Letter to Julio Álvarez del Vayo

Mathilde Jacob on 5 March 1928

Esteemed Comrade del Vayo,1

     Although it is almost midnight, I would still like to try to quickly write down some my memories of the days of January 1919 for you. For if I put my reply to your letter off, I will most likely miss the requested deadline. To begin with, I confirm the receipt of a cheque of 20 Marks. The Luxemburg books will be dispatched tomorrow. I doubt I will be able to get hold of any January brochures in this short amount of time, however, as they are for the most part sold out. I will try to get some materials for you tomorrow through Theodor Liebnknecht and perhaps at the Rote Fahne. If I am unable to find anything, I will transfer the remaining money to the SPW2 and send you a confirmation of the deposited sum.

     Rosa was in prison almost for the entire duration of the war, alternating between Berlin, Wronke and Wroclaw. While suffering the greatest torment, she consistently sent us instructions from prison. She wrote us letters and sent articles for the Spartacus Letters published during the war. She composed leaflets which the Spartacus League distributed, and she wrote the Junius Pamphlet, in which she took account of the tactics of the Social Democratic Party [SPD]. When the Bolsheviks came to power, she did not approve of their tactics. She wrote a brochure in which she showed the Bolsheviks’ mistakes, but which she never managed to complete. After being among the last prisoners to be released over the course of the November Revolution in 1918, she was initially unable to travel to Berlin because train services were disrupted. Following instructions from Leo Jogiches, I stayed in my apartment and Rosa and I phoned once every couple of hours. It was agreed that we would pick her up by car the next day (10 or 11 Nov). And indeed, a car was retrieved and it set off, only to break down shortly afterwards.

     The cars we had obtained didn’t take us very far, so we abandoned the car plan. Meanwhile, trains were running again, and Rosa had managed to get to my apartment where my mother was. Having arrived, she chatted cheerfully, bathed and refreshed herself. When I arrived at home and found her there – to my surprise – we immediately drove to the Lokal-Anzeiger, a paper our comrades had confiscated and whose editorial offices they had occupied. Here, they produced the new issue of the Rote Fahne. The editorial offices were soon purged of Spartacists by police and government troops, and the hunt for a new print shop began immediately. Rosa bustled around all day and at one point said to me: the Rote Fahne will fly on my grave.” Eventually, the publication Das Kleine Journal agreed to print the Rote Fahne. Offices were rented and work resumed. Rosa almost collapsed under the weight of the work required.

     It was absolutely out of the question for her to go back to live in her apartment at Südende, as many comrades believed they had to stay close together in order to be able to confer at short notice. Hotels became the residence of choice from day one. They marched in like victors and were soon ushered out of the first hotel, the Hotel Excelsior at Anhalter Bahnhof, where they had all lived closely together. Now the daily hunt was for new hotels. Our comrades’ safety became less and less certain starting in the first days of January, and they were forced to go into hiding. Yet the pogrom atmosphere in Berlin was so pervasive that no one actually dared to take Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in. At first they stayed with a doctor (Dr. Bernstein) near Hallesches Tor. They had to leave that place quite abruptly when it appeared that people had noticed they were staying there. They were then brought to a working family. The housewife became very nervous, as there were people visiting all day long – which wasn’t really necessary. When I once came to bring food, the woman said to me: “You see, if you show up with a basket of food, nobody notices. But when people come here every day, of course people are bound to notice that bustling in the ‘courtyard no. 4 staircases’. I’m too scared that something might happen in my home, I don’t want to keep Rosa and Karl here.” I stayed there that evening, while Karl was reading fairy tales to one of their children. We had dinner, then there was a political meeting, and I thought to myself it would surely be better if Karl and Rosa stayed at separate places. When I told Rosa this, she said Karl would not leave her and that she was powerless. She was quite tired of these crazy goings-on with all the people who could have just as well stayed away. I asked Karl to let Rosa stay at a separate place, but he resolutely rejected my proposal. The next day, comrades [Hugo] Eberlein and [Wilhelm] Pieck took Rosa and Karl to an apartment in the Western part of the city, where they were arrested and later murdered.

     You will most likely already be aware of the circumstances of their murder. We all know that comrades Pieck and Eberlein were somewhat careless in the accommodation of Karl and Rosa, yet we later all blamed ourselves for not having intervened.

