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Hochzeitsphoto von Ernst und Rosa Thälmann, 1915
© Gedenkstätte Ernst Thälmann, Hamburg-Eppendorf

Ernst Thälmann * 1886

Rathausmarkt 1 (links vor dem Rathaus) (Hamburg-Mitte, Hamburg-Altstadt)

MDHB 1919 – 1933 KPD
JG. 1886
ERMORDET 18.8.1944

further stumbling stones in Rathausmarkt 1 (links vor dem Rathaus):
Kurt Adams, Etkar Josef André, Bernhard Bästlein, Adolf Biedermann, Gustav Brandt, Valentin Ernst Burchard, Max Eichholz, Hugo Eickhoff, Theodor Haubach, Wilhelm Heidsiek, Ernst Henning, Hermann Hoefer, Franz Jacob, Friedrich Lux, Fritz Simon Reich, August Schmidt, Otto Schumann, Theodor Skorzisko, Hans Westermann

Ernst Thälmann, born 16 Apr. 1886 in Hamburg, shot by SS in Aug. 1944 at Buchenwald concentration camp

Tarpenbekstraße 66

Ernst Thälmann was the son of Johannes and Maria Magdalena Thälmann, née Kohpeiss, who wed in 1884. The family lived at Alterwall 68. Their daughter Frieda was born on 4 Apr. 1887. The only information we have about Frieda is that she was not politically active and lived in Hamburg until her death on 8 July 1967. According to the registry of births, they probably had more siblings who died during infancy or as toddlers. Ernst and Frieda were placed with foster families while their parents served time in prison in 1892-1893 for receiving stolen goods.

As children the two had to work many hours in their parents’ grocery store and haulage business, leaving little time for school. Despite good grades – he had been admitted to Selekta – Ernst left school at the age of 14. [Selekta refers to a special feature of the Hamburg school system at the end of the 19th century, start of the 20th century. After completing the nine years of elementary school, talented students could undergo Selekta and qualify to attend teacher training college, among other things.] Hence, Ernst did not have the requirements to be trained as a craftsman or teacher as he had hoped. He worked for two more years in the family business. Eventually he left his family home due to constant fights over his pay – his father only paid him pocket money for his work – and for more personal freedom. He took a series of temporary jobs in Hamburg shipyards. It was there that his self-confidence first showed through, a quality he displayed equally as a stoker on board the steamship Amerika as he did in 1910 during a brief interlude as a farm worker near New York.

Having returned to Hamburg, Ernst Thälmann again found work at the docks. It was there that he became politicized by his experience as a temporary worker. In 1903 he joined the Social-Democratic Party and in 1904 the Transport Workers Union where he rose to become chairman of the carriage workers section prior to World War I. When he met his future wife Rosa Koch in 1910, he was working as a carriage driver. Rosa, born on 27 Mar. 1890 in Bargfeld, ironed clothing at the laundry Frauenlob which was on one of Thälmann’s routes. The couple married in 1915, shortly before Ernst Thälmann was drafted into the artillery. Like many who were on the left before 1914, he loyally fought for his homeland throughout the entire war. When the army was disbanded in autumn 1918, he returned to Hamburg. Even as a leading communist, he remained proud of his Iron Cross, 2nd class, a medal that was awarded en masse in spring 1918 to raise the morale of the dispirited troops. Ernst Thälmann was wounded at least twice in combat.

Back in Hamburg, he found a well-paid job at the employment office where he was promoted to inspector. During that period, his only child was born, his daughter Irma, on 6 Nov. 1919. Ernst Thälmann’s political career took a rapid upturn after the war. He joined the local Hamburg chapter of the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany (Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, USPD) which had spun off from the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (Socialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD). As a leading member of their left wing, he campaigned for merging the USPD with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which was ultimately achieved in Dec. 1920. As of Feb. 1919, Thälmann was a Member of the Hamburg Parliament, a mandate which he held until 1933.

Ernst Thälmann was dismissed without notice on 29 Mar. 1921 after he absented himself from work without permission to follow a call to arms by the KPD and join the so-called March Action. That revolt was an attempt, primarily on the part of KPD members from central Germany, to weaken the bourgeois republic. It failed. Afterwards, Thälmann again worked for a brief period for his father as a carriage driver and in shipyards. After the March Action he primarily earned a living as a full-time staff member of the KPD.

