‘Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann’ – how an Altona-born workman fought himself a way to rest in the Cuban beach.

Statue of Ernst Thälmann at Ernst-Thälmann-Park - Berlin. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

Everybody dies twice. Usually, someone is given birth – grows up to get settled and be wise before (s)he dies and is forgotten slowly. On the contrary – some people seem more alive after they passed away. They – among them Ernst Thälmann – were mythologised and were remembered by a fitting institution or a dito public space. Here is the story of – and after – the life lead by Thälmann.

Ernst Thälmann was born in Altona, which is nowadays a borough of Hamburg. His parents had their own store for coal, vegatables and vehicles. Nevertheless, they were sued and convicted for speculation in the early 1890’s and send for three years to a house of correction. Ernst and his sister were seperated and brought to a foster home. Between 1893 and 1900 the young Ernst went to school – though he also had to help his parents in the re-opened shop. Ernst still had good grades and wanted to become a teacher – so he asked a fair loan for working instead of his pocket money only. When his parents refused to give this, he started to work in Hamburg’s harbour. This is how the ten-year-old Thälmann came in touch with the demands of the working class during a labour strike from November 1896 till Februar 1897. Thälmann left his parents’ house in 1902. Two years later, he started to work as a stoker on a cargo-boat which travelled over the oceans. In 1903, he became a member of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). During the years, Thälmann became a functionary within a organisation. A year before the First Wold War broke out, Thälmann started to work as a charioteer.

During WWI – Thälmann became a soldier in the beginning of 1915. He married Rosa Koch (1890-1962) in January that year. Thälmann witnessed six heavy battles on the Western front, among them the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In October 1918, shortly before the war ended, Thälmann decided no to go back to the front anymore. Thereafter, he joined the USPD, an independent splitting off from the SPD – which was more leftist. After the war, Thälmann and his wife had a daughter – Irma (1919-2000) while he became Hamburg’s leader for the USPD. In the following years, Thälmann was a fanatic advocate to unite the USPD with the KPD. In June 1922 – Thälmann’s wife and daughter survived an attack by members of the extreme right wing Organisation Consul, which threw a granate in their house. Thälmann wasn’t even at home.

From the 23rd till the 25th October 1923, Thälmann lead a communist uprise – where 17 policemen, 61 civilians and 24 revolutionaries found death. Though the uprise had no chance of succeeding, Thälmann became the undisputed leader of the KPD – praised for his courage. Besides, the KPD’s internal structure should be more obeyed. In 1924 he became a deputee for the KPD in the Reichstag. The next year, he was the chairman for the communist party – a position he hold till the nazi’s illegalised the KPD in 1933. Besides he worked as the leader of the Rote Frontkämpferbund – the communist para-militaric organisation – since February 1925 till it was forbidden in May 1929. In the meanwhile, Thälmann made himself a candidate for the presidential elections of 1925, in despite of any reasonable chance. The 6.4% which voted on Thälmann also made possible that the civilian and democratic candidate Wilhelm Marx (45.3%) lost from the monarchist Paul von Hindenburg (48.3%). Thälmann kept participating in communist demonstrations. From 1929 onwards, Thälmann developed a rivalry with the SPD – after Karl Zörgiebel, an SPD police functionary – forbid to demonstrate at the First of May in 1929. For that reason, a riot broke out at the first till the third of May – called Blutmai (Bloody May). Around the 38 policemen found death – as well as 33 civilians. The Rote Frontkämpferbund – still under Thälmann’s command – became illegalised for this reason. Especially in Wedding’s Kösliner Straße the violent confrontation escalated – 19 demonstraters found death here. In stead of regretting violence in general, Thälmann speeched afterwards that his KPD was solidary with all demonstrators. At the Kösliner Straße, a memorial stone was erected to remember the victims – which is moved to the nearby Walter-Röber-Brücke.

Gedenkstein, Walter-Röber-Brücke. No © needed, foto by Joep de Visser

Walter-Röber-Brücke, Berlin-Wedding (November 2022)

Walter-Röber-Brücke, Berlin-Wedding (November 2022)


March 3, 1933 – Thälmann was arrested together with his personal secretary. Their arrest came not even a week after the Reichstag was set on fire by the solistic operating Marinus van der Lubbe. The nazi’s made use of this situation and illegalised all communist organisations. Thälmann was charged for high treason – but he never was given the trial where he actually looked forward too. During his questioning in January 1934 at the Gestapo’s Headquarter, Thälmann was molested and lost four teeth. There were many international critiques on his imprisonment – which peaked around Thälmann’s 50th anniversary in 1936. When the Spanish civil war broke out, a battalion was named after Thälmann. In 1937, a cell was given to Thälmann in which he could receive guests. This cell was eavesdropped – and for free conversations, Thälmann and his guests used a board and crayons. During the negotiations for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin openly demanded the release of Thälmann – without any result.

