Ernst Thälmann

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"Ernst Thaelmann" redirects here. For the Soviet steamship, see SS Ernst Thaelmann.
Ernst Thälmann (1932)

Ernst Thälmann (16 April 1886 – 18 August 1944) was the leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during much of the Weimar Republic. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933 and held in solitary confinement for eleven years, before being shot in Buchenwald on Adolf Hitler's orders in 1944.[1]

Political career[edit]

From 1893-1900 Thälmann visited elementary school. In retrospect, he later described history, Natural History, folklore, mathematics, gymnastics and Sports as his favorite subjects. However, he did not like religion,[2] In the mid-1890s his parents opened a vegetable, coal and wagon shop in Eilbek,[3] a suburb of Hamburg. In this business, he had to help after school. His schoolwork he did in the morning before classes started. Despite this burden, Thälmann was a good student, the learning prepared much joy. His desire to become a teacher or to learn a trade was not fulfilled because his parents refused to give him the necessary money. He therefore had to continue working in the small business of his father, which prepared him by his own admission, a great sorrow.[3] Therefore, he sought a job as an "unskilled" worker in the port. Here already ten years old Thälmann came in contact with the port workers on strike from November 1896 till February 1897, the Hamburg dockworkers strike 1896/97.[2] The labor dispute was made bitter by all parties. At the beginning of 1902 he left his parents. First he lived in an Emergency shelter, later in a basement apartment. 1904 he was Fireman (steam engine) on the freight ship AMERIKA, that went also to the USA. From 1913 to 1914 he worked for a laundry as a coachman.

Born in Hamburg, Thälmann was a Social Democratic Party member from 1903.

On January, one day before he had to do military service in World War I, he married Rosa Koch. At the beginning of 1915 he was drawn to artillery and came to the western front. There he fought till the end of the war, he was wounded two times. He said that he participated in the following battles: Battle of Champagne (1915–1916), Battle of the Somme (1916), Second battle of the Aisne, Battle of Soissons, Battle of Cambrai (1917) (1917) and Battle of Arras (1917).[3]

Thälmann was awarded several times:

Towards the end of 1917 he became a member of the Independent Socialist Party of Germany (USPD). On the day of the German Revolution, 9 November 1918, he wrote in his diary on the Western Front, "...did a bunk from the Front with 4 comrades at 2 o'clock."[citation needed][4]


The father of Ernst Thälmann was Johannes Thalmann (called 'Jan' * April 11, 1857; † October 31, 1933),[3] born in Weddern in Holstein and worked there as a farmworker. The mother of Thälmann, Mary-Magdalene (née Kohpeiss ; * November 8, 1857; † 9 March 1927),[3] was born in Kirchwerder. The wedding took place in 1884 in Hamburg. There, Johannes Thälmann earned his first money as a coachman.

The parents had no party affiliation; in contrast to the father, the mother was deeply religious. After the birth of her son Ernst parents took a pub near the Port of Hamburg. On April 4, 1887 Frieda, the sister of Ernst Thälmann was born († 8 July 1967 Hamburg). In March 1892, the parents Thälmann[2] were convicted to two years of prison because they bought stolen goods or took them for debt payment.[2][5] Thälmann and his younger sister Frieda were separated and placed for care in different families. The parents, however, were released earlier from prison (the mother in May and the father in October 1893). The offense of his parents was used only 36 years later in the campaign against Ernst Thälmann.

Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD)[edit]

Ernst Thälmann on the front page of a KPD newspaper, the Saxon Workers' News, during the 1925 presidential election. The caption reads "Ernst Thälmann: the Red President!"

On February 1, 1904, he joined the Central Union of Trade, transport and traffic workers of Germany in where he ascended to the chairman of the' 'Department carters'. In 1913, he supported a claim of Rosa Luxemburg for a mass strike as a means of action of the SPD to enforce political demands. In October 1918, Thälmann deserted together with four fellow soldiers. He did not return from home to the front, and joined end of 1918 the USPD. .

