Dossier: What happened on 17 June 1953 in the GDR?

Table of contents


This year marks the 70th anni­ver­sary of the events surroun­ding 17 June 1953 in the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (GDR, commonly refer­red to as “East Germany”). To this day, the anni­ver­sary attracts considera­ble media atten­tion in Germany. The events of June 1953 are widely descri­bed as a “popu­lar upri­sing” (Volks­auf­stand) that was direc­ted against the repres­sive socia­list regime but brut­ally suppres­sed by Soviet tanks. This charac­te­ri­sa­tion roughly corre­sponds to that which the Western media was propa­ga­ting at the time of the events. In the GDR itself, offi­ci­als descri­bed the events as an “attempted fascist coup”. In public and in acade­mic circles today, there is little, if any, space to discuss the events of 17 June and their histo­ri­cal context outside of the domi­nant narra­tive of a “popu­lar upri­sing”. With this dossier of trans­la­ted article excerpts, we want to shed light on signi­fi­cant aspects of the events and make them acces­si­ble to an inter­na­tio­nal audience.

What exactly happened in 1953? On 16 June, there were spora­dic, spon­ta­neous protests in the GDR, parti­cu­larly at one of the country’s largest cons­truc­tion sites in what was then Berlin’s “Stalin­al­lee” (today Karl Marx Allee). On 17 June, strikes and demons­tra­ti­ons took place in 373 diffe­rent loca­ti­ons in the coun­try. Appro­xi­m­ately 600,000 people parti­ci­pa­ted on that day, with just under 5 percent of the GDR’s working class taking part in the protests.1 In some of these loca­ti­ons, the protests turned violent. There were arsons, attacks on the People’s Police (Volks­po­li­zei), and even lynchings. At noon on 17 June, the Soviet Control Commis­sion, in agree­ment with the GDR’s govern­ment and in accordance with the occu­pa­tion regu­la­ti­ons (nego­tia­ted follo­wing the Second World War), declared a state of emer­gency. The Soviet forces subse­quently made sure their presence was felt throug­hout the coun­try, espe­ci­ally by deploy­ing tanks. The protests there­af­ter came to a swift end. On 25 June 1953, the GDR govern­ment spoke of 19 dead demons­tra­tors and 126 inju­red.2 A 2004 study by the Bundes­zen­trale für poli­ti­sche Bildung (Fede­ral Agency for Civic Educa­tion) coun­ted 55 fata­li­ties during the June events.3

The primary cause of discon­tent among the GDR popu­la­tion was above all the admi­nis­tra­tive decis­ion to raise work norms (that is, the stan­dard measure of how much work was to be perfor­med in a given period of time) by 10 percent, meaning that workers now had to produce more for the same wage. Austerity measu­res in the social sphere (such as the cutting of food ration cards for certain clas­ses) caused addi­tio­nal ire. Most of these measu­res – but not the 10 percent increase in work norms – were alre­ady with­drawn by the SED by the begin­ning of June (the reasons for these poli­cies and their rever­sal are explo­red in the follo­wing artic­les). The unrest around 17 June 1953 occur­red only eight years after the defeat of Hitler. The German popu­la­tion had not mana­ged to libe­rate itself and had to be libe­ra­ted by the Allied forces. The number of resis­tance figh­ters and anti-fascists was rela­tively small. Anti-commu­nism, a central ideo­lo­gi­cal pillar of Nazism, was still wide­spread among the German popu­la­tion in both the West and the East.

The leading poli­ti­cal circles in West Germany and the United States had actively fought the socia­list camp after the end of the Second World War and had worked towards crea­ting a poli­ti­cal crisis, espe­ci­ally in the Soviet occu­p­ied zone in Germany, with econo­mic blocka­des, acts of sabo­tage, and subver­sive measu­res. Amongst leading poli­ti­ci­ans in the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany (FRG, commonly refer­red to as “West Germany”), there was open talk of a “Day X”, when the GDR would be recon­que­red, inclu­ding by mili­tary means. As the then “Fede­ral Minis­ter of All-German Affairs”, Jakob Kaiser, said on 24 March 1952: “It is quite within the realm of possi­bi­lity that Day X will come more quickly than scep­tics dare to hope. It is our task to be as well prepared as possi­ble for the problems. The joint chief of staff plan is as good as ready to go …“4 The West’s hostile inten­ti­ons for “Day X” were confirmed by Gerhard Schrö­der, the then Inte­rior Minis­ter of the FRG, who said on 13 June 1953: “The Fede­ral Repu­blic is Germany. All other German terri­tory is terri­tory seized and with­held from us, and must be reincorporated.

Thus, Western forces exploi­ted the GDR’s moment of poli­ti­cal crisis and weak­ness in June 1953, mobi­li­sing groups from West Berlin and orga­ni­s­ing hostile media coverage to fuel the protests and expli­citly infuse them with insur­rec­tion­ary, anti-commu­nist senti­ments. Just a few weeks after 17 June 1953, the day was declared a natio­nal holi­day in West Germany and was marked as “German Unity Day” until 1990. The fact that a protest in another coun­try was made into a central natio­nal holi­day illus­tra­tes West Germany’s hostile atti­tude toward the GDR and gives away the FRG’s inten­tion to lay claim to the protests. The propa­gan­di­stic nature of “German Unity Day” is also made evident by the fact that it was the West who consis­t­ently rejec­ted the USSR’s propo­sal for a unified, demo­cra­tic, and non-aligned Germany (even as late as March 1952). 

It is impos­si­ble to under­stand the June events of 1953 without first taking the histo­ri­cal context into account. That includes, for exam­ple, the aggres­sive “roll­back” stra­tegy of the West, the dispu­tes over the “German ques­tion” follo­wing the War, the decis­ion to “cons­truct the foun­da­ti­ons of socia­lism” in the GDR in July 1952, the reasons for the austerity poli­cies adopted by the GDR in early 1953, and, finally, the contra­dic­tions between the SED and the new poli­ti­cal leader­ship of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin in March 1953.

17 June 1953 repres­ents an extre­mely criti­cal phase for the socia­list camp and espe­ci­ally for the GDR, where the endea­vour to build socia­lism was momen­ta­rily on the brink of collapse. As a thorough exami­na­tion of this histo­ri­cal moment reve­als, the decisive factor was not so much the discon­tent of the popu­la­tion but the mista­kes and weak­ne­s­ses of the poli­ti­cal leader­ship of the GDR and the USSR, i.e., in the Socia­list Unity Party of Germany (SED) and the Commu­nist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The Western camp was ther­eby able to find gaps in the emer­gent socia­list world system and exploit them to the fullest. The follo­wing four texts help to trace out the context of this histo­ri­cal moment.

In the two excerpts from Dr. Jörg Roes­ler, writ­ten in 2013 to mark the 60th anni­ver­sary of 17 June, the econo­mic histo­rian descri­bes the aggres­sive policy of the USA and West Germany against the GDR and details the skilfully opera­ted media propa­ganda of the Western powers.

The text by histo­rian Kurt Goss­wei­ler and former SED member Dieter Itzerott traces the histo­ri­cal context and conse­quen­ces of the decis­ion to “cons­truct the foun­da­ti­ons of socia­lism” in East Germany. The authors reveal the contra­dic­tory rela­ti­onship between the SED and the CPSU as a driving factor of the June crisis. They deve­lop the thesis that there were sections of the poli­ti­cal leader­ship in the GDR and the Soviet Union that wanted to use the events around 17 June 1953 to over­throw Walter Ulbricht as the leader of the GDR.

The excerpt by Dr. Anton Latzo shows how ener­ge­ti­cally the poli­ti­cal leader­ship of the FRG and the USA tried to inter­vene in the social protests of June 1953 and exploit the discon­tent for their own poli­ti­cal goals.

Finally, in his letter to the West German publisher Peter Suhr­kamp, the renow­ned play­w­right and poet Bertolt Brecht descri­bes his perso­nal impres­si­ons of the June events and confronts the narra­tive of a popu­lar uprising.

Dr. Jörg Roesler on the aggressive “rollback” strategy of the West in 1953

Dr. Jörg Roes­ler (*1940) is an econo­mic histo­rian who, from 1974 to 1991, was head of depart­ment at the Insti­tute for Econo­mic History of the Academy of Scien­ces of the GDR. He there­af­ter worked at the Leib­niz Centre for Contem­po­rary History in Pots­dam and was a visi­ting profes­sor in Canada and the US, inclu­ding at McGill Univer­sity and Port­land State Univer­sity. In 2013 he published a series of artic­les in the news­pa­per junge­Welt on the occa­sion of the 60th anni­ver­sary of 17 June 1953. We have selec­ted excerpts from two of the artic­les. In this first excerpt from an article entit­led “A Change of Stra­tegy”, Roes­ler outlines the parti­cu­larly aggres­sive turn of Western policy shortly before the June events of 1953.

On 20 Janu­ary 1953, Gene­ral Dwight D. Eisen­hower, former comman­der-in-chief of the armies of the Western Allies in the fight against Hitler and first NATO comman­der-in-chief, took the presi­den­tial oath in Washing­ton. The fact that a mili­tary man was at the head of the Western super­power was likely to increase exis­ting fears that the Cold War could become a “hot” one. The situa­tion between the two blocs – the “socia­list camp” on the one hand and the Western Euro­pean states, which had been bound to the USA since the announce­ment of the Marshall Plan (1948) and the foun­ding of NATO (1949), on the other – had alre­ady been acutely tense for three quar­ters of a year.

Perhaps even more distur­bing to the East than Eisenhower’s inau­gu­ra­tion was the appoint­ment of John Foster Dulles as Secre­tary of State. The U.S. poli­ti­cian, who had been given special powers by Eisen­hower, had deve­lo­ped the “roll­back” stra­tegy in his book published in 1950. Accor­ding to his propo­sal, this was to replace the “contain­ment” policy pursued by the previous govern­ment under the Demo­crat Harry S. Truman. Its goal was to end the tole­ra­tion of further “commu­nist occu­pa­ti­ons.” In his book, Dulles also propa­ga­ted the “rolling back” of commu­nism in Eastern Europe. The U.S. propa­ganda stati­ons “Voice of America” and “Radio Free Europe,” foun­ded in 1946 and 1950, respec­tively, were re-orien­ted accor­din­gly. In 1953, they were joined by “Radio Libe­ra­tion” (later “Radio Liberty”). These stati­ons proclai­med day after day that the United States conside­red the libe­ra­tion of the “count­ries occu­p­ied by the Soviets” as the main goal of its foreign policy.

