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Ernst Thälmann

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Title: Ernst Thälmann  
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Subject: German presidential election, 1925, Ernst Thälmann (film), Roter Frontkämpferbund, German federal election, March 1933, Max Matern
Collection: 1886 Births, 1944 Deaths, Candidates for President of Germany, Communist Party of Germany Politicians, German Anti-Fascists, German Atheists, German Civilians Killed in World War II, German Communists, German People Who Died in Buchenwald Concentration Camp, German Revolutionaries, Independent Social Democratic Party Politicians, Members of the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic, People Executed by Germany by Firearm, People from Hamburg Executed in Nazi Concentration Camps, Politicians Who Died in Nazi Concentration Camps, Rotfrontkämpferbund Members, Social Democratic Party of Germany Politicians
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Ernst Thälmann

Ernst Thälmann (1932)

Ernst Thälmann (16 April 1886 – 18 August 1944) was the leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during much of the Weimar Republic. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933 and held in solitary confinement for eleven years, before being shot in Buchenwald on Adolf Hitler's orders in 1944. During the Spanish Civil War, several units of German republican volunteers (most notably the Thälmann Battalion of the International Brigades) were named in his honour.


  • Political career 1
    • Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD) 1.1
    • KPD vs SPD 1.2
  • Imprisonment and execution 2
  • Legacy 3
  • References 4
  • Sources 5
  • External links 6

Political career

Born in Hamburg, Thälmann was a Social Democratic Party member from 1903. Between 1904 and 1913 he worked as a stoker on a freighter. He was discharged early from his military service as he was seen as a political agitator.[1]

In January 1915, on the day before his call-up for military service in World War I, he married Rosa Koch. Towards the end of 1917 he became a member of the Independent Socialist Party of Germany (USPD). On the day of the German Revolution, 9 November 1918, he wrote in his diary on the Western Front, "...did a bunk from the Front with 4 comrades at 2 o'clock."

Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD)

Ernst Thälmann on the front page of a KPD newspaper, the Saxon Workers' News, during the 1925 presidential election. The caption reads "Ernst Thälmann: the Red President!"

When the USPD split over the question of whether to join the Comintern, Thälmann sided with the pro-Communist group which in November 1920 merged with the KPD. In December Thälmann was elected to the Central Committee of the KPD. In March 1921 he was fired from his job at the job centre due to his political activities. That summer Thälmann went as a representative of the KPD to the 3rd Congress of the Comintern in Moscow and met Vladimir Lenin. In June 1922 Thälmann survived an assassination attempt at his flat. Members of the terrorist nationalist organisation Consul threw a hand grenade into his ground floor flat. His wife and daughter were unhurt; Thälmann himself came home only later.

Thälmann participated in and helped organise the Hamburg Uprising of October 1923. The uprising failed, and Thälmann went underground for a time. After the death of Lenin in January 1924, Thälmann visited Moscow and for some time maintained a guard of honour at his bier. From February 1924 he was deputy chairman of the KPD and, from May, a Reichstag member. At the 5th Congress of the Comintern that summer he was elected to the Comintern Executive Committee and a short time later to its Steering Committee. In February 1925 he became chairman of the Rote Frontkämpferbund (RFB), the defence organisation of the KPD.

In October 1925 Thälmann became Chairman of the KPD and that year was a candidate for the German Presidency. Thälmann's candidacy in the second round of the presidential election split the centre-left vote and ensured that the conservative Paul von Hindenburg defeated the Centre Party's Wilhelm Marx. In October 1926 Thälmann supported in person the dockers' strike in his home town of Hamburg. He saw this as solidarity with the British miners' strike which had started on 1 May and had been profitable for Hamburg Docks as an alternative supplier of coal. Thälmann's argument was that this "strike-breaking" in Hamburg had to be stopped. In March he took part in a demonstration in Berlin, where he was injured by a blow from a sword.

