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Walter Ulbricht: A Communist Biography (1973)

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During his Parisian exile, which started in the fall of 1933, he kept things much the same. Ulbricht managed to amass an information monopoly on party activities in Germany, and through tireless activity he outplayed the rest of the Communist émigré community – Thälmann had been taken out of the game by the National Socialists. His ability to anticipate and almost playfully track and follow [policy] course changes became even more refined there: although the 7th Comintern World Congress in 1935 invalidated all the principles of Communist alliance politics employed up to that point, Ulbricht was just as willing to participate in the “Antifascist People’s Front” as he had been to partake in the fanatic attack on Social Democrats as “social fascists” and “National Socialist lackeys.” But the short-lived German émigré People’s Front in Paris saw through him. To leftwing German Socialist refugees, this instruction-bound “apparatchik” was repulsive. Heinrich Mann was famously outraged by him: “I cannot sit down at a table with a man who suddenly claims that the table we are sitting at is not a table at all but a duck pond, and who wants to force me to agree.”

Relocation to Moscow

But despite an apparent reprimand, confidence in him continued to grow at the Moscow headquarters. It even survived the Stalinist purges. Although there was “material” against him from the time of serious KPD infighting, it was not used. He continued to be permitted to return to Paris after being called to Moscow. And it was not that he merely survived, he also acted as an accomplice, especially in Spain, where he and André Marty fulfilled so-called cleansing functions at the end of 1936 and beginning of 1937, and where he, on behalf of Stalin, got the blood of German Socialist Civil War fighters on his hands.

Not until 1938 did the native Leipziger permanently move from Paris to Moscow. His co-émigré Johannes R. Becher, who later became GDR minister of culture, supposedly said of him: “Comrade Ulbricht lives in Moscow on the banks of a river named Pleisse.”* A year later, another change of course, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, occurred as elegantly and as quickly as all those preceding it. The Soviet leadership’s absolute trust in Walter Ulbricht was expressed in its use of him during the German [military] attack in the summer of 1941. He was allowed to stay in Moscow to spread propaganda, at first against the invaders and later among prisoners of war. According to Moscow’s conception, the “National Committee for a Free Germany,” which was organized by Ulbricht exactly thirty years ago, was supposed to prepare a “truly German government” for the immediate postwar period.

In April 1945, he became the first to return from Moscow with his “Ulbricht Group,” and from that point on, he was considered the organizer of the Sovietization of the country east of the Elbe and, ultimately, of Germany’s division. But he was merely the instrument that, after many years of testing, had been judged best suited to both projects. According to Soviet opinion, any peace worthy of its name would have to initiate a restructuring process that would ensure the continued progress of the revolution. To that end, the so-called “old exploitative classes” would have to be stripped of all political and economic power, the “working class” – whatever that may be – would have to be forced to unite under Marxist-Leninist leadership, and the dictatorship of the proletariat would have to be established in the form of a people’s democracy. Ulbricht carried out this program within the time allotted.

* The Pleisse is a river that runs through Leipzig – eds.

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