50 years ago: June 17, 1953

The People Had Forfeited the Confidence of the Government

Waltraud Aust

Below is the translation of an article serialized in Roter Morgen, organ of the KPD, Communist Party of Germany, for the 50th anniversary of the June 17, 1953 counter-revolutionary uprising in East Berlin. Aust was a young communist factory worker in East Berlin at that time. She provides a graphic picture of the first attempt at the construction of socialism on German soil. She describes the manoeuvres by the West German bourgeoisie to undermine and sabotage socialist construction, as well as the bureaucratic policies of the revisionists in the GDR, which progressively alienated the workers from the government. These culminated in the events of June 17.

As Aust states at the beginning of her article, her description is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of that period. She does not, for example, explain the changes in the relations of production that occurred as the revisionists consolidated their positions in the leadership of the GDR. Nor does she discuss how the revisionist elements who took over the leadership of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in March of 1953, and apparently Beria in particular, influenced the new policies of the GDR leadership in the months leading up to June 17.

Despite these limitations, however, the article is a valuable contribution to an understanding of the factors leading to the events of June 17 from a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint.

George Gruenthal

‘Write us about your experiences of June 17 and how it came to that. After all you were there at that time,’ said the editor of ‘Kommunistische Hefte.’ Yes, what was the concrete situation on June 17 and before that, in Jena, East Berlin, Magdeburg, Leuna or Bitterfeld? What were the reasons that, in these cities and many other towns of the GDR {German Democratic Republic], although not the masses, still over 300,000 of the five million workers and employees took part in strikes, actions and protest demonstrations? I was living in East Berlin then, I was 18 years old and had been politically educated in the GDR, in the Young Pioneers, the FDJ [Free German Youth], the Volkspolizei {People’s Police], the SED {Socialist Unity Party of Germany]. Without a claim to total understanding, I could try, on the basis of my own experiences in East Berlin, to describe the situation there before and during June 17.

The objective situation

What was it like in the GDR, when it was still a socialist country on which the hopes of not only the working people in West Germany but also all of Europe were pinned? The property of the war criminals had been confiscated; the monopolies had been completely eliminated. The means of transportation, the banks, 70 percent of industry had been socialized. The land reform had already begun in the autumn of 1946. 7,000 landed properties and 3,000 estates had been expropriated. Two million hectares of land had been distributed to 500,000 landless and land-poor farmers and 1,000 people’s own farms had been established. These were all measures that had been agreed upon in the Potsdam Accords and were a good start for the construction of socialism.

The splitting policy of the American and the British occupation powers, which proclaimed the formation of the Bonn Republic in September 1949, led to the foundation of the GDR in October 1949. This step was welcomed by many people. It was a new beginning in the history of the German workers’ movement, that for the first time the workers held power.

The years after the war were hard ones for the GDR. The fascists, retreating before the Red Army, had destroyed industrial plants, transportation lines and factories. The Americans dropped bombs on Leuna and other enterprises in the face of the advance of the Red Army. The imperialists had transferred industrial plants, blue prints and even personnel from the GDR to the West. The fact that the imperialists had cut off the Ruhr district and the Saar from the GDR, which had no heavy industry of its own, was a heavy blow for the GDR.

The GDR had to build up its own enterprises from the ruins, from nothing. And not only enterprises. Many local problems had to be solved: schools, authorities and administrations had to be set up. Who would lead, teach, plan and organize? There were not yet any specialists trained in the socialist planned economy. The GDR had to rely primarily on the existing bourgeois technical intelligentsia. Leading was also difficult politically. Only a few Communists and revolutionary Social-Democrats had survived the fascist persecution. Most cadres of the KPD [Communist party of Germany] and SPD [Social-Democratic Party of Germany] had been murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps and prisons. Thus many other progressive people had to take up tasks, even if they were not ideologically trained or they were still very young. Students from the so-called anti-fascist schools were put in many positions. Former German soldiers had attended anti-fascist schools in the prisoner of war camps in the Soviet Union. Most of them did not join the anti-fascist schools out of conviction, but for opportunist reasons, such as not having to work, getting more to eat, or to be released earlier. Many of these anti-fascist students in their later positions turned into careerists and Party bosses.

