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Walter Ulbricht

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Walter Ulbricht

Walter Ulbricht
Ulbricht in 1970.
General Secretary of the
Central Committee of the
Socialist Unity Party of Germany
In office
25 July 1950 – 3 May 1971
Preceded by Post jointly held by Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl
Succeeded by Erich Honecker
Chairman of the State Council of the
German Democratic Republic
In office
12 September 1960 – 1 August 1973
Preceded by Wilhelm Pieck
As State President
Succeeded by Willi Stoph
Personal details
Born (1893-06-30)30 June 1893
Leipzig, Kingdom of Saxony, German Empire
Died 1 August 1973(1973-08-01) (aged 80)
Groß Dölln, Templin, East Germany
Nationality German
Political party SPD (1912-1917)
USPD (1917-1920)
KPD (1920-1946)
SED (1946-1973)
Spouse(s) Martha Schmellinsky (1920 -?)
Lotte Kühn (1953-1973)
Profession Politician
Religion None

Walter Ulbricht (30 June 1893 – 1 August 1973) was a German communist politician. He played a leading role in the creation of the Weimar-era Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and later (spending the years of Nazi rule in exile in the Soviet Union) in the early development and establishment of East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). He was first secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, and as such the actual leader of East Germany, from 1950 to 1971. From President Wilhelm Pieck's death in 1960, he was also the East German head of state until his own death in 1973.

Early years

Ulbricht was born in Leipzig, Saxony, to Pauline Ida (née Rothe) and Ernst August Ulbricht, a tailor. He spent eight years in primary school (Volksschule). After leaving school, he trained to be a joiner. Both his parents worked actively for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which Walter joined in 1912.

First World War and Weimar years

Ulbricht served in World War I from 1915 to 1917 in Galicia on the Eastern Front, and in the Balkans.[1] He deserted in 1917, as he had opposed the war from the beginning. Imprisoned in Charleroi, in 1918 he was released during the German Revolution of 1918–19. In 1917 he became a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) after it split off from the Social Democratic Party over support of Germany's participation in World War I. During the German Revolution, he became a member of the soldier's soviet of his army corps. Along with the bulk of the USPD, he joined the KPD in 1920. He rose fast in the ranks of the KPD, becoming a member of the Central Committee in 1923. Ulbricht attended the International Lenin School of the Comintern in Moscow in 1924/1925. The electors subsequently voted him into the regional parliament of Saxony (Sächsischer Landtag) in 1926. He became a Member of the Reichstag for South Westphalia from 1928 to 1933 and served as KPD chairman in Berlin from 1929.

In the years before the 1933 Nazi election to power, paramilitary forces of the left and the right caused frequent disturbances. Violence connected with demonstrations was common, with supporters of each side fighting each other and the police. In 1931 the Communists in Berlin decided on a policy of killing two police officers for every communist demonstrator killed by police, and as a result Ulbricht urged fellow communists Heinz Neumann and Hans Kippenberger to plan the assassination of two Berlin police officers, Paul Anlauf and Franz Lenck. Erich Mielke (later to become Ulbricht's chief of national security) and Erich Ziemer carried out the killing. In 1932, the Comintern ordered the Communists to cooperate with the Nazis against the Social Democrats, so Ulbricht and Joseph Goebbels (the Nazi Gauleiter for Berlin) both urged their respective constituents to support the Berlin transport workers' strike in November 1932. At an event arranged by the Nazi Party in January 1931, Ulbricht was allowed to deliver a speech. Subsequently, Goebbels delivered his own speech. The attempt at discussion became the opposite of friendly, and a struggle between Nazis and Communists began: police officers divided them. Both sides had tried to use this event for their election propaganda.[2] The strike ended after five days.

Nazi and war years

Wanted poster distributed by the Berlin police, September 1933 (Ulbricht is bottom left).

The Nazi Party attained power in Germany in January 1933, and very quickly began a purge of Communist and Social Democrat leaders in Germany. Following the arrest of the KPD's leader, Ernst Thälmann, Ulbricht campaigned to be Thälmann's replacement as head of the Party. Many competitors for the leadership were killed in the Soviet Union because of Ulbricht.[3]

Ulbricht lived in exile in Paris and Willi Münzenberg to go to the Soviet Union, allegedly so that Ulbricht could have "them take care of him". Münzenberg refused. He would have been in jeopardy of arrest and purge by the NKVD, a prospect in both Münzenberg's and Ulbricht's minds.[4] Ulbricht spent some time in Spain during the Civil War, as a Comintern representative, ensuring the liquidation of Germans serving on the Republican side who were regarded as not sufficiently loyal to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin; some were sent to Moscow for trial, others were executed on the spot.[5] Ulbricht lived in the Soviet Union from 1937 to 1945, leaving from Hotel Lux to return to Germany on 30 April 1945.