In 1928 during the Wittorf affair he was ousted from the party central committee for trying to cover up embezzlement by a party official who was his close friend and protégé, John Wittorf, possibly for tactical reasons. But Stalin intervened and had Thälmann reinstated, signaling the beginning of a purge and completing the "Stalinization" of the KPD.


Ernst Thälmann statue in Weimar.

At the 12th party congress of the KPD in June 1929 in Berlin-Wedding, Thälmann, in conformity with the position adopted by the Soviet Union leadership under Joseph Stalin, adopted a policy of confrontation with the SPD. This followed the events of "Bloody May", in which 32 people were killed by the police in an attempt to suppress demonstrations which had been banned by the Interior Minister, Carl Severing, a Social Democrat.

During that time, Thälmann and the KPD fought the SPD as their main political enemy, acting according to the Comintern policy which declared Social Democrats to be "social fascists". By 1927, Karl Kilbom, the Comintern representative to Germany, had started to combat this ultra leftist tendency of Thälmann within the German Communist Party, but found it to be impossible when he found Stalin was against him. Another aspect of this strategy was to attempt to win over the leftist elements of the Nazi Party, especially the SA, who largely came from a working-class background and supported socialist economic policies. These guidelines on social democracy as "social fascism" remained in force until 1935 when the Comintern officially switched to endorsing a "popular front" of socialists, liberals and even conservatives against the Nazi threat. By that time, of course, Adolf Hitler had come to power and the KPD had largely been destroyed.

In March 1932, Thälmann was once again a candidate for the German Presidency, against the incumbent general strike to topple Hitler, but this was not achieved. In February 1933, a Central Committee meeting of the already banned KPD took place in Königs Wusterhausen at the "Sporthaus Ziegenhals", near Berlin, where Thälmann called for the violent overthrow of Hitler's government. On 3 March he was arrested in Berlin by the Gestapo.

Imprisonment and execution

Thälmann spent over eleven years in solitary confinement. In August 1944, he was transferred from Bautzen prison to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was shot on 18 August. His body was immediately cremated. Shortly after, the Nazis claimed in an announcement that together with Rudolf Breitscheid, Thälmann had died in an Allied bombing attack on 23 August.


Monument to Ernst Thälmann in Berlin.

While heading the KPD, Thälmann closely aligned the German Communists with the Soviet Communist Party. Supporters of a more autonomous course were expelled.

His tomb in Berlin

During Danube Swabians and Wehrmacht defectors as the Ernst Thälmann Battalion to fight the Nazis.[2]

After 1945, Thälmann, and other leading communists who had been killed, such as

  • Discourses and writings by and about Ernst Thälmann, on the Marxists Internet Archive. (German)
  • Ernst Thälmann Memorial in Hamburg, Germany (German)

External links

  • Biography of Ernst Thälmann on the website of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German)
  • Lemmons, Russel (2013). Hitler's Rival: Ernst Thälmann in Myth and Memory. The University Press of Kentucky. 


  1. ^ (German) Biography of Ernst Thälmann on the website of the Deutsches Historisches Museum
  2. ^ Lyon, P.D. (2008) After Empire: Ethnic Germans And Minority Nationalism In Interwar Yugoslavia (PhD Dissertation), University of Maryland, 2008.
  3. ^ a b Nils Hoffmann. "Jung Pioniere und FDJ - DDR-Museum-Steinhude". 
  4. ^ Sanchez, Juan Reinaldo (10 May 2015). "Inside Fidel Castro’s luxurious life on his secret island getaway".  


In 1935 the former town of Ostheim in Ukraine was renamed Telmanove (Donetsk Oblast).

The British Communist composer and activist Cornelius Cardew named his Thälman Variations for piano in Thälmann's memory.

In the 1950s, an East German film in two parts, Ernst Thälmann, was produced.[3] In 1972, Cuba named a small island, Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann, after him.[4]

Members pledged that "Ernst Thälmann is my role model ... I promise to learn to work and fight [struggle] as Ernst Thälmann teaches". [3]

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