Karl Liebknecht

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Liebknecht, Karl


Born Aug. 13, 1871, in Leipzig; died Jan. 15, 1919, in Berlin. Prominent figure in the German and international workers’ movements. One of the founders of the Communist Party of Germany. The son of W. Liebknecht.

Karl Liebknecht was a lawyer by profession. He was educated at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin. In 1900 he joined the Social Democratic Party. In 1904 in a German court he defended Russian and German Social Democrats accused of illegally transporting Social Democratic literature across the border into Russia. In his defense he stigmatized the policy of cruel repression practiced by tsarism and the Prussian-German police state toward revolutionaries. Liebknecht opposed the reformist tactics of right-wing Social Democratic leaders, paying considerable attention to antimilitarist agitation and political work among youth. At the Bremen Congress of the German Social Democratic Party in 1904, Liebknecht characterized militarism as capitalism’s most important pillar. He called for special antiwar propaganda and for the creation of a Social Democratic youth organization to mobilize proletarian youth in the struggle against militarism.

Liebknecht enthusiastically welcomed the Revolution of 1905–07 in Russia. At the Jena Congress of the Social Democratic Party (1905), Liebknecht, in a sharp political clash with the revisionists, defined a general mass political strike as a “specifically proletarian means of struggle.” In 1906 at the Mannheim Congress of the party he denounced German government policy, which strove to assist tsarism in the suppression of revolution. Liebknecht called upon the German proletariat to emulate the example of the Russian workers in their struggle.

A left-wing current developed at this time in German social democracy. Along with R. Luxemburg, Liebknecht became one of its most prominent leaders. He was a founder of the Socialist Youth International (1907), of which he was chairman from 1907 to 1910. At the first international conference of socialist youth organizations, convened in 1907, Liebknecht presented a report on the struggle against militarism. The same year his pamphlet Militarism and Antimilitarism was published; here, for the first time in Marxist literature, Liebknecht thoroughly analyzed the nature of militarism in the imperialist period and theoretically validated the necessity of antimilitarist propaganda as one of the forms of class struggle of the proletariat. Because of this book Liebknecht was sentenced to imprisonment in late 1907. The next year he was elected to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies by the workers of Berlin. In 1912, Liebknecht became a deputy to the German Reichstag. He angrily exposed the bosses of the military industries, who were preparing for world war. In April 1913, from the platform of the Reichstag, Liebknecht referred to the leaders of military monoplies, headed by the “cannon king” Krupp, as warmongers. At the Chemnitz Congress of the party in 1912, Liebknecht called for the strengthening of international proletarian solidarity as a decisive weapon in the struggle against militarism.

After the beginning of World War I, Liebknecht, despite his convictions, bowed to the decision of the Social Democratic members of the Reichstag and on Aug. 4, 1914, voted for war credits. However, immediately recognizing the imperialist nature of the war, he soon corrected his error. Along with R. Luxemburg he fought against the treachery of the opportunist leadership of the party and the Social Democratic group in the Reichstag, defending the interests of the German and international proletariat. On Dec. 2, 1914, Liebknecht cast the sole vote in the Reichstag against war credits. In a statement submitted to the chairman of the Reichstag, Liebknecht characterized World War I as a war of annexation. This statement was then distributed as an illegal leaflet.

In 1915, Liebknecht was drafted into the army and sent to the front. There he continued his struggle, using all opportunities, including the sessions of the Reichstag and the Prussian Chamber of Deputies, which he traveled to Berlin to attend. Liebknecht adopted the Bolshevik slogan to “transform the imperialist war into a civil war...” as V. I. Lenin pointed out, “when he said from the Reichstag tribune: Turn your weapons against your class enemies within the country!’” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 30, pp. 346–47). In the leaflet The Main Enemy Is at Home, issued in May 1915, Liebknecht emphasized that German imperialism was the chief enemy of the German people. In a message to the Zimmerwald Conference, highly praised by Lenin, Liebknecht advanced the slogans: ”Civil war but not a civil peace! Maintain the international solidarity of the proletariat, against the pseudonational, pseudopatriotic harmony of the classes. An international class struggle for peace, for socialist revolution” (Izbr. rechi, pis’ma i start’i, Moscow, 1961, p. 303). In this same message Liebknecht called for the creation of a new international. Lenin referred to Liebknecht as one of internationalism’s best representatives. “Karl Liebknecht,” stated Lenin, “mercilessly attacked not only his own Plekhanovs and Potresovs (Scheidemanns, Legiens, Davids, and Co.), but also his own Centrists, his own Chkheidz̈es and Tseretelis (Kautsky, Haase, Ledebour, and Co.)” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 31, p. 173). Together with Luxemburg he was instrumental in establishing the Spartacus group (January 1916; in November 1918 it was transformed into the Spartacus Union). In January 1916, Liebknecht was expelled from the Social Democratic faction in the Reichstag. From the rostrum of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies, Liebknecht called on the Berlin proletariat to join the demonstrations on May 1, 1916, in Potsdam Square with the slogans “Down with war!” and “Workers of the world, unite!” During the demonstration Liebknecht called for the overthrow of the government, which was conducting an imperialist war. For this bold revolutionary act Liebknecht was arrested and sentenced by a military court to four years and one month in jail. From prison he enthusiastically welcomed the news of the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Liebknecht appealed to German soldiers not to allow themselves to be used as butchers of the Russian Revolution. The kaiserist government, under pressure from the revolutionary masses, was forced to let Liebknecht go in October 1918. When he was freed, the Central Committee of the RCP (Bolshevik) sent him a battle greeting.