During the German–Soviet alliance from 1939–1941, Ulbricht promoted in the Comintern journal Die Welt the official line of cooperation with Nazi Germany. Thus, he opined that "the German government declared itself ready for friendly relations with the Soviet Union, whereas the English-French war bloc desires a war against the socialist Soviet Union. The Soviet people and the working people of Germany have an interest in preventing the English war plan.“[6]

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Ulbricht was active in a group of German communists under NKVD supervision (a group including, among others, the poet Erich Weinert and the writer Willi Bredel) which, among other things, translated propaganda material into German, prepared broadcasts directed at the invaders, and interrogated captured German officers. In February 1943, following the surrender of the German Sixth Army at the close of the Battle of Stalingrad, Ulbricht, Weinert and Wilhelm Pieck conducted a Communist political rally in the center of Stalingrad which many German prisoners were forced to attend. The NKVD head Lavrenty Beria described Ulbricht as "the greatest idiot that he had ever seen".[7]

Creation of the GDR

Mao Zedong, Stalin and Ulbricht, at Stalin's 70th birthday celebration in Moscow, December 1949
Ulbricht's decision, throughout his time at the top, to model his beard on that of Lenin did not go unremarked by contemporaries.[8]
Ulbricht (right) with Nikita Khrushchev in 1963

In April 1945, Ulbricht led a group of party functionaries ("Ulbricht Group") into Germany to begin reconstruction of the German Communist party along orthodox Stalinist lines. According to what Grieder says, "Espousing the motto 'it must look democratic but we must control everything', he set about establishing an SED dictatorship."[9] Within the Soviet occupied zone of Germany, the Social Democrats were pressured into merging with the Communists, on Communist terms, to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), and Ulbricht played a key role in this.

After the founding of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1949, Ulbricht became Deputy Chairman (Stellvertreter des Vorsitzenden) of the Council of Ministers (Ministerrat der DDR) under Chairman Otto Grotewohl—i. e., deputy prime minister. In 1950, as the SED restructured itself into a more orthodox Soviet-style Communist party, he became General Secretary of the SED Central Committee; this position was renamed First Secretary in 1953. After the death of Stalin (whose funeral was attended by Ulbricht, Grotewohl and other German communists) in March of that year, Ulbricht's position was in danger for some time, because of his reputation as an archetypal Stalinist. Ironically, he was saved by the Berlin Uprising of 17 June 1953, because the Soviet leadership feared that deposing Ulbricht might be construed as a sign of weakness.

At the third congress of the SED in 1950, Ulbricht announced a five-year plan concentrating on the doubling of industrial production. As Stalin was at that point keeping open the option of a re-unified Germany, it was not until 1952 that the party moved towards the construction of a socialist society in East Germany.[10]

By 1952, 80 percent of industry had been nationalized. Blindly following an orthodox Stalinist model of industrialization—concentration on the development of heavy industry regardless of the cost, availability of raw materials, and economic suitability—produced an economy that was short of consumer goods, and those that were produced were often of shoddy quality. One consequence was the flight of large numbers of citizens to the West: over 360,000 in 1952 and the early part of 1953.[11]

In 1957, Ulbricht arranged a visit to an East German collective farm at Trinwillershagen in order to demonstrate the GDR's modern agricultural industry to the visiting Soviet Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan. Following the death of Wilhelm Pieck in 1960, the SED abolished the function of President of the GDR and instead created a new institution, the Council of State. Ulbricht was named its chairman—thus becoming, in name as well as in fact, the supreme leader of the country.

Ulbricht managed to achieve this position despite having a peculiarly squeaky falsetto voice resulting from a diphtheria infection when he was 18. At times, his speeches would be incomprehensible, owing to the combination of this very high register with his Saxon accent.[12]

Although modest economic gains were being made, emigration still continued. By 1961, 1.65 million people had fled to the west.[13] Fearful of the possible consequences of this continued outflow of refugees, and aware of the dangers an East German collapse would present to the Soviet Union’s Communist satellite empire, Ulbricht pressured Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in early 1961 to stop the outflow and resolve the status of Berlin.[14] During this time, the refugees’ mood was rarely expressed in words, though East German laborer Kurt Wismach did so effectively by shouting for free elections during one of Ulbricht’s speeches.[15] When Khrushchev approved the building of a wall as a means to resolve this situation, Ulbricht threw himself into the project with abandon. Delegating different tasks in the process while maintaining overall supervision and careful control of the project, Ulbricht managed to keep secret the purchase of vast amounts of building materials, including barbed wire, concrete pillars, timber, and mesh wire.[16] On 13 August 1961, work began on what was to become the Berlin Wall, only two months after Ulbricht had emphatically denied that there were such plans ("Nobody has the intention of building a wall"),[17] and mentioned therewith for the very first time the phrase wall. Ulbricht had sent out GDR soldiers and police to seal the border with West Berlin overnight. The mobilization included 8,200 members of the People’s Police, 3,700 members of the mobile police, 12,000 factory militia members, and 4,500 State Security officers. Ulbricht also dispersed 40,000 East German soldiers across the country to suppress any potential protests.[18] Once the wall was in place, Berlin went from being the easiest border stretch to cross between East and West Germany to being the most difficult.[19]