     Rosa had never given up her dissenting standpoint with regard to the Bolsheviks, including after her release from prison, which led to constant debates with other comrades about her views. If Rosa had secretly arrived in Berlin, without any kind of welcome, Karl Liebknecht – who had been released just a few days before Rosa – was greeted by a large crowd at Anhalter Bahnhof when he disembarked the train from the prison in Luckau. Soldiers dressed in field greys lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him to the waiting car. From his elevated position on their shoulders, Karl called out: “Down with the government! Down with the war!” The car took Karl to the Russian embassy, and a few days later the Russians organised a banquet in his honour. Food was eaten from the crockery of the Tsarist embassy and wine was drunken from the royal goblets, even the table linens (as well as the crockery) featured the initials of the Tsar. To me, this evening seemed like quite a horrific episode. With the exception of the talk by Marchlewski, the speeches that were delivered were all rather meaningless, but everyone felt somewhat elevated. Karl was entirely taken in by the Russians, ready to join them through thick and thin.

     Rosa and Leo Jogiches did not approve of the Russians’ tactics. When Rosa wrote the Spartacus programme (Do you have it?), in which she stipulated that the tactics of the Communist Party of Germany be in line with Marxist principles.

     Next followed the founding conference of the KPD. The larger part of the delegates did not have sufficient clarity, and it was them who pushed for the KPD’s boycott of the elections to the National Assembly. Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Levi, and Leo Jogiches argued against this stance – albeit in vain. Rosa delivered a talk (Do you have it?) on the programme, in which she rejected the delegates’ putschist tacticts and presented a different way forward for the Communist Party. Rosa, Paul and Leo remained isolated, while stupidity and inexperience gained the upper hand, which ultimately cost the lives of Rosa and Karl.


     Leo Jogiches and Rosa Luxemburg were the same age, he had met her as a student in Zurich. At the time, the two young students developed a friendship which would last their entire lives. In Zurich, they had devised the Polish propaganda materials for the Workers’ Party while also publishing reports about the party in the West. Leo immersed himself in the Polish movement and was soon able to speak Polish quite well. The third in the group was Marchlewski who had also studied in Zurich.

     Leo was one of the most gentle and generous people I have ever met. While strict when asking people to carry out their duties, he had a genuinely humane understanding for everyone, except for those who were unwilling to work inside the movement. He never strove for attention, but was rather content, as he said, to be the engine in the background. Rosa did nothing without first asking his advice, which is why they had – always very sophisticated – political consultations almost on a daily basis.

     When Rosa was murdered, Leo was unable to come to terms with her death. He simply stopped caring for his own security, eventually falling into the hands of the White Guard in March of 1919. They arrested him at his apartment in Neukölln and subsequently shot him at the Moabit detention centre during an alleged “escape attempt”.


     I was now living at Rosa’s place and picked her up from the station every evening. She always returned home very tired and exhausted, but always recovered quickly once you gave her something to eat. A cup of hot chocolate or tea represented veritable treasures, which we were only able to obtain via the comrades at the Russian embassy.

     When Rosa laid in bed, she would stretched out, noticeably at ease, and say: “Now I will sleep well after having fulfilled my duties for today.” And she did, often lying in a bit longer in the mornings.


     One evening, after I had already prepared everything, Paul Levi called to ask me to pick Rosa up from the editorial office. I had just missed the train departing at 11 p.m. and had to wait for the one leaving at 11:45 p.m. When I got to Anhalter Bahnhof, Rosa and Paul were already waiting in front of the entrance, Paul said it was very unsafe again, as Rosa could be arrested at the apartment anytime, and I was instructed to accommodate her somewhere else.

     But where could I take her at this hour? With Paul’s help, I found a taxi for Rosa and myself, and we went back to my apartment. I had a fried duck with me which a party comrade had given to us and which my mother had prepared very nicely. While still in the taxi, Rosa said: “Do give me a piece of the duck, I am starving. I know that Leo would say that I should control myself, but give me just a small piece.”

     I am writing down this detail for you, as it appears to me to be so characteristic of the discipline which Leo and Rosa imposed on themselves, as well as their courage to endure deprivations.


1 Julio Álvarez del Vayo (1891–1975) – foreign minister and general, among other things, during the period of the Spanish People’s Front government (1936-1939); he later lived in exile until his death.

2 SPW: Sozialistische Politik und Wirtschaft (“Socialist Politics and Economics”), a correspondence published by Paul Levi from February 1923 until September 1928, whose editor-in-chief was Mathilde Jacob from 1924 onward.


Source: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Archiv der sozialen Demokratie, NL Paul Levi, 1/PLAA000049.

Translated by Zachary Murphy King.