Day of Dissent in the DDR

Day of Dissent in the DDR

Richard Millington

Opposition to the East German regime was apparent from the beginning and would almost bring down the system just a few years after its creation.

The first uprising in the Eastern Bloc took place on 17 June 1953. On that day, up to one million citizens of East Germany demonstrated for the removal of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), for better living conditions, free elections and the reunification of Germany. In more than 700 cities, towns and villages, protesters vented their fury at the SED and its leader Walter Ulbricht. Only the arrival of Soviet tanks and troops in the late afternoon saved the regime from catastrophe.The ‘construction of socialism’The causes of the uprising can be traced to the decisions taken at the second party conference of the SED in 1952. It was then that Ulbricht declared that the time was right to begin the ‘construction of socialism’ in East Germany. What this meant in practice was that the Party would remodel the country’s economy and society in the image of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Investment in heavy industry, with the aim of modernising society, took precedence over spending on consumer goods, while farmers and private businesses were forced to collectivise and nationalise. The Party also cracked down on political opponents. Dissenters were labelled ‘class enemies’ and faced punishments ranging from blacklisting to spells in prisons, such as the notorious ‘Yellow Misery’ in Bautzen, so called because of its yellow-brick buildings.By early 1953, East Germany’s economy was under severe strain. Since 1952 state planners had been pouring every penny into heavy industry. They had not budgeted, however, for the Soviet Union’s demand that East Germany establish its own army to bear some of the burden for its defence. This reduced the state’s surplus funds even more and citizens began to feel the effects. There was little fuel available for cars, motorcycles or tractors. Citizens faced queues for basic foodstuffs, such as butter and bread, a direct result of the fact that many farmers had moved to West Germany rather than implement collectivisation. The quality of food available also left a lot to be desired. East Berliners complained that their biscuits smelled and tasted of petrol. At the same time, West Germany’s economy was entering a period of boom, soon to be known as the Wirtschaftswunder, or ‘Economic Miracle’. It is little wonder that between 1952 and 1953 approximately 513,000 East Germans voted with their feet and moved across the border in search of a better standard of living and freedom from oppression.When those who remained complained about the quality of their lives, the Party responded with slogans such as ‘First work harder, then live better’, which appeased nobody. The SED, however, did not react to the economic crisis simply with propaganda. On 14 May 1953 it increased production quotas for industrial workers by ten per cent. Workers would now have to work harder to achieve their quota-fulfilment bonuses, which many relied upon to support an adequate standard of living. The Party’s aim was to increase industrial output, while also reducing the bonuses paid. What the SED achieved, however, was the further alienation of workers whose interests it claimed to represent.The ‘New Course’It was against this background of impending economic ruin and popular dissatisfaction that Ulbricht was called to Moscow on 2 June 1953 by Lavrenti Beria, Georgi Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov, the troika of leaders who had overseen Soviet affairs since Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953. Ulbricht received a severe dressing down from his masters. The Soviet ambassador to East Germany, Vladimir Semyonov, warned Ulbricht that, unless he took immediate measures, there would soon be no one left in East Germany. Ulbricht was shocked, but, determined to cling to power, he complied with Moscow’s orders.On 11 June 1953 the SED announced its ‘New Course’, a political programme designed to mitigate the repressive measures taken during the ‘construction of socialism’. The Party admitted explicitly that it had made mistakes and that these would be corrected. This admission infuriated countless citizens who had suffered because of the regime’s obsessive Stalinist campaign. Ulbricht, however, stopped short of resigning. This angered many. As the figurehead of a regime that had brought them such suffering, Ulbricht was hated by large swathes of East German society.Workers’ uprisingThe announcement of the Party’s political volte-face did not immediately trigger the East German uprising. The initial spark for this came on the Stalinallee in East Berlin on 16 June 1953. Here, thousands of construction workers were building a showpiece boulevard of ‘palaces for the working class’ in the Stalinist architectural style. Like many others, the SED’s admission of its mistakes had angered them, too. But they were most furious about what the ‘New Course’ did not include. There was no mention of the increased production quotas for industrial workers such as themselves. The SED still felt this measure necessary to improve the standard of living. Therefore, the quota increase stood and there was talk of little else on the building sites along the Stalinallee. Several construction workers had written to the