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 cabinetmaker.
Joining 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.