East Germany 1953: Workers’ forgotten rebellion against Stalinism

by Tess Lee Ack • Published 27 March 2023

In June 1953, workers across East Germany rose in the first major rebellion in the Eastern Bloc. For a brief period, the iron grip of Stalinism was loosened, and only the intervention of Russian tanks saved the regime from ignominious collapse.

The opening of state archives following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union cast considerable new light on the events of 1953. It has now been established that the uprising was more widespread and prolonged than previously thought, and that “contrary to the traditional assumption that the disorders quickly subsided after Soviet military intervention…the events of June 16–17 marked only the peak of a rebellion which continued…throughout the summer of 1953”.[1]

It is no coincidence that the uprising erupted shortly after Stalin’s death in March 1953, when a fierce power struggle was taking place within the Russian leadership. The uprising “opened up divisions both within and between elites in Moscow and East Berlin [where it] plunged the apparatuses of power into uncertainty and confusion”[2] and had lasting repercussions for the regime in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Seventy years later, the 1953 uprising remains an inspiring example of workers resisting tyranny against all the odds, and fighting for a world free of exploitation and oppression. Their slogan “We want to be free human beings, not slaves!” still resonates today.

The Cold War and the division of Germany

Despite its depiction as a war for democracy, World War II “ended in an ignoble maze of obvious intrigue and jockeying for advantage”,[3] with the Allies carving up the world between them. The US and the Soviet Union came out on top, with the USSR gaining control over Eastern Europe and creating states in its own image: bureaucratic state capitalist dictatorships in which workers were an oppressed and exploited class.

Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, administered by the US, Britain and France in the west, and by the USSR in the east. The capital, Berlin, was likewise divided into four sectors, leaving West Berlin as an isolated enclave within the Russian zone.

The hostility between the Western powers and the USSR erupted into the open in 1946–47. In March 1946 Churchill made his famous “iron curtain” speech.[4] A week later the US president enunciated the “Truman Doctrine”, which hoped to “contain” communism by “stemming the tide of Soviet expansionism”.[5] The Cold War was decisive in shaping approaches to post-war Germany.

Both Russia and the US were apprehensive about the possibility of social unrest or even revolution, as had occurred after World War I, and viewed with alarm the revival of the workers’ movement. Under the Nazi dictatorship, the possibilities for working-class resistance were extremely limited. Nonetheless there had been instances of small-scale strike activity, sabotage, absenteeism, petitions.[6]

As the war came to an end, Anti-Fascist Committees (“Antifas”) sprang up, more than 500 in all, and overwhelmingly working-class in composition. In Leipzig alone, there were 38 local committees claiming 4,500 activists and 15,000 adherents.

The Antifas were determined to rip out Nazism… In some places workers took over their factories and management fled. Antifas set up their own factory militias and replaced police chiefs and mayors with their own nominees. The situation in Stuttgart and Hanover was one of “dual power”, the Antifas having set up their own police forces, taken over a raft of powerful local positions and begun to run vital services like food provisioning.[7]

The Antifas lasted for only a few weeks before being suppressed – in both the Western and Soviet zones. But many of the participants would again be actors in 1953.

On 20 June 1948 the US, Britain and France merged their zones. Russia reacted days later with a blockade of the movement of goods and food to Berlin. The US and Britain countered by airlifting supplies to the Western sectors until the blockade was lifted in May 1949. The division of Germany was now inevitable. The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) was officially established on 23 May 1949; the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) followed on 7 October.

Creating a Stalinist state

Walter Ulbricht had been a leading German Communist Party (KPD) functionary since 1923. Favoured by Stalin, he was charged with the “operational leadership” of the party during the war, which he spent in Russia.[8] In April 1945, he was sent with a small group of KPD veterans to direct party activity in the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ).

The KPD’s “Action Program” of June 1945, dictated by Moscow, contained no reference to socialism. It upheld private industry and property and called for the “establishment of an anti-fascist, democratic regime, a parliamentary democratic republic with all democratic rights and freedoms for the people” – but key posts went to trusted veteran communists. Ulbricht is reported as saying: “It’s got to look democratic, but we must have everything in our control”.[9]

As the Cold War intensified, however, this program was abandoned. Moscow decided to expedite the integration of the GDR into the Soviet Bloc. Stalin and Ulbricht pushed for a merger of the KPD and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Given the bitter sectarian feuding between these parties during the Weimar years,[10] this was opposed by many rank-and-file members of both parties. SPD leader Otto Grotewohl initially resisted, but capitulated under pressure from Ulbricht and the Soviet Military Administration. In April 1946, the KPD and the SPD merged as the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED).

The SED subsequently became the ruling party of the GDR, with Wilhelm Pieck as state president and Grotewohl rewarded with the position of prime minister. But as First Secretary of the SED Central Committee, Ulbricht was the real leader. He

brought a hard-edged Stalinism to the GDR. During the late 1940s and 1950s he deployed a regime of terror against the East German population – as well as against veteran communists. He zealously transformed the GDR into a Soviet satellite state.[11]

The establishment of the SED was accompanied by a series of purges which began in July 1948 and continued until 1953. Carried out in close cooperation with Soviet officials, the aim was to create a “disciplined and ideologically pure party” – ie one that would unquestioningly obey the dictates of Moscow. Prominent among the targets were former SPD members and “non-conformist Communists”: members of organisations such as the Communist Party Opposition (KPO) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP), both of which had a presence in the region before 1933. Nor was the party leadership exempt: by 1950 ten of the fourteen members of the 1946 Central Secretariat had been demoted, expelled or had fled the country.[12]

Party membership fell from 2 million to 1.2 million between 1948 and 1952. The proportion of working-class members fell to 38 percent, reflecting “the shift from the party’s roots in the working-class movement to its position as the hegemonic state party”.[13]

From being a party of the industrial proletariat, it was increasingly becoming a party of managers, bureaucrats and officials, who enjoyed all kinds of perks and privileges which were unavailable to the people they were supposed to represent.[14]

Many KPD veterans, while not expelled, were sidelined. They had been loyal to the party during the Weimar years but were uneasy with aspects of the new state.

They detested the more lenient approach to former Nazis that accompanied the introduction of Stalinist economic practices in the later 1940s. [They] deeply resented being elbowed aside…by the ambitious young apparatchiks who were being systematically fostered by the regime, [viewing them] as “conformists, subservient grovellers, crawlers, obsequious yes-men”.[15]

However, there was no organised opposition among long-time KPD cadres. This was partly due to habits of party discipline and fear that criticism would be viewed as the abandonment of their socialist principles. But another factor was “political terror, in the form of public and secret investigations…[that] left many longtime communists reluctant to express political doubts”.[16]

The broader population was also subjected to severe repression. In 1950, for instance, 78,000 people were sentenced for “crimes” broadly defined as political. One 19-year-old was sentenced to death for distributing leaflets criticising the electoral system.[17]

Exploitation and resistance

In an economy devastated by the war,[18] recovery was hindered from the outset by inadequate supplies of raw materials and the GDR’s low industrial potential. Reparations were a further burden: by the spring of 1948 over 1,900 factories had been dismantled and shipped to Russia, reducing the productive capacity of the SBZ by about 26 percent.[19] Up to 1953 about one quarter of East Germany’s national product was spent on occupation costs and reparations payments.[20] When war damage was taken into account, the total loss of productive capacity was about 50 percent compared to 1939.

