Uprising of 1953 in East Germany
The Uprising of 1953 in East Germany started with a strike
Strike action
Strike action, also called labour strike, on strike, greve , or simply strike, is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became important during the industrial revolution, when mass labour became...

 by East Berlin
East Berlin
East Berlin was the name given to the eastern part of Berlin between 1949 and 1990. It consisted of the Soviet sector of Berlin that was established in 1945. The American, British and French sectors became West Berlin, a part strongly associated with West Germany but a free city...

 construction workers on June 16. It turned into a widespread anti-Stalinist uprising against the German Democratic Republic government the next day.

The uprising in Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

 was violently suppressed by tanks of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany
Group of Soviet Forces in Germany
The Group of Soviet Forces in Germany , also known as the Group of Soviet Occupation Forces in Germany and the Western Group of Forces were the troops of the Soviet Army in East Germany....

  and the Volkspolizei
The Volkspolizei , or VP, were the national police of the German Democratic Republic . The Volkspolizei were responsible for most law enforcement in East Germany, but its organisation and structure were such that it could be considered a paramilitary force as well...

. In spite of the intervention of Soviet troops, the wave of strikes and protest
A protest is an expression of objection, by words or by actions, to particular events, policies or situations. Protests can take many different forms, from individual statements to mass demonstrations...

s was not easily brought under control. Even after June 17, there were demonstrations in more than 500 towns and villages.


In July 1952 the second party conference (less important than party congress) of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany
Socialist Unity Party of Germany
The Socialist Unity Party of Germany was the governing party of the German Democratic Republic from its formation on 7 October 1949 until the elections of March 1990. The SED was a communist political party with a Marxist-Leninist ideology...

 (SED) took place in East Berlin
East Berlin
East Berlin was the name given to the eastern part of Berlin between 1949 and 1990. It consisted of the Soviet sector of Berlin that was established in 1945. The American, British and French sectors became West Berlin, a part strongly associated with West Germany but a free city...

. In Walter Ulbricht
Walter Ulbricht
Walter Ulbricht was a German communist politician. As First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party from 1950 to 1971 , he played a leading role in the creation of the Weimar-era Communist Party of Germany and later in the early development and...

's words, there was to be the "systematic implementation of Socialism" (planmäßiger Aufbau des Sozialismus); it was decided that the process of Sovietization
Sovietization is term that may be used with two distinct meanings:*the adoption of a political system based on the model of soviets .*the adoption of a way of life and mentality modelled after the Soviet Union....

 should be intensified and the importance of the state expanded.

This meant for example the division of the five Länder
States of Germany
Germany is made up of sixteen which are partly sovereign constituent states of the Federal Republic of Germany. Land literally translates as "country", and constitutionally speaking, they are constituent countries...

into 14 regions (Bezirke
Administrative division of the German Democratic Republic
The Administrative divisions of the German Democratic Republic were constituted in two different forms during the country's 41-year-long history. The Republic first retained the traditional German division into federated states called Länder, but in 1952 replaced them with arbitrarily-drawn...

) plus East Berlin, most importantly, an assault on the remaining middle strata of the GDR: farmers owning land, as well as small business owners/tradesmen, who were to be forced to give up their independence through raised charges.
This decision was made on the background of the catastrophic economic situation in the country. In the course of the militarisation pushed by Soviet authorities, direct and indirect military expenditures rose and already made up around 11% of the national budget in 1952. Together with reparation payments, this totalled over 20% of the budget. The economic policies of the SED favoured the development of heavy industry
Heavy industry
Heavy industry does not have a single fixed meaning as compared to light industry. It can mean production of products which are either heavy in weight or in the processes leading to their production. In general, it is a popular term used within the name of many Japanese and Korean firms, meaning...

 at the expense of the production of food and consumer goods, all of which resulted in a severe crisis in supplying the public with goods. Electricity
Electricity is a general term encompassing a variety of phenomena resulting from the presence and flow of electric charge. These include many easily recognizable phenomena, such as lightning, static electricity, and the flow of electrical current in an electrical wire...

 was turned off in factories and public buildings at the onset of darkness every evening (during peak period).

The dramatic increase of emigration (Republikflucht
"Republikflucht" and "Republikflüchtling" were the terms used by authorities in the German Democratic Republic to describe the process of and the person leaving the GDR for a life in West Germany or any other Western country .The term...

, brain drain
Brain drain
Human capital flight, more commonly referred to as "brain drain", is the large-scale emigration of a large group of individuals with technical skills or knowledge. The reasons usually include two aspects which respectively come from countries and individuals...

