In the middle of a long, leisurely stroll through the glorious summery idyll of Tiergarten on Sunday, Christian, Simon and I came across a rather bombastic monument. A few hours earlier I had asked if anyone knew where it was that Rosa Luxemburg had been killed. Suddenly we were confronted with her name shooting out of the water like a comet. A plaque described how on the night of January 15th, 1919 Rosa and her German communist party cofounder Karl Liebkniecht were captured, tortured and then brought to Tiergarten. Karl was shot and dumped into Neuer See where we had just been enjoying ourselves at a beautiful beer garden. Rosa was thrown dead or almost dead into the Landwehrkanal pictured above.
The story goes on. Because it was winter when these murders occurred, Rosa’s body was not recovered until June 1st when the ice on the canal melted. She was brought to Charité hospital for an autopsy and then buried in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery. Thirty-three revolutionaries, including Karl Liebknicht had been buried there earlier that year. In 1926, Mies Van der Rohe built a memorial in the cemetery for the fallen Socialists and it quickly became a pilgrimage point for many during the Weimar Years -even spurring an “LLL Week,” when Germans honored the Lenin-Liebknicht-Luxemburg triumvirate. In 1935, Nazis destroyed Van der Rohe’s monument and much of the cemetery. In 1950, the East German government scouring war-torn Berlin for any remaining evidence of their party’s fiery beginnings, exhumed many of the Frederichsfelde grave sites. Karl Liebknicht’s body was found in place but Rosa’s grave was mysteriously empty.
Fast forward to 2009 -Michael Tsokos, head of Charité’s Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences department finds a corpse in the hospital’s Museum of Medical History that he believes to be the real Rosa -a waterlogged female body without a head, hands or feet that carbon-dated 90 years old. Witnesses to Rosa’s murder said that weights were tied to her hands and feet before she was thrown in the canal and months of being underwater might have caused those extremities to become unattached from her body. Further examination shows that the woman was 40 -50 years old when she died and that one leg was longer than the other. Rosa was 47 when she was killed and walked with a limp due to osteoarthritis. Bone testing on the cadaver reveals signs of starvation, which could have been caused during Rosa’s three-year imprisonment during WWI. Tsokos points out that none of these identifying features were described in the original autopsy report, even the head injuries -even though Rosa had supposedly been hit in the head by a rifle butt that dark night.
The true proof however would be a DNA test, which was run against a surviving relative -Irene Borde, the granddaughter of Rosa’s brother Josef. The 79 year old Israeli chopped off a lock of her hair and sent it to Berlin. With such a distant relative and decayed body, Tsokos warned that chances of identification where only 60-70%. In the meantime, the public begins to doubt his intentions. Tsokos seems to lavish in the limelight of the media attention surrounding his possible discovery and he even signs a book deal to publish his work. His colleagues express more and more skepticism that the body is Rosa’s, pointing out that she was widely worshiped in the GDR. If there had been any chance at all that she was still at Charité -East Germany’s largest and most important hospital, she would certainly have been discovered during that era.
The frustrating ending to the story is that the results of the DNA test are inconclusive. Charité doctors announce that even Irene’s hair was not collected according to the medical protocol required to provide true, accurate results (Tsokos should have had professionals collect the sample, for example). In 2010, historian Annelies Laschitza and author/director Klaus Gietinger dig deeper into the Charité archives, finding new documentation relating to the original autopsy in 1919: a gold medallion, blue velvet dress and stockings were among the articles that lead to Rosa’s friends giving the body a positive ID. But Tsokos won’t blink. In addition to the inconsistencies of the autopsy, he says that the heated political atmosphere of the day pressured authorities to quickly identify and bury the revolutionary to avoid any sensationalism. Therefore, he believes any contemporary documents will only reflect the official version of events -not the truth of what really happened.
People apparently still flock to to Rosa Luxemburg’s empty grave in Friederichsfelde every January 15th. Her name still graces many places in Berlin and pops up in today’s political discourse as an untarnished icon of strength and intelligence. And across the pond in New York City, ninety-three years later a new Rosa is born. May she enjoy all the stories and mysteries of life that our strange history on this planet has given us!