“We Communists are dead men on leave”, declared Eugene Leviné to a courtroom preparing to sentence him to death. The trial unfolded in the aftermath of a doomed uprising in the German state of Bavaria in 1919, and the establishment was baying for blood. Leviné refused to be cowed.
In a speech given against the advice of his legal team, Leviné declared his continued opposition to the government, defended the politics of revolutionary Marxism and made a passionate appeal to the workers and peasants of Germany to continue the work of the revolution that had swept that country since the end of World War I.
He was shot by firing squad just a few days later. He refused a blindfold.
Leviné was born to wealthy Jewish parents in St Petersburg. After his father died of smallpox, he was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Germany, where he mingled with the spawn of the European elite.
He shunned this dubious inheritance, instead making an oath at the age of 15 “to protect the oppressed and to help them to establish their rights”.
After finishing school, he remained in Germany and by 1903 had thrown in his lot with the Social Revolutionaries, a party of Russian exiles. The SRs believed in redistributing land and wealth among the peasants and the poor. They focused on terroristic acts of violence against individual ruling class figures. This strategy had no chance of success, but possessed much romantic appeal to a young activist seeking to change the world.
When the first Russian Revolution broke out in 1905, Leviné returned home and began working for the party in the underground. His sense of humour survived this difficult time. In a letter to his wife, he recounted a time when he fought with a well-meaning hotel porter who insisted on helping him out of a luxurious fur coat inherited from his father. He had guns and ammunition sewn to the inside.
Quickly he saw the need to relate to the insurgent workers’ movement. After spending six months in jail for revolutionary activities, in 1906 he joined the bakers’ union though still a member of the SRs, who mocked such activity as “childish”.
As was typical in the underground, Leviné was forced to move to the provinces to avoid the secret police. He became a nomadic agitator, his workplace “the factories scattered between forests and swamps, hundreds of miles apart”. He caught malaria and other infections, but worked through his sicknesses.
He was arrested again in 1907, after being brutally beaten by police until an observer began screaming hysterically. It took him several years to recover fully, and he remained partially deaf in one ear.
What is remarkable about Leviné is that he came to socialism as a dreamer, an idealist, a poet. He began life writing poems and stories, and his letters to his wife reflect an emotional and impulsive mind. Yet through sheer determination he trained himself to be a practical activist, to face hardship, violence and eventually death with poise and courage.
He returned to Germany and became a leading figure in the revolutionary left of the Social Democratic Party gathered around Rosa Luxemburg. When the Communist Party of Germany formed in December 1918, Leviné was swept up in some of the revolutionary impatience of the time. The ultra-left politics that he temporarily accepted were disastrous for the party, but were typical of the time when so many thought that socialism was just around the corner.
Leviné spent the first weeks of 1919 touring the country giving speeches to mass meetings and persuading hostile audiences. In March he was sent to Bavaria to prevent a premature uprising against the central government. He arrived too late to affect the general course of events. The “Bavarian Soviet” was announced. After almost a week of inaction, the instigators fled in fear of counter-revolution.
Rather than abandon the workers to the mercy of the proto-fascist militias coming to crush them, Leviné made the decision to fight.