The Cold War: East German Worker Riots (June 1953)


Figure 1.--Here we see German boys asidting with relief sypplies for refugees tht crosed over to East Berlin nd East German as aresultv if the suppression following the East German Worker riots in 1953. The wire service caoption read, "Germans help Germans: Under this sloganthey started un Celle an ad campsignfor all Lower Saxonia for refugees from the Soviet zone. The first step for the campaign which might be taken as an example came from the city council of Celle. The beginning of thid aid-campign was a three-hours collection staged by 500 Celle children who collected during this gime three truck-loads and a horse-drawn cart full of clothing, shoes, toys and houshold furniture and implements. Most of these things were s good as new."

The working class in Germany before the NAZIs had been heavily politicied by left-wing politicians. Thus many workers in the Soviet occupation zone were willing to give socialism a chance. Many would have acceoted Communist political control if they delivered on material benefits. Many in the Party believed that they would be able to unleased the productive engine of socialism. By the early-1950s, it ws clear tht this ws not happening. And it is notable ghat the first real opposition to the Communists camed from workers in whose named they claimec to govern. The 1953 East German worker uprising was the first in a series of violent uprisings that would periodically rock the Soviet Eastern European empire. Workers in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) began protesting working conditions conditions (June 17, 1953). Factory managers imposed unreasonable production set by DDR authorities quotas on (June 17). he uprising began as a demonstration against those quotas, but quickly spread to over 400 cities, towns, and villages throughout the DDR. The resulting riots threatened the very existence of the Communist East German regime. The spontaneous outburst shocked the leadership of of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) as well as their Soviet masters. This was not how workers were expected to behazve in a Socialist workers paradise. The riots occurred only 3 months after Stalin's death and the Soviet empire was still in a state of turmoil adjusting to a new political reality without Stalin. It was East German workers which set off the event, but it was soon embraced by a wide cross-section of East German +society. And as it developed, the demonstators began expressing concerns far beyond factory quotas. The movement began to express a much wider range of political and social issues--including free elections. This of course was anethma to the SED and the Soviets. And most shocking of all was when chants began to appeat like “Death to Communism” and “Long live Eisenhower!” One historians writes in his introduction, for the first time ever “the ‘proletariat’ had risen against the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.” [Ostermann] This was a critical turning pont in the Cold war. Living conditions and political oppression in the Soviet Union could be hidden from Western Communists and the freedom and affluence of the West could be hidden from the Soviet people. But Germany was different. East Germans could listen to West German radio and television at a time when the German Economic Miracle was taking hold. Some observers believe that the commercials may have been more influential than the programming. It was thus in divided Germany that the stark disparities between East and West became starkly apparent. The worker protests quickly turned violent. At the time as the workers were quickly supressed, the riots were not seen as particularly important. Some historians now believe that the impact of the riots were more significant than believed at the time. The confidence of the SED leadership including Walter Ulbricht was badly shaken. The East German workers were brutally suppressed. The Soviets while shocked, reacted immediately by sending tanks into the streets and ordering Red Army troops to fire on the demonstrators. At the time, the Soviet leadership was involved in a struggle for power following Stalin's death. The arrest of KGB Director Lavrentii Beria has been explained on his attitude toward Germany, although obviously other more practical matters were involved, namely the fear of other Politburo members for their saftey. Similar reactions occurred at different times in the Soviet satellite states: Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1970, 1976, 1980)

German Working Class

The working class in Germany before the NAZIs had been heavily politicied by left-wing politicians. This was a problem Hitler faced after seizing power, a working class heavily priented toward the Soialists and Communists. Ovr opposition was relatively easily extinguished by the Gestapo and concentration camps. But Socialist ideas were never fully extinguished. And of course the term Sociakist was even part of the NAZI Party name. After the disaster of World War II, many workers in the Soviet occupation zone were willing to give socialism a chance. Many would have acceoted Communist political control if they delivered on material benefits.

The Party

Many in the Party, both the leadership and lower level Party members, believed that they would be able to unleased the productive engine of socialism.

