I like to look at it sometimes. I have already decided to whom I will give it.
This morning I discovered a hidden violet right next to the wall I was walking past! The only one in my whole garden. How does Goethe put it?
A violet in the meadow stood,
With humble brow, demure and good,
It was the sweetest violet.
I was so happy! I am sending you it here, with a kiss pressed lightly on it, may it bring you my love and my greeting. Will it still be little fresh when you get it? ...
Then this afternoon I met the first bumblebee! A very big one in the new shimmering black fur jacket with golden yellow belt. It hummed in a deep bass and flew first to my jacket, then in a big arc high above the yard. The buds of the chestnuts are so big, rosy and swelling, shiny with juice, in a few days they will probably pop out their leaves, which look like little green hands. Remember, last year, how we stood in front of such a chestnut with young leaves and you called in droll desperation: “Rosa! (You roll the “R” even more than I do), what can you say? What can you say at such delight?”
And another discovery made me happy today. You may remember, last April I phoned you both urgently at 10 o’clock in the morning to come to the Botanical Gardens and listen with me to the nightingale giving a whole concert. We sat quietly hidden in dense shrubs on stones beside a tiny streamlet; but after the nightingale, we suddenly heard a wistful call, which sounded something like this: “Gleegleegleegleeglick! I said it sounded like some moor or water bird, and Karl agreed, but we simply couldn’t work out what it was. Just think, one morning a few days ago, I suddenly heard the same lamentation near here, so that my heart throbbed, impatient to find out what it was. I had no peace until I discovered today: it’s not a water bird, but the wryneck, a grey woodpecker. It is only a little bigger than the sparrow and has its name because it tries to frighten its enemies by strange gestures and head contortions. It lives on ants only, which it catches with its sticky tongue like the anteater. The Spanish call it hormiguero – the antbird. Mörike by the way wrote a lovely funny poem on this bird, which Hugo Wolf set to music. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, knowing what the bird with the sad voice is. Perhaps you could let Karl know about this, he would be delighted.
What do I read? Mainly scientific books: plant and animal geography. Just yesterday I read about the causes of songbirds disappearing in Germany: it is due to increased rational forestry, horticulture and agriculture, slowly destroying all their natural nesting and feeding habitats: hollow trees, wasteland, scrub, and withered foliage in gardens. It was so painful to read this. I’m not worried about their singing for people, but the image of the silent, unstoppable demise of these defenceless little creatures hurt me so much, I had to weep. It reminded me of a Russian book by Prof. Siber about the destruction of the Redskins in North America, which I read in Zurich: Slowly but surely, civilised people drive them off their land and submit them to silent, cruel annihilation.
I must be unwell that everything shakes me so deeply now. Do you know? Sometimes I feel that I am not a real person, but some bird or other animal in a failed human form; inwardly I feel much more at home in such a small shred of garden as here, or in a field amongst bumblebees and grass than - at a party conference. I can tell you all this: you will not immediately sense a betrayal of socialism. You know, I will hopefully die for the cause anyway: in a street battle or in prison. But my innermost self belongs more to my coal tits than to the ‘comrades’. And this is not because, like so many bankrupt politicians, I find a refuge, a rest in nature. On the contrary, here too I find so much cruelty at every turn that I suffer a great deal. Imagine, for example, that I simply cannot forget the following little episode. Last spring I was on my way home from a walk across fields, in my quiet, empty street when I noticed a dark little spot on the ground. I bent down and saw a soundless tragedy: a large dung beetle lay on its back and defended itself helplessly with its legs, while a whole load of tiny ants swarmed over it and consumed it – alive! I looked at it, took out my handkerchief and began to chase away the brutal beasts. But they were so cheeky and stubborn that I had to fight a long battle with them, and when I had finally freed the poor wretch and taken him far onto the grass, two legs had already been eaten away ... I fled tormented, feeling that I had done him a very dubious favour.
There is long twilight in the evenings now. How I usually love this hour! In Südende I had so many blackbirds, here I can’t see or hear any. I fed a pair all winter and now it has disappeared. In Südende I used to stroll the street around this time in the evening; it is so beautiful when even in the last violet rays of daylight the rosy gas flames suddenly flicker in the lanterns and look so strange in the dusk, as if they were a little ashamed of themselves. Then the indistinct shape of a porter’s wife or a maid scurries through the street, quickly running to the baker’s or grocer’s to fetch something. The shoemaker’s children, with whom I am friends, used to play in the street in the dark until they were robustly summoned home from the corner. At this hour there always used to be some blackbird that couldn’t find rest and suddenly screeched or babbled like a naughty child, s startled rom sleep and flying noisily from tree to tree. And I stood there in the middle of the street, counting the first stars, reluctant to go home, leaving the balmy air and the twilight in which day and night nestled so softly together. Sonyusha, I will write to you again soon. Put your mind at ease and be cheerful, everything will be fine, even with Karl. I will write to Mathilde about your household worries and do whatever I can. Goodbye until the next letter, my dear little bird.
I embrace you.
* Russian pet name for Sophie (Sophie was a native Russian speaker, Rosa was very fluent)
** The Women’s Prison in Berlin
*** The district in Berlin where Luxemburg lived
Translated by Jenny Farrell
2. Wrocław prison, mid-December 1917
Yesterday I lay awake for a long time – these days I can’t fall asleep before 1 a.m., but I have to go to bed at 10, because the light goes out then, and then I dream to myself about various things in the dark. Last night this is what I was thinking: how odd it is that I’m continually in a joyful state of exaltation – without any particular reason. For example, I’m lying here in a dark cell on a stone-hard mattress, the usual silence of a church cemetery prevails in the prison building, it seems as though we’re in a tomb; on the ceiling can be seen reflections coming through the window from the lanterns that burn all night in front of the prison. From time to time one hears, but only in quite a muffled way, the distant rumble of a train passing by or quite nearby under the windows the whispering of the guards on duty at night, who take a few steps slowly in their heavy boots to relieve their stiff legs. The sand crunches so hopelessly under their heels that the entire hopeless wasteland of existence can be heard in this damp, dark night.
I lie there quietly, alone, wrapped in these many-layered black veils of darkness, boredom, lack of freedom, and winter – and at the same time my heart is racing with an incomprehensible, unfamiliar inner joy as though I were walking across a flowering meadow in radiant sunshine. And in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that the secret is nothing other than life itself; the deep darkness of night is so beautiful and as soft as velvet, if one only looks at it the right way; and in the crunching of the damp sand beneath the snow beneath the slow, heavy steps of the sentries a beautiful small song of life is being sung – if only one knows how to listen properly.
At such moments I think of you and I would like so much to pass on this magical key to you, so that always and in all situations you would be aware of the beautiful and the joyful, so that you too would live in a joyful euphoria as though you were walking across a colourful meadow. I am certainly not thinking of foisting off on you some sort of asceticism or made-up joys. I don’t begrudge you all the real joys of the senses that you might wish for yourself. I would just like to add to this my inexhaustible inner cheerfulness, so that I could be at peace about you and not worry, so that you could go through life wearing a star-speckled cloak, to protect you from all things petty, trivial and alarming.
If you enjoyed these letters, you can read more here.
Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin, and works as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. She is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism - Examining the Odes of John Keats, Nuascéalta, 2017.