Only three quar­ters of a year earlier, it had looked as if it would be possi­ble to signi­fi­cantly defuse the bloc confron­ta­tion, at least in Europe. On 10 March 1952, the Soviet Union had propo­sed in a note to the three Western powers [the USA, UK, and France] “to consider without delay the ques­tion of a peace treaty with Germany.” The Soviet govern­ment had atta­ched to its note a draft of such a treaty, which propo­sed as its main point the “resto­ra­tion of Germany as a unified state within the borders estab­lished by the Pots­dam Confe­rence.” But it also included as the price for this a commit­ment by Germany “not to enter into any coali­ti­ons or mili­tary alli­ances direc­ted against any state which parti­ci­pa­ted with its armed forces in the (Second World) War against Germany.” The Soviet propo­sal came as a surprise to the West and irri­ta­ted Konrad Adenauer in parti­cu­lar, who as Chan­cellor [of the FRG] was fully commit­ted to Western inte­gra­tion and thus to the divi­sion of Germany. “Accor­ding to ever­y­thing we know about Soviet policy,” writes Austrian histo­rian Horst Stei­nin­ger, “Stalin’s offer was genuine.”

The three Western powers rejec­ted the Soviet offer – with the full agree­ment of the West German chan­cellor. They did not allow them­sel­ves to be inter­rupted in their alre­ady plan­ned inte­gra­tion of the Fede­ral Repu­blic [of Germany] into the Western mili­tary alli­ances. As early as 25 March, they conveyed their rejec­tion to the Soviet side. Until Septem­ber 1952, the former Allies were still enga­ged in a “battle of notes” over the “German ques­tion”, but, at the same time, facts were being estab­lished by the West. At the end of May 1952, France, Italy, the Bene­lux count­ries and the FRG, inspi­red by the United States, signed the treaty on the “Euro­pean Defense Commu­nity” (EDC). The EDC Treaty provi­ded for the inte­gra­tion of the natio­nal armed forces of these states under a common supreme command.

For the German govern­ment under Adenauer, the rejec­tion of the “Stalin Note” by the Western powers was the signal to press ahead with its plans for a “roll­back” in Germany with grea­ter vigor than had previously been possi­ble — also “scien­ti­fi­cally.” As late as March 1952, the “Rese­arch Advi­sory Coun­cil for Ques­ti­ons of German Reuni­fi­ca­tion” held its consti­tu­ent meeting. Jakob Kaiser, the minis­ter of “All-German Affairs” in Adenauer’s first cabi­net, concluded in his opening speech from the nega­tive response of the Western powers to the Soviet peace plan for Germany: Now “Day X” – that is, the day that would trig­ger the FRG’s annexa­tion of the “Soviet Occu­pa­tion Zone” (SOZ) – could come sooner than belie­ved. One had to be prepared for all the problems asso­cia­ted with this in order to initiate the first step toward the “resto­ra­tion of the condi­ti­ons before the war” through reuni­fi­ca­tion with the “SOZ”. In doing so, as Fried­rich Ernst, a member of the plan­ning staff of the Rese­arch Advi­sory Coun­cil, put it, a lasting coope­ra­tion of this Advi­sory Coun­cil with groups such as the “Inves­ti­ga­tive Commit­tee of Free Lawy­ers” and the “Combat Group Against Inhu­ma­nity” had to be established. […]

Dr. Kurt Gossweiler and Dieter Itzerott on the decision to construct socialism in the GDR and conflicts between the CPSU and the SED

Dr. Kurt Goss­wei­ler (1917 – 2017) was a Marxist histo­rian who specia­li­zed on German fascism. Dieter Itzerott (1931 – 2020) held leading posi­ti­ons in the Free German Youth (FDJ) and the Socia­list Unity Party of Germany (SED). Their joint article entit­led “Die Entwick­lung der SED” (The Deve­lo­p­ment of the SED) first appeared in the book “Unter Feuer (Under Fire), published by the offen-siv” jour­nal in 2009. The excerpts selec­ted here are taken from three diffe­rent sections of the article, which prima­rily examine the rela­ti­onship between the CPSU and the SED in the early 1950s, when the two parties agreed upon the decis­ion to begin with the cons­truc­tion of socia­lism in the GDR.

[…] After the foun­ding of the GDR [in Octo­ber 1949], the party — unlike in the neigh­bor­ing peop­les’ demo­cra­cies — could not begin with the cons­truc­tion of socia­lism. There, in Poland, Czechos­lo­va­kia, Roma­nia, and Bulga­ria, the tran­si­tion from the anti-fascist-demo­cra­tic phase to socia­list cons­truc­tion had occur­red in 1948/1949. In the GDR, this was not yet possi­ble, because — as was also expres­sed in the Stalin Tele­gram — the primary stra­te­gic goal was still the estab­lish­ment of a unified demo­cra­tic Germany.

But sooner or later, a defi­ni­tive decis­ion had to be made regar­ding the GDR’s further course of deve­lo­p­ment. The class charac­ter of the GDR meant that – if the objec­tive of a unified demo­cra­tic Germany could not be achie­ved in the fore­seeable future – this could only be the same course as the fratern­ally allied neigh­bou­ring states in the East had taken. Since 1950, the GDR had indeed been a member of the Coun­cil for Mutual Econo­mic Assis­tance (CMEA/ComeCon), foun­ded in 1949.

The Western powers, for their part, did ever­y­thing to deepen the divi­sion of Germany, to remi­li­ta­rize West Germany and to arm it as a spear­head for aggres­sion toward the East. As early as Decem­ber 1950, the parti­ci­pants in the NATO Coun­cil meeting in Brussels announ­ced their “complete agree­ment on the role that Germany — that is, the FRG — could assume in NATO.” And in Septem­ber 1951, at a confe­rence in Washing­ton, the U.S., UK, and France agreed on the condi­ti­ons for the remi­li­ta­riza­tion of West Germany and its incor­po­ra­tion into NATO.

