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  • Karin Gambaracci

The Ulbricht Group

Moscow, 27th April 1945. Seven days earlier, in Berlin, Adolf Hitler had celebrated his last birthday in his bunker.

Wolfgang Leonhard, a young German who had emigrated to Russia with his mother after the advent of Nazism in Germany, receives a phone call. He is to report immediately to the Lux Hotel. The order has a peremptory tone, but Leonhard is used to it. After all, he has spent the last ten years in Stalinist Russia and received an excellent education at the famous 'Comintern' school. But above all, in Russia you don't ask, you just obey.

Wolgang Leonhard 2001 Bruni Meya/akg-images/picture alliance/akg-images

At the Lux Hotel Wolfgang approaches the door with the room number he had been given, hesitates briefly, then knocks. A moment's wait. The door opens. "Comrade Leonhard, welcome. Have a seat." The speaker is Walter Ulbricht. A name that probably does not immediately light a light bulb for any of us, but for Germans it does, because Walter Ulbricht was the key politician in East Germany until 1971.

Walter Ulbricht - dpa

Back to Moscow. The atmosphere at the Hotel Lux is jovial. Besides Ulbricht, Wolfgang recognises several faces, all German communist expats who now hold prominent positions in Russia. There is drinking, eating, and at one point Ulbricht raises his glass and exclaims: 'Gentlemen, from now on you are part of the Ulbricht Group. We will be leaving for Germany shortly. A toast!" "A toast!" One replies. No questions are asked. We are in Russia.

Hotel Lux negli anni 50_da:

On May 2nd, 1945, the last day of the Battle of Berlin, the Ulbricht Group is already here. A Berlin of burning ruins, a Berlin of smoke that burns the eyes and obscures vision. Until that evening, our Wolfgang still has no idea of his task. It is only on that 2nd May that Ulbricht decides to play his cards close to the vest.

"Gentlemen, we have a very clear task: we are to establish the administrations of the western districts of Berlin. Each of you is responsible for a district. First, you must find a mayor. He does not have to be a professional politician, but it is important that he has a doctorate and administrative experience. Then you must find an engineer, who will take care of transport; a doctor, who will take care of health care; ...'.

Wolfgang listens in disbelief. Berlin is a pile of rubble, how is it possible to go around and look for a mayor, an engineer, a doctor? And then ... why the western districts? Hadn't agreements already been made in 1944 in London that Russia would be responsible for the eastern ones?

"Gruppe Ulbricht" (Walter Ulbricht ultimo a destra) - da: Tagesspiegel

But Ulbricht continues: 'Then you must find six members of the SPD (the historic German socialist party, more moderate than the communist party). Those guys have a way with administrations...'. Are you joking, Walter Ulbricht? What about the loyal Communists who have been fighting for years, underground, standing happily in the streets welcoming Soviet troops? "We only need three communists per administration... A deputy mayor, who will do the real work while the mayor sits around doing representation, a personnel director and an education director." But why only three communists and six from the SPD? "It must seem like a democratic process, that's why. In reality, we'll be the ones to keep everything under control'.

Months pass, years, and Wolfgang Leonhard understands the situation more and more through. He understands that the Russians wanted to play ahead of the Allies who arrived in the city two months later, that they had no intention of keeping to the pacts but were already planning to conquer all of Berlin. He understood how the Soviet 'communist dream' was in fact not much more than a flag hoisted to conceal an anti-democratic regime totally opposed to any free initiative and free thinking.

So, he decides to call it quits. In 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard fled first to Yugoslavia and then to federal Germany. Like him did many others: until 1961, more than two million left their homeland. Until the night between the 12th and 13th of August to be precise, a Saturday night.

Because the next morning the residents of East Berlin wake up as prisoners. Of a wall.


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