Economic Problems

By the early-1950s, it ws clear that this was not happening. The German Economic Miracle taking shape in the West was not occurring in the DDR. There were several reasons fir this. The Soviets in the afternsth of Wotldcwar Ii dismantelled while factories and shipped them bavk to Russia. In addition, thecterms of vtrade between the DDR and the Siviet vUnion were hid=gly favorable to the Soviets. The Germans did not get fair paynment for the manufvtured nd finnished product shipped to the Soviet Union. The major problem, however, was the findamntal inefficies of Socialism and economic planning. All of thi affcted the wages thst the regime was able to pay workers.

Worker Opposition

It is notable ghat the first real opposition to the Communists camed from workers in whose named they claimec to govern.

Uprising (June 1953)

The 1953 East German worker uprising was the first in a series of violent uprisings that would periodically rock the Soviet Eastern European empire. Workers in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) began protesting working conditions conditions (June 17, 1953). Factory managers unable to achieve the effencies inherrent in free market capitalism decided to force workers to work harder. They already were paid less in than workers in the West. Factory managers sought to increase production by imposed what proved to be unreasonable production quotas set by DDR authorities (June 17). The reader will note that thios sounds suspicously like the way workers were treated by early Capitalists. The uprising began as a small peaceful demonstration against those quotas, but quickly spread to over 400 cities, towns, and villages throughout the DDR. The resulting riots threatened the very existence of the Communist East German regime. Without Soviet intervention the regime probably would have fallen.

Shock to the Ledership

The spontaneous outburst shocked the leadership of of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) as well as their Soviet masters. This was not how workers were expected to behazve in a Socialist workers paradise. The riots occurred only 3 months after Stalin's death and the Soviet empire was still in a state of turmoil adjusting to a new political reality without Stalin.

Wider Movement

It was East German workers which set off the event, but it was soon embraced by a wide cross-section of East German society. And as it developed, the demonstators began expressing concerns far beyond factory quotas. The movement began to express a much wider range of political and social issues--including free elections. This of course was anethma to the SED and the Soviets. And most shocking of all was when chants began to appeat like “Death to Communism” and “Long live Eisenhower!” One historians writes in his introduction, for the first time ever “the ‘proletariat’ had risen against the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.” [Ostermann] By noon the riots had escalated and the workers from East Germany were marching through the Brandenburg Gate into West Germany. The hoped to join with the West German workers who were sympstheric. . This was a critical turning pont in the Cold War. Living conditions and political oppression in the Soviet Union could be hidden from Western Communists and the freedom and affluence of the West could be hidden from the Soviet people. But Germany was different. East Germans could listen to West German radio and television at a time when the German Economic Miracle was taking hold. Some observers believe that the commercials may have been more influential than the programming. It was this in divided Germany that the stark dispsaities between East and West became starkly apparent.

Violence

The worker protests quickly turned violent.

Supression

The East German workers were brutally suppressed. The Soviets while shocked, reacted immediately by sending tanks into the streets and ordering Red Army troops to fire on the demonstrators. At the time, the Soviet leadership was involved in a struggle for power following Stalin's death. The arrest of KGB Director Lavrentii Beria has been explained on his attitude toward Germany, although obviously other more practical matters were involved, namely the fear of other Politburo members for their safety. The question of Germany was a very sensitive one in Moscow. The War was still very fresh in the minds of Soviet leadership. The NAZIs had come very close to destroying the Soviet Union. And the Soviert victory required a national effort of msive prportions. A substanhtialmpart of the country lay in ruins. The soviet Union may have suffered 25 million casulties in the war. The Soviers were not about to relinquish control of Germany. Soviet troops backed bt tnks and the East German Volkspolize opened fore on the rioters. tanks, rop fired into th crowds of people killing many, and injuring many more. Thy even fired into West Berlin.