Liebknecht once again threw himself into revolutionary activity. He was one of the authors of a leaflet on November 8 summoning German workers to overthrow the government. Along with Luxemburg, Liebknecht organized the newspaper Rote Fahne, the first issue of which appeared on Nov. 9, 1918. He fought to expand the November Revolution of 1918. He energetically opposed the reactionary leaders of German social democracy, pointing out that they wanted to eliminate the German revolution in its embryonic form. He also opposed the center Independent Social Democratic Party, which abetted the reactionaries in their opposition to the revolutionary movement.

The greatest service of Liebknecht and Luxemburg to the German working class was the founding of the Communist Party of Germany (the Constituent Congress was held in Berlin from Dec. 30, 1918, to Jan. 1, 1919), the creation of a revolutionary foundation for a Marxist-Leninist party and for the unity of the German working class. Liebknecht made a valuable contribution to Marxist aesthetics.

Liebknecht’s revolutionary struggle gave rise to rabid hatred among the entire counterrevolutionary camp. The central organ of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the newspaper Vörwarts, openly called for the murder of the leaders of the Communist Party of Germany. A bounty of 100,000 marks was offered for the heads of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. On Jan. 15, 1919, they were arrested and on that same day bestially murdered.

Lenin wrote: “Karl Liebknecht is a name known to the workers of all countries.... It is the symbol of a leader’s devotion to the interests of the proletariat and loyalty to the socialist revolution. It is the symbol of really sincere, really self-sacrificing and ruthless struggle against capitalism. It is the symbol of uncompromising struggle against imperialism not in words but in deeds, of self-sacrificing struggle precisely in the period when ’one’s own’ country is flushed with imperialist victories” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 37, p. 458).


Klassenkampf gegen den Krieg. Berlin, 1919.
Ausgewählte Reden, Briefe und Aufsätze. Berlin, 1952.
Gesammelte Reden und Schriften, vols. 1–9, Berlin, 1958–68; vol. 8, 2nd supplemented ed., 1972; vol. 9, 2nd supplemented ed., 1971.
In Russian translation:
Moi protsess po dokumentam. Petrograd, 1918.
Pis’ma. Petrograd, 1922.
Militarizm i antimilitarizm v sviazi s rassmotreniem internatsional’nogo dvizheniia rabochei molodezhi. Moscow, 1960.
Izbrannye rechi, pis’ma i stat’i. Moscow, 1961.
Mysli ob iskusstve: Traktat, stat’i rechi, pis’ma. Moscow, 1971.


Lenin, V. I. “Zadachi levykh tsimmerval’distov v Shveitsarskoi s.-d. partii.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 30.
Lenin, V. I. “Patsifizm burzhuaznyi i patsifizm sotsialisticheskii.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Chernovoi proekt tezisov obrashcheniia k Internatsional’- noi sotsialisticheskoi komissii i ko vsem sotsialisticheskim partiiam.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Mnimoe ili deistvitel’noe boloto?” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Zadachi proletariata v nashei revoliutsii (Proekt platformy proletarskoi partii).” Ibid., vol. 31.
Lenin, V. I. “Grazhdane! Poimite, v chem sostoiat priemy kapitalistov vsekh stran!” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Rech’ na mitinge protesta protiv ubiistva Karla Libknekhta i Rozy Liuksemburg, 19 ianv. 1919 g.” Ibid., vol. 37.
Lenin, V. I. “Pis’mo k rabochim Evropy i Ameriki.” Ibid.
Pieck, W. Karl Liebknecht: Ein wahrer deutscher Patriot. Berlin, 1961.
Bartel, W. Karl Liebknecht [2nd ed.]. Leipzig, 1971.
Bartel, W. Levye v germanskoi sotsial’-demokratii v bor’be protiv militarizma i voiny. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from German.)
Gintsberg, L. I. K. Libknekht—glashatai proletarskogo internatsionalizma. Moscow, 1971.
Der Hochverratsprozess gegen Karl Liebknecht 1907 von dem Reichsgericht. Berlin, 1957.
Armierungssoldat Karl Liebknecht ist in Untersuchungschaft zu nehmen! Berlin, 1956.
Liebknecht contra Rüstungskapital: Karl Liebknechts Kampf gegen Krupp, Imperialismus und Kriegsgefahr—1913–1914. Berlin, 1961.
Wohlgemuth H. Burgkrieg, nicht Burgfriede! Berlin, 1963.
Kerff, W. Karl Liebknecht 1914 bis 1916: Fragment einer Biographic Berlin, 1967.
Laschitza, A. Deutsche Linke im Kampf für eine demokratische Republik [1909–1910]. Berlin, 1969.
Karl Liebknechts Vermächtnis für die deutsche Nation. Berlin, 1962.
Greulich, E. R. Der anonyme Brief: Ein Liebknecht-Roman. Berlin, 1971.
Rückert, O. Zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung in Reichstagswahlkreis Potsdam-Spandau-Osthavelland (1871–1917) unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Tätigkeit Karl Liebknechts [vols. 1–2]. Potsdam, 1965.
Schumann, E. Wir gingen mit Karl Liebknecht: Erlebnisse aus der Arbeiterjugendbewegung 1908–1918. Berlin, 1960.
(Note: The above is adapted with minor changes from the article in the second edition of Bol’shaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia.)
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.