To coun­ter­act this and to support the protest of considera­ble sections of the West German popu­la­tion against the FRG’s remi­li­ta­riza­tion and their demands for a peaceful unifi­ca­tion of Germany, the govern­ment of the GDR issued a note in Febru­ary 1952 urging the four great powers – the three Western powers and the USSR – to speed up the conclu­sion of a peace treaty with Germany. The Soviet Union was the only one of the “Big Four” to give a posi­tive response.

On top of that: On 10 March 1952, the USSR sent a note to the Western powers with the draft of a peace treaty. This was the famous “Stalin note”, about which whole libra­ries of artic­les and books have been writ­ten, specu­la­ting on the note’s objec­ti­ves and Stalin’s inten­ti­ons, with even the most nonsen­si­cal and absurd theses being put forward […]. In this note, the Soviet Union propo­sed to conclude a peace treaty with Germany and at the same time presen­ted the draft of such a treaty: Germany was to be resto­red as a unitary state within the boun­da­ries estab­lished by the Pots­dam Agree­ment, allo­wed to possess its own armed forces neces­sary for defense, and to commit to not ente­ring into any coali­ti­ons or mili­tary alli­ances direc­ted against any state of the anti-Hitler coalition. […]

On 1 April and 7 April 1952, a dele­ga­tion of the SED leader­ship – Wilhelm Pieck, Walter Ulbricht, and Otto Grote­wohl – consul­ted with the Soviet leader­ship – Stalin, Bulga­nin, Malen­kov, and Molo­tov – about the next urgent steps in the GDR. Two topics were in the fore­ground: first, the crea­tion of the GDR’s own armed forces — which had become unavo­id­a­bly neces­sary in view of the remi­li­ta­ri­sa­tion of the FRG and its immi­nent inclu­sion in NATO; second, the tran­si­tion to the cons­truc­tion of socia­lism in the GDR.

Regar­ding Stalin’s remarks on the first ques­tion during the 1 April meeting, Wilhelm Pieck noted, “Create a People’s Army — without a commo­tion. The paci­fist period is over.” And on 7 April, Pieck noted of Stalin’s remarks on the subject: the West “has so far rejec­ted all propo­sals. … Demar­ca­tion line [is a] dange­rous border. … Armed forces must be crea­ted. … Not militia, but trai­ned army. All without a commo­tion, but insistently.”

And on the second ques­tion, the tran­si­tion to the cons­truc­tion of socia­lism, Stalin said, accor­ding to Pieck’s notes, “…crea­tion of agri­cul­tu­ral coope­ra­ti­ves in the village to encir­cle the large farmers [Groß­bau­ern] … set examp­les – … Do not force anyone. Do not shout about coll­ec­tive farms [Kolcho­sen] – socia­lism. In the begin­ning the deed – the way to socia­lism – state produc­tion is socia­list produc­tion.” 5 […]

Amongst the exter­nal factors [that contri­bu­ted to these far-reaching decis­i­ons] was the FRG’s stated policy objec­tive of “reclai­ming” the “Eastern zone” [of Germany] in alli­ance with the USA and the other NATO states. Its embargo policy and claim to be the sole repre­sen­ta­tive of Germany – through the “Hall­stein Doctrine”, which lasted until 1973, the FRG broke off rela­ti­ons with any state that reco­gni­zed the GDR diplo­ma­ti­cally – was desi­gned to isolate the GDR econo­mic­ally and poli­ti­cally while ruining it economically. […]

“In the second half of 1952, the GDR ran into econo­mic diffi­cul­ties, which resul­ted prima­rily from the fact that the coun­try had to start buil­ding up its own armed defense forces and equip­ping them more rapidly than previously plan­ned because of the acce­le­ra­ted remi­li­ta­ri­sa­tion of the FRG and its immi­nent inclu­sion in the aggres­sive NATO alli­ance system.”

In the second half of 1952, the GDR ran into econo­mic diffi­cul­ties, which resul­ted prima­rily from the fact that the coun­try had to start buil­ding up its own armed defense forces and equip­ping them more rapidly than previously plan­ned because of the acce­le­ra­ted remi­li­ta­ri­sa­tion of the FRG and its immi­nent inclu­sion in the aggres­sive NATO alli­ance system. Since neither mate­rial nor manpower nor finan­cial resour­ces were available for these addi­tio­nal tasks, considera­ble cuts had to be made to other parts of the econo­mic plan, which also had to lead to serious burdens on GDR citi­zens and thus, of course, to discon­tent amongst the popu­la­tion. In Janu­ary 1953, the Central Commit­tee of the SED ther­e­fore addres­sed a letter to the govern­ment of the USSR in which the diffi­cul­ties and problems of plan fulfill­ment were descri­bed in detail and the leader­ship of the USSR was asked to check whether help in solving the diffi­cult problems was not possible.

The Soviet Control Commis­sion [for the GDR, the Soviet’s form­erly occu­p­ied zone] then recom­men­ded strict cost-cutting measu­res in seve­ral memo­randa, also in the social sphere, to the detri­ment of the popu­la­tion. The most rigo­rous recom­men­da­ti­ons (e.g., cancel­la­tion of fare reduc­tions for the handi­cap­ped and sever­ely disab­led, and exclu­sion of the self-employed from the food ration system) were made in April 1953. One measure that met with great incom­pre­hen­sion and growing resis­tance among the working class – and on which hostile propa­ganda prima­rily poun­ced and thus had the stron­gest effect – was a decis­ion taken by the Central Commit­tee of the SED on 13–14 May and confirmed by the Coun­cil of Minis­ters on 28 May to raise work norms by 10 percent by 30 June 1953.

