In 1924, Ulbricht left Germany to attend Communist International (Comintern) courses in Moscow. On his return in 1926, he was elected to the state parliament of Saxony. He subsequently won election to the national parliament in 1928 and served there until 1933. He fled Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power, moving first to Paris and then to Prague. Ulbricht also fought with the International Brigades on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. He then fled to Moscow in 1938.
In the Soviet Union during World War II, Ulbricht and many other national communist leaders trained in preparation for their return after the war. Ulbricht returned to Germany with the Soviet Red Army in 1945 and established his group as the core of the revived KPD. Supported by the Soviet Military Administration, Ulbricht and Wilhelm Pieck negotiated a merger with the SPD in the Soviet zone of Germany, forming the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Ulbricht emerged as secretary-general of the party and led the drive to embed Soviet-style policies. When the East German government was formed in October 1949, the leading role of the SED was enshrined in the constitution and Ulbricht became deputy premier.
Ulbricht worked behind the scenes but was generally acknowledged as the real power within East Germany. Along with Willi Stoph, Ulbricht managed a purge of the SED, leaving hard-line communists in all the key positions in both the party and the government. He adopted hard-line Stalinist policies, promoting rapid industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture.
After the death of Stalin in 1953, it appeared that Ulbricht might fall from power when he refused to implement reforms suggested by the new Soviet leadership. His intransigence sparked riots in East Berlin and across East Germany on 16–17 June 1953, and Red Army tanks had to be called in to restore order.
Ironically, the threat of rebellion wedded the Soviet leadership more firmly to Ulbricht. He was one of the main forces behind the 1955 formation of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, designed to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the perceived Western threat to East German government. When Pieck, who had been elected president of East Germany in 1949, died in 1960, Ulbricht assumed the title of head of state. Not until after the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 did he institute even limited reforms.
The New Economic System of 1963 was designed to free up market forces within East Germany while maintaining the SED's constitutional grip on political power. Instead, the economy stagnated, and critics of the SED regime who might have immigrated to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) now emerged within East Germany. Ulbricht refused to compromise, and when Warsaw Pact forces entered Czechoslovakia to suppress the reforms of the Prague Spring, Ulbricht dispatched a division to assist. By 1970, however, it was clear that he was out of touch and out of favor among the East German leadership. Erich Honecker, long recognized as the "crown prince" of the SED, effectively organized Ulbricht's ouster in 1971. Ulbricht remained as head of state, but Honecker became secretary-general of the SED and the real power in East German government.
Ulbricht died in the Berlin suburb of Döllnsee on 1 August 1973. His legacy is that of a true Cold Warrior who clung to Stalinist policies regardless of cost. His insistence on collectivization and industrialization in the 1940s and 1950s nearly broke the fledgling state's economy. By 1961, Ulbricht's regime was forced to imprison its own citizens behind the Berlin Wall. Because of such decisions, East Germany remained largely isolated under his regime, a symbol of the deep divisions of the Cold War.
Timothy C. Dowling
Major, Patrick, and Jonathan Osmond, eds. The Workers' and Peasants' State: Communism and Society in East Germany under Ulbricht, 1945–1971. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.; Podewin, Norbert. Ulbrichts Weg an die Spitze der Macht: Stationen zwischen 1945 und 1954 [Ulbricht's Path to the Pinnacle of Power: Situations between 1945 and 1954]. Berlin: Helle Panke, 1998.; Stern, Carola (pseud.) Ulbricht: A Political Biography. London: Pall Mall Press, 1965.; Ulbricht, Lotte. Mein Leben: Selbstzeugnisse, Briefe und Dokumente [My Life: Self-witness, Letters and Documents]. Berlin: Das Neue Berlin, 2003.