research > urban > Luxemburg Benjamin Violence
Anthony Auerbach

‘On the empty tomb of Rosa Luxemburg and Walter Benjamin’s critique of violence’, abstract by Anthony Auerbach. The project outlined below stems from my informal paper on Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence‘ and my research for Aerial Reconnaissance Berlin as part of the International Necronautical Society’s Inspectorate in Berlin. It was prompted by the conference Aesthetik der Gewalt organised by Anna Pawlak and Kerstin Schankweiler at the Kunsthistorisches Institut of the Universität zu Köln, 11-12 Jul 2009 and is supposed to appear in the Tagungsband.

Walter Benjamin’s ‘Zur Kritik der Gewalt’ [note 1] appears to be an anomaly for an author best known for his aesthetic writings. The article could have seemed even more incongruous to readers immersed in the ‘contemporary European conditions’ [note 2] whose tumult is barely acknowledged in the text, but whose resonance would hardly have needed amplifying in 1921. Recent commentaries have affirmed the abstract, esoteric (even prophetic) aspects of Benjamin’s essay, while the historical context in which it was written has faded.

Painting the broad historical canvas of Germany in the years following the First World War would certainly highlight the violence of the political and social struggles which erupted when the old regime quit the scene. But such a picture, sensational though it may be, would not amount to a reading of Benjamin’s ‘Kritik’.

For a critique of the aesthetics of violence — that is to say, a critique of the entanglement of violence and its representations — I propose a different history, working backwards from a present particular of our own contemporary conditions as readers, to intersect with Benjamin’s as a writer.

Empty tomb of Rosa Luxemburg

The empty granite sarcophagus inscribed for Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin’s Zentralfriedhof is one of several funeral sites from which her body has absconded. The Gendenkstätte der Sozialisten [note 3], like the monument not far away which announces ‘Auf diesem Fundament stand das Revolutionsdenkmal’ [note 4] — and the Revolutionsdenkmal itself [note 5], which stood at the site where Luxemburg’s empty coffin was first buried in 1919 [note 6] — is an iteration of a cult that compels repetition, not revolution.

There might be some irony in such a cult arising from the lost remains of a political incendiary whose own reflections on violence anticipated something different. But it was Luxemburg’s violent death rather than her literary or political legacy that secured her after-life as martyr and icon. The compulsion associated with her empty tomb suggests the force Benjamin characterised as ‘mythic’ that binds violence to repetition and dooms revolution from the start. Benjamin’s critique moreover prompts a reassessment of Luxemburg’s theory of violence to which it may already be indebted.

What Luxemburg and Benjamin seem to share is shaped not by a critique of violence per se, but by their opposition to the war of 1914–18 and a critique of the romantic and idealist aesthetics that supported it.

‘Remarks on Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence’ ...
Aerial Reconnaissance Berlin...
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  1. Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 47 (1920/21), pp. 809–832. [back to text]
  2. ‘Critique of Violence’ (1921), trans by. Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume I 1913–1926 (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 238. [back to text]
  3. 1951. The design of the complex is due to DDR President Wilhelm Pieck (1876–1960) who in 1919 had escaped the fate of his comrades. He is also buried at the centre of the site. Wie Man sich bettet, so liegt Man. [back to text]
  4. Günter Stahn (architect) and Gerhard Thieme (sculptor), 1983. [back to text]
  5. Commissioned from the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the KPD by Eduard Fuchs 1924, dedicated 1926, defaced 1933, destroyed 1935. [back to text]
  6. The first funeral took place on 25 January 1919, ten days after the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. In March 1919 the body of Leo Jogisches was laid to rest next to the empty coffin of his former comrade and partner. In May, Luxemburg’s body was recovered from where it was dumped, and on 13 June was buried with ceremony. In the following years, the bodies of more dead Communists were added and after 1924, annual ‘LLL-Feiern’ (Liebknecht-Luxemburg-Lenin commemorations) were instituted by the party every 15 January. The body could not be found when the Gendenkstätte der Sozialisten was instituted after the Second World War. Instead, earth from the former burial site was enclosed in the new tomb. [back to text]

Michael Tsokos and the boy of Rosa Luxemburg

Additional note: In May 2009, after I had drafted this abstract, the pathologist Michael Tsokos, Professor of Forensic Medicine at Berlin’s Charité University Hospital, announced that the remains of an unidentified body preserved in the basement of the hospital are probably those of Rosa Luxemburg. Medical examination of the headless corpse without hands or feet, and the discovery of inconsistencies in the autopsy report of the body released for burial under Luxemburg’s name in the summer of 1919, suggested that the body fished from the canal, which supposedly filled her previously buried, empty coffin, and which could not be found after the site was razed in 1935, was not hers. The identification of the Charité body, should it be proven (the pathologist would like to perform a DNA test to compare the remains with a sample from a living relative, although he admits this would only provide a probabilty, not a certain identification), would further suggest that Luxemburg is likely to receive another burial, that is, if the saintly qualities with which her memory has been invested do not demand a monstrance, which would tend, in turn, to affirm the heroic qualities invested in the torso. [back to text]


Changing of the guard: troops in the streets of Berlin during the withdrawal of Freikorps militia that supported the ‘Kapp Putsch’ of March 1920 (picture postcard, collection: AA).

The tomb of Rosa Luxemburg where no body was reburied in 1951 (photograph: AA).

Photograph issued by the press office of Berlin’s Charité Hospital showing Michael Tsokos and an unidentified pathologist posing with the remains supposed to be of Rosa Luxemburg.