Uprising in East Berlin 1953
On June 17, 1953, the German Democratic Republic
(GDR) erupted in a series of workers’ riots and demonstrations that
threatened the very existence of the communist regime. The outburst,
entirely spontaneous, shocked the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED)
and their Kremlin sponsors, who were still reeling from the death of Joseph
Stalin three months earlier. Now, a new National Security Archive document
volume based on recently obtained and translated records from archival
sources throughout the former Soviet bloc and the United States sheds light
on this landmark Cold War event, which exposed some of the deep political
and economic rifts that led to the collapse of the communist system in 1989.
Long overlooked by historians, the 1953 worker uprising was the first outbreak of violent discord within the communist bloc -- the so-called “workers’ paradise” -- and helped to set the stage for more celebrated rounds of civil unrest in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1970, 1976, 1980) and ultimately the demise of communism itself in Central and Eastern Europe.
The uprising began as a demonstration against unreasonable production quotas on June 17, but it soon spread from Berlin to more than 400 cities, towns and villages throughout East Germany, according to top-level SED and Soviet reports and CIA analyses, and embraced a broad cross-section of society. As it spread, it also took on a more expansive political character. Beyond calls for labor reform, demonstrators began to demand more fundamental changes such as free elections. Chants were heard calling for “Death to Communism” and even “Long live Eisenhower!” As Christian Ostermann writes in his introduction, for the first time ever “the ‘proletariat’ had risen against the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.”
The protests, which soon turned violent, were not only more extensive and long-lasting than originally believed, but their impact was significant. In revealing the depth and breadth of social discontent, they shook the confidence of the SED leadership, and especially the authority placed in party boss Walter Ulbricht. The Kremlin, too, was stunned by the riots. While reacting swiftly -- sending in tanks and ordering Red Army troops to open fire on the protestors -- the Soviet leadership found its policy debates tied up in the ongoing domestic political struggle to replace Stalin. The arrest of secret police chief Lavrentii Beria, for example, was partly explained (at least for official consumption) as a result of his policy stance on Germany.
The West, too, was divided on how to respond. In Washington, the reaction by proponents of “roll back” in Eastern Europe was to press the psychological advantage against international communism as aggressively as possible. Documents show that some officials wanted to go as far as to “encourage elimination of key puppet officials.” But Eisenhower himself balked at pushing the Soviets too far in an area of such critical importance for fear of touching off another world war. The cautious compromise was to initiate a food distribution program to East Berlin as a way to help those who needed immediate aid while simultaneously scoring major propaganda points against the East. The program turned out to be a stunning success, with more than 5.5 million parcels distributed in the course of roughly two months’ of operations.
The summer crisis had several important consequences. It demonstrated that Soviet-style communism had not made any significant dent in East German political attitudes. Neighboring communist party leaders implicitly understood this point, worrying that the spill-over from the GDR might touch off similar outbreaks in their own countries. For Moscow, the lesson was to abandon, at least temporarily, any thought of liberalizing East Germany’s internal policies, a process that had been underway until the crisis erupted. Ulbricht was able to regain Kremlin support after convincing the Soviets that rather than unseating him (for trying to be as good a Stalinist as Stalin) they needed his authoritarian approach to keep the lid on political and social unrest. The crisis also confirmed for the Kremlin the need to bolster the GDR diplomatically and economically as a separate entity from West Germany. On the American side, the uprising proved, ironically, that Republican verbiage about “liberation” of the “captive nations”, so prominent in the 1952 presidential campaign, was largely empty -- at least as far as near-term prospects for action.
For more than three decades, the Soviet Union stuck to the pattern set by its reaction to the events of 1953 -- responding with force or the threat of it to keep not only East Germany but the rest of the Soviet bloc under firm control. Only when Mikhail Gorbachev repudiated violence as a means of suppressing dissent in the latter 1980s did the structural weaknesses of the communist system revealed in 1953 finally break loose and seal the fate of the Soviet empire.