On June 17, 1953, the first in a series of rebellions against Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe took place.
It began in East Berlin and spread out across the German Democratic Republic. Over half a million workers went on strike, and around a million East Germans — close to 10 percent of the population — joined the protests.
These figures would have climbed even higher if the Red Army and domestic security forces had not, with lethal force, quickly intervened. The scale of the response prompted Bertolt Brecht’s famous barb: the Politburo would have to “dissolve the people and elect another.”
But what was most surprising was how quickly workers radicalized. A routine strike in East Berlin grew into a nationwide rebellion. In some towns, inter-factory strike committees and embryonic soviets formed.
This all happened in one day, between when workers clocked in for their morning shifts and when martial law was imposed that afternoon.
East Germany’s Soviet allies were flabbergasted. “How could this happen?” snorted one. “I don’t understand. Such things are not started up from one day to the next!”
The spark was a strike called by building workers at Berlin’s Stalinallee construction site, where a monumental, wedding-cake-style boulevard was rising from the postwar rubble.
Although in a sense spontaneous, the strike in fact grew out of ongoing discussions between disgruntled shop stewards about recent increases to the work quotas.
Workers dropped their tools and debated how to move forward. Should the resolution demand the repeal of the new work quotas, as well as criticize the regime? Should a delegation of workers take the resolution directly to the government?
Ultimately, they decided to march en masse with a simple message around the quota.
The June 16 march began as a trickle and without a grand design. The strikers’ banner read “We demand a quota reduction!”. Their aim was simple: deliver the resolution.
But as they passed other sites, new workers joined them. Thousands swelled the ranks, and the chants changed accordingly.
The quota question lost its central place, and the streets rang with slogans like “Workers join us!” “Unity is Strength!” “We want free elections!” and “We want to be free, not slaves.”
A crowd of some ten thousand arrived at the House of Ministries. An elderly worker instigated a chant: “We want to speak with the government!”
They demanded that Walter Ulbricht, leader of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) — formed from the merger of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the East — appear.
Instead, lesser officials emerged to address the crowd. They announced that the workers’ main demand — the revocation of the quota hike — would be met. An easy victory, it seemed, had been won.
With Ulbricht nowhere in sight, some dispersed, content that a major concession had been granted — and so effortlessly too. But most preferred to wait. They mistrusted the officials bearing concessions and demanded “to hear that from Ulbricht himself.”
Government functionaries yielded to speakers from the floor. One presented a set of demands: “Cancel the quota rises; reduce prices in the state-owned shops; a general rise in workers’ living standards; abandon the attempt to create an army; free elections in Germany.”
Then, to loud applause, a young engineer suggested they march through Berlin calling for a general strike.
By that afternoon, strikers fanned out — in buses and trams, on bicycles — to workplaces throughout the city.
Overnight, the news traveled nationally, and the next morning the air crackled with one question: should we “show solidarity with Berlin?”. Mass meetings decided whether or not to strike and elected strike committees.
Lay union officials, militant workers, and those who rebutted the official claims of the meeting itself were prominent on the committees.
Often, they knew one another from labor movement organizations such as the SPD, trade unions, the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime (VVN), or the army. In some workplaces the pace of events overwhelmed attempts to create a collective decision-making process.
But where functioning committees were established, members debated action proposals and put them to mass vote in a potent fusion of democracy and coordination.
The first task was to take over the workplace. Some committees even socialized from below, turning their workplaces into cooperatives.
More commonly, committees focused either on negotiating with management for the reinstatement of fired workers and the dismissal of functionaries, or on spreading the strike.
Workers took command of the telephone exchange, flew pickets, and marched around the surrounding area.
In addition, the committees drew up lists of broader demands. These expressed the existential needs of the strike (that strike days be paid and committee members suffer no reprisals) as well as workplace-related grievances.
Many “material” demands shaded into politics, such as the cancellation of the quota increase or equal pay for women, while others were explicitly political: the reduction of police pay, the establishment of free elections (often for Germany as a whole), the legalization of industrial action, freedom for political prisoners, and the resignation of the government.
