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Ernst Thälmann was born in Hamburg, Germany, on 16th April, 1886. His friend, Wilhelm Pieck, later recalled: "As the son of a class-conscious worker organised in the Social-Democratic Party, Ernst Thälmann came into the Socialist movement in his early youth. He was hardly sixteen years old when he joined the Social-Democratic Party. The indigent circumstances of a proletarian family drove him very early into the drudgery of capitalist exploitation. These circumstances prevented him from following the well-meant advice of his teachers that this talented working-class boy should continue his education."
A member of the Transport Workers Union he joined the Social Democrat Party in 1903. Rose Levine-Meyer knew him during this period: "Ernest Thalmann was a devoted revolutionary, a good orator with a fine instinct for the worker's temper, he was an excellent medium for expounding theories and ideas laid down by others. He was a poor thinker, and not given to abstract study, even lacking enough self-discipline to reach the cultural and theoretical level of an average Party member."
The chairman of the SDP, August Bebel, died following a heart attack on 13th August, 1913. Friedrich Ebert now replaced him as leader of the party. Like most socialists in Germany, Ebert was initially opposed to the idea of Germany going to war. However, once the First World War had started, he ordered the SDP members in the Reichstag to support the war effort.
Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the war. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy."
Thälmann disagreed with the policies of Friedrich Ebert but he was recruited into the German Army in 1915 and during the First World War fought on the Western Front. He deserted in 1918 and when he arrived back in Germany he joined the Independent Socialist Party (ISP). Other members included Kurt Eisner, Karl Kautsky, Julius Leber, Rudolf Breitscheild and Rudolf Hilferding. Ernst Thälmann was active in the German Revolution in Hamburg that began on 29th October 1918.
Thälmann was on the left-wing of the ISP and was a leading figure in the merger with the German Communist Party (KPD) in November 1920. The following month he was elected to the Central Committee of the KPD. Paul Levi was the leader of the KPD. Other prominent members included Willie Munzenberg, Ernst Toller, Walther Ulbricht, Hermann Duncker, Hugo Eberlein, Paul Frölich, Wilhelm Pieck, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin. Levi's moderate approach to communism increased the size of the party.
Ernst Thalmann was elected to the Reichstag. In the summer of 1921 Thälmann went as a representative of the KPD to the 3rd Congress of the Comintern in Moscow and met Lenin. In June 1922 Thälmann survived an assassination attempt at his flat.
Paul Levi remained a supporter of the theories of Rosa Luxemburg and this brought him into conflict with Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. They were especially upset with the publication of Our Path: Against Putschism. In 1921 Levi resigned as chairman of the KPD over policy differences. Later that year, Lenin and Trotsky, demanded that he should be expelled from the party.
Ernest Meyer now became the leader of the German Communist Party. Meyer returned to Moscow in 1922 as a member of the German delegation to the 4th World Congress of the Comintern. However, his influence went into decline with the emergence of Thälmann, who replaced Meyer as the Chairman of the KPD in 1925. Thälmann, a loyal supporter of Joseph Stalin, willingly put the KPD under the control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Ernst Thälmann was also the candidate for the German Presidency in 1925. This split the centre-left vote and ensured that the conservative Paul von Hindenburg won the election. Rose Levine-Meyer commented: "To make him the indisputable leader of the German Communism was to behead the movement and at the same time transform a highly attractive, able personality into a mere puppet."
Thälmann was the party's presidential candidate in 1932. He won 13.2 of the vote compared to the 30.1 received by Adolf Hitler. In January 1933, Thälmann proposed that the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) should organise a general strike in order to remove Hitler. When these negotiations broke down, Thälmann called for the violent overthrow of Hitler's government.
After the Reichstag Fire on 27th February, 1933, the Nazi Party launched a wave of violence against members of the German Communist Party and other left-wing opponents of the regime. This included Thalmann who was arrested and imprisoned on 3rd March 1933. He managed smuggled out details of his treatment: "They ordered me to take off my pants and then two men grabbed me by the back of the neck and placed me across a footstool. A uniformed Gestapo officer with a whip of hippopotamus hide in his hand then beat my buttocks with measured strokes, Driven wild with pain I repeatedly screamed at the top of my voice. Then they held my mouth shut for a while and hit me in the face, and with a whip across chest and back. I then collapsed, rolled on the floor, always keeping face down and no longer replied to any of their questions."