Right after the division of Germany by the Western powers, the J.V. Stalin Steel Works was constructed near Frankfurt on the Oder. The first blast furnace was fired up in 1951. In the same year the Iron Works West on the Saale was built. Big shipyards were built in Stralsund, Wismar and Warnemünde. New rolling mills were constructed in Risa, Henningsdorf, the Max Works. The textile and light industry was reestablished; brown coal mining was started again. Despite many bottlenecks in all areas, despite the bad food situation – the rations on the food cards were so limited, that each day an extra lunch had to be provided for 1½ million workers – things picked up. A large part of the population took an energetic part in construction and also in political life. The first German People’s Congress took place at the end of 1947 under the slogan ‘For Unity and a Just Peace’ and the subsequent People’s Congress movement involved almost the whole population. In the enterprises, cities and towns in the Soviet occupation zone, permanent committees of the People’s Congress movement were formed. The co-operation in these committees, the discussions in the assemblies and the participation were lively and active. I remember conversations at home and in my neighbourhood in which the new developments were discussed in a positive way, while shortly after the war people were still very sceptical. The majority of the population took part in campaigns and events. For example, the accommodation and provision for about 2 million guests in East Berlin in 1951 on the occasion of the World Festival of Youth and Students was a tremendous achievement. Here one could see quite clearly that the East Berlin population at that time showed widespread solidarity with their socialist state. Hundreds of thousands took in the young guests, despite their own limited living quarters. The population also took active part in political campaigns, such as the struggle for the conclusion of a German peace treaty. This was extremely advantageous for the young GDR, since the people had not made a revolution, but had rather been liberated. So how could it happen that two years later, on June 17, 1953, at least some of those who were at that time still for the construction of socialism could let themselves be misused by the counterrevolution?


June 17 must be seen in connection with the particular situation in Berlin. The city had been divided by the occupation powers into four sectors: English, French, American and Soviet. It was occupied by the different troops. It was a city in which, in the three Western sectors, West Berlin, the capitalist political representatives ruled – in close connection with the company owners, the large landlords and the monopolists who had moved to West Germany shortly before the end of the war. On the other side, in East Berlin under Soviet administration, the working class and working people were building socialism independently and under the most difficult conditions, with great privations and sacrifices.

From the first day of the defeat of fascism on, the political representatives of the large landlords and company owners, such as, for example, in West Germany Adenauer, Kaiser and Blank, worked to regain possession of the VEBs [People’s Own Enterprises, the state enterprises of the GDR – translator’s note] and the confiscated lands. For them East Berlin seemed to be a suitable point of entry. At that time one could easily go unhindered at any time from the American, French or English sector to the Soviet sector, that is, to East Berlin. There was no ‘wall’; one did not need a passport. There were only occasional identity checks. The continuous reconstruction of the enterprises and agriculture, the success in the building of a heavy industry and other positive developments were a thorn in the eye for the Western imperialists. The GDR population had fulfilled the Two Year Plan ahead of schedule. Now it was a matter of the first Five Year Plan, which would bring an enormous advance on all levels from 1951 to 1955. Just as the second [first – translator’s note] Five Year Plan of the Soviet Union in 1929 made imperialism tremble and was even one element in the crash of the New York Stock Exchange [i.e. the Soviet Union’s success in the Five Year Plan was one element exposing the all-around crisis of capitalism, which was the cause of the crash – translator’s note], so the first Five Year Plan in the GDR now shook the imperialists to the core. From now on it was necessary to interfere with the intensified construction in the GDR. They could not tolerate a socialist country. For this they used West Berlin.

Through recruitment of agents and provocateurs, ‘RIAS’ [Radio Station of the American Sector] smear campaigns and lies, bribery and corruption, they tried to stir up and win influence among the East Berlin population from West Berlin. Once the various intelligence services and organizations of agents from Bonn won East Berlin citizens to their purposes, they would then send them from East Berlin into the GDR, to Mecklenburg, Saxony, and so on, since they didn’t need any travel permit. There they would carry on subversive activities against the GDR and its socialist construction. But there were also other difficulties. There was the big problem of the so-called fraudulent exchange rate: Western money was being exchanged at 1 to 5, 1 to 6, 1 to 7 and even sometimes at 1 to 8 against Eastern money. Quite a few East Berliners were at that time working legally in West Berlin, and they earned part of their salary in East marks and part in West marks. The Western money was exchanged at the prevailing rate, and in East Berlin one could live well on that. Apprenticeships were still rare in East Berlin; also in West Berlin. But they preferred to employ East Berlin boys and girls as apprentices in West Berlin. Other East Berliners moonlighted on weekends in West Berlin. These were primarily skilled workers, who were needed there. Also many West Berliners exchanged their money into Eastern money, went to East Berlin to buy whatever could be purchased without ration cards. Many families in East Berlin, especially in the outskirts, had chickens and small livestock.

Eggs and often rabbits were sold in West Berlin markets for Western money; this was then exchanged and brought back to East Berlin. And not only this. In the autumn of 1952, for example, in the district of Cöpenick a hundredweight of meat and sausages was confiscated from some East Berlin families, who had came from Mecklenburg farms to sell this in West Berlin. And that was just one example out of many.

West Berlin was a show window of the West. Many goods were basically cheaper there than in West Germany. The price difference was borne by the West German working people through taxes. In order to get hold of Western money, some criminal elements went so far as to steal copper and other valuable metals from public institutions in East Berlin and eventually to sell them in West Berlin. From 1951 acts of sabotage and theft in the VEBs increased to a considerable degree.

Agents and Provocateurs

Such black marketeering led to a considerable weakening of the economy in East Berlin and the whole GDR. There were also the organized smear campaigns broadcast by RIAS and the agitation pamphlets and flyers distributed in mass by the American CIA and other organizations of agents calling for sabotage against the GDR economy, the overthrow of the government and anticommunist smear campaign. Axel Springer was already in existence, even though in the beginning it was not a publishing house in the accustomed meaning of the term. Its firm place in newspapers and periodicals was assigned by the bourgeoisie: Agitation, lies, slander against communism, violent, primitive and unrestrained.

The personal and direct recruitment of agents and provocateurs also played a big role. Such recruitment was especially attempted among the youth. In East Berlin dance halls and restaurants there were many West Berlin agents. They gave away free tickets to movie theatres in West Berlin or invitations to other West Berlin amusements. Many visiting youth, who were still apprentices and did not have much money, did not reject such offers. Of course, not everyone became an agent or a spy, but it was an easy way to find receptive people and to make others insecure.

Another essential method of recruitment of agents was the American ‘food aid.’ These were the so-called Care packages. Here East Berliners received by mail or found stuffed in their mailbox an announcement to go to an address in West Berlin to collect one’s aid package. Most people did this for luxury items like coffee or chocolate, which could not be bought at all at that time in the GDR because of the general food scarcity. And one did not have to make a world trip for this. For a 20 pfennig fare and a few subway stations to West Berlin, one could get a package of food including coffee, chocolate and of course cigarettes. That was worthwhile. Only a few saw that this was one method of recruiting agents. And, of course, one could choose only the most exploitable elements.

The American CIA also used these Care packages to stir up opinion against the GDR government. Thus for example they hoped that the youth who received the Care packages would not attend the Whitsuntide meeting in 1960. On May 27, 1960, the official paper of the American Military Administration in West Berlin, Neue Zeitung, published the following announcement: ‘New York (DPA). All Americans are requested to spend altogether $100,000 so that the aid organization (i.e. Care) of Berlin’s Mayor Prof. Ernst Reuter could report success before the FDJ Whitsuntide march.’

To disrupt the reconstruction of the GDR and to prevent the VEBs from fulfilling their plan, the agents used all possible methods: destruction of machines and transformers, collecting addresses of leading functionaries, preparing reports on conferences, carrying out factory espionage, spying on the strengths and weapons of Soviet troops and Volkspolizei in their barracks, wiping out livestock by infection with epidemic diseases, sending threatening letters and warnings to GDR citizens, distributing smear pamphlets and leaflets, putting fake ration cards for food and coal into circulation, destruction of traffic networks, blowing up bridges, making railway lines unusable, sabotaging production, disorganizing economic plans, using false letterheads, especially from the ministries and institutions, and always and primarily to bring people to West Germany; of course primarily skilled workers and members of the technical intelligentsia. Besides large payments for their work overall, the agents earned a head price for each person they recruited. For a scientist, engineer or skilled worker, for example, this amount was 100 German marks.

