The Politics of the Past: How Germany forgot its most prominent communist leader

Norry Laporte

Over the last couple of years, Glamorgan historian Dr Norry LaPorte has been working with Hamburg curator Sabine Brunotte & Central German TV (MDR), which broadcasts to the form East Germany, to recover the forgotten past of communist leader Ernst Thälmann. Below he discusses why history – its uses and abuses – is so important to states and the politics they want their citizens to believe in.

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, an exhibition and book of short biographies dedicated to the victims of fascism in Hamburg finally includes the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) during the troubled Weimar Republic. But why was Ernst Thälmann, one of Hamburg’s most prominent sons from the 1920s and early 1930s, forgotten until the second decade of the twenty-first century? The answer lies in the division of Germany throughout the Cold War, when it stood on the front-line of the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism.

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Norry LaPorte appears as historical commentator in the MDR documentary Ernst Thaelmann, Wie er wirklich war' (The real Ernst Thaelmann). In this excerpt, he consider's Thaelmann's initial response to the rise of Hitler.

In 1925 Thälmann had stood as the communist candidate in the presidential elections, bringing him to national prominence. Radicalised by the war and then the localised civil war in Germany following defeat, he joined the communist movement and rose rapidly in its ranks. From 1919 he was a municipal councillor in Hamburg and in 1924 he took up a seat in the national parliament, the Reichstag, in Berlin; in 1924 he was appointed to the Executive Committee of the Communist International, making frequent visits to Moscow, and became the chairman of the KPD the following year. It was a rapid political rise which ended just as abruptly after the Nazi ‘seizure of power’ in 1933. After almost 12 years in prison – including being tortured by the Gestapo – he was shot by the SS in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. To the communist Germany after 1945, he became a hero – a model antifascist who had fought against Nazism and war.

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The politics of cold-war West Germany demanded a very different way of interpreting its recent past. The communist East Germany (GDR) was a ‘totalitarian’ state, just like the Third Reich before it. Thälmann and the German Communists had not been antifascist but merely another enemy of the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic. They had acted as Moscow’s marionettes, doing Stalin’s bidding abroad. The two Germanys had constructed two histories, one the mirror image of the other. In the East, Thälmann gave his name to the communist youth movement, the Young Pioneers, films trumpeted his heroism and leadership in the fight against fascism and even school classrooms had a corner dedicated to his memory. In the West, including his home town of Hamburg, he was dismissed as Stalin’s sidekick, a name to be expunged from the public sphere. In 1956 a street in the city taking his name was renamed ‘Budapest Street’ to indicate West German hostility to communism. Only since the mid 1990s has there been a ‘Thälmann Place’ in Hamburg, which runs a few meters along the pavement where he used to live.

But why should what to remember or forget in history be important to states and their citizens alike? One recent example is what happened in Soviet Russia during the Gorbachev period in the 1980s. Permitting historians to criticise Stalin and Stalinism led to the questioning of Lenin and Leninism and within a short period the regime collapsed amid a crisis of legitimacy. It is a lesson the Chinese have learned from. Even although communism as a political project has been abandoned in the new China of markets and consumerism, the Communist Party keeps a tight grip on how the past is remembered. Censorship ensures that the public read and hear only of a party and movement which ended the exploitation of the ‘imperialist’ Western Empires and freed the country from this bondage. To be a ‘communist’ is, therefore, to be a patriot.

Germany is proud of its long political journey to the ‘West’ – by which it means political democracy and a high level of redistribution through the welfare state – and it has good cause to be. Extreme nationalism is all but pushed out of mainstream political discourse and social inclusion is a genuine national aspiration. But the very fact that it took two decades after the end of the Cold War to remember one of Hamburg’s most famous communist politicians shows just how important history is. As George Orwell told us in his dystopian novel 1984, ‘he who controls the past controls the future’.