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Ernst Thälmann

People's Minister for Defence
Assumed office
15 November 1930
Chairperson Rosa Luxemburg
Preceded by Hans Marchwitza
Federal Leader of the Rotfrontkämpferbund
Assumed office
1 May 1923
Personal details
Born Ernst Johannes Fritz Thälmann
16 April 1886 (age 45)
Hamburg, German Empire
Nationality German
Political party Communist Party of Germany (KPD)
Organization Rotfrontkämpferbund (RFB)
Spouse(s) Rosa Koch
(m. 1915)
Father Johannes Thälmann
Mother Mary-Magdalene Kohpeiss
Children 1 daughter
Relations Frieda Thälmann (sister)
Residence Hamburg
Occupation Revolutionary, politician, soldier
Known for Forming the Rotfrontkämpferbund
Military service
Allegiance GermanEmpire.png German Empire
FSRDFlag.svg Free Socialist Republic of Germany
Years of service GermanEmpire.png 1915–1918
FSRDFlag.svg 1919–present
Battles/wars Great War
German Civil War
Awards Iron Cross Second Class
Hanseatic Cross
Wound Badge

Ernst Thälmann (born 16 April 1886) is a German communist politician and military commander. He is best known for founding and leading the paramilitary Rotfrontkämpferbund (RFB). He is a prominent Communist Party of Germany (KPD) politician, having served in various positions including Chairperson of the Hamburg State Council from 1924 to 1927.

Family and early years

Ernst Thälmann's father was Johannes Thälmann (called 'Jan'; born 11 April 1857), born in Weddern in Holstein, working there as a farmworker. Thälmann's mother, Mary-Magdalene (née Kohpeiss; 8 November 1857 – 9 March 1927), was born in Kirchwerder. The wedding took place in 1884 in Hamburg. There, Johannes Thälmann earned his first money as a coachman. Ernst's parents had no party affiliation; in contrast to his father, his mother was deeply religious.

Ernst Thälmann was born in Hamburg. After his birth, his parents bought a pub near the Port of Hamburg. On 4 April 1887, his sister Frieda was born. In March 1892, Thälmann's parents were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, because they had bought stolen goods or had taken them for debt payment. Thälmann and his younger sister Frieda were separated and placed for care in different families. Thälmann's parents were released early; his mother in May, and his father in October 1893.

From 1893 to 1900, Thälmann attended elementary school. He later described history, natural history, folklore, mathematics, gymnastics and sports as his favorite subjects. However, he did not like religion. In the mid-1890s, his parents opened a vegetable, coal and wagon shop in Eilbek, a suburb of Hamburg. In this business, he had to help after school. Thälmann did his schoolwork in the morning before classes started. Despite this burden, Thälmann was a good student who enjoyed learning. His desire to become a teacher or to learn a trade was not fulfilled because his parents refused to give him the necessary money. He had to continue working in his parents' business, causing much sorrow and conflict with his parents. Therefore, he sought a job as an unskilled worker in the port. Here the ten-year-old Thälmann came in contact with the port workers on strike from November 1896 till February 1897, the bitter labor dispute known as the Hamburg dockworkers strike 1896/97.

Leaving home; World War I

At the beginning of 1902, he left home. He first he lived in an emergency shelter, later in a basement apartment, and in 1904 he was fireman on the steam engine freight ship AMERIKA which also traveled to the USA. He was a Social Democratic Party member during 1903. On 1 February 1904, he joined the Central Union of Trade, Transport and Traffic Workers of Germany and ascended to the chairman of the 'department carters'. In 1913, he supported a call of Rosa Luxemburg for a mass strike as a means of action of the SPD to enforce political demands. From 1913 to 1914, he worked for a laundry as a coachman.

In January 1915, one day before he was called up for military service in the Great War, he married Rosa Koch. At the beginning of 1915, he was posted to the artillery on the western front, where he stayed till the end of the war, wounded twice. He said that he participated in the following battles: Battle of Champagne (1915–1916), Battle of the Somme (1916), Second Battle of the Aisne, Battle of Soissons, Battle of Cambrai (1917) (1917) and Battle of Arras (1917).

Thälmann received several awards:

  • Iron Cross Second Class
  • Hanseatic Cross
  • Wound Badge

Towards the end of 1917, he became a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). In November 1918, Thälmann deserted together with four fellow soldiers. On the day of the German Revolution, 9 November 1918, he wrote in his diary on the Western Front, "...did a bunk from the Front with 4 comrades at 2 o'clock."

Post-war years

German Civil War

In Hamburg, he participated in the construction of Hamburg Workers' and Soldiers. He was among those who joined the KPD during the split at the January 1919 USPD party congress. From March 1919, he was head of the KPD branch in Hamburg and a member of the Hamburg Parliament. At the same time he worked as relief worker in the Hamburg city park, then he found a well-paying job at the employment office.

When the German Civil War broke out in May 1919, Thälmann played a leading role in the success of the uprising in Hamburg. He quickly rose to become a distinguished leader within the newly established Volksarmee. By January 1920, he was given regional command over Hamburg. However, with the Schleicher Offensive underway, he was transferred to take part in commanding operations during the Battle of Berlin. Here he took command of the III Corps, and then the 1st Army after the promotion of Ludwig Renn. It is disputed to what extent Thälmann played a role in the victory of the Whites, but he nonetheless gained great fame and was given command over the Army Front Elbe, which led the offensive into the Rhineland during the Summer Offensive.

After the Civil War

After the conclusion of the civil war, Thälmann remained in the Volksarmee, taking part in its restructuring into a standing army. He was given command over various army formations, but in 1924 he temporarily chose to leave his military career in favor of politics.

In June 1922, Thälmann survived an assassination attempt at his flat. Terrorists from the ultranationalist group Organisation Consul threw a hand grenade into his ground floor flat. His wife and daughter were unhurt; Thälmann himself came home only later. Thälmann would also be targeted by the group in 1925 during the same incident in which Fritz Weineck was killed, though he would survive this unscathed.

On 1 May 1923, Thälmann would found the Rotfrontkämpferbund (RFB) as a successor to the Proletarian Hundreds, a small force of loyal communists that protected prominent Spartacist leaders during the civil war. The organization has gradually grown to over 300,000 members, with Thälmann continuing to serve at its head. In 1924, he was elected as the first Chairperson of the Hamburg State Council, and served in this position until his resignation in 1927, having made great efforts in turning Hamburg into a red city during his term.

Following his term in Hamburg, Thälmann returned to a military career. On 7 December 1928, he was assigned Commander of the 3rd Army, based in Essen and the surrounding area. On 11 February 1930 he was promoted and assigned Commander of the Land Forces Group South, based in Hesse and Bavaria. During the 1930 legislative elections, following the resignation of Hans Marchwitza, Thälmann was elected as the People's Minister of Defence, but retained command of the Land Forces Group South.