Empathy with animals: Rosa Luxemburg and the buffaloes (1917)

Updated 16 November 2020

Rosa Luxemburg: 
A letter from prison to Sonia Liebknecht,
Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), Mid December, 1917

Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish-German socialist and anti-war activist. In the following letter she beautifully expresses her empathy and solidarity with several buffaloes who were being beaten in the courtyard of the prison where she was held captive. (I don't know of any references to Rosa Luxemburg that mention vegetarianism, so I do not think that she was a vegetarian.) Because of her political activism, in January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg was captured, interrogated, severely beaten, and murdered, in Berlin, by members of a soldiers' organization, who then dumped her body in a canal. The same group was also reponsible for the murder of the German socialist Karl Liebknecht, the husband of Sophia (Sonia) Liebknecht to whom the letter below (and many other letters by Rosa Luxemburg) is addressed. 

Originally (in 2012) I had posted the English translation of this text from marxists.org (which seems to be a translation from 1921), and I had already made some corrections to the "marxists.org" version. Some of these were true translation errors, and some were more stylistic differences. My translation may be a bit (too) literal for some people's taste. Now I have revised the text a second time, as two slightly different versions of this letter have been published in German: the first version was published in 1920 (by the "executive committee of the communist youth international", as a "second edition"; so the first edition might have already been published in 1919) - this version, however, is an abbreviated version. The second version is the version of the German editorial "Dietz Verlag" (originally published in 1946) who have published Rosa Luxemburg's complete works. I suspect that this second version is true to the original version (but only content-wise, not in terms of punctuation). I have asked the editorial but have received no reply. The version below is my translation of the "Dietz Verlag" version on the basis of the English translation on marxists.org (the 1920 version). This may sound adventurous, but the differences in the two versions are (apart from punctuation which in part gets lost with translation anyway) just the sections highlighted in yellow below (yellow means "Dietz Verlag" 2006 version; the 1920 version says "dull" instead of "voiceless"). I'm quite confident that the version below now is very close to the German original as it was written by Rosa Luxemburg, even if both published versions in German do not seem to be the exact original. 
Note that this is just an excerpt from the letter.

Sonichka, dear, I had such a pang recently. In the courtyard where I walk, army carriages often arrive, laden with haversacks or old tunics and shirts from the front; often they are stained with blood. They are sent to the cells to be mended and then loaded back up [onto the carts] and sent back to the army. The other day one of these carriages arrived, drawn by a team of buffaloes instead of horses. I had never seen the[se] animals close at hand before. They are much more powerfully built than our cattle, with flattened heads and horns strongly recurved, so that their skulls are shaped more like our sheep’s skulls. They are all black, with large, soft, black eyes. They hail from Rumania and are war trophies ... 
The soldiers who drive the carriages say that it was very difficult to catch these wild animals and still more difficult to use these animals, who were accustomed to freedom, as beasts of burden. They were unmercifully beaten until they learned to understand that they had lost the war and that to them applies the sentence "vae victis" [Woe to the conquered.] ... About a hundred of the animals are supposed to be in Breslau alone. In addition, they, who had been accustomed to the luxuriant Rumanian pastures, here receive miserable and scanty fodder. They are unsparingly exploited and have to tow all sorts of carriages, and under these circumstances they soon perish. So, the other day a carriage came in, laden with sacks. The load was piled up so high indeed that the buffaloes were unable to cross the threshold at the entrance gate. The accompanying soldier, a brutal fellow, started to belabour the animals in such a way with the butt end of his whip that the wardress indignantly took him to task, asking if he really had no compassion for the animals! 'No one shows compassion with us humans either', he answered with an evil smile, and beat down even harder [on the animals]... At length the animals pulled hard and got over the hill, but one of them was bleeding... Sonichka, the buffalo's skin is proverbial for its thickness and toughness, and this skin had been torn. While the carriage was being unloaded, the animals stood perfectly still, utterly exhausted, and the one that was bleeding stared into space and had an expression on its black face and in its soft black eyes like that of a tear-stained child. It was directly the expression of a child who has been severely punished and who does not know what for, why, and does not know how it should escape from the agony and raw violence. I stood in front of the carriage, and the animal looked at me. The tears welled from my eyes - and they were his tears. One cannot twitch more painfully for one's dearest brother than I twitched in my powerlessness in the face of this mute suffering. How far, how unreachable, lost forever the beautiful, free, green, lush meadows of Rumania! How different there the light of the sun, the breath of the wind. How different there the beautiful sounds of the birds that one could hear or the melodious calls of the herdsmen. And here - this foreign, hideous town, the dull stable, the nauseating and musty hay, mingled with rotten straw, the strange and terrible people, and – the beatings, the blood running from the fresh wound... Oh my poor buffalo, my dear beloved brother, we both stand here, so powerless and [dull] voiceless; and we are just one in pain, in powerlessness, in longing. Meanwhile the prisoners were busy, crowding around the carriage, and unloaded the heavy sacks and lugged them into the building; the soldier, however, stuck both of his hands in his trouser pockets, strolled across the courtyard with large strides, smiled and quietly whistled a popular song. And the whole glorious war passed me by.
Write quickly, I embrace you, Sonichka.

