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Walter Ulbricht in 1970
|First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany|
25 July 1950 – 3 May 1971
(to 1 August 1973 as honorary Chairman)
|Preceded by||Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl (joint chairmanship)|
|Succeeded by||Erich Honecker|
|Chairman of the State Council|
12 September 1960 – 1 August 1973
as State President
|Succeeded by||Willi Stoph|
|Chairman of the National Defense Council|
10 February 1960 – 1971
|Preceded by||Office established|
|Succeeded by||Erich Honecker|
Walter Ernst Paul Ulbricht|
30 June 1893
Leipzig, Kingdom of Saxony, German Empire
1 August 1973 (aged 80)|
Groß Dölln, Templin, East Germany
|Cause of death||Stroke|
Martha Schmellinsky (1920 -?) |
Lotte Kühn (1953–1973)
|Years of service||1915-17|
|Battles/wars||World War I|
Walter Ernst Paul Ulbricht (30 June 1893 – 1 August 1973) was a German Communist politician. Ulbricht played a leading role in the creation of the Weimar-era Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and later (after spending the years of Nazi rule in exile in France and the Soviet Union) in the early development and establishment of the German Democratic Republic (GDR or, in informal, colloquial circumstances, East Germany). As the First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party 1950 to 1971, he was the chief decision maker in the GDR. From President Wilhelm Pieck's death in 1960 on, he was also the East German head of state until his own death in 1973. He and Stalin worked very closely and Ulbricht made sure that the German Democratic Republic was as close as it could be to the USSR (for example, the GDR joined the Warsaw Pact).
Ulbricht was born in Leipzig, Saxony, to Pauline Ida (née Rothe) and Ernst August Ulbricht, a tailor. He spent eight years in primary school (Volksschule). After leaving school, he trained to be a joiner. Both his parents worked actively for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which Walter joined in 1912.
Ulbricht served in World War I from 1915 to 1917 in Galicia on the Eastern Front, and in the Balkans. He deserted in 1918, as he had opposed the war from the beginning. Imprisoned in Charleroi, in 1918 he was released as part of the collapse of Imperial Germany.
In 1917 he became a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) after it split off from the Social Democratic Party over support of Germany's participation in World War I. During the German Revolution, he became a member of the soldier's soviet of his army corps.
Along with the bulk of the USPD, he joined the KPD in 1920. He rose fast in the ranks of the KPD, becoming a member of the Central Committee in 1923. Ulbricht attended the International Lenin School of the Comintern in Moscow in 1924/1925. The electors subsequently voted him into the regional parliament of Saxony (Sächsischer Landtag) in 1926. He became a Member of the Reichstag for South Westphalia from 1928 to 1933 and served as KPD chairman in Berlin and Brandenburg from 1929.
In the years before the 1933 Nazi election to power, paramilitary wings of Marxist and extreme nationalist parties provoked massive riots connected with demonstrations. Besides the Berlin Police, the KPD's arch-enemies were street-fighters affiliated with the Nazi Party, the Monarchist German National People's Party, and "radical nationalist parties." The Social Democratic Party of Germany, which dominated local and national politics from 1918–1931 and which the KPD accused of "Social fascism," was their most detested foe.
At an event arranged by the Nazi Party in January 1931, Ulbricht was allowed by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party's Gauleiter of Berlin and Brandenburg, to give a speech. Subsequently, Goebbels delivered his own speech. The attempt at a friendly discussion turned hostile, and a struggle between Nazis and Communists began: police officers divided them. Both sides had tried to use this event for their election propaganda.
The Nazi Party attained power in Germany in January 1933, and very quickly began a purge of Communist and Social Democrat leaders in Germany. Following the arrest of the KPD's leader, Ernst Thälmann, Ulbricht campaigned to be Thälmann's replacement as head of the Party. Many competitors for the leadership were killed in the Soviet Union because of Ulbricht.[better source needed]
Ulbricht lived in exile in Paris and Prague from 1933 to 1937. The German Popular Front under the leadership of Heinrich Mann in Paris was dissolved after a campaign of behind-the-scenes jockeying by Ulbricht to place the organization under the control of the Comintern. Ulbricht tried to persuade the KPD founder Willi Münzenberg to go to the Soviet Union, allegedly so that Ulbricht could have "them take care of him". Münzenberg refused. He would have been in jeopardy of arrest and purge by the NKVD, a prospect in both Münzenberg's and Ulbricht's minds. Ulbricht spent some time in Spain during the Civil War, as a Comintern representative, ensuring the liquidation of Germans serving on the Republican side who were regarded as not sufficiently loyal to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin; some were sent to Moscow for trial, others were executed on the spot.[better source needed] Ulbricht lived in the Soviet Union from 1937 to 1945, leaving from Hotel Lux to return to Germany on 30 April 1945.[better source needed]
At the time of the signing of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, Ulbricht and the rest of the German Communist Party supported the treaty.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Ulbricht was active in a group of German communists under NKVD supervision (a group including, among others, the poet Erich Weinert and the writer Willi Bredel) which, among other things, translated propaganda material into German, prepared broadcasts directed at the invaders, and interrogated captured German officers. In February 1943, following the surrender of the German Sixth Army at the close of the Battle of Stalingrad, Ulbricht, Weinert and Wilhelm Pieck conducted a Communist political rally in the center of Stalingrad which many German prisoners were forced to attend. The NKVD head Lavrenty Beria described Ulbricht as "the greatest idiot that he had ever seen".