Western Reaction

Western leaders were surrised by the worker riots and unsure as to just how to respond. Conservative anti-Communidts wanted committed to the idea of “rolling back” Communism in Eastern Europe. They saw the riots as presenting the opportunity to act. Some wanted aggresive action. Documents now available show that some officials wanted to “encourage elimination of key puppet officials.” President Eisenhower was just ekected and was in process of winding down the Koren War. The last thing he wanted was to generate a conflict in Europe. As a military man he was keenly aware of the huge conventional Soviet military advantage in Europe. He this reacted cautiosly. The primary American reaction was to begin a relief effort to East Germns who cried over to West Berlin and West Germany. This not only provided needed aid to the refugees, but made a strong statement in the propagand war with the Soviets. More than 5.5 million parcels were distributed during the 3 months that the program operated. The United States had already increased its resettlement admissions quotas under the United States Escapee Program (USEP) (1952).

Refugees

Following Wirld war and the imposition of the Allied and Soviet occuption zone, Germans could still move reltively freely between zones. It was the only area of the Iron Curtain where Eastern Europeans could feely leave. Taking advantage of this route, the number of Eastern Europeans applying for political asylum in West Germany was 197,000 (1950), 165,000 (1951), and 182,000 (1952). The DDR authorities finally closed the border with West Germsny (summer 1952). The border in Berlin, however, remained open. As a result of the East German Worker Riots and the prospects for increaed Sovietization eslewhere in Eastern Europe, the number of refugees increased to 331,000 in 1953. [Loescher, p.60] Workers who participated in the riots if they could be identified wee arrested. Some sought to ecape to West Berlin. Many who did not participate used the Berlin escape route to reach the west. This began a massive brain drain whivh would not stop until the Berlin Wall was erected (1961).

Importance

At the time as the East German workers were quickly supressed, the riots were not seen as particularly important. Some historians now believe that the impact of the riots were more significant than believed at the time. The confidence of the SED leadership including Walter Ulbricht.was badly shaken. It clearly demonstrated that even afterv8 years of singlr party and pilice state rule, the East Germans were not committed to the Communist regime. Worst still, oppoeition was pronounced with the very workers that were susposed to be the bulwark ofvthe regime. In fact they appeared to be the group most critical of the Communists. And the SED leadership had good reason to worry. It would be the Polish workers through the free union Solidarity Movement tht woukd begin the process by which Cimmunist and the soviet empire would unravel. This dynamic was not lost on the Communist party leadership in neighboring countries. In Moscow any idea of liberalization made possible by the death of Stalin to the extent they existed were helved. Ulbricht was able to regain Kremlin support by convincing the Soviets that what was needed was a good Stalinist to supress any disension. The Kremlin also saw the need to support the DDR bith diplomatically and economically. One of the DDR's problems besides the inefficensies of socialism was that the Soviet Union had ben exploiting its German colony. This begn an era of less exploitive policies, but hardly one of eually beneficial relations. American Cold War policy changed as well. It was increasinly clear that the United states would not cjallenge the Soviet Eastern European empire militarily. Republican ehetoric about 'liberating' the captive nations which had been an important feature of the 1952 presidential campaign declined in the nationalmpolitical discourse. Here is was a practical political shift. A Reoublican was now in the White House and ton pursue this line was to citicize their own president and not the Democrats. .

Other Eastern European Uprisings

The East German Wirker riots wee a dress rehersal for other Siviet interbventions. Similar reactions occurred at different times in the Soviet satellite states: Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1970, 1976, 1980) The Soviets for the next three decades wusec military intervention or the threat of suvh intervention to kwep Communist regimes in power abd Communist officuals in line. Only when Mikhail Gorbachev who believed Communism could be rformed refused to use force or allow the EastvGermans to use force did the the communist system begun to unravel, not only in asrern Europe bt to his surprise in the Soviet Union itself. The East German workers showed that the Communism established by the Red Army could only be maintained by brute mikitary force.

Sources

Loescher, Gil. The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Ostermann, Christian. "Introduction" Uprising in East Germany, 1953: The Cold War, the German Question, and the First Major Upheaval behind the Iron Curtain (Central European University Press: Budapest, 2001). This volume is part of of the “National Security Archive Cold War Document Reader” series.








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Created: 3:05 AM 8/23/2012
Last updated: 4:28 AM 6/24/2013