Your Rosa

Sonjusha, my dear, be calm and cheerful despite all of this. Such is life, and one has to take it that way, brave, undismayed, and with a smile - in spite of it all.
Merry Christmas!

Rosa Luxemburg mentioned the buffaloes again in a letter dated May 12, 1918, also written from the prison in Breslau. She wrote:
And yet there is nothing I can do to help, because the crested larks are very shy and if you throw bread to them, they fly away, not like the pigeons and sparrows who already follow me around like dogs. I tell myself in vain that it is ridiculous and that I am not responsible for all the hungry crested larks in the world and that I cannot weep for all the beaten buffaloes - like the ones that come into the courtyard with sacks every day.
[...]" (Reference, pages 117/118, or alternative reference, page 45)

Rosa Luxemburg: Briefe aus dem Gefängnis. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 2006 (17. Auflage), pages 101 to 103.

Alternative reference:
Rosa Luxemburg: Briefe aus dem Gefängnis. Herausgegeben vom Exekutivkomitee der Kommunistischen Jugendinternationale. Berlin: Verlag der Jugend-Internationale, 1920 (zweite unveränderte Auflage), pages 37 and 38

You can also find the English version (Rosa Luxemburg, Letters from prison, Berlin: Publishing House of the Young International, 1921) on archive.org. I think, this is the same version as the one on marxists.org (i.e. the 1921 English version seems to be the translation of the 1920 German version).

In 2011, the letters by Rosa Luxemburg were republished in English (The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, 
edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza, translated by George Shriver. Verso, 609 pp., February 2011). This seems to be a new translation, not the same as the one from 1921, and it seems to be equivalent to the German version of the "Dietz Verlag".

At the time of publication of this new English translation the London Review of Books (16 June 2011) wrote: "The moment has clearly come for a return to Rosa Luxemburg.
If freedom is the freedom to think ‘otherwise’, then the question is: to which others are you willing to accord the right to be free (instead of imputing infamy to them as a prelude to killing)? Luxemburg’s universalism is the flipside of her openness to the other, however far it takes her. One day in 1917, walking through the prison courtyard in Breslau, she noticed a military supply wagon driven by water buffaloes [Romanian buffaloes seem to be a type of water buffalo, but it does not seem clear whether Rosa Luxemburg is referring to these or other Mediterranean water buffalo or even a kind of European bison. I would have assumed the latter, because she says "buffaloes" and not "water buffaloes".] instead of horses. Wild beasts brought from Romania, they were ‘accustomed to their freedom’ and had to be ‘beaten terribly before they grasped the concept that they had lost the war’. Pushed beyond endurance, they mostly perished (there were said to be at least a hundred of them in Breslau alone). As she watched a soldier flailing the buffaloes, one bleeding animal drew her attention: ‘I stood before it, and the beast looked at me; tears were running down my face – they were his tears.’ Luxemburg didn’t wail and moan from the sidelines but catapulted herself into the place of the beast – two years later she would be clubbed, shot and thrown into the river. But she never loses her sense of irony. The soldier struts the yard, smiling and whistling a popular tune to himself: ‘And the entire marvellous panorama of the war passed before my eyes.’"

The Guardian (5 March 2011) wrote: "This collection of her letters reveals that the woman behind the mythic figure was also a compassionate, teasing, witty human being."

Drawing by Rosa Luxemburg (no year)

Watercolour by Rosa Luxemburg (no year)