During a wave of radical rightwing terror, an attempt was made on Ernst Thälmann’s life in 1922. On 17 June a hand grenade exploded in front of the family’s ground floor apartment at Siemssenstraße 4. Not only did it cause property damage, it also gave his wife and young daughter a terrible scare.

In 1924 he was elected to the German Parliament, the Reichstag, where he led the KPD parliamentary group until the end of the Weimar Republic. That role entailed prolonged stays in Berlin. Moreover, Thälmann was regularly invited to Moscow, both in his role as a leading German communist and as a member of the executive committee of the Communist International. The executive committee determined the policies of its member parties, coordinated them according to uniform principles, and pursued world revolution as its ultimate goal.

His bearing as a "man of the people" – untrained transport worker with a Hamburg accent and mariner’s cap – helped his rise to become leader of a German communist party with Stalinist leanings. However he himself was never close to Stalin. In autumn 1925 Ernst Thälmann became head of the KPD due to an intervention by Stalin and as such became Germany’s most prominent communist. His candidacy for the office of Reich President in the elections of 1925 and 1932 thrust him once more into the spotlight of domestic political attention.

His nickname "Teddy" spread throughout the KPD after the so-called Hamburg Rising of 1923. According to one party myth, he had demonstrated exceptional fighting spirit – he was a fighter whom all communists should strive to emulate.

Thälmann’s political activities increasingly became an ordeal for his family. His wife stayed in Hamburg with their daughter, from 1929 at Tarpenbekstraße 66 where they took an apartment on the second floor for security reasons. Rosa and Irma lived with Rosa’s father in a "typical worker’s household", as a senior KPD functionary expressed it. In Berlin Thälmann continued to clothe himself and speak like a working-class man from Hamburg. He felt ill at ease when he had to meet with people who did not come from his background. It was probably his longing for a home which led to an affair with his landlady Martha Kluczynski, a KPD comrade.

Ernst Thälmann and his close colleague Werner Hirsch were arrested in her apartment at Lützower Straße 9 in Charlottenburg on 3 Mar. 1933 during a raid carried out by the security police. Martha Kluczynski was never to see him again. (She died in East Berlin in 1975.) According to police records, Thälmann had already packed his bags, ready to go – evidence of his decision, which came too late, to go into hiding.

Ernst Thälmann spent nearly twelve years in solitary confinement in Hitler’s dungeons. He was tortured during the first years. Later he was offered his release if he publically renounced Soviet communism. He did not accept the deal. Thälmann first was held at the Berlin prison in Moabit before he was moved to Hanover and later to Bautzen.

At least on one occasion there was a serious plan to release him from prison, but the KPD leader living in exile stopped the attempt at the last minute.

During all those years, Thälmann was regularly visited by his wife. By maintaining contact with various couriers, she acted as a connection between her husband and the KPD leadership living in exile. Rosa exposed herself to great risk by remaining loyal to her husband. She was arrested by the Gestapo on at least one occasion. Moreover, she collaborated closely with Thälmann’s lawyer in Hamburg until the National Socialists shattered all prospects of a court trial in the mid 1930s.

As he did previously during World War I, Thälmann proved himself a diligent letter writer in prison. Surviving documents provide insight into his personality. In letters to his close relatives – from his daughter and wife to his father and brother-in-law – he moved seamlessly from family affairs to political topics. He developed a particularly close relationship with his father who had joined the KPD in 1927 after inflation had "swallowed” his family’s entire savings. Thälmann learned of his father’s death on 31 Oct. 1933 from the confines of his cell in Moabit Prison. He was not allowed to attend his funeral in Hamburg on 4 Nov. 1933. His mother, to whom he was not as close, had passed away on 9 Mar. 1927 in Hamburg.

Ernst Thälmann liked to read news about Hamburg in the newspaper and emphasized how proud he was to come from a city which described itself as the "center of world trade" and the "gate to the world". In his memories he glorified life in his home town and underscored that he always felt most comfortable with the people there.

The assassination attempt on Hitler on 20 July 1944 was to blame for Thälmann’s killing. Shortly after the failed attack, Hitler told Himmler, Thälmann "is to be executed". During the night from 17 to 18 Aug., he was taken from Bautzen Prison to Buchenwald concentration camp where SS men shot and killed him. In post-war West Germany, there were several attempts to convict his alleged killers, but they remained unsuccessful.