SED leadership on 15 June 1953 to explain that they felt they were still being penalised. In response, the SED reduced the quotas to their previous level. The Party was, however, slow to notify workers of this. It was clearly unaware of the anger on the Stalinallee. Turning up for their shifts on 16 June 1953 and unaware of the Party’s response to their letter, construction workers on the Stalinallee were greeted with an article titled ‘Yes, of course the decrees about raising the working quotas are completely correct’ in the trade union newspaper Die Tribüne. Unfortunately for the SED, this article had gone to print before it had reduced the quotas. The workers were apoplectic. They regarded this article as the Party leadership’s official response to their letter. They downed tools and set off for the House of Ministries in the centre of East Berlin. Although the SED sent loudspeaker cars racing through the streets to inform workers of the quota reduction, it was too late.As the workers from the Stalinallee marched through the city, citizens from other walks of life joined their ranks. Many saw the workers’ protest as their opportunity to vent their anger with the SED regime. Some were simply curious about what was happening. Workers chanted for fairer production quotas, while others demanded Ulbricht’s head. What had begun as a protest about working conditions was mutating into a demonstration against the regime. At about 1.30pm a crowd of approximately 10,000 reached the House of Ministries and demanded to talk to Ulbricht. Several junior SED officials and the Minister for Mining and Metallurgy, Fritz Selbmann, attempted to appease the demonstrators. They failed. Only a verbal reckoning with Ulbricht would satisfy them. When it became apparent that the SED leader was not in the building, several protesters gave speeches. One demanded the government reduce the quotas, lower food prices, improve living standards, free all political prisoners and hold pan-German elections. Another called for a general strike to take place the following day. The crowd approved and resolved to spread the word across East Germany. To this end, a few workers crossed into West Berlin and headed for the building housing the American-run radio station RIAS (Radio in the American Sector). The station broadcast news, political and cultural content and was an important weapon in the ideological war between the two Germanys. It was popular with many East Germans who rejected the overtly propagandistic offerings of their own radio stations and who were prepared to defy SED demands not to listen to it.People’s uprisingOn the morning of 17 June 1953, East Germany was abuzz with talk of the previous day’s events in East Berlin. RIAS had broadcast reports throughout the night and day trippers and commuters had brought home tales of what they had seen and heard in the capital. Few industrial workers on early shifts across the country bothered to start work. Instead they declared solidarity with the East Berlin construction workers and went on strike. SED factory representatives were mocked as they tried to convince strikers that they were striking against themselves. The workers simply did not believe the ‘People’s Own Factories’ belonged to them. Chanting ‘Reduce the quotas’ and ‘Follow the Berliners’, the striking workers left factory premises and headed to city and town centres, where they intended to call Party leaders to account. Along the way, thousands of citizens joined them. The workers’ uprising had become a people’s uprising. By the afternoon of 17 June 1953, almost one million East Germans in over 700 locations were demanding the removal of Ulbricht and his SED, better living and working conditions, free elections and the reunification of Germany.There were demonstrations and unrest in all East Germany’s large cities – East Berlin, Dresden, Erfurt, Halle, Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), Leipzig, Magdeburg, Potsdam, Rostock and Zwickau. In East Berlin, approximately 150,000 protesters gathered. Eyewitnesses reported a demonstration ten kilometres long. Protesters stormed and ransacked SED and Free German Youth offices in an orgy of destruction. They tore down SED and Soviet flags, including the one on top of the Brandenburg Gate. Propaganda placards and other physical symbols of the regime were burned. Border fences between the two parts of the city were destroyed. The nine-story Columbus House on Potsdamer Platz, which housed a state-owned department store, was razed to the ground. Attempts to invade the building of the SED Central Committee failed thanks only to its Soviet guards.In Magdeburg, strikes began in the ‘Ernst Thälmann’ Heavy Machinery Combine. Approximately 12,000 workers marched to the city centre, where other citizens joined them. They chanted anti-SED slogans as the Karl-Marx-Straße street sign was torn down and the former name of the street – Broadway – was daubed onto the wall where the sign had once been. A major flashpoint of the unrest in Magdeburg was the prison in the south of the city. There, demonstrators demanded the release of all political prisoners. When this demand was rejected, a firefight broke out between police officers and demonstrators, who used weapons taken from People’s Policemen. Three officers and several passers-by were killed. In Dresden, approximately 60,000 demonstrators called for the SED government to be punished and for Germany to be reunited. In Halle, thousands of protesters demanded better living conditions. SED offices were stormed and there were loud cheers when demonstrators threw copies of Ulbricht’s biography out of the windows. Protesters laid siege to the main political prison in the city centre, a redbrick building colloquially known as the ‘Red Ox’. They broke through the main door but were fired upon as they reached the inner courtyard. Several died. In Leipzig, approximately 100,000 people chanted ‘Spitzbart, Bauch und Brille sind nicht des Volkes Wille!’ (‘A goatee beard, a paunch and spectacles are not what the people want’), an allusion to Ulbricht’s facial hair, President Wilhelm Pieck’s portly appearance and Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl’s poor eyesight. Such scenes were repeated in towns and cities across East Germany. Yet, despite the protesters’ demands, they generally made no concerted efforts to carry out a revolution. They did not try to link up with others in different localities to co-ordinate the overthrow of the regime. When Party buildings were stormed, it was to completely ransack them, rather than to attempt to set up alternative political organisations. Where strike committees formed, they generally only represented small groups of workers and made little effort to lead the thousands who were on the streets. Only in the town of Görlitz did a ‘City Committee’ form. This 20-man body sought the support of the 40,000-strong crowd in the town centre in its attempts to take over the political organisation of the town. But Görlitz was the exception rather than the rule. Citizens’ commitment to the demonstrations also varied. Some were prepared to attack Party buildings and beat up SED functionaries. But many milled about on the fringe of the demonstrations and went home at the first sign of trouble. Outbreaks of rain also cleared many protesters off the streets.In the late afternoon of 17 June Soviet troops arrived to ensure the survival of the SED regime. Even though the Party’s security forces had been placed on high alert after the previous day’s events in East Berlin, the scale of the uprising overwhelmed them and the regime did not yet dispose of its own army. The nearest thing it had was the Kasernierte Volkspolizei (KVP), or ‘Barracked People’s Police’. But KVP units were not deployed because of fears that they might declare solidarity with the protesters. It was left to the Soviet army to disperse the mainly unarmed crowds with their tanks and machine guns. Many protesters had hoped the West would come to their rescue, but the United States and its allies did not dare intervene and risk an armed confrontation with the Soviet Union. The first popular uprising in the Eastern Bloc was over. Approximately 34 demonstrators, passers-by or bystanders, as well as five policemen and other regime functionaries, were dead.AftermathEven before the last pockets of resistance had been mopped up, the SED propaganda machine went into overdrive. In the print and broadcast media, the Party sought to convince citizens that the uprising had been an attempted fascist putsch, instigated by former Nazis, West German spies and the CIA. According to the SED, it was only thanks to its leadership and the ‘help’ of Soviet ‘friends’ that a return to fascism had been averted. This narrative of the uprising remained unchanged to the very end of the regime’s existence and was frequently used in the propaganda war against the West. Few but the most ardent SED supporters, however, believed it.Although much of the demonstrators’ anger had been directed at Walter Ulbricht, Moscow kept faith with him. The Kremlin wanted an experienced hand to steady the ship. Buoyed by this, Ulbricht purged the SED of his rivals, accusing them of having been in league with the ‘fascists’. Ironically, the uprising enabled him to tighten his grip on power. In late June 1953, SED ministers, including Ulbricht (who was roundly booed), visited factories to attempt to win back workers’ support. But the uprising had taught East Germans that the SED regime could only remain in power for as long as the Soviet forces were there to defend it. In the eyes of ordinary citizens the Party was politically bankrupt. It would never enjoy popular support.The ghost of 1953The spectre of the June uprising haunted the SED until its demise. In late 1989, faced with growing demonstrations, the Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke, anxiously asked his advisers: ‘Do you think that 17 June will break out again tomorrow?’ Party functionaries were permanently afraid that they would once again face angry mobs of disgruntled citizens. In the months and years that followed, the regime took steps to ensure that what had happened in June 1953 would never be repeated. Factories and other workplaces were ordered to form armed workers’ militia groups. Their main task was to put a stop to strikes before they could spread. Special units of the People’s Police were trained to deal with riots and equipped with firearms, armoured cars and light artillery. Finally, the State Security Service, or Stasi, was remodelled and billions of marks were spent on improving its effectiveness and recruiting officers and informers. In the wake of the uprising, the Stasi was heavily criticised. Since its inception in 1950, its role had been to judge the mood of citizens. Yet the uprising had taken it completely by surprise. Whereas before 1953 the Stasi had operated as a kind of jack-of-all-trades information service, after the uprising it was assigned the task of preventing a repeat of the unrest. This meant nipping all forms of opposition in the bud. The expansion of the Stasi after the June uprising eventually led to there being one Stasi informer for every 66 citizens in East Germany, a far higher ratio than the KGB or the Gestapo ever enjoyed.Yet the SED did not respond to the events of 1953 simply by increasing surveillance and repression. The Party resolved never to let living standards and workers’ satisfaction fall to a point at which a repeat of the uprising would become a possibility. As a result, it heavily subsidised the cost of living. For example, a bread roll or a tram ticket cost more or less the same in 1989 as they had done in 1953. Workers were appeased to the extent that one could repeatedly turn up for work drunk and face little sanction. Some scholars argue that this programme of subsidisation and the effect that the appeasement of workers had on productivity ultimately led to the regime’s bankruptcy in the 1980s.The SED regime also tightly controlled what citizens were able to learn about the uprising. The unrest had been so widespread that it would have been absurd to deny its occurrence. But the Party did attempt to suppress memories and awareness of it, hoping that the matter would eventually fade into obscurity. Thus, although the Party’s account of an attempted fascist putsch appeared in history books and school textbooks, no more than three or four short paragraphs covered it. Moreover, many teachers were so afraid of saying something that contravened the Party line that they often did not raise the subject at all. When the uprising was referenced in print or broadcast media, no detailed accounts ever appeared. The unrest was alluded to only as a vague serious of unspecific incidents instigated by faceless ‘spies, thugs and fascists’.The Party’s attempts to encourage the disappearance of the memory of the uprising from the public consciousness were, however, thwarted by West Germany. On 3 July 1953, the West German parliament voted in favour of declaring 17 June a national holiday, henceforth to be known as the ‘Day of German Unity’. Each year, West German politicians and anti-communists commemorated this day as a symbol of what they believed to be the East German citizens’ desire for democracy, freedom and a united Germany. The uprising became a stick with which West Germany could annually beat the SED regime. The fact that these commemorations were often broadcast on radio and television ensured that listening and watching East Germans were reminded annually of what had happened on that day in June 1953.East-West divideYet evidence suggests that the uprising of 17 June 1953 held little meaning for the ordinary citizens of both West and East Germany. In the West, the day became just another holiday. West German political commentators even debated during the 1980s whether the day had become a Cold War relic that was hindering West-East rapprochement. In East Germany, the events of 17 June 1953 meant little to most people, other than those who (or whose family) had directly suffered because of their participation in the unrest. For many, the uprising was something that had happened for just a few hours one afternoon, but which had made no perceivable impact on their lives. The Berlin Wall, on the other hand, was much more present in their minds because its effect on their personal freedom was clear and concrete. That said, citizens did not shy away from reminding the East German regime of what had happened in 1953. The files of the Stasi and the People’s Police contain numerous reports of disgruntled citizens threatening a ‘second 17 June’ or warning Party officials that ‘on the next 17 June, we will succeed’. Graffiti proclaiming ‘Long Live 17 June’ or ‘Remember the Victims of 1953’ often appeared around the anniversary of the uprising each year. Other related incidents also occurred, such as the slashing of the tyres of 17 cars in Magdeburg city centre on 17 June 1973. But such expressions of dissent represented citizens simply letting off steam. None attempted to instigate a second uprising.When Germany was formally reunified on 3 October 1990, this date became the ‘Day of German Unity’. The major annual commemorations of 17 June ceased and it lost its status as a national holiday. In 2003, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the uprising, there were indications that the events were fading from public consciousness. A survey revealed that nearly half of Germans had no idea what had happened on 17 June 1953. More recently, however, there have been attempts to increase public awareness and knowledge of the uprising by recasting the events as part of a broader narrative of German political resistance against oppressive regimes. In 2013, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the uprising as a ‘significant landmark’ in joint-German history, suggesting that commemoration of the uprising of 17 June 1953 now has a political role to play in encouraging eastern and western Germans to regard their divided history as something that unites them.Richard Millington is Lecturer in German at the University of Chester and the author of State, Society and Memories of the Uprising of 17 June 1953 in the GDR (Palgrave, 2014).

Read More