A Duty of Honor*

Rosa Luxemburg on 18 November 1918

For the political victims of the old reactionary rule,1 we did not want an "amnesty," no mercy. We demanded our right to freedom, struggle and revolution for those hundreds of faithful and brave people who languished in penitentiaries and prisons because they fought for popular freedom, peace, and socialism under the saber dictatorship of the imperialist criminal gang. They're all free now. We're back in line, ready to fight. It was not the Scheidemanns with their bourgeois cronies and Prince Max at the head2 who freed us, the proletarian revolution has burst the gates of our casemates.

     But another category of sad inmates of those gloomy houses has been completely forgotten. No one has thought of the thousands of pale, emaciated figures who languished for years behind the walls of prisons and penitentiaries to atone for common crimes.

     And yet they are unfortunate victims of the infamous social order against which the revolution was directed, victims of the imperialist war, the hardship and misery, increased to unbearable torture, which through bestial slaughter has unleashed all evil instincts in weak, hereditarily burdened natures.

     Bourgeois class justice once again proved to be the net through whose meshes predatory pike slip out comfortably, while small sticklebacks are helplessly enraptured. The millions of war profiteers usually got away without punishment, or with ridiculous fines, the little thieves were punished with draconian prison sentences.

     With hunger, trembling with cold in the hardly heated cells, emotionally depressed by the four-year horrors of war, these stepchildren of society waited for mercy, for relief.

     They waited for nothing. The last Hohenzollern, as a good father of the country, had forgotten the wretched about the worries of the slaughter of nations and the distribution of crowns. Since the conquest of Liège, there has been no amnesty worth mentioning during the four years, not even on the official holiday of German slaves, the "Emperor’s Birthday."

     Now the proletarian revolution, by a small ray of its mercy, must brighten the gloomy existence in the prisons and penitentiaries, shorten the draconian punishments, eradicate the barbaric disciplinary system - chain arrest, corporal punishment!! - improve treatment, medical care, nutrition and working conditions to the best of our ability. It's an obligation of honor!

     The existing punishment system, which breathes through and through the brutal class spirit and barbarism of capitalism, must be eradicated once with stump and stalk. Fundamental reform of the penal system must be tackled immediately. A completely new one, according to the spirit of socialism, can only be built on the foundation of a new economic and social order. For crime and punishment always have their roots primarily in the economic situation of society. But one drastic measure can easily be implemented: The death penalty, the greatest disgrace of the reactionary German penal code, must disappear immediately! Why does the workers’ and soldiers’ government hesitate on that matter? Ledebour, Barth, Däumig, did the noble Beccaria, who two hundred years ago denounced the nefariousness of the death penalty in all civilized languages, not live for you? You have no time, a thousand worries, difficulties, tasks ahead of you. Certainly. But take the watch in your hands and see how much time it takes to open your mouth and say: The death penalty has been abolished! Or how, could there also be a long debate with a vote among you about this? Would you also, in this case, get involved with the long dress of formalities, competence concerns, stamp and rubric questions and the like rubbish?

     Oh, how is this German revolution - German! How is it sober, pedantic, without verve, without shine, without greatness. The forgotten death penalty is just a small, single move. But how the inner spirit of the whole usually betrays itself in such small features!

     Take any history book of the Great French Revolution, take the dry Mignet. Can you read this book other than with knocking pulses and a burning forehead, can you put it out of your hand, when you have opened it at any point before you hear the last chord of the mighty event fade out in breathless tension? Like a Beethoven symphony it is elevated to the gigantic, a roaring storm on the organon of time, great and splendid in error and success, in victory and defeat, in the first naive cheering and in the last fading sigh. And now with us in Germany? Every step of the way, both small and large, you can feel: it is still the good old comrades from the times of the German Social Democracy that has peacefully passed away, for whom the membership booklet was everything, man and spirit was nothing. But let us not forget: world history is not made without spiritual greatness, without moral pathos, without noble gesture.

     When leaving the hospitable rooms in which we recently resided, Liebknecht and I promised sacredly – he his shorn prison brothers, I my dear, poor vice girls and thieves with whom I spent three and a half years under one roof – we promised them when they accompanied us with sad looks: We won't forget you!

     We demand an immediate alleviation of the fate of the prisoners in all prisons in Germany from the Executive Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council!

     We demand the eradication of the death penalty from the German penal code!

     In the four years of imperialist genocide, blood flowed in rivers and streams. Now every drop of the precious juice must be guarded with awe in crystal bowls. The most ruthless revolutionary energy and the broadest humanity - this alone is the true breath [odem] of socialism. A world must be overthrown, but every tear that has been shed, even though it could be wiped off, is an indictment, and a person, who in hastening to do something important crushes a poor worm out of raw inattention, commits a crime.


1 In the source: Revolutionsherrschaft (Revolutionary Rule).

2 See p. 394, footnote 1.

First published in Die Rote Fahne (Berlin), No. 3 from November 18, 1918.

Quotes taken from Rosa Luxemburg’s Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 4, pp. 404-06.

* This is a draft version translated by Manuela Koelke. The final translation will appear in the publication of the fifth volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Peter Hudis and forthcoming in 2020 from Verso Books with the support of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.