Rosa and Irma Thälmann were detained at Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944 and were liberated by the Red Army. After the war, they lived in East Germany and helped create the politically motivated "myth" of Ernst Thälmann. During the Spanish Civil War, a battalion of the International Brigade bore his name. In 1948 the "Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organization” was founded in the Soviet occupation zone. Later, innumerable streets and squares, schools and workers collectives in East Germany and other communist countries were named after him. Even towns were named after him. Off the south coast of Cuba, in the Bay of Pigs, there is an "Ernst Thälmann Island". In Hamburg too, a street was named after him in 1946 for several years. After the violent suppression of the uprising in Hungary ten years later, the street was given the name it still has today, Budapester Straße, since officials did not want to publically exalt the name of a communist in the midst of the Cold War.

The Ernst Thälmann Memorial at Ernst-Thälmann-Platz (re-named accordingly in 1985) in Eppendorf keeps alive the memory of the "son of his class", the title of a Defa film. The volunteers at the memorial also had a Stumbling Stone laid for him. After German re-unification, the name Ernst Thälmann had largely disappeared from public life in the newly formed German states, and today’s young people hardly know anything about him.

Ernst Thälmann’s wife Rosa died on 21 Sept. 1962 in East Berlin, their daughter Irma on 10 Dec. 2000 in a reunified Berlin where she had run an unsuccessful campaign as a German Communist Party candidate for parliamentary elections in 1998.

Translator: Suzanne von Engelhardt
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.

Stand: March 2019
© Norman LaPorte, University of Glamorgan, Wales, Übersetzung aus dem Englischen und Bearbeitung Sabine Brunotte

Quellen: Bundesarchiv (Berlin), Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR (BA-SAPMO), NL 4003 (Thälmann Nachlass) Staatsarchiv Hamburg (StaH), Polizeibehörde I, 331-1, I, 898,902, 905; Politische Polizei , V 236-3, 236-6; Komintern Archiv (Moskau), Bestand 526 (Ernst Thälmann); dtv Lexikon, Mannheim und München 1997; mündliche Auskunft Lisa Sukowski, Gedenkstätte Ernst Thälmann Hamburg-Eppendorf, vom 6.5.2010; telefonische Auskunft StaH Jörg-Olaf Thiessen vom 7.1.2011.

Ernst Thälmann, member of the Hamburg Parliament (Mitglied der Hamburgischen Bürgerschaft, MdHB)

The historiographical assessment of the role the German communist Ernst Thälmann played on the eve and at the height of the great crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s was influenced by the examination of the earlier Marxist writing of history, an examination which took place during the second half of the 20th century. In a kind of heroic legend writing, the Marxist version of history had made him into the "leader of the revolutionary avant-garde” and the "great son” of the German people.

In his position as party leader, Thälmann played an ignoble role fighting and ultimately permanently destabilizing the first German republic. As his party was brought in line with the Communist International, its political fight moved to the streets and the party’s radicalization deepened the rift within the German workers’ movement, helping to create a climate in which the national right was able to carry out a successful attack on the republican system. In the late 1930s, Stalin exchanged some members of the Communist International in Germany with "troublesome German immigrants” in the USSR. As chairman of the "Executive Committee of the Communist International” in Germany, it was ultimately Thälmann’s personal tragedy that he was not included in the exchange, as was the execution of many of his closest associates during the Stalinist purges in the USSR.

Ernst Thälmann was born on 16 Apr. 1886 in Hamburg. His father, the carriage driver Fritz Johannes Thälmann, ran a tavern for coachmen during those years. Until his father opened a store selling colonial goods in the 1890s, the boy was mostly raised by his relatives. While still attending school, he and his sister had to help their parents in their store. After finishing school, he first worked as a carriage driver in his parents’ business which had, in the meantime, been expanded to haul coal and transport furniture.

At the age of 16, Thälmann left his parents’ home and scraped by for a time with different jobs at the docks until he finally found a job as a transport worker for the Janssen Brewery in Hamburg. It was there that he first encountered the young socialist workers. Those contacts along with his own experience working on the docks as a young person led him to join the Socialist Party of Germany in 1903 at the age of 17. After he changed over to working in the transport industry, Thälmann joined the "Transport Workers Association” early in 1904.

