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Wilhelm Zaisser in 1947
June 20, 1893|
Gelsenkirchen, Westphalia, German Empire
|Died||March 3, 1958
East Berlin, East Germany
|Occupation||Politician and Minister|
Born in Gelsenkirchen, Westphalia, Zaisser studied to become a teacher from 1910 to 1913 in Essen. When World War I began a year later, Zaisser joined the army. Upon leaving the service in 1918, Zaisser joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and in 1919 returned to Essen, where he became a school teacher. During this period, Zaisser became an active communist. During the Kapp Putsch in 1920, he was a military leader of the fledgling Red Ruhr Army. Zaisser’s activities in the Red Ruhr Army led to his arrest and dismissal as a teacher in 1921. After his release, Zaisser worked for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) as a propagandist. From 1921 to 1922, Zaisser edited the Ruhr Echo and the Bergischen Voice of the People. In 1923, Zaisser entered the KPD intelligence service and worked actively against the French occupation of the Ruhr. Zaisser’s efficient work caused him to be sent to Moscow a year later, where he received political and military training.
After returning to Germany in 1924, Zaisser became one of the leading intelligence officials of the KPD, working directly for its Central Committee. Throughout the 1920s, Zaisser was a military-political leader and instructor for the KPD in such the areas of Rhine, Westphalia and Berlin. He also worked abroad for the Red Army and Soviet intelligence from 1925 to 1926 as a military advisor to Syria. Starting in 1927, Zaisser worked almost exclusively for the Executive Committee of the Comintern, serving as a military advisor to China (1927–1930) and the Czech Army (1930–1932). His work earned him membership in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1932 and Soviet citizenship in 1940. In 1936, Zaisser traveled to Spain and assumed the name “Gomez,” where on behalf of the Russians he became a military advisor to the Spanish Republican Army. Zaisser quickly achieved the rank of brigadier general (initially commanding XIII International Brigade), and in 1937, he became leader of all the pro-Republican international forces operating in Spain. Following the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Zaisser returned to Moscow to resume working for the Comintern, but was thrown into jail, apparently because of the failure of the Soviet intervention in Spain. During and after World War II, Zaisser taught communist indoctrination courses to German prisoners of war.
In 1947, Zaisser returned to Germany and joined the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Zaisser’s career took off rapidly soon afterwards, and by 1948 he was Minister of the Interior and Deputy Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt. From 1949 to 1954, Zaisser served as a representative in the Volkskammer and in 1950 worked on military and tactical issues at the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Institute, a facility to which very few non-Soviets had access.
In 1950, Zaisser gained membership in East Germany’s Politburo and the Central Committee of the SED, thus becoming one of the most powerful men in the country. In the same year, Zaisser was awarded the Karl Marx Medal and appointed Director of the Ministry of State Security. Using his vast knowledge of intelligence work, Zaisser built the Stasi into a powerful organization.
After the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in March 1953, Moscow favored replacing East Germany's Stalinist party leader Walter Ulbricht and considered Zaisser a potential candidate. However, the workers' uprising, which was suppressed by the Soviet army on 17 June led to a backlash and secured Ulbricht's position. An attempt, to depose Ulbricht shortly after the uprising,[note 1] failed, because the Soviet leadership feared that deposing Ulbricht might be construed as a sign of weakness. Subsequently Ulbricht consolidated his power and removed Zaisser and other potential threats from national leadership. Zaisser was forced to resign his ministry in July 1953. However, in 1953 Zaisser was decorated with the Order of Karl Marx.
Zaisser's downfall was also hastened by his power hungry deputy, Erich Mielke, who actively worked to tarnish Zaisser's standing in the party. Ultimately, Zaisser and others in the Politburo and the Central Committee were accused of being hostile to the party and removed from their positions. Ulbricht also accused Zaisser of not using the repressive power of the Stasi to a sufficient extent during the uprising of June 1953.
Zaisser was stripped of all his posts and classified as an enemy of the people. Zaisser subsequently spent his final years working as a translator and at the Institute of Marxism and Leninism in East Berlin. He died in obscurity in East Berlin in 1958, and was posthumously rehabilitated by the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former SED, in 1993.
- Rudolf Herrnstadt
- Heinrich Rau
- Anton Ackermann
- Ruhr Uprising
- International Brigades
- International Brigades order of battle
- Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl, who seemed to keep out of the conflict, took some notes about a few single statements during the fevered meeting of the Politburo, where the majority favoured to depose Ulbricht. O. Grotewohl's Handwritten Notes on the SED CC Politburo Meeting
- "EAST GERMANY: Soldier of Communism". Times magazine. August 3, 1953.
- Peter Grieder (1999). The East German leadership 1946-73. pp. 53-85