Wilhelm Pieck, the son of a coachman, was born in Guben on 3rd January, 1876. After leaving school he became a carpenter. An active trade unionist he joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Pieck became the chairman of the local branch and in 1906 he became a full-time official of the party.
At the time the SDP was deeply divided into three groups. The leader of the right-wing, Eduard Bernstein, had published a series of articles where he argued that the predictions made by Karl Marx about the development of capitalism had not come true. He pointed out that the real wages of workers had risen and the polarization of classes between an oppressed proletariat and capitalist, had not materialized. Nor had capital become concentrated in fewer hands. The chairman of the party, August Bebel, remained a Marxist but believed that socialism could best be obtained through the parliamentary system. Paul Frölich has argued: "The SPD divided into three clear tendencies: the reformists, who tended increasingly to espouse the ruling-class imperialist policy; the so-called Marxist Centre, which claimed to maintain the traditional policy, but in reality moved closer and closer to Bernstein's position; and the revolutionary wing, generally called the Left Radicals (Linksradikale)." Pieck became a member of the Left Radicals. Headed by Rosa Luxemburg it included Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Karl Radek and Anton Pannekoek.
In 1907 Liebknecht published Militarism and Anti-Militarism. In the book he argued: "Militarism is not specific to capitalism. It is moreover normal and necessary in every class-divided social order, of which the capitalist system is the last. Capitalism, of course, like every other class-divided social order, develops its own special variety of militarism; for militarism is by its very essence a means to an end, or to several ends, which differ according to the kind of social order in question and which can be attained according to this difference in different ways. This comes out not only in military organization, but also in the other features of militarism which manifest themselves when it carries out its tasks. The capitalist stage of development is best met with an army based on universal military service, an army which, though it is based on the people, is not a people’s army but an army hostile to the people, or at least one which is being built up in that direction." Wilhelm Pieck became a member of this anti-militarist section of the party.
Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the First World War. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy."
Immediately after the vote on war credits in the Reichstag, a group of SDP anti-militarist activists, including Wilhelm Pieck, Franz Mehring, Ernest Meyer,Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein met at the home of Rosa Luxemburg to discuss future action. They agreed to campaign against the war but decided against forming a new party and agreed to continue working within the SPD.
Over the next few months members of this group, including Pieck, were arrested and spent several short spells in prison. On the release of Rosa Luxemburg in February 1916, it was decided to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). The Spartacus League publicized its views in its illegal newspaper, Spartacus Letters. Like the Bolsheviks in Russia, they began to argue that socialists should turn this nationalist conflict into a revolutionary war.
Dick Howard has argued: "Agitation continued throughout the war; yet the Spartacus League was never very strong. All agitation had to be carried out in strict secrecy, and the leaders were more often than not in jail." Members included Pieck, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Clara Zetkin, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein.
On 1st May, 1916, the Spartacus League decided to come out into the open and organized a demonstration against the First World War in the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. One of those who attended reported: "It was a great success. At eight o'clock in the morning a dense throng of workers - almost ten thousand - assembled in the square, which the police had already occupied well ahead of time. Karl Liebknecht, in uniform, and Rosa Luxemburg were in the midst of the demonstrators and greeted with cheers from all sides." Several of its leaders, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and imprisoned. Pieck fled to Amsterdam where he stayed until the end of the First World War.
Karl Radek, a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, argued that the the Soviet government should help the spread of world revolution. In 1918 he was sent to Germany and with a group of radicals who had been members of the Spartacus League, including Pieck, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker, Hugo Eberlein, Paul Frölich, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin, helped to establish the German Communist Party (KPD).
In Germany elections were held for a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution for the new Germany. As a believer in democracy, she assumed that her party would contest these universal, democratic elections. However, other members were being influenced by the fact that Lenin had dispersed by force of arms a democratically elected Constituent Assembly in Russia. Rosa Luxemburg rejected this approach and wrote in the party newspaper: "The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power in any other way than through the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian masses in all Germany, never except by virtue of their conscious assent to the views, aims, and fighting methods of the Spartacus League."
On 29th December, 1918, Friedrich Ebert gave permission for the publishing of a Social Democratic Party leaflet. "The shameless doings of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg besmirch the revolution and endanger all its achievements. The masses cannot afford to wait a minute longer and quietly look on while these brutes and their hangers-on cripple the activity of the republican authorities, incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands. With lies, slander, and violence they want to tear down everything that dares to stand in their way. With an insolence exceeding all bounds they act as though they were masters of Berlin."
On 1st January, 1919, at a convention of the Spartacus League, Luxemburg was outvoted on this issue. As Bertram D. Wolfe has pointed out: "In vain did she (Luxemburg) try to convince them that to oppose both the Councils and the Constituent Assembly with their tiny forces was madness and a breaking of their democratic faith. They voted to try to take power in the streets, that is by armed uprising. Almost alone in her party, Rosa Luxemburg decided with a heavy heart to lend her energy and her name to their effort."
The Spartakist Rising began in Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, Germany's new chancellor, called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. By 13th January, 1919 the rebellion had been crushed and most of its leaders were arrested. This included Pieck, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknechton 16th January.
Paul Frölich, the author of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) has explained what happened: "A short while after Liebknecht had been taken away (to be executed), Rosa Luxemburg was led out of the hotel by a First Lieutenant Vogel. Awaiting her before the door was Runge, who had received an order from First Lieutenants Vogel and Pflugk-Hartung to strike her to the ground. With two blows of his rifle-butt he smashed her skull. Her almost lifeless body was flung into a waiting car, and several officers jumped in. One of them struck Rosa on the head with a revolver-butt, and First Lieutenant Vogel finished her off with a shot in the head. The corpse was then driven to the Tiergarten and, on Vogel's orders, thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal, where it was not washed up until 31 May 1919."
Wilhelm Pieck was released unharmed. He remained active in the German Communist Party, under the leadership of Paul Levi. He also wrote for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the official newspaper of the KPD.In 1924 Pieck attended the funeral of Lenin: "The earth is covered with a thick layer of snow. It is a cold and bright winter day, Lenin lies in the room. His face is a pale yellow, but the skin is smooth - there is practically not a wrinkle left. How hard it is to become reconciled to the thought that he is no longer! Silent, with tears in their eyes, veterans of the Civil War carry him out of the room. The mournful cortège, carrying the dead leader, wend their way along a narrow path across an open snow-covered field to the railway station. Crowds of people - old and young - have assembled near the station. The heartrending strains of the funeral march float in the air."
Several former members of the Spartacus League, including Ernest Meyer, Paul Levi and Hugo Eberlein, remained supporters of the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg and were purged from the leadership of the party on the orders of Joseph Stalin. Pieck supported the new leader, Ernst Thälmann, who was a loyal Stalinist.
After Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, Pieck fled to France but in 1935 he moved to the Soviet Union. In 1938 he was appointed as General Secretary of the Communist International. In 1943 Pieck was a member of the National Committee for a Free Germany (NKFD). It was the committee's role to prepare for government after the Red Army liberated Germany from the Nazi government.
Pieck moved to Soviet controlled Germany after the Second World War. In 1949 Pieck was elected President of the newly-established German Democratic Republic (GDR). He held the post until his death on 7th September 1960.