In Hamburg, he participated in the construction of Hamburg Workers' and Soldiers there. From March 1919, he was chairman of the USPD in Hamburg and a member of the Hamburg state. At the same time he worked as relief worker in the Hamburg city park, then he found a well-paying job at the employment office. He rose to Inspector. In late November 1920, the members of the strong left wing of the USPD decided on the Communist International (Comintern) and joined so with its German section, the KPD.

When the USPD split over the question whether to join the Comintern, Thälmann sided with the pro-Communist group which in November 1920 merged with the KPD.[4] In December Thälmann was elected to the Central Committee of the KPD. In March 1921 he was fired from his job at the job centre due to his political activities. That summer Thälmann went as a representative of the KPD to the 3rd Congress of the Comintern in Moscow and met Vladimir Lenin. In June 1922 Thälmann survived an assassination attempt at his flat. Terrorists from the ultranationalist group Organisation Consul threw a hand grenade into his ground floor flat. His wife and daughter were unhurt; Thälmann himself came home only later.

Thälmann participated in and helped to organise the Hamburg Uprising of October 1923.[6] The uprising failed, and Thälmann went to underground for some time. After the death of Lenin in January 1924, Thälmann visited Moscow and for some time maintained a guard of honour at his bier. From February 1924 he was deputy chairman of the KPD and, from May, a Reichstag member. At the 5th Congress of the Comintern that summer he was elected to the Comintern Executive Committee and a short time later to its Steering Committee. In February 1925 he became chairman of the Rote Frontkämpferbund (RFB), the defence organisation of the KPD.

In October 1925 Thälmann became Chairman of the KPD and that year was a candidate for the German Presidency. Thälmann's candidacy in the second round of the presidential election split the centre-left vote and ensured that the conservative Paul von Hindenburg defeated the Centre Party's Wilhelm Marx.[7] In October 1926 Thälmann supported in person the dockers' strike in his home town of Hamburg. He saw this as solidarity with the British miners' strike which had started on 1 May and had been profitable for Hamburg Docks as an alternative supplier of coal. Thälmann's argument was that this "strike-breaking" in Hamburg had to be stopped. In March, he took part in a demonstration in Berlin, where he was injured by a blow from a sword.

In 1928 during the Wittorf affair he was ousted from the party central committee for trying to cover up embezzlement by a party official who was his close friend and protégé, John Wittorf, possibly for tactical reasons. But Stalin intervened and had Thälmann reinstated, signalling the beginning of a purge and completing the "Stalinization" of the KPD.[8]

KPD vs SPD[edit]

Ernst Thälmann statue in Weimar.

At the 12th party congress of the KPD in June 1929 in Berlin-Wedding, Thälmann, in conformity with the position adopted by the Soviet Union leadership under Joseph Stalin, adopted a policy of confrontation with the SPD. This followed the events of "Bloody May", in which 32 people were killed by the police in an attempt to suppress demonstrations which had been banned by the Interior Minister, Carl Severing, a Social Democrat.[8]

During that time, Thälmann and the KPD fought the SPD as their main political enemy, acting according to the Comintern policy which declared Social Democrats to be "social fascists".[9] By 1927, Karl Kilbom, the Comintern representative to Germany, had started to combat this ultra leftist tendency of Thälmann within the German Communist Party, but found it to be impossible when he found Stalin was against him. Another aspect of this strategy was to attempt to win over the leftist elements of the Nazi Party, especially the SA, who largely came from a working-class background and supported socialist economic policies. These guidelines on social democracy as "social fascism" remained in force until 1935 when the Comintern officially switched to endorsing a "popular front" of socialists, liberals and even conservatives against the Nazi threat. By that time, of course, Adolf Hitler had come to power and the KPD had largely been destroyed.[6]

