Wilhelm Pieck

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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.

Primary Sources

(1) Wilhelm Pieck, diary entry (23rd January, 1924)

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.

Moscow. Hundreds of thousands of people line the streets. An endless procession is moving to the House of Trade Unions where Lenin lies in his bier. Old Bolsheviks - Lenin’s closest friends and associates - stand in the first guard of honour. Comrade Stalin and other members of the Political Bureau are among them. Comrade Krupskaya stands by the side of her dead husband.

It is bitterly cold outside. Thirty degrees and more below zero. Day and night masses of people flock to the centre of the city. They stand in the street for hours on end. Bonfires are burning. And in endless lines the people march past the bier holding the remains of the dead Lenin. For four days and four nights they never stop marching. It is something unsurpassed and awe-inspiring!

(2) Wilhelm Pieck, The Communist Review (July 1936)

Ernst Thaelmann will be fifty years old on the sixteen of April. There is hardly a corner of the world where the name of the imprisoned leader of the Communist Party of Germany is not uttered with warmth and emotion by all workers and friends of peace and liberty and where his release is not insistently demanded. Ernst Thaelmann, whom the bloodthirsty hangmen of the German proletariat have already kept in prison for three years, whom they are torturing and ill-treating, has become the symbol of the struggle against war and Fascism, the struggle for Socialism, all over the world.

It was a long journey, rich in sacrifice and struggle, that the Hamburg docker, Ernst Thaelmann, had to make before he grew to be the great leader of the producing masses of Germany and one of the most popular leaders of the Communist International.

As the son of a class-conscious worker organised in the Social-Democratic Party, Ernst Thaelmann came into the Socialist movement in his early youth. He was hardly sixteen years old when he joined the Social-Democratic Party. The indigent circumstances of a proletarian family drove him very early into the drudgery of capitalist exploitation. These circumstances prevented him from following the well-meant advice of his teachers that this talented working-class boy should continue his education.

Ernst Thaelmann began his independent proletarian existence as a porter in the Hamburg docks. He made a trip to America as a coal trimmer, and worked as a daily laborer on American farms. Thus the international character of capitalist exploitation was hammered into him in early youth—but at the same time it taught him militant life of the international working class. Arriving back in Hamburg, he devoted his whole energy and all his spare time to work in party and trade union. After a heavy day’s work and an evening spent in the service of the organisation, he voraciously read and studied the Socialist literature. At first his activities were mainly in the trade union field. Very soon his work for the organisation, his personal courage, his self-sacrifice and the successful way in which he stood up for the workers’ demands, won him the confidence of the workers. They elected him to the local executive of their trade union, they sent him four times as delegate to the congress of the Transport Workers’ Union. And already in those days Ernst Thaelmann began his open and determined fight against opportunism.

In Hamburg, Germany’s largest city serving international trade, all the shady sides of the capitalist system were in evidence in their most blatant forms. Besides the strata of labor aristocrats corrupted by colonial surplus profits, it was the circumstance that Hamburg was the seat of a number of central trade union and co-operative institutions with their large bureaucratic apparatus which, more than anything, supplied a firm foundation for opportunism. Among other things it is also noteworthy that after the Revolution of 1918 these opportunist elements in Hamburg became the representatives of the most reactionary and right-wing opinions in Social-Democracy. In order to indicate their attitude, it is enough to mention that it was one of the leaders of reactionary Hamburg Social-Democracy (Sarendorff) who replied to the united front proposals of the Communists before Hitler’s assumption to power with the provocative statement that he would ten times rather go with the bourgeoisie than once with the Communists.

In the struggle with these reactionary elements in the working-class movement Ernst Thaelmann became an uncompromising fighter for revolutionary Marxism.

When the slaughter of the nations began, and opportunism went over with banners flying to the camp of chauvinism and imperialism, the revolutionary worker, Ernst Thaelmann, did not waver one minute. From the very first days he fought resolutely against the war policy of Social-Democracy. In the first few weeks of the war he was ordered to the front. As an internationalist he set out to enlighten the troops, circulating illegal leaflets and newspapers and making a stand against the brutal treatment of the soldiers by Prussian militarism. For this he was deliberately victimised by the officers and given the most dangerous duties in the front line. Even from the trenches he kept in close touch with the illegally operating Hamburg opposition. Together with it he joined the Independent Social-Democratic Party. After the outbreak of the Revolution in November, 1918, Ernst Thaelmann fought in the foremost ranks of the revolutionary workers against the counter-revolutionary troops which Ebert and Noske had sent to crush the workersof Hamburg and Bremen. The revolutionary workers of Hamburg, who recognised Thaelmann’s personal courage and daring, elected him to represent them in the City government of the port. It was due to him that out of the 42,000 members of the Independent Social-Democratic Party’s organisation in Hamburg, 40,000declared their allegiance to the principles of the Communist International.

