Harry Tisch: OBITUARY

David Childs
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:34

Just over 20 years ago, on 5 June 1975, Harry Tisch became a full member of Erich Honecker's ruling Politburo, the governing organ of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). He had already served as a candidate member since June 1971. Thus he was closely associated with Honecker, rising with him after joining the Communist movement in 1945.

Tisch's specific job was as chairman of the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB) to which he was "elected" in June 1975. Made up of 17 member unions, this body was not free, not a trade union and certainly no federation. The right to strike which had been enshrined in the 1949 DDR constitution, was written out of the 1968 "socialist" constitution. FDGB members were led to believe that if they went on strike they would be "striking against themselves" as almost all the economy was owned by "their" state. When they did down tools in June 1953 their strikes were put down by Soviet tanks.

In all undertakings of any size the SED had its full-time functionaries who were responsible for keeping the trade unions to the party line. In addition, there were full-time, open, Ministry of State Security (MfS) officials in these undertakings, the undercover operatives who could be the colleague on the next work-bench. In exchange for this tutelage the workers enjoyed full employment, but a low standard of living and poor welfare provision. The FDGB had a network of subsidised holiday homes which were supposed to be at the disposal of its members. However, it was not only difficult to find a place in one, it was more difficult for husbands and wives to take their holidays together. Average workers who got them often found they were less than luxurious.

The top homes were reserved for the upper echelons of the FDGB and their foreign guests. Tisch entertained Western, Third World and Soviet Bloc trade unionists in the FDGB's many accommodations, keeping them well away from his ordinary members. Yet his members were forced to make "solidarity" payments to various Third World movements and dictatorships favoured by the SED.

Born in the small north German town of Heinrichswalde in 1927, Harry Tisch attended elementary school and then took up an engineering apprenticeship which he completed in 1943. Tisch, like his colleagues, was forever emphasising his working-class credentials, but since 1948 he had been a full-time trade-union official, becoming the Chairman of the metal workers' union in Mecklenburg in 1950. He was part of the rising tide of Stalinism which sought to eliminate all Social Democratic tendencies from the DDR's trade unions.

From 1953 to 1955 he was a student at the SED's own college, Karl Marx, and after graduation was put in charge of Rostock's economy, advancing to be First Secretary of the SED in Rostock in July 1961. He remained there until he took over the FDGB in 1975. Rostock became important during this period as the DDR's only international port. It became some- thing of a showpiece for visitors from Scandinavia. Tisch's task was to impress his Nordic guests with the DDR's desire to turn the Baltic into a "sea of peace". Like the other members of the Politburo he enjoyed a way of life which was far removed from that of the members he claimed to represent. He used the FDGB's financial resources, including its limited hard currency, for his own enrichment and that of his family (he was married with three children).

After Gorbachev took over in Moscow in 1985 and embarked upon his reform programme, Tisch followed the Honecker line of opposing the introduction of similar measures in the DDR. He was vigorous in his opposition to the Solidarity movement in Poland. He strongly supported the militarisation of the DDR's labour force using the FDGB's organisation to build up the armed factory fighting groups (Kampfgruppen) and the paramilitary Society for Sport and Technology (GST). These bodies revealed themselves to be totally unreliable during the DDR's death throes at the end of 1989.

Although Tisch had joined in the conspiracy against Honecker which led to the General Secretary's demise on 18 October 1989, his own political career was soon to end. His fall started on 2 November 1989 when, after appealing in vain to his fellow Politburo members to help him, he was forced to give up the Chairmanship of the FDGB. He was obliged to join his comrades when the entire Politburo resigned on 8 November.

He was removed from the Council of State, the DDR's collective head of state, and on 3 December, together with Honecker and 12 other leading party chieftains, was expelled from the SED. On the same day he was arrested, together with Gunter Mittag, who had been responsible for the DDR's economy and charged with "badly damaging the economy and the people's property".

In 1991 Tisch received a suspended sentence of 18 months for fraud and embezzlement. He had the doubtful distinction of being the first member of the old Politburo to be convicted. As some would portray him as the victim of a Western witch hunt, it is worth remembering that his arrest took place under what was still an SED government.

Tisch was quite a clever self- publicist, who managed to fool any number of Western newsmen. The liberal Suddeutsche Zeitung in 1977 wrote that Tisch could speak the language of his workers and that he usually did not seek to avoid problems and difficulties. Yet "his" workers threw him out at the first opportunity. Horst Sindermann, another Honecker crony in the Politburo, admitted, after his fall, "We were no heroes."

That would be the least offensive way one could sum up the life of Harry Tisch.

Harry Tisch, politician, trade-union leader: born 28 March 1927; Chairman, Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB) 1975-89; full member, politburo of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) 1975-89; married; died Berlin 18 June 1995.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments