Walter Ulbricht – a summary

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.

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.

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When Winning is Not Enough: the East German Athletes that Made a Dash for Freedom‏

The 19-year-old man had spent a week watching the guards, learning their routine, as they patrolled the beach on the Baltic seaside resort of Boltenhagen.

The area was known by the East German secret police, the Stasi, as a favoured spot from which to escape to the West. He knew that each hour the guards had to switch off their spotlights for a few minutes to allow the bulbs to cool down.

The young man, Axel Mitbauer, a champion swimmer and member of the East German national swimming team, had already suffered at the hands of the Stasi. Known for his fraternisation with West Germans, he had been locked-up in solitary confinement for seven weeks, deprived of light and beaten up. But Mitbauer was made of strong stuff. On the night of 17 August 1969, he made his move.

When the right moment came, Mitbauer, smeared with 30 tubes of Vaseline against the cold water, slipped into the icy Baltic. Once the spotlights returned, he swam underwater. Using the stars as his guide, he swam 15 miles until, after four hours, he reached a lifebuoy and climbed aboard to rest. Six hours later, at 7 am the following morning, he was picked up by a West German ship. He’d made it.

In 1984, 24-year-old East German, Ines Geipel (far left), along with her teammates, had broken the world record for the women’s 4×100 metre relay, clocking-up a time of 42.2 seconds.

It was the crowning moment of her career. Ahead of them lay the Los Angeles Olympics and the chance for further glory. But Geipel fell in love with a Mexican athlete, a walker, and dreamt of living in the West. She soon came to the attention of the Stasi and back in East Germany was made to undergo an operation to remove her appendix. There, they took the opportunity to mutilate her stomach, thus destroying her career and her dreams and leaving her with debilitating stomach cramps.

Twenty years later, Geipel, whose own father had worked for the Stasi, renounced her world record, citing that it had been gained under the influence of drugs.


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East Germany v West Germany – Football and the Cold War

Football is more than just a game, writes Erik E. Cleves, as the “real” world unfolds, football becomes caught up in it, and particular matches have particular political symbolism. One such typical match was when West Germany played East Germany in the 1974 FIFA World Cup.

world cup 1974From the end of World War Two, divided Germany had become a focal point for the ongoing Cold War between East and West. While the World Cup in West Germany had been decided back in 1966, the early 1970s were full of political tensions that indirectly affected the 1974 World Cup: the USSR did not participate after they refused to play a play-off match against the newly installed Pinochet regime in Chile, and security during the tournament was intense after the Palestinian terrorist attacks at the Olympics Games in Munich two years before, as well as the fear of the German Rote Armee Fraktion, the terrorist Red Army Faction, more commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

It was thus part of the Cold War tension that West Germany and East Germany drew each other in the first round of the 1974 World Championship, hosted by West Germany, to play in what was surely the most politically tense match in the history of the World Cup. (The two Germanys had started the process of normalization in the early 1970s, and had only recognised each other in the Basic Treaty of 1972.)

1974 World Cup

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The Berlin Blockade and Berlin Airlift – a 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

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The East German Uprising – a summary

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.

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