Boosting productivity – which in the late 1940s remained at less than half its 1936 level[21] – was a priority for the authorities. In October 1947, Order 234 reintroduced piecework and other forms of productivity-based wages. Echoing Stakhanovism in the USSR in the 1930s, workers who “contributed most to raising productive norms were to be designated ‘activists’ and receive financial and political rewards”.[22] In 1949 the USSR took over management and ownership of key German companies, setting up Soviet Joint-Stock companies (SAGs). Working conditions in SAGs were often poorer than in similar enterprises: hours were longer, accidents more common and rest periods less frequent.[23]

Workers resisted these attacks. Reviling piecework as a method of increased exploitation, they revived the traditional slogan “Akkord ist Mord” (piecework is murder).[24] Six months after the push began, the proportion of the labour force receiving piecework and productivity wages had only risen by 3 percent. Bosses lamented that “many foremen could not be stopped from putting all the piecework tickets into a common urn in order to ensure equality of reward”.[25] There was a state of “permanent guerrilla war against the activists”, who were despised by their fellow workers. Many had their tools stolen and were physically abused.[26] Kopstein notes that widespread resistance meant that “the attempt to create a Stalinist East German labour aristocracy failed in the face of a strong egalitarian working-class solidarity”.[27] He concludes that the working class retained “an amorphous, disorganised power that, even with a good dose of Stalinist terror, could not easily be diminished”.[28]

During the three years immediately after the war, there was a marked revival of trade-union consciousness and shopfloor militancy in the SBZ. According to one historian, workers in this period exerted “considerably more leverage over their…workplaces than had ever been the case during the Wilhelmine or Weimar periods”. He quotes a visitor to the SBZ in 1947 who was “told quite bluntly” by the shop stewards’ committees in several factories that “nothing happens here without our consent”.[29]

Part of the explanation for this was that East Germany contained a relatively high concentration of organised socialists. In the pre-war years it was home to at least a third of KPD members (100–120,000) and 60 percent of SPD members (581,000).[30] Many had held onto their political traditions and beliefs under the Nazi dictatorship; a sizeable minority had taken part in illegal resistance.[31]

Wismut: an early warning sign

The uranium mines in Thuringia and Saxony were crucial to Stalin’s goal of producing nuclear weapons. The Wismut SAG employed a volatile mix of forced labour, returning prisoners of war and refugees from Germany’s former eastern territories. They endured harsh discipline, heavy-handed policing and appalling conditions: forced to live in overcrowded barracks with poor sanitary conditions and a shortage of fresh water. All this combined to make the area ripe for revolt.

In Saalfeld on 16 August 1951, a drunken fight and the arrest of several miners led to a strike and violent protests demanding their release. A crowd of about 3,000 stormed the local prison and police precinct, where “panic-stricken officials climbed out windows, onto rooftops and down trees in order to avoid the swinging picks of rampaging miners who refused to return to the pits until theirmates were set free”.[32] Several police were injured, about a thousand windows smashed, weapons stolen and criminal files burned. Desperate to get production resumed, the authorities ordered the immediate release of the miners and forbade the use of firearms.[33] Protest subsided following this victory. Security was subsequently stepped up, but the treatment and material position of the Wismut miners improved. This combination of “carrots and sticks” succeeded in “maintaining peace in the region so that mining could proceed on schedule”.[34]

Some of the features of the Wismut rebellion would be repeated in 1953 – including the SED leadership’s attempt to blame “Western agents” for stirring up discontent.

The “construction of socialism”

In March 1952 Stalin offered to allow the unification of Germany, on condition that it remained unarmed and politically neutral. But in May the General and European Defence Community treaties were signed, cementing the FRG’s integration into the Western alliance. In response, Stalin ordered the full transformation of the GDR into a Soviet satellite.

At its Second Party Conference in July 1952 the SED adopted a Five-Year Plan for the accelerated “construction of socialism”. The plan centred on rearmament and the rapid expansion of heavy industry. It also included attacks on private enterprise, the collectivisation of agriculture and repressive measures against the middle class and the churches. This was sold as the “intensification of the ‘class struggle’ against landowners, capitalists, priests and other ‘enemies of the people’”.[35] But the Plan had nothing to do with socialism: its main aim was to increase accumulation in order to compete militarily with the West. It would be paid for by reducing spending on consumption, that is, by lowering workers’ living standards.

Under pressure from the USSR, the GDR leadership allocated 2 billion marks – 10 percent of its 1952–53 budget – to the rapid build-up of its military. This was to be financed by the raising of taxes and prices, cuts to social welfare and reduced consumption[36] – “guns over butter”. The paramilitary Kasernierte Volkspolizei (KVP, “garrisoned people’s police”, later to become the East German army) was formed in July 1952. Aggressive recruiting saw its numbers swell from 90,250 in December 1952 to 113,000 by mid-1953.[37] The build-up of armed forces, weaponry and police diverted resources from production and exacerbated labour shortages.

The response of many thousands of East Germans was to simply leave the GDR. Emigration to West Germany rose steadily, reaching 166,000 in 1951, 182,000 the following year, then climbing sharply to 226,000 in the first half of 1953,[38] despite the construction of a fortified border in 1952. So many farmers emigrated that roughly 13 percent of the country’s productive land remained fallow.[39] Given a poor harvest in 1952, a food crisis was inevitable.

Shortages of basic foodstuffs and consumer goods meant that workers faced rationing and higher prices. Coal was in short supply, leading to prolonged interruptions of heating and electricity. At the same time, factories were cutting overtime. So while the cost of living was rising, take-home pay was shrinking. Living standards in 1952 fell below those experienced in the disastrous “hunger crisis” of 1947.[40] Most workers saw their real wages drop by roughly 33 percent.[41]

But not all suffered equally. Emigration had made it difficult to find qualified personnel to manage industries and public services. So the “technical intelligentsia” (engineers, technicians, scientists and managers – including former Nazis) received higher wages, bonuses and privileges including access to higher quality and scarce commodities in special shops (Handelsorganisation or HO).[42]

This was not what workers expected of a supposedly socialist state: “it was regarded as axiomatic among most workers…that the construction of socialism should mean…a system of greater equality… As one older comrade…put it: ‘If Karl Marx knew how his teachings are being interpreted…he’d roll over in his grave’”.[43] Soviet intelligence agents were soon reporting back to Moscow about growing unrest.

By November 1952, sporadic food riots had broken out in a number of the major industrial centres…and throughout the following spring the internal reports show an unmistakeable increase in…shopfloor discontent from all across the GDR, ranging from “rabble-rousing” to anti-SED graffiti to alleged sabotage.[44]

To facilitate the intensified exploitation of the working class, the SED needed to muzzle workers’ organisations. The FDGB (Free German Trade Union Association) was cowed into submission by a government campaign attacking it for “concentrating on promoting its members’ interests instead of adopting a ‘correct attitude toward work quotas and piece rates’”.[45] Workers increasingly “lost faith in the labour movement…which was now becoming the primary instrument of their oppression” and “just another branch of management”.[46] As a result, large numbers of workers left the FDGB: 3,714 in January 1951 and another 10,500 by April.[47]

Works councils were harder to subdue. Created on the initiative of experienced union activists and firmly rooted in the workplaces, these “classrooms in the arts of industrial action” were key to the revival of labour movement traditions.[48] Their powers were progressively whittled away or handed over to the FDGB.

Economic conditions deteriorated further in 1953. In April the Kremlin refused the SED’s requests for aid, and recommended the adoption of a “softer line”.[49] But instead, the SED decided to squeeze industrial workers even harder. On 9 April, the Council of Ministers announced a series of price rises and the withdrawal of food subsidies for two million “non-essential” workers.[50] In a drive to raise the intensity of labour, the regime had tried to persuade workers to accept higher work quotas “voluntarily”, but without success. So in May the government announced a compulsory 10 percent increase in work norms.

The “construction of socialism” produced a toxic combination of excessive demands on production capacity, economic crisis and growing opposition. With party activists finding it increasingly difficult to sell government policy, the regime stepped up repression. There was a ferocious crackdown on “economic criminals”, with the passage in 1952 of a draconian law which mandated at least a year in prison for the most trivial thefts.[51] The number of prison inmates “mushroomed from 30,092 in July 1952 to 61,377 in May 1953”.[52] Even before the June uprising, there were demonstrations outside prisons demanding the release of prisoners.[53]

The death of Stalin and its impact

Following Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953, Malenkov, Beria and Khrushchev jointly led the Soviet government. The ensuing succession struggle generated significant changes in Soviet policy.

For some months, Moscow had received numerous disconcerting reports of growing instability in Eastern Europe in response to the imposition of Stalinist policies. By May 1953, the Soviet leadership had concluded that the Eastern Bloc regimes should moderate these policies, if not abandon them altogether. This conclusion was further reinforced by an outbreak of strikes and riots among tobacco workers in Bulgaria, serious trouble in Czechoslovakia[54] and the growing unrest in the GDR.

