Rosa Luxemburg

Letters from prison


Written: August to December 1918.
Source: See end of each letter.
Translated: Dave Hollis and Mike Jones.
Online Version: Revolutionary History, 1996, 1999.
Transcribed: Revolutionary History, Al Richardson.
HTML Markup: Brian Baggins and Dave Hollis.


To Julian Marchlewski (July–August)
To Stefan Bratman-Brodowski (September)
To Julian Marchlewski (September)
To Adolf Warski (November–December)
To Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (December)


The first three letters were first presented by Feliks Tych in the Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, 27. Jahrgang, September 1996, No.3. The fourth and fifth letters were published in the 6th volume of Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters in German, i.e. Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Briefe, Vol.6, Dietz Verlag 1993. Detailed source information follows each letter.

The first three letters were written at the same time as her article, The Russian Revolution, and can be understood as an extension of and commentary on it. The letters were written while Rosa Luxemburg was in prison in Breslau. The prison regime was such that she was able to her correspondence and articles smuggled out. Nevertheless, it is apparent from their style, i.e. conspirative nature, that she reckoned with them being intercepted or being read by the Soviet legation, who forwarded her letters to their recipients. In fact, Rosa Luxemburg asks directly in one of her letters whether she could write openly express her opinion on what was going on in Russia. Tych comments in his introduction to the letters that this was a dramatic example of how early on revolutionaries began to censure themselves, and that on the basis of a political “control” of their own comrades.

One of the main aspects of the first three letters was her critical attitude to the politics of the Bolsheviks, to the Brest Litovsk Peace treaty and to “revolutionary terror”, i.e. to everything that contradicted the democratic concept of the revolution and Rosa Luxemburg’s own expectations of it. The most important historical point of these letters, however, is that it destroys the legend first put out by Clara Zetkin, most probably in good faith, that Rosa Luxemburg had not planned to publish her article, The Russian Revolution.

Another interesting aspect of these letters is Rosa Luxemburg’s rather deferential attitude to her comrades in the Spartacus group. Interesting information on the group and on Rosa Luxemburg by Mathilde Jacob, Rosa Luxemburg’s secretary and assistant to the Spatacus leadership and later to the KPD centre, was published in December 1988 Issue of the IWK in 1988. A further report based on material made available after 1989 from the central party archive of the SED, published in the IWK December 1993, also makes an excellent read.

For the sake of historical completeness, the remaining two letters provide an interesting background to the activities or Rosa Luxemburg and show how difficult it sometimes is to provide an accurate picture of someone’s views. The fourth letter to Adolf Warski, was first published by Warski in Hamburg in 1922 in a book entitled Rosa Luxemburg’s Position on the Tactical Problems of the Revolution. The content is somewhat problematic because the letter was only related by Warski and not directly translated from the original, and therefore it is not verifiable. The fifth letter expresses Rosa Luxemburg’s greetings to Lenin and expresses her wish that all their wishes for the coming year be fulfilled.

A few words to the translations. The first three letters and the fifth were translated by Dave Hollis, the fourth by Mike Jones. The translations of the first three and the fifth letter were not easy because they all had been translated once already, i.e. from Polish or Russian. I therefore erred on the side of caution and tried to keep as far as people to the original German translation, even if that meant being at the cost of readability. In two cases I saw myself forced to explain why I had translated the way I had. In comparison to the original publication in English I have made a few minor changes to correct mistakes or explain certain aspects more fully.

Dave Hollis

To Julian Marchlewski

Prison in Breslau, end of July or beginning of August 1918

Dear Julek,

Many thanks for the note. I would be immensely happy to receive news regularly. For my part, of course, I can only give you opinions and impressions: because the real state of affairs [in Soviet Russia] only reaches me at third hand, but do you think that I can convey my views to you in this way without constraint?[1] Because I do not know, I do not know the people well enough .... The impression of the latest turn of events is in general abysmal.[2] One would like to abuse the Beki [Bolsheviks] enormously but naturally Rücksichten[3] do not allow that. Perhaps these events do not make such a fatal impression on you over there, in the midst of turmoil, as they do here – perhaps. Inform me with as much detail as possible about what is happening. The spectre of an ‘alliance’ with the ‘Middle Kingdom’ [Germany] seems more and more imminent and that really would be the most terrible disgrace, [in that case] really better to end it all now.

Now an urgent matter: Leo must be got out[4] and they could help tremendously here. The lawyer[5] has in fact filed a formal petition to your people there, so that they can claim L[eo] as their [citizen]. The local representative [Adolf Joffe, the Soviet envoy in Berlin] agrees but the request must come directly from the town where you live [Moscow]. Therefore work on whoever you have to (Jozef [Pseudonym for Feliks Dzierzynski (1877-1926)] should also do this) so that L[eo] is claimed immediately and spare no effort. Leo knows [about it] and is happy. It would be a help to you all!! Please let me know immediately that you have received [my letter] and do what is necessary. See to this matter and with great haste. Enough for today. A warm handshake to you, Bronka and Zoska. [6]

yours, Rosa

Original in Polish.
RZBSDNG, Moscow.
Published by Feliks Tych in
Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung (IWK), September 1991, II.3, p.360.

Notes to this letter

[1] Rosa is asking whether she could convey her fears without problems via the Soviet Legation in Berlin.

[2] Rosa is referring to the terror and stifling of democracy, in particular the arrest and execution of hundreds of Left SRs as “sacrifices to atone” for the attempted coup against Soviet power that began with the murder of the German ambassador, Wilhelm Graf von Mirbach-Harff (6.7.1918) in Moscow. (See Rosa Luxemburg, On the Russian Revolution, Gesammelte Werke, Vol.4, Berlin 1990; Rosa Luxemburg to Luise Kautsky, 25.7.1918 in Gesammelte Briefe, Vol.5, pp.402-404.)

[3] The German word, ‘Rücksichten’, i.e. considerations, was used in the original text

[4] Leo Jogiches was arrested in March 1918 and was in Moabit prison. He was imprisoned for his leading role in printing and circulating appeals against the war amongst the soldiers and organising strikes in munitions factories for which the penalty was death. Like Julian Marchlewski, freed from internment at Havelberg camp through an exchange of prisoners, an attempt was made to free Jogiches in the same way. Jogiches had had Swiss citizenship since 1901 but still held Russian citizenship which was a pre-condition for an exchange. The exchange did not occur.

[5] Oskar Cohn (1869-1934) in Berlin

[6] Bronka is Bronislawa, wife of Julian Marchlewski, Zoska is Sophia, his daughter.

To Stefan Bratman-Brodowski

Prison in Breslau, 3.9.1918

Dear Comrade,

Your note pleased me very much. At last we are gradually beginning to communicate with each other again. When will we, God willing, speak and work with each other again?! ... I see that you also are not wholly enthusiastic about Joz[ef’s] activity.[1] However to ‘advise’ him in the current situation is rather difficult. Firstly, because he has, as one can see, already committed himself very heavily, as is apparently also the case with all our people yonder,[2]and secondly since there is no easy way.[3] Because you understand that it is somewhat disadvantageous in this way, and one must confine oneself to the bare essentials ... Incidentally, I must admit that so far I have not received a single word from Joz[ef] directly and also still not written to him. I am currently writing to all of them in detail, in fact formulating general views. At present one must, alas, constantly show consideration for the desperate situation of the whole affair over there, and that impairs the critique v[ery much]. However, as you will certainly see soon, it is impossible to remain completely silent.[4] Julek [Marchlewski] wrote to me that he is quite fully immersed in the question of food supplies, which is, of course, the most vital matter – in the short term. Neither he nor any other of our people there can change the general political course, they are swimming with the stream which others are controlling, but in reality control is in the hands of fate after the direction taken at Brest ...[5] Thank you for the presents. I am not really badly off for food, think of Leo [Jogiches] instead who needs it very badly. It seems to me that you could now get in touch with him,[6] which would certainly please him a lot. I would prefer regular news rather than food – all kinds: about the Beki, about our people and their work (what you hear about) and also about the situation in Switzerland [everything] which one cannot find out from the press. I am very interested in as lively as possible contact with what is going on and it is sometimes most difficult to get information from the (geographically) nearest sources,[7] partly because there are only a few people and they are terribly busy, but mostly because they are fools and day-dreamers (I am referring to the Germans).

On what terms are our people now with the left PPS?[8] Something surprises me: at the beginning of the war inasmuch as I spoke to Walecki,[9] it seemed to me that there were almost no differences (between us and them), I thought that the war situation would even hasten a convergence. Meanwhile comrades from Poland (or also from Russia) write to me that they have drifted apart from the Left [PPS] who are completely disorientated. What do you know about it.[?] In any case, give my greetings to Walecki.