In March 1932, Thälmann was once again a candidate for the German Presidency, against the incumbent Paul von Hindenburg and Hitler. The KPD's slogan was "A vote for Hindenburg is a vote for Hitler; a vote for Hitler is a vote for war." Thälmann returned as a candidate in the second round of the election, as it was permitted by the German electoral law, but his vote count lessened from 4,983,000 (13.2%), in the first round, to 3,707,000 (10.2%). After the Nazis came to power in January 1933, Thälmann proposed that the SPD and KPD should organise a general strike to topple Hitler, but this was not achieved. In February 1933, a Central Committee meeting of the already banned KPD took place in Königs Wusterhausen at the "Sporthaus Ziegenhals", near Berlin, where Thälmann called for the violent overthrow of Hitler's government. On 3 March he was arrested in Berlin by the Gestapo.

Imprisonment and execution[edit]

Arrest in Berlin[edit]

On the afternoon of March 3, 1933 Thälmann was arrested together with his personal secretary Werner Hirsch at the home of Hans and Martha Kluczynski in Berlin-Charlottenburg (Lutzow street 9, today Alt-Lietzow 11 ). This was done by eight officers of the police station 121. This preceded a targeted denunciation by Hermann Hilliges, garden neighboring of the Kluczynskis in Gatow.[10] In the preceding days had, however, at least four other people passed on their knowledge of the connection Kluczynski-Thälmann to the police.[11] The accommodation in the road Lutzow had Thälmann used for several years occasionally and then again in January 1933. Although it was not among the six illegal neighborhoods that the M apparatus had prepared for Thälmann, but was not considered as police know.[12] Thälmann had lead a Politbüro meeting in a bar in the Lichtenberg Gudrunstraße on 27 February. On his way back he was informed by communist functionaries about the the Reichstag fire and the sudden onset of mass arrests. Thälmann spent over eleven years in solitary confinement. In August 1944, he was transferred from Bautzen prison to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was shot on 18 August.[13] His body was immediately cremated.[2] Shortly after, the Nazis claimed in an announcement that, together with Rudolf Breitscheid, Thälmann had died in an Allied bombing attack on 23 August.[14]


Ernst Thälmann Monument in Berlin

While heading the KPD, Thälmann closely aligned the German Communists with the Soviet Communist Party. Supporters of a more autonomous course were expelled.[citation needed]

Thälmann's tomb in Berlin

During World War I and the Weimar Republic, the KPD competed for leadership of the working class with the more moderate Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), particularly after the latter supported German involvement in the War. Thälmann and the KPD focused their attacks primarily on the SPD to prevent it from retaining power. Thälmann did this at the expense of ignoring the then-young Nazi Party, which likely allowed them to gain power several years later.

During the Spanish Civil War, several units of German republican volunteers (most notably the Thälmann Battalion of the International Brigades) were named in his honour.[15] During World War II, Yugoslavia's leader Josip Broz Tito organized a battalion of Danube Swabians and Wehrmacht defectors as the Ernst Thälmann Battalion to fight the Nazis.[16]

After 1945, Thälmann, and other leading communists who had been killed, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were widely honoured in East Germany, with many schools, streets, factories, etc., named after them. Many of these names were changed after German reunification, but streets and squares named after Thälmann remain in Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt an der Oder. The East German pioneer organisation was named the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation in his memory.[17] Members pledged that "Ernst Thälmann is my role model ... I promise to learn to work and fight [struggle] as Ernst Thälmann teaches".[18]

In the 1950s, an East German film in two parts, Ernst Thälmann, was produced.[17] In 1972, Cuba named a small island, Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann, after him.[19]

The British Communist composer and activist Cornelius Cardew named his Thälman Variations for piano in Thälmann's memory.

In 1935 the former town of Ostheim in Ukraine was renamed Telmanove (Donetsk Oblast).

