Chapter Seventeen - Death of Walter Ulbricht
Paul Robeson with Walter Ulbricht
ON THE 1ST AUGUST 1973, Walter Ulbricht died at the age of eighty. Apprenticed to a cabinet maker in his youth, he had joined the Woodworkers' Union and the Socialist Youth Movement while still in his teens. Later, as a member of the Social Democratic Party, he had joined forces with the Left Socialists against the rise of German militarism and imperialism. He had been active in the German revolution of 1918 as a member of the Leipzig Workers' and Soldiers' Council and had become a foundation member of the German Communist Party in 1919. He had subsequently been elected to the Central Committee of the party and to the Reichstag as a Communist member. He had worked with Thaelmann to build unity between the Communist and Social Democratic parties.
After the nazis had come to power, he had worked in the German underground movement until, by a decision of the party, he had travelled to the Soviet Union. There, he had worked on a number of fronts, notably in Stalingrad, broadcasting to the German troops. His ultimate role in leading government and party positions had enabled him to play an important part in the building of socialism in eastern Germany. He had retired from his position as First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany on the 3rd May 1971, because of age and failing health, having been replaced by Erich Honecker. Ulbricht had continued to serve as Chairman of the State Council, however, until the advent of his final illness. He had lived to see the GDR grow into a powerful, industrial, socialist country, recognised by more than 90 countries throughout the world.
On the 4th May 1971 (the day after Walter Ulbricht retired from his position as First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany) the Guardian honoured him with the following editorial comment:
"It is impossible to find a good word for Herr Ulbricht on his resignation. One could say that East Germany has in recent years made remarkable economic strides and is now the most prosperous member of the satellite community; but so it should have done and so it should be. Had it not been for Herr Ulbricht it would have reached its present position of economic strength a long time ago. Its material success has been reached at the cost first of unpardonable human suffering and lately of that terrifying but equally drab constriction of the spirit which characterises the totalitarian state.
"Two events will symbolise the reign of Herr Ulbricht. One was the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to prevent the free movement of Germans to other parts of their homeland. The other was the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1968. This was a Russian invasion in which German troops were gladly ordered to join, but it came after months of prodding from the Stalinist hard-liners of East Berlin, of whom Herr Ulbricht was always the first to condemn and the last to try to understand. His very name was an offence to the men in Prague and Bratislava who tried, during that memorable summer, to transform communism and make it compatible with humanity."
The present writer cannot deny that he was incensed by this distortion of the facts and goaded to reply with a letter from which the following relevant paragraphs have been extracted:
"Neither do I think your editorial on Walter Ulbricht will succeed in standing history on its head, in spite of your venom. History will record that the building of the Berlin Wall, for which Ulbricht will be rightly remembered, was the culminating factor in saving us from a third world war at a time when the West German armies, heavily subsidised by US dollars, were mobilised and ready to march into eastern Europe at the behest of those who would doubtless find fascism more 'compatible with humanity' than communism.
"For his part in defeating the revanchist plans of the West Germans in Czechoslovakia during the summer of 1968, it may well be that the pseudo-intellectual catspaws of US and West German imperialism will not 'find a good word for Herr Ulbricht' but he will have the regard of honest men, both in Czechoslovakia and in the rest of the world."
Needless to say, the letter was not published. It did, however, give me some satisfaction in the writing, and rather more in this belated publishing.
The death of Walter Ulbricht was the signal for yet another anti-socialist outburst from the capitalist press, of which the editorial from the Guardian, quoted above, was a fair sample. In reply, we cannot do better than quote from an article written by Jack Cohen and published in the September 1973 issue of Labour Monthly:
"There was no mistaking the cold-war flavour of the press reaction to the news of Walter Ulbricht's death. The attitudes expressed to the man and his country, the German Democratic Republic, epitomise the reasons fora long-running press campaign of the greatest animosity. What are the reasons?
"The policy of the capitalist countries, of the NATO powers, has been to exclude and isolate the GDR in every way, economically, politically and in all fields of normal contact between peoples. The notorious Hallstein doctrine carried this much further than a simple refusal of diplomatic relations. The GDR has consistently been presented as grey, prison-like and gloomy, the chief comparison being with a German Federal Republic presented as a modern go-ahead country.
"Now that the GDR has emerged as the fifth industrial country of Europe, and indeed ninth in the world, this policy has come unstuck. That such an advance has been made, in an area which was the backward agrarian part of pre-war Germany, is the greatest tribute to the people of the GDR. Economic, social and industrial comparisons with the most advanced countries of the world are now made which would have been inconceivable twenty-five years ago, given that all the major centres of German industrialism lay in Western Germany and that these were fed by massive post-war injections of US dollar aid."