The Many Lives of Rosa Luxemburg

I thought it would be interesting to compare the discussions about the Rosa Luxemburg entries that can be found on the English and German Wikipedia pages. The German version of the article is much longer and far better developed than the English version. Likewise, the discussion found on the German version contains many more threads. What is interesting, however, is that none of the discussion threads cross over into the other version. So, while the English version debated things like Rosa Luxemburg’s nationality (was she Jewish, Polish or German) and whether she was born in 1870 or 1871, the German discussions were aimed at topics regarding interpretation – things like her interpretations of Marxism and her correspondence with Lenin. Of course the German discussion also had some rather drawn out flame and edit wars – over whether Luxemburg (a sworn atheist) inadvertently referenced the book of Exodus in the Bible when she wrote her last words “I was, I am, I will be” when she was quoting an 1848 revolutionary by the name of Freiligrath. Another flame war erupted on the German discussion page when the article was voted off the Wikipedia list of recommended reading – apparently for being too politically slanted toward sympathizing with her Communist politics. There is also a humorous question raised by one editor whether it was true that Ruth Fischer, another leader of the German Communist Party, urinated on her grave.

While the German site seems to have a combination of academic and amateur historians (as well as a few political rivals) contributing to the entry, the English site appears to be completely written (or at least discussed) by amateur historians. While the Germans ask for citations from leading scholars and printed material, the discussion on the English site about her birth date seems to have been settled by a Google search – comparing how many websites claimed she was born in 1870 to those claiming 1871. 1871 won out according to Google.

The differences here between the two cultures that we see in the discussions is probably linked to larger cultural differences between Germans and Americans (although with Wikipedia it is close to impossible to know who is contributing). Nonetheless, the memory of Rosa Luxemburg is still a very powerful element in German political consciousness – at least on the Left. There are still yearly parades each January to commemorate her murder in 1919. The fact that the article was removed (or voted off) the recommended reading list was probably linked entirely to the political nature of the article. There were efforts to “neutralize” the site, but these changes seem to have been quickly re-corrected in order to maintain a Left-leaning interpretation of her life. The English version has comparatively less substance, but does not seem to be as controversial politically – although there is a great deal of content taken directly from the Rosa Luxemburg Internet Archive, which itself is not known for its political independence.

All of this raises a larger question – is it possible to write about historical political figures without being political? Are politicized articles “bad”? Maybe there should be a portion of such articles dedicated to current debates about these figures and allow editors to take part (each side could group-edit the best version or interpretation and each would be displayed). Although this would not remove the political nature of such figures, the process of politicization would become much more transparent.

3 Replies to “The Many Lives of Rosa Luxemburg”

  1. Hi Jon,
    I’m not sure that it would be possible to write about historical political figures without some perspective entering into the discourse– and I think Wikipedia touches on this in the statement that “All editors and all sources have biases”. Politicized articles are not bad in and of themselves, but they don’t fit in with what I think the site is looking for in its “encyclopedic style” entires, however.
    I do agree that the differences have a lot to do with the different cultural values between the US and Germany. In my opiniono, there are two elements here. For the first (and I have no reference other than hearsay or this), I think that Europeans (or other cultures in general) tend to have a more developed sense of politics in their daily lives than the general American populace does. For the second (and here I’m touching on some of the work of Michael Wallace), I think that the “ahistorical” nature of American society would cause quite a bit of wrangling over adding political discussions to historical topics on Wikipedia– many would see it as an infringement of the “neutral point of view” rubric, in that separating the historical analysis from everyday concerns is not a habit that they have had a chance to develop.

  2. Hi Jon,

    I was just commenting on Bill’s entry about “biased articles,” which I think is very similar to “politicized articles.” In a nutshell, what I said on Bill’s blog was that every text is always biased, and by the same token, I think that any article can also be seen in a politcal light (though we usually only do this consciously with texts that are about “political” topics). If we take this to be a universal issue with Wikipedia, as I think that we should, your idea to make a more transparently political section makes a lot of sense. Maybe the editors of Wikipedia should make a tag to put at the top of articles that are going be of an overtly political nature. At the same time though, going back to what Bill was talking about, I think that doing this could result in more fragmentation of the Wikipedia community. Ideally Wikipedia should be a place that fosters not only consensus, but dialog, and making things overtly political could fragment the community into several different “camps” who only comment on articles that agree with their political views.

  3. Every week I’m reminded of why I should read all blog posts first, then comment! I just posted on Kate’s blog about the WikiProject Echo, which seeks to foster some cross-referencing between the different international versions of Wikipedia for the same entry (Rosa Luxemburg, for example). It seems like such communication would be very useful to building and improving entries, although it appears as though this kind of cross-referencing is not as prevalent as I would like it to be. At least in this instance, it sounds like the communication between the two is lacking — which is unfortunate.

    I do like the thought of having a section in each entry where opposing viewpoints could debate the merits of their position — but still within the edited, peer-monitored Wikipedia framework. I think political bias is likely inherent and unavoidable in a lot of entries, and so some sense of transparency would at least allow us to see where the editors are coming from in the changes/additions that they make.

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