Herbert Wehner

(b. 1906)

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(b. Dresden, 11 July 1906; d. Bonn, 1990)

German; deputy chairman of the SPD 1958–73, Minister for All-German Affairs 1966–9 Wehner was a brooding, enigmatic politician who was one of the founders of the Federal Republic of Germany. Rumours still surround this shoemaker's son from Dresden largely because of his early activities in the Communist Party (KPD). After grammar school Wehner took up an apprenticeship as a commercial clerk but soon abandoned this for Communist journalism. He joined the KPD in 1927 and by 1930 was representing the party in the parliament of Saxony at the same time he was elected to the KPD's Central Committee. In 1935 he was in Moscow with the exiled KPD as a member of its Politburo. He was regarded as totally reliable and did not suffer in the Stalinist purges which decimated the KPD leadership. In 1941 he was sent as the Comintern's representative in neutral Sweden where he was imprisoned for unlawful political activity. It was during his Swedish sojourn that he broke with Stalinism and turned to social democracy.

Despite his past, in 1946 Wehner was welcomed into the SPD by Schumacher, who saw him as a useful ally in the fight to keep the party free from KPD influence. In 1949 Wehner was elected to the first Bundestag and remained a member until he withdrew from politics in 1983. He led the SPD's group in the Bundestag from 1969 to 1983, serving also as deputy chairman of the SPD from 1958 to 1973. He was a key figure in the successful attempts to change the direction of the SPD by adopting the Bad Godesberg Programme (1958) and membership of NATO and the EEC. He also sought a coalition with the majority Christian Democrats which was achieved in 1966.

Wehner's home town had become part of the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic (GDR) and this is reason enough for his continuing interest in relations with the GDR and attempts to restore German unity. Between 1966 and 1969 he served in the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats as minister responsible for policy vis-à-vis the GDR. Although Wehner had been strongly denounced as a renegade and traitor in the GDR media, it fell to him to undertake delicate secret meetings with East German leader Honecker.

In the West, Wehner was accused by some of having saved his own skin by denouncing his comrades to Stalin's secret police in the 1930s; they regarded him as a Soviet Trojan horse. Brandt believed he had been let down by Wehner when he was forced to resign in 1974. Wehner then backed Helmut Schmidt as Brandt's successor.

Subjects: Politics.

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