After the Party, following the defeat of the German proletariat in 1923, had devastatingly settled the opportunists, Ernst Thaelmann, as one of the most popular left-wing leaders, was summoned to the Central Committee of the Party, where he very soon rose to be leader of the Party. Under his leadership, the Party quickly and definitely rid itself of the ultra-left group of Ruth Fischer and Maslow, whose pseudo-radical, fatal policy had done immense harm to the mass-influence of the Party, threatening to isolate the Party from the masses.

With the help of the Communist International, he welded all the healthy and valuable forces of the Party in the leadership and in the organisation as a whole into an iron phalanx, which first flung the Trotskyist gang out of the ranks of the Party, only later to cleanse it with equal thoroughness of the Right opportunist and conciliators...

The Bolshevist policy of the Communist Party under Thaelmann’s leadership led to a steady, constant increase in its mass-influence. At the elections to the German Reichstag in November, 1932, six million working people voted for the Communist Party of Germany. The Party numbered more than 300,000 members, and it was fulfilling with ever-increasing success its great historic task of preparing the working masses of Germany for the struggle for and winning Socialism.

The development of the Party to a mass-party with a vigorous Bolshevist character was largely due to Ernst Thaelmann. He was more than usually sensitive to the temper of the masses, especially the Social-Democratic workers. For this reason he was accused by the group Nuemann of “running behind the S.P.G. workers.” But Ernst Thaelmann’s work was anything but this. Quite the reverse: he tried to make the Social-Democratic workers realise the necessity of the united front in view of the rising wave of Fascism. He tried also, however, to create the conditions for this in the Party itself...

And at the Berlin Anti-Fascist Unity Congress on July 10, 1932, Thaelmann said: “The question of the united front against Fascism … that is the question vital to the German proletariat.” On the initiative of Ernst Thaelmann the “Anti-Fascist Action” was inaugurated by the Communist Party in May, 1932, bringing the Communist and Social-Democratic workers closer together. And yet there were still present in the Party very powerful sectarian inhibitions among Communist workers against the united front with the Social-Democratic workers, chiefly caused by the struggle conducted against the Communist Party by the Social-Democratic leaders, especially the Social-Democratic Prussian Government, with the use of terrorist methods.

In these circumstances a number of grave errors were made by the Party, to correct which, on the strength of experience gained in the meantime, Ernst Thaelmann would naturally have acted with the utmost vigour if he had not been prevented from doing so by his arrest. The most serious error was that the Fascist menace was under-estimated and the main blow was not aimed at the Fascist menace as it became more and more clearly manifested.

On the bold initiative of Comrade Dimitrov, the Seventh World Congress decided to divert our tactics to the creation of the united front and the People’s Front, and set the Communist Party of Germany, in view of the altered situation in Germany, the special task of revising its relations with Social-Democracy, so that the rapid creation of the united front should become possible...

For more than three years Thaelmann has been lying in a Fascist gaol. During all this time it has only been possible once—through the workers’ delegation from the Saar—for the proletariat to establish personal contact with Thaelmann. The Fascists allow the visit on that occasion in order to confuse the workers of the Saar, because they thought that the long period of terrorism in prison would have cowed Thaelmann and that he would not dare to speak openly to the workers. But Ernst Thaelmann bade farewell to the workers in these words: “I have been and I am being tortured! Greet the workers of the Saar from me as I would greet them!” With that he showed that the brutalities of Fascist imprisonment could not break his revolutionary fortitude.

The indictment against Thaelmann published the other day is no more than a miserable declaration of bankruptcy of the part of the Fascist prosecution. That explains why the Fascists for three whole years have been continually postponing the trial and now want to abandon it alltogether. The latest report concerning Thaelmann’s fate should arouse the international proletariat the utmost vigilance. Thaelmann has been transferred from the custody of the remand authorities to that of the terrorist Gestapo gangs. This increases the mortal danger in which he is. But, on the other hand, in view of the publication of the indictment against Thaelmaan, the present moment is also favorable for the struggle for his release. If we succeeded in raising a tremendous storm of protest throughout the world, it will be possible to break down the prison walls and as in the case of Dimitrov, deliver Thaelmann from the clutches of the Fascist hangmen. The fact that Ernst Thaelmann has got to spend his fiftieth birthday in the gaols of Hitler-Fascism is an urgent reminder to all the anti-Fascists of the whole world that they must intensify to the utmost their campaign for the release of Thaelmann and the many thousands of imprisoned victims of the White Terror.