East Berlin, March 1954: top figures of the East German state have gathered in the capital’s most famous cinema, the Friedrichstadt-Palast, for a major cultural event. Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl, President Wilhelm Pieck, and General Secretary Walter Ulbricht are all in attendance to watch the premiere of Ernst Thälmann: Son of His Class.
Costing over six million East German marks to complete, the film was extremely costly for a Stalinist state still dealing with the destruction of war and crushing reparations to the Soviet Union. Its sequel, Ernst Thälmann: Leader of his Class, would debut a year and a half later, and was an equally expensive production, with thirty-four lead actors, hundreds of minor roles, and thousands of extras.
The two films about the former Communist leader went on to become some of the most successful films in East German history, awarded with countless prizes throughout the Eastern Bloc. Hardly anyone born in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) managed to get through school without watching them at least once.
Between Hero Worship and Demonization
Although their cinematic value is debatable, the two films remain important historical artifacts today for having helped construct the political mythology surrounding the late Communist Party chairman. Murdered by the Nazis in the Buchenwald concentration camp in August 1944, Thälmann’s political legacy and tragic death led to his stylization as a martyr after the war.
This can be seen in much of East German popular as well as academic literature, in which Thälmann is usually portrayed not as disagreeing with political opponents, but “unmasking” their false positions. The mythological Thälmann never made suggestions or constructive criticism — he “showed” his comrades “the right path.”
Following the establishment of the GDR in the Soviet occupation zone, a vast array of Thälmann memorials, commemorations, and other ceremonies soon emerged. The state counted at least ten memorial sites, fifteen major monuments, over eighty memorial stones, and countless busts, plaques, and other paraphernalia.
These were joined by movies, books, traveling exhibitions, and school materials. Dozens of historians helped to perfect the Thälmann myth, hoping to provide the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) with a degree of historical, and thus political, legitimacy. The picture they painted of the man was inevitably in line with the official views of party and state.
In West Germany, on the other hand, Thälmann was either ignored or reviled. Communists were treated as criminals, even those who had survived Nazi persecution. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was outlawed in 1956, subsequently restricting commemoration of Thälmann’s life to small leftist circles.
While the Nazi butchers who killed him lived out their old age peacefully in the Federal Republic, their victim was dismissed as a “provincial politician with a talent for demagoguery” and an “enemy of democracy.”
The contrast between these two narratives could hardly have been greater. But who was Ernst Thälmann really, beyond the clichéd narratives of East and West?
A Class Fighter
Born in 1886 in Hamburg, Thälmann grew up in a fairly modest family that owned a small colonial imports store, and became a critic of exploitation and social inequality at a young age. For a while his father was imprisoned for selling stolen goods, forcing Ernst to begin helping out around the shop.
He left the family home at sixteen, landing in a homeless shelter and later a basement apartment. As an unskilled and untrained worker, Thälmann made ends meet by shifting from job to job in the Hamburg ports, and later was hired as a boilerman on a large freighter. His occupational biography even took him to the United States for a brief period, where he worked on a farm.
These experiences were crucial in shaping Thälmann’s working-class radicalism. Increasingly aware that Germany under the Kaiser offered neither social justice nor democracy, he joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1903 at the age of seventeen.
He soon became both an antiwar activist as well as an anti-imperialist, and was a vocal critic of the SPD’s decision to approve the government’s war credits in Parliament at the beginning of World War I. In 1918, he joined thousands of others who left the party in protest of its support for the war and formed the Independent Social Democrats (USPD).
Thälmann made no attempt to conceal his antiwar views after being conscripted to serve in the army. Although he was wounded in battle twice, he was never promoted or acknowledged for his efforts, considered too rebellious for such honors by his commanding officers.
His attitude earned him a court martial instead, although he was ultimately declared innocent. He deserted from the army with four friends and fellow soldiers in October 1918 by refusing to return from home leave.
Thälmann, known endearingly as “Teddy” to his supporters, was a popular figure among Hamburg workers. This was certainly helped by his simple, proletarian appearance and working-class dialect and mannerisms, which he would retain throughout his career.
He joined the Transport Workers Union as a young worker in 1904 and soon became the head of its carriage driver division. He participated in the November Revolution in Hamburg in 1918 and was elected chairman of the Hamburg USPD in March 1919, which he also represented in the city council. When the USPD’s left wing left the party to join the KPD one year later, he quickly became leader of the Hamburg KPD as well.
“Teddy” would soon make a name for himself in the national party, beginning in 1924 when the party’s left around Ruth Fischer, Arkadi Maslow, and Werner Scholem assumed leadership of the KPD. Thälmann also belonged to the left wing and became a member of the politburo.
The new leadership was composed primarily of intellectuals. In order to counteract this image, the KPD Central Committee began using Thälmann as their “proletarian figurehead,” raising his profile inside the party immensely.
The party’s decision to nominate him as their presidential candidate in early 1925 turned him into a political celebrity in his own right, and was soon followed by his appointment as leader of the Roter Frontkämpferbund, a Communist-led paramilitary organization.