A meeting of the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers on 27 May discussed the “severe weaknesses” of the East German state, acknowledging that “the presence of Soviet troops is the only thing enabling the current regime…to survive”. The GDR was in danger of collapse unless the SED took steps to rectify its “unacceptably simplistic and rash policies”. Ulbricht in particular was subjected to harsh criticism for pursuing a hard-line agenda and ignoring advice from the Kremlin.[55] Molotov, Beria and Malenkov were tasked with preparing a program of political and economic reform for East Germany.[56]

The “New Course”

In early June, Ulbricht and Grotewohl were summoned to Moscow and instructed to abandon the “construction of socialism” in favour of a “New Course”. The collectivisation of agriculture and expropriations were to be halted, living standards improved by shifting emphasis from heavy industry to consumer production, price rises revoked, the withdrawal of food subsidies reversed, even some political prisoners released. Many of the measures against the middle classes, small businesses, farmers and Christians were to be wound back.[57]

After the SED leaders returned to Berlin, the Politbüro met almost continuously for five days under the watchful eye of Soviet High Commissioner Vladimir Semyonov. He had been instructed to “take an active part in the [Politbüro’s] meetings”[58] – ie to ensure they toed the line. Tensions within the upper echelons of the SED had increased following Stalin’s death, and the intervention by Moscow further unsettled the regime. Serious divisions within the SED leadership opened up, posing a threat to Ulbricht’s authority. “Reformers” such as Herrnstadt and Zaisser[59] now felt confident to openly articulate alternative views.

On 11 June the party paper Neues Deutschland published a communiqué from the Politbüro, pledging that the government would rectify the “grave mistakes” of recent years and announcing the New Course. However, on one crucial point Ulbricht dug in, insisting that the 10 percent increase in work norms would under no circumstances be rescinded.[60]

The abrupt change of policy caused widespread confusion and revealed deep divisions between reformers and hard-liners within the party. The latter were shocked and disoriented, seeing the New Course as a retreat. One die-hard Stalinist bitterly commented that: “If Comrade Stalin were still alive, there would be no New Course”.[61] Some were so dispirited that they renounced their party membership, and many others called for the resignation of the party leaders.

Within the working class, the announcement did nothing to assuage discontent; on the contrary, workers’ anger was fuelled by the retention of the higher work norms. They alone, it seemed, would not benefit from the New Course. But workers were emboldened as well as angry. There was a widespread belief that “the U-turn had resulted from the pressure of mass discontent, that it represented a victory of the masses over the functionaries”.[62] A secret report prepared by the Central Committee later conceded that “when the communiqué was published, a large proportion of workers regarded it as a sign of weakness and even impotence on the part of the SED”.[63] In a now familiar pattern, the inadequate concessions of a beleaguered dictatorship transformed resentful discontent into open defiance. The combination of extreme economic hardship, the abruptness of the turn, the disagreements within the SED leadership, the confusion this created among the rank and file of the SED and uncertainty about what was going to happen about the new quotas produced an explosive situation.

Between 12 and 16 June a series of strikes broke out at East Berlin building sites, at least one of which raised the demand for a general strike. On 15 June workers at the Friedrichshain Hospital construction site sent a message to Grotewohl complaining that “the only people to benefit from the new line were the capitalists” and demanding the immediate withdrawal of the higher quotas.[64]

16–17 June

The next day, 16 June, the FDGB paper Tribüne published an article defending the norm increase. The FDGB executive expected workers to believe that: “The work quotas are not being raised in order to force down wages but in order to produce more, better and cheaper goods for the same amount of work but with more economical working methods”.[65]

This raised the workers’ fury to a new pitch; determined to take action against the new quotas, workers on sites across Berlin’s Stalinallee went on strike. A propaganda banner reading “Block 40 raises its norms ten percent” was ripped down and replaced with one reading: “We demand a lowering of the norms!”[66] Construction workers had a history of militancy, having successfully fought off previous attempts to slash wages. Moreover, they were in a strong position: the Stalinallee was a prestige project, and there was a shortage of some 40,000 building workers. Early that morning the Stalinallee and Friedrichshain workers gathered and decided to demonstrate at the FDGB headquarters. But first, they marched to nearby sites, persuading other workers to join them. Finding the FDGB building closed, they headed to the House of Ministries.

Along the way thousands of other workers joined them, transforming the march into a mass demonstration that moved “with unwavering will and elemental power”.[67] A crowd of about 10,000 gathered at the House of Ministries, demanding that Ulbricht and Grotewohl come out from the now barricaded building to address them.[68] Instead they were fobbed off with lesser officials.

The Politbüro had met that morning and reluctantly decided to withdraw the higher norms. But the officials’ assurances to this effect were howled down. The wording of the Politbüro resolution was somewhat equivocal: the higher norms would be “voluntary” and their implementation reconsidered “in conjunction with the trades unions”.[69] Most workers suspected, not unreasonably, that the authorities would restore the higher norms at the first opportunity, and they didn’t trust the unions to represent their interests. At the same time, the possibility that they had won a major concession reinforced their sense of the regime’s vulnerability.

Heated arguments continued back and forth between the workers and the officials. At one point an elderly worker climbed onto a table to address the crowd. A Pravda correspondent reported:

He said that he had been sent to a concentration camp by Hitler as a fighter for the rights of workers, and now he saw his duty to defend these rights once again. The people applauded him. From this man we heard the demands of the strikers…annulment of the increased work norms; decrease in prices in the state-owned retail stores (HO); general increase in living standards for workers; abandonment of the formation of the People’s Army; holding of free elections…[70]

Following this a younger worker climbed onto the podium and called on the crowd to march through the city and spread the call for a general strike. This was greeted with a “hurricane of approval” and the march set off. Demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at the giant monument to Stalin in central Berlin and called on the government to resign.[71]

On the way, the workers encountered several loudspeaker vans sent out by the government to broadcast that the work norms had been rescinded and calling on the demonstrators to return to work. Instead, they hijacked one of the vehicles and used it to broadcast the call for general strike and a mass demonstration at 7am the next day. One of the hijackers later recalled “a wonderful feeling of strength, because we had dared to act like this in the face of that regime”.

[F]eelings of uncertainty gave way to a sense of strength, limited goals gave way to more adventurous ones, and petitioning the government turned into confrontation with the regime. From out of a strike a rebellion had begun to grow.[72]

A host of “self-appointed couriers” carried the call for a general strike to workplaces in the suburbs. Railway construction gangs, their wages and conditions already savagely cut, had been ordered to increase work norms by 20 percent, and when they complained, 200 of them were sacked. Hardly surprising then that “the arrival of cyclists from the Stalinallee [was] the signal for an immediate stoppage of work”.[73] By the afternoon protest marches were taking place all over East Berlin.

Despite all the warning signs, the events of 16 June took the government by surprise, and a degree of panic set in. With the Politbüro split, the party and state apparatus were paralysed by indecision. The SED was in such a state of disarray that on 17 June,

functionaries on the ground were left to face a difficult situation with nobody to tell them what to do. Many simply ran away… Others lamely surrendered to the demands of the protesters… At the Betrieb Mifeu, the workers [demanded that] all SED functionaries leave the works immediately, whereupon the frightened young apparatchiks obediently went home and only felt able to return with a police escort. Throughout the GDR, there were thousands of instances of SED functionaries falling prey to mysterious and sudden illnesses, or failing to return from holiday, or surreptitiously taking off their party badges.[74]

The regime doubted the reliability of its own security forces, so initially only small numbers were deployed, with orders not to open fire.[75] The Soviet authorities however were in no doubt about how to proceed. Semyonov took charge, announcing that Russian troops would be sent to Berlin to quell the rebellion. He ordered the SED leaders to evacuate to the Soviet headquarters in Karlshorst, where they “remained passive spectators of events”.[76] By the early hours of 17 June Soviet troops occupied strategic positions such as railway stations and post offices in the larger towns, the docks and harbours on the Baltic and the uranium mines in the Erzgebirge.

Meanwhile, word was spreading throughout East Germany with breathtaking speed. Some historians (especially of the pro-US variety) attribute this to broadcasts by RIAS (Radio in the American Sector).[77] A recent study of the range and signal strength of RIAS debunked this myth. Some of the towns that witnessed the greatest upheaval, such as Görlitz, could not even receive RIAS. Moreover, RIAS was ordered not to broadcast the call for a general strike, due to US fears that this might cause a military confrontation with the Soviet Union.[78]

Workers used every available means of communication and transport to get the word out. Truck drivers and rail workers played an important role. In less than 24 hours, wildcat strikes in Berlin blossomed into strikes and demonstrations all over the country.

In Berlin, bicycles and cars equipped with loudspeakers provided communication between columns of marchers as they converged on the city centre. Twelve thousand workers from the steel plant in Hennigsdorf marched all the way – 27 kilometres. By 9am, despite teeming rain, the numbers at the House of Ministries had swelled to around 25,000. As protesters and KVP troops faced off, Soviet armoured cars and troops arrived, driving into the crowd. The demonstrators scattered, reconverging at Marx-Engels Platz where 50,000 packed the square. Without warning, Red Army tanks charged into the crowd at full speed, crushing a man to death. There was a stampede as people tried to get out of the way, pursued by tanks and armoured cars.

At noon Soviet authorities declared a state of emergency. The assembly of more than three people was forbidden. Many protesters ignored this announcement, despite now being shot at. But eventually the Russian troops and loyal elements of the German security forces prevailed over unarmed demonstrators.

Soviet military force was deployed throughout the GDR, with heavy fighting occurring in some places. The Russian army arrested strike leaders, blocked factory gates, dispersed crowds and occupied urban areas. Martial law was declared before many strikers had the chance to act. In Erfurt, for example, Soviet troops blocked the gates of one factory with trucks armed with machine guns to prevent workers from marching.

Between 60 and 100 protesters were shot or crushed by tanks, hundreds were injured and at least 20 were summarily executed – including three policemen found guilty of disobeying orders.[79] Despite this appalling toll, most accounts – including by Western commentators – agree that the Soviet troops “acted with great restraint”.[80]

While Russian military force ultimately prevailed, recent research refutes claims that the “revolutionary wave had already begun to ebb” before their intervention.[81]

On the 18th, despite military rule that saw public places and workplaces occupied by Soviet troops and tanks, over 44,000 demonstrated, while all districts of the country witnessed new or continuing strikes, involving well over 100,000 workers – including many who had not struck the previous day. In defiance of the military crackdown, activists in some factories maintained their organisations and planned further activity… The 18th also saw an increased level of activity in the countryside, notably meetings, rallies, and clashes with the local authorities.[82]

How extensive was the uprising?

Estimates of the number of towns and cities where strikes and demonstrations occurred vary, as do estimates of the total numbers involved. Between 16 and 21 June, according to Gareth Dale, “between 1 and 1.5 million people, 6 to 9 percent of the total population, participated in strikes, demonstrations and rallies. Over 700 towns and villages were affected, and at least 0.5 million workers in well over 1,000 workplaces stopped work”.[83] A survey by the FDGB estimated that almost three-quarters of the workforce in Berlin’s metal industries took action.[84]

Building workers and employees in the larger state-owned factories were among the first to go out, but strikes affected all sectors, and events across the country tended to follow a similar pattern. Early on the morning of 17 June, groups of workers gathered to discuss how to “show solidarity with Berlin”. As Brant puts it, “the word ‘solidarity’…assumed the force of law”.[85] In many places, there was a ripple effect:

Once one department of a factory had decided to strike, the other departments almost invariably followed suit, and once the personnel of a whole factory had marched out on to the streets, the men of other factories quickly joined them.[86]

At the Sachsenwerk factory in Dresden a group of workers marched to nearby factories, singing the Internationale and bringing out their employees along the way. Action was not always unanimous: some workers stayed at their posts, while waverers frequently had to be persuaded with arguments about the need for unity.

On the afternoon of 17 June,

a wide variety of insurrectionary and riotous events occurred… Town radio stations and loudspeaker systems were taken over, and used to broadcast calls to rally. Over 100 offices of state institutions…were ransacked; files were opened and in many cases seized or destroyed. In one town the Stasi headquarters was occupied and “the whole building was completely taken apart from top to bottom”. Other popular targets were police stations and prisons, dozens of which were stormed. Over 1,300 prisoners were freed.[87]

Often, buildings were not only ransacked, they were burned to the ground. In many cities, “local government and Party offices, even prisons, were surrendered without a struggle”[88] while police stood by. The scale of unrest was in any case too great for them to handle without Soviet aid. But also, the SED leaders’ doubts about their reliability proved justified; some police, KVP and even Stasi personnel either joined the demonstrations or deserted their posts. Nor were they the only defectors. Scores of SED and government officials, as well as many members of the party’s youth organisation (FDJ) and FDGB members and officials joined in the strikes and demonstrations.[89] Some demonstrations were actually led by union functionaries, notably veterans of the pre-1933 unions.[90]

Marches and rallies mostly started peacefully, but workers in some areas fought back when security forces were sent in. As the day wore on, clashes became more violent, particularly in major centres of unrest such as Magdeburg, Halle and Leipzig.[91]

There were numerous attacks on those seen to represent the regime. In Brandenburg a public prosecutor and a hated judge, notorious for handing out harsh sentences for petty crimes, were beaten up and taken to the market square to be “interrogated” by a crowd of 5,000 angry demonstrators. It was only the intervention of strike leaders that prevented them being lynched on the spot, though both men later died of their injuries.[92]

Who participated…and who didn’t?

Other sectors of the population were drawn into the nationwide protests, among them farmers, school students and housewives. But “these elements were not typical of the social groups from which they came and were…far less numerous than the much larger working-class contingent”.[93] Workers at a factory in Halberstadt demonstrated their advanced consciousness by voting to reserve a place on the strike committee for a woman;[94] but because most strikers were industrial workers in male-dominated sectors, women (mainly housewives) constituted a minority among the demonstrators. However, they were prominent in actions such as the storming of jails and police stations.[95]

The revolt was not confined to the cities. There were protests in some rural areas, mostly in districts south of Berlin. These were areas where the economy relied upon both industrial and agricultural production and consequently there were strong connections between peasants and workers, who “lived side by side and interacted with one another socially”.[96] Things were quieter in predominantly agricultural areas.

There were other sectors of the population whose support for the uprising was minimal or non-existent: the middle classes, the intelligentsia (especially university lecturers and students, writers and artists), most white-collar employees employed in administration and church leaders.[97]

Semyonov reported to Molotov on 18 June: “Representatives of the intelligentsia took almost no part in the strikes and disturbances.… Classes in schools and in institutions of higher learning…continued in a normal fashion”.[98] As he noted in his report on 24 June: “The implementation…of measures to improve the situation of the intelligentsia [ie the New Course]…determined to a significant degree its loyal conduct and favourable attitude toward the government”. He also praised “the loyal behaviour of the Evangelical and Catholic churches”.[99]

The partial exception to this was members of the “technical intelligentsia” located in the factories. For example, more than 80 percent of the scientists and technicians employed at the electronics factory in Berlin-Köpenick joined the strikers,[100] while some engineers and other technicians sat on strike committees and played an active role in leading the movement.[101] Their close day-to-day connection with industrial workers was a key factor.

Spontaneity and organisation

Most historians stress the spontaneity of the uprising and the lack of coordinated leadership. Baring identifies two distinct stages on 17 June. The first involved striking workers marching into city centres, tearing down pictures of party leaders, political posters and banners, occupying public buildings and trying to release political prisoners. “In everything they did the workers displayed remarkable discipline…due to the influence of the strike committees.” The second stage saw wider layers of the population joining in, but the central strike committees set up in many towns “did not have the authority of the workers’ committees and so were unable to exercise effective control”.[102]

As the demonstrations grew later in the day, “the actions became ever less coordinated”; assaults on party and government buildings were “largely expressions of anger and outrage rather than for strategic purposes”.[103] Brant describes the focus on releasing prisoners as a “fatal error”, as the government “could scarcely be threatened by…undernourished political internees”.[104] There were few serious attempts to seize control of key road and railway junctions, media or transport and communications; nor were there any efforts to seize weapons from the security forces, or to use firearms against them.[105] Where protesters did try to seize post offices and telecommunications centres (Dresden, Halle, Leipzig and Görlitz), they were beaten back.

