The East German Uprising of June 1953: Western Provocation, Workers’ Protest or Attempted Revolution?
On 16 June 1953 construction workers on Stalinallee in East Berlin downed their tools and went on strike. The initial strike spread quickly: by the morning of 17 June 40,000 demonstrators were marching in East Berlin, with a wave of similar strikes and protests recorded in numerous cities, towns and villages across East Germany. By the afternoon, the situation had escalated to such an extent that Soviet tanks had rolled out onto the streets of Berlin. Subsequent clashes between troops and protestors left at least 40 dead and over 400 wounded. By the evening of 17 June the situation in East Berlin was under control, with 700 protestors arrested for their involvement in the uprising. In the following days levels of dissent dwindled across East Germany. The East German Uprising was the first serious attempt to challenge communist authority in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, and the level of discontent demonstrated took both the East German authorities and the Soviets by surprise. In this article Rosie Shelmerdine explores the true nature of the East German rebellion by asking whether the events of June 1953 are best considered as ‘Western Provocation, Workers’ Protest or Attempted Revolution?’
The East German Uprising of June 1953: Western Provocation, Workers’ Protest or Attempted Revolution?
By Rosie Shelmerdine.
‘The Soviet forces … have for the most part restored order in the Soviet sector of Berlin. The provocative plan of the reactionary and fascist-like elements has been wrecked … the provocation was prepared in advance, organized and directed from Western sectors of Berlin. The simultaneous actions in the majority of the big cities of the GDR, the same demands of the rebels everywhere as well as the same anti-state and anti-Soviet slogans, serve as proof for this conclusion.’ – Grechko and Tarasov, leaders of the Soviet Forces in East Germany, reporting on the East German Rising after order had been restored by Soviet troops (17 June 1953)
The above extract, taken from a report written by two leading members of the Soviet forces in East Berlin on the evening of 17 June, blamed an attempted Western putsch for the escalation of events in East Germany. A more detailed report submitted to the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the aftermath of the crisis on 22 June reinforced this claim, stating that:
“Hostile forces, with direct support and under the leadership of American agencies and the peoples’ enemy and the warmongers in Bonn, organized an attempt for a fascist coup in the GDR in the period from 16 June 1953 to 22 June 1953. Besides their daily propaganda attacks by radio, leaflets and printed press, etc., [these hostile forces] increased their subversive activities following the death of Comrade Stalin … supported by their spy centers existing in the GDR and by those groups of agents smuggled in during the uprising … they temporarily managed to engage broad segments of workers and employees, in particular in Berlin and Central Germany, for their criminal objectives”
Today, the typical communist response of blaming the West has long been disregarded, with recently released documents indicating that although radio broadcasts from West Berlin probably helped to spread news about the initial protests more widely across the GDR, the Western powers were keen to avoid any direct involvement in the uprising. Rather, events in East Germany in 1953 were clearly driven by internal tensions. Today however, historians remain divided about the true cause and nature of the East German Uprising of June 1953; with some blaming worker discontent arising from economic concerns, while others attribute the escalation of events to a more general dissatisfaction with the SED regime, felt by a broader section of the population. In fact, both explanations have some merit but taken alone both views are too simplistic, due to the intrinsically linked nature of the political and economic spheres under state socialism.
In their initial report, Grechko and Tarasav justified their claims of a centrally organised Western plot by stressing that strikes occurred simultaneously in the majority of the big cities of the GDR, all having the same demands and the same anti-state and anti-Soviet slogans. The strikes were certainly widespread: after the call for a general strike by workers in East Berlin, strikes were called in 593 factories across East Germany, with about five per cent of the total East German workforce taking part. Grechko and Tarasev also reported on 17 June that: ‘The following numbers of people took part in the demonstrations: up to 15,000 in Magdeburg, up to 1,500 in Brandenburg, up to 1,000 in Oranienburg and Werder, up to 1,000 in Jena, 1,000 in Gera, up to 1,000 in Soemmerda, up to 10,000 in Dresden, up to 2,000 in Leipzig, 20,000 in Goerlitz’.
However, many of the workers involved in the strike action subsequently stressed the spontaneous and largely uncoordinated nature of the events of June 1953. One worker at the Agfa film factory at Wolfen near Bitterfeid later declared: ‘It wasn’t planned at all, everything happened spontaneously. Workers from nearby factories didn’t know what was happening in our factory until the moment we found ourselves in the street’, while a factory worker from East Berlin also claimed that ‘It was all improvised. We had no linkups with any other towns or factories’.
While occurring on a much larger scale than previously, the events of June 1953 were not an isolated event: smaller strikes had sporadically occurred throughout June, and dissatisfaction had been growing in the GDR for several years.
Video Footage from East Berlin, June 1953:
The first serious disputes between East German workers and the regime were recorded as early as 1951. (Arnulf Baring, Uprising in East Germany, Cornell University Press: 1972). East German leader Walter Ulbricht’s announcement of his intention to accelerate the building of socialism at the second Party Conference of the SED in July 1952 made the economic situation in the GDR worse. The ‘systematic implementation of socialism’ in East Germany resulted in a further campaign against independent farmers and businessmen and a deliberate concentration of investment in heavy industry at the expense of food and consumer goods, creating widespread shortages. As a result, by the end of 1952 living standards had fallen below the levels of 1947. It is therefore not surprising that a key demand made by protesters in June 1953 was for a reduction in the price of goods bought by ordinary consumers. To make matters worse, on 14 May 1953 a ten per cent increase in production quotas was announced, with no corresponding increase in wages, which effectively meant a pay cut for the already struggling workers. The final blow came with the announcement of the ‘New Course’ on 9 June which, while reversing many of the more coercive policies of the previous year, did not change the recently proposed increase in production quotas.
It was the initial demonstrations against these heightened production quotas by construction workers in East Berlin on 16 June that triggered a wave of strikes across East Germany. There is certainly evidence to suggest that these strikes were fuelled by economic discontent: popular demands were certainly economic, with chants such as “we demand lower quotas”, while of a population of over 17 million, only half a million people participated directly in the protests, and these were predominantly workers, those who were most directly affected by the new economic policy. The uprising found relatively low levels of support amongst church leaders, East German students, and intellectuals. This suggests that at its heart the risings were a workers’ movement focused on economic demands. Baring claims that it was only after these demands were granted that political demands were voiced: fuelled by the initial hesitation and perceived weakness of the government, the workers decided to exploit this opportunity, turning their economic grievances into a political protest. By the afternoon of 17 June calls for a General Strike were being broadcast through a hijacked loudspeaker van.
It would be misleading however, to categorise the events of June 1953 simply as an economic uprising. Whilst the majority of the strikers may indeed have been workers, it was not an exclusively workers-based movement: farmers, youths, housewives, school children and members of the middleclass were all involved too. In addition, Gareth Dale argues that political demands were actually heard at a very early stage in the protests: before the strikes had turned into a full-scale rebellion, Dale claims that there were already calls for the resignation of the East German government, free elections, freedom for political prisoners, the legalisation of strike actions and the removal of sectoral borders and occupation forces from Germany.(Gareth Dale, Popular Protest in East Germany 1945-1989, Routledge: 2005)
This was not the first time that economic dissatisfaction had boiled over into more politicised demands in East Germany. At the end of 1952, enraged by the overly-generous Christmas bonuses that the SED used to reward favoured employees, workers walked off the job in Weissenfels, Glauchau, Schkopau, Plauen, Cottbus, Berlin and Magdeburg. Despite being triggered by economic discontent, these protests also soon reached beyond monetary considerations, becoming more politicised as workers began to criticise the press and the SED’s lack of democracy. Similar kinds of protests and criticisms were also recorded in April 1953. (Gary Bruce, Resistance with the People: Repression and Resistance in Eastern Germany 1945-1955, Rowman and Littlefield Ltd: 2003)
Furthermore, a dramatic increase in Republikflucht (emigration to the West) suggests that dissatisfaction was rife long before the uprising of June 1953. According to data from the Central Administration of the GDR National Police, during the first half of 1952, 57,234 people defected to West Germany; during the second half of the year, there were 78,831 further defections and during the first quarter of 1953 alone, 84,034 people defected (including 2,718 members and candidates of the SED and 2,610 members of the Free German Youth League!). Evidently then, the SED policy of the accelerated building of socialism was unpopular with many people. In a memorandum written on 6 May 1953, Lavrentiy Beria, at that time a leading member of the post-Stalinist leadership of the USSR, explains the cause for the high number of defections as follows:
“the desire of various groups of peasants to avoid entering into agricultural industry cooperatives currently being organized, by fears among the small and middle-size private businessmen that their personal property and assets will be confiscated, by the desire among a number of youth to avoid serving in the GDR armed forces, and by the difficulties experienced in the GDR with regard to the supply food and merchandise available to the inhabitants”.
Beria thus points to economic grievances as being the principal cause for the defections, although this is not surprising: given his position as a leading communist, Beria is unlikely to admit that it was in fact criticism of the government or socialism per se that caused them to leave. Instead, the common excuse of influences from the West and short-term economic strain was used. Yet the defections also highlight that whilst farmers may have been worried about losing their land, the fact that they were prepared to abandon this land and leave the GDR completely shows that deeper dissatisfaction was present. Further evidence of this is provided by the USSR Council of Ministers who recognised on 2 June that ‘there is a serious dissatisfaction with the political and economic measures carried out by the GDR among the broad mass of the population’. The fact that by June, even the Communists were admitting to political criticism is significant. It is clear that whilst economic hardships were at the forefront of the demands, so too were political ideals, and thus it was both economic and political issues for which people were striking.
However, this is not surprising, as due to the nature of the socialist state, economic and political demands were intrinsically linked, to the extent that they were often impossible to separate. In the case of the workers for example, the factories were under centralised control, so economic grievances were also criticisms of government policy. Bruce quotes an SED member in a report on his trip to Halle in July 1953, who claims that the main slogans were ‘cleverly disguised as smaller, more immediate economic demands but which are increasingly brought to the fore are: free elections, release of all political prisoners since 1945, apolitical unions’. The fact that political demands were made from the beginning of the protests show that the protestors were dissatisfied with the entire regime, and not just the economy.
Assessing the East German Uprising of June 1953.
Why, then, was it in June 1953 that this long term dissatisfaction exploded into mass demonstrations? Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953, the resultant power struggle in Moscow and early hints about a policy of ‘de-Stalinisation’, led to demonstrations not just in the GDR but also in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary between May and June 1953. This suggests that Stalin’s death triggered widespread hopes of an opportunity for change. But there are unique circumstances that explain why it was the GDR where this quickly escalated into a popular uprising. Whereas the process of full Stalinisation had occurred throughout the rest of Eastern Europe soon after the end of the Second World War, due to the uncertainty over the future of a divided Germany the implementation of socialism was not pushed in East Germany until 1952. The East Germans had thus only recently been presented with the economic shortages and hardships that the construction of socialism entailed. The timing of Ulbricht’s push towards full socialism was also out of kilter with the mood in the Kremlin. In fact, the Soviet leadership had viewed Ulbricht’s announcement of the ‘acceleration of socialism’ with concern, calling him to Moscow and advising him to slow the pace of industrialisation. The ‘New Course’ subsequently announced in East Germany in June 1953 effectively reversed the harsh policies that Ulbricht had introduced only the previous year, but upheld the unpopular increase in production norms. This partial reversal in SED policy thus awakened widespread hopes that further reforms were possible, and a belief that an opportunity now existed to affect political change. In June 1953 it was hoped that popular protest could genuinely challenge the government, and thus the simmering discontent that had previously been manifest in small strikes and protests exploded into a popular demonstration against the government and its policies.
The East German Uprising was more than merely militant workers hoping for economic improvement: it stemmed from long term economic and political discontent, and was a genuine attempt to reform not only the work norms, but the government itself. Significantly, this was the first real attempt to reform communism in Eastern Europe, an attempt that ended in Soviet military intervention. This was the first time that Soviet tanks would appear on the streets of Eastern Europe to quell rebellion, but it was not to be the last; beginning a tradition that would be repeated in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
About the Author:
Rosie Shelmerdine has just completed her BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University, UK, graduating with First class honours in July 2011. During the final year of her degree Rosie specialised in the study of Cold War Eastern Europe. She is taking a gap year to go travelling, and then hopes to continue with postgraduate study in History.