Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

This 50-Year-Old Film from East Germany Shows the Last Days of Karl Liebknecht

Karl Liebknecht was murdered 103 years ago. The East German biopic “In Spite of Everything” premiered 50 years ago today and shows his final days.

Nathaniel Flakin

January 14, 2022
Facebook Twitter Share
Karl Liebknecht addressing a crowd in Trotz Alledem from a movie.

Originally published in Exberliner.

Last Sunday, thousands of people marched to the graves of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The two founders of the Communist Party of Germany were assassinated 103 years ago, but people still come out with red carnations and red flags to remember them. It is hard to think of another historical figure whose death still moves so many people — except for that one Palestinian cult leader, of course.

Rosa Luxemburg is more popular than ever, with films and graphic novels about her life. To learn more about Karl Liebknecht and his final days, I’d recommend a great film made during the German Democratic Republic. Trotz Alledem! (In Spite of Everything) had its premiere exactly 50 years ago, on January 13, 1972. The two-hour film is available for free on Youtube with English subtitles. 

The East German film studio DEFA has a mixed reputation. The two-part biopic about Communist Party chairman Ernst Thälmann (1954-55), for example, is remembered as groan-inducing Stalinist hagiography. Every single scene shows Thälmann saving the day (and getting praised for doing so). The director himself later admitted that parts of the film were “absolutely unwatchable.”

The Liebknecht biopic, however, shows that the GDR had liberalised by the 1970s. We are shown a revolutionary hero, but one who struggles with doubt and suffers defeats. The film’s most impressive set-piece shows the assembly at Circus Busch. (The giant circus hall stood on the banks of the Spree next to Hackescher Markt, in a triangle now called James-Simon-Park.) On November 10, 1918, 4,000 workers and soldiers gathered here to decide on the further course of the revolution. We see Liebknecht arguing passionately to push the revolution forward and expropriate the capitalists. But he loses the big fight. The social democrats outflank him with cynical manoeuvres, and he gets booed off the stage. Leaving the hall, Liebknecht is almost in a trance, and later searches for arguments to win over the masses of workers.

Some might see this as a cliché: brave communists vs. evil reformists.  But I am a historian of the German November Revolution of 1918-19, and I can confirm that this film sticks to the facts, almost to a fault. SPD leaders like Friedrich Ebert and Philip Scheidemann really were conspiring behind closed doors with right-wing military officers. As the record shows beyond any doubt, they ordered the most infamous assassination of the 20th century.

Like many Eastern Bloc productions, a lack of funding is compensated with a surplus of labor. The assembly, for example, was recreated with thousands of East German extras yelling, cheering, and booing. 

Liebknecht famously proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic from a balcony at Berlin’s City Palace. In 1972, of course, the building was no longer there: after heavy damage in the war, the ruins were carted away in 1950. The producers were able to show this scene using clever editing to make it look like the palace was still standing.

Today, that ugly palace has been rebuilt, and you can see a brand-new copy of the balcony where Liebknecht stood (Portal IV). Prussian nostalgists would have us believe that the palace was destroyed by communists. This film recalls the historical truth: the first people to bomb the palace were monarchist troops under the command of the SPD, who were attempting to to kill the revolutionary sailors quartered inside. This makes the funniest scene in Trotz Alledem!: As the reactionaries fire machine guns into the palace, destroying the paintings on the walls, one sailor laughs: “Good thing our Kaiser is no longer around to see this!”

The film is not free of censorship. Comrades of Liebknecht who took on leading roles in the GDR, such as Wilhelm Pieck and Hermann Duncker, are elevated, while figures like Richard Müller make no appearance. In 1918, everyone talked about the leaders of the Russian Revolution as “Lenin and Trotsky” — but the latter name is absent.

This is a marvelous biopic. See if you can hold back the tears when Liebknecht climbs into a carriage destined to take him to his doom. The story was so well known to history that the director felt no need to show it. When thousands of workers at the funeral procession begin singing “Auf auf zum Kampf”, it feels just as relevant as 50 or 103 years ago.

Movies today tend to ask the question: “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” So we all need a film showing working people who try to change the world. Let me give the last words to the working-class mother played by Erika Dunkelmann who takes Luxemburg and Liebknecht into hiding. Why does she risk her life: “It’s no life to let things go on as they’re going.” Hear, hear!

Facebook Twitter Share

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

Instagram

Europe

Striking airline workers in uniforms and yellow vests at Munich’s airport on July 27.

Lufthansa Strike in Germany Brings Air Traffic to a Standstill

A one-day warning strike at German airports has demonstrated the power of the workers. Now it’s time to extend the struggle.

Marco Helmbrecht

July 28, 2022
Several Lufthansa airplanes on the tarmac in Munich, Germany in March 2020.

Lufthansa Workers Strike over Wages

Today, ground workers for the German airline Lufthansa are striking for wage increases and better working conditions. On Tuesday, a similar strike took place at the airport in Lyon, France.

The Mediterranean Sea Hits 86ºF — 10ºF Higher than Expected

Massive evaporation, torrential rains, prolonged extreme humid heat, and dying marine life — these are among the consequences of this summer’s heat wave as the waters of the Mediterranean Sea reach record levels.

Pedro Vantas

July 27, 2022
A firefighter in Gironde, France, stands in front of a raging wildfire.

Climate Crisis in Europe: Here We Tread upon a Spark

Europe has been struck with a deadly heatwave, with temperatures exceeding 40°C (104°F). We need a radical ecological transition out of this catastrophe.

Antoine Ramboz

July 22, 2022

MOST RECENT

Brazilan President Jair Bolsonaro, seen in Brasilia, Brazil in April.

Against Bolsonaro’s Coup and Reforms — For Demonstrations and Strikes without Bankers and Businessmen

Left Voice’s co-thinkers in Brazil answer a cynical class-collaborationist effort to channel Brazil’s working-class discontent into the election campaign of Lula’s Broad Front ticket. The latter represents the interests of the bourgeoisie and bosses who are tired of Bolsonaro and his threats of a coup should he lose his reelection bid.

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks at a podium with arms wide open as President of the Republic of China Tsai Ing-Wen looks on.

Pelosi in Taiwan: A Risky Provocation for Imperialism

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has made the bad Washington-Beijing relationship worse. What was her purpose?

André Barbieri

August 3, 2022

Tension in Taiwan and the Dispute over Global Hegemony

Without clear objectives, Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan seems more like a provocation than a strategic calculation. Her trip could trigger a major international crisis involving the United States and China, with the contest for world hegemony as a backdrop.

Claudia Cinatti

August 3, 2022

In a Backlash Against Dobbs, Kansas Votes Overwhelmingly to Protect Abortion

Kansans have overwhelmingly voted to protect abortion rights in their state. This is a huge rejection of the anti-democratic Dobbs decision by the tyrannical Supreme Court.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

August 2, 2022