The 1968 invasion by Warsaw Pact troops of Czechoslovakia and the suppression of the Prague Spring were also applauded by Ulbricht. East German soldiers were among those massed on the border but did not cross over, probably due to Czech sensitivities about German troops on their soil during World War II. It earned him a reputation as a staunch Soviet ally in contrast to Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, who condemned the invasion.

The New Economic System

From 1963, Ulbricht and his economic adviser Wolfgang Berger attempted to create a more efficient economy through a New Economic System (Neues Ökonomisches System or NÖS). This meant that under the centrally coordinated economic plan, a greater degree of local decision-making would be possible. The reason was not only to stimulate greater responsibility on the part of companies, but also the realization that decisions were sometimes better taken locally. One of Ulbricht's principles was the "scientific" execution of politics and economy – making use of sociology and psychology but most of all the natural sciences. The effects of the NÖS, which corrected mistakes made in the past, were largely positive, with growing economic efficiency.

The New Economic System was not very popular within the party, however, and from 1965 onwards opposition grew, mainly under the direction of Erich Honecker and with tacit support of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Ulbricht's preoccupation with science meant that more and more control of the economy was being relegated from the party to specialists. Also, Ulbricht's motivations were at odds with communist theory, which did not suit ideological hardliners within the Party.

Dismissal, death and legacy

By the late 60's, Ulbricht was finding himself increasingly isolated both at home and abroad. The construction of the Berlin wall became a public relations disaster for Ulbricht not only in the west, but even with the Eastern Bloc. This became increasingly critical when the GDR was facing increasing economic problems due to his failed reforms and other countries refused to offer any kind of assistance. His refusal to seek rapprochement with West Germany on Soviet terms and his rejection of détente infuriated Brezhnev, who by that time, found Ulbricht's demands for greater independence from Moscow increasingly intolerable (especially in the aftermath of the Prague Spring). On 3 May 1971 Ulbricht was forced to resign from virtually all of his public functions "due to reasons of poor health" and was replaced – with the consent of the Soviets [20]– by Erich Honecker. He was allowed to remain head of state as Chairman of the Council of State. Additionally, the honorary position of Chairman of the SED was created especially for him. Ulbricht died at a government guesthouse in Groß Dölln near Templin, north of East Berlin, on 1 August 1973, during the World Festival of Youth and Students, having suffered a stroke two weeks earlier. He was honoured with a state funeral and buried among other communists in the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde.

Ulbricht's grave in Berlin

Ulbricht remained loyal to Leninist and Stalinist principles throughout his life, rarely able or willing to make compromises. Inflexible and unlikeable, a "widely loathed Stalinist bureaucrat well known for his tactics denouncing rivals",[21] he was an unlikely figure to attract much public affection or admiration. However, he also proved to be a shrewd and intelligent politician who knew how to get himself out of more than one difficult situation. Despite stabilising the GDR to some extent, he never succeeded in raising the standard of living in the country to a level compable to that in the West. Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev observed, "A disparity quickly developed between the living conditions of Germans in East Germany and those in West Germany."[22]

According to German historian Jürgen Kocka (2010):

"Conceptualizing the GDR as a dictatorship has become widely accepted, while the meaning of the concept dictatorship varies. Massive evidence has been collected that proves the repressive, undemocratic, illiberal, nonpluralistic character of the GDR regime and its ruling party."[23]

Personal life

Ulbricht (right) with his wife, Lotte Ulbricht

Ulbricht lived in Majakowskiring, Pankow, East Berlin. He married twice: in 1920 to Martha Schmellinsky and from 1953 until his death to Lotte Ulbricht née Kühn (1903–2002). The couple adopted a daughter from the Soviet Union named Beate (born Maria Pestunowa, 1944–1991). Ulbricht's family life was fraught with problems; Beate entered into two marriages of which her adoptive parents disapproved, and she suffered from alcoholism. Ulbricht eventually disinherited her; custody of her children would eventually land with her stepmother Lotte.[24]


