Wilhelm Liebknecht Was the Leader of German Socialism in Its Heroic Age

Wilhelm Liebknecht took part in Germany’s failed revolution of 1848 and became a close ally of Karl Marx in exile. He went on to lead the Social Democratic Party, which defied state repression to become the world’s most formidable working-class movement.

Fifty thousand people are said to have attended the funeral of German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826–1900) at Friedrichsfelde Cemetery in Berlin. (Jens Kalaene / Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Wilhelm Liebknecht died of a stroke on August 7, 1900. The night before, he had been working as usual in his office in the editorial rooms of the socialist newspaper Vorwärts until after midnight.

His funeral five days later was attended by fifty thousand people. The mourners accompanied the procession from the middle of Berlin to the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery on the city’s eastern outskirts, where his grave can still be seen today, not far from that of his son Karl, the cofounder of Germany’s Communist Party, who was murdered in January 1919.

The German labor movement was not alone in mourning the news of Liebknecht’s death. Condolences came from throughout the Socialist International, of which Liebknecht had been such a committed advocate.

Sometimes known as the “soldier” of the socialist movement, Liebknecht had been a fighter for socialism and democracy from the 1848 revolutions to the very end of the nineteenth century, by which time he had helped to make the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) into a thriving mass party.

The Spirit of ’48

Born in 1826 in the small Hessian town of Giessen, Wilhelm Liebknecht enthusiastically absorbed the radical ideas that were beginning to circulate during his time as a university student in the 1840s. Such influences ranged from Ludwig Feuerbach’s human-centered philosophy to Friedrich Engels’s radical reportage on the state of the English working class.

When revolution broke out in Paris in February 1848, Liebknecht, who by then was working for a newspaper in the Grand Duchy of Baden in Germany’s southwest, hastened to the scene. He had already witnessed the civil war in Switzerland a few months earlier, which saw the defeat of the conservative league of Catholic cantons.

While in France, Liebknecht joined the German legion, led by the radical exiled poet Georg Herwegh, which sought to bring about a democratic republic in Baden through armed insurrection. Liebknecht took part in the second Baden uprising, which collapsed in September 1848. After narrowly escaping execution, he was incarcerated in Freiburg for eight months.

This was to be the first of no fewer than sixteen terms of imprisonment, adding up to six years in total, for Liebknecht during his lifetime. He was put in jail for the last time in 1897–98, serving four months for the crime of insulting Germany’s monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Many hundreds of German socialists were sent to jail for the same offense during the 1890s, and no exception was made for Liebknecht, who was then in his seventies.

The third Baden uprising, part of a broad popular democratic campaign to create a constituent assembly for a German republic, freed Liebknecht in May 1849. The Badenese army went over to the side of the insurgents, and it took massive military intervention from outside the state, led by Prussia, to suppress the democratic movement, in which Liebknecht again fought. With the crushing of the democratic movement in Baden, Liebknecht was detained once more, this time briefly.

Exile and Return

Like many German radicals after the failure of the revolutions of 1848–49, Liebknecht went into exile, joining the leaders of the League of Communists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in London. Marx and Engels had been active in the radical democratic movement in the Rhineland during the revolution.

Liebknecht lived in England for thirteen years, becoming one of the leaders of the German radical community there, as well as a close associate of Marx and Engels. Marx’s daughters nicknamed him “Library” because of the number of times he ran errands for Marx, typically bringing him books and other reading matter.

From the ages of twenty-four to thirty-seven, Liebknecht led the precarious life of a political exile, getting by with journalistic piecework and tutoring as well as by borrowing money. Marx tried to tutor Liebknecht in socialist theory. Although Marx and Engels were often dismissive of Liebknecht’s grasp of theoretical issues, they benefitted from his wide contacts among German and other European radical circles.

In 1862, Liebknecht returned to Germany, where political life was starting to emerge from the deep freeze of repression that had characterized the decade after 1848–49. Liebknecht was offered a position with the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (North German General News) by a fellow ’48 radical, August Brass. However, he left the paper when he discovered that it was secretly serving the interests of the arch-reactionary Prussian premier Otto von Bismarck.

Liebknecht was also suspicious of the degree to which the first leader of a new social democratic workers’ party, Ferdinand Lassalle, was willing to collaborate with Bismarck. Lassalle’s successor, J. B. von Schweitzer, also followed this pro-Prussian policy. Liebknecht’s own agitation against Bismarck resulted in his deportation from Berlin in 1865.

He then moved to Leipzig in Saxony, which was becoming a key center of working-class organization. The day after Liebknecht arrived in Leipzig, he made the acquaintance of August Bebel, a woodturner fourteen years his junior, who was the chairman of the Leipzig chapter of the Federation of German Workers’ Associations (VDAV). It was the beginning of an extraordinarily fruitful political partnership that endured for the rest of Liebknecht’s life.

The Eisenachers

Bebel and Liebknecht forged links with southern German democratic circles and sought to construct an alliance between South German democrats and workers’ associations in Saxony and elsewhere. Opposed to the threat of the German states coming under the leadership of Prussia, which was dominated by Bismarck and the reactionary Junker aristocracy, the VDAV advocated a more federal and democratic solution to the German national question under the influence of Bebel and Liebknecht.

Until 1869, Liebknecht and Bebel were active in the South German People’s Party, a party led by bourgeois democrats opposed to Prussian domination of a united German state. At the same time, they sought to align workers’ groups in Saxony and southern Germany with the International Workingmen’s Association — later known as the First International — and to promote the ideas of Karl Marx in the nascent German workers’ movement.

Liebknecht and Bebel abandoned this straddling act between cross-class coalitions with middle-class democrats and “greater German” federalists, on the one hand, and promotion of the First International, on the other, when they founded the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in a pub in Eisenach, in Germany’s southeast, in 1869. They now had a workers’ party that was a direct rival to the Lassallean General German Workers’ Association (ADAV).

The party’s newspaper was called Der Volksstaat (The People’s State). It was a successor to the Democratic Weekly that Liebknecht had previously edited. The new paper’s title reflected the party’s goal of a “free people’s state.”

Within a year of the SDAP’s founding, the party was confronted with the challenge of war with France, the third war that Bismarck had contrived to bring about within just seven years. The leaders of the SDAP believed that it was necessary to put an end to the rule of the French Emperor, Napoleon III, and declared their solidarity with French workers.

At the same time, as delegates to the North German Reichstag, Bebel and Liebknecht abstained from voting for war credits for the war against France on the grounds that it was a purely dynastic conflict. They were the only delegates in the interim German parliament to refuse to endorse the war credits, declining to show support for either Napoleon or Bismarck.

“I Deny Nothing”

After the defeat of Napoleon III’s forces at Sedan in September 1870, his surrender, and the proclamation of a French republic, Bebel and Liebknecht led the opposition to a continuation of the war, voting against a second round of war credits in November 1870.

Most German social democrats of both parties who had initially seen the war as a defensive war against Napoleon — a position endorsed by Marx and Engels — now fell in behind Bebel and Liebknecht in opposing what had now become a war of conquest against the nascent French republic.

Within a few weeks of their vote against the war credits, Liebknecht and Bebel were arrested for high treason, along with their colleague on the Volksstaat Adolf Hepner. Despite the treason charges hanging over his head, Liebknecht used his newspaper to express strong support for the Paris Commune of 1871.

The high treason trial took place in Dresden in March 1872. Accused of hostile acts against the Kingdom of Saxony and the other states of the newly founded German Reich, Liebknecht was defiant. Addressing the judges and the jury, Liebknecht stated:

I do not deny my past, nor my principles and convictions. I deny nothing, and conceal nothing. . . . I say it here freely and openly: since I have been able to think, I have been a republican, and I will die as a republican.

Liebknecht concluded his speech by describing himself as a “soldier of the revolution.” The jury, which included one aristocratic landowner and seven merchants, found Bebel and Liebknecht guilty of treason. They were sentenced to two years’ fortress imprisonment at Hubertusburg in Saxony. This was the longest of Liebknecht’s many jail terms.

After Bebel and Liebknecht were released in 1874, they were able to exercise an influence on the terms of unification of the two socialist parties to form the SPD at the Gotha unification congress the following year. Marx famously subjected the Gotha program to a withering critique. The program reflected not only the need for compromise between Lassalleans and the SDAP but also the sketchy state of understanding of socialist theory among many protagonists on both sides.

Bismarck’s Nemesis

This state of confusion over theory was to change during the twelve years during which Bismarck banned the SPD. This anti-socialist law was an unsuccessful attempt to stem the continuous growth of the party’s support from German workers and its constantly improving election results. During the years of illegality, Liebknecht took responsibility for direction of the party newspaper Der Sozialdemokrat, which was published in exile in Zurich and later London.

Despite being a member of the Reichstag for most of the period from 1874 to his death, with a short interruption in 1887–88, Liebknecht was repeatedly banned from living in cities like Berlin, Leipzig, and Frankfurt am Main under the anti-socialist law. He was also imprisoned five times for offenses such as insulting government officials and members of the Reichstag and authoring a socialist pamphlet.

Liebknecht had the satisfaction of witnessing the end of Otto von Bismarck’s political career in 1890, the year in which the anti-socialist law expired. The party could now organize legally again, although it was still subject to police harassment.

Liebknecht held many roles in the party, including that of editor in chief of the party paper, Vorwärts. His tenure in this role was not free from conflicts with the party executive and the editorial staff of the paper, and the paper was regularly the subject of critical debate at SPD congresses.

Liebknecht had reason to grumble that democratic governance was not always easy. Yet he remained committed throughout his life to the goal of a more democratic society, continuing to uphold the principles that he had fought for in 1848–49.

Liebknecht was an advocate of education for workers, presiding over the founding of a school for workers’ education in Berlin in 1891. He always insisted that educational work should serve the political emancipation of the working class and not become a substitute for it, as had been the case for religious or liberal workers’ educational associations in the 1860s and ’70s.

An Elder Statesman

As he became something of an elder statesman of the German and European socialist movement, Liebknecht more often than not was conciliatory and inclusive in his dealings with social democrats of diverging views. He showed a strong commitment to maintaining the hard-won unity of the socialist labor movement.

However, as his police record demonstrates, he never ceased to take an intransigent and defiant stance toward the ruling powers of the imperial German state. Liebknecht’s death in the first year of the new century meant that he was not involved in the bitter conflicts that would rend the German workers’ movement with the outbreak of war in 1914.

Liebknecht could scarcely have imagined that the majority of the SPD would support another war of conquest from 1914 to 1918 or predicted the profound split in the labor movement that followed. Nor could he have foreseen the murder of his own son Karl by right-wing troops in the service of the leadership of the party he had worked so hard to build.