Obituary: Willi Stoph

David Childs
Tuesday 20 April 1999 23:02

WILLI STOPH was one of the architects of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) which was proclaimed in the Soviet Zone of Germany on 7 October 1949 and dissolved on 3 October 1990 when German unity was achieved. He twice served as Chairman of the Council of Ministers (head of government). Of the Communist leaders deposed in the GDR in October/November 1989 Stoph was the longest-serving member of the ruling Politburo of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). He had uninterrupted membership from 1953 onwards.

He was born in Berlin in 1914 and grew up in a working-class milieu. After completing elementary school he took up an apprenticeship in the building industry. He had other interests. In 1928 he joined the youth movement of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and in 1931 enrolled in the KPD. He later claimed he had carried on "anti-fascist activities" after the rise of Hitler in 1933. From 1935 to 1937 he completed his compulsory national service in the artillery. He served in the wartime Wehrmacht with the rank of corporal until he was wounded in 1942.

After the fall of Nazism he was appointed to various leading positions in the building industry of the Soviet Zone. In these capacities he worked closely with officers of the Soviet Military Administration whose trust he gained. He also climbed the ladder of the SED serving, 1948-1950, as head of the party's economic policy department. He was then appointed one of the secretaries of the Central Committee of the SED.

As Minister of Interior from May 1952 to June 1955 Stoph was responsible for the GDR's police and penal institutions including the notorious Bautzen, Berlin-Rummelsburg and Waldheim prisons where many political prisoners were held in very poor conditions. More importantly for his future, he was also responsible for the creation of the GDR armed forces, which were officially disguised as the People's Police in Barracks (KVP). The poor showing of the KVP during the workers' revolt of June 1953 did not appear to damage his career.

At the same time he was in charge, between July 1953 and November 1955, of the State Security Service (SSD). However, he did not in reality exercise close control over the SSD. After the death of Stalin in 1953, and following the Soviet example, the SSD had lost its separate status and was placed under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry. Its head continued to act more or less independently and from November 1955 it once again became the organ of an independent Ministry for State Security.

As Minister for National Defence from 1956 to 1960 Stoph was given the military rank of Army General, the highest rank in the GDR, and he attempted to build up professional armed services made up of volunteers with high morale. Western observers often regarded them as more imposing than their Soviet "brothers in arms". In May 1958 the GDR armed forces (NVA) were admitted to membership of the Warsaw Pact thus recognising their military efficiency.

However, despite the perks and privileges granted to serving and former members of the NVA, recruitment became an increasing problem. Compulsory military service, introduced in West Germany in 1956, was not regarded as practical as it was feared that many young men would evade service by fleeing to the West via Berlin. The building of the Wall in August 1961 removed this option and compulsory service was introduced in the following year.

By that time Stoph had moved up as deputy head of government increasingly taking over the work of the ailing premier, Otto Grotewohl. Between 1962 and 1964 Stoph served as First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers and between 1964 and 1973 as Chairman, that is head of government. As such he played a major role in the 1960s in attempts to make the GDR's economy more efficient. He was second only to Walter Ulbricht, First Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, in the GDR's hierarchy. He owed his position to his dedication and loyalty to the Soviet Union and to Walter Ulbricht personally.

In 1970 Stoph was sent by Ulbricht to meet Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor, at Erfurt (GDR) and later at Kassel in West Germany. At Erfurt Stoph was shocked and Brandt was moved, when a crowd of ordinary East Germans gathered outside Brandt's hotel and called for the West German leader. These two meetings were the beginning of the improvement in relations between the two German states which led, 20 years later, to the re-establishment of German unity.

Stoph's advancement under Ulbricht did not stop him from taking part in the palace coup against the First Secretary in 1971 when Erich Honecker replaced Ulbricht. Ulbricht was allowed to retain the position of titular head of state and, after the death of Ulbricht in 1973, Stoph was removed from his powerful position as head of government to the representational position which Ulbricht had occupied. As the GDR's economic situation worsened Stoph was reinstated as Chairman of the Council of Ministers in 1976, a position he retained until 1989.

Although officially second only to Honecker, Stoph was not one of Honecker's cronies and he was ready to join in his overthrow in October 1989. Stoph himself was ousted on 7 November 1989 when his entire government resigned. Two days later the Berlin Wall was opened. On 17 November he was removed from the Council of State and from the Volkskammer (parliament) to which he had belonged since 1950. His expulsion from the SED followed on 3 December and his arrest days later.

Along with most of his colleagues, he was charged with corruption and misuse of office. He was released on grounds of ill-health in February 1990. He was re-arrested in May 1991 and charged with co- responsibility, as member of the Politburo and the GDR Defence Council, for the deaths on the Berlin Wall. Once again he was released because of his poor medical condition.

As head of government rather than head of the SED, Willi Stoph's image was slightly better than that of Erich Honecker. Yet he remained a grey, nondescript figure whose main talent was to survive.

Willi Stoph, politician; born Berlin 9 July 1914; Head, Economic Policy Department, Socialist Unity Party (SED) 1948-1950, Minister of Interior 1952-55, Minister for National Defence 1956-60; First Deputy Chairman, Council of Ministers 1962-64, Chairman 1964-1973, 1976-89; Chairman, Council of State (head of state) 1973-76; married (four children); died Berlin 13 April 1999.

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