On January 15, 1919, the revolutionary leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in cold blood by a gang of right-wing army officers. Their killings came after the crushing of the January Uprising in Berlin, and enjoyed the tacit approval of leading members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had taken power only weeks earlier. Sending shockwaves across Germany, their deaths went down in history as a decisive turning point in the postwar wave of popular uprisings — snuffing out hopes of socialism spreading across the rest of Europe.
A wide array of forces supported the counterrevolution — but the mastermind behind the killing was Waldemar Pabst, a first general staff officer in the German Army. A proud monarchist and nationalist and a bitter opponent of democracy and socialism, his career embodied all that was rotten about the imperial Germany striving to defend itself against the advancing revolution. But his influence also extended deeper into German history — showing the lineages of German nationalism and militarism in the postwar West German state.
Weathering the “Storm of Steel”
Waldemar Pabst was a man with a monstrous biography, whose influence on the politics of the first third of the twentieth century went underestimated for decades. First and foremost, he was a representative of the rising bourgeoisie in the semi-absolutist German Empire, or Kaiserreich. Only becoming a united country in 1871 under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in the late nineteenth century, Germany was desperate to make up for lost time and claim its “place in the sun” among the other European powers. Eager to prove himself, Pabst enthusiastically subjected himself to the inhumane training regimen of the cadet academy and began to rise up the ranks.
Already an officer when World War I began in August 1914, Pabst saw the war as an excellent opportunity to assert himself as a loyal and successful member of the Prussian military caste. The “Storm of Steel” (as his fellow nationalist Ernst Jünger once called it) unleashed by German imperialism, resulting in the first industrial-scale massacre on European soil, would end only in November 1918. And it resulted not in victory, but in defeat on the Western Front and revolutionary tumult at home.
This seemingly cataclysmic event brought with it the downfall of Pabst’s beloved Kaiser, his army — and his entire world. In response, Pabst organized the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division — an elite division of the imperial army — into a highly aggressive, proto-fascist Freikorps. The Freikorps were armed squadrons of decommissioned soldiers who blamed socialists, trade-unionists, and Jews for Germany’s defeat and sought to restore the imperial order. Rising to the top of such an important reactionary force, Pabst had turned himself into a commander of the German counterrevolution.
The SPD’s Ally
Pabst was a small, vain man with a personal ax to grind: the revolution of November 1918 had thwarted his own promotion to major. But his continued rise would have been unthinkable without the help of the leading men of the SPD.
The party’s turn into a counterrevolutionary force had matured even before the outbreak of World War I. Indeed, by 1913 at the latest, the leading functionaries of the trade unions and the SPD had abandoned internationalism and become willing aides to Germany’s expansionist war policies, promoted by the big bourgeoisie, the cartels, the oligopoly, and the military. Their desire to shake off their stigmatization as “scoundrels without a Fatherland” by proving their fierce patriotism — a precondition for securing their positions within this rising great power — aligned with authoritarian fixations inherited from the Prussian tradition.
The most fitting example of this trend was the encounter between Pabst and SPD man Gustav Noske, who became the new civilian commander in chief after the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Their cooperation as the “executive duo” of the counterrevolutionary pact between the SPD executive and the Supreme Army Command was based on similar fixations.
Pabst and Noske were also responsible for introducing terror into German domestic politics in March 1919, building on previous developments in imperial Germany’s war policy. Unhindered by liberal or Enlightenment developments, Prussian militarism had early on established a style of war geared toward annihilation, first apparent in the genocide of the Herero and Nama people in what is now Namibia. This approach was then unleashed in World War I with massacres against the Belgian civilian population — and after the revolution, it was turned against even former soldiers returning to Germany.
Indeed, those ex-soldiers who joined the uprising were no longer “comrades,” but excluded from the German ethnic community known as the Volksgemeinschaft, just like other “races.” This meant, in principle, that their leaders could be shot without a problem. Beginning in 1919, in response to the failed January Uprising in Berlin, leading Social Democrats also participated in this kind of exclusion, as the SPD-led government was equally convinced that the rules of war no longer applied. No one did more to advance this attitude than Waldemar Pabst and Gustav Noske, now serving as defense minister, with their terror orders of March 1919.
As in January, when Luxemburg and Liebknecht were killed, the SPD-led government and its military backers launched a full-scale offensive against a wave of renewed strike activity. Soldiers obliterated the last remaining armed workers’ brigades created during the revolution and pursued them into their strongholds. In Berlin, they even resorted to firing artillery and conducting air raids in working-class neighborhoods to flush out what was left of the resistance. More than a thousand died — most of them innocent civilians.
Pabst was the initiator of the massacre — the policy of annihilation targeting the lower classes — but he could only pull it off because he had found in Noske a commander who thought and felt the same way. Noske, in turn, had the support of the SPD executives, particularly Friedrich Ebert, Wolfgang Heine, and Gustav Bauer, behind whom stood other SPD bureaucrats eager to get in on the action. When Noske spoke in parliament and repeated the Prussian military dictum that “necessity knows no law” — underlining his illegal operation with the remark that “articles count for nothing, the only thing that counts is success” — the minutes of the session noted thunderous applause from both Social Democrats and the Right.
