Why 'Red Rosa's' fans got the wrong grave

Pathologist says headless body in mortuary belongs to Luxemburg

She was nicknamed "Red Rosa" and millions of Germans still make the pilgrimage to an unremarkable suburb of east Berlin to pay their respects at her grave. But now it has emerged that the body of the assassinated revolutionary heroine, Rosa Luxemburg, may never have been buried at all.

Pathologists at Berlin's main Charité hospital claimed yesterday that a headless, handless and footless "mystery corpse" that had been lying unidentified deep in its mortuary for decades was almost certainly that of the early 20th century leftist leader who was shot in the head in 1919. "The corpse reveals evidence which bears a striking similarity to the body of the real Rosa Luxemburg," said Dr Michael Tsokos, head of the hospital's pathology department. "I doubt that she was ever buried."

Polish–born Luxemburg was one of Germany's foremost Marxist theorists and founded the German Communist Party, the DKP, on 1 January, 1919. But just a fortnight later, the 47-year-old was captured, allegedly tortured, and finally shot in the head by right-wing militiamen. Her body was dumped in the city's Landwehr canal, but later retrieved, with records showing that she was buried in Friedrichsfelde cemetery five months after her death.

However, the post-mortem carried out on the body before it was interred did not show evidence of her being hit by rifle butts or shot in the head, according to Dr Tsokos. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the corpse was exhumed to allow a second autopsy and that raised more doubts. Hospital records showed that Luxemburg was born with a hip deformation that resulted in her legs being different lengths, but the buried corpse showed no such limb variation.

The body discovered in the Charité's vault was only discovered by chance as Dr Tsokos was working on putting together an exhibit. A computer scan has revealed the body of a woman aged between 40 and 50, who had suffered from arthritis and had one leg slightly longer than the other. Dr Tsokos said he was now hoping to obtain a personal item of Luxemburg in order to do a DNA test and definitively confirm the body was hers. "A hat would be nice," he said, as it could contain strands of her hair.

Luxemburg was assassinated along with fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht. She died at the height of a post World War One leftist uprising in Berlin at the hands of German soldiers still supporting the exiled and defeated Kaiser Wilhelm II. The historian Isaac Deutscher described her murder as "Nazi Germany's first triumph", the celebrated playwright Berthold Brecht wrote a poem in her honour and Communist East Germany named a central Berlin square after her.

Most of the German left – ranging from Social Democrats to hard-line former East German Communists – have a special place in their heart for "Red Rosa". The notion that millions of her fans have been duped for 90 years by going on pilgrimages each January to a grave that does not contain her body was greeted with shock and consternation yesterday.

The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation said that it was "deeply dismayed" to learn that the body of an unknown woman appeared to have been passed off as Luxemburg. It blamed Germany's then Minister for the Army, Gustav Noske, for playing a " disgusting game with the dead" and urged the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel to "clear up the mystery and finally lay Rosa Luxemburg's corpse to rest".

Revolutionary heroine

*Imperial Germany's sailors started the mutiny that would lead to the end of the First World War. The German Kaiser was forced into exile and Rosa Luxemburg seized the moment and founded the German Communist Party.

*By January 1919, the revolution was turning violent and Chancellor Friedrich Ebert called in the Freikorps militia to crush the uprising.

*Decades after Luxemburg's death, the dissidents who helped to bring down the Berlin Wall were fond of quoting her maxim: Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter.