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A tailor's son, Ernst Paul Walter Ulbricht learned early the art of political survival. He was already a member of a workers' youth organization when he began his career in Leipzig as a cabinetmaker's apprentice at the age of 17 (."I am a carpenter by trade,'' he says proudly today ). Only a hundred miles away was Berlin, where Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were working to merge their Spartakusbund with the splinter Socialists to form the German Communist Party. In 1920, two years after Rosa and Karl were killed by the authorities for provoking street fights, the merger was accomplishedand Walter Ulbricht was at the meeting. His presence ensured him an exalted role in Communist councils for years to come, and an early job with the K.P.D.the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands.
From the start, Ulbricht was a brassy enemy of the intellectuals who had captured control of the party in the early 19205. Ulbricht's pal was a Russian courier who had direct contact with Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin in Moscow. Soon Pravda was sniping at the "nonproletarian enemies of the working class in the German party," and soon Ulbricht's enemies were purged. It was time for a major party overhaul; tough, conscientious Walter Ulbricht got the job. Comrade Ulbricht took on the name Genosse Zelle (Comrade Cell), began atomizing the easygoing Communist cliques into tight little cells of neighborhood half-dozens who were strangers to one another.
By 1928, Ulbricht was a Red big shot, marked for bigger things. Now he was wearing a necktie and having Berlin's best tailors make his suits; he sat in the Reichstag itself as a Communist Deputy. He was grandly aware of his station. Once, when Ernst Thalmann, the new party leader boarded a train at a Berlin railway station and took his seat in a third-class railway coach, Ulbricht stiffly declined to join his colleague, choosing instead a seat in the plush first-class section. He was entitled to such preference as a member of the Reichstag.
For all his airs, when things really got tough in Nazi Germany, Ulbricht was one of the first to run out. As a Communist agent he took refuge in Prague, then Paris. In between, there were the months in civil war-torn Spain when, from his base at Albacete, he took on the OGPU-assigned task of purging the West European "Trotskyites," i.e.. anti-Stalinists. What made Walter Ulbricht famous in Spain was his ingenious torture chamber, a cell of granite blocks too small for a man to stand or sit.
The Weathervane. Few in Germany will forget Ulbricht's traitorous attacks on his own fellow Communists, many of them colleagues of long standing. Even today, contemporaries are sure that he tipped off the Nazis who arrested Thalmann and later executed him. In 1938 Ulbricht moved to Moscow to serve Stalin more closely. Of the many other German Communists who sought refuge in Russia, some 3,000 were killed or sent to labor camps by Moscow's harsh dictum. Ulbricht had not so much as raised a finger to protect them.