Every history student knows about those moments when imagination takes over. Of course we should work empirically; every statement should be based on reliable sources. But sometimes it just cannot be avoided that wishful thinking takes over.
I experienced one of these moments when I did some research on the Dutch Nazi propagandist Max Blokzijl and found out that he used the nickname “Rosie” when describing the ardent communist activist Rosa Luxemburg in his 1924 memoirs. And it got better: he described her as “an amazing combination of radical leader, highly strung poet, and genius thought.”1 I only knew a few things about Blokzijl then, and the thought of him having an affair with Rosa Luxemburg just wasn’t leaving my mind. I never found any proof and had to keep it to myself, as I didn’t want to risk becoming the laughing stock of my class.
But as my quest did provide me with enough material to entertain the readers of Overthehorse.com, I just couldn’t restrain myself any longer.
Our correspondent in Berlin
Marius Hugh Louis Wilhelm Blokzijl (born 1884) always prided himself on the fact that he was a self-made man.2 His father was a lieutenant in the Dutch infantry and in due course a military career was envisaged for the young Max. But during adolescence he developed a passion for journalism, and founded a monthly magazine at the age of sixteen.3
In 1903 he managed to get a job at the renowned newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad (General paper of commerce) in Amsterdam, and there he met another young and ambitious reporter: Jean Louis Pisuisse. Both men were growing tired of writing daily reports on city fires and other small news. So they decided to travel the country disguised as Italian street musicians. As Napthalie de Rosa and Joseph Pardo they managed to create a stir wherever they arrived.4 Blokzijl later stated in his memoirs about those days that “they made the entire country laugh”.5 But this might be an exaggeration, Blokzijl suffered heavily from the disease of vanity.
Anyway, the articles in Algemeen Handelsblad and the subsequent popular books that narrated the adventures of the two vagabonds became hugely popular. The singing journalists even managed to travel the world, bringing their antics to regions as far away as China and Siberia, and letting the newspaper readers enjoy reports on their adventures.6
One of the songs of this curious duo still enjoys popularity and is performed until this day. This is a wonderful performance of that song from 2013. It is called “De Fransche Gouvernante” (“The French Governess”):
During their adventurous journeys tensions arose between Blokzijl and Pisuisse. Pisuisse got a bit fed up with Blokzijl’s easy going lifestyle. In a letter to his girlfriend Fie Carelsen, Pisuisse states: “Max is talented but he could work harder.”7 In a later letter Pisuisse narrates his anger when finding Blokzijl still in bed at nine in the morning after drinking whiskey with some female admirers the night before.8 In his own memoirs, Blokzijl states: “I always was a friend of cozy get-togethers in small company.”9 In Blokzijl’s world, ‘artistic differences’ led to the end of the cooperation with Pisuisse.10 Both found their own way: Pisuisse became one of the founding fathers of Dutch comedy and Blokzijl was sent to Berlin to act as correspondent for the Handelsblad. But then World War One happened and Blokzijl joined the Dutch military.
The Netherlands were not militarily involved in this gruesome conflict, but the army was mobilized just to make sure it would stay that way. Blokzijl started his military career as a courier who transported dispatches by bicycle. Not exactly the life of a military hero, but Blokzijl would pride himself on his newly attained military discipline for the rest of his life. He managed to get some promotions, and even the command of an entire mobilized company. But before the new ambition of a big military career could be realized the war was over, and Max was in Berlin as a correspondent once again. And that’s where Rosa Luxemburg enters the stage.
Rosa Luxemburg never prided herself of being a self-made woman, but she would have more reason to do so than Max Blokzijl ever had. She was born in 1871 as the daughter of a middle class Jewish family in the Polish village of Zamość, then located in Tsarist Russia.11 The town had been involved in uprisings against the Tsarist regime and Rosa became involved in underground activities as soon as she was in high school. That of course was something that just could not amuse the Tsar, and Rosa emigrated to Zürich in 1889 to study law and political economy.12
She became involved with the international socialist movement but started to disagree with them quite soon. Because she did not agree with the nationalist sentiments of the Polish Socialist Party, which was also in exile in Zürich, she, fellow Polishman Leo Jogiches (of whom we will talk more later), and other colleagues founded the Polish Social Democratic Party.13
In 1894 she married Gustav Lübeck to obtain German Citizenship. Once in Germany, she immediately entered the discussion that would split the socialist movement for decades to come. The question was whether Karl Marx’ theory of a proletarian revolution was getting outdated or not.
