The Legacy of German Communism
Ernst Thalmann was a German communist. He was born in 1886 and served with the Imperial German Army during World War One on the Western Front. He became involved in the violent German Red Guard groups that became involved in street fighting with German fascist Freikorps groups that were the forerunners of the Nazis. Thälmann organized and participated in the 1923 Hamburg Uprising. He became and influential communist in the Wiemar Republic and this led to his eventual imprisonment and execution at the Buchenwald concentration camp once Hitler came to power. He called for violent overthrow of Hitler’s government and when the Spanish Civil War erupted between Fascist Nationalists and Communist Republicans in 1936 his name was used as the banner for German communist who volunteered to fight for the Republican cause.
The so-called Thalmann Battalion became part of the estimated 32,000 men from 53 nations who volunteered. For the International Brigades to fight for the communists. Its commander was another German communist, the writer Ludwig Renn. The Battalion was made up of about 500 ethnic German speakers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland and was placed as a part of the XII International Brigade under command of the Hungarian communist Pavol Lukacs (mentioned under his real name Máté Zalka in several Ernest Hemingway works) in November 1936. The other units of the brigade included the Garibaldi Battalion (of Italian volunteers) and the André Marty Battalion (of French and Belgian volunteers). It saw combat at the Battle and subsequent siege of Madrid until the end of the war in 1939 when it was disbanded along with the eventual Republican defeat.
Fast forward to 1972 and the state visit to Berlin, East Germany by the cigar chomping illustrious leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro. On this occasion Castro took the opportunity to commemorate communist solidarity by renaming the small uninhabited island known as Cayo Blanco del Sur off the south coast of Cuba as Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann (Ernst Thalmann Island) and formally ceded it to East Germany. A large bust of Ernst Thälmann (ala Lenin and Stalin) was placed on the beachfront and was visible from offshore. A curious quirk of history is that the island still technically belongs only to East Germany as it was not included in the reunification with West Germany in 1990.
Therefore even though Hurricane Mitch toppled the bust in 1998, a small part of Thalmann and his communist inspired country of the People’s Democratic Republic of Germany (the DDR) still exist.