Max Fechner is probably one of the tragic figures of the German labour movement. Against the background of his experiences with the rise of National Socialism and his suffering in the concentration camp, in 1945 he advocated the merger with the KPD (Communist Party) like hardly anyone else in the SPD (Social Democrats) and became the 2nd chairman of the SED (Socialist Unity Party). As Minister of Justice of the GDR, he clearly positioned himself for the striking workers in the aftermath of the workers’ uprising of June 17, 1953. As a result, he was removed from all offices and sentenced to eight years in prison. His homosexuality was seen as aggravating the punishment.
1892-1933 From the Worker’s Child to the Apparatus of the Labour Movement
Max Fechner was born on 2 July 1892, as the son of a bricklayer. After elementary school he did an apprenticeship as a toolmaker. In 1908 he joined the SAJ, in 1910 the German Metal Workers’ Union (the predecessor organisation of today’s IG Metall) and in 1911 he joined the SPD. In 1917, like most Social Democrats in the Berlin area, he joined the USPD. In 1920 he became an employee of the Central Committee of the USPD and in 1921 a district councillor in Neukölln. He held this mandate until 1925. In 1922 he returned to the SPD and in 1923 he became a member of the Prussian Landtag and full-time secretary to the main executive of the SPD. Specifically, he was head of the local political central office and editor of the local political magazine of the SPD “Die Gemeinde”. Since welfare work took place mainly at the municipal level, Fechner was also elected in 1924 to the executive committee of the Workers’ Welfare Association as deputy treasurer.
1933-1945 KZ prison and old contacts
In 1933 Fechner as an employee of the SPD first became unemployed and continued to work politically in illegality. In 1933 he is arrested and charged in one of the first trials against leading officials of the SPD. The Social Democratic and Jewish lawyer Ernst Fraenkel, who worked in Berlin until 1938, was acquitted in the 1934 trial by succeeding in “impressing the chairman of the criminal chamber by arguing that the statements were made under physical coercion.
Nevertheless, Max Fechner was still imprisoned, deported to a concentration camp and released only in 1935. He then acquired a small dairy business in Neukölln, which soon became a meeting place for mainly older Social Democrats who remained loyal to the banned party. In the last years of the war 1944/45 he was imprisoned again and already in the last days of April 1945 he had the reputation to have contact with approachable communists.
1945-1953 The idea of the united working class and its failure
If at all a Social Democrat, was enthusiastic from the beginning for the idea that in the future a united workers party could ensure that in a Neue Deutschland something like the decline of the republic at the beginning of the 1930s would not be repeated, it was Max Fechner. Already on 28 April 1945, i.e. before the complete occupation of Berlin by the Red Army, he wrote Walter Ulbricht “a letter with the offer to immediately create a unified Workers’ Party; the latter claims not to have received the letter; in the further fusion process this offer again and again plays an important role as proof of the original will for unity of the Social Democrats”.
In the central committee of the SPD, which soon constituted itself, he was elected one of the three chairmen and soon became, alongside Otto Grotewohl, the most important leader of the Social Democrats in the Soviet Zone. However, as the party association progresses, he is increasingly plagued by doubts and does not necessarily agree with the actions of the Soviet military administration and its cryptic to open support for the KPD. In a confidential KPD material of August 3, 45, it says: “He is not clear whether the Communists want the united front honestly. Does Zhukov mean it honestly when he said to ZA leaders that the SMAD must rely more on the SPD? The SPD’s program is much more radical than that of the KPD. When asked whether the SPD could support the communists, he said: “The SPD is unencumbered. We will soon have local elections and have to be careful not to burden ourselves”.
On February 10 and 11 he chairs the ZA meeting, which decides by majority on the course for unification with the KPD. In the first ballot he abstained and only voted yes in the second ballot. In spite of his reservations he remains in the last consequence an advocate of the unification to the SED. It is also painful to him that in his home district of Neukölln, on the morning of April 7, 1946, the district delegates’ conference voted with a narrow majority for the change to the new regional association of the SPD, which is to be constituted in the Zehlendorf Zinnowald School in the afternoon of the same day, and excluded Max Fechner from the SPD.
In the SBZ and from 1949 in the GDR, he first made a career and is one of the leaders of the SED. At the KPD and SPD Unification Party Congress for the SED on April 20 and 21, 46, he is elected second chairman of the SED alongside Wilhelm Pieck. 1948 He becomes president of the German central administration for justice and in 1949 first minister of justice of the GDR.
Another major turning point in his life occurred in connection with the aftermath of the workers’ uprising of 17 June 1953. Two weeks after the events around 17 June, when it was a matter of dealing with the criminal law aspects of the uprising, the “Neue Deutschland” published an interview with the GDR Justice Minister that caused a stir. With regard to the first trials against so-called ringleaders, Fechner explained: “Only persons guilty of a serious crime may be punished. Other persons are not punished. This also applies to members of the strike committee. Even ringleaders must not be punished on mere suspicion…” Two days later, the “Neue Deutschland” added to this by printing Fechner’s statements from the interview, which had originally not been published due to a “technical error”. Fechner had declared: ” The right to strike is constitutionally guaranteed. The members of the strike committee will … not be punished.” Against the background of these remarks, which in particular emphasized the legality of the right to strike even for a socialist system such as the GDR, the hope of something like the rule of law in the GDR germinated especially among those arrested in the GDR, their relatives and many others. A deceptive hope, because this was Fechner’s last interview.
On 14 July 1953, the Politbüro took the following decision:
“1. Max Fechner is expelled from the party because of anti-party and anti-state behaviour.
2 Fechner is removed from his function as Minister of Justice and placed under pre-trial detention.
3) The secretaries of the district leadership are informed that the Politbüro considers Fechner’s interview to be false and harmful.
Max Fechner was sentenced to eight years in prison in 1955 for “crimes against the state”. Fechner’s “homosexual tendencies” were considered aggravating the punishment.
In April 1956, the so-called “thaw period” after the XXth Party Congress of the KPDSU, Fechner was pardoned and released from prison. In 1958 he was reinstated in the SED. Max Fechner died on 13.9.1973.
As Minister of Justice, Max Fechner was followed in 1953 by Hilde Benjamin, who was not averse to any bourgeois conception of the law. Even after the judgments of the GDR judiciary in the aftermath of 17 June, there could be no doubt about this: Criminal proceedings were instituted against 3449 persons. Charges were brought against 2134. 1526 persons were convicted. These included 2 death sentences, 3 life sentences in prison, 13 sentences of 10-15 years, 99 sentences of 5-10 years, 824 sentences of 1-5 years and 546 sentences of up to one year. It is not only Max Fechner who has paid bitterly enough for his view of the rule of law.