Often, “the thrust of protest was less towards an assault on centres of power and more on [acts of] symbolic liberation [which] could function to mobilise protest…without directly affecting the sinews of state power”.[106] Military intervention “raise[d] the costs of protesting, multiplied the uncertainties facing participants, and contributed to a partial fragmentation of the sense of unity that had marked the rising’s earlier stages”.[107]

But as Kopstein notes, “the absence of [political leadership] did not prevent the initiation of collective action that threatened to bring down the regime”.[108] And in fact there was a greater degree of organisation than had been previously thought, especially in areas where there were stronger left-wing traditions and a history of working-class and community solidarity.

At crucial moments, individuals and groups took the initiative. “These interventions were in one sense ‘spontaneous’ (ie impromptu) reactions…but, equally, they were socially and politically determined, shaped by previous experience.”[109] Many workers who initiated strikes and marches “had either done so before or had learned of such practices…from relatives, through an immersion in the culture of the labour movement”.[110]

The rapid spread of the strikes was a product of both the leadership of conscious militants and the receptiveness of wide layers of the workforce to arguments for collective action.

In the disciplined and purposeful manner in which the strikes, demonstrations and factory occupations proceeded, one could perceive the traditions of collective action of the labour and trade union movements. Also, the experience of all those old workers’ movement “cadre”…who were active in the strike leaderships, contributed to imparting the spontaneously erupting strikes with a certain organised solidity.[111]

Elected strike committees often consisted of individuals with a record of standing up to management or who had spoken out against SED officials in workplace meetings that morning. Given the short time available to them, these committees demonstrated a remarkable level of democratic organisation and in some cases quickly exercised an astonishing degree of initiative and authority.

To a certain extent the strike committees temporarily became “organs of power”: they took on the coordination of enterprise activity…[and] led the negotiations with factory managements. They also took responsibility for maintaining peace and order in the workplaces, they protected property from damage and prevented attacks on individuals; in some cases picket lines were organised too… In countless workplaces the committees coordinated the spread of the strike to neighbouring factories, as well as the marches to town centres and sometimes, even, further activities in the local region.[112]

The main centres of struggle were the industrialised districts of Greater Berlin, Leipzig, Magdeburg, the Halle-Merseburg-Bitterfeld district and Görlitz. These were areas where workers were concentrated in very large enterprises, most prominently construction, mining,[113] machine building and the chemical and iron-ore producing industries. They were also traditional strongholds of the German left and the labour movement.[114]

Joint strike committees were established in a number of these places, and in Halle-Merseburg and Magdeburg, they temporarily seized control. Attempting to spread the strike, they took over the telephone exchange to make contact with other workplaces and commandeered vehicles to use for picketing. In Magdeburg, flying pickets broke down the doors of the Karl Marx plant in order to bring out the workers inside.

The towns of Görlitz and Bitterfeld saw the highest level of workers’ organisation and control.[115] In Bitterfeld, an elected committee of representatives from the major factories plus a housewife and a student “usurped both economic and civic authority, in a matter of hours”. This “perfectly structured leadership organ acted, instructed, appointed, proclaimed; all in constant…communication with the tumultuous masses in the streets, and in contact with other sites of the uprising”.[116] It ensured that food and energy supplies were in rebel hands and organised units of workers who took control of the prison, the post office, town hall, SED offices, telephone exchange and Stasi headquarters. The mayor was arrested, police officers disarmed, and the police chief locked up. The strike committee sent a telegram to the government demanding its resignation, the formation of a “provisional government of progressive workers” and the dissolution of the army.

In Görlitz a “committee of popular rule” established an alternative administration, sacked the police chief, forced the mayor to approve the release of political prisoners and attempted to gain control of communications. An unarmed “workers’ militia” directed the occupation of the courts, police stations, the town hall, offices of the SED, FDJ and Stasi, the regional newspaper and the railway station. The committee was even able to meet simultaneously and interact with the mass rally. “Everyone was able to put their demands”, recalled one demonstrator.

But these highpoints were exceptions. Time often ran out before attempts to coordinate strike action could bear fruit. In Dresden for example a joint strike committee was stymied by the delaying tactics of local party apparatchiks. By the time an “illegal strike committee” of delegates from five factories was established, martial law had been declared and the delegates were arrested before they could meet.

Resistance continues

The overwhelming numbers of heavily armed Soviet forces suppressed the uprising relatively quickly. Mass demonstrations were violently dispersed, workers forced back to work at gunpoint, and members of strike committees arrested. But when Semyonov reported to Moscow on 24 June that the strikes in Berlin had subsided and that “a normal situation was restored”,[117] he spoke too soon. The crackdown, and particularly the arrest of strike leaders, actually prompted new strikes.

Working-class defiance continued into late summer and early autumn, with sporadic strikes erupting in large industrial conglomerations.[118] Leipzig remained in a state of siege for several weeks. During July there was a mini-strike wave. On 4 July workers at the steelworks in Thale staged a sit-down strike and secured the release of a number of strike leaders. In mid-July several thousand workers at Carl-Zeiss-Jena and the Buna Chemical Works in Schkopau went out on strike, the latter demanding free elections, the release of all political prisoners, the reduction of the KVP and the transformation of the FDGB into “a combat organisation of all workers”.[119] Breaking the two strikes required massive intervention by the security forces, and effectively ended the second wave of unrest.

But even after this, passive forms of resistance such as go-slows and absenteeism were common. Output in the coal mines at Zwickau, which had not struck on 17 June, fell steeply because the workers were constantly found “doing nothing, and even asleep”.[120] In early September, the sick-rate in the coal-mines around Stollberg, normally 3 percent, rose to 22.5 percent.[121]

The aftermath

For the SED – and their Russian masters – the pressing need now was to restore stability and forestall any further eruptions. This was achieved with a combination of political repression and economic concessions.


On 16–17 June 1,744 East Berliners were arrested, and over the following weeks the rest of the country experienced a wave of repression. The number of arrests reached a single-day peak of 6,325 on 23 June, rising to 13,000 by 1 August.[122] Of these, 1,524 people received harsh prison sentences, ranging from one to ten years or more, with three life sentences. Several hundred “anti-communists” were deported to Siberia.

The purpose of the crackdown was not just to punish the participants, but to intimidate the population. Justice Minister Max Fechner was a high-profile casualty. In interviews published in Neues Deutschland in early July, he had defended the right to strike as guaranteed by the GDR’s constitution, and argued that neither participation in nor leadership of strikes was a crime. Denounced as an “enemy of the state” and stripped of party membership, he was arrested on 16 July and sentenced to eight years imprisonment.[123]

Not wanting to be taken unawares again, the regime overhauled the Stasi and built up its apparatus. The MfS (Ministry for State Security), founded in 1950, employed more than 10,000 people by 1952, making it larger than Hitler’s Gestapo had ever been.[124] Initially the Stasi had focused on anti-Communist organisations based in West Germany. But that changed now. Not only did the Stasi experience “exponential growth” (up to 17,400 by November 1957),[125] but it also set about massively increasing its domestic surveillance program by recruiting informants to spy on the population.[126] By 1954, the Stasi had almost 145,900 agents on its books.[127]

In the factories, additional surveillance was carried out by newly established Kampfgruppen der Arbeiterklasse (workforce combat groups) composed of workers chosen for their political reliability. All of this repressive apparatus “provided the leadership with an ever-present coercive force that contributed to the outward semblance of stability in the GDR between 1953 and 1989”.[128] The flow of emigration to the West was largely stemmed with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, turning East Germany into a “prison state”.