All these agents received their orders from West Berlin organizations. There were over 80 such organizations in West Berlin. I remember the most active, most brutal and probably also the largest one, the Fighting Group Against Inhumanity (Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkleit – KgU) created by the U.S. intelligence service. Among the numerous crimes of the KgU that came out in trials we will mention just a few here:

• Several attacks on railroads on the Magdeburg–Dessau line. Many people were injured in these attacks.

• Plans were made to blow up the largest hydraulic press in the GDR, in the Ernst Thälmann factory in Magdeburg.

• Plans were made to blow up the main turbine as well as the largest smokestack in the film plant Wolf.

• Many truck engines were destroyed by acid in the VEB combine ‘Otto Grotewohl’ in Böhlen.

• The highway bridge near Finowfurt over the canal for large ships was set on fire with phosphorus vials and plans were made to blow up the Paretzer Lock in the Nauener Canal.

• Plans were made to blow up the shipyard Angermünde and a high voltage tower on the road to Güstrow.

• An exhibition pavilion in Dresden was blown up with a time bomb.

• The diversion group Admiral had the task of burning down forest groves in the Erzgebirge [mountains on the border with Czechoslovakia – translator’s note] with phosphorous gasoline and liquid nitrogen.

• Plans were made to destroy the transmission belts and machines in the VEB Feintuch at Finsterwalde using four bottles of acid.

One could fill volumes with descriptions of all the plots against the GDR from West Berlin. How large the American ‘investment’ alone in this bloody business was, was described in the newspaper Rheinische Poet on September 1, 1961: In the foreign aid budget (i.e. of the United States – editor) there is a carefully concealed item in the amount of millions of dollars, which is set aside for anti-communist actions in Europe. Details are a closely guarded secret.’

In view of these facts one could ask an admittedly hypothetical question. Would it not have been better to build a wall in 1950 and to tear it down again in 1960? On the other hand, if a wall had been built in 1950, this would have considerably undermined the still existing attempts at reunification.

Discontent among the workers

The preparation for Day X by the West using all imaginable means was one side of the coin. The other side was that the workers were not satisfied with the conditions in their own enterprises, in the trade unions, in the state and economy, in the relations with the state and party functionaries, and with many other negative phenomena, which were intensified with the beginning of the Five Year Plan.

With the Five Year Plan, which was drafted in 1950 and made into law by the People’s Chamber in 1951, as I see it today, far-reaching measures were taken that were not understood by many workers, and that led to increased flight from the GDR. I myself was of course enthusiastic, but what did I have for life experience? I was born in 1935. At 16, 17 or 18 years of age, I found everything fine and correct.

The Five Year Plan provided that by 1955 industrial production would reach 190 percent of 1950 production. That was a major event. It would mean a huge increase in labour productivity for each enterprise. To accomplish this many methods were decided on:

• Change of the work norms. That meant doing away with the former norms based on statistical experience and establishment of norms based on technique [i.e. based on a scientific analysis of the production process – translator’s note].

• Introduction of new work methods;

• An intensified movement of activists;

• Mass competition;

• A system of bonuses;

• A campaign to save all kinds of materials;

• A reduction in costs of production.

Many workers were sceptical about these measures. The members of the FDJ and the Party had difficulty explaining these conclusions and decisions. During these campaigns or in explaining important decisions, the members of the FDJ and the Party were often temporarily exempt from their normal work. Such exemptions were understandably not well-received by their work colleagues, because they had to make up the slack.

