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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 147-150

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Mario Frank, Walter Ulbricht: Eine deutsche Biographie.Berlin: Siedler, 2001. 537 pp. € 24.

Access to archives in formerly Communist countries has moved Cold War historiography forward in important ways, but "new" biographical studies thus far have been lagging behind other formats. One reason might be that one cannot immediately produce a serious, academic biography of a figure whose career spanned decades. Instead, this sort of project requires a long scholarly involvement with both the life and the times of the subject, as well as a thorough knowledge of the scholarship in relevant fields. It frequently takes the researcher to many different archives, often in more than one country. The results can be extremely valuable, as William Taubman has shown with his new biography of Nikita Khrushchev. However, Taubman's book—more than twenty years in the making—also amply confirms that the most weighty biographical projects often are the culmination of many years of professional research and writing. [End Page 147]

Mario Frank's new biography of the first Communist leader of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Walter Ulbricht, is not in the same league as Taubman's work, but it is valuable nonetheless. According to the book's dust jacket, Frank was born in the GDR (Rostock) but grew up in Switzerland and studied law in West Germany. At the time his book was published, he was business manager at two news- papers in the state of Saxony.

Frank's book is actually the second Ulbricht biography that has come out since the collapse of the GDR, the state Ulbricht worked so relentlessly to create and maintain. Because Frank draws on much more extensive archival evidence and more recent (virtually all German) Cold War scholarship, his book improves considerably on Norbert Podewin's 1995 volume, Walter Ulbricht: eine neue Biographie (Berlin: Dietz, 1995).

In spite of the considerable research that Frank has put into his book, it is not quite the study that a scholar might wish for. Although he has used genuinely new Russian archival materials on Ulbricht's career in the 1920s and 1930s as an official in the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Comintern, Frank's research barely scratches the surface of the vast holdings of the archives of the former GDR and its ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). His use of selected new scholarship on the GDR makes up for some but not all of these missed opportunities. Finally, although the book is more than a plain, straightforward description of Ulbricht's life and career, it is something less than a relentlessly analytical treatment of its subject and his times.

What we get from Frank is not so much a genuinely new perspective (although we do learn some interesting new details) as a fuller picture of the Ulbricht already known to specialists. For example, Frank does an excellent job showing how Ulbricht, from the beginning of his career as a professional revolutionary in 1920 until the Khrushchev era, was an anxious and slavish follower of the Moscow line, wherever it led. This orientation stood Ulbricht in good stead vis-à-vis what often were more independent-minded competitors for power in the KPD/SED, especially at moments when his aggressiveness and rudeness—his greatest liability as a leader—threatened to (and sometimes did) reduce his influence.

Ulbricht, Frank also shows, was not well-liked in the party (or by anyone, really—Frank says Ulbricht had no personal friends), and he did not distinguish himself as a man of ideas, contrary to his later self-aggrandizing claims. But he did have a sharp sense and ruthless appetite for power. Furthermore, he worked harder than anyone else and was generally better informed and better connected than his colleagues. In short, Ulbricht was well suited to survive in the increasingly Stalinized KPD. By World War II, after his own brush with the Moscow purge machinery in the late 1930s, he was at the head of his party, second only to Wilhelm Pieck.

After the...