7 The Communist Leaders

Joshua S., Luke S. and Matthew R.

 

East Germany
Walter Ulbricht, Erich Honecker

USSR
Nikita Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev

When The Wall Was Built

Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, who was born on April 15 1894 and died on September 11, 1971, led the Soviet Union during part of the Cold War. He was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1953 – 1964) and the Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1958 to 1964. He was mainly responsible for the de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union, the early Soviet space program and several liberal reforms of domestic policy.

Khrushchev had no formal education but he had a very quick mind. He was a strong, capable leader who did much to reform and modernise the USSR. He was determined to ensure that the USSR overtook the USA as the world’s most advanced nation. Even with his “quick mind”, Khrushchev still miscalculated the effect his policies would have, most notably in eastern Europe and Cuba.

In 1955, the USSR agreed with its Allies to remove its troops from Austria, to ensure the Austrian neutrality. Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a “capricious, irritable and brutal” leader who had made many mistakes. This occurred at a secret session of the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956.

Whilst the boundary between two German states had been fortified elsewhere, Berlin, which was administered by the four Allied power, remained open. Acting on the speeches from US Ambassador Charles E. Bohlen to Moscow, and United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman J. William Fulbright, Khrushchev authorised the East German leader Walter Ulbricht to begin construction of what would be known as the Berlin Wall. Construction preparations were made in great secrecy, and the border was sealed off in the early hours of Sunday, August 13, 1961, when most East German workers who earned hard currency by working in West Berlin would be at their homes. The wall was a propaganda disaster, and marked the end of Khrushchev’s attempts to conclude a peace treaty among the Four Powers and the two German states.

Beginning in March 1964, Supreme Soviet head Leonid Brezhnev began discussing Khrushchev’s removal with his colleagues. While Brezhnev considered having Khrushchev arrested as he returned from a trip to Scandinavia in June, he instead spent time persuading members of the Central Committee to support an ouster of Khrushchev, remembering how crucial the Committee’s support had been to Khrushchev in defeating the Anti-Party Group plot. Brezhnev was given ample time for his conspiracy; Khrushchev was absent from Moscow for a total of five months between January and September 1964.

Walter Ulbricht

Walter Ulbricht was a German communist politician. He was born on 30 June 1893 in Leipzig, Saxony, where his father worked as a tailor. He spent eight years in primary school, after which he trained to be a joiner. Both of his parents also worked for the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Walter himself joined the party in 1912.

The Nazi Party attained power in Germany in January 1933, and very quickly began a purge of Communist and Social Democrat leaders in Germany. Following the arrest of the KPD’s leader, Ernst Thälmann, Ulbricht campaigned to be Thälmann’s replacement as head of the Party. Many competitors for the leadership were killed in the Soviet Union thanks to Ulbricht.

Although modest economic gains were being made, emigration still continued. By 1961, 1.65 million had fled to the west. Fearful of the possible consequences of this continued outflow of refugees, and aware of the dangers an East German collapse would present to the Soviet Union’s Communist satellite empire, Ulbricht pressured Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in early 1961 to stop the outflow and resolve the status of Berlin

During this time, the refugees’ mood was rarely expressed in words, though East German laborer Kurt Wismach did so effectively by shouting for free elections during one of Ulbricht’s speeches. When Khrushchev approved the building of a wall as a means to resolve this situation, Ulbricht threw himself into the project with abandon. Delegating different tasks in the process while maintaining overall supervision and careful control of the project, Ulbricht managed to keep secret the purchase of vast amounts of building materials, including barbed wire, concrete pillars, timber, and mesh wire.

On 13 August 1961, work began on what was to become the Berlin Wall, only two months after Ulbricht had emphatically denied that there were such plans (“Nobody has the intention of building a wall”). Ulbricht had sent out GDR soldiers and police to seal the border with West Berlin overnight. The mobilization included 8,200 members of the People’s Police, 3,700 members of the mobile police, 12,000 factory militia members, and 4,500 State Security officers. Ulbricht also dispersed 40,000 East German soldiers across the country to suppress any potential protests.

Ulbricht’s difficult relationship with Leonid Brezhnev, combined with his unwillingness to seek a rapprochement with West Germany, proved to be his eventual undoing. On 3 May 1971 Ulbricht was forced to resign from virtually all of his public functions ‘due to reasons of poor health’ and was replaced – with the consent of the Soviets – by Erich Honecker. He was allowed to remain head of state as Chairman of the Council of State. Additionally, the honorary position of Chairman of the SED was created especially for him. Ulbricht died at a government guesthouse in Groß Dölln near Templin, north of East Berlin, on 1 August 1973, during the World Festival of Youth and Students, having suffered a stroke two weeks earlier. He was honoured with a state funeral and buried among other communists in the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde.