In April 1945, Ulbricht led a group of party functionaries ("Ulbricht Group") into Germany to begin reconstruction of the German Communist party along orthodox Stalinist lines. According to Grieder, "Espousing the motto 'it must look democratic but we must control everything', he set about establishing an SED dictatorship." Within the Soviet occupied zone of Germany, the Social Democrats were pressured into merging with the Communists, on Communist terms, to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), and Ulbricht played a key role in this.
After the founding of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1949, Ulbricht became Deputy Chairman (Stellvertreter des Vorsitzenden) of the Council of Ministers (Ministerrat der DDR) under Minister-President and Chairman Otto Grotewohl, i.e., deputy prime minister. In 1950, as the SED restructured itself into a more orthodox Soviet-style party, he became General Secretary of the SED Central Committee; this position was renamed First Secretary in 1953.
After the death of Stalin (whose funeral was attended by Ulbricht, Grotewohl and other German communists) in March of that year, Ulbricht's position was in danger because Moscow was considering taking a soft line regarding Germany. However, a 1953 uprising forced Moscow to turn to a hardliner, and his reputation as an archetypal Stalinist helped Ulbricht. He was summoned to Moscow in July 1953, where he received the Kremlin's full endorsement as leader of East Germany. He returned to Berlin and purged his enemies. He took the lead in calling in Soviet troops to suppress the widespread unrest with full backing from Moscow and its large army stationed inside the GDR. His position as leader of the GDR was now secure.
At the third congress of the SED in 1950, Ulbricht announced a five-year plan concentrating on the doubling of industrial production. As Stalin was at that point keeping open the option of a re-unified Germany, it was not until 1952 that the party moved towards the construction of a socialist society in East Germany.
By 1952, 80% of industry had been nationalized. Ulbricht uncritically followed the orthodox Stalinist model of industrialization: concentration on the development of heavy industry regardless of the cost, availability of raw materials, and economic suitability. The result was an unstable economy that was chronically short of consumer goods, and those that were produced were often of shoddy quality. For example, the Trabant automobile introduced in 1957 was widely ridiculed for its poor quality. Germans joked, "How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill it up with petrol." The frustrations led many to flee to the West: over 360,000 did so in 1952 and the early part of 1953.
In 1957, Ulbricht arranged a visit to an East German collective farm at Trinwillershagen in order to demonstrate the GDR's modern agricultural industry to the visiting Soviet Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan. Following the death of President Wilhelm Pieck in 1960, the SED wrote the president's post out of the constitution. Taking its place was a collective head of state, the Council of State. Ulbricht was named its chairman, a post equivalent to that of president.
Ulbricht managed to rise to power despite having a peculiarly squeaky falsetto voice. His Saxon accent, combined with the high register of his voice, made his speeches sound incomprehensible at times.
Despite economic gains, emigration still continued. By 1961, 1.65 million people had fled to the west. Fearful of the possible consequences of this continued outflow of refugees, and aware of the dangers an East German collapse would present to the Soviet Union's Communist satellite empire, Ulbricht pressured Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in early 1961 to stop the outflow and resolve the status of Berlin. During this time, the refugees' mood was rarely expressed in words, though East German laborer Kurt Wismach did so effectively by shouting for free elections during one of Ulbricht's speeches.
When Khrushchev approved the building of a wall as a means to resolve this situation, Ulbricht threw himself into the project with abandon. Delegating different tasks in the process while maintaining overall supervision and careful control of the project, Ulbricht managed to keep secret the purchase of vast amounts of building materials, including barbed wire, concrete pillars, timber, and mesh wire. On 13 August 1961, work began on what was to become the Berlin Wall, only two months after Ulbricht had emphatically denied that there were such plans ("Nobody has the intention of building a wall"), thereby mentioning the word "wall" for the very first time. Ulbricht deployed GDR soldiers and police to seal the border with West Berlin overnight. The mobilization included 8,200 members of the People's Police, 3,700 members of the mobile police, 12,000 factory militia members, and 4,500 State Security officers. Ulbricht also dispersed 40,000 East German soldiers across the country to suppress any potential protests. Once the wall was in place, Berlin went from being the easiest place to cross the border between East and West Germany to being the most difficult.
The 1968 invasion by Warsaw Pact troops of Czechoslovakia and the suppression of the Prague Spring were also applauded by Ulbricht. East German soldiers were among those massed on the border but did not cross over, probably due to Czech sensitivities about German troops on their soil during World War II. It earned him a reputation as a staunch Soviet ally, in contrast to Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, who condemned the invasion.
From 1963, Ulbricht and his economic adviser Wolfgang Berger attempted to create a more efficient economy through a New Economic System (Neues Ökonomisches System or NÖS). This meant that under the centrally coordinated economic plan, a greater degree of local decision-making would be possible. The reason was not only to stimulate greater responsibility on the part of companies, but also the realization that decisions were sometimes better taken locally. One of Ulbricht's principles was the "scientific" execution of politics and economy: making use of sociology and psychology but most of all the natural sciences. The effects of the NÖS, which corrected mistakes made in the past, were largely positive, with growing economic efficiency.
The New Economic System was not very popular within the party, however, and from 1965 onwards opposition grew, mainly under the direction of Erich Honecker and with tacit support of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Ulbricht's preoccupation with science meant that more and more control of the economy was being relegated from the party to specialists. Also, Ulbricht's motivations were at odds with communist theory, which did not suit ideological hardliners within the Party.
By the late 1960s, Ulbricht was finding himself increasingly isolated both at home and abroad. The construction of the Berlin Wall became a public relations disaster for him, not only in the West, but even with the Eastern Bloc. This became increasingly critical as the GDR faced increasing economic problems due to his failed reforms, and other countries refused to offer any kind of assistance. His refusal to seek rapprochement with West Germany on Soviet terms, and his rejection of détente, infuriated Brezhnev who, by that time, found Ulbricht's demands for greater independence from Moscow increasingly intolerable (especially in the aftermath of the Prague Spring). One of his few victories during this time was the replacement of the GDR's original superficially liberal democratic constitution with a completely Communist document in 1968. The document formally declared East Germany to be a socialist state under the leadership of the SED, thus codifying the actual state of affairs since 1949.
On 3 May 1971 Ulbricht was forced to resign from virtually all of his public functions "due to reasons of poor health" and was replaced, with the consent of the Soviets, by Erich Honecker. Ulbricht was allowed to remain as Chairman of the State Council, the effective head of state, and held on to this post for the rest of his life. Additionally, the honorary position of Chairman of the SED was created especially for him. Ulbricht died at a government guesthouse in Groß Dölln near Templin, north of East Berlin, on 1 August 1973, during the World Festival of Youth and Students, having suffered a stroke two weeks earlier. He was honoured with a state funeral and buried among other communists in the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde.
Ulbricht remained loyal to Marxist-Leninist principles throughout his life, rarely able or willing to make compromises. Inflexible and unlikeable, a "widely-loathed Stalinist bureaucrat well known for his tactics denouncing rivals", he was an unlikely figure to attract much public affection or admiration. However, he also proved to be a shrewd and intelligent politician who knew how to get himself out of more than one difficult situation. Despite stabilising the GDR to some extent, he never succeeded in raising the standard of living in the country to a level comparable to that in the West. Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev observed, "A disparity quickly developed between the living conditions of Germans in East Germany and those in West Germany."
German historian Jürgen Kocka in 2010 summarized the consensus of scholars:
Conceptualizing the GDR as a dictatorship has become widely accepted, while the meaning of the concept dictatorship varies. Massive evidence has been collected that proves the repressive, undemocratic, illiberal, nonpluralistic character of the GDR regime and its ruling party.
Ulbricht lived in Majakowskiring, Pankow, East Berlin. He married twice: in 1920 to Martha Schmellinsky and from 1953 until his death to Lotte Ulbricht née Kühn (1903–2002). Ulbricht and Schmelinsky had a daughter in 1920, who grew up and lived separated from Ulbricht for almost her entire life. After the failure of this first marriage, he was in a relationship with Rosa Michel (born Marie Wacziarg, 1901–1990). With Michel, Ulbricht had another daughter, Rose (1931–1995).
His marriage with Lotte Kühn, his partner for most of his life (they had been together since 1935), remained childless. The couple adopted a daughter from the Soviet Union named Beate (born Maria Pestunowa, 1944–1991). Ulbricht's family life was fraught with problems; Beate entered into two marriages of which her adoptive parents disapproved, and she suffered from alcoholism. Ulbricht eventually disinherited her; custody of her children would be with her stepmother Lotte.
In 1956, Ulbricht was awarded the Hans Beimler Medal, for veterans of the Spanish Civil War, which caused controversy among other recipients, who had actually served on the front line. He was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union on 29 June 1963. On visiting Egypt in 1965, Ulbricht was awarded the Great Collar of the Order of the Nile by Nasser.
There are no biographies in English written after the fall of the GDR. These have been published in German:
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|Party political offices|
| General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany
25 July 1950–3 May 1971
| Chairman of the Council of State of the German Democratic Republic
12 September 1960–1 August 1973