Theodor Hoffmann: East German admiral who served as minister of defence after fall of Berlin Wall

Theodor Hoffmann joined the sea police as a teenager and over the next 40 years would rise to the top of government

David Childs
Wednesday 21 November 2018 14:09
Hoffmann in 1991. During his brief tenure he abolished the grandiose parades that had been a regular feature of East German military life
Hoffmann in 1991. During his brief tenure he abolished the grandiose parades that had been a regular feature of East German military life

The parents of Theodor Hoffmann, themselves agricultural workers, would not have expected their son to take the career path he did. Possibly he was named after Theodor Storm, the famous 19th century writer and child of the North Sea plain.

Born in the village of Gustavel, Mecklenburg, he was four years old when the war broke out in 1939. He would have known little of the hostilities until the end when the area became part of the Soviet zone.

Hoffmann followed his parents working in agriculture from 1949 to 1951. But in 1952 he answered the call for volunteers in the sea police, which would later become the East German People’s Navy (Volksmarine). Success in his career emboldened him in his private life and he married Helga Qualo in 1957. They had two sons: Norbert, born in 1958, and Rene, born in 1965.

Hoffmann was admitted to the Officers School of the People’s Police at Stralsund and to the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) in 1956. Ambition led him to give up his command of a fast torpedo boat in 1959 and his next step up came after study, 1960 to 1963, at the Soviet Naval War Academy in Leningrad, where he graduated with a diploma in military science.

Hoffmann subsequently held various senior positions in the Volksmarine. From 1971 to 1974, he was chief of the 6th Fleet with the rank of frigate captain. He later became deputy chief of staff for operational work in the Volksmarine command. In 1985, he was appointed deputy chief of the Volksmarine and chief of staff. More promotion followed in 1987 when he was appointed chief of the People’s Navy and deputy minister of national defence, holding the rank of vice admiral (two stars).

Hoffmann was in charge of a considerable fleet mainly, but not only, of vessels which were regarded as coastal defence, such as mine sweepers, submarine hunters and torpedo boats but also landing craft. Many were built in the East German yard Peene-Werft in Wolgast, originally set up by the Soviet Union. The Volksmarine was supposed to be in a state of constant alert but there were few alerts. Occasionally it had to prevent desertions or illegal frontier swimmers.

In the crisis following the opening of the Berlin Wall and other East German frontiers in November 1989, Theodor Hoffmann was appointed minister of defence. He was promoted to three-star admiral. With this role he became head of the National People’s Army. He served from 18 November 1989 to 23 April 1990, retaining his admiral’s title rather than becoming an army general. During his brief tenure Hoffmann abolished the grandiose parades that had been a regular feature of East German military life.

The first democratic elections held in East Germany, 18 March 1990, resulted in a crushing blow to the Party of Democratic Socialism (the SED’s successor party), which won only 16.4 per cent on a turnout of 93.4 per cent. Christian Democrat Lothar de Maiziere replaced Hans Modrow of the SED as head of government.

The new boss in the defence ministry was a complete surprise to his subordinates. Rainer Eppelmann took over with the title of minister for disarmament and defence. He was a pacifist who had been jailed for refusing to serve in the armed forces. Equally surprisingly, Admiral Hoffmann remained commander of the National People’s Army in the purely military sense until its disbandment and incorporation into the West German Bundeswehr. As for the Peene-Werft, it was privatised but gained new life building commercial shipping.

Unlike his predecessor, Heinz Kessler, and others in the leadership who were sent to prison for their part in the Berlin Wall deaths, Theodor Hoffmann remained free. In retirement he wrote several books including his memoirs.

Admiral Theodor Hoffmann, East German defence minister, born 27 February 1935, died 1 November 2018

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