Ernst Thälmann – Hitler’s forgotten rival

One man who would have relished today’s crisis, just as he hoped to benefit hugely from the interwar slump, was the German communist leader Ernst Thälman. He is little remembered today but, in his time, was seen as Hitler’s great rival in the battle for power on the streets of Weimar Germany.

Ernst Thälmann


Born in Hamburg in 1886, he worked as a docker, and was an enthusiastic trade unionist, and also lived for a while in the USA. After fighting in the First World War, he joined the German communists and 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 Lenin. In December Thälmann was elected to the Central Committee of the KPD. In June 1922 Thälmann survived an assassination attempt at his flat. Members of the right-wing nationalist organisation Consul threw a hand grenade into his ground floor flat. His wife and daughter were unhurt; Thälmann himself came home only later. In 1925 he became leader as champion of the Stalinist faction.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.
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 and Socialists to be “social fascists”. Already in 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 Hitlerhad come to power and the KPD had largely been destroyed.

Poster in Thälmann’s electional campagne

On 3 March he was arrested in Berlin by the Gestapo. Thälmann’s trial, which he said that he looked forward to, never took place. Thälmann’s interpretation was that his two defence lawyers, both Nazi Party members (he nonetheless trusted them to a certain extent) at some point gathered that he planned to use the trial as a platform to appeal to world public opinion and denounce Hitler, and had told the court. Furthermore, Thälmann assumed that after the failure of the trial of Georgi Dimitrov for complicity in the Reichstag fire, the Nazi regime did not want to allow the possibility of further embarrassment in the courtroom.

For his 50th birthday, in April 1936, Thälmann received greetings from around the world, including from Maxim Gorky and Heinrich Mann. That same year the Spanish Civil War broke out, and two units of the International Brigades named themselves after him.
Thälmann spent over eleven years in solitary confinement. In August 1944, he was transferred from Bautzen prison to Buchenwald concentration camp. There, on 18 August, perhaps on Hitler’s orders, he was shot. His body was immediately cremated. Shortly after, the Nazis announced that together with Rudolf Breitscheid, Thälmann had died in an Allied bombing attack on 23 August.
As an “emotional ultra-radical”, as refer Thälman’s biographer Dr Norman LaPorte, in today’s world he would have hoped the global recession was the ‘final crisis of capitalism’, producing much more support for the far left. Dr LaPorte suggest he would have been disappointed by the small, fragmentary and single-issue nature of modern protest. Mass demonstrations according to strict political discipline were more his scene, with action on the streets, rallies, leaflets and impassioned speeches.

Place in Buchenwald where Thälmann was shot

After 1945, Ernst Thälmann, and other leading communists who were murdered, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were widely honoured in East Germany, with many schools, streets, factories, etc., named after them. Most of these names were abolished after German reunification though it is still possible to find places named after Thälmann in cities like Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt an der Oder. The East German pioneer organisation was named the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation in his memory.  In 1972, Cuba named a small island, Cayo Ernesto Thalmann, after him.