Walter Ulbricht – a brief biography

Most leaders possess a strength of character, charisma even, for which they are either admired or disliked, loved or loathed, but always acknowledged. Walter Ulbricht, East Germany’s head of state from 1950 to 1973, was an unusually dull man, devoid of personality, devoted to the socialist cause, but with no empathy for the working masses, the very people he was supposedly fighting for.

Born 30 June 1893 in Leipzig, Walter Ulbricht left school after only eight years and became a cabinet maker.

Early Days

Walter UlbrichtJoining the German army in 1915, during the First World War, Walter Ulbricht served in both the Balkans and the Eastern Front but deserted towards the end of the war. Imprisoned in Belgium, he was released during the chaotic days of the German Revolution.

In 1920, he became a member of the German Communist Party, the KDP, and quickly rose through its ranks. He studied in the Soviet Union at the International Lenin School, a secretive school in Moscow that taught foreign communists how to be perfect Leninists and Marxists. In 1928, back in Germany, Ulbricht was elected into the Reichstag. It was a time of violent clashes between the communists and Nazis. Once Hitler assumed power as chancellor in January 1933, opposition parties were soon outlawed by his Enabling Act, and communists all over Germany fled or went into hiding. Ulbricht was one of them – fleeing first to France and Czechoslovakia, and then Spain during the Civil War of 1936-39 where he sided with the republicans in the International Brigades. He later received a medal for his time in Spain, angering fellow recipients, as Ulbricht never saw active service, preferring instead to hunt out Trotskyites and other unreliable elements within the KDP.

He returned to Moscow in 1937, and actively supported Stalin’s show trials and purges. Ulbricht watched as many of his superiors were purged, allowing him to rise further up the KDP ladder. It was almost as if this blandness helped him survive while his more charismatic colleagues fell. As a non-entity, no one really noticed Walter Ubricht. During the war, he was let loose on German prisoners of war in order to ‘convert’ them to communism. Continue reading

The East German Uprising – an outline

The East German Uprising, 16-17 June 1953. Stalin had died three months before, and a new post-Stalinist era beckoned for those trapped behind the Iron Curtain. But if the workers of East Germany thought that Stalin’s death meant change, they were soon disabused as the East German premier, Walter Ulbricht, strove to increase industrial output.

Walter Ulbricht’s plan

East Germany’s economy was stagnating and Ulbricht (pictured), a Stalinist to the core, proposed a range of measures to pump-up the economy – increase taxes, increase prices and increase production by 10% – but with no corresponding increase in wages. If the new quotas were not met, workers were told, wages would be cut by a third. The Kremlin viewed these proposals with concern, advising Ulbricht to tone down the measures and slow down the intense pace of industrialisation that the East German leader insisted was necessary. For the workers of the German Democratic Republic this was a lose-lose scenario.

Citizens of post-war Eastern Europe did as their governments ordered, any protest was silent, whispered in dark corners. But these measures were too much; Ulbricht had gone too far.


On 16 June 1953, East Berlin construction workers downed tools. The following morning, 17 June, the strike had spread with over 40,000 demonstrators marching through the capital. Their demands at first focussed on the economic – a return to the old work quotas. But then as the strike spread to other cities – Leipzig, Dresden and some 400 cities and towns throughout East Germany, their voices gained strength and their hearts courage. They demanded increasingly more – free elections, a new government, democracy. Meetings were held; workers’ councils elected. In the East German town of Merseburg, workers stormed the police station and released prisoners from the jails.

Protestors tore down communists flags and carried banners proclaiming, ‘We want free elections; we are not slaves’, ‘Death to communism’ and ‘Long Live Eisenhower‘. This was no longer a strike but an uprising.

Soviet intervention

Est German UprisingUlbricht turned to the Kremlin. Laventry Beria, Stalin’s former Chief of Secret Police and the man poised to take over now that that Stalin was dead, sent in the tanks. The crews, 20,000 troops based in East Germany, were told by Beria not to “spare bullets”. This was a revolution and it needed crushing. (Six months later Beria was dead – executed by his Kremlin colleagues. One of the supposed reasons for his arrest was his heavy-handed dealing with the East German Uprising).

Martial law was declared while, on the afternoon of the 17th, the tanks moved in and, alongside the East German police, opened fire. Down the Unter den Linden, people, demonstrators, civilians fell. How many were killed no one knows for sure. The figures vary considerably between sources based in the West and those of the East. But at least 40 were killed, possibly up to 260, and 400 wounded.

The West

If the East German protestors hoped for assistance from the West, they, like their counterparts during the Hungarian Revolution three years later, were to be disappointed. The US were not prepared to risk war over such an issue. But it did start a food aid programme, distributing over 5 million food parcels during July and August. Winston Churchill‘s response, at the time prime minister, was also muted. According to German historian, Hubertus Knabe, Churchill feared the resurgence of a united Germany so soon after the Second World War. While publicly supporting a united Germany, a divided one, he felt, was more secure. Churchill considered the regime’s response to the uprising as ‘restrained’.

Thus without the West’s intervention, pockets of resistance continued for a few weeks but the main thrust of the East German Uprising had been crushed within just 24 hours of starting.

And then started the reprisals – thousands arrested, perhaps up to 6,000, tortured and interned. Six ringleaders were executed. Walter Ulbricht took the opportunity of purging his party of seventy per cent of its members.

During the Cold War, the human face of socialism only went so far and today, six decades on, Germany still remembers the uprising of 1953.

Unforgiving SeaRupert Colley.

Rupert Colley’s gripping new novel, set during World War Two, The Unforgiving Sea, is now available.

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The Berlin Blockade and Berlin Airlift – a brief summary

24 June 1948 saw the start of the Berlin Blockade, which, as a direct consequence, led to the Berlin Airlift. But what were these two events that were so pivotal in the early post-war years of the Cold War?

Misery and want

“The seeds of totalitarian regimes,” said US president, Harry S. Truman, a year earlier in March 1947, “are nurtured by misery and want.” In other words, communism appealed to those suffering from hardship. Remove the hardship; you remove the appeal of communism.

Known as the Truman Doctrine, the President believed that communism had to be contained, and that America could not, as it did after the First World War, turn its back on Europe – isolationism was no longer an option. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which brought America into the war, was proof that physical distance was no longer a guarantee of safety. In the post-war era a stable Europe and the future of the ‘free world’ was a necessity.

The Marshall Plan

To alleviate the hardship, and to deprive communism its foothold, the US introduced the Marshall Plan, named after its originator, George C. Marshall, a huge package of economic aid offered to all nations of Europe. Sixteen nations of Western Europe accepted the offer, which by 1951 had amounted to $13 billion. Although offered also to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, Stalin was never going to allow American / capitalist interference with the Soviet economy, and nor would he permit his satellites. Continue reading