This decis­ion was prece­ded by months of inten­sive infor­ma­tion campaigns in the press and on the radio, as well as at a large number of work­place meetings throug­hout the coun­try, which began in Janu­ary 1953 and aimed to convince the masses of the neces­sity of incre­asing labor produc­ti­vity. Although there were quite a few examp­les of such volun­t­ary stan­dard increa­ses, they did not reach the mass scale that would have been neces­sary to raise labor produc­ti­vity to the requi­red degree.

So, it is by no means the case that – as can always be read today – the leader­ship took the path of bureau­cra­tic admi­nis­tra­tion right from the start. Only after the appeal to volun­t­a­rism had failed to produce the desi­red (and econo­mic­ally neces­sary) result did the manage­ment resort to the – now also wrong and disas­trous – means of impo­sing a ten percent increase in stan­dards “from above”, without any further discus­sion or nego­tia­tion with the trade unions.

This crea­ted a situa­tion that was very favorable for all forces hostile to socia­lism inside and outside the GDR and was also vigo­rously exploi­ted by them for anti-commu­nist, anti-govern­ment agita­tion and rabble-rousing.

In spring, quite unex­pec­tedly, these forces recei­ved help.

At the begin­ning of June 1953, the GDR leader­ship was summo­ned to Moscow, but not for a joint consul­ta­tion on the best solu­ti­ons to over­come the exis­ting diffi­cul­ties, but to receive and imple­ment the measu­res alre­ady deci­ded unila­te­rally by the new Moscow leader­ship headed by Khrush­chev and [Lavren­tiy] Beria without any consul­ta­tion with the comra­des of the GDR leadership.

The GDR dele­ga­tion – Otto Grote­wohl, Walter Ulbricht, and Fred Oels­s­ner – was presen­ted with a docu­ment entit­led “Measu­res for the Reco­very of the Poli­ti­cal Situa­tion in the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic”. In it, it was clai­med that “as a result of the imple­men­ta­tion of a flawed poli­ti­cal line” in the GDR “an extre­mely unsa­tis­fac­tory poli­ti­cal and econo­mic situa­tion had arisen.” What was the “erro­n­eous poli­ti­cal line” suppo­sed to have consis­ted of?

The Soviet docu­ment gave a comple­tely distor­ted account of the situa­tion in the GDR. It clai­med that a decis­ion had been taken at the Second Party Confe­rence “to acce­le­rate the cons­truc­tion of socia­lism,” and that this was wrong because the dome­stic and foreign policy precon­di­ti­ons for it had been lacking.

But at the Second Party Confe­rence it had been deci­ded that in the GDR “the foun­da­ti­ons of socia­lism” would be crea­ted; there had been no mention of an “acce­le­ra­ted cons­truc­tion of socialism”.

In the “Measu­res for the Reco­very of the Poli­ti­cal Situa­tion” of the new Moscow leader­ship, moreo­ver, “the propa­ganda about the neces­sity of the GDR’s tran­si­tion to socia­lism” was declared false. All the austerity measu­res – which had previously been deman­ded rather than recom­men­ded by the Soviet Control Commis­sion and subse­quently adopted by the GDR govern­ment – were also declared to be wrong. They were to be withdrawn.

Parti­cu­larly incom­pre­hen­si­ble were the demands that amoun­ted to the liqui­da­tion of the begin­nings of socia­list owner­ship in agri­cul­ture. In the GDR, “under today’s condi­ti­ons, only a simp­ler form of coope­ra­tion amongst farmers, such as coope­ra­ti­ves for the joint culti­va­tion of the soil, without socia­li­zing the means of produc­tion, could be more or less viable.” All coope­ra­ti­ves, the docu­ment said, should be reviewed and, if neces­sary, dissolved.

“It was also extre­mely odd that this “reco­very plan” made no mention whatsoe­ver of the measure that had most sever­ely strai­ned the rela­ti­ons between the party and the state on the one hand and the working class on the other – the decis­ion from mid-May to raise work norms from 1 June 1953 onwards – and did not demand its reversal.”

It was also extre­mely odd that this “reco­very plan” made no mention whatsoe­ver of the measure that had most sever­ely strai­ned the rela­ti­ons between the party and the state on the one hand and the working class on the other – the decis­ion from mid-May to raise work norms from 1 June 1953 onwards – and did not demand its rever­sal. This strange docu­ment suggests that there was an inte­rest on the part of someone in the new Soviet leader­ship to make the SED leader­ship, and espe­ci­ally its Gene­ral Secre­tary, Walter Ulbricht, a scape­goat in order to unsettle his position.

The events of 16 and 17 June were the subject of two sessi­ons of the Central Commit­tee of the SED, the 14th Central Commit­tee Plenum on 21 June and the 15th Plenum on 24–26 July 1953.

The course of the 15th plenum confirms the assump­tion that one or more members of the new CPSU leader­ship wanted to use the diffi­cul­ties of the SED leader­ship in the GDR to over­throw Walter Ulbricht and replace him with a man they liked.

