Friday, April 16, 2010
The lessons of Ernst Thaelmann
German communist leader Ernest Thaelmann (Thälmann) was born April 16, 1886. He was murdered by the Nazis in Buchenwald in 1944. These photos are of the massive graffiti-covered monument erected in Berlin on the centenary of his birth in 1986, just a few years before the fall of Communist East Germany; I took them in 1994.
Thaelmann is a problematic hero: the leader of Germany's Communist Party (KPD) he was arrested by the Nazis in 1933 and spent 11 years in solitary confinement in a concentration camp before being executed toward the end of the war. But despite his personal heroism, the years of his leadership saw the KPD make mistake after mistake. While the KPD had mass support in Germany, it constantly minimized the threat of the nascent National Socialists, the Nazi fascists, and directed most of its ire against the social democrats. Thaelmann was not considered a theoretical heavyweight, and his adventurist tendencies did not serve the KPD well. Thaelmann himself was known to swagger around in a sort of militaristic uniform to compete with the Nazi brownshirts.
At the risk of invoking the dreaded Godwin's law, Thaelmann's story should be something of a cautionary tale for today. While the teabaggers are not exactly Nazis (yet?), I think the left makes a serious error in discounting teabagger discontent. Progressives are faced with similar challenges as they were in Germany in the early 1930s: how to press our own agenda, critique the failings of the inadequately progressive administration of Obama without subverting the parts of our agenda that are, in fact symbolized by his election; and in defending progressive ideas against resurgent far-right Republicanism without taking responsibility for Obama's failings. This is immensely complicated by the fact that the right-wing is vastly more self-aware and organized than the left in the US. I continue to believe that saying it doesn't matter whether Obama or the Republicans win is short-sighted.
The KPD missed the key dividing line in the battle between left and right, and many historians accuse them of facilitating the rise of the Nazis. Let us not forget that battle continues today.
This monument is huge; it still stands. It's classic monumental socialist realism. It's centered in a fairly dreary modern housing project in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin.