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Issue #1684      May 13, 2015

Culture & Life

Ernst Thälmann, hero of the working class

American academics who have a left-wing perspective on their chosen subject do not have an easy road. Any attempt to present their students with a viewpoint that reflects a working-class interpretation of events or phenomena runs the very real risk of being held up by right-wingers (students’ parents, other academics, local “opinion makers”, church leaders) as “Communist propaganda”, and we all know how despicable that is!

Ernst Thälmann was not Hitler’s rival, he was Hitler’s most potent enemy.

For many US academics, the prospect of being mired in battles with their university’s administration until eventually being forced out is just too much to face. They take the easier option and keep their opinions private, not rocking the boat and feeding their family instead. It is sad, but understandable.

So when a Comrade sent us a copy of a book by an American academic on Ernst Thälmann, the German Communist leader murdered by the Nazis, I was naturally curious to see what approach it took. It didn’t take long to find out.

The book is Hitler’s Rival by Russel Lemmons, Professor of History at Jacksonville State University in Kentucky and published by the University Press of Kentucky. It is subtitled, Ernst Thälmann in Myth and Memory.

Thälmann was the respected and popular leader in the 1920s of the German Communist party (KPD), the largest outside the Soviet Union. It was in part because of the growing success and influence of the KPD that the German ruling class turned to the Nazis. They knew that whatever else he did, Hitler’s rabble-rousers and uniformed thugs would save them from Bolshevism. He would also lead them to war, which they thought was no bad thing, promising huge profits, conquest, raw materials, and power. But especially profits.

The Nazis came to power on a program of lies, race hatred and a pseudo-leftwing pose – condemnation of the big banks, socialist phraseology, public concern for the workers (but private concern for corporate interests). And fomenting violence in the streets to unsettle the middle class and deter militant workers from opposing them.

As soon as the Nazis gained government, Thälmann was arrested, placed in solitary confinement and kept in prison for 11 years until in 1944, with the Red Army’s victory inevitable, he was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp and secretly murdered.

The title of Lemmon’s book – Hitler’s Rival – is a clue to what he is about. Thälmann was not Hitler’s rival, he was Hitler’s most potent enemy. He opposed everything Hitler stood for and fought against the Nazis through the ’20s and even after he was arrested and imprisoned. His condemnations of the Nazi regime and its attacks on German workers were smuggled out of his prison cell by courageous members of the Communist underground and published as illegal pamphlets or forwarded to the Comintern in Moscow for distribution worldwide.

But Lemmon has a purpose. He does nothing so crass as to directly attack Thälmann the anti-Nazi fighter (after all that is a matter of historical record). No, he sets out to undermine that historical record itself. His devious thesis is summed up on the back cover of his book: “In Hitler’s Rival, Russel Lemmons examines how the Communist Party gradually transformed Thälmann into a fallen mythic hero, building his legacy into a cult that became one of their most important propaganda tools in central Europe.

“By analysing 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, this unique volume separates the intriguing truth about Thälmann’s life from the myth that was created around him.”

Classic Cold War propaganda: Thälmann, the courageous and respected leader of the German working class and the dedicated anti-Nazi, is to be transformed into a construct of the Communist Party, nothing more than a propaganda weapon for the government of the GDR. To do this while pretending not to be attacking Thälmann’s memory is despicable.

Imperialism, the most developed sector of capitalism, is waging an ideological war against the rest of the world, a war of ideas to cloak their preparations for waging a war of destruction and bloodshed. In this Cold War, lies and distortions are normal currency, as they are in capitalism’s other regular dealings.

When counter-revolution swept Eastern Europe with the help of Gorbachev, West German politicians were allowed to persuade the people of the GDR that if they voted for union with West Germany they would not only keep all the benefits of socialism that they enjoyed but would add to them the supposed benefits of the EU, namely freedom to travel and plentiful consumer goods (of course their agriculture would be deliberately destroyed and unemployment would also appear for the first time).

The Wall came down and revanchist West German politicians, now in charge of the whole country, moved to eradicate all monuments to Communists and the anti-fascist struggle. They were able to demolish the largest statue of Lenin in East Germany before public opposition forced them to stop. But they are still trying. The large statue of Ernst Thälmann in Berlin, donated by Russia, is regularly disfigured with splashes of paint by neo-fascists emboldened by the refusal of the authorities to place a police guard on it.

Lemmons devotes a large slice of his book to the local government wrangles over whether to break up the statue, to grow ivy all over it or build a huge hedge around it or just to surround it with propaganda billboards giving the “facts” about Thälmann! So far it has been left alone, paint-spattered though it is.

Regardless of German revanchists seeking to destroy the evidence of East Germany’s socialist era, or anti-Communist American academics re-writing history to suit their class interests, Thälmann’s place in German and world history remains a matter of record and is secure for all time. He was and remains a hero of the working class.

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