Wilhelm Pieck had managed to escape to the Soviet Union. In July 1936 he issued a statement calling for the release of Thälmann: "If we succeeded in raising a tremendous storm of protest throughout the world, it will be possible to break down the prison walls and as in the case of Dimitrov, deliver Thaelmann from the clutches of the Fascist hangmen. The fact that Ernst Thaelmann has got to spend his fiftieth birthday in the gaols of Hitler-Fascism is an urgent reminder to all the anti-Fascists of the whole world that they must intensify to the utmost their campaign for the release of Thaelmann and the many thousands of imprisoned victims of the White Terror."
Ernst Thälmann spent over eleven years in solitary confinement. He was executed in Buchenwald Concentration Camp on 18th August 1944. A few days later the Nazi government announced that Thälmann and Rudolf Breitscheid had been killed in an Allied bombing attack.
(1) Rose Levine-Meyer, Inside German Communism (1977)
Ernest Thalmann was a devoted revolutionary, a good orator with a fine instinct for the worker's temper, he was an excellent medium for expounding theories and ideas laid down by others. He was a poor thinker, and not given to abstract study, even lacking enough self-discipline to reach the cultural and theoretical level of an average Party member.
He had cut a very handsome figure as the proletarian showpiece in Ruth Fischer's Central Committee. But to make him the indisputable leader of the German Communism was to behead the movement and at the same time transform a highly attractive, able personality into a mere puppet.
(2) Ernest Thalmann, German Communist Party Conference (October, 1932)
There were sometimes in our own ranks comrades who thought themselves cleverer and more capable of judging various questions than was done in the definite decisions of our World Party. Here I stress with the greatest emphasis: our relations with the Comintern, this close, indestructible, firm confidence between the C.P.G. and the C.I. and its Exectitive - this is one of our Party, the inner-political struggles and disputes in the past and of the higher political maturity of our Party generally.
(3) Ernest Thalmann was arrested by the Gestapo on 3rd March 1933. He was later able to smuggle out details of his interrogation.
It is nearly impossible to relate what happened for four and a half hours, from 5.00pm to 9.30pm in that interrogation room. Every conceivable cruel method of blackmail was used against me to obtain by force and at all costs confessions and statements both about comrades who had been arrested, and about political activities.
It began initially with that friendly "good guy" approach as I had known some of these fellows when they were still members of Severing's Political Police (during the Weimar Republic). Thus, they reasoned with me, etc., in order to learn, during that playfully conducted talk, something about this or that comrade and other matters that interested them. But the approach proved unsuccessful. Was then brutally assaulted and in the process had four teeth knocked out of my jaw. This proved unsuccessful too. By way of a third act they tried hypnosis which was likewise totally ineffective.
But the actual high point of this drama was the final act. They ordered me to take off my pants and then two men grabbed me by the back of the neck and placed me across a footstool. A uniformed Gestapo officer with a whip of hippopotamus hide in his hand then beat my buttocks with measured strokes, Driven wild with pain I repeatedly screamed at the top of my voice.
Then they held my mouth shut for a while and hit me in the face, and with a whip across chest and back. I then collapsed, rolled on the floor, always keeping face down and no longer replied to any of their questions. I received a few kicks yet here and there, covered my face, but was already so exhausted and my heart so strained, it nearly took my breath away.
(4) Wilhelm Pieck, The Communist Review (July 1936)
Ernst Thaelmann will be fifty years old on the sixteen of April. There is hardly a corner of the world where the name of the imprisoned leader of the Communist Party of Germany is not uttered with warmth and emotion by all workers and friends of peace and liberty and where his release is not insistently demanded. Ernst Thaelmann, whom the bloodthirsty hangmen of the German proletariat have already kept in prison for three years, whom they are torturing and ill-treating, has become the symbol of the struggle against war and Fascism, the struggle for Socialism, all over the world.
It was a long journey, rich in sacrifice and struggle, that the Hamburg docker, Ernst Thaelmann, had to make before he grew to be the great leader of the producing masses of Germany and one of the most popular leaders of the Communist International.
As the son of a class-conscious worker organised in the Social-Democratic Party, Ernst Thaelmann came into the Socialist movement in his early youth. He was hardly sixteen years old when he joined the Social-Democratic Party. The indigent circumstances of a proletarian family drove him very early into the drudgery of capitalist exploitation. These circumstances prevented him from following the well-meant advice of his teachers that this talented working-class boy should continue his education.
Ernst Thaelmann began his independent proletarian existence as a porter in the Hamburg docks. He made a trip to America as a coal trimmer, and worked as a daily laborer on American farms. Thus the international character of capitalist exploitation was hammered into him in early youth—but at the same time it taught him militant life of the international working class. Arriving back in Hamburg, he devoted his whole energy and all his spare time to work in party and trade union. After a heavy day’s work and an evening spent in the service of the organisation, he voraciously read and studied the Socialist literature. At first his activities were mainly in the trade union field. Very soon his work for the organisation, his personal courage, his self-sacrifice and the successful way in which he stood up for the workers’ demands, won him the confidence of the workers. They elected him to the local executive of their trade union, they sent him four times as delegate to the congress of the Transport Workers’ Union. And already in those days Ernst Thaelmann began his open and determined fight against opportunism.
In Hamburg, Germany’s largest city serving international trade, all the shady sides of the capitalist system were in evidence in their most blatant forms. Besides the strata of labor aristocrats corrupted by colonial surplus profits, it was the circumstance that Hamburg was the seat of a number of central trade union and co-operative institutions with their large bureaucratic apparatus which, more than anything, supplied a firm foundation for opportunism. Among other things it is also noteworthy that after the Revolution of 1918 these opportunist elements in Hamburg became the representatives of the most reactionary and right-wing opinions in Social-Democracy. In order to indicate their attitude, it is enough to mention that it was one of the leaders of reactionary Hamburg Social-Democracy (Sarendorff) who replied to the united front proposals of the Communists before Hitler’s assumption to power with the provocative statement that he would ten times rather go with the bourgeoisie than once with the Communists.
In the struggle with these reactionary elements in the working-class movement Ernst Thaelmann became an uncompromising fighter for revolutionary Marxism.
When the slaughter of the nations began, and opportunism went over with banners flying to the camp of chauvinism and imperialism, the revolutionary worker, Ernst Thaelmann, did not waver one minute. From the very first days he fought resolutely against the war policy of Social-Democracy. In the first few weeks of the war he was ordered to the front. As an internationalist he set out to enlighten the troops, circulating illegal leaflets and newspapers and making a stand against the brutal treatment of the soldiers by Prussian militarism. For this he was deliberately victimised by the officers and given the most dangerous duties in the front line. Even from the trenches he kept in close touch with the illegally operating Hamburg opposition. Together with it he joined the Independent Social-Democratic Party. After the outbreak of the Revolution in November, 1918, Ernst Thaelmann fought in the foremost ranks of the revolutionary workers against the counter-revolutionary troops which Ebert and Noske had sent to crush the workersof Hamburg and Bremen. The revolutionary workers of Hamburg, who recognised Thaelmann’s personal courage and daring, elected him to represent them in the City government of the port. It was due to him that out of the 42,000 members of the Independent Social-Democratic Party’s organisation in Hamburg, 40,000declared their allegiance to the principles of the Communist International.
After the Party, following the defeat of the German proletariat in 1923, had devastatingly settled the opportunists, Ernst Thaelmann, as one of the most popular left-wing leaders, was summoned to the Central Committee of the Party, where he very soon rose to be leader of the Party. Under his leadership, the Party quickly and definitely rid itself of the ultra-left group of Ruth Fischer and Maslow, whose pseudo-radical, fatal policy had done immense harm to the mass-influence of the Party, threatening to isolate the Party from the masses.