When Stalin orchestrated the Fischer leadership’s removal in August 1925, Thälmann was installed as party chairman, a post he would retain until the end of the Weimar Republic.
Thälmann’s period as KPD leader witnessed several major successes, such as the 1932 parliamentary elections in which the Communists received 16.9 percent of the vote and became the country’s third-strongest political force.
Thälmann’s KPD also initiated and lead the 1926 popular referendum to expropriate the German nobility, organized together with the SPD and trade unions.
Although the referendum ultimately failed, it was a massive success in terms of mobilizing the working class for a political aim: 14.4 million German voters cast a ballot to expropriate the nobility, 4.8 million more than had voted for KPD and SPD combined in the elections a year earlier. In fact, the referendum would go down as the most successful left electoral mobilization in Weimar Republic history.
The Stalinization of the KPD
The party’s successes under Thälmann, however, are only one half of the story, for he was also the driving force behind Stalinization in the mid to late 1920s, a fundamental transformation of the KPD’s political culture, organizational structures, and social base.
By the time the Nazis took over in 1933, the KPD was a caricature of its former self. In the first years of the party’s existence it had been a lively organization in which internal discussion and disagreement was taken for granted.
Decisions were made democratically and the party press regularly published dissenting and controversial opinions. Party conferences were sites of fierce debate, in which oppositional members were always given the opportunity to present their views in lengthy presentations.
By the time Thälmann had finished restructuring the organization, the KPD was a largely undemocratic and bureaucratic party in which the leadership ruled with absolute authority.
Internal discussion was rarely permitted, and conflicts were “solved” organizationally rather than politically, through expulsions and threats. The Thälmann leadership often issued critics internal gag orders or simply kicked them out to avoid controversy.
This organizational ossification was accompanied by ideological stagnation and increasing dogmatism. Historian Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten describes how the Soviet Union “was fashioned as a holy land, and Marx, Engels, Lenin were honored like the founders of a religion.”
Back in the Soviet Union
The transformation of the KPD was part of a broader process we know today as “Stalinization,” which began not in Germany, but in the Soviet Union. By the mid 1920s, Stalin had advanced to general secretary of the Russian Communist Party by cleverly pitting his opponents against each other and emerging from the factional struggles unscathed.
In the coming years, he would implement policies contradicting everything his party had once stood for. Remaining elements of workers’ control were dismantled and factories placed in the hands of executive managers. Piecework was reintroduced. Workers were forbidden from changing workplaces or moving, and strikes were banned under punishment of death.
Outside of immediate economic relationships, many of the social achievements of the Russian Revolution were abolished as well. Divorce became increasingly difficult, abortion was banned, and a reactionary “Order of Maternal Glory” was introduced to promote higher birth rates and traditional gender roles.
Homosexuality, legalized by the revolutionary administration, was again made punishable. The cultural and artistic renaissance that had flourished under the first years of the Bolsheviks was sidelined and replaced with the lifeless depictions of socialist realism.
In order to enforce these policies and secure his own power, Stalin embarked on a campaign to eliminate the socialist tradition in the Communist Party. He did so initially by removing most of the other famous Bolsheviks from the leadership; later, the old guard was either sent to prison camps, exiled, or executed.
Of the members of the 1923 politburo, for example, only three would die natural deaths: Lenin, Stalin, and his devoted follower Molotov. The rest were all executed, murdered, or driven to suicide.
Countless Old Bolsheviks — Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, and Bukharin — were accused of treason in the show trials of 1936–38 and tortured until they confessed. Others, like Trotsky, were hounded across the world by Soviet agents and ultimately assassinated.
In total, at least half a million Russian Communists died in Stalin’s “Great Purges.” It is against this backdrop that Hermann Weber, one of the greatest historians of the Communist movement in the German-speaking world, refers to Stalin’s purges as the “the biggest wave of anti-Communist persecution in history.”
On the other hand, such a fundamental transformation of the Communist Party and movement was not possible without distorting and mangling Communist ideology as well.
Stalin thus turned Marxism into a state religion, taking certain sentences and phrases out of context and using them to justify the political turn of the moment, such as his theory of “socialism in one country.”
Stalin argued that socialism was possible within a Russian national framework — contradicting the hitherto universal position of the socialist movement, but corresponding to the needs of the party bureaucracy, which sought to secure the Soviet Union’s acceptance on the international stage.
Concretely, this meant agreements and even alliances with other capitalist states. The world revolution no longer had any place on the Soviet political agenda, as it risked damaging Moscow’s relations with other foreign powers.
Stalin’s Man in Germany
The threat of revolutionary upheavals abroad compelled Stalin not only to transform the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), but to turn the other Communist parties into instruments of Soviet foreign policy.
The KPD, being the strongest and most important party outside of Russia, became Stalin’s first target, and he chose Thälmann to play the role of lead protagonist.
“Teddy” soon became Stalin’s right hand in Germany. Despite his successes as leader of the party, he was also responsible for the wholesale expulsion of every dissident current from the KPD — first his erstwhile comrades in Ruth Fischer’s group, then the party “right” around Heinrich Brandler, and finally the so-called “conciliators.” Tens of thousands of Communists left the party over the course of the 1920s, many of whom were expelled on absurd grounds.