Stand your ground, till we meet again at work! A warm handshake.


It would also interest me if you could supply me with interesting items being published in Switzerland when it is convenient.

I would like to know what role Robert Grimm,[10] the Nationalrat,[11] is playing at present. Can one still count on him? How do the Swiss (lefts like Platten & Co) view the politics of the Beki?

Original in Polish.
RZBSDNG, Moscow.
Published by Feliks Tych in Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeitebewegung (IWK), September 1991, II.3, p.360.

Notes to this letter

[1] In 1930 Brodowski indicated in a note that “by ‘Joz’ Rosa Luxemburg referred not just to Jozef [Dzierzynski] but to all the Polish comrades [in Russia] and the whole Bolshevik Party.”

[2] Rosa refers to the Polish Social Democrats who were in Russia and who had supported the revolution. They were mostly political prisoners freed by the February Revolution but cut off from Poland by the German front line. Many of them took important positions in the government, party, army and diplomacy.

[3] The only means of contact was through the Soviet Legation in Berlin. When Rosa Luxemburg refers to contact “in this way” she indicates that she does not feel free to speak as openly as she would wish. See Note 2 in the first letter.

[4] RL was working at that time on the manuscript of On the Russian Revolution. (see Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, Vol.4, pp.332-65.)

[5] In Brest-Litovsk a peace treaty dictated by the central powers was signed on 3 March 1918 by their representatives and those of the Soviet government. The treaty laid down the cession of Lithuania, Courland, Poland, Batum and Kars from Soviet Russia; the recognition of Finland and the Ukraine as independent states; the maintenance of German military government in the occupied areas until a general peace; the recognition of the peace treaty between the Central Powers and the Ukrainian Rada by Soviet Russia; the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Ukraine, Estonia, Livonia and Finland; and a return to the diplomatic and commercial relationships established by the Russo-German Treaty of 1904. Soviet Russia lost a million square kilometres of territory and a population of 46 million, its most valuable source of grain, almost all its oil resources, 90% of its coal and 54% of its industry. When the Central Powers were defeated seven months later, Russia regained the territory. (See The Russian Tragedy in Gesammelte Werke, Vol.4, pp.385-392)

[6] Probably via Mathilde Jacob, RL’s secretary.

[7] Probably a reference to the Berlin Spartacus group comrades.

[8] The Left PPS originated when the PPS in Russian Poland split in 1906. The right-wing of the PPS then set up its own party under Jozef Pilsudski. Shortly before the outbreak of war fusion negotiations between the two groups were well advanced. Bratman-Brodowski led the negotiations on behalf of Social Democracy. The fusion finally came about in mid-December 1918 when both founded the Communist Party of Poland.

[9] Maksymilian Horwitz-Walecki (1877-1937) a key left PPS leader who discussed with RL the fusion of the two Polish Parties at Berlin in 1914 and 1915.

[10] Robert Grimm (1881-1958) Chairman of the Swiss Social Democracy and from 1911 a deputy in the National Assembly. During WW1 he led the International Socialist Commission in Berne (i.e. the Zimmerwald movement.)

[11] ‘Nationalrat’ is the German word for a Swiss National Deputy. Why Rosa Luxemburg wished to stress this is unknown.

To Julian Marchlewski

Prison in Breslau, 30.9.1918

Dear Julek,

Many thanks for the note, greetings and information. I know that Leo’s [Jogiches] case is difficult[1] but every effort must be made. I am counting on you and Joz[ef]. – NB: I have learnt from Bronka’s [Marchlewska] letter to someone else that some malicious rumours about L[eo] have even penetrated as far as your place of residence. At the time, L[eo] wrote to me about it, I sent an appropriate letter to that crazy fool Led[er],[2] who is the source [of the rumours], in which I demanded either proof or a public retraction (i.e. in front of witnesses). L[eo], as you know him, of course confiscated the letter; he did not want to “wallow in filth”. It turns out that one should not allow such things to go unpunished. I can now formally demand a tribunal from Led[er] in which I would choose the ambassador[3] as arbiter so that Led[er] provides an explanation or solemnly withdraws [the accusations]. Inform me immediately to what extent you think that suitable or what else could be done.

Your situation as you describe it appears just the same to me from afar. A dire situation. It is clear that under such conditions, i.e. on every side gripped by the imp[erialists], neither soc[ialism] nor the dictatorship of the prol[etariat] can be achieved but at most a caricature of both. However, I fear that these things are only clear to you, me and a few others. On the other hand, I fear that Jozef has been carried away [if he believes] that one can fill the economic and political void by vigorously tracking down ‘conspiracies’ and by murdering ‘conspirators’. The idea of Radek e.g. of “slaughtering the bourgeoisie” or even just a threat in this sense,[4] is certainly idiocy summo grado; only a compromising of soc[ialism], nothing more. Then the official articles in Izvestia[5] and Vechernia Izv[estia] on the occasion of the ‘codicil’ to [the] Brest[-Litovsk Peace Treaty], were already a downright scandal. That is not incompetence and sloppiness, as you say, but misleading public opinion. Schünfürberei trotz eines Norddeutschen![6] For me it is a symptom of how far the Beki government has been thrown off course since Brest. Their whole foreign policy since Brest makes a most equivocal impression. For example, Jozef’s latest ‘masterpiece’: the constant discovery of Anglo-French conspiracies[7] and his appeal to the ‘civilised world’, only give rise to an ironic shrug of the shoulders in view of the question: well, what about the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic States?[8] On account of this crazy behaviour,[9] in comparison with which the Anglo-French conspiracies are a trifle, did you not then manage to open your gobs, did you not then appeal to the civilised world? This one-sidedness of the policy since Brest – the boundless submissiveness regarding the atrocities of one side and the loud cries over the crazy behaviour[10] of the other – undermines any moral authority of the policy and makes it nolens volens into a tool of one of the two camps. I know the reason for this is the complete military helplessness, but in that case just be passive towards both sides. Or if one after all must takes sides then at least not for the wrong one! ...

Here the work has gone to the dogs since L[eo’s] illness.[11] They are all sissies[12] and, in addition, still have no ‘time’, particularly if the work is not paid for in cash. They have time for the ‘work’ in the embassy[13] – sheer silliness, nothing more – since it is well paid. But the paper and the leaflets, for which a tumultuous demand exists, must be written solely by Maciej Rozga,[14] no one else wants to lift a finger. Neither is there time for writing reasonable information about the situation for Maciej, one has to make it up off the top of one’s head or get it from the cables of the WTB.[15] But what can one say, you know these people. No doubt dreadful things have to happen before these people stir themselves. However, slowly it looks that way. The scandal of the soc[ialists] is complete if again guns – this time American – [and] not the action of the proletariat dictate the peace. Nevertheless, perhaps something will move under the influence of events. Four week[s] ago[16] it looked like great events in the Rhineland but naturally our fools achieved nothing politically and the strike fell apart.

Do write often, we really must stay in contact. I also had a message from Florian.[17] Do write to me about Wesoly, [18] how his health is, how he looks and what he is doing. Kindest regards to Bronka and a request for news. A thousand greetings to all our brave Polish lads. Keep well! Always put letters to me in a sealed envelope!


What is the matter with Adolf?[19] Where is he? Have you any contact with him?

Original in Polish.
RZBSDNG, Moscow.
Published by Feliks Tych in Internationale wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeitebewegung (IWK), September 1991, II. 3, p.363-66.

Notes to this letter

[1] The direct cause of Jogiches imprisonment in March 1918 was his leading role in printing and distributing anti-war material amongst the troops and the organising of strikes in January 1918 in various armaments factories for which the death penalty could be imposed. The German authorities were probably not keen to allow his departure for the Soviet Russia in an exchange of prisoners.

[2] Wladyslaw Leder (1880-1938). A leading figure in the SDKPiL. The nature of these accusations is unknown.

[3] Adolf Joffe.

[4] A reference to Radek’s article The Red Terror in Izvestia, no.192, 6.9.1918, p.1. On 2.9.1918 the All-Russian Central Executive Committee had announced that the government would respond to any attack upon a Soviet representative with “red terror against the native bourgeoisie and its agents”, and would take hostages from “among the bourgeoisie” to be shot as a reprisal for any murdered Soviet representative.

[5] Report of the People Commissar for Foreign Affairs, G.V. Chicherin, at the session of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee about the Russo-German supplementary treaty of 2.9.1918, published in Izvestia, no.190, 4.9.1918. Three supplements to the original treaty were agreed in Berlin between Russia and Germany on 27.8.1918, the last of which pledged Russia to pay out 6 million marks in various forms to Germany, a heavy burden considering the state of the country. Soviet organs particularly Izvestia embellished the circumstances.

[6] In English, “Embellishment in spite of a North German.” The significance of this reference is unknown.