A War of Annihilation
Noske, who helped the perpetrators avoid justice before the courts even years after the massacres, applied Pabst’s war-of-annihilation principle without hesitation. He deployed it against sailors, workers, soldiers, intellectuals, and many members of his own party. The result was a level of violence against civilians not seen since the Thirty Years’ War, killing thousands and demoralizing the lower classes in revolt. It is in this context that we should see Pabst’s most infamous and consequential deed: the “murder of the revolution” via the liquidation of its heroic leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
Pabst himself masterminded the killing. The two socialist icons were arrested on January 15 and taken to Berlin’s luxurious Hotel Eden, where he had established his command post. After questioning, they were escorted to prison in separate cars by a squad of nationalist soldiers personally assembled by Pabst. It would be the revolutionaries’ last journey.
The driver of Liebknecht’s escort stopped in the Tiergarten, one of the city’s largest parks, citing car trouble. The soldiers then ordered Liebknecht to continue on foot, before shooting him in the back after he had taken a few steps. The official report claimed that he had been shot while trying to escape.
For her part, Luxemburg rode in an open-top car. As it pulled away from the hotel, she was shot in the head by an officer who emerged from the shadows, disguised as an angry civilian taking justice into his own hands. Her corpse was thrown into a nearby canal and left to rot for months. The true nature of the crime would only be revealed decades later, long after the socialist threat had subsided.
The direct approval of their murder by Noske — and, indirectly, Ebert — was above all apparent in the SPD-installed military court’s refusal to pursue justice in any meaningful way. Noske enabled Pabst’s deed twice: first by knowingly permitting it (even without issuing a direct order), and then by allowing the culprits to roam free after the fact. But Pabst’s influence as the first general staff officer of the largest Freikorps cannot be emphasized enough. It was he who convinced the SPD of the need to strike a crushing blow against the revolution, through a kind of political terrorism that Kaiser Wilhelm II had always threatened but only the SPD oligarchy allowed to occur. Through his largely hidden but, in Noske’s words, “considerable military influence,” Waldemar Pabst briefly but decisively influenced the rise of German fascism — and Europe’s twentieth-century history.
A Reactionary Life
The killing of the leaders of the revolution was not the end of Pabst’s political interventions. With the revolution defeated, in summer 1919, he released himself from his pact with the SPD — which, for him, had always been a merely temporary arrangement. The party had failed in his eyes, managing neither to prevent the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles nor to fulfill his ambition of an ultramilitarized, protofascist society with a professional army at its core and a paramilitary horde of millions at its side. The entente of victorious powers in World War I would simply not permit such an outcome.
Faced with this situation, Pabst continued his counte-revolutionary endeavors — trying to draw Gustav Noske onto his side as a dictator. Noske was not disinclined, but, certain that such a move would spark renewed working-class uprisings, he stepped back from the plan. This was enough for the frustrated Pabst to attempt a coup d’état in July 1919, but he launched it without reaching any prior agreement with the similarly coup-inclined General Walther von Lüttwitz, and the plan soon failed. Forced to retreat, Pabst was subsequently denied the title of major and a general staff uniform.
The embittered Pabst continued to agitate. He now gathered right-wing forces in the “Nationale Vereinigung,” a conspiratorial group of reactionary officers funded by the same sections of big industry that had already supported the Freikorps and determined to overthrow the SPD-dominated government. Yet as Lüttwitz moved forward on his own initiative, launching a coup in March 1920 despite Pabst’s own incomplete preparations, the retired officer lost his nerve and fled. This moment of weakness saved Noske, Ebert, and other members of the government from arrest, decisively weakening the so-called “Kapp Putsch.” Pabst had missed his chance — and he would never get another.
The coup was defeated in four days thanks to the biggest general strike in German history. But, bolstered by indecision and weakness on the part of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) and Communist Party (KPD), the SPD leaders chose to pursue Pabst’s methods of illegal mass executions. Secret orders were taken out of cold storage and put to use — not against the coup plotters, but against the uprisings in Central Germany and the Ruhr Region sparked by the putsch. The rebellious workers were decimated by the paramilitaries of the Freikorps, under orders from the same SPD government which they had mounted a coup against only days beforehand.
As one of the leading figures in the failed plot, Waldemar Pabst was forced to flee first to Bavaria and later to Austria, where he immediately began building the fascist Heimwehr organization and tried to establish a “White International” uniting fascist parties across Europe. He later returned to his homeland and became a leading figure in Adolf Hitler’s armaments industry, though he never joined the Nazi Party and decamped to Switzerland toward the end of the war. There he enjoyed a successful career as an international arms dealer before moving back to West Germany in 1955, where he was shielded by powerful government figures despite being a key player in early neo-fascist networks. Waldemar Pabst, mastermind of Rosa Luxemburg’s murder, died in 1970 as a wealthy and unrepentant nationalist and never faced a German court for his crimes.