A State Purges Its Organizer. On the Death of Walter Ulbricht
It’s not insignificant that high school students in both parts of Germany know spot-on jokes about Walter Ulbricht: the now-deceased eighty-year-old left just as profound a mark on the political consciousness of Germans after the Second World War as Konrad Adenauer. And he was able to do this although even his most dispassionate critics ascribed to him all the qualities that normally stand in the way of political success: he was dry, boring, pale, not well connected, unimaginative, unattractive.
The Red Soul of Thuringia
He grew up in modest circumstances in an unprosperous Leipzig milieu; as a fifteen-year-old carpenter’s apprentice, he was already part of the organized class struggle in the Socialist Workers’ Youth Organization. He had firm views, which he never rethought and which therefore shielded him from a radical intellectual change, a questioning of everything, a metanoia. By today’s standards, he was slow to start utilizing the potential within him – it was not until the second half of the third decade of his life that he did so. Between 1920 and 1921, Walter Ulbricht must have come to realize that successful political action is not a matter of activity but organization. The Communist Party of Germany [Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD], still young at the time, offered him the perfect testing ground for this possibly still unconscious general truth: it let him build up the party district in Thuringia. Ulbricht soon became the “red soul of Thuringia,” party congress delegate, participant in the 4th Comintern* World Congress in Moscow.
This is how he came to personally know Lenin, who is said to have patted him on the shoulder; in his old age, he told this to Lenin’s heirs, who no longer knew him personally. In 1924, during a period when the KPD was banned, the Central Committee of the Communist International (Comintern) “discovered” him through Dimitri Manuilsky, who recruited talent in Germany. After attending the Lenin School in Moscow and completing a brief apprenticeship in the organizational department of the Comintern, he rose to greater glory as a recognized org[anization] specialist. “Comrade Cell,” as Ulbricht came to be known, and Wilhelm Pieck reorganized the German section of the Comintern, the KPD, according to the operational-cell organizational model and on the basis of Stalinist cadre principles.
The rigor with which he did this has often been described. The same can be said of the way in which he, as a “centrist,” cleverly stayed out of all internal party disputes and faction formations. If a vote taken during an internal party conflict would have exposed or labeled him too strongly, he waited it out, if need be, in the men’s room. The only thing that mattered was to keep hold of the reigns or to regain control of them quickly, to stay on good terms with Moscow, and to always be the most well-informed person around. He soon became head of the important Berlin-Brandenburg party district and, from 1928 on, served as a Communist representative in the Reichstag and thus held a very comfortable position, though not in the leadership. It suited him just fine that Thälmann, Pieck, Florin, Schubert, Schulte, and Scheer were at the forefront of party life.
* The Comintern (1919–1943) sought to guide the socialist movement under the leadership of the Soviet Union. – eds.