At the age of 20, Ernst Thälmann was drafted as a soldier into the 9th Artillery Regiment in Cologne. He fell ill, received an early release and signed on with the "Hamburg-America Line". From Oct. to Dec. 1907, he worked on the steamer AMERIKA as a coal trimmer. Three voyages took him to New York where he admired the "advanced technology”, the comparatively good living conditions and, not least, the elevated legal standing of women in American society, as he wrote in his curriculum vitae in 1935.

After leaving military service, Thälmann worked temporary jobs at the Hamburg dockyard, as a transport worker and finally as a dispatch clerk for various laundry services, including the Welscher industrial laundry in Wandsbek. At the Trumpf laundry service he met his future wife, the manager Rosa Koch.

Until the outbreak of World War I, Thälmann held various voluntary positions in the Transport Workers Union and in the SPD. Politically he saw himself as part of the left wing of his party. At party meetings, he advocated for Rosa Luxemburg’s position and the minority group of SPD parliamentary members close to her.

In Jan. 1915 Ernst Thälmann was called up as a reservist and deployed to fight on the western front in Champagne, Aisne and the Somme. Disciplinary offenses kept Thälmann from being promoted and from receiving military decorations, despite being injured twice. In autumn 1918, he did not return to his unit after taking leave from the front. As he waited in Hamburg for the war to end, he first worked at his parents’ store and then as a worker at ship demolition yard at the docks. In 1920, he finally found a permanent job as an inspector at the employment office.

In Nov. 1918, he joined the USPD in Hamburg and was elected to the Hamburg Parliament as their representative in Mar. 1919. Two days after the opening session, he voted against the Law on Provisional State Authority which transferred the highest power of state to the Parliament until a new, democratic constitution was passed. As a representative of the left wing which declared its support for continuing the revolution and establishing a Soviet-style republic, two months later he was elected chairman of the USPD in Hamburg.

At the extraordinary party conference in Halle in Oct. 1920, he was a spokesman for the left wing of his party which called for merging with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and joining the Communist International. At the Berlin Combined Party Conference of the communist party KPD and left USPD, Thälmann was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party – then temporarily called the United Communist Party of Germany (Vereinigte Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – VKPD).

In 1921 Ernst Thälmann became chairman of his regional chapter of the KPD in Hamburg and at the same time member of the district management. That same year, he was appointed a full-time functionary of the KPD in the "Wasserkante” district. As a member of the Central Committee of the German Communists, he took part in the 3rd World Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in June 1921 where he first encountered Lenin and Trotski. As a proponent of the leftwing, party-internal opposition, he repeatedly spoke out against Heinrich Brandler’s policies. As the leader of the Hamburg KPD, Thälmann was involved in preparations for the Hamburg Uprising in Oct. 1923, but he did not make an appearance as a leader while the uprising was carried out.

His election to the post of deputy party chairman in Jan 1924 marked a decisive step towards rising to the top of the party leadership of the German communists. In that role, he collaborated closely with the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) to shut out the right wing of the party. It was also the backing by the ECCI which promoted him to the office of party chairman in 1925 following the downfall of his former allies Ruth Fischer and Arkadij Maslow. And in 1928 the ECCI rescued him once again by reversing a decision by the KPD Central Committee to suspend Thälmann from his party posts for attempting to cover up the misappropriations of his fellow Hamburg party member John Wittorf. Ernst Thälmann was a man of the "Comintern" whose executive committee he belonged to as of the summer of 1924. He was held in high regard by the executive committee despite him being not nearly as uncontroversial a figure in the German KPD as the SED party historiography would have everyone believe.

Thälmann did not stand out as a trend-setting theoretician. Even parts of his own party regarded him as an opportunist in the service of Moscow and a "star of leftwing rhetoric” who overestimated himself. Clara Zetkin wrote Nikolai Bucharin in 1927, "It has become fatally […] apparent that Teddy [Thälmann] is unknowledgeable and unschooled in theory, was lured into uncritical self-deception and blindness, bordering on megalomania and lacking self-control. As a consequence he allows his good proletarian instincts and judgment to deceive him about people and lead him astray […].” The fact that all attempts by party-internal opposition to bring Thälmann down failed time and again due to the stance of the ECCI leads us to believe that he would not have been able to maintain his position as party chairman until 1933 without Moscow’s backing. Hermann Weber reckons that the Comintern thrust Thälmann "into a position that he was not up to, mentally or politically". That does not, however, detract from Thälmann’s popularity, above all in his hometown of Hamburg. He was held in high regard by the party base due, in particular, to his own roots in the labor force and his undisputed populist appeal.