Ernst Thälmann, 1932. ©Bundesarchiv

In August 1944, two Gestapo officers brought Thälmann from his prison in the Saxony village Bautzen to the concentration camp Buchenwald. Thälmann was shot without any further juridical process, on Hitler’s command. How and when he exactly died is still unclear. Probably, he was shot the 18th of August and burned the day after. Other witnesses say that he was shot with another nine communists, by the end of August. Only according to the nazi press, Thälmann found death by an Allied air raid, the 24th of August. Since 1951 – Thälmann has a symbolic grave – without his remains – at the Gedenkstätte der Sozialisten. Rosa Thälmann’s ashes are to be found in the Urnenring (Ring of urn’s) around it.

Symbolic grave Ernst Thälmann. Gedenkstätte der Sozialisten, Berlin - November 2012. No copyright needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

After the war, the left-wing rivalry in the Weimar Republic is regretted by post-war communists. The devided left-wing opposition gave a possibility for Hitler’s NSDAP to raise. In the GDR, the social democrats were forced to unite with the communists in the new SED. Thälmann, seen his stubborn candidate ship for the presidential elections and his reaction on Blutmai, rather developed this rivalry than to co-operate with the social democrats. Besides, it was wide known that Walter Ulbricht was Thälmann’s rival to be Germany’s post-war communist leader.

Nevertheless, the post-war communists developed an image around Thälmann in which he was a martyr of nazi’s violence in the concentration camps and the victim of the lacking fair jurisdiction. Besides stamps, GDR’s coins, many streets, parks, schools and public spaces – GDR’s biggest youth organisation for children aged 9-14 was called the Pionierorganisation Ernst Thälmann – and was founded in December 1948. In 1950, the nowadays square and its U-Bahn station Mohrenplatz were called the Thälmannplatz. This name was changed to Otto-Grotewohl-Platz to precause misunderstandings with the square at the constructed Ernst-Thälmann-Park in Prenzlauer Berg – which was developed in dedication of Thälmann’s 100th anniversary. On the 3800sq.m. square – a 13 meter high statue of Thälmann with a communist banner was erected (see picture #1 of today’s update). The bronze statue on a tripod of red granite was designed by Lew Kerbel (1917-2003) and given by the USSR.

Memorial stone for Ernst Thälmann. Text: "Ernst Thälmann - the leader of the German labour class, the courageous combattant against fascism and the war - worked in this house." - Berlin 2012. No © needed. Photo by Joep de VisserIn the meanwhile, a bronze memorial stone in remembrance of Thälmann is situated at the famous Karl-Liebknecht-Haus – located around East Berlin’s Rosa Luxemburg Platz – since 1952. Since 1992, Thälmann is remembered in front of the Reichstag – with one of the 96 stones in remembrance of the murdered members of the Reichstag.

Ernst Thälmann, Denkmal zur Erinnerung an 96 von den Nationalsozialisten ermordete Reichstagsabgeordnete. No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser

Outside East Berlin, statues or memorial stones dedicated to Thälmann were erected in the concentration camp of Buchenwald (1953) as well as the towns of Weimar (1958), Stralsund (1962), Frankfurt am Oder (1986) and Werdau (1986, demolished). The most impressive memorial site was located only a few kilometers southeast of Berlin – at the Sporthaus Ziegenhals. Here, Thälmann’s last speech took place at February 7th 1933 – amidst the functionaries of the illegalised KPD. Exactly twenty years later – the Ernst-Thälmann-Gedenkstätte was erected. The site – with a bust and a remembrance of the illegal speech – was a destination for all the Thälmann-Pioniere. After the Fall, the site was closed and since March 2010 – it is deconstructed.

In despite of being West German, Thälmann’s hometown of Hamburg also developed various streets in remembrance of him – especially after 1989. Thälmann is also remembered far outside East-Germany. During a state visit in June 1972 – Fidel Castro revealed the Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann (Ernst Thälmann Island) – an uninhabited isle of seven square kilometer which was given to the GDR. A year later, a four meter high bust of Thälmann was erected at the Playa RDA (GDR beach). Since hurricane Mitch broke Thälmann’s bust in 1998, his head rests in the white sand. Furthermore, there is a German-Russian village in Tajikistan called Thälmann – as well a the village of Thälmann in Birobidzhan. So to speak – everybody rests in peace – but some people rest more than others.

Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann. ©Der Spiegel

1 thought on “‘Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann’ – how an Altona-born workman fought himself a way to rest in the Cuban beach.

  1. Pingback: Overview | Historical tales about the capital of the 20th century

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