The SED: purges and resignations

After the rising, Ulbricht came close to losing his position. Yet in the end he not only survived, but actually consolidated his leadership. The succession struggle in Russia remained unresolved. Malenkov and Khrushchev had been conspiring for some time to oust Beria, but the crisis in East Germany “caused a slight delay in [their] timetable”.[129] Ulbricht used Beria’s arrest on 26 June to discredit his opponents in the SED leadership. At a Central Committee meeting on 24 July, he implied that Zaisser and Herrnstadt had been “secretly colluding with Beria in pursuit of a ‘capitulatory policy which would have ended in the restoration of capitalism’”.[130]

But Ulbricht survived mainly because Moscow could not afford to take the risk of replacing him. Since Ulbricht’s resignation had been a key demand of the uprising, the Kremlin feared that removing him would be seen as a capitulation, and that unrest could spill over into neighbouring Eastern Bloc states.

For a short period, the SED made a show of repentance and self-criticism. Between 20 June and early July, leading functionaries visited a number of large industrial sites, where they engaged in “long, self-critical and…extremely open discussions with the workers in an attempt to regain their confidence”.[131] The response was not what they had hoped for. On 23 June Ulbricht himself tried to talk to employees at a state-owned machine tool factory, but was “greeted with shouts, boos and catcalls”.[132] On a visit to the Leuna Works the following day, he was forced to listen to the workforce’s demands for freedom of speech and the separation of party and unions.[133]

But once the situation stabilised and Ulbricht regained control, the pretence of self-criticism came to an abrupt halt. The SED was thoroughly purged: along with dissident factions in the leadership and officials deemed to have failed in their duties, many rank-and-file members were expelled. A third of these had been KPD members since before 1933.[134] But in 1953, their class solidarity won out over party loyalty.

Worker members deserted the party in droves. A report from Zschopau noted that: “it has been above all the older comrades who have…expressed the opinion that there is no longer any trust in the authorities”. The widespread reports of such attitudes signalled a “rupture between the party and the class it was supposed to represent” and provides “clear evidence that, for many workers, their rejection of the SED was based not on a love of West Germany and capitalist democracy, but on a principled, Socialist rejection of Stalinism”.[135]

Concessions – and working-class resilience

Repression alone was not sufficient. The SED was forced to grant significant economic concessions to placate the force it most feared – the workers. The norm increases were rescinded and most workers experienced significant improvements in pay and working conditions. By September 1954 an estimated 3.7 billion East German marks had been redistributed to the general population.[136] After 1953 “the state ensured that at least basic necessities were available…at reasonable prices. Food, housing and utilities remained heavily subsidised and inexpensive until the very end of the regime”.[137]

Frequent unofficial work stoppages – small acts of sabotage, protest or ministrikes and walk-outs – were constant reminders of the importance of keeping the workers at least satisfied, if not happy; sops to consumerism were repeated ploys to keep levels of unrest from rising.[138]

Fear of renewed industrial conflict meant that “even the most hard-nosed factory directors learned to bargain with workers… The experiences of 1953 undermined the party leadership’s ability to gain control over the shopfloor”.[139]

As a result, throughout the 1950s wages rose faster than productivity in every sector of industry. Despite numerous unsuccessful efforts to rectify this problem, the regime never again dared to introduce arbitrary norm increases. Wage egalitarianism “remained a constant of East German industry [and] gradually became a social norm… Along with job security, East German workers had the power to demand…consumer prices that remained low relative to wages”.[140]

From the perspective of the SED leaders, “little could be done to change economic structures or industrial relations without the risk of open rebellion”.[141] To avoid this, the government was prepared to accede to economic demands – provided conflicts were kept “inside the factory and out of politics”. Workers were rarely disciplined for factory rule infractions, and their criticisms were tolerated – as long as they remained “apolitical” and were not voiced in public. This strategy “was effective in keeping workers’ protests well below any real level of danger”.[142] But the long-term consequence was that the regime was left in a permanently weakened state. Its inability to undertake “meaningful economic reform” – ie suppress workers’ wages – severely restricted its ability to compete with the West.

Right up until 1989, the shock of 1953 and the possibility of its recurrence was a source of acute anxiety for the SED leadership. Ernst Wollweber, the minister of state security between 1953 and 1957, later wrote that Ulbricht was “haunted” by “the fright of June 17”.[143]

On the first two anniversaries of the uprising, police, the KVP and the Kampfgruppen were ordered to remain in a “state of heightened readiness”.[144] What was a “lasting trauma” for the regime had given the working class “a certain awareness of its own strength and authority”.[145]

The spectre of 17 June assumed downright mythical dimensions in both the factories as well as in the halls of power. It became a cultural icon synonymous with workers’ discontent… During the 1950s, reports around the anniversary of the 17 June uprising commonly cite various “provocations” from workers, such as moments of silence on the factory floor, drinking bouts in the canteen, high rates of absenteeism, the increased distribution of hostile leaflets and the daubing of slogans such as “Give us more to eat, have you forgotten the 17th of June?”[146]

Nature of the uprising

The SED tried to paint the uprising as an attempted fascist coup, organised by Western agents.[147] But dispatches sent by Soviet intelligence officials “provided no evidence to support…allegations of an ‘imperialist conspiracy’”. Their reports instead “contained many scathing comments about the SED’s ‘unacceptable blunders’ and ‘extremely deficient’ performance”, and concluded that “the mistaken policies” and “abuses” of the SED were the “prime cause of the disturbances and unrest”.[148] After months of investigation, “the state security service was forced to admit that it had found no evidence of either large-scale Western participation in or leadership of the insurrection”.[149]

The mainstream Western interpretation is that it was a “people’s uprising”, the working class just one element in a society-wide rejection of “communism”. Brant writes that the uprising could be considered a “classless revolution”, driven by a “common and elementary desire for freedom”, as exemplified by the West.[150] This is contradicted by the evidence, which overwhelmingly confirms that “it was above all the industrial working class…which played the leading role in the Uprising and determined its character”.[151]

The most convincing argument has been made by left-wing anti-Stalinist historians, who insist that it was “first and foremost a ‘workers’ uprising’ against Stalinism, the goal of which was not to destroy Socialism in East Germany, but to free it of its bureaucratic and authoritarian distortions”.[152] One of these, Torsten Diedrich, writes that:

the demand for the abolition of the GDR simply was not raised. The main reason for this is arguably that the majority of the workers in the GDR did not regard the political system in the Federal Republic…as the alternative. The thrust of the workers’ rising therefore aimed at the democratic transformation of the East German state.[153]

Similarly, Martin Jänicke argues that “in 1953 the Central German working class became the bearer of the general resistance against Stalinism, ‘a class whose opposition…was determined in no small part by socialist traditions’”.[154] Such views are given credence by numerous small incidents. For example, in the Halle market square “a large propaganda portrait of Karl Marx…was untouched, while its counterpart of Stalin was destroyed”.[155]

Summarising the arguments of the anti-Stalinist historians, Pritchard writes:

It was no accident…that the Uprising was at its most intense in precisely those towns and cities…which had long been the traditional strongholds of the German labour movement. The Uprising, they assert, bore all the hallmarks of organised working-class dissent, such as the formation of factory committees and factory councils, the shouting of traditional Socialist slogans and the singing of Socialist songs.[156]

The leading role played by the working class is indicated by their preponderance in the number of arrests. By 30 June 6,171 people had been arrested; of the 5,296 individuals whose class origin is known, 65.2 percent were workers. In Leipzig 85 percent of the 143 people arrested by 10 August were working-class.[157] Internal government documents indicate that overall at least 70 percent of those detained were workers.[158]

A revolutionary opportunity?

East German workers did not set out to make a revolution. As Brant writes: “it is doubtful whether, at the moment of downing tools, many of the building workers realised the full implications of their action”.[159] But the generalisation and rapid spread of strike action inevitably raised the question, for both the participants and the regime. After all, any serious general strike “amounts to a gauntlet thrown not only to factory and company managements but to government itself”.[160] As Rosa Luxemburg argued in “The Mass Strike”, the relationship between economic and political struggles is highly reciprocal, each reinforcing the other; they “form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle”.[161]

Baring observes that “the strikes were prompted…by economic considerations and it was not until the workers had massed on the streets and their ranks were swollen by passers-by that they felt sufficiently elated to call for political changes”, raising demands that “gave the demonstrations a completely different character”.[162]

While the higher norms were the catalyst, workers raised a range of other demands. Some were economic, such as equal pay for women, an eight-hour day and the abolition of piecework. But they also made connections between purely “material” and political issues, such as the build-up of the security forces and pay cuts for workers. So political demands were raised in most workplaces from a very early stage, and increasingly in the mass demonstrations.

In a few areas, as we have seen, events began to assume an insurrectionary character. Brant again: “the stoppage…on the Stalinallee became the prologue of a revolutionary drama and the fact that the revolution was smothered while still at the stage of insurrection does not alter its character and objectives”.[163]

In 1915, Lenin argued that a revolutionary situation exists:

(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis…in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth… (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who…in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.[164]

These conditions were all present in East Germany in 1953. But, as Lenin noted, not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution. In Russia in 1917, the revolution succeeded because of the leadership of the Bolsheviks: a mass revolutionary party built over decades of struggle, with a clear understanding of what needed to be done, and the authority and credibility to lead the working class. This most certainly did not exist in East Germany, and as has been shown time and time again (notably in Germany in 1918[165]), such an organisation cannot be built overnight in the heat of the struggle. Moreover, there was no clarity – in Germany or anywhere else – about the nature of the enemy. Most of the international left supported Russia as socialist; the Trotskyists saw Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state” and its satellites as “deformed workers’ states” which had “ceased to be…capitalist countries”.[166] To the very limited extent that Tony Cliff’s pathbreaking analysis of Russia as state capitalist was known at this time, it was rejected by the left.[167]

The balance of forces was such that the workers could not have won. The intervention of Russian troops was decisive, as it would also be in Hungary three years later.


The East German uprising was “the first chink in the armour of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe”,[168] and the fallout was considerable. In Russia it influenced the CPSU leadership struggle and Soviet foreign policy, especially with regard to its satellite states. News of the rebellion triggered a wave of strikes in the forced labour camps of the gulag and was a factor in the uprising in Vorkuta (July 1953) which mainly housed political prisoners.

The reverberations were felt throughout the Eastern Bloc. In the following years, further revolts challenged the Stalinist monolith: Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1956 and again in 1980–81.[169] The GDR, however, remained relatively stable until 1989. The long-term cohesion of the ruling party was an important factor in this, due to Ulbricht’s purge of “reformers”. As well, the increased level of political surveillance and repression undermined workers’ confidence to engage in collective resistance beyond the individual workplace.

Despite this, however, workers were able to maintain their living standards to some extent by action (or the threat of it) at the factory floor level.

Thanks to the spectacular intensity of the uprising, its persistence over the following days in the teeth of military occupation, and the material concessions delivered in its wake, its defeat was not experienced as total. Nor could repression rob participants of the experience of the protest itself – the euphoria and solidarity…[170]

Niethammer goes so far as to write that: “the shop floor represented a liberated milieu where people could move around, could talk, could criticise, and could even go shopping during working hours”.[171]

But while the working class was not totally demoralised, no lasting organisation or leadership survived. And over time, the experienced older militants who had played a leading role in 1953 died off, their memories and traditions often dying with them. It is telling that the 1989 revolution had a very different class character. Unlike in 1953, workers as an organised force did not play a leading role.[172]

Despite its brevity and defeat, the 1953 uprising is worth remembering and celebrating as an example of the strength, courage and resilience of the working class, its capacity for solidarity, democratic organisation and collective action and its ability to lead the struggle for a better world.


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Witkowski, Gregory R 2006, “Peasants’ Revolt? Re-evaluating the 17 June Uprising in East Germany”, German History, 24 (2), May, pp.243–66.

[1] Ostermann 1996, p.2.

[2] Dale 2005, p.10.

[3] Kolko 1990, p.388.

[4] Churchill 1946.

[5] Fulbrook 2002, pp.132–33.

[6] Gluckstein 1999, p.217.

[7] Gluckstein 1999, p.220.

[8] Epstein 2003, p.103.

[9] Quoted in Epstein 2003, p.103.

[10] The ultra-left Stalinist madness of the “Third Period” and the condemnation of Social Democrats as “social fascists” was largely responsible for this. See Gluckstein 1999, chapter 5.

[11] Epstein 2003, p.261.

[12] Dale 2005, p.15.

[13] Dennis 2000, p.32.

[14] Pritchard 2000, p.156.

[15] Pritchard 2000, p.179. Lutz Niethammer notes that “approximately four fifths of the [SED] had no leftist background at all. They were apolitical people who had been mobilised by the party in the late 1940s and 1950”. Niethammer 1993, p.15.

[16] Epstein 2003, p.123.

[17] Dale 2005, p.14.

[18] Some key indicators: industrial output in 1947 was down by a third compared to 1938; food production was half the pre-war level; 20 percent of housing stock was destroyed; and a large percentage of Germany’s working-age men were dead or crippled. Henderson n.d.

[19] The production capacity of the steel industry was reduced by 85 percent in 1946 owing to the dismantling of factories. Baring 1972, p.6.

[20] Fulbrook 2002, pp.126–27.

[21] Kopstein 1996, p.399.

[22] Kopstein 1996, p.400.

[23] Geerling et al 2020, pp.4, 10. Workers in SAGs such as the Buna and Leuna chemical plants, the Agfa film factory in Wolfen, the Sachsenwerk electrical machinery manufacturers in Dresden and several engineering firms in Magdeburg were at the forefront of events in June 1953.

[24] Kopstein 1996, p.402.

[25] Kopstein 1996, p.403.

[26] Dale 2003, p.35.

[27] Kopstein 1996, pp.407–8.

[28] Kopstein 1999, p.421.

[29] Pritchard 2000, p.43.

[30] Dale 2003, p.30.

[31] Merson 1985, p.89.

[32] Port 1997, p.145.

[33] Bruce 2003, p.27.

[34] Port 1997, p.168.

[35] Stibbe 2006, p.40.

[36] Grabas 2015, p.186; Kopstein 1996, p.411; Dale 2005, p.17.

[37] Diedrich 1992, pp.363–64.

[38] Dale 2005, p.17.

[39] Baring 1972, p.17.

[40] Grieder 2012, p.37.

[41] Ross 2000, p.55; Kopstein 1996, p.412.

[42] Pritchard 2000, pp.195–96.

[43] Ross 2000, p.53.

[44] Ross 2000, p.54.

[45] Baring 1972, p.13.

[46] Pritchard 2000, pp.194, 205.

[47] Collins 2017, p.65.

[48] Dale 2003, p.33.

[49] Baring 1972, p.20.

[50] Stibbe 2006, p.42.

[51] Dale 2005, p.16.

[52] Dennis 2000, p.63.

[53] Sperber 2004, p.625.

[54] Kramer 1999a, pp.15–20. See also Ostermann 2001, p.16.

[55] Sperber 2004, p.627 speculates that Ulbricht’s zeal may have gone “beyond what Stalin himself wanted, or at least at a faster pace than [he] intended”.

[56] Kramer 1999a, p.28.

[57] Some ten days later, the Czechoslovakian and Hungarian party leaders were summoned to Moscow and received similar instructions. Sperber 2004, p.625.

[58] Kramer 1999a, p.32.

[59] Rudolf Herrnstadt was editor of the party newspaper Neues Deutschland; Wilhelm Zaisser was the Minister of State Security. Both were supporters of the New Course.

[60] Pritchard 2000, p.206.

[61] Pritchard 2000, p.218.

[62] Dale 2005, p.19.

[63] Kramer 1999a, p.40.

[64] Baring 1972, p.42.

[65] Otto Lehmann (FDGB executive member) in Die Tribüne, 16 June 1953. Quoted in Baring 1972, pp.146–47.

[66] Richie 1998, p.683.

[67] As described by SED official Heinz Brandt, quoted in Harman 1998, p.66.

[68] One account has it that Ulbricht and Grotewohl were hiding in the cellar and were spirited out of a side door some hours later. Richie 1998, p.683.

[69] “Politbüro statement on the quota question”, 16 June 1953, quoted in Baring 1972, p.152.