As of 1924 Thälmann became a representative in the Reichstag in addition to fulfilling his mandate in Hamburg’s Parliament. In 1925 he ran for the office of Reich President for the first time which contributed significantly to his growing popularity in the party. His candidacy admittedly risked the consequences of the republican candidate Wilhelm Marx (Zentrum) losing to the rightwing candidate Paul von Hindenburg by 900,000 votes in the second round of voting – the token candidate Thälmann had received 1.9 million votes (6.3%). At the same time, Thälmann tried to solidify his position as party leader by having himself elected as leader of the League of Red Front-Line Fighters.

As co-founder of the Anti-Fascist Operation, he called for a "united front” under KPD leadership in 1932. At that time his party was not only hopelessly divided, the party had also become so far estranged from the SPD, which he had doggedly accused of "social fascism” in his speeches and writings, that joining forces under the leadership of the communists for German social democracy was no longer an option. Negotiating a united front between leaders of the social-democratic party and labor unions was ruled out from the start.

The communist notion of a united front aimed to merge the social-democratic and the communist workforces through joint action. To avoid any misunderstanding, the "Thälmann Central Committee”, which was fully in line with the 11th World Congress of the Communist International, also made it clear that the Anti-Fascist Operation signified "by no means the slightest weakening of the fight against social fascism”. Intentionally or not, what actually emerged from Thälmann’s efforts was a united front of republican opponents, the NSDAP and KPD, which even culminated in joint action, such as the referendum in 1931 against the Prussian minority government of Braun and Severing and a strike by the Berlin transportation companies at the end of 1932.

On 7 Feb. 1933 Thälmann once again chaired a KPD conference at Sporthaus Ziegenhals near Berlin. Immediately after the burning of the Reichstag on 27 Feb. 1933, a warrant was put out for his arrest and the arrest of the other members of the Central Committee of the KPD. Contrary to newspaper reports that he was in Denmark, Thälmann hid in a Berlin garden allotment with his secretary. He was reported to the police and arrested on 3 Mar. 1933.

Even though he was charged with "preparing high treason” in spring 1935, he was never put on trial. The warrant for his arrest was suspended, however Thälmann continued to be detained. He was held in remand prison in Berlin-Moabit until Aug. 1937, then spent 6 years in Hanover Remand Prison until he was transferred to Bautzen Penitentiary in Aug. 1943. His political reflections surviving from his time in prison are profound and also emphasize conciliatory points in their, at times, self-critical, realistic political analysis: "We too made some serious and occasionally grave political mistakes in the past, and in the convoluted muddle of those times we unfortunately overlooked and failed to seize opportunities to stop fascism in its tracks."

After a total of eleven and a half years in solitary confinement, Ernst Thälmann was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp on 18 Aug. 1944 where he was killed the same day by members of the SS Command 99 on direct orders from Himmler. The order to kill Thälmann was issued at the same time as Operation Storm began, the regime’s response to the failed assassination attempt on Hitler of 20 July in which thousands of potential regime opponents were rounded up across the Reich, killed, deported or sentenced.

Thälmann’s wife Rosa and his daughter Irmgard were arrested in late Sept. 1944 and deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. After the war, Rosa Thälmann was a member of the East German Parliament and died in Berlin in 1962, a veteran of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

Today the Ernst Thälmann Memorial is located at Tarpenbekstraße 66 in Hamburg, Thälmann’s last residence.

Author: © Biography used with kind permission of the Parliament of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (ed.), from Jörn Lindner& Frank Müller: "Mitglieder der Bürgerschaft – Opfer totalitärer Verfolgung", 3rd revised and extended edition, Hamburg 2012

Translator: Suzanne von Engelhardt
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.

Stand: March 2019
© Text mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Bürgerschaft der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg (Hrsg.) entnommen aus: Jörn Lindner/Frank Müller: "Mitglieder der Bürgerschaft – Opfer totalitärer Verfolgung", 3., überarbeitete und ergänzte Auflage, Hamburg 2012

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