Obituary: Kurt Hager

KURT HAGER became somewhat notorious when he rejected the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform course for East Germany (DDR) in April 1987. He told the West German weekly Stern, "If your neighbour changes his wallpaper in his flat, would you feel obliged to do the same?"

Hager recalled the first post-war programme of the Communists, which stressed the importance of differing national roads to Socialism. He conveniently forgot that this policy was later denounced as a "colossal blunder" and that, up to Gorbachev, he and his colleagues in the ruling Politburo were fervent followers of the Soviet line.

Born in Bietigheim, western Germany, the son of a waiter, Hager had a grammar-school education and achieved his Abitur, the university entrance certificate. He joined the Communist youth organisation KJVD in 1929 and the Communist Party (KPD) in 1930. He worked as a journalist before his arrest in 1933 after the Nazi seizure of power. After spending several months in Heuberg Concentration Camp, he engaged in anti-Nazi activity before leaving for Switzerland in 1936.

From there he made his way to Paris, then a hub of anti-Nazi activity. He was sent to Spain as director of the German service of Radio Madrid. He remained there until the fall of the Republic to Franco's forces in 1939. After being briefly detained in France, like so many other supporters of the Spanish Republic, he managed to gain entry into Britain. Hager immediately threw himself into Communist activities in his new sanctuary and served as political secretary of the exile KPD organisation in Britain. He was also prominent in other Communist front organisations.

When Churchill, fearing spies among "enemy aliens" gave the order "to collar the lot!" in 1940, Hager was interned. British trade unionist and left-wingers soon gained his release. He was then assigned to forestry work and worked later as a welder carrying on his KPD activities as best he could.

In 1946 Hager was repatriated to Germany, where he lost no time in continuing his KPD career, helping in the forcible merger of the Social Democrats with the Communists to form the SED. He worked as deputy editor of Vorwarts in 1946-48, and from 1949 as head of the department for party education and propaganda. From 1952 he headed the department responsible for science and universities having been appointed professor of philosophy at the Humboldt University, East Berlin, in 1949.

Writing for party publications such as Einheit, Hager had the difficult job of explaining that the Soviet Zone/DDR was not a Leninist dictatorship despite all the evidence to the contrary. His rise under Walter Ulbricht, the SED leader until 1971, was swift. He was "elected" to full membership of the Central Committee (ZK) of the SED in 1954 after serving as a candidate from 1950. In 1955 he was appointed a Secretary of the ZK responsible for science, education and culture. After being promoted to candidate membership of the Politburo in 1959 he was "elected" to full membership in 1963. He also headed the Politburo's ideological commission.

Thus Hager wielded enormous power over every aspect of the cultural life of the DDR. He could prevent writers being published, could arrange for good or hostile reviews to appear denouncing works by particular writers, artists or directors. He could prevent artists or academics going abroad. He had final say over university appointments and much more. His main rival for power in these areas was General Erich Mielke, head of State Security.

Hager also served as a member of the DDR's rubber-stamp parliament from 1958 chairing its committee responsible for schools, and from 1976 as a member of the Council of State, in theory the DDR's collective head of state. Hager joined his colleagues in forcing Ulbricht to resign in 1971. Although he took part in the palace coup against Honecker on 17 October 1989, he did at least praise the achievements of his leader. He was to fall himself a few weeks later. He and four others were expelled from the Politburo and forced to surrender all their positions. His expulsion from the SED followed in January 1990.

Hager then lived as a pensioner. After German re-unification he was charged, along with other former Politburo members, with responsibility for the deaths on the Berlin Wall and East-West German frontier. He was able to avoid the verdict of the courts due to his poor health. He was said to be suffering from cancer.

Kurt Hager, politician: born Bietigheim, Germany 24 July 1912; married (two children); died Berlin 18 September 1998.

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