The Wittorf affair was an embezzlement scandal in Germany in 1928. John Wittorf, an official of the Communist Party (KPD), was a close friend and protégé of party chairman Ernst Thälmann. Thälmann tried to cover up the embezzlement, for which he was ousted from the central committee. Joseph Stalin intervened and had Thälmann reinstated, signaling the beginning of a purge and completing the Stalinization of the KPD.
During the 1928 German federal election, John Wittorf (1894–1981), a member of the KPD central committee, embezzled 1,500 to 3,000 Reichsmarks from the KPD's campaign fund. KPD chairman Ernst Thälmann, who was a close friend and sponsor of Wittorf, knew about the embezzlement, but concealed it for tactical reasons. On September 26, 1928, after rumors of the embezzlement had been leaked to the press, the central committee expelled Wittorf and three other Hamburg officials from the KPD. Thälmann was relieved of his party responsibilities and he was accused of covering up Wittorf's actions.
Stalin, however, had been looking to strengthen Thälmann, whom he viewed as an ally and loyal supporter for the ultra-left positions then recently adopted at the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern. Stalin felt he could count on Thälmann to purge the KPD of both its right and moderate left wings. Stalin asked Vyacheslav Molotov for advice in handling the problem of Thälmann's ouster. In a telegraph to Molotov on October 1, 1928, Stalin acknowledged that Thälmann had made a huge mistake in covering up the embezzlement, but Stalin defended his motives, calling them "unselfish". He said Thälmann had been trying to spare the party a scandal, in contrast to the motives of Arthur Ewert and Gerhart Eisler, KPD central committee members who were in the Conciliator faction. Stalin felt they had placed their own interests over those of the party and the Comintern and saw in their actions "absolutely no mitigating circumstances".
Stalin then took action. On October 6, 1928, the executive committee of the Comintern passed a resolution expressing "complete political trust" in Thälmann, reversing the KPD's September 26 decision and calling on the KPD to "liquidate all factions within the party". Despite stubborn resistance from several prominent officials, the central committee of the KPD reinstated Thälmann as party chairman on October 20, 1928. This signaled the beginning of the KPD's purge of its right-wing and the moderate Conciliator faction.
The Wittorf affair was the final step of the Stalinization of the KPD. It made Thälmann servile with respect to Stalin and destroyed democracy within the KPD. It guaranteed Thälmann's and the KPD's commitment to the general line defaming the Social Democrats as social fascists, contributing not insignificantly to the KPD's own demise. Stalin used the affair to turn the Comintern into his tool; he showed his support for loyalty and ambition and neutralized both real and perceived political opponents. The discussion in the Comintern over the ousting of Thälmann had wide-reaching consequences for other Communist Parties, including the Communist Party of Italy.
Rediscovered after the Soviet Union's collapse
In the German Democratic Republic, formed from the Soviet occupation zone after the war, Thälmann was treated as a founding father, despite the fact that he did not survive his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps, having been executed at Buchenwald. The Wittorf affair was distorted beyond recognition or simply not discussed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the archives of the Comintern and the central committee of the Communist Party became available to western historians, revealing much about the Wittorf affair and the extent to which Stalin manipulated the Comintern and the KPD.
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