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Dublin: 17 °C Saturday 11 July, 2020

My favourite speech: Paul Murphy MEP

Continuing our summer series on of public figures’ favourite speeches, Paul Murphy MEP picks a speech by socialist Karl Liebknecht.

Paul Murphy MEP
Paul Murphy MEP
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

THE AUTHOR AND former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan once said: “A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep! A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.”

One can not underestimate the power of a good speech or the effectiveness of a speech’s key line.

With that in mind, over the course of the summer is asking some of the most prominent figures in Irish society from politicians to sports stars to nominate their favourite speech of all time and tell us why they like it so much.

Today: Socialist Party and United Left Alliance MEP for Dublin Paul Murphy. He writes:

In December 1914, socialist Karl Liebknecht wrote a speech explaining why he voted against funding for World War I. This speech was never delivered, being banned by the President of the Reichstag, was not printed in the Parliamentary report and no German newspaper published it. Instead, it was printed as a leaflet and distributed within Germany.

It is a seminal speech because this is at the start of World War I, a war waged in the interests of the various imperialist powers in which over 16 million people died. Across Europe, workers’ parties like the SPD in Germany and the SFIO in France, supported their ‘own’ capitalist classes.

They all justified this with reference to ‘defence of the fatherland’ or ‘defence of democracy’ when in reality it was a capitulation to national chauvinism and a betrayal of their internationalist principles.

This betrayal shocked revolutionary socialists such as James Connolly, Scottish socialist James MacLean and Lenin, who thought that the edition of the SPD’s newspaper announcing their support for the war was a forgery.

With betrayal all around him, Karl Liebknecht stood firm. He argued against supporting the war within the SPD at the time of the first vote on 4 August 1914, but then mistakenly obeyed party discipline and voted for the war credits providing funding for the war.

In December 1914, he broke that discipline, placing the interests of the German and international working class before the bureaucracy of the SPD and was the only member of the Reichstag to vote against war credits.

He correctly dismissed the argument that this war was for the ‘defence’ of German people and puts forward the interests of working class people across Europe – to fight for “a speedy peace, a peace without conquest.” He used his speech to appeal to German workers to actively oppose this war.

Although isolated at the time, Liebknecht’s stand was heroic and absolutely vindicated by the barbaric results of the war. Outside the parliament he engaged in vigorous activity together with other genuine socialists opposing the war, raising the slogan “the main enemy is at home”.

As the results of the war became clear, he received more and more support for his anti-war position. Two years later, on May Day 1916, he addressed tens of thousands of workers in a demonstration against the war, shouting “Down with the war! Down with the government!” before being arrested.

At the end of the war, with the impact of the Russian revolution in 1917, revolutionary socialist ideas gained a mass audience in Germany with the potential for working class people to change society.

In 1919, Liebknecht participated in an uprising of workers in Berlin. Together with socialist Rosa Luxemburg he was captured by right-wing paramilitaries known as the Freikorps and assassinated at the orders of the SPD government.

Thus, he was ultimately effectively killed by those who had betrayed the German workers back in 1914. He died for his principled stand. However, his actions gave confidence to millions of German workers to struggle for socialist change in the knowledge that betrayal is not inevitable.

Even today, every year in Germany tens of thousands mark the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg on 15 January.

Demonstrators in East Berlin carry portraits of both German socialist Karl Liebknecht and political activist Rosa Luxemburg in 1988, during a protest march against their assassination in 1919. (AP/Press Association Images)

Below is the speech that Karl Liebknecht delivered on 2 December, 1914:

My vote against the War Credit Bill of to-day is based on the following considerations. This War, desired by none of the people concerned, has not broken out in behalf of the welfare of the German people or any other. It is an Imperialist War, a war over important territories of exploitation for capitalists and financiers.

From the point of view of rivalry in armaments, it is a war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties together, in the obscurity of semi-feudalism and of secret diplomacy, to gain an advantage over their opponents. At the same time the war is a Bonapartist effort to disrupt and split the growing movement of the working class.

“The German cry: ‘Against Czarism!’ is invented for the occasion – just as the present British and French watchwords are invented – to exploit the noblest inclinations and the revolutionary traditions and ideals of the people in stirring up hatred of other peoples.

“Germany, the accomplice of Czarism, the model of reaction until this very day, has no standing as the liberator of the peoples. The liberation of both the Russian and the German people must be their own work.

“The war is no war of German defense. Its historical basis and its course at the start make unacceptable the pretense of the capitalist government that the purpose for which it demands credits is the defense of the Fatherland.

“A speedy peace, a peace without conquests, this is what we must demand. Every effort in this direction must be supported. Only by strengthening jointly and continuously the currents in all the belligerent countries which have such a peace as their object can this bloody slaughter be brought to an end.

“Only a peace based upon the international solidarity of the working class and on the liberty of all the peoples can be a lasting peace. Therefore, it is the duty of the proletariats of all countries to carry on during the war a common Socialistic work in favor of peace.

“I support the relief credits with this reservation: I vote willingly for everything which may relieve the hard fate of our brothers on the battlefield as well as that of the wounded and sick, for whom I feel the deepest compassion.

But as a protest against the war, against those who are responsible for it and who have caused it, against those who direct it, against the capitalist purposes for which it is being used, against plans of annexation, against the violation of the neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg, against unlimited rule of martial law, against the total oblivion of social and political duties of which the Government and classes are still guilty, I vote against the war, credits demanded.

Read more from our ‘Favourite Speeches’ summer series

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Paul Hyland

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