Searching for Rosa Luxemburg – By: Elke Weesjes

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94 years ago today, on January 15, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and her close comrade Karl Liebknecht were executed whilst in police custody. The last moments of Luxemburg’s life are described in Paul Frölich’s 1940 biography Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work: “A short while after Liebknecht had been taken away, Rosa Luxemburg was led out of the hotel (Eden Hotel in Berlin) by First Lieutenant Vogel. Awaiting her by the door was Runge (soldier Otto Runge), who had received an order from First Lieutenants Vogel and Horst von Pflugk-Hartung to strike her to the ground. With two blows of his rifle-butt he smashed her skull. Her almost lifeless body was flung into a waiting car, and several officers jumped in. One of them struck Rosa on the head with the butt of a revolver and First Lieutenant Vogel finished her off with a shot in the head. The corpse was then driven to the Tiergarten and, on Vogel’s orders, thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal, where it was not discovered until 31 May 1919.”

Of all the famous Marxist leaders, only Marx himself died a natural death and had a dignified burial. After dying in London of a combination of catarrh, bronchitis and pleurisy, on March 14, 1883, his friends and family buried his body in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Karl Liebknecht’s father Wilhelm who was a very close friend of Marx and co-founder of the SPD spoke at the funeral.

Whereas the most idolized communist leaders like Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh were all embalmed and received lavish state funerals, the most romanticized Marxists ended up in unmarked graves, their bodies not identified until decades later. Che Guevara for example, was executed by Bolivian troopers in a remote Andean village in 1967. Before amputating his hands and transferring his body to an undisclosed location, the military displayed Guevara’s corpse to the international press in the laundry room of La Nuestra Señora de Malta hospital. His hands were preserved in formaldehyde and sent to Buenos Aires for fingerprint identification (the Argentine police had his finger prints on file). His remains were eventually found in June 1997 in a grave near Valle Grande.

Salvador Allende, whose Chilean political life spanned a period of nearly forty years, was the first Marxist to become president of a Latin American country through open elections. His government was overthrown in September 1973, by a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet. Allende was killed during an attack on the presidential palace. His death immediately became the subject of controversy. Military officials claimed that he had committed suicide, while others thought he had been executed. In 1990 his body was exhumed from an unmarked grave and given a formal burial in Santiago. His remains were dug up again in May 2011; autopsy results confirmed Allende had indeed committed suicide.

Rosa Luxemburg’s story is equally gruesome. As described by Paul Frölich, her body wasn’t recovered until five months after her death, when the winter ice had finally melted. She was allegedly buried, after an autopsy at the Charité hospital, in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery next to Liebknecht. Their graves have long been a magnet for leftists. Every year on the 15th of January, people from all over the world commemorate their deaths and visit the cemetery to lay red carnations on their gravestones.

In 2007 a startling discovery made scientists question if Rosa Luxemburg had ever inhabited this grave. In that year, Michael Tsokos, head of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences at Berlin’s Charité hospital, found a corpse with no head, feet or hands, stored in the cellar of the hospital’s medical history museum. Tsokos performed a computer tomography test and is 90% certain that the body found is Luxemburg. “The body showed signs of having been waterlogged, and the test indicated that the body belonged to a woman who was between 40 and 50 years old at the time of death and that she had suffered from osteoarthritis and had legs of different lengths.” Luxemburg was 47 years old when she died and suffered from a congenital hip ailment that left her with a permanent limp, which caused her legs to be of different lengths. When examining the alleged body of Rosa Luxemburg in 1919, forensic scientists reported details inconsistent with these anatomical peculiarities, nor could they find an exit wound in the scull of the body. Comparisons between the bodies can’t be made; in 1935 anti-communist Nazi’s attacked Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s graves, and the remains vanished.

Tsokos and his team continued their search for more clues to help solve the mystery. DNA was extracted from the corpse and Tsokos was reported to have been searching the world for relatives of the childless Luxemburg to conduct DNA testing. Unfortunately Tsokos was unable to prove one way or the other and gave the body to the police. It was buried anonymously.

Luxemburg’s body remains undiscovered, but as Murat Cakir, spokesman for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation said: “The world over she is thought of as a revolutionary forward thinker – millions visit her grave each year – and she will always be this, regardless of where her body rests.”


New York The Observer: By Emily Witt 3/01/11 ‘The Mystery of Rosa Luxemburg’s Corpse’

The Spiegel Online 2009 : ‘Rosa Luxemburg Mystery DNA of Great-Niece May Help Identify Headless Corpse’

Paul Fröhlich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (Paris 1939/London 1940)

New York Times: By Alexei Barrionuevo and Pascale Bonnefoy 19/07/2011: ‘Allende’s Death Was a Suicide, an Autopsy Concludes’

Che Guevara Biography: Spartacus Educational (


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  1. Dr John S. Partington

    Having referred to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, you then state that: “Of all the famous Marxist leaders, only Marx himself died a natural death and had a dignified burial. After dying in London of a combination of catarrh, bronchitis and pleurisy, on March 14, 1883, his friends and family buried his body in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Liebknecht spoke at his funeral.”

    The Liebknecht who orated at Marx’s funeral was, of course, Wilhelm not Karl. Wilhelm was a co-founder (with August Bebel) of the SPD and was active at the birth of German organised socialism and trade unionism. In this the 150th anniversary of the foundation of German social democracy, we need also spare a thought for old Wilhelm. It is a real indictment of the lack of international historical spirit on the left that no English language publication is marking this anniversary of the first (and, for many year, largest) social democratic movement. Dietz in Germany has published, though, a German language history.

    • Elke Weesjes

      You are right! I should have specified it was Wilhelm rather than his son Karl, who spoke at Marx’s funeral. Thank you so much for your feedback and I agree 100 percent with your statement regarding Wilhelm.

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