“Hitler’s Rival”: Book shines spotlight on Ernst Thalmann

A lot has been written about Hitler’s Germany. Some of which has been outstanding, like Richard J. Evans’ historical trilogy The Coming Of The Third Reich, The Third Reich In Power and The Third Reich At War. Similarly, a lot has been written about the post-war German Democratic Republic and East German socialism; noteworthy is Mary Fulbrook’s The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker.

While Russel Lemmons’ Hitler’s Rival: Ernst Thalmann In Myth And Memory isn’t a history of Nazi Germany or of the GDR, it does provide a historical glimpse into both societies. Additionally, while it isn’t a biography, it does provide significant biographical information on one of the most important leaders in modern German history, Ernst Thalmann.

Part history, part biography, Hitler’s Rival is also an analysis of the emergence and use of the so-called Thalmann “myth” prior to, during and after World War II.

While I take issue with much of Lemmons’ Cold War era anti-communist assumptions regarding the German and Soviet Communist Party’s creation and use of the so-called Thalmann “myth,” especially its pseudo-religious characterization, when Lemmons’ sticks to the observable, tangible facts his research is quite illuminating and covers a broad historical landscape.

Thalmann, a Hamburg dock worker, joined the KPD – the German Communist Party – in late 1920 and was quickly recognized as an outstanding Party leader, eventually becoming chairman in 1925 – a position he would symbolically hold until his murder in 1944 under Hitler’s direct order. Elected to the Reichstag in 1921, Thalmann would lead what would later be known as the German October, a militant workers’ rebellion intended to spark revolution throughout all of Germany. He twice ran for president, in 1925 and again in 1932.

Recognized as an international communist leader as well, Thalmann was elevated to the Comintern leadership just as that body began to reassess its Third Period policies. Thalmann, who for a time mistakenly attacked social democrats just as viciously as Nazi fascists, would by early 1933 “recognize the gravity” of Hitler’s rise to power. In fact, Thalmann published an open letter in late February, 1933 where he asserted, the “fascist assassins who rage against the workers with daggers, revolvers, and bombs [ make] no distinction whether they carry the membership card of the KPD, the SPD [the Socialist Party], or the Christian trade unions…” He and the communists “…would cooperate with all antifascists, no matter what their political allegiance.” 

Unfortunately, though, Thalmann’s warnings would not be heeded. Shortly after the Reichstag fire around 4,000 communist were arrested. On Mar. 3, Thalmann was taken into custody. He would spend the next eleven torturous years in a Nazi prison and then be murdered by Hitler’s henchmen as the Soviets neared Berlin.

Hitler’s Rival is most illuminating when Lemmons deals with the world-wide free Thalmann campaign led by communists, trade unionists and progressive artist, musical and literary supporters. In fact, U. S. communists in spring, 1934 “organized a series of mass demonstrations…linking the effort to free Thalmann to the international struggle against fascism.” Thousands “assembled in Chicago, Cleveland, and New York” and elsewhere, often outside of German consulates, which would also receive so-many free Thalmann phone calls that “regular communications had to be halted…” CPUSA members composed songs and poems to honor the anti-fascist leader. And the Party-led National Committee To Aid Victims Of German Fascism, which claimed 400,000 members, issued fliers, pamphlets and brochures about Thalmann, and other anti-fascists held in Nazi torture camps. Then Party chair, Earl Browder, wrote his German comrade: “On behalf of [the] working millions of America we pledge to fight relentlessly for your liberation and [the] liberation of all prisoners of fascism [and] for a liberated Germany.”

The international character of the ‘Free Thalmann’ campaign wasn’t mere words. Nations all across the world organized in support of the communist leader. For at stake wasn’t just the life of one man. As the Bulgarian communist, Georgi Dimitrov – and one-time Nazi prisoner – pointed out, “What is at stake is the conflict between two worlds.” There was even an Ernst Thalmann Brigade as part of the International Brigade that fought against Franco’s fascists in Spain.

While Lemmons does look at the role of the Thalmann “myth” as it relates to the creation of the post-war German Socialist Unity Party and the GDR, he does so with a tainted lens. He writes, “A scholarly consensus seems to be emerging that the creation of the SED [the Socialist Unity Party] was the product both of coercion on the part of the Soviets allied with the German Communist leadership and of a genuine concern among rank-and-file Social Democrats about the possibility of a revival of National Socialism,” or fascism. As proof of coercion Lemmons sights one source which is hardly scholarly consensus.

Hitler’s Rival is a good book in-spite of Lemmons’ attempt to grind an anti-communist axe. Lemmons’ does an outstanding job compiling and condensing the voluminous amount of material regarding Thalmann’s life, the world-wide free Thalmann campaign, the post-war GDR memorializing of the fallen communist, etc. However, unfortunately, he also rarely misses an opportunity to take a jab at Soviet and German communists and assumes that they are simply manipulating popular sentiment to build support for what was ultimately, in Lemmons’ eyes, a failed state-sponsored religious experiment, Marxism-Leninism.

That tens-of-millions of people throughout the world sincerely believed-in Thalmann as a symbol, fought and mobilized for his release – as an international expression of anti-fascism – and that Soviet, German and other communists, led this world-wide movement, is lost by Lemmons,’ who could have accomplished so much more if he had simply, objectively presented the historical facts. 

If you can stomach the anti-communism, Hitler’s Rival: Ernst Thalmann In Myth And Memory is an illuminating book about a largely forgotten communist leader – a man who was one of the most powerful in Germany, killed on direct orders of Hitler.

“Hitler’s Rival: Ernst Thalmann In Myth And Memory”

Russel Lemmons

University Press of Kentucky, 2013, 428 pages

Photo: Amazon


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.