The German socialist Eduard Bernstein had stated that revolution was not the only way to achieve socialist change sought for. In Bernsteins opinion it could also be achieved by cooperating within the capitalist system to achieve reforms for the working class. Luxemburg reacted to this as she should: by writing a book. In 1889 she published Sozialreform oder Revolution? (“Social Reform or Revolution?”) and there she stated: “It was Bernstein alone who stated that the chicken coop called bourgeois parliament would be the instrument of achieving the most tremendous change in world history: the transition from a capitalist into a socialist society.”14 Further: “without the collapse of capitalism the expropriation of the capitalist class is impossible.”15
In Luxemburg’s opinion there was only one way to achieve the necessary change: revolution. In 1905, when Blokzijl was probably enjoying a cozy get-together, Luxemburg went to Warsaw to participate in the preliminary revolutionary tide that shuddered Russia at that moment and got imprisoned in due course. She did put these experiences to proper use by writing hefty theoretical treatises on how a proper revolution should be done. When she got back to Germany, she started working at the Social Democratic Party School, and then World War One happened.
Luxemburg was imprisoned almost immediately because she had appealed to every man to refuse military service. She spent the rest of the war in and out of several prisons because of “high treason” but found opportunity to set up the Spartakusbund with Karl Liebknecht in 1915.16
The main goal of the organization was establishing international socialism and ending the war immediately. In Luxemburg’s opinion the Great War was an obvious result of capitalism: “the hunger to expand capital is followed by the hunger of nations to expand territory, imperialism combined with a boundless process of armament creates lasting seeds of conflict.”17 These and loads of other phrasings were smuggled out of prison and put into print to spread the word. Reason enough for the authorities to keep Rosa Luxemburg imprisoned for the rest of the war. Then the war was lost and Germany was in political chaos, chaos that could be turned into revolutionary chaos. Rosa was out of prison and smelled the opportunity. Soon the right wing press would grant her the nickname of “Bloody Rosa”. But the young Dutch reporter, and later ardent Nazi, Max Blokzijl would give her the nickname “Rosie”. And it was that nickname that made my imagination run to Rosa’s bedroom.
And now….the exciting part
Prejudice has it that ardent socialists do not have a love life. It was said about Lenin that he worked for the revolution at day and dreamed about the revolution at night. That does not leave a lot of room for intimacies. The Revolutionary Catechism, written by the Russian anarchists Bakunin and Nechaev, starts with the sentence:
The revolutionary is a person doomed, he has no interests of his own, no feelings of his own, no cause of his own (…) everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion – the revolution.18
But Rosa Luxemburg was independent enough to disagree with that. During her life she wrote about a thousand letters to Leo Jogiches, her comrade in socialism and…..lover.19 In these letters Rosa can be discerned as a woman of temper and passion. She addressed Jogiches with the pet names “My child” and “Dyodyo” (Dyodyo is Polish for “little boy”), and refused him her endearment when he misbehaved.20 But Rosa’s letters show that a relationship between revolutionaries is never easy:
When I open your letters and see six sheets covered with debates about the Polish Socialist Party and not a single word about……. ordinary life, I feel faint.21
Rosa just was not ready to give up her longing for personal happiness for the cause of the revolution:
Yes, I have an accursed longing for happiness and am ready to haggle for my daily portion with the stubbornness of a mule.22
Jogiches, despite being a revolutionary of the kind Bakunin and Nechaev described, proved the only man able to challenge Rosa intellectually and tantalize her sexuality at the same time. But personal differences, exiles, imprisonments, and the revolutionary cause would make their relationship a complicated one. Rosa exalted once that Jogiches always made her feel like an outsider. The relationship ended in 1907.23 After breaking with Jogiches, Rosa Luxemburg had some affairs, which seem to be meaningless ones.24
A meaningless affair?