At this plenum there were heated argu­ments over the ques­tion of the causes of the unrest and attacks by some parti­ci­pants on Walter Ulbricht as, they clai­med, the main person respon­si­ble for a “wrong policy”, the result of which had been the unrest on 17 June. Wilhelm Zais­ser, head of the Minis­try for State Secu­rity, and Rudolf Herrn­stadt [chief editor of the SED’s news­pa­per Neues Deutsch­land] came forward with this accu­sa­tion. They propo­sed chan­ging the party leader­ship; accor­ding to Zaisser’s propo­sal, Herrn­stadt should replace Walter Ulbricht as First Secre­tary. Zais­ser hims­elf, of course, wanted to keep control of the Minis­try for State Secu­rity. Herrn­stadt intro­du­ced a draft reso­lu­tion calling for the “rene­wal of the Party.” This reso­lu­tion further stated that the Party must be the servant of the masses, not their leader. The SED should be trans­for­med into a people’s party of all classes.

The attempt failed thoroughly. On the one hand, because Herrn­stadt and Zais­ser did not receive a majo­rity in the Central Commit­tee, and on the other hand, because Zaisser’s protec­tor and proba­bly also client, his supe­rior Soviet Minis­ter of the Inte­rior and State Secu­rity, Beria, was arres­ted in Moscow – exactly on the last day of the SED’s Central Commit­tee plenum, 26 July – and strip­ped of all his offices. With the rejec­tion of the Herrn­stadt-Zais­ser offen­sive and with the decis­i­ons of the SED’s 15th Central Commit­tee plenum to over­come the conse­quen­ces of 17 June and to imple­ment the measu­res to improve the living condi­ti­ons of the popu­la­tion, the foun­da­tion had been laid for the conso­li­da­tion of the Party and the GDR.

17 June 1953 is an event in the history of the GDR, but it is much more. It is also a part of the history of the socia­list camp and, moreo­ver, a part of the history of the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nist move­ment, and a very signi­fi­cant one at that. It is the opening link in a chain of events which, in retro­s­pect, were links in a progres­sive process of decom­po­si­tion and disso­lu­tion of the once firmly estab­lished and invin­ci­ble socia­list camp and the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nist movement.

17 June 1953: The state-run Trade Orga­ni­sa­tion shop in the Colum­bia-house on Pots­da­mer Platz is set on fire.

Dr. Jörg Roesler on the West’s propaganda

Dr. Jörg Roes­ler (*1940) is an econo­mic histo­rian who, from 1974 to 1991, was head of depart­ment at the Insti­tute for Econo­mic History of the Academy of Scien­ces of the GDR. He there­af­ter worked at the Leib­niz Centre for Contem­po­rary History in Pots­dam and was a visi­ting profes­sor in Canada and the US, inclu­ding at McGill Univer­sity and Port­land State Univer­sity. In 2013 he published a series of artic­les in the news­pa­per junge­Welt on the occa­sion of the 60th anni­ver­sary of 17 June 1953. We have selec­ted excerpts from two of the artic­les. In this second excerpt from the article “Auf dem Prüf­stand” (On Trial), Roes­ler descri­bes exactly how the West propa­gan­di­zed the events of 17 June 1953.

Barely a day had passed after the events of 17 June before both the GDR and the FRG had alre­ady adopted expl­ana­ti­ons regar­ding the causes and back­ground. The inter­pre­ta­ti­ons of one and the same event have rarely been more contra­dic­tory. In the East, the Neue Deutsch­land [the SED’s news­pa­per] ran the head­line “Collapse of the Venture of Foreign Agents in Berlin” on 18 June. Three days later, the organ of the Central Commit­tee of the SED enligh­tened the reader as to “who was behind the fascist coup attempt of 17 June “.

In the West, the Süddeut­sche Zeitung alre­ady spoke on 18 June of a “people’s upri­sing” that had taken place the day before in East Berlin. And the Frank­fur­ter Allge­meine Zeitung proclai­med: “The working class has risen up against the Bols­he­vik exploiters.”


As far as the charac­te­riza­tion of the events of 17 June in the West is concer­ned, the offi­cial presen­ta­ti­ons of history – from the Fede­ral Agency for Civic Educa­tion (Bundes­zen­trale für poli­ti­sche Bildung) to the publishers of school text­books – basi­cally follo­wed the language of the “Law on the Day of German Unity” enac­ted in August 1953. In its justi­fi­ca­tion, it was stated that on 17 June 1953, “the German people in the Soviet occu­pa­tion zone and East Berlin rose up against commu­nist tyranny and (…) expres­sed their will for free­dom.” “17 June has thus become a symbol of German unity in free­dom.” Accor­din­gly, 17 June hence­forth was refer­red to as the “People’s Upri­sing for Free­dom and Unity.”


For years, the “Radio in the Ameri­can Sector” (RIAS) endea­vored to convey to East German workers that they would have to “toil endlessly” under the “SED regime”. There was talk of a “mad work tempo” and it was suggested to the workers that they were being subjec­ted to “the most brutal methods of explo­ita­tion” which they should resist for the sake of preser­ving their lives. Without the RIAS editors expli­citly stating it, the radio programme Werk­tag der Zone (The Working Day in the [Occu­p­ied] Zone) – which was broad­cast week­days between 5:35 and 5:45 a.m. for shift workers – natu­rally suggested some­thing else: The pace of work under the libe­ral-demo­cra­tic condi­ti­ons of the FRG was more relaxed.

