Bernard Koenen

Bernard Koenen

Bernard Koenen (1961)
Born Bernard Johann Heinrich Koenen
17 February 1889
Hamburg, Germany
Died 30 April 1964
East Berlin, GDR (East Germany)
Occupation Politician
Political party SPD (1907)
USDP (1917)
KPD (1920)
SED (1946)
Spouse(s) Frieda Bockentien/Koenen (1890-1968)
Children Viktor Koenen (1920-1942)
Alfred Koenen (1921-1995)

Bernard Koenen (born Hamburg 17 February 1889: died Berlin 30 April 1964) was a German politician.[1][2]

Between 1953 and 1958 he served as his country's ambassador to Czechoslovakia.[3]

Bernard Koenen giving a speech, in a city square on Halle, to celebrate the birth of the German Democratic Republic on 8 October


Early years

Koenen was born in Hamburg, the son of a carpenter-joiner and of a cook. His father was a Socialist activist who participated in the founding of the Second International in Paris five months after the boy's birth.[2] By the beginning of the twentieth century his father was a leading member of the Social Democratic Party.[4] On 17 January 1906 they were among an estimated 80,000 people in Hamburg to take part in Germany's first ever mass-political protest march.[4] The protestors' target was an electoral system which privileged the ruling classes at the expense of the working classes, and among those taking part, Bernard Koenen was distributing leaflets.[4]

On leaving school Koenen had embarked on an apprenticeship as a Machinist-Fitter and in 1906 joined the German Metal Workers' Union.[1] The next year he became 18 and joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD).[1] His skills evidently made him readily employable and a period of travelling followed, taking in Lausanne, Brussels, Lille and Tunis where, in Bizerta, he was among those who founded the Socialist Party in Tunisia.[2] He undertook his military service between 1910 and 1912 and then returned to working abroad in industry. He was called up into the army in 1914, but released from military service in 1916 on account of "anti-military activities". By 1917 he had relocated to Leuna in Saxony-Anhalt where he was working an electrician. In 1917 he joined the break-away Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD)[1] which had split primarily on account of the mainstream SPD's continuing support for the war (though the USPD proved to be more left-wing on a range of issues in the months ahead). During the November Revolution Koenen was deputy leader of the Workers' Council at the Leuna Chemicals Plant where he was by then working.[1]

Weimar Germany

Bernard Koenen joined the recently formed German Communist Party in 1920 and became a member of the party leadership team for Halle-Merseburg.[1] In 1923 he joined the party's national leadership team.[1] From 1922 till 1933 he also sat as a member of the regional legislaive assembly (Landtag) for Saxony. Factionalism continued to be a feature of left-wing politics during the 1920s, and from the middle of the decade Koenen was identified with the so-called Conciliator faction (Versöhnler), which led in 1929 to his being relieved of some of his party offices by the party leader, Ernst Thälmann.

Nazi Germany

In January 1933 the NSDAP (Nazi Party) took power and set about establishing one-party government in Germany. Leading members of the Communist party were particular targets. On 12 February 1933, during the course of the Eisleben "Bloody Sunday" Nazi propaganda march several Communist leaders were killed: Koenen was merely assaulted and badly injured by S.A. members, as a result of which he lost an eye.[5] For the next few months, with a warrant issued for his capture, he was concealed in a private clinic by a doctor who was sympathetic to the Communist cause.


In May 1933, along with several other fugitive Comminists, he managed to get to the Saarland[1] which was the only part of Germany still under foreign military occupation following the end of the First World War. In July 1933 Bernard Koenin emigrated to the Soviet Union where he would remain till 1945.[2] Initially he worled as the Organisation Secretary of the International Red Aid organisation. Then, in 1937, he was caught up in one of Stalin's purges and detained by the NKVD till 1939.[2] However, in 1940 he was again trusted, by the Communist Party, to undertake assignments.[2] Between 1941 and 1943 he was working for the "Deutschen Volkssender" ("German People's Radio") radio station, transferring in August 1943 to Radio "Freies Deutschland" ("Free Germany").[1] He started to work for the Soviet sponsored National Committee for a Free Germany in 1943, which was also the year in which he joined the Central Committee of the (exiled German) Communist Party.[1]