) in the first half-year of 1953, already high since the establishment of the GDR, constituted a serious economic and social problem. Another factor that contributed to an already complicated political situation was the high number of political prisoner
Political prisoner
According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a political prisoner is ‘someone who is in prison because they have opposed or criticized the government of their own country’....

s in the GDR. Suppression of the illegal organisation Young Congregation (Junge Gemeinde), wrongly perceived as the central youth organisation of the evangelical church, played a role here. Numerous trainee pastors were imprisoned (e.g.: Johannes Hamel, Fritz Hoffmann). Ecclesiastic recreation centres were closed and taken over by the FDJ
Free German Youth
The Free German Youth, also known as the FDJ , was the official socialist youth movement of the German Democratic Republic and the Socialist Unity Party of Germany....

 (e.g.: Schloss Mansfeld, Huberhaus Wernigerode). High school students who belonged to a church were often expelled by the school authorities, sometimes even shortly before school graduation.

Within this complicated background, the decision to raise the work norms (in short the principle 'more work for the same salary') was perceived as a provocation, which would conceivably lead to the deterioration of living standards. The Central Committee decided to address the economic difficulties with a package of changes, which included higher taxes and higher prices, and — most significantly — an increase of the work quotas by 10%. These changes were to come into force by June 30, 1953, Ulbricht's 60th birthday. Issued as a suggestion, it became in effect a direction that was introduced in all the state-owned enterprises (so-called volkseigene Betriebe) and if the new quotas were not met then workers would have to face a reduction of salaries. The decision was taken on May 13–14, 1953, and the Council of Ministers approved it on May 28.

At the beginning of June, the Soviet government was alarmed at reports of unrest, and Ulbricht was summoned to Moscow. Georgy Malenkov
Georgy Malenkov
Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov was a Soviet politician, Communist Party leader and close collaborator of Joseph Stalin. After Stalin's death, he became Premier of the Soviet Union and was in 1953 briefly considered the most powerful Soviet politician before being overshadowed by Nikita...

 warned him that if policy direction were not corrected immediately, there would be a catastrophe.

June 16

On June 16, 300 East Berlin
East Berlin
East Berlin was the name given to the eastern part of Berlin between 1949 and 1990. It consisted of the Soviet sector of Berlin that was established in 1945. The American, British and French sectors became West Berlin, a part strongly associated with West Germany but a free city...

 construction workers went on strike after their superiors announced a pay cut if they didn't meet their work quota. Their numbers quickly swelled and a general strike and protests were called for the next day. The West Berlin-based Radio in the American Sector reported the Berlin events and thus probably helped to incite the uprising in other parts of East Germany.

June 17

Throughout the night of 16 June and early morning of 17 June, the news of events in East Berlin spread quickly throughout the GDR—by word of mouth as well as by Western radio broadcasts. While Soviet troops entered the outskirts of the city early in the morning of 17 June, crowds of workers began to gather in public places, and began marching towards the city center. Along the way, they encountered GDR security forces—regular and Barracked People’s Police units (KVP)—who, apparently lacking instructions, initially did not intervene. Along with SED and FDJ functionaries, police officials tried—usually without success—to convince the marchers to return to their workplaces and homes; in cases where police did try to halt or disperse the crowds, they quickly wound up on the defensive.

From all East Berlin districts and surrounding suburbs, smaller or larger groups continued to arrive in the city center, many using the city tram and metro. As they drew ever-greater numbers, a feeling of solidarity permeated the crowds. Much like the day before, loudspeaker cars and bicycles provided communications between the different columns of marchers from the outer districts as, all morning, they converged on the city center. On improvised banners and posters the demonstrators demanded the norm rescission, price decreases, the release of fellow protestors who had been arrested the day before, and even free all-German elections.

By 9 a.m., some 25,000 people were gathered in front of the House of Ministries, and tens of thousands more were en route. Between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., some 80 to 100 demonstrators apparently managed to storm the government seat, visibly demonstrating that the 500 members of GDR People’s Police and State Security had been overpowered. Only the sudden appearance of Soviet military vehicles, and then tanks, seemed to prevent a complete takeover. Within an hour, Soviet troops had cleared and isolated the area around the government headquarters. But fighting between Soviet forces (and later GDR police) and the demonstrators continued into the afternoon and night; eyewitnesses reported that in some instances the Soviets fired directly into the throngs: “It was awful to see [. . . ] how the crowds of people fell to the ground. One could immediately see several writhing on the ground, covered with blood; everybody screamed for ambulances and police.

The original demands of the protesters, such as the reinstatement of the previous lower work quotas, turned into political demands. SED
Socialist Unity Party of Germany
The Socialist Unity Party of Germany was the governing party of the German Democratic Republic from its formation on 7 October 1949 until the elections of March 1990. The SED was a communist political party with a Marxist-Leninist ideology...

 functionaries took to the streets and began arguing with small groups of protesters. Eventually, the workers demanded the resignation of the East German government. The government decided to use force to stop the uprising and turned to the Soviet Union for military support. In total, around 16 Soviet divisions with 20,000 soldiers as well as 8,000 Kasernierte Volkspolizei
National People's Army
The National People’s Army were the armed forces of the German Democratic Republic .The NVA was established in 1956 and disestablished in 1990. There were frequent reports of East German advisors with Communist African countries during the Cold War...

members were utilized to quell the uprising.

In Berlin, major clashes occurred along Unter den Linden
Unter den Linden
Unter den Linden is a boulevard in the Mitte district of Berlin, the capital of Germany. It is named for its linden trees that line the grassed pedestrian mall between two carriageways....

 (between the Brandenburger Tor and Marx-Engels-Platz
Schloßplatz is a common name for squares in many German-speaking countries. Cities which have a Schloßplatz include Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Stuttgart and Dresden.-Overview:...

), where Soviet troops and Volkspolizei opened fire, and around Potsdamer Platz
Potsdamer Platz
Potsdamer Platz is an important public square and traffic intersection in the centre of Berlin, Germany, lying about one kilometre south of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag , and close to the southeast corner of the Tiergarten park...

, where several people were killed by the Volkspolizei. It is still unclear how many people died during the uprising or were sentenced to death in the aftermath. The number of known victims is 55.; other estimates put the number of victims at least 125.

Earlier West German estimates of the number of people killed were considerably higher: according to the West German Ministry for Inter-German affairs
Minister of Intra-German Relations
The Federal Minister of Intra-German Relations was a federal cabinet minister of the Federal Republic of Germany...

 in 1966, 513 people (including 116 "functionaries of the SED regime") were killed in the uprising, 106 people were executed under martial law
Martial law
Martial law is the imposition of military rule by military authorities over designated regions on an emergency basis— only temporary—when the civilian government or civilian authorities fail to function effectively , when there are extensive riots and protests, or when the disobedience of the law...

 or later condemned to death, 1,838 were injured, and 5,100 were arrested (1,200 of these were later sentenced to an average of 5 years in penal camps). It also was alleged that 17 or 18 Soviet soldiers were executed for refusing to shoot demonstrating workers, but these reports remain unconfirmed by post-1990 research.

Reaction by the East German leadership

About 10 a.m., the Politburo met at party headquarters, the House of Unity. By 10:30 a.m., concerned about the growing disorder the Soviet ambassador Semyonov ordered the leadership to proceed to the Soviet headquarters in Karlshorst, from which they were finally dispatched to major cities in an effort to observe and maintain political control throughout the GDR. Ulbricht, Grotewohl, Zaisser, and Herrnstadt remained in the Soviet High Commission headquarters. According to Rudolf Herrnstadt’s recollections, Semyonov at one point confronted them over how badly the situation had deteriorated. “RIAS
Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor
RIAS was a radio and television station in the American Sector of Berlin during the Cold War. It was founded by the US occupational authorities after World War II in 1946 to provide the German population in and around Berlin with news and political reporting and was initially only broadcast on...

 is broadcasting that there is no government any more within the GDR,” he remarked, ”Well, it is almost true.”

The Politburo did not meet again until 20 June—at party headquarters. The afternoon session was marked by the devastating first-hand impressions members had brought back from the districts. “In the face of continuing attempts by the fascist provocateurs and the wait-and-see attitude of certain elements of the population the Politburo did not consider it advantageous to terminate martial law,” the minutes noted. The leadership hastened to declare, however, that “the decision was a prerogative of the responsible Soviet authorities and that superior international interests may necessitate lifting martial law as soon as possible.” Certainly aware of the difficult position that military rule had placed the Soviets in internationally (and perhaps not quite sure to what degree the Soviets shared its views of the revolt’s source), the Politburo also resolved to ask Moscow not to immediately abandon “the measures to prevent the intrusion of fascist bandits from West Berlin” once martial law was lifted in East Berlin. The Politburo also decided—as it would repeatedly in the next few days—on additional measures to increase consumer goods production and the importation of raw materials and foodstuffs.


In memory of the 1953 East German rebellion, West Germany
West Germany
West Germany is the common English, but not official, name for the Federal Republic of Germany or FRG in the period between its creation in May 1949 to German reunification on 3 October 1990....

 established 17 June as a national holiday
Public holiday
A public holiday, national holiday or legal holiday is a holiday generally established by law and is usually a non-working day during the year....

, called "Day of German Unity". Upon German reunification
German reunification
German reunification was the process in 1990 in which the German Democratic Republic joined the Federal Republic of Germany , and when Berlin reunited into a single city, as provided by its then Grundgesetz constitution Article 23. The start of this process is commonly referred by Germans as die...

 in October 1990, it was moved to 3 October, the date of formal reunification. The extension of the boulevard
A Boulevard is type of road, usually a wide, multi-lane arterial thoroughfare, divided with a median down the centre, and roadways along each side designed as slow travel and parking lanes and for bicycle and pedestrian usage, often with an above-average quality of landscaping and scenery...

 Unter den Linden
Unter den Linden
Unter den Linden is a boulevard in the Mitte district of Berlin, the capital of Germany. It is named for its linden trees that line the grassed pedestrian mall between two carriageways....

to the west of the Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburg Gate is a former city gate and one of the most well-known landmarks of Berlin and Germany. It is located west of the city centre at the junction of Unter den Linden and Ebertstraße, immediately west of the Pariser Platz. It is the only remaining gate of a series through which...

, called Charlottenburger Chaussee, was renamed Straße des 17. Juni
Straße des 17. Juni
The Straße des 17. Juni is a street in central Berlin, the capital of Germany. It is the western continuation of the Unter den Linden. It runs east-west through the Tiergarten, a large forest park to the west of the city centre. At the eastern end is the Brandenburg Gate and at the western end is...

 (English: "June 17th Street") following the 1953 rebellion.

The event is commemorated in the following poem by Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and theatre director.An influential theatre practitioner of the 20th century, Brecht made equally significant contributions to dramaturgy and theatrical production, the latter particularly through the seismic impact of the tours undertaken by the...

The Solution

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Other prominent GDR authors who dealt with the uprising include Stefan Heym
Stefan Heym
Helmut Flieg was a German-Jewish writer, known by his pseudonym Stefan Heym. He lived in the United States between 1935 and 1952, before moving back to the part of his native Germany which was, from 1949–1990, German Democratic Republic...

 (Fünf Tage im Juni / "Five Days in June", Munich 1974) and Heiner Müller
Heiner Müller
Heiner Müller was a German dramatist, poet, writer, essayist and theatre director. Described as "the theatre's greatest living poet" since Samuel Beckett, Müller is arguably the most important German dramatist of the 20th century after Bertolt Brecht...

 (Wolokolamsker Chaussee III: Das Duell / "Volokolamsk Highway III: The Duel", 1985/86).

West German group Alphaville
Alphaville (band)
Alphaville is a German synthpop group which gained popularity in the 1980s. The founding members were Marian Gold , Bernhard Lloyd , and Frank Mertens Alphaville is a German synthpop group which gained popularity in the 1980s. The founding members were Marian Gold (real name Hartwig Schierbaum,...

 mention the date explicitly as "the seventeenth of June" but without reference to the year in their 1984 song "Summer in Berlin," from the album Forever Young. When the compilation album Alphaville Amiga Compilation
Alphaville Amiga Compilation
Alphaville Amiga Compilation was released under the Amiga label only in former East Germany, where Forever Young and Afternoons In Utopia weren't easily available...

was assembled for release in East Germany in 1988, the song "Summer in Berlin" was submitted for inclusion, but rejected "for political reasons."

The Günter Grass
Günter Grass
Günter Wilhelm Grass is a Nobel Prize-winning German author, poet, playwright, sculptor and artist.He was born in the Free City of Danzig...

 play Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand / The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising (1966) depicts Brecht preparing a production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus
Gaius Marcius Coriolanus was a Roman general who is said to have lived in the 5th century BC. He received his toponymic cognomen "Coriolanus" because of his exceptional valor in a Roman siege of the Volscian city of Corioli. He was then promoted to a general...

 against the background of the events of 1953.

See also

  • Monday demonstrations in GDR
  • Poznań 1956 protests
    Poznan 1956 protests
    The Poznań 1956 protests, also known as Poznań 1956 uprising or Poznań June , were the first of several massive protests of the Polish people against the communist government of the People's Republic of Poland...

  • Hungarian Revolution of 1956
  • Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
    Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
    On the night of 20–21 August 1968, the Soviet Union and her main satellite states in the Warsaw Pact – Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic , Hungary and Poland – invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in order to halt Alexander Dubček's Prague Spring political liberalization...

  • Tiananmen Square protests of 1989
    Tiananmen Square protests of 1989
    The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, also known as the June Fourth Incident in Chinese , were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the People's Republic of China beginning on 15 April 1989...

External links

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