At that time I was active at the TRO (Karl Liebknecht Transformer Factory) and had to carry out agitation in the workshop for training apprentices, but also in other departments. I still remember clearly some discussions that showed the discontent of the workers and also of many party comrades:

Half of the cafeteria in the TRO was reserved for the employees and the other half for the production workers. The tables for the employees had white tablecloths; those for the workers were bare, due to the fact that the workers often had dirty hands and clothes. The workers complained about this. Their complaints were successful. All the tables were provided with white tablecloths with a plate of glass on top. In this way, the dirt problem was solved and there was no longer any difference, everyone could sit where they wanted.

In the course of the Five Year Plan, Walter Ulbricht suddenly demanded the ‘creation of a special dining rooms’ for the intelligentsia. Many FDGB [Free German Trade Union] members and also SED people now no longer understood at all, why there should be not only special cafeterias for the intelligentsia but a whole list of privileges for them. There were clearly no complaints about the provision of free scientific literature, development and research workrooms, laboratories, etc. but their were definitely complaints about the material privileges that the intelligentsia was now supposed to receive: separate salary contracts, better, special living quarters, bonus funds, vacation spots, consumer goods stores where the intelligentsia could buy food without rations and much more.

It was all too clear that the Party members and trade unionists did not understand this. In response to this ‘lack of understanding’ came the directive: ‘In all departments of an enterprise, our VEBs and other similar enterprises, in all state, economic and administrative institutions, the question of the relation of the working class to the intelligentsia must be openly discussed and an open fight must be waged against the incorrect treatment of this relation by comrades or trade union members. What was really wrong? It was wrong that, in a VEB the whole research and development department was excluded from the payment of bonuses of the enterprise, with the reason that the department is not a production department. It was wrong that engineers and scientists were characterized as ‘reactionary’ because most of them came from a petty bourgeois background. And along with that, in the TRO two engineers were fired because, although they were admittedly ‘capable, skilled workers, they were ideologically backward.’

These sectarian mistakes, which were certainly not isolated ones, did not justify the granting of special privileges to the intelligentsia, nor the arguments that one had to excite the intelligentsia for the Five Year Plan and to keep them with these privileges. Honest criticism and self-criticism, comradely cooperation, payment according to achievement, these would have been the solution. Then the mobilization of the workers would also have achieved greater successes.

The privileges were not only meant for the technical intelligentsia. Higher party functionaries, scholars and scientists, above all writers, artists and other cultural people also received these privileges. For example, an editor before June 17 received an average of 800 marks a month, while a worker, not counting his bonus and piece-rate wages, took home 150 marks a month. Even with bonuses and the overfulfillment of the work norms, he would only earn at most 180 to 200 marks a month. The writers were especially assisted. At that time a student of literature earned 800 marks a month. Besides higher base salaries, cultural people also received honorariums for public readings, even for the cheapest trash like detective novels which the workers had to listen to on reading evenings. It was no surprise that more and more workers were turning their backs on the GDR.

In the summer of 1952 there were also discussions within the party and the trade unions about the role of the trade unions, after which one no longer knew what was right and wrong. At a central trade union conference the trade union leadership in the factory was reproached with interfering too much in the affairs of the factory director. The directors were dependent in all their actions on the signatures of the factory trade union leaders. This constant interruption must stop. The role of the factory management had changed. In the new period the tasks of the factory management and the trade union should no longer overlap. It was not said what this new period was. The trade union leadership in the factory was called upon to stop interfering with the management so often.

The trade union functionaries in the TRO found this confusing. What was correct now? Formerly there was the factory council system. That had been disbanded between 1948 and 1950, because alongside these councils there was the trade union leadership in the factory and they were the ones, in a socialist state, who should be involved in the decisions and measures of the factory leadership, in plans for the factory, for the worker, for the world of labour. No one knew how to handle things, since no one knew what the line would be next.

It would certainly be interesting, if these decisions and measures regarding the powers of the trade unions and the factory leadership would be analyzed today.

Also there was the question of the strengthened activist movement. The main task of the trade unions was supposed to be to consciously carry out the Hennecke movement and thus to considerably increase labour productivity. For this a conference of Hennecke activists was held. But many workers did not have much good to say about Hennecke, and it was hard for the trade unions to even discuss Hennecke days with the workers, much less to carry them out. Adolf Hennecke was an activist, a miner in the coal region, who on October 13, 1948, achieved 387 percent of the day’s norm, 30 tons of coal. In 1949 Adolf Hennecke was rewarded with the national prize (which included money); he became a member of the CC of the SED and of the People’s Chamber of the GDR, a hero of labour and an honoured miner.