Writings (selection)[edit]

  • Ernst Thälmann (in German), Der Kampf um die Gewerkschaftseinheit und die deutsche Arbeiterklasse. Referat und Schlußwort auf dem 10. Parteitag der KPD, Berlin: Vereinigung Internationaler Verlagsanstalten 
  • Ernst Thälmann (in German), Wedding gegen Magdeburg (revolutionärer Befreiungskampf oder kapitalistische Sklaverei), Berlin: Internationaler Arbeiter-Verlag 
  • Ernst Thälmann (in German), Katastrophe oder Sozialismus? Ernst Thälmanns Kampfruf gegen die Notverordnungen, Berlin: Internationaler Arbeiter-Verlag 
  • Ernst Thälmann (in German), Ernst Thälmann und die Jugendpolitik der KPD, Berlin: Verlag Junge Welt 
  • Ernst Thälmann (in German), An Stalin. Briefe aus dem Zuchthaus 1939 bis 1941, Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, ISBN 3-320-01927-9 


  1. ^ Ernst Thälmann biography at Spartacus educational
  2. ^ a b c d e Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim Zentralkomitee der SED (Autorenkollektiv): Ernst Thälmann. Eine Biographie. Dietz, Berlin 1980.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Ernst Thälmann: Gekürzter Lebenslauf, aus dem Stegreif niedergelegt, stilistisch deshalb nicht ganz einwandfrei. 1935, In: Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED (Hrsg.): Ernst Thälmann: Briefe – Erinnerungen. Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1986.
  4. ^ a b Branko Lazitch and Milorad Drachkovitch, "Ernst Thälmann" in Biographical Dictionary of the Comintern, Palo Alto: Hoover Institution Press, 1986
  5. ^ Hamburgischer Correspodent und Hamburgische Börsen-Halle, Morgenausgabe, 5. März 1892.
  6. ^ a b Timeline of Ernst Thälmann's life (in German), at the Lebendiges Museum Online (LEMO):
  7. ^ David Priestand, Red Flag: A History of Communism, New York: Grove Press, 2009
  8. ^ a b Eric D. Weitz, Creating German Communism, 1890-1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997
  9. ^ David Priestand, Red Flag: A History of Communism',' New York: Grove Press, 2009
  10. ^ Siehe Eberhard Czichon, Heinz Marohn: Thälmann. Ein Report. Berlin 2010, Band 1, S. 683.
  11. ^ Ronald Sassning: Thälmann, Wehner, Kattner, Mielke. Schwierige Wahrheiten. In: UTOPIE kreativ. Nr. 114 (April 2000), S. 362–375, S. 364 f.
  12. ^ Siehe Czichon, Marohn: Thälmann. Band 2, S. 717.
  13. ^ Notizzettel von Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer SS, von einer Besprechung mit Adolf Hitler in der Wolfsschanze, 14. August 1944 im Ausstellungskasten 4/31 in der ehemaligen Effektenkammer des KZ Buchenwald: "12. Thälmann ist zu exekutieren".
  14. ^ Reiner Orth: Walter Hummelsheim und der Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus. In: Landkreis Bernkastel-Wittlich: Kreisjahrbuch Bernkastel-Wittlich für das Jahr 2011. 2010, p. 336.
  15. ^ Eric D. Weitz, Creating German Communism, 1890-1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997
  16. ^ Lyon, P.D. (2008) After Empire: Ethnic Germans And Minority Nationalism In Interwar Yugoslavia (PhD Dissertation), University of Maryland, 2008.
  17. ^ a b Nils Hoffmann. "Jung Pioniere und FDJ - DDR-Museum-Steinhude". 
  18. ^ Monteath, Peter (2000). "Ernst+Thälmann+ist+unser+Vorbild%22&source=bl&ots=iS8B812mLm&sig=KJ1Q8s7pi1DLEy673NOl-8Ys1ws&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjknd-V3YnKAhUK7iYKHQPLA2MQ6AEIJTAB#v=onepage&q="Ernst%20Thälmann%20ist%20unser%20Vorbild%22&f=false Ernst Thälmann; Volume 52 of German Monitor. Rodopi. p. 142. ISBN 9789042013131. 
  19. ^ Sanchez, Juan Reinaldo (10 May 2015). "Inside Fidel Castro's luxurious life on his secret island getaway". New York Post. Retrieved 12 September 2015. 


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