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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club that later became synonymous with Hillsborough has dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor