Walter Janka (born in Chemnitz 29 April 1914, died in Kleinmachnow 17 March 1994) was a German communist, political activist and writer who became a publisher.[1]

Walter Janka
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-1215-303, Walter Janka - Schriftsteller-.jpg
Walter Janka at the extraordinary party congress of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany/Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) in Berlin
(December 1989)
Born29 April 1914
Died17 March 1994

Janka is notable for having spent time incarcerated as a political prisoner under the rule of the Nazis and later imprisoned under suspicion of counter-revolutionary activities by the Supreme Court of East Germany, in both cases serving most of his sentence at Bautzen prison.


Early yearsEdit

Walter Janka was one of six children born to a Tool and die maker called Adalbert Janka. He attended junior school from 1920 till 1928. Between 1928 and 1932 he undertook a type setting apprenticeship.

In 1930 Walter Janka became an Organisation Leader, and then a Political leader of the Young Communists (KJVD / Kommunistischer Jugendverband Deutschlands) for the Chemnitz sub-region. After his elder brother, Albert, had been murdered by the Nazis, Walter himself was imprisoned by the Gestapo. He was remanded in custody in Chemnitz and in Freiberg before being convicted of preparing to commit high treason. After 1½ years of imprisonment in Bautzen prison, he spent a six-month term in Sachsenburg concentration camp. Finally, in 1935 he was deported to Czechoslovakia.

Civil war in Spain, internment in France, exile in MexicoEdit

In 1936 Janka went to Spain to join the Thälmann Battalion and fight in the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 he became a Captain, and shortly after that, in the Karl Marx Division, he became the youngest Major, and then a Battalion Commander, in the Spanish People's Army.[1] During the second part of 1938 he was badly wounded in the Battle of the Ebro.[1][2]

After the Nationalists won the war, Janka fled to France, where between 1939 and 1941 he was interned in Camp Vernet, by now a concentration camp. He then fled again this time via Casablanca in November 1941, and ending up in exile in Mexico, where together with Paul Merker and Alexander Abusch he founded the "Free Germany" ("Freies Deutschland") movement.

In Mexico he ran the publishing business "El Libro Libre", which also employed the exiled German writer Anna Seghers. In 1946 Janka took on the leadership of the Mexican section of the German Communist party (KPD).[3]

Back in GermanyEdit

After the end of the Second World War Janka returned, in April 1947, to what was Soviet occupation zone, later to become German Democratic Repbulic in 1949. In 1947 he married his long-standing partner, a translator called Charlotte (Lotte) Scholz. The couples' two children, André and Yvonne, were born in 1948 and 1950.

After a brief period working with the leadership of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany/Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) he joined the board of DEFA, the state-owned film studio. He was appointed managing director on 6 October 1948. He was replaced in the top job in 1949, but remained on the executive board till 1950.[1]

In February 1950 he became Deputy Director of the Berlin-based Aufbau-Verlag, then the country's leading publishing house, moving up to the top job in 1953. During this time he planned a project to make a film based Thomas Mann's novel of dynastic decline, Buddenbrooks, which was to be a collaboration between East Germany's DEFA and West German film companies. Another ambition, in pursuit of which he met Charlie Chaplin near the latter's home at Vevey in May 1954, was a DEFA film with Charlie Chaplin as the leading star.[citation needed]

Trial and imprisonmentEdit

On 6 December 1956 Walter Janka was arrested on a charge of Counter-revolutionary conspiracy[4] and held in the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Remand Prison. By March 1957 he had become one of six men arrested and held in respect of the alleged conspiracy. Janka remained in the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison for more than half a year before being charged in the Supreme Court, on 26 July 1957, with "being directly behind, and participating in, a counter-revolutionary group" (known as the Harich Group),[5] He was sentenced to a further five years in prison, with "enhanced solitary confinement" ("verschärfter Einzelhaft").[6]

The trial took place under conditions of tight security. The Justice Minister Hilde Benjamin herself appeared as a prosecution witness. No defense witnesses were permitted. State prosecutor, Ernst Melsheimer successfully threatened Janka's friend, Paul Merker who had himself only recently been "rehabilitated" (released from prison) in respect of an earlier matter, and who was now called upon to testify against Janka, with the words:

"Be under no illusions, that you really belong in the dock. You are separated by a hair's breadth from the traitor Janka. You belong beside him. And if you do not here speak truthfully, then you must expect to take your place beside him in the dock."[7]

Wolfgang Harich had already been convicted, and sentenced to a ten-year jail term in March 1957, in respect of the same alleged conspiracy as Janka. The two had previously worked together at the Aufbau publishing house. Harich was brought into the July show-trial by Judge Walter Ziegler as a leading prosecution witness: his testimony now heavily implicated Janka. The two former friends would remain estranged from one another for the rest of their lives.[8]

Janka served the first part of his sentence in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison where he had been held on remand, but in 1958 he was transferred to Bautzen prison where he fell seriously ill.[6] He later wrote of this time how his mind wandered back to the Nazi years when he had been incarcerated in the same place. As the authorities refused to repair the heater in his cell, he recalled sitting here more than twenty years earlier, in the big prison complex on the edge of the city which the townsfolk nicknamed "the yellow misery", because all the buildings were built with the same cheap yellow stone.[9][10]


On 23 December 1960 Janka was released from prison before completing the original term of his sentence, following international protests. An initial period of unemployment lasted till 1962,[1] after which he was worked again in film with the DEFA film studio as a dramaturge[1] based in Kleinmachnow on the southern fringe Berlin where he had had a home since the 1950s.

During the 1960s, working with other writers, Janke developed scenarios and screen-plays for the DEFA. He was heavily involved with the much acclaimed film, Goya or the Hard Way to Enlightenment ("Goya – oder der arge Weg der Erkenntnis") (1971). However, out of regard for his record of "political activism", recognition that came his way remained unpublicized.

In 1972 his official recognition as a Victim of the Nazi regime (Verfolgter des Naziregimes / VdN) was reinstated, and he was accepted back into the ruling SED (party). However, his autobiographical coloured scenes from his "Journey to Gandesa" about his experiences of the Battle of the Ebro during the Spanish Civil War remained unfilmed, and he terminated his contract with DEFA in 1973, having retired from it in 1972.[1]

During the 1980s Janka wrote articles, traveled several times to West Germany and gave lectures about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Finally, barely more than six months before the fall of the Berlin wall, on 1 May 1989 he was awarded the Patriotic Order of Merit (Gold/first classs) "in recognition of outstanding services to the creation and development of socialist society in the German Democratic Republic".[11]


As the end of the German Democratic Republic approached, Janka's memoir of his 1956 arrest and subsequent imprisonment was published, in October 1989, by Rowohlt Verlag under the wry title "Difficulties with the truth" ("Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit").[10] Walter Janka suddenly found himself very popular. As German reunification appeared unstoppable, on 4 and 5 January 1990 the Supreme Court met in open session and annulled their 1957 judgement against him. At the same time a legal and journalistic dispute flared between Janka and Wolfgang Harich about the details of those 1957 show trials.[12]

Janka's contribution to dramaturgy received recognition in the form of the Heinrich Greif Prize in 1990.

On 16 December 1989 Janka was a member of the presidium at the Special Party Congress of the SED (then in the process of transforming itself into the PDS / Party of Democratic Socialism / Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus) held in Berlin at the Dynamo Sports Hall.

In 1990 he was a member of the "Council of Elders" of the new PDS (party), but he soon became disappointed with this, and quit.[6]


Walter Janka died in March 1994 in Kleinmachnow and is buried there in the Waldfriedhof (Cemetery in the woods).[13]


  • Janka, W.:Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit. Essay, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989, ISBN 3-499-12731-8
  • Janka, W.:Spuren eines Lebens, Berlin: Rowohlt 1991
  • Janka, W.:... bis zur Verhaftung. Erinnerungen eines deutschen Verlegers. Berlin, Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag 1993