In town after town, marches formed, usually starting in striking factories. Other sectors of the population — workers from smaller firms, housewives, students, and the self-employed — joined in. On reaching the town center, the protesters would hold a rally or try to occupy the seats of municipal power.
In Leipzig, for instance, protesters occupied the broadcasting system, the newspaper publisher, and the regime-run union and youth organizations’ headquarters. They celebrated success at lunchtime; demonstrators danced to tunes from the piano they set up in the market square.
The strike, its spread, and its culmination in a rally seemed winged by a sense of purpose. Wide layers of the population felt that “something should be done” and formed a consensus, often with surprising strength, about the course of action.
But after this point, the sense of common purpose lessened. Strategic and tactical questions grew complex: Which building to occupy? Where does power lie?
The initial protest began with groups of workers who knew one another and could achieve binding decisions with comparative ease.
But as they spilled onto the streets and others joined their ranks, the relative strength of these networks declined. And, although most marches and rallies had proceeded peacefully, the state sent in security forces to disperse the crowds.
Not infrequently, protesters armed only with fists or tools disarmed the state’s forces. The Stasi was ineffective, and its center lost touch with many local branches; the police were weak, and a minority mutinied.
Nonetheless, the security forces’ intervention did raise the cost of protesting, multiplied the uncertainties facing participants, and contributed to a fragmentation of the sense of unity that had marked the earlier stages.
There was something carnivalesque about these events: the theatrical ritual, and the sense of protesters turning the world upside down.
They took over town radio stations and loudspeaker systems to broadcast rallying calls. They ransacked the premises of state institutions and stormed police stations and prisons.
They tore propaganda from walls; school children defenestrated their Russian textbooks; and in one town, protesters smoked Stasi officers out of their building and locked them in a kennel with a bowl of dog food placed in front.
In Brandenburg they arrested a hated judge and public prosecutor, then took them to the market square for public cross-examination by the assembled citizens.
The majority of the insurrectionary phase proceeded unsystematically, with fragmented forces pursuing immediate, limited aims. However, where strike committees linked up to form inter-factory — or even regional — committees, events took a sharper and more consciously revolutionary form.
Joint strike committees were established in Hennigsdorf, Görlitz, Cottbus, Gera, on the building sites of Rügen, and above all in the densely industrialized triangle between the rivers Saale, Mulde, and Pleisse — in the towns of Leipzig, Halle, Merseburg, Bitterfeld-Wolfen, and Schkeuditz.
Some committees coordinated not only strike actions and demonstrations but also insurrectionary activity.
The bodies that formed earliest could exert a potent influence. In Merseburg, the two major factories’ strike committees established a joint committee that determined that the best tactic to ensure the uprising’s continuation was to return to base and occupy. Meanwhile, they sent a delegation to Halle, the nearest major city.
There, they established another committee that included factory representatives, a student, and a tradesman. The Halle committee developed its own action program and supervised the occupation of the local radio station and newspaper print shop.
In Bitterfeld-Wolfen, around thirty thousand workers marched together into the town square. They elected a central committee, formed from representatives of all the major factories plus a housewife and a student. The committee delegated units of workers to take over the town, each one backed by hundreds of demonstrators.
They took control of the prison, where they instructed an official to produce a list of political prisoners for release. They took control of the post office, town hall, SED and Stasi premises, and the telephone exchange.
They arrested the mayor, took officials into protective custody, disarmed police officers, and locked up the police chief, all in the name of the committee.
Police files were opened, and the names of collaborators read out to a mass meeting. Meanwhile, they directed the fire brigade to rid the town walls of regime propaganda, and ensured that food and energy supplies were in rebel hands.
In short, the committee swiftly and smoothly usurped economic and civic authority.
Next, it extended its influence into neighboring areas, sending workers’ delegations by train and by truck to spread and coordinate action. Finally, it raised its eyes to the national stage.