Adolf Hennecke has often been compared with Stakhanov, a miner in the Donetz Basin, who in 1935 in the USSR produced 102 tons of coal in one day. But there was a big difference between Hennecke and Stakhanov, about which it was not appreciated if one spoke about it: Alexei Stakhanov produced the 102 tons in a shift because of better organization of labour and technique. Adolf Hennecke achieved his success, which was unquestionable, by his physical strength alone. This achievement served as an occasion for the initiation of the Hennecke activist movement. The continuous drumming up, of constantly holding Hennecke days, got on the workers’ nerves. Later, one only heard most of all about Adolf Hennecke when he travelled to a friendly foreign country, for he had long since become a department head in the Ministry for Coal and Energy.

In the TRO I also saw profiteering and corruption for the first time. In the GDR at that time there were few textiles and leather goods to buy. One day a large shipment of shoes for the workers arrived from Czechoslovakia. There was a great deal of secrecy about the shoes. First came the wives of the managers, although they had no right to these shoes, since they were not employees of the factory. Then the secretaries got their shoes. A part went to the Party secretary, and another part went to the factory trade union office. What was left went to the factory workers. This kind of distribution led to bad feelings, but nobody expressed them very loudly.

In late summer of 1952 a campaign was carried on to strengthen the Volkspolizei, which was still very new. For many Party members it was obvious that they should join up. So I also joined the Volkspolizei. I was assigned to the Oberschöneweide district of Berlin. Here I again experienced strange practices. The people who went to the West in 1952 were, unlike later flights on a mass scale, mainly of petty bourgeois backgrounds: doctors, craftspeople, large landlords, technocrats. It was the Volkspolizei who first noticed, who was abandoning their residences, workplaces, practices, etc. Often the police were informed by the population; sometimes the people themselves sent a letter, after they had left their residences, etc. In most of the residences an inventory had been left behind, many people broke them up before they left or made them uninhabitable in some other manner. These residences and houses were then sealed up by the Volkspolizei, until things could be officially settled. At that time it frequently happened, that the district authorities, the ABV, (the police who patrolled the streets and who had to take care of a particular district), on good terms with their precinct leader, took for themselves a part of the furniture. They had a say in deciding who would live in these houses – they were often villas. Of course, they expected something in return. Even when such cases were occasionally punished and the press reported on them, there were no campaigns carried out against such phenomena, much less was the population, especially the working class, mobilized against corruption and nepotism.

There were hundreds of other such phenomena: arrogance and presumption of Party functionaries, careerism and servility, nay-sayers and yes-men, those who just followed orders, conceit and covering up for mistakes. All this was whitewashed. If serious mistakes by Party functionaries could really no longer be covered up, they were sent off to Party schools or sent to take up other positions. They were always kicked upstairs. All this caused a lot of damage to the economy. Only rarely were bureaucracy and mismanagement brought to light, as in this case: in the VEB LOWA in Görlitz there was great resentment among the workers, because the plan had been changed eighteen times. Or: the Brandenburg regional administration sent out 2959 circulars to the regional councils in 14 months, that is, 81/2 circulars a day. Who could read these and act on them?

All this did not go unnoticed by the workers. But they did not know how to change the situation. Many people thought that these were still initial difficulties in the phase of reconstruction. That these were not beginning difficulties, but fundamental questions, most workers noticed shortly before June 17, when the GDR government, in an administrative manner, without asking the workers about it in a campaign beforehand, forced the enterprises to raise the work norms by 10%. This mistake was exploited immediately by the organizations of agents in order to begin their provocation on Day X, for which they had been preparing for a long time.