Further readingEdit

  • Rohrwasser, Michael: Wer ist Walter Janka? Eine biographische Notiz. In: Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1990, S. 115-124, ISBN 3-351-01763-4.
  • Hoeft, Brigitte (Ed.): Der Prozess gegen Walter Janka und andere. Eine Dokumentation; Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1990; ISBN 3-499-12894-2


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Carsten Wurm, Bernd-Rainer Barth. "Janka, Walter: Leiter des Aufbau-Verlags, »Säuberungs«-Opfer". Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur: Biographische Datenbanken. Retrieved 20 October 2014.
  2. ^ Ludwig Niethammer (16 August 2000). "Zum Tode von Erich Mielke: Die Karriere eines deutschen Stalinisten". World Socialist Website. Retrieved 20 October 2014.
  3. ^ ua. Dr. Margrid Bircken, Christine Becker (2001). "Der Verlag El Libro Libre: Die Leitung des Verlags wurde Walter Janka (1914-1994), einem gelernten Buchdrucker, übergeben. Dieser bereits früh der KPD angehörige Schriftsteller verschwand für 2 Jahre in einem Straflager und nach seiner Freilassung engagierte er sich im Spanischem Bürgerkrieg und wurde danach im französischen Internierungslager Le Vernet interniert. Er wurde von vielerlei Schriftstellern wie Anna Seghers .... die die Auswahl und Korrekturen der Bücher bestimmte". Exil in Mexiko in den 40er Jahren Ein studentisches Projekt an der Universität Potsdam im Sommersemester 2001. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  4. ^ konterrevolutionären Verschwörung
  5. ^ "als unmittelbarer Hintermann und Teilnehmer einer konterrevolutionären Gruppe"
  6. ^ a b c Vgl. Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen: Biographical note on Janka.
  7. ^ "Wissen Sie überhaupt, dass Sie eigentlich auf die Anklagebank gehören? Dass Sie nur ein Haar von dem Verräter Janka trennt. Sie gehören auf den Platz neben ihm. Und wenn Sie hier nicht die Wahrheit sagen, dann müssen Sie damit rechnen, den Platz neben ihm doch noch einzunehmen."
  8. ^ Editor in chief: Rudolf Augstein (4 June 1990). "A life-long lesson: from Wolfgang Harich's testimony at the Janke trial (Eine Lehre fürs ganze Leben: Aus Wolfgang Harichs Zeugenaussage für den Janka-Prozeß)". Der Spiegel (online). Retrieved 21 October 2014.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Janka wrote of his time in the prison in the third person, which maybe works slightly better in German than in English: "Wieder musste Janka an die Jahre der Nazizeit denken. Immer beginnt es damit, die Köpfe zu verunstalten. ..... als Janka in den dreißiger Jahren bei den Nazis in Bautzen gesessen hatte. Damals in der großen Haftanstalt. Am Rande der Stadt. Die Einwohner von Bautzen nennen sie ‚das gelbe Elend‘, weil alle Gebäude aus gelben Klinkersteinen gemauert sind."
  10. ^ a b Walter Janka (1989). Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit. Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag. pp. 107, 109. ISBN 3-499-12731-8.
  11. ^ "in Würdigung hervorragender Verdienste beim Aufbau und bei der Entwicklung der sozialistischen Gesellschaftsordnung in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik"
  12. ^ Rudolf Augstein Proprietor and editor in chief (25 March 1991). "Ehrlos in die Grube? Zwei Opfer des SED-Regimes, der Philosoph Wolfgang Harich und der Verlagsleiter Walter Janka, streiten vor Gericht um die historische Wahrheit: Gab es 1956 eine Verschwörung zum Sturz Ulbrichts? Haben Harichs Geständnisse Janka ins Gefängnis gebracht? Bisher unveröffentlichte Dokumente könnten Harich entlasten". Der Spiegel (online). Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  13. ^ "Evangelischer Waldfriedhof Kleinmachnow Cemetery webpage, mentioning Janka's as one if its two celebrity corpses". Fr. Manuela Blumenthal (responsible for cemetery contact). Retrieved 22 October 2014.