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Spartacist Uprising

Spartacist Uprising

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The Spartacist Uprising was a short-lived episode in post-WWI Germany, an attempt to overthrow the government that ended in bloodshed. Today the figure of Rosa Luxemburg is seen as a symbol of left-wing revolution. But what happened? Why has she depicted the way she is and why was she executed? Let's explore!

Spartacist Uprising Leaders

Karl Liebknecht

The scenario pleased Marxist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who anticipated that the Russian revolution would spread to Germany and the rest of Europe. Liebknecht, who aspired to be the German Lenin, was a left-wing lawyer who was the sole member of the Reichstag to vote against German engagement in the war in 1914.

At the end of that year, he created the Spartacist League with Rosa Luxemburg and others. They named the new organisation after the gladiator Spartacus, the leader of a slave insurrection that challenged Roman authority in the first century BC.

The group's booklets were swiftly deemed illegal, and Liebknecht was dispatched to the eastern front, where he refused to fight and instead spent his time burying the dead. He was soon allowed to return to Berlin, where he was sent to prison for treason following the Spartacist demonstration that took place in the city in 1916.

The Spartacist Uprising, Karl Liebknecht, Wikimedia Commons, StudySmarterFig. 1: Karl Liebknecht

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg, the daughter of a Polish Jewish family, was engaged in Polish left-wing politics as a teenager but spent most of her adult life in Germany, where she was imprisoned numerous times for opposing the war and advocating for a general strike. She was known as 'Junius' in Spartacist writings, after Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic circa 500 BC.

Luxemburg, like Liebknecht, was imprisoned for treason in 1916. However, she disagreed with him about the Bolsheviks and advocated for a proletarian dictatorship. In 1918, she and Liebknecht were both freed from prison and together founded a newspaper agency by the name of Rote Fahne (Red Flag).

The Spartacist Uprising, Flag of the KPD, Wikimedia Commons, StudySmarterFig. 2: Flag of the KPD

By the end of that very year, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD - Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) was founded which united the Spartacist League, Communists and Socialists, together. Very soon the number of members of the KPD surpassed 400,000, a number that very quickly brought massive political attention to the party. The leaders of this new party were Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

The Spartacist Uprising, Rosa Luxemburg, WIkimedia Commons, StudySmarterFig. 3: Rosa Luxemburg

The more you know...

Very soon after its establishment, the KPD began attracting significant funding from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. This funding from the RSFSR proved crucial to supporting the publications and newspapers which were a major source of news.


A member of the proletariat (the working class)

Spartacist Uprising 1919

Causes of the Spartacist Uprising

On January 4th 1919, Chancellor Friedrich Ebert sacked Emil Eichhorn, chief of the Berlin police. Ebert wanted a new chief of the Berlin police to be a member of the Social Democratic Party, the party he also was a member of. Eichhorn was a very popular figure in Berlin and enjoyed great approval from the public. Because of Ebert's move to sack such a beloved figure, protests broke out in the streets of Berlin. At its height on January 6th, the protest had reached over 100,000 workers who had gone on strike.

Why was the dismissal of Emil Eichhorn so controversial?

Emil Eichhorn himself was a left-leaning official. He was seen as an official who was a valiant protector of the working people of Berlin. His dismissal was seen as a right-wing conspiracy to get rid of those who sought to protect the workers, which was why the workers took o the streets when their advocate was unfairly sacked.

Realizing that this was a good moment for action, the Spartacist League took the opportunity to join the protest and bring down the government. During the strike, the Spartacists seized numerous key governmental buildings.

With massive popular discontent rising, and with no plausible peaceful end in sight, Ebert decided to use force to disband the protestors. In the beginning, it was decided to use the German armed forces. However, this plan proved futile as the German army was too weak and demotivated to put down a domestic riot. This plan was laid to rest.

Nevertheless, Ebert needed some way of ensuring that this protest did not evolve into something far more dangerous. His solution was to use the Freikorps (free regiments). The Freikorps were mostly made up of soldiers who had been decommissioned towards the end of the First World War. However, these ex-soldiers were allowed to keep their weapons. Ultimately these former soldiers made up the Freikorps and operated as a voluntary armed militia.

The Spartacist Uprising, Chancellor Friedrich Ebert, Wikimedia Commons, StudySmarterFig. 4: Chancellor Friedrich Ebert


To withdraw or retire from service.

Equipped with military firepower such as machine guns and hand grenades, the Freikorps cleared the city and retook many buildings occupied by the protestors and the Spartacist League. The militia was met with fierce violence from the protestors in the streets, as a result, many both violent and non-violent demonstrators were killed.

Eventually, both Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht began doubting the possibility of overthrowing the Weimar Government. On January 15th, both Luxemburg and Liebknecht were seized by the Freikorps and summarily executed. Liebknecht was shot in the head and taken then taken to the morgue. While Luxemburg was struck in the head with a rifle butt, smashing her skull and killing her instantly. She was then shot in the head and her body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal.

Why were the Freikorps so violent against the Communists?

The Freikorps were made up of former soldiers who had been sent home after the war and most Freikorps were right-wing leaning. Just two years ago, they had been at war with Russia, so having Russian funding protests breaking loose in the capital of Germany was seen as a direct provocation.

Summary execution

An execution in which a person is accused of a crime and is killed immediately without a proper trial.

The Spartacist Uprising, Freikorps in Berlin, Wikimedia Commons, StudySmarterFig. 5: Freikorps in Berlin.

Spartacist Uprising - Key takeaways

  • The Spartacist Uprising and the Berlin protest took place simultaneously at the beginning of January 1919.
  • The Spartacist League was led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
  • The motive of the uprising was to overthrow the Weimar Government and install a Communist government led by Luxemburg and Liebknecht.
  • The Berlin protests began following Chancellor Ebert's decision to sack the popular chief of Berlin police Emil Eichhorn.
  • Over 100,000 people protested in the streets.
  • The Spartacist League used this protest and tried to join forces with the protestors but this plan ultimately did not work.
  • Ebert called the volunteer militia, the Freikorps, to sweep Berlin and put an end to the protests.
  • The Freikorps were well-armed and managed to subdue the protests by force.
  • Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were caught by the Freikorps and executed.


  1. Fig. 1: KLiebknecht (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KLiebknecht.jpg) by Copyright G. G. Bain, licenced as public domain
  2. Fig. 2: Flag of the Communist Party of Germany (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_the_Communist_Party_of_Germany.svg) by R-41~commonswiki, licenced as CC BY-SA 3.0
  3. Fig. 3: Rosa Luxemburg (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosa_Luxemburg.jpg). Author unknown, licenced as public domain
  4. Fig. 4: Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00015, Friedrich Ebert (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-00015,_Friedrich_Ebert.jpg) by German Federal Archive, licenced as CC-BY-SA 3.0
  5. Fig. 5: Guardsmen move forward during sporadic fighting with Spartacists in Berlin 1919 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guardsmen_move_forward_during_sporadic_fighting_with_Spartacists_in_Berlin_1919.jpg) by The Queenslander Pictorial, licenced as public domain

Frequently Asked Questions about Spartacist Uprising

The Spartacist Uprising took place between 5 January to 12 January 1919.

The Spartacist Uprising failed because the protestors underestimated the amount of force the Weimar government was willing to utilise to subdue any protest. that took place in the Capital. Ultimately, the uprising not only ended with the demise of the German Communists but also the assassination of the Communists' leaders, Rosa. Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Ebert's dismissal of Eichhorn, the chief of Berlin police, set off a wave of protests around Berlin. From the chaos, the Communists emerged with a rebellion of their own, the Spartacist Uprising.

Final Spartacist Uprising Quiz

Spartacist Uprising Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Which three parties formed the KPD?

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Spartacist League, Communists and Socialists parties

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What does the KPD stand for?

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Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of Germany)

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What was Rosa Luxemburg's nickname?

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Red Rosa

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Who was chancellor of Germany during the Spartacist Uprising?

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Friedrich Ebert

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Who did the chancellor of Germany sack which began a thre Berlin into protest?

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Emil Eichhorn

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What were the voluntary militia used to suppress the Berlin protests called?

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The Freikorps

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What happened to Luxemburrg and Liebknecht on January 15, 1919?

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They were executed by the Freikorps

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Who was the Spartacist League named after?

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Spartacus, leader of the slave insurrection that challenged the Roman authority in the first century BC

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Who funded the KPD?

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The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic

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Who were the leaders of the KPD?

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Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht

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