In 1949, the Soviet Occupation Zone in Germany was on the path to socialist build-up and under the complete control of a Stalinist cadre party of a new type. The execrable means that Walter Ulbricht employed as its governor have dug themselves so deeply into the German consciousness that nothing needs to be said about them here. Now one could play state with this zone.
The more weight the German “workers’ and farmers’ state” amassed – especially after it was walled in on August 13, 1961 – the more visible the change in Ulbricht, its creator and organizer, became. To be sure, the seventy-year-old Ulbricht, like GDR head of state Wilhelm Pieck before him, was certainly prone to a father-of-the-people demeanor as an old man. And certainly there was a growing political tendency in the Western part of Germany – whether out of tiredness, convenience, or masochism – to view Ulbricht in a more favorable light. But in addition to these sorts of factors, an objective change had taken hold of him. His views hadn’t changed but their point of reference had. For the GDR state, which he felt he had created (even though his power had only been borrowed), had become more important to him than the Soviet “fatherland of the workers.”
Change in Priorities
In the end, Ulbricht knew that a state is more than just an instrument to bring about socialist restructuring in the hands of a party determined to do it. He sensed that a state has a quality and dignity of its own, and that it demands its own loyalty. No one knows how cognizant he was of this realization during the last decade of his life, but it became increasingly clear that he acted in accordance with it. In his last major speech to the Central Committee, shortly before he was deposed, he hardly even mentioned the party and its so-called “leading role.” He spoke only of the “system” and its development. No wonder the director of the Karl Marx Party College threw her arms around the new party chief [Erich Honecker], who took it all back, on his first visit.
For Ulbricht, the chairman of the Council of State, the German Democratic Republic had become his primary task, not serving the international Communist movement and its center in Moscow. Because this shift in priorities could not be tolerated – not because he was too old – he had to relinquish his power suddenly, overnight, shortly before a party congress. His successors treated him with disdain for another two years until he died. When the first GDR president died, his birth city of Guben received the sobriquet Wilhelm-Pieck-City. Leipzig will be spared a renaming.
Source: Ernst-Otto Maetzke, “Ein Staat läutert seinen Organisator” [“A State Purges Its Organizer”], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 2, 1973.
Translation: Allison Brown