In 1956, Ulbricht was awarded the Hans Beimler Medal, for veterans of the Spanish Civil War, which caused controversy among other recipients, who had actually served on the front line.[25] He was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union on 29 June 1963.[26] On visiting Egypt in 1965, Ulbricht was awarded the Great Collar of the Order of the Nile by Nasser.[27]

See also


  1. ^ Frank, Mario, Walter Ulbricht. Eine Deutsche Biographie (Berlin 2001) 52-53.
  2. ^ Was geschah in Friedrichshain, Die Zeit, 1969/40
  3. ^ Frank, Mario, Walter Ulbricht. Eine Deutsche Biographie (Berlin 2001), 117-121. Frank only gives an example of Kippenberger. Other competitors were killed as well, but it is very likely the initiative of the NKVD, given the anti-German frenzy in the Soviet union at that time.
  4. ^ Frank, Mario, Walter Ulbricht. Eine Deutsche Biographie (Berlin 2001), 124-139.
  5. ^ Robert Solomon Wistrich, Who's Who in Nazi Germany, Routledge, 2001; John Fuegi, Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics and the Making of the Modern Drama, Grove Press, 2002, p.354; Noel Annan, Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany, Cornell University Press, 1997, p.176
  6. ^ Die Welt, February 1940.
  7. ^ Frank, Mario, Walter Ulbricht. Eine Deutsche Biographie (Berlin 2001), 241.
  8. ^ Editor in chief:  
  9. ^ Peter Grieder (2000). The East German Leadership, 1946-73: Conflict and Crisis. Manchester UP. p. 14. 
  10. ^ Martin Kitchen, A History Of Modern Germany 1800-2000, Blackwell, 2006, p.328
  11. ^ Martin Kitchen, A History Of Modern Germany 1800-2000, Blackwell, 2006, p.329
  12. ^ Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). p. 94.  
  13. ^ Steven Ozment, A Mighty Fortress, Granta, London, 2005 p.294, quoting Lothar Kettenacker, Germany Since 1945 (Oxford, 1997), pp 18-20 and 50-51, and Hagen Shulze, Modern Germany, p. 316
  14. ^ Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). pp. 114–117.  
  15. ^ Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). pp. 321–322.  
  16. ^ Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). pp. 324–325.  
  17. ^ In response to a question by Annamarie Doherr, Berlin correspondent of the Frankfurter Rundschau, during a press conference on 15 June 1961
  18. ^ Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. Penguin Group (USA). p. 345.  
  19. ^ Keeling, Drew (2014), Migration as a travel business"Berlin Wall and Migration,"
  20. ^ "Walter Ulbricht: Herausgegeben von Egon Krenz," Publisher Das Neue Berlin (The New Berlin), 2013
  21. ^ Antony Beevor, The fall of Berlin 1945, Penguin Books, London, 2003 p.418
  22. ^ Nikita Khrushchev (2007). Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev: Statesman, 1953-1964. Penn State Press. p. 568. 
  23. ^ Jürgen Kocka, ed. (2010). Civil Society & Dictatorship in Modern German History. UPNE. p. 37. 
  24. ^ Beate Ulbricht
  25. ^ Josie McLellan, Anti-Fascism and Memory in East Germany: Remembering the International Brigades, 1945-1989, p.67
  26. ^ (Russian)Biography at the website on Heroes of the Soviet Union and Russia
  27. ^ [1],9171,839297,00.html


  • Carola Stern, Ulbricht, A Political Biography. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965. Pp. xi, 231
  • Gregory W. Sandford, From Hitler to Ulbricht. The Communist Reconstruction of East Germany 1945–46. Princeton, 1983
  • John Wendell Keller, Germany, the wall and Berlin;: Internal politics during an international crisis, Vantage Press; (1964)
  • Spilker, Dirk (2006). The East German leadership and the division of Germany : patriotism and propaganda ; 1945–1953. Oxford Univ. Press.  Sample Chapter

There are no biographies in English written after the fall of the GDR. Two have been published in German:

  • Norbert Podewin, Walter Ulbricht: Eine neue Biographie. (Berlin, 1995),
  • Mario Frank, Walter Ulbricht. Eine deutsche Biografie. 2000, Siedler-Verlag, ISBN 3-88680-720-7

External links

  • , an illustrated 1968 book on UlbrichtWalter Ulbricht — A Life for GermanyExtracts from
  • RFE/RL East German Subject Files: Communist Party Open Society Archives, Budapest
Party political offices
Preceded by
New creation
General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany
Succeeded by
Erich Honecker
Political offices
Preceded by
Wilhelm Pieck
As President
Chairman of the Council of State of the German Democratic Republic
Succeeded by
Willi Stoph
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