Not a lot is known about the intimate life of Max Blokzijl, except that he liked cozy get-togethers and was not hampered by ideological concerns when partaking in them. But Max also loved social get-togethers, especially when with the rich and famous, and in his memoirs he boasted that he knew the leaders of the Spartakusbund personally, he even described them as his friends.25 He did not have a lot of regard for Karl Liebknecht, but was lyrical about Rosa Luxemburg. Could it be that Max was one of her ‘meaningless affairs’ in the midst of the uproars in 1918 Berlin? The thought is tempting enough, but I guess we shall never know.
Max Blokzijl and Rosa Luxemburg would make an odd couple indeed. But they have one thing in common: both got entangled in world history and as an effect met an untimely end. In 1918 the remnants of the German army that returned from the front were instrumentalized by the new Social Democratic government of Germany, to suppress the communist uprisings which had sprung up all over the country. On January 15th of the year 1919 Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested by a paramilitary group. After an inhumanely cruel interrogation they both got shot. Rosa Luxemburg’s body was dumped in one of the city canals, and what was left of her body was found four months later.26 Her remains were buried on June 12th 1919 and her grave became a place of remembrance for the socialist movement, which it still is today.27
Max Blokzijl stayed in Berlin to act as a correspondent. In due course he got fascinated by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party and their ideology. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, he became a prominent spokesperson of the movement, collaborating with the Nazi’s and using his journalistic talent to speak to the Dutch people on radio broadcasts. Nazi propaganda never had a big audience in the occupied Netherlands, but Blokzijls radio broadcasts enjoyed the attention of hundreds of thousands of listeners.28 He was also an active public speaker, as is seen in this footage from 1942 in which he lectures children about the importance of national community:
(the clip starts at 3:26)
When World War Two ended, Blokzijl was arrested, trialed, and executed for high treason. He was the first collaborator to receive the death sentence and is still the only Dutch journalist to have met this fate until this day. He was buried in a nameless grave, which was removed in 1959.29
And to make the story even gloomier: when Max Blokzijl was executed, Jean Louis Pisuisse was already dead for almost twenty years. He and his third wife Jenny Gilliams got shot on a square in Amsterdam in March 1927 by Jenny’s jealous ex-lover.30 Wishful thinking can take a historian to quite sad places.
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M. Blokzijl, Ik trok er op uit. Een kwart eeuw journalistieke zwerfjaren (Amsterdam 1929) 196 ↩
R.Kok, Max Blokzijl. Stem van het nationaal-socialisme (Amsterdam 1988) 45 ↩
Ibidem, 14 ↩
Ibidem, 16 ↩
M.Blokzijl, Ik trok er op uit. Een kwart eeuw journalistieke zwerfjaren (Amsterdam 1943) 19 ↩
M.Blokzijl, Ik trok er op uit (1943 edition) 19-67 ↩
J.L.Pisuisse, Mijn liefste lief. Brieven van Jean Louis Pisuisse aan Fie Carelsen (ed.Anke Hamel) (Den Haag 1989) 56 ↩
Ibidem, 69 ↩
M.Blokzijl, Ik trok er op uit (1943 edition) 68 ↩
Ibidem, 79 ↩
H.D. Starke, Rosa Luxemburg in Encyclopedia Brittanica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/352345/Rosa-Luxemburg last seen January 12th 2015 ↩
R.Luxemburg, Sozialreform oder Revolution? (1889) no page numbering provided. ↩
E.Meyer, Spartakus im Kriege. Die Illegalen Flugblätter des Spartakusbundes im Kriege (Berlin 1927) 23 ↩
S.Nechaev and N. Bakunin, The revolutionary Catechism (1896) ↩
R.Luxemburg. Comrade and Lover. Rosa Luxemburgs Letters to Leo Jogiches (Cambridge 1979) VIII ↩
Ibidem, XI ↩
Ibidem, XV ↩
Ibidem, XIII ↩
Ibidem, XIII ↩
M.Blokzijl, Ik trok er op uit (1924 edition) 196 ↩
https://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/weimarer-republik/revolution/luxlieb, last seen January 27th 2015 ↩
http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gedenkst%C3%A4tte_der_Sozialisten, last seen Februari 2nd 2015 ↩
R.Kok, Max Blokzijl (9) ↩
http://www.dodenakkers.nl/oorlog/verzwegen/44-blokzijl.html. Last seen February 2nd 2015 ↩