Home to the Soviet occupation zone and the German Democratic Republic

Bernard Koenen returned in 1945 to the Soviet occupation zone in what remained of Germany.[1] In April 1946 he became a founder member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED / Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands). The creation of the party came about through a contentious merger in the area under Soviet Administration of the old Communist Party and the more moderately left-wing Social Democratic Party. The merger was in theory one of equals, but by the time the German Democratic Republic was formally founded in 1949 it was noteworthy that the positions of party influence and leadership were almost all held by men who, like Koenen, had been members of the Communist Party until 1946. With right wing policies discredited by twelve diastrous years of Nazi government, the de facto neutralising of the moderate left created the basis for a return to one-party government, but this time the template had been prepared, in some detail, in Moscow. During the later 1940s Koenen worked as a party officer in the Halle region.[1] Between 1946 and 1952 he was also a member and leader of the SED group in the regional legislature of Saxony-Anhalt.[2]

At a national level Koenen was a member of the Party Central Committee from 1946 till his death in 1964.[3] Under the Soviet system, on which the new country's constitutional arrangements were modelled, the responsibilities of government ministers were restricted to implementing the decisions of the Party Central Committee, while a Single List voting system ensured that the National Legislative Assembly (Volkskammer) was also controlled by the ruling SED (controlled by its Central Committee). In terms of power and influence Koenen's Central Committee membership was therefore of greater significance than membership of regional or national legislatures, though in practice there were plenty of Central Committee members who simultaneously held office in national or regional legislatures and/or as government ministers. Koenen himself combined Central Committee membership with membership of the national legislature (Volkskammer), although it was reported that he had declined ministerial office in order to avoid having to cut back on party duties.[6]

From 1946 till 1964 Koenen also held a seat in the National Legislative Assembly. However, in 1952 he lost his seat and leadership position in the regional legislature of Saxony-Anhalt when regional legislatures were abolished in the context of a wider programme of regional government reform. Partly as a consequence of those reforms, local and municipal councils became more important. Between 1952 and 1953, and again, in succession to Franz Bruk, from 1958 till 1963 Bernard Koenen served as First Secretary to the SED Regional Leadeership (Berzirksleitung) in the city of Halle.[2]

In 1953 Koenen was appointed as his country's ambassador to neighbouring Czechoslovakia, an important diplomatic role in which he succeeded Fritz Große: he held the Prague job till 1958.[2]

Between 1960 and 1964 he was a member of the State Council of East Germany.[7]

Beyond his political offices, Bernard Koenen worked at teaching and journalism.

Family matters

Bernard Koenen's elder brother, Wilhelm Koenen (1886-1963), was also a German Communist politician.

Bernard Koenen married Frieda Bockentien (1890-1968) during the First World War.[8] Their sons Victor and Alfred both joined the Soviet Red army in order to be part of the fight against Nazi Germany. Viktor Koenen (1920-1942) was killed over or in Poland in 1942.[1] (There are conflicting reports as to how he died.) Alfred Koenen (1921-1995) survived the war, however, and had a career as an army officer and, later, as a diplomat.[1]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 GOTTFRIED HAMACHER unter Mitarbeit von André Lohmar; Herbert Mayer; Günter Wehner & Harald Wittstock (2005). "Koenen, Bernhard, 17.2.1889 (Hamburg) – 30.4.1964 (Berlin)" (PDF). Kurzbiographien. Karl Dietz Verlag, Berlin & Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Berlin. pp. 107–108. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Helmut Müller-Enbergs; Bernd-Rainer Barth. "Koenen, Bernard (Johann Heinrich) * 17.2.1889, † 30.4.1964 1. Sekretär der SED-Bezirksleitung Halle, Diplomat". Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur: Biographische Datenbanken. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  3. 1 2 "GESTORBEN BERNARD KOENEN". Der Spiegel (online). 13 May 1964. Retrieved 1 February 2015.
  4. 1 2 3 Günter Freyer. "Bernard Koenen (17. Februar 1889 – 30. April 1964) ....."Das war ein echter Kommunist"". Rote Kalenderblätter DKP Brandenburg. DKP Saxony-Anhalt. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  5. "Ein Auge genügt Ueber Leichen gehen beide". Der Spiegel (online). 9 April 1959. Retrieved 1 February 2015.
  6. Benutzer:Rudelsburg (7 February 2013). "Bernard Koenen". Ein Projekt der Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. Retrieved 1 February 2015.
  7. Hermann Weber: Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus, Bd. 2; p. 186f
  8. Hermann Weber; Andreas Herbst. "Koenen, Bernard (Johann Heinrich)". Biographische Angaben aus dem Handbuch der Deutschen Kommunisten:. Karl Dietz Verlag Berlin. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
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