[7] This refers not just to Dzierzynski personally but to the whole Soviet Government. The so-called ‘Lockhart conspiracy’ was one example.

[8] Rosa’s criticism regarding the territories abandoned by Soviet Russia is taken up in her critical essay written in 1918 and reflects her position on the National Question.

[9] The word used in the German text, Fatzkereien, is a derivative that is not usually to be found in a German dictionary. The word stems from Fatzke, Berlin dialect for a stuck-up twit. Literally, Fatkereien would be the activities of stuck-up twits. In the Berlin region the word is synonymous with Spinnereien, i.e. crazy behaviour.

[10] See the previous footnote.

[11] She refers here to the imprisonment of Jogiches from March 1918.

[12] The German word used,Waschlappen, can be translated a number of ways. The word also means softies or cowards. Each of these possibilities could be correct in this context.

[13] The Soviet Embassy in Berlin.

[14] One of RL’s Polish pseudonyms. The reference is to the Spartacus-Briefe and leaflets.

[15] Wolffs Telegraphenbüro.

[16] In the summer of 1918, not only in the Ruhr region but in other industrial regions of Germany, a great strike wave broke out in protest against the drastic deterioration in living standards and the continuation of the war.

[17] Stefan Bratman-Brodowski’s pseudonym in the SDKPiL.

[18] Bronislaw Wesolowski (1870-1919) a cofounder with Rosa Luxemburg and Marchlewski of Polish Social-Democracy. In tsarist prisons (1894-1903) and (1908-1917). Liberated by the February Revolution. 1917-1918 a member of the Bolshevik Party secretariat. Led the Soviet Red Cross mission to Warsaw in late 1918 to negotiate POW exchanges. Murdered by the Polish Military Police on the return journey.

[19] Adolf Warski (1868-1937). Together with Rosa Luxemburg and Marchlewski he belonged to secret socialist circles in Warsaw in the latter 1880s. A cofounder of Polish Social Democracy of which he was a leader. A leader of the CP of Poland. Murdered in 1937 on Stalin’s orders along with the rest of the CPP leadership

To Adolf Warski

Berlin, end of November, start of December

When our party (in Poland) is full of enthusiasm for Bolshevism and at the same time (in a secretly printed pamphlet) has come out against both the Bolsheviks’ Brest peace and their agitation with the slogan of ‘national self-determination’ then it is enthusiasm coupled with a critical spirit – what more could we desire! I too shared all your reservations and doubts but on the most important questions have dropped them and in many cases have not gone as far as you. Terrorism certainly indicates weakness but it is aimed at internal enemies who build their hopes on the existence of capitalism outside Russia and receive support and encouragement from there. If a European revolution comes, then the Russian counter-revolutionaries will not only lose their support but – what is more important – their courage too. In other words the Bolshevik terror is, above all, an expression of the weakness of the European proletariat. Indeed the agrarian relationships [in Russia] which have been established are the most dangerous, the sorest point of the Russian revolution. But here too the truth holds good – that even the greatest revolution can only accomplish what development has ripened. This sore point too can only be healed through the European revolution. And this is coming! ...

Original in Polish.
Related by Adolf Warski in Rosa Luxemburg’s Position on the Tactical Problems of the Revolution, Hamburg 1922, pp.6/7.

To Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

[Berlin] 20 December 1920

My dearest Vladimir,

I am making use of the journey of uncle[1] to send you all warmest greetings from our family, [The Spartakusbund] from Karl [Liebnecht], Franz [Mehring] and the others. May God grant that the coming year will fulfil all our wishes.

All the best!

Uncle will tell you about our circumstances and activities. In the meantime I press your hands and send you my greetings.


Original in Russian.
RZBSDNG, Moscow (copy).
Published in Pravda, 2 February 1919.

Note to this letter

[1] Eduard Fuchs (1870-1940) was instructed by the headquarters of the Spartakusbund to get directly in touch with Lenin and other influential representatives of the RCP(B) and the Soviet state. He offered his services because during the war he had met Lenin several times in Switzerland, had his confidence and had been entrusted by the Soviet government with the function of Civil Commissioner for the Russian prisoners of war in Germany. Using this mission he travelled to Soviet Russia where he spoke with Lenin between the 26th & 28th December in Moscow. Edward Fuchs handed over the letter and draft programme written by Rosa Luxembourg entitled What does the Spartacusbund Want?

Last updated on: 20.12.2008