Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Obituary: Karl Schirdewan

KARL SCHIRDEWAN was the reform leader East Germany (DDR) never had. He was seen as a potential successor to the East German Stalinist leader Walter Ulbricht at the time when the Soviet leader Khrushchev was pursuing his anti-Stalin campaign in the mid-1950s.

Schirdewan was a leading member of the ruling Politburo of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) at that time. It appeared likely that Khrushchev would give the green light to reformers in the DDR to depose Ulbricht. Instead, due to the near-revolution in Poland, and revolution in Hungary, Khrushchev was persuaded to leave Ulbricht at the helm.

With the help of Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker, Ulbricht then expelled the "Schirdewan-Wollweber faction" in October 1957. They were accused of ideological errors which damaged the SED. Ernst Wollweber was Minister for State Security; his deputy was Mielke, who took over and held the post until 1989. Schirdewan was sent to work in the archives in Potsdam. With Schirdewan out of the way Honecker built up his own position to topple Ulbricht in 1971.He too was helped by Mielke.

Schirdewan was born in Konigsberg, East Prussia (today Kaliningrad, Russia), in 1907. His early years were spent in an orphanage before being adopted by a Breslau family in 1914. After attending a Catholic middle school he took an apprenticeship in the corn trade in Breslau. At the time of the great inflation, in 1923, he joined the Communist Youth League of Germany (KJVD) and two years later the Communist Party (KPD).

He advanced to Chairman of the Breslau KJVD and in 1930 was appointed head of the Young Guard publishing company. By 1932 he was Chairman of the KJVD in East Prussia and was seen as a rising star among the young cadre of the Communist party. At the other end of Germany Erich Honecker, his rival, occupied a similar position. After Hitler banned the Communists in 1933 both carried on illegal activity.

Schirdewan was arrested in Hamburg in May 1934 and sentenced to three years imprisonment for "preparing high treason". Honecker was arrested in 1935 and sentenced to 10 years. On finishing his sentence Schirdewan was rearrested and taken in "protective custody", spending the remaining Hitler years in Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen and Flossenburg concentration camps. On a forced march of inmates he was freed by US forces in 23 April 1945.

Although sick, Schirdewan threw himself into the work of rebuilding the KPD in 1945 and, in the following year, helped in the setting up of the SED, which was the illegitimate offspring of the forced marriage of the KPD with the Social Democrats in the Soviet Zone. He was a member of the commission charged with examining the activities of Communist party members during the Nazi years. As such he was likely to have seen the files on Honecker and Mielke about whom some comrades harboured doubts.

In 1947 he was a member of the so-called West Commission of the SED which was looking for ways to win over West German politicians for the Communist cause. Some of its members, including Schirdewan, were later accused because of contacts they had made with the approval of the party leadership. In 1952 Schirdewan was put in charge of the SED in Saxony and later in the same year of its Leipzig organisation. In July1953 he was "elected" to the SED's Central Committee and to its ruling Poliburo.

He now worked full-time at the centre of power in the SED's "Big House" in Berlin. He was one of the key Central Committee secretaries who reported directly to Ulbricht and were more important than most members of the government or SED leadership. Although the workers' revolt of 17 June 1953 had been put down with the help of the Soviet armed forces, the DDR was officially on the reform path known as "the New Course". This gave ambitious reformers hope that Ulbricht would be removed with the permission of the Soviet leadership. All these hopes were dashed with the crushing of the revolt in Hungary in 1957.

In January 1990, Schirdewan was rehabilitated by the SED/PDS as it attempted to cling on to power in the DDR. His detractors Mielke and Honecker were expelled from the party and placed under arrest. Karl Schirdewan remained committed to his Communist ideals. He lived to see the collapse of the state he helped to found and the death of his rival Erich Honecker. Erich Mielke is still hobbling around the Berlin district of Hohenschonhausen aged 90.

David Childs

Karl Schirdewan, politician and archivist: born Konigsberg, East Prussia 14 May 1907; married; died Potsdam 15 July 1998.