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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?