“Between 2 April and 28 May 1953, 21 broad­casts of “Werk­tag der Zone” revol­ved exclu­si­vely around the issue of work norms. […] “Workers from all bran­ches of indus­try in East Berlin deman­ded (today) … empha­ti­cally that East Berli­ners gather at Straus­ber­ger Platz on Wednes­day morning at seven o’clock for a joint demons­tra­tion.” This message was broad­cast at 11 p.m. and midnight on 16 June and repea­ted hourly between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. on 17 June. ”

Since the end of 1952 and espe­ci­ally since the spring of 1953, the issue of work norms became the domi­nant topic in RIAS’ Werk­tag der Zone programme. The repor­tage was then often repea­ted during early evening broad­casts of “Berlin spricht zur Zone” (Berlin Speaks to the [Occu­p­ied] Zone). Between 2 April and 28 May 1953, 21 broad­casts of Werk­tag der Zone revol­ved exclu­si­vely around the issue of work norms. […] “Workers from all bran­ches of indus­try in East Berlin deman­ded (today) … empha­ti­cally that East Berli­ners gather at Straus­ber­ger Platz on Wednes­day morning at seven o’clock for a joint demons­tra­tion.” This message was broad­cast at 11 p.m. and midnight on 16 June and repea­ted hourly between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. on 17 June. In the early morning hours of 17 June, an appeal by the noto­rious “cold warrior” Ernst Schar­now­ski [the West Berlin chair­man of the German Trade Union Confe­de­ra­tion] to his “East Berlin colle­agues” was broad­cast four times over the RIAS. He supported the demands for norm reduc­tions. Since he had been barred from issuing a call directly to a gene­ral strike, Schar­now­ski explai­ned that he could not give instruc­tions to the people “in the East Zone and East Berlin,” only good advice. Regard­less, he urged the resi­dents of the Eastern part of the city not to aban­don the cons­truc­tion workers on Stalin­al­lee [where the unrest had first broken out]. “Ther­e­fore, join the move­ment of East Berlin cons­truc­tion, trans­port and rail­road workers and seek out your Straus­berg places ever­y­where.” Start­ing at 7 a.m., RIAS repor­ted every half hour on the demons­tra­ti­ons that were beginning.

Dr. Anton Latzo on the instrumentalisation of the June unrest

Dr. Anton Latzo studied, taught, and rese­ar­ched at the Insti­tute for Inter­na­tio­nal Rela­ti­ons of the GDR, where he was last head of the Chair for History and Poli­tics of the Socia­list States of Europe. He published on ques­ti­ons of the foreign policy of these count­ries and, since the 1990s, on ques­ti­ons of the inter­na­tio­nal struggle for peace, the foreign policy of the FRG, the history, deve­lo­p­ment and poli­tics of the states of Eastern Europe, and the inter­na­tio­nal labour move­ment. The follo­wing is an excerpt from a series of artic­les by Dr. Latzo to mark the 70th anni­ver­sary of 17 June, in which he explains how the West anti­ci­pa­ted and instru­men­ta­li­sed the unrest.6

[…] Egon Bahr, then editor-in-chief of the “Radio in the Ameri­can Sector” (RIAS) in West Berlin, descri­bed the mobi­li­zing and coor­di­na­ting role of the station by saying, “As never before, it has been demons­tra­ted with what fran­tic effec­ti­ve­ness and speed an elec­tro­nic medium is capa­ble of chan­ging a situa­tion. This has never been done before.”

Because RIAS feared that “only a few people” would turn out for 17 June, they propa­ga­ted – accor­ding to Bahr – their own meeting place: “Seven o’clock in the morning at Straus­ber­ger Platz.” RIAS heated up the situa­tion more and more, from hour to hour. The demands broad­cast on the station became incre­asingly poli­ti­cal. Soon there was no more talk of the work norms, but of over­thro­wing the govern­ment as well as of “free elec­tions” and the removal of the SED from the workplace.

The protests, which were incre­asingly direc­ted against the Party, the govern­ment, and the state, expan­ded in this way to include Berlin, the region around Halle/Saale (Leuna, Buna, Merse­burg, Bitter­feld, Wolfen), the major cities of Leip­zig, Dres­den and Magde­burg, and the indus­trial sites of Bran­den­burg an der Havel and Hennigs­dorf near Berlin. In the south of the GDR, howe­ver, such as in the districts of Karl-Marx-Stadt and Suhl, things remained rela­tively quiet. In Berlin and other larger GDR cities, provo­ca­teurs – most of them orga­ni­zed and smug­g­led in from West Berlin – broke into depart­ment stores, books­to­res, offices of socie­tal orga­niza­ti­ons, and state offices, demo­lished faci­li­ties, set fires, and tore down flags of the GDR and the labour move­ment. Employees of the SED, other parties, and mass orga­niza­ti­ons were beaten and abused.

The fact that these and other provo­ca­ti­ons, as well as their escala­tion into poli­ti­cal actions, were plan­ned and control­led is shown by a variety of acti­vi­ties of offi­cial state insti­tu­ti­ons and so-called non-govern­men­tal organizations. […]

In mid-June 1953, the head of the CIA, Allan W. Dulles, was in West Berlin — accom­pa­nied by Gene­ral Matthew B. Ridgway, who had rich expe­ri­ence from the war against the Korean people. With them to West Berlin came Otto Lenz, Secre­tary of State in the Chancellor’s Office, and other West German poli­ti­ci­ans and state offi­ci­als. On 17 June, the Minis­ter for “All-German Affairs,” Jakob Kaiser, also arri­ved in West Berlin to observe and guide the action on the spot.

Bertolt Brecht’s impression of the June events and their background

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) is one of the most important German poets and drama­tists of the 20th century. In his letter to his West German publisher Peter Suhr­kamp on 1 July 1953, he descri­bes his impres­si­ons of the June events and their background.

