Born Apr. 16, 1886, in Hamburg; died Aug. 18, 1944, in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Figure in the German and international workers’ movement.
Thälmann attended a Volksschule from 1893 to 1900. He was a transportation worker until 1923. Even as a youth, he was engaged in the organized workers’ movement. In 1903 he joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; SPD), and in 1904 he became a member of the transportation workers’ union. He was one of the organizers of the youth trade union movement in Hamburg. Long years of experience in production and trade union activity forged the principal feature of Thälmann’s character: a close tie with the working class. On the eve of World War I (1914–18), Thälmann embarked on a struggle against the opportunistic policy of the trade unions and Social Democratic leaders; on the key issues of the class struggle he shared the views of K. Liebknecht, R. Luxemburg, and other leading representatives of the German left wing. In 1914, Thälmann, condemning the imperialist war, adopted a consistently internationalist position. He was drafted into the army in 1915 and sent to the Western Front. While in the army, he was persecuted for his revolutionary activities.
The October Revolution of 1917 in Russia set the course and goal of Thälmann’s subsequent struggle. Thälmann was active in the November Revolution of 1918 in Germany as a member of the left wing of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; USPD). Upon becoming head of the Hamburg organization of the USPD in May 1919, Thälmann urged that the party join the Communist International (Comintern). When the left wing of the USPD merged with the Communist Party of Germany (CPG) in late 1920, most of the members of the Hamburg organization of the USPD, led by Thälmann, joined the CPG. In December 1920, Thälmann became chairman of the Hamburg organization of the CPG, and in May 1923 he was elected to the Center (later called the Central Committee) of the CPG.
Thälmann visited Soviet Russia for the first time in the summer of 1921 as a delegate to the Third Congress of the Comintern. The achievements of the Soviet working class and the Bolshevik Party made an enormous impression on him, and he became a dedicated advocate of friendship with the USSR. He was a leader of the Hamburg uprising of 1923 (seeHAMBURG UPRISING of 1923). He completely adopted the Leninist line, which stressed continuous work among the masses, and he remained loyal to this policy in all his later activities, tirelessly defending it against ultraleftist phrasemongers and sectarians. In late 1925, Thälmann was elected chairman of the Central Committee of the CPG. He posed the challenge of making the CPG a unified, disciplined, purposeful Marxist-Leninist party with close ties to the masses.
Thälmann’s great historical contribution was that under his leadership the CPG took a firm Leninist position, and a solid core of Leninist revolutionaries developed in the German workers’ movement.
In May 1924, Thälmann became the representative of the CPG in the Reichstag, and in early 1925 he became the leader of the Roter Frontkämpferbund. He was a candidate for the country’s presidency in 1925 and 1932. He was one of the best party agitators, a true voice of the people who enjoyed great respect among the broad masses of workers. He also became one of the leading figures in the Comintern. In 1924 he had become a member of the Presidium of the Executive Committee of the Comintern and one of its deputy chairmen. He took part in the Fifth and Sixth Congresses of the Comintern and in all plenary sessions of the Executive Committee of the Comintern from 1926 through 1932. He fought resolutely for the unity and solidarity of the Comintern. He considered the defense of the first socialist state—the Soviet Union—and the preparation of the working class to win political power in the respective country to be the most important, inseparably intertwined task of every proletarian revolutionary. At a plenary session of the Executive Committee of the Comintern in 1926, Thälmann said: “The decisive issue for the international working class is the issue of attitude toward the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union. This is the point at which opinions diverge and so they should! Your attitude toward the Soviet Union also answers the question of which camp you belong to in questions of German policy: the camp of revolution or the camp of counterrevolution” (Izbr. stat’i i rechi, vol. 1, Moscow, 1957, p. 309).
Thälmann was always in the forefront of the struggle against the German monopoly capitalists. He made a significant contribution to the creative application of Marxism-Leninism and to the development of a way for the working class to win political power under the conditions that existed in Germany at that time. His ideas, above all the call to a determined struggle against nationalism, the primary ideological weapon of fascism, were included in the program declaration of the CPG in August 1930 concerning the national and social liberation of the German people. In March 1931, Thälmann announced the program of the CPG to render aid to the peasants.
Thälmann played a leading role in the antifascist struggle of the CPG. It was on his initiative that the CPG, in May 1932, organized the antifascist movement, which sought to achieve unity of the working class and to unite all antifascist democratic forces against the establishment of a fascist dictatorship. With his close comrades W. Pieck and J. Schehr, Thälmann negotiated with the Social Democrats on the formation of a united antifascist front. At his insistence, the Central Committee of the CPG proposed to the leadership of the SDPG that the two parties embark on a joint struggle against the fascist reaction and the formation of Hitler’s government. The rejection by the SPDG rightist leaders of unity of action of the working class significantly bolstered the position of the reactionaries, weakened the proletariat, and facilitated the rise of fascism.
In 1933, after the establishment of the fascist dictatorship, Thälmann went underground and continued his work. He was arrested by the Gestapo on Mar. 3, 1933. At first he was kept at Moabit Prison in Berlin; in 1937 he was moved to Hanover, and in 1943, to Bautzen. Through his wife, Rosa, and his daughter, Irma, Thälmann maintained constant contact with the Central Committee of the CPG. He transmitted important instructions and information, demonstrating the unyielding strength of a Communist and fighter against imperialism and fascism, his great faith in the strength of the working class, his love for the Soviet Union, and also his unwavering loyalty to proletarian internationalism.
In August 1944, Thälmann was transferred to the concentration camp at Buchenwald and killed on direct orders from Hitler and Himmler.
Thälmann’s vision was made reality by the establishment of the socialist order in the German Democratic Republic and by the fraternal alliance of the first German state of workers and peasants with the Soviet Union and other countries of the socialist community.
WORKSGeschichte und Politik: Artikel und Reden, 1925–1933. Berlin, 1973.
Im Kampf gegen den deutschen und den amerikanischen Imperialismus: Drei Reichstagsreden. Berlin, 1954.
Kampfreden und Aufsätze. Berlin, 1931.
Volksrevolution über Deutschland. Berlin, 1931.
Vorwärts unter dem Banner der Komintern. Berlin, 1931.
Der revolutionäre Ausweg und die KPD. Moscow .
Briefe aus dem Gefängnis an seine Angehörigen. Berlin, 1965.
Antwort auf Briefe eines Kerkergenossen. Berlin, 1961.
In Russian translation:
Izbrannye stat’i i rechi, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1957–58.
“Otvet na pis’ma tovarishcha po tiuremnomu zakliucheniiu v Bauttsene.” Bol’shevik, 1950, no. 21.
REFERENCESE. Tel’man: Borets za mir i svobodu. Moscow, 1937.
Bredel, W. E. Tel’man, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1955. (Translated from German.)
Germanii bessmertnyi syn: Vospominaniia ob E. Tel’mane. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from German.)
Davidovich, D. S. Tel’man: Stranitsy zhizni i bor’by, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1971.
E. Thälmann: Bilder und Dokumente aus seinem Leben. Berlin, 1955.
Bartel, W. Ein Held der Nation. Berlin, 1961.
Lindau, R. E. Thälmann. Berlin, 1956.
Zimmerling, Z. Ernst Thälmann: Leben und Kampf. Berlin .
Weizmann, O. E. Thälmann in Leningrad. Halle, 1966.
E. HONECKER (GDR)