[70] P Naumov, “Report on the Events in Berlin on 16 and 17 June 1953”, in Ostermann 2001, pp.202–3.

[71] Dale 2003, p.8; Kramer 1999a, p.44.

[72] Dale 2005, p.22.

[73] Brant 1957, p.67.

[74] Pritchard 2000, p.219. See also Baring 1972, pp.94–95.

[75] Kramer 1999a, p.48; Dennis 2000, p.66. The next day, with huge numbers of strikers and protesters on the streets, most police “locked their guns up so that the insurgents could not get at them, and so rendered themselves helpless”. Sperber 2004, p.688.

[76] Sperber 2004, p.637.

[77] For example Ostermann 2001, pp.172–74. RIAS was a German-language radio station set up by US military authorities in 1946 in the American sector of Berlin to broadcast propaganda to the SBZ.

[78] Crabtree et al. 2018, pp.302, 304, 311.

[79] Dale 2005, p.10; Stibbe 2006, p.44.

[80] Baring 1972, p.80. US intelligence officials praised Soviet troops for their “remarkable discipline, restraint, and cool-headedness” (Kramer 1999a, p.54), while seeing the uprising as an “excellent propaganda opportunity” (John Foster Dulles, quoted in Ostermann 2001, p.213). Churchill wrote to the British Commandant that the Soviet authorities had “the right to declare Martial Law in order to prevent anarchy” (Ostermann 1996, p.21).

[81] Baring 1972, p.76.

[82] Dale 2003, p.21.

[83] Dale 2005, p.9. These figures are at the higher end, arrived at by evaluating numerous sources. For details, see Dale 2003, pp.1–4. For a map showing centres of unrest, see https://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=2999.

[84] Dale 2003, p.2.

[85] Brant 1957, p.81.

[86] Baring 1972, p.68.

[87] Dale 2005, p.27.

[88] Brant 1957, p.188.

[89] Dennis 2000, p.66.

[90] Ross 2000, p.55.

[91] See Brant 1957, chapter 8.

[92] Brant 1957, p.84. For a detailed account of strikes and protests in Brandenburg, see pp.80–87.

[93] Grieder 2007, pp.152.

[94] Sperber 2004, p.633.

[95] Grieder 2012, p.39. The SED leadership in Leipzig estimated that a quarter of the demonstrators there were housewives. Sperber 2004, p.633.

[96] Witkowski 2006, p.261.

[97] Stibbe 2006, p.48; Dennis 2000, p.68; Brant 1957, p.78; Fulbrook 2002, p.155.

[98] “Telephonogram from Vladimir Semyonov and Vasilii Sokolovskii to Vyacheslav Molotov Reporting on the Situation in East Berlin”, in Ostermann 2001, p.217.

[99] “Report on the Events of 17–19 June 1953”, in Ostermann 2001, pp.273, 274.

[100] Brant 1957, p.77.

[101] Dennis 2000, p.68; Dale 2003, p.41.

[102] Baring 1972, pp.73–74.

[103] Fulbrook 1995, p.184.

[104] Brant 1957, pp.188–89.

[105] Fulbrook 1995, p.184; Pritchard 2000, p.209.

[106] Dale 2003, p.16.

[107] Dale 2003, p.15.

[108] Kopstein 1996, p.414.

[109] Dale 2003, pp.27–28.

[110] Dale 2003, p.29.

[111] Klaus Ewers and Thorsten Quest, quoted in Dale 2003, p.29.

[112] Heidi Roth, quoted in Dale 2005, p.24.

[113] Mainly in iron ore, potassium and copper mines. Uranium and coal miners played a minor part in the strike, mainly because Soviet troops intervened quickly in these highly strategic industries. Baring 1972, pp.59–60.

[114] In Halle-Merseburg, the KPD had been the strongest single party during the Weimar period; Magdeburg, Görlitz and Dresden had been SPD strongholds. Leipzig and Berlin had strong representation of both parties. Baring 1972, p.68; Dale 2003, p.31.

[115] The following account is based on Dale 2003, pp.19–20.

[116] Manfred Hagen, quoted in Dale 2003, p.19.

[117] “Report on the Events of 17–19 June 1953 in Berlin and the GDR and Certain Conclusions from These Events”, in Ostermann 2001, p.263.

[118] Pritchard 2002, p.113. In many cases, the workers’ demands included the release of arrested colleagues. Baring 1972, p.101.

[119] Dennis 2000, p.69; Dale 2003, p.22.

[120] Brant 1957, p.161.

[121] Pritchard 2002, p.115.

[122] Bruce 2003, p.27; Kramer 1999a, p.55.

[123] Baras 1975, p.389; Fechner was released in 1956.

[124] Sperber 2004, p.624.

[125] Grieder 2012, p.44.

[126] Thomson 2017, p.83.

[127] Grieder 2012, p.44.

[128] Ostermann 2001, p.416.

[129] Kramer 1999b, p.21.

[130] Stibbe 2006, p.46. See also Baring 1972, pp.108–9.

[131] Baring 1972, p.103. See also Brant 1957, p.159.

[132] Stibbe 2006, p.45.

[133] Dennis 2000, p.69; Dale 2003, p.21. The Leuna workers had a history of revolutionary militancy. In the disastrous March Action of 1921, for example, the factory was taken over by armed workers. Dale 2003, p.31. See also Brant 1957, pp.96–97.

[134] Pritchard 2000, 216. The numbers of expelled veterans were higher in centres of revolt: 52 percent in Magdeburg, 59 percent in Leipzig, 68 percent in East Berlin.

[135] Pritchard 2000, pp.213–14.

[136] Stibbe 2006, p.47. The concessions are detailed in “On the present position of the party and the tasks facing it in the immediate future”, SED Central Committee resolution, 21 June 1953, in Baring 1972, pp.170–72.

[137] Grieder 2012, p.44.

[138] Ostermann 2001, p.416.

[139] Ross 2000, p.59.

[140] Kopstein 1999, pp.415, 416, 421.

[141] Kopstein 1999, pp.421–22.

[142] Wierling 1996, pp.58, 59.

[143] Epstein 2003, p.111.

[144] Bessel 2002, p.71.

[145] Wierling 1996, p.58.

[146] Ross 2000, p.57.

[147] See “On the present position of the party and the tasks facing it in the immediate future”, SED Central Committee resolution, 21 June 1953, in Baring 1972, pp.160–65.

[148] Kramer 1999b, pp.7–8.

[149] Sperber 2004, p.631.

[150] Brant 1957, pp.196, 197, 199.

[151] Pritchard 2000, p.211.

[152] Pritchard 2000, p.207.

[153] Quoted in Pritchard 2002, p.113.

[154] Scholmer 1964. Jänicke was a prominent advocate for a “third way”, which he defined as an “attempt to synthesise positive elements of both systems [West and East], to find a middle line, to democratise socialism and to fill it with liberal content”.

[155] Sperber 2004, p.635.

[156] Pritchard 2000, pp.211–12.

[157] Pritchard 2000, p.212.

[158] For examples of SED members participating in and even leading strikes, see Pritchard 2002, p.121.

[159] Brant 1957, p.184.

[160] Dale 2003, p.13.

[161] Luxemburg 1970, p.185.

[162] Baring 1972, p.73.

[163] Brant 1957, p.185.

[164] Lenin 1974, p.213.

[165] See Harman 1982, chapters 3, 4 and 5.

[166] Quoted in Callinicos 1990, p.32.

[167] “The Nature of Stalinist Russia” was written as an internal document in 1948. An amended version was published in 1955 as Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis, and reprinted as State Capitalism in Russia in 1974.

[168] Stibbe 2006, p.51.

[169] See Harman 1988.

[170] Dale 2003, p.51.

[171] Niethammer 1993, p.15.

[172] See Dale 2005, Part 2.

Stalinism’s failure to fight fascism

Vashti Fox explains how Stalinism enabled and at times collaborated with fascist movements and states during the 1930s and ’40s, while the Stalinised Communist Parties undermined revolutionary working-class anti-fascism – a history that has important lessons for fighting the far right today.