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Hitler's Rival

Hitler's Rival: Ernst Thälmann in Myth and Memory

Russel Lemmons
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 438
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  • Book Info
    Hitler's Rival
    Book Description:

    Throughout the 1920s, German politician and activist Ernst Thälmann (1886--1944) was the leader of the largest Communist Party organization outside the Soviet Union. Thälmann was the most prominent left-wing politician in the country's 1932 election and ran third in the presidential race after Hitler and von Hindenberg. After the Nazi Party's victory in that contest, he was imprisoned and held in solitary confinement for eleven years before being executed at Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944 under the Führer's direct orders.

    Hitler's Rival examines how the Communist Party gradually transformed Thälmann into a fallen mythic hero, building a cult that became one of their most important propaganda tools in central Europe. Author Russel Lemmons analyzes the party intelligentsia's methods, demonstrating how they used various media to manipulate public memory and exploring the surprising ways in which they incorporated Christian themes into their messages. Examining the facts as well as the propaganda, this unique volume separates the intriguing true biography of the cult figure from the fantastic myth that was created around him.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4092-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Myths have always played in important role in legitimizing politics, and among these myths is that of the fallen hero. Homer’sIliadandOdysseypromote cults of romanticized heroes—such as Achilles and Hector—who died so that others might live. Plato in hisRepubliccalls for the building of altars to commemorate those who perished in order to preserve Greek culture. Jesus of Nazareth’s sacrificial death plays a central role in Christian theology.¹ The Christian cult of the saints—with the emphasis it placed on the humble origins of Christian martyrs—had the effect of democratizing heroism. In the...

  5. 1 “Heil Moskau!”
    (pp. 17-62)

    Whenever biographers wanted to depict Ernst Thälmann as having had an exemplary proletarian upbringing, they had to invent one.¹ Neither of his parents came from a working-class background. His father, Jan, was born in the town of Weddern in Holstein on 11 April 1857. After military service in Potsdam, he moved to Hamburg, where in 1884 he married Maria Kopheisz, who was younger than her husband by around seven months. Like Jan, she had been born in a small town, Kirschwerder in Vierlanden, not far from Hamburg. The couple had two children: Ernst, born on 16 April 1886, and a...

  6. 2 “Ernst Thälmann Must Be Won Like a Battle!”
    (pp. 63-110)

    Ernst Thälmann spent the remainder of his life, more than eleven years, in prison, much of his time consumed in preparation for a trial that would never occur. Although he was accused of the most serious political crimes—namely, planning to overthrow the German government through violent revolution and participating in the conspiracy that led to the 28 February Reichstag fire—his high profile assured that he would not be simply interned in a concentration camp and forgotten, like so many other opponents of National Socialism. Further, his prominence led the Nazi leadership to hope that he might become useful...

  7. 3 “We Are Building upon the Foundations Created by Ernst Thälmann”
    (pp. 111-156)

    By midsummer of 1944, Ernst Thälmann had outlived his usefulness to the Nazi regime. At this point, it was clear to any objective observer that Germany was losing the war and that a negotiated peace with the Allies was impossible; the imprisoned KPD leader could no longer serve as a pawn in German–Soviet relations. Further, as the end of the war drew near, Adolf Hitler became increasingly nihilistic, ever more determined that defeat would mean the destruction not only of his “Thousand-Year Reich,” but also of Germany itself. In keeping with this sentiment, the führer wanted to leave no...

  8. 4 “A Great National Deed”
    (pp. 157-186)

    Thälmann’s life was the topic of several East German feature films and television movies, the most important being director Kurt Maetzig’s two epicsErnst Thälmann—Sohn seiner Klasse(Ernst Thälmann—Son of His Class, 1954) andErnst Thälmann—Führer seiner Klasse(Ernst Thälmann—Leader of His Class, 1955). Both films played a vital role in establishing the parameters of the Thälmann myth and securing its place in the GDR’s legitimizing narrative.¹

    East German cultural authorities inherited the traditions and institutions of Germany’s famous pre–Second World War studio Universium-Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa). Established in 1917 to produce propaganda films during the...

  9. 5 “Out of Your Sacrificial Death Grows Our Socialist Deed”
    (pp. 187-234)

    If the GDR’s state-controlled antifascist religion had a central shrine, it was Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The camp, located on the heights of the Ettersberg overlooking Weimar, a city known as the “Athens of Germany,” has a complex history, and the site was historically important long before the construction of the camp. The beech groves covering the 1,578-foot-high hilltop were famous for their association with the German-speaking world’s most celebrated cultural figure, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Not only had some of his plays been performed on this site, but the Ettersberg was also the location of Goethe’s Oak, under which the eminent...

  10. 6 “We Can Look Forward to a Happy Future”
    (pp. 235-276)

    Having recognized that the future of revolutionary socialism depended on it, Germany’s Marxist political parties had long made concerted efforts to organize and mobilize the country’s working-class youth. As early as December 1906, the SPD had formed the Union of Free Youth Organizations of Germany as well as the League of Young Workers of Germany, seeking to protect the interests of younger members of the proletariat and instill in them the proper revolutionary spirit.¹ The socialist youth movement would later be united under the banner of the Free Socialist Youth, or FSJ. In the wake of the 1917 division of...

  11. 7 “Ernst Thälmann Is Still among Us”
    (pp. 277-310)

    Because the governing SED based its legitimacy on the legacy of antifascism, presented as a dramatic narrative that took the form of myth, the study of contemporary history from a Marxist–Leninist perspective played a vital role in East German political propaganda. Scholars in the GDR developed a highly didactic historiography—Geschichtspropaganda,“historical propaganda”—that came to play a critical part in the development of the antifascism myth. East German historians played an active role in creating the legitimacy that their government sought, and their profession made many of them instruments of the ruling SED. They were not mere erudite...

  12. 8 “Not All Who Have Died Are Dead”
    (pp. 311-356)

    In hindsight, it is clear that by end of the 1970s the German Democratic Republic was in a state of decline. The heady, idealistic days of the regime’s first decade were long gone, and the Berlin Wall remained a blight on the landscape of the East German capital and an embarrassment to the SED. The East German leadership had long recognized that the country faced serious problems. Indeed, the failure of the Ulbricht government’s economic policies was integral to the decision to replace him at the SED’s helm. The new leadership sought to address the deteriorating situation both by pursuing...

  13. 9 “Imprisoned, Murdered, Besmirched”
    (pp. 357-372)

    Throughout their history, the Germans have repeatedly found themselves trying to come to terms with their past, and the period following the collapse of the SED state was no exception.¹ After all, over more than forty years the GDR and FRG governments had cultivated widely divergent understandings of what it meant to be German. Each state developed its own master narrative designed not only to justify its own social, economic, and political system, but simultaneously to undermine the legitimacy of the rival German state. In the case of East Germany, as we have seen, the ruling SED fostered an elaborate...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 373-378)

    The debate concerning the fate of the Ernst Thälmann National Monument was the product of an ideological struggle lasting more than seven decades. In the aftermath of the Great War, a conflict characterized by unprecedented destruction, many Europeans came to view the Soviet model as the last best hope for humanity. These supporters of the Bolshevik experiment earnestly believed that Lenin’s Russia embodied the sole possibility of avoiding a similar catastrophe. In Germany, the far Left formed the German Communist Party. During the first years of the KPD’s existence, party leaders sought to maintain a degree of independence from Moscow,...

  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 379-380)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 381-418)
  17. Index
    (pp. 419-428)