Of the 350–400,000 members the KPD counted following its fusion with the USPD’s left wing in 1920, less than 40,000 remained seven years later in 1927, when the party had a total of 130,000 members. The old membership had been swapped out for another.
This exchange was the basis for the degeneration of the socialist tradition inside the party, as most of the veteran militants active in the Spartacus League and prewar Social Democracy were forced out, leaving young, politically inexperienced members to deal with a leadership that increasingly portrayed itself as infallible.
This process was not entirely straightforward, nor did it occur without resistance, frictions, and mistakes, but Stalin and Thälmann ultimately emerged victorious. By the end of the 1920s the KPD was thoroughly undemocratic and run from above by a bureaucratic apparatus.
After Hitler, Our Turn
The smashing of party democracy meant that the KPD now followed literally every political zig-zag emanating from Moscow. The best example of this, and the one that would eventually prove fatal for both German Communism and Thälmann himself, was the theory of “social fascism.”
By the end of the 1920s, Hitler’s Nazis were growing dangerously powerful. The KPD leadership, however, proved utterly incapable of analyzing what was happening. The term “fascism” was thrown around carelessly, applied to the conservative government under President Hindenburg that had taken power in 1930.
To make matters worse, the KPD considered their rivals in the labor movement, the Social Democratic Party, “social fascists.” In the eyes of the Communists, the Nazis, the current government, and the SPD were all fascists of one stripe or another, and thus sworn enemies of the working class.
This stance was inherited from Moscow, basing itself on Stalin’s theory of social fascism. As Stalin explained at the Communist International’s Sixth World Congress, social democracy and fascism were mutually reinforcing “twin brothers.”
In the depths of world economic crisis, the Communist International argued, the only path to victory would be a Communist-led struggle against both fascism and social democracy, as it was social-democratic reformism that held workers back from revolutionary anticapitalist consciousness.
Accordingly, Thälmann’s Central Committee, which had conducted the referendum on expropriation of the nobility together with the SPD only a few years prior, rejected any and all antifascist collaboration with the social democrats. This decision ultimately facilitated the Nazi rise to power and led to many Communists and social democrats becoming political prisoners of the new Nazi regime a few years later.
An Unanswered Plea
Thälmann’s inability to make a decision independently of Stalin had already been demonstrated in 1928 during the so-called “Wittorf affair.” John Wittorf, spokesperson for the KPD in the Hamburg city council, had embezzled funds raised for striking German workers in the Soviet Union. A friend and supporter of Thälmann’s, “Teddy” had known about Wittorf’s theft and sought to cover it up. The embezzlement came to light nonetheless, prompting the Central Committee to remove Thälmann from all party functions.
Soon after, however, a telegram from Moscow arrived in which Stalin urged the leadership to reconsider its decision, and suddenly the majority of the Central Committee changed their minds and rehabilitated Thälmann. The move played a major role in consolidating Thälmann’s hold over the party apparatus, but also demonstrated how dependent he was on Stalin.
Thälmann’s dependence would prove fatal under the Nazis. He was arrested in 1933 and spent over a decade in prison. Throughout this time, he hoped for and expected Stalin to intervene on his behalf and save him from certain death. This can be seen most clearly in the letters he wrote to the Soviet leader during the 1939–1941 Hitler-Stalin pact, a period in which Stalin probably could have arranged for a prisoner exchange and brought him to Moscow.
Yet Stalin would do no such thing. He ignored Thälmann’s appeals and sat back as his devoted follower was murdered by Nazi guards in 1944.
In dying at the hands of fascists, Thälmann shared his fate with countless thousands of other Communists. The particular tragedy of his death, however, was that it very possibly occurred with Stalin’s tacit approval. Although no conclusive proof of such a decision exists, Stalin may have simply decided that a dead, martyred Thälmann was more useful to him than a living one.
Thälmann in many ways can be seen as symbolic of the twisted irony of Stalinism’s rise, for “Teddy” did not begin his career as a Stalinist apparatchik but rather as a devoted class fighter and socialist. He was a member of all three mass parties of the German labor movement, spent years in prison for his beliefs, and ultimately died for them.
Although personal ambition certainly played a role in his later Stalinist turn, there can be little doubt that for Thälmann, as for thousands of other devoted Communists, allegiance to Stalin and the Soviet Union was borne primarily out of devotion to the socialist cause. Stalinism, on the other hand, viewed its loyal adherents as little more than pawns on the geopolitical chessboard to be deployed and discarded at will.
Thälmann’s KPD, once one of the strongest Communist parties in the world, would from then on only survive through Soviet backing in exile and, later, in the form of the East German satellite state.
Thälmann’s early successes as an organizer and his popularity among German workers suggest that he maybe could have played a better role in a democratic KPD which held leaders to account and corrected political mistakes, but the process of Stalinization he presided over locked the party into a suicidal political perspective and left it unable to change course in time.
Ultimately, this tragedy would mark the end of revolutionary socialism as a mass current in the German labor movement in the twentieth century, opening the door to fascism and, later, a renewed German capitalism.