Uprising of 1953 in East Germany
In July 1952 the second party conference (less important than party congress) of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) took place in East Berlin. By Walter Ulbricht's catchwords, there was the "systematic implementation of Socialism" (planmiger Aufbau des Sozialismus) taking place; it was decided that the process of Sovietization should be intensified and the importance of the state expanded.
This meant for example the division of the five Lnder into 14 regions (Bezirke) plus East Berlin, most importantly, an assault on remaining middle strata of the GDR: farmers owning land as well as small business owners/tradesmen, who were to give up their independence by 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 totaled over 20% of the budget. The economic policies of the SED favoured development of heavy industry at the expense of food and consumer goods industries, all of which resulted in a severe crisis in supplying the public with goods. Electricity was turned off in factories and public buildings at the onset of darkness every evening (during peak period).
The dramatic increase of emigration (Republikflucht, brain drain) 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 prisoners in the GDR. Repressions against 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 (Johannes Hamel, Fritz Hoffmann). Ecclesiastic recreation centres were closed and taken over by the FDJ (e.g. Schloss Mansfeld, Huberhaus Wernigerode). High school students who belonged to 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 deterioration of the living standard. 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 warned him that if policy direction was not corrected immediately, there would be a catastrophe.
On June 16, 300 East Berlin 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.
Early on June 17, 40,000 protesters had gathered in East Berlin, with more arriving throughout the morning. Many protests were held throughout East Germany with at least some work stoppages and protests in virtually all industrial centers and large cities in the country.
The original demands of the protesters, such as the reinstatement of the previous lower work quotas, turned into political demands. SED 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 members were utilized to quell the uprising.
In Berlin, major clashes occurred along Unter den Linden (between the Brandenburger Tor and Marx-Engels-Platz), where Soviet troops and Volkspolizei opened fire, and around Potsdamer Platz, 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 in 1966, 383 people (including 116 "functionaries of the SED regime") were killed in the uprising, 106 people were executed under martial law or later condemned to death, 1,838 were injured, and 5,100 were arrested (1,200 of these were later sentenced to a total of 6,000 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.
In memory of the 1953 East German rebellion, West Germany established 17 June as a national holiday, called "Day of German Unity". Upon German reunification in October 1990, it was moved to 3 October, the date of formal reunification. The extension of the boulevard Unter den Linden to the west of the Brandenburg Gate, called Charlottenburger Chaussee, was renamed Strae des 17. Juni (English: "June 17th Street") following the 1953 rebellion.
The event is commemorated in the following poem by Bertolt Brecht:
Other prominent GDR authors who dealt with the uprising include Stefan Heym (Fnf Tage im Juni / "Five Days in June", Munich 1974) and Heiner Mller (Wolokolamsker Chaussee III: Das Duell / "Volokolamsk Highway III: The Duel", 1985/86).
West German group Alphaville 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 was assembled for release in East Germany in 1988, the song "Summer in Berlin" was submitted for inclusion, but rejected "for political reasons."
The East German Rising- Stefan Brant- Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. Ny, Ny 1957.
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