With the help of the Communist International, he welded all the healthy and valuable forces of the Party in the leadership and in the organisation as a whole into an iron phalanx, which first flung the Trotskyist gang out of the ranks of the Party, only later to cleanse it with equal thoroughness of the Right opportunist and conciliators...
The Bolshevist policy of the Communist Party under Thaelmann’s leadership led to a steady, constant increase in its mass-influence. At the elections to the German Reichstag in November, 1932, six million working people voted for the Communist Party of Germany. The Party numbered more than 300,000 members, and it was fulfilling with ever-increasing success its great historic task of preparing the working masses of Germany for the struggle for and winning Socialism.
The development of the Party to a mass-party with a vigorous Bolshevist character was largely due to Ernst Thaelmann. He was more than usually sensitive to the temper of the masses, especially the Social-Democratic workers. For this reason he was accused by the group Nuemann of “running behind the S.P.G. workers.” But Ernst Thaelmann’s work was anything but this. Quite the reverse: he tried to make the Social-Democratic workers realise the necessity of the united front in view of the rising wave of Fascism. He tried also, however, to create the conditions for this in the Party itself...
And at the Berlin Anti-Fascist Unity Congress on July 10, 1932, Thaelmann said: “The question of the united front against Fascism … that is the question vital to the German proletariat.” On the initiative of Ernst Thaelmann the “Anti-Fascist Action” was inaugurated by the Communist Party in May, 1932, bringing the Communist and Social-Democratic workers closer together. And yet there were still present in the Party very powerful sectarian inhibitions among Communist workers against the united front with the Social-Democratic workers, chiefly caused by the struggle conducted against the Communist Party by the Social-Democratic leaders, especially the Social-Democratic Prussian Government, with the use of terrorist methods.
In these circumstances a number of grave errors were made by the Party, to correct which, on the strength of experience gained in the meantime, Ernst Thaelmann would naturally have acted with the utmost vigour if he had not been prevented from doing so by his arrest. The most serious error was that the Fascist menace was under-estimated and the main blow was not aimed at the Fascist menace as it became more and more clearly manifested.
On the bold initiative of Comrade Dimitrov, the Seventh World Congress decided to divert our tactics to the creation of the united front and the People’s Front, and set the Communist Party of Germany, in view of the altered situation in Germany, the special task of revising its relations with Social-Democracy, so that the rapid creation of the united front should become possible...
For more than three years Thaelmann has been lying in a Fascist gaol. During all this time it has only been possible once - through the workers’ delegation from the Saar - for the proletariat to establish personal contact with Thaelmann. The Fascists allow the visit on that occasion in order to confuse the workers of the Saar, because they thought that the long period of terrorism in prison would have cowed Thaelmann and that he would not dare to speak openly to the workers. But Ernst Thaelmann bade farewell to the workers in these words: “I have been and I am being tortured! Greet the workers of the Saar from me as I would greet them!” With that he showed that the brutalities of Fascist imprisonment could not break his revolutionary fortitude.
The indictment against Thaelmann published the other day is no more than a miserable declaration of bankruptcy of the part of the Fascist prosecution. That explains why the Fascists for three whole years have been continually postponing the trial and now want to abandon it alltogether. The latest report concerning Thaelmann’s fate should arouse the international proletariat the utmost vigilance. Thaelmann has been transferred from the custody of the remand authorities to that of the terrorist Gestapo gangs. This increases the mortal danger in which he is. But, on the other hand, in view of the publication of the indictment against Thaelmaan, the present moment is also favorable for the struggle for his release. If we succeeded in raising a tremendous storm of protest throughout the world, it will be possible to break down the prison walls and as in the case of Dimitrov, deliver Thaelmann from the clutches of the Fascist hangmen. The fact that Ernst Thaelmann has got to spend his fiftieth birthday in the gaols of Hitler-Fascism is an urgent reminder to all the anti-Fascists of the whole world that they must intensify to the utmost their campaign for the release of Thaelmann and the many thousands of imprisoned victims of the White Terror.