It called for a further generalization of the strike and sent its demands to the “so-called German Democratic Government”: the government must resign and be replaced, pending free elections, by “a provisional government of progressive workers,” it must dissolve the army, and it must raze the western borders.
In Görlitz, the rally’s size thwarted the mayor’s plans for dispersal. The crowd formed a committee of popular rule and an unarmed workers’ militia.
They proceeded to occupy the local courts, police stations, the town hall, the premises of the SED and the Stasi, the regional newspaper, and the rail station.
They fired the police chief and appointed his replacement. The mayor signed for the release of all political prisoners. The committee met and interacted with a mass rally, which enabled the crowd to give ongoing feedback on the committee’s proposals.
The success of the uprising in these towns can be explained by the presence of large factories, which facilitated the strike committees’ effective organization.
Timing also mattered, in terms of the speed of protest organization and the hour of the Soviet counterattack. In Görlitz the rally gathered earlier than elsewhere.
Strikers and protesters quickly united, deliberated their goals, and occupied major power centers. They were helped by another local advantage: martial law was not declared until 5:30 that night — several hours later than in Berlin.
But why did the rising spread so fast and burn so bright? A number of factors were at work. One was that the regime appeared weak: the SED hemorrhaged its working-class support, maintained only a skeletal shop-floor presence, and in early June made concessions in a rapid policy shift (a sign of weakness).
Crucially, however, the concessions did not address the worker’s most pressing concern, the quota rise.
Another reason for the uprising’s success was the centralized structure of Soviet-type societies.
Because the economic and political reins are held in a single (and often distant) center, peripheral protests could rapidly politicize. At the same time, institutions that mediate between citizenry and state were in short supply.
But there was also a subjective factor. At many critical moments, particular individuals and groups consciously and deliberately initiated action. Their interventions were in a sense spontaneous reactions to a developing situation. But they were equally shaped by prior experience.
The “structured” nature of spontaneity can be seen, first, in the actions of those who organized the protest. Just as SED loyalists prevented many strikes from forming, militant workers at other meetings persuaded their colleagues to put down their tools.
They often repeated a call for solidarity: with the building workers, with Berlin, or simply with the factory down the road.
If the “wildfire effect” was due not to some mysterious contagious quality of crowd behavior but to the militants’ presence and the workers’ receptiveness to arguments for collective action, what explains this militancy, this receptiveness?
June 17’s well-defined forms of collective action suggest that many of those who engaged in strikes and marches had either done so before or had learned such practices through an immersion in labor movement traditions — whether in the strike waves, workers’ councils, and insurrections of the Weimar period or in the antifascist committees and workers’ councils of the 1940s.
Though collective memories of labor traditions had faded during Nazi rule, they had not disappeared.
A courageous minority remained active in underground resistance, and broad layers kept socialist values and memories alive among friends, in workplaces, and on housing estates.
Evidence of the German labor movement’s heritage on June 17 is unmistakeable.
It is there in the songs (the “Internationale” and the SPD anthem “Brüder zur Sonne zur Freiheit“), in the slogans (for instance the Weimar slogan “Akkord ist Mord” — “piecework is murder”), and in the participation — especially on strike committees — of individuals who had learned the repertoire of industrial struggle and political protest in past movements.
Workers with experience from those periods were influential on most strike committees, particularly in the formulation of demands. We know of many such individuals.
For example, the Berlin building worker, who provided such a decisive formulation of demands in front of the House of Ministries, reportedly opened his speech by saying, “I did five years in a concentration camp under the Nazis, but I’m not afraid of doing another ten under this lot.”
Another report suggests he also led the arguments for strike action in the Stalinallee discussions that triggered the uprising.
Or take Otto Reckstatt, a strike leader in Nordhausen. He had been an SPD town councilor during Weimar.
Or Wilhelm Grothaus, an inspiration behind the Dresden delegates’ conference in June 1953. He first took strike action at age twelve in 1905, joined the SPD in 1919, then the KPD in 1933, was arrested by the Nazis in 1944, tortured, and only escaped a death sentence due to the end of the war.
After being suspended from the SED in 1950 he maintained contact with other disillusioned comrades in his factory.
