Sorry, this site requires a modern browser.


A Duty of Honour

We did not want any »amnesty«, nor pardon, for the political prisoners who were the victims of the old order. We demanded our right to freedom, through struggle and revolution, for the hundreds of faithful and brave men and women who were languishing in prison because they had fought for popular freedom, for peace and for socialism against the bloody dictatorship of the imperialist criminal bands. They are now all free. Again we stand shoulder to shoulder ready for the struggle. It was not the Scheidemanns nor their bourgeois cronies with Prince Max at their head who liberated us; it was the proletarian revolution which burst open the gates of our cells.

However, one other group of wretched inmates who still languish in those gloomy dwellings has been forgotten completely. Until now no one has thought of the thousands of pale, emaciated figures who have been incarcerated for years behind the walls of the gaols and penitentiaries in expiation for petty offences.

And yet they are also unfortunate victims of the infamous social order against which the revolution was directed, the victims of an imperialist war which increased distress and misery into unbearable torture and which, with its bestial human slaughter, unleashed all evil instincts in weak and congenitally tainted natures.

Bourgeois class justice is again proved to be a net through whose meshes predatory pikes may easily wriggle, while little sticklebacks thrash about helplessly in it. The millionaire war profiteers largely escaped judgement or got off with ridiculously small fines, but the petty thieves were given drastic jail sentences. Starving, shivering from the cold in their barely heated cells, emotionally depressed by the horrors of the four-year war, these stepchildren of society are waiting for pardon, for relief.

They are waiting in vain. The last Hohenzollern, like a good sovereign, forgot their suffering amid the international bloodbath and the erosion of the crown’s power. During the four years since the conquest of Liege there has been no amnesty worthy of the name, not even on that official holiday of the German slaves, the »Kaiser’s Birthday«.

Now the proletarian revolution must brighten their gloomy existence in the jails by a small act of mercy; it must shorten the draconian sentences, eliminate the barbaric disciplinary system (detention in chains, corporal punishment!), and improve to the best of its ability the treatment, medical provisions, the food supply and conditions of work. This is a duty of honour!

The existing penal system, which is permeated through and through with the brutal class spirit and barbarism of capitalism, must be extirpated root and branch. A thoroughgoing reform of the system by which sentences are executed must be undertaken. A completely new system, corresponding to the spirit of socialism, can admittedly be established only upon the foundation of a new economic and social order. All crimes, as all punishments, are indeed always rooted ultimately in the economic conditions of society. Nevertheless, one decisive measure can be implemented at once. The death penalty, this greatest outrage of the utterly reactionary German penal code, must go immediately! Why is this being delayed by the workers’ and soldiers’ government? Ledebour, Barth, Daümig, does not Beccaria, who two hundred years ago denounced the infamy of the death penalty in all civilized languages, exist for you? You have no time, you say, you have constant cares, difficulties and tasks before you. Take your watches in hand and see how much time is needed to open your mouths and say: the death penalty is abolished! Or do you want a protracted debate, culminating in a vote among yourselves on this topic? Would you again, in this case, surround yourselves with layer upon layer of formalities, considerations of competence, questions of rubber stamps and rules, and similar rubbish?

Alas, how German this revolution is! How prosaic and pedantic it is, how lacking in verve, in lustre, in greatness! The forgotten death penalty is only one small feature. But how often precisely such small features betray the inner spirit of the whole.

Take at random any history of the great French Revolution; take the dry Mignet. Can anyone read this book without it setting his heart pounding and his mind ablaze? Once he has opened it at random and begun to read, can he put it down before he has heard with bated breath the last chords of the huge event fading away? It is like a Beethoven symphony intensified into gigantic proportions, a raging storm on the organ of the times, great and splendid both in its errors and its successes, in victory and in defeat, in its first naive rejoicing and its last restrained sigh. And here at home in Germany? At every step, in matters large and small, one senses that the worthy old comrades are still with us from the times when Social Democracy was slumbering blissfully, when the party card was everything, human beings and intellect nothing. But let us not forget that world history is not made without intellectual greatness, without moral fervour, without noble gestures …

In leaving the hospitable rooms where we recently resided, Liebknecht and I—he taking leave of his shorn prison comrades and I of my poor dear prostitute and thief with whom I spent three-and-a-half years under the same roof—we promised them faithfully, as their morose glances followed us, that we would not forget them!

We demand that the Executive Council of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils immediately alleviate the fate of the prisoners in all Germany’s penal institutions!

We demand that capital punishment be stricken from the German Penal Code! Rivers of blood have flowed in torrents during the four years of imperialist genocide. Now every drop of the precious fluid must be preserved reverently and in crystal vessels. Ruthless revolutionary energy and tender humanity—this alone is the true essence of socialism. One world must now be destroyed, but each tear that might have been avoided is an indictment; and a man who hurrying on to important deeds inadvertently tramples underfoot even a poor worm, is guilty of a crime.


First Published: Die Rote Fahne, November 18th, 1918.
Source: Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, edited and introduced by Robert Looker, pp.258-61.
Translated: (from the German) W.D. Graf.
Transcription/Markup: Ted Crawford/Brian Baggins with special thanks to Robert Looker for help with permissions.
Copyright: Random House, 1972, ISBN/ISSN: 0224005960. Printed with the permission of Random House. Luxemburg Internet Archive ( 2004.