Dear Suhr­kamp,

You ask me for my opinion on the events of 16 and 17 June. Was it a popu­lar upri­sing, an attempt “to win free­dom,” as the over­whel­ming part of the West German press claims? Was I indif­fe­rent or even hostile to a popu­lar upri­sing, did I oppose free­dom, when on 17 June, in a letter to the Socia­list Unity Party of Germany, of which the final sentence was published, (I) declared myself ready to parti­ci­pate in my own way (in artis­tic form) in the abso­lut­ely neces­sary debate between the workers and the govern­ment? — For three deca­des I have tried to repre­sent the cause of the working class in my writings.

But on the night of 16 June and the morning of 17 June, I saw the workers’ harro­wing demons­tra­ti­ons turn into some­thing very diffe­rent from an attempt to win free­dom for them­sel­ves. They were rightly embit­te­red. The unfort­u­nate and unwise measu­res of the govern­ment, which were inten­ded to hastily build up heavy indus­try in the terri­tory of the GDR, turned all at once peasants, craft­smen, busi­ness owners, workers, and intellec­tu­als against them. A bad harvest last year, caused by a great drought, and the rural exodus of hundreds of thou­sands of peasants this year also threa­tened the nutri­tion of all strata of the popu­la­tion; measu­res such as the with­dra­wal of food ration cards for petty busi­ness owners called their very exis­tence into ques­tion; other measu­res, such as the deduc­tion of sick leave from recrea­tion leave, the cancel­la­tion of special travel cost bene­fits for workers, and the gene­ral raising of the work norms while the cost of living remained the same or even increased, finally drove the workers – whose trade unions func­tioned only weakly and, accor­ding to their posi­tion, could func­tion only weakly – into the streets and made them forget the undoub­tedly great advan­ta­ges which the expul­sion of the Junkers [the landed nobi­lity], the socia­liza­tion of Hitler’s war indus­try, the plan­ning of produc­tion, and the smas­hing of the bour­geois mono­poly of educa­tion had given them.

In the early morning hours of 17 June, the street was alre­ady grotes­quely mixed with all kinds of idle youths who were smug­g­led in in columns through the Bran­den­burg Gate, across Pots­da­mer Platz, on the Warsaw Bridge, but also with the sharp, brutal charac­ters of the Nazi era, the local ones, who had not been seen in crowds for years and yet who had always been there.

The slogans trans­for­med rapidly. “Away with the govern­ment!” became “Hang them!”, and the street [Bürger­steig, a play on words between bour­geois and street rabble] took charge. Around noon, when demons­tra­ti­ons in the GDR, in Leip­zig, Halle, Dres­den, had also turned into riots, the fire began to resume its old role. From the street Unter den Linden, one could see the cloud of smoke from Colum­bus House, lying on the sector border of Pots­da­mer Platz, as one once saw the cloud of smoke from the Reichs­tag buil­ding on a past disas­ter day [refer­ring to the Reichs­tag fire of 1933]. Today, as then, it was not workers who had set the fire: those who build do not resort to such weapons. Then, here in Berlin as in other cities, books­to­res were stor­med and books thrown out and burned. The Marx and Engels volu­mes that went up in flames were as little anti-working-class as the red flags that were publicly torn. (In the photos published in the West German press, you can see without a magni­fy­ing glass who was tearing the flags). In the provin­ces, people were “libe­ra­ted.” But when the prisons were stor­med, strange prisoners came out of these “bastil­les,” in Halle the former comman­dant of the Ravens­brück concen­tra­tion camp, Erna Dorn. She gave chee­ring spee­ches in the market­place. In some places there were attacks on Jews, not many, since there are not many Jews left. And all day long there were chee­ring spee­ches over RIAS [the Radio in the Ameri­can Sector], which had scrap­ped its programme, and the word free­dom was spoken by elegant voices. Ever­y­where the “forces” were at work, thin­king day and night of the welfare of the workers and the “little people” and promi­sing that high stan­dard of living which in the end then always leads to a high stan­dard of death. There seemed to be great people ready to lead the workers from the streets directly to the free­dom for the muni­ti­ons facto­ries. For seve­ral hours, until the inter­ven­tion of the occu­pa­tion forces, Berlin was on the brink of a third world war.

Dear Suhr­kamp, let’s not fool oursel­ves: Not only in the West, but also here in the East of Germany, “the forces” are at work again. I watched on that tragic 17 June how the bour­geoi­sie [Bürger­steig] threw the “Deutsch­land­lied” onto the street and the workers sang it down with the “Inter­na­tio­nale”. But, confu­sed and help­less, they could not break through.

The Socia­list Unity Party of Germany has made mista­kes that are very serious for the socia­list party and have turned workers, inclu­ding old socia­lists, against it. I do not belong to [the Party]. But I respect many of its histo­ri­cal achie­ve­ments, and I felt atta­ched to it when it was atta­cked — not for its mista­kes, but for its merits — by fascist and warmon­ge­ring rabble. In the struggle against war and fascism, I stood and still stand by [the Party’s] side.

Bertolt Brecht, Berlin-Weißen­see, 1. Juli 1953, Berli­ner Allee 190.

© Bertolt Brecht Estate / Suhr­kamp Verlag, source: Brecht-Archiv der DDR, published in: Brecht, B.: Brief an Peter Suhr­kamp (July 1953), in: Briefe 1913 — 1956, Berlin Weimar 1983, 746 pages, pp. 656–659. Trans­la­ted by the IF DDR.



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