The East German leader Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973) succeeded in placing his country in a fairly strong economic position and weathered more political storms than most Soviet and East European Communist leaders.
Born into a poor working-class family in Leipzig on June 30, 1893, Walter Ulbricht learned carpentry and joined the Socialist party (SPD) in 1912. A solid if uninspired student, he early showed a tendency to cling to the simple Marxist ideology of the party. Like many other young Socialists, he was increasingly alienated by SPD support of the imperial German government in World War I. It was thus not surprising that Ulbricht joined a left-wing splinter group, the "League of Spartacus." After the failure of its coup against the new SPD government (which was regarded as too conservative) in January 1919, "Spartacus" broke up. Ulbricht and others formed a new left-wing party, the German Communist party (KPD). After an unsuccessful beginning as an agitator, Ulbricht found his niche as an organizer, first in "Red Saxony" and later in Berlin. He was subsequently trained in Moscow in tactics and administration.
As a member of the German Reichstag from 1928, Ulbricht helped formulate the misguided KPD tactic of attacking the Socialists, who supported the democratic Weimar Republic, instead of the real enemies of democracy, the Nazis. The revolution which the KPD expected as a result of the Nazi consolidation of power in 1933 failed to materialize, and the KPD was ruined. Ulbricht fled, moving to the Soviet Union in 1938 after serving on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War.
Chosen by Stalin to return to Germany in 1945, Ulbricht organized support for the Soviet occupation. In 1946 he helped merge the old SPD and KPD in the Soviet zone into the Socialist Unity party (SED). Despite initial appeals to all "antifascist elements, " the SED drifted under the control of the old Communists. At the same time, Ulbricht's star rose in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or the former East Germany, the successor to the Soviet Occupation Zone. Elected general secretary of the SED in 1950 and the equivalent of head of state in 1960, Ulbricht came to be the strongest East German leader.
Ulbricht gained international prominence for his increasingly forceful collectivization of the East German economy and the virtual imprisonment of his people. His high voice and his goatee figured in many caricatures. Defenders of Ulbricht pointed out that he, unlike Stalin, refrained from murdering his enemies and that East Germany had finally begun to achieve a limited prosperity under his rule. Ulbricht was, however, perhaps the most unpopular Communist leader of the century because of his inflexible policies, including the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to prevent East Germans from fleeing the country. He resigned in May 1971 and was succeeded by Erich Honecker.
He died Aug. 1, 1973, in Berlin after having suffered a stroke two weeks earlier.
Further Reading on Walter Ulbricht
Ulbricht published a number of books; some of them have been translated, including Whither Germany? Speeches and Essays (1966). The only biography of him in English is Carola Stern, Ulbricht: A Political Biography (1965), which, although limited by the inaccessibility of sources and absence of a true historical viewpoint, offers an outline of the German Communist movement and Ulbricht's role in it.