When The Wall Came Down

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev was a former Soviet Statesmen, and the last leader of the Soviet Union. He was the leader of the USSR when the Berlin Wall fell, and became the last leader after the Dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December, 1991.

Gorbachev was born on 2 March 1931 in Stavropol, Russia to parents of mixed Ukrainian and Russian heritage. He had a tough childhood, which included the Soviet famine of 1932-33. In his teenage years, he worked as a combine harvester on a farm with his father, struggling to earn money for his family. In 1955 he graduated with a degree in law from Moscow State University, and twelve years later he started to practice as an agricultural economist. It was during this time he met his wife, Raisa Titarenko, and they had a daughter in 1957. During his time at the University, he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and it was here his interest in politics started to grow.

During the next twenty years, Gorbachev ascended through the ranks of the CPSU, and became its leader in 1979. In this position, he travelled around the world and this greatly shaped him as a person; it changed his social and political views. He was promoted to the Politburo, the highest authority in the country and one March 11, 1985 became it’s General Secretary, and at age 54, its youngest ever.

As leader of Politburo, Gorbachev attempted to reform the USSR, and was responsible for economic changes. He wanted a more “open” economy, or as others said, “democratization”. After Brezhnev, the economy was stagnant, and Gorbachev saw that economic reform could only be achieved with a social and political change in the Soviet Union.  This included a massive crackdown on alcohol; prices of beer, vodka and wine were raised in an attempt to stop alcoholism.

His first major change was Perestroika, which included massive changes including multi-party elections. Another was Glasnost, which allowed citizens to have greater freedom of speech, and allowed the ownership of private business.

With these reforms, it was clear communism was failing in the USSR.

June 12 1987 was a massive day in the history of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate the 750th anniversary of Berlin, US President Ronald Reagan presented a speech, challenging Gorbachev to seriously continue his mission for freedom in the USSR, saying:

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

On November 9, 1989, peaceful protests were held in East Germany against the Berlin Wall. However, Gorbachev decided the matter was a German affair, and should be dealt with by the German people and leaders instead of the Soviet military, a move met with much praise from those on the Western side. However, the praise was not all positive; indeed, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher begged Gorbachev to not let the wall come down.

With the fall of the USSR in 1991, Gorbachev became the last of its rulers. He has since pursued other political projects, including an attempt to create a new political party in Russia. He was hailed as a hero and a peace bringer by many. He has received many awards during his lifetime, including:

  • Nobel Peace Prize (1990)
  • Ronald Reagan Freedom Award (1992)
  • Courage of Conscience (1996)
  • Order of St Andrew (2011)

He was also named Time’s Man of The Year in 1988, and Man of The Decade in 1990.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a massively influencial man in the 80’s and 90’s. His reforms in the USSR and efforts to maintain peace in the country were unheard of; some called him a revolutionary. Currently living in Moscow, he will be remembered in history for a long time to come

 

Erich Honecker

Erich Honecker was born in 1912, in Neunkirchen, Germany as the son of Wilhelm Honecker who was a coal miner and political activist. Erich Honecker was active in the resistance movement against Adolf Hitler and was part of the German Communist Party. In 1935 he was arrested, and remained there until the succession of the Second World War.

He was married to Margot Honecker, who was also a communist politician and was a prominent member of the elite in East Germany. She was minister of education (“Volksbildung”) of the GDR from 1963 to 1989.

He joined the Socialist Unity Party in 1949 and was elected into the parliament of German Democratic Republic (of East Germany). As he was a member of politburo he oversaw the building of the Berlin Wall in August, 1961.

In 1971, when Walter Ulbricht retired, Honecker replaced him as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and continued to work closely with Willy Brandt and his policy of Ostpolitik (reconciliation between Eastern and Western Europe).

In 1989, communism collapsed, and Honecker was forced to resign from office. The following year he was charged with treason, corruption and abuse of power which lead to his arrest. When he stood trial in 1993, the courts decided he was too ill to be face trial, and was allowed to retire to Chile where he died in 1994.

Questions

1. Who were the leaders at the time of the Berlin Wall being built?
2. Who were the leaders at the time the Berlin Wall came down?
3.What happened to the leaders after the Berlin Wall came down?

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