Or Walter Kellner, a trade unionist and former SPD member. He recalled that many colleagues “didn’t know how to articulate their discontent and protest,” but due to his experience with industrial struggle, he was well-positioned to help draft a resolution and present it to the workforce.
Or Max Latt. His words at the Görlitz rally began: “Friends, I’m old man Latt. Since 1904 I’ve been a member of the Social Democratic Party. I’ve taken part in three revolutions — in 1918, in 1945, and now in the revolution of June 17, 1953.”
In that same town an “SPD revolution committee” was set up, and SPD “initiative committees” were formed in an optics factory and at the hospital.
Elsewhere, “SPD workers’ committees” were formed. They passed resolutions, painted graffiti, and put up banners calling for the re-legalization of their party, which had been absorbed into the SED.
Although a minority of strikers had hands-on experience in the pre-1933 labor movement, many more had absorbed its heritage. Memories of struggle were transmitted through relatives, friends, or colleagues.
Take for example the twenty-nine-year-old Bitterfeld strike leader Horst Sowada and the Schmölln strike leader Heinz Neumann. Both hailed from SPD families.
At fourteen, Sowada had been interrogated by the Gestapo. Neumann had joined the SPD in 1945, at the age of twenty-four, and was expelled from the SED in 1951. On June 17, he declared solidarity with the Berlin building workers and led the crowd in “Brüder zur Sonne zur Freiheit“.
What these and other similar biographies reveal is that the rising’s “spontaneity” lay in the participants’ accumulated experience in struggles that had typically been acquired through or cultivated by centralized organizations like trade unions or political parties.
To say that spontaneity requires centralization would be to push the point too far, but the irony is there.
Despite heroic resistance, perhaps most memorably by the women in Jena who sat down in the Russian tanks’ path, the rising was crushed. But it left a traumatic mark on the SED.
Its leaders had to admit that swathes of the working class felt alienated from the party. “We are sitting here like the defeated!” one central committee member moaned. “What is the matter with the highest organ of our party? It’s as if we have done something in our pants!”
The rebellion left an equally indelible impression on the protesters. For years afterward workers and peasants would talk of the coming of a “new June 17.”
But this didn’t last forever. The suppression of the rising and subsequent intensification of the security state undermined hopes for collective resistance.
With the partial exception of small strike waves in 1956, 1960–61 and 1970–72, barely any significant struggles spilled beyond individual workplaces between 1953 and 1989.
The non-SED labor movement veterans who carried the traditions of struggle gradually passed away.
The collective memory of the 1945–1953 struggles, with few or no organs to nurture them, withered. Even in traditional SPD strongholds, the social-democratic heritage faded.
The result was the far-reaching marginalization of the socialist tradition outside official state ideology. Social democracy had been drastically weakened by Nazism but had survived and resurged in 1945.
In contrast to the head-on assault by Nazism, the Stalinized SED incorporated the SPD subtly and insidiously.
The similarity between KPD and SPD policies in 1945–46, coupled with bribery and intimidation, persuaded many SPD functionaries to join the new organization.
Grassroots SPD members saw well-known leaders from “their own” camp defending SED policy.
And when the SED began to overtly attack workers’ organizations and interests, these seemed to — and did — come in part from within the social democrats’ own ranks. Social democracy’s immune system was too weak to fight off this encroachment from within.
June 17, 1953 was a watershed for German socialism. After 1945 and especially after 1953, established networks of non-SED socialists fragmented and dissolved.
Some joined the SED or became functionaries of the regime-run “union.” Others retreated to their allotments and dachas. Still others passed away.
In 1989 mass movements arose once again. But in contrast to 1953, there was relatively little sense of workers’ power or class consciousness.
Some activists from 1953 were influential in their communities and workplaces in 1989. But their forces were scattered, their networks had withered.
The defeat of 1953 and the decades of repressive rule that followed ensured that the heights achieved in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Merseburg, and Görlitz in just one day in 1953 would not be repeated over months of protesting in 1989.