Day X

At that time, I was working in the Oberspree Cable Factory (KWO), also in the Oberschöneweide district of Berlin. I had to leave the People’s Police, since my father like many others had left the GDR and one couldn’t work in the People’s Police, if one’s relatives had ‘fled the republic.’ My father, a worker in the TRO, was never anti-communist but he was also not a supporter of the GDR. He also had nothing against the fact that I was working actively and enthusiastically for the construction of socialism. But he openly criticized abuses and things that he did not like. He was arrested and set free again due to his serious war injury. Week after week he was ordered to appear for interrogation. He drew his conclusions and left for West Berlin.

In the KWO I was in the Thälmann brigade. We worked on spray machines, which produced insulating material through which wire was pulled to form cable, which was then rolled up on a cable drum. Five of us worked in the brigade, three on machines, one labourer who brought over the materials and the brigade leader who checked the final product. We worked in two shifts. Our brigade always produced 20 to 30% above the norm; some days, when the material was good and there was no waste, even 70 to 80%. In order to earn a good bonus, we sometimes got together and worked a ½ hour longer on the afternoon shift.

Our brigade seemed to be a progressive brigade, since out of our five co-workers two were in the SED and one was in the FDJ. However, when the foremen spoke with the brigade leaders about the new increase in the work norms we were quite upset. Nevertheless on May 1 we voluntarily considerably overfulfilled the norms. This spontaneous excitement quickly disappeared, for on closer inspection we saw that for our brigade it was no big effort. What remained was anger over the way that the decision about the norm increase came about; we didn’t think it was right. The decision had been made at the end of May for the whole industry in relation to the ;New Course.’ The ‘New Course’ provided for an improvement in the economic situation of the population. Our brigade in the KWO first heard about the decision a few days before June 17. Of course, there were rumours before then, but nothing official. We felt that was deceptive, secret and dishonest. And it was. This increase in work norms showed no trace of the dictatorship the working class. They were not asked nor were their suggestions requested. That was what made some of the workers indignant. Even the foremen, brigade leaders and Party members, with whom the norm increase was discussed or who were expected to enforce it, did not like it; it already led to protests here and there.

It was not only the planned norm increase that led to the increase in dissatisfaction of the workers; they found it particularly outrageous that, while they were expected to work more for the same money, the salaries of the bureaucracy, the technical intelligentsia, the functionaries, managers and bourgeois experts were not lowered, but rather were raised. All this made it easy for the CIA to call people out for Day X, for which it had waited so long. The withdrawal of the planned norm increase on June 16 came too late.

Our brigade had decided to carry out the norm increase. Except for the labourer, the other four of us were in agreement with it. However, the Party members were expected to protest, at the next conference with the Party leadership, against the manner in which this decision was made. But it was too late for this.

June 16 – Demonstrations on Stalinallee

On June 16 it was discussed in our brigade and in the whole department, that construction workers had demonstrated against the norm increase in Stalinallee. That didn’t seem to us to be an earth-shaking event, because there was no talk of other enterprises taking part. The construction workers on Stalinallee were naive. Groups often congregated and held discussions there, and it was not unusual for them to be provoked, because it was also easy for obscure elements from West Berlin to speak to workers at open building sites where anyone could go in. We did not take the matter very seriously.

After break on the afternoon shift – that must have been between 6 and 7 p.m. –things became more serious. When we came back to work from our department’s small cafeteria, the brigade leader found a handwritten note on his desk with the slogan ‘Down with the norms. Strike.’ Later he was suspected of having put the note there himself, to start a discussion. The brigade leader tried to discuss it with us, but the discussion didn’t come about, since we as Party and FDJ members didn’t know anything and wanted to speak to the Party leadership first.

In the late evening on the second shift that was hardly possible. The brigade leader gave the note to the foreman on duty in the department. Late that evening, shortly before the end of our shift, Party members came through the factory and gave instructions that all Party members had to report to the Party office next morning. However already during the night Party members and progressive workers were mobilized to form a so-called workers defence. This took place, as I heard later, in many enterprises.

On June 17 we reported to the Party office. The Party informed us that demonstrations had taken place in the inner city against the norm increase, and that early in the morning of June 17 other provocations like looting of food stores (HO stores), destruction of Party and union offices, etc. had occurred. In our KWO, the same handwritten note had been found in various departments, at workplaces and on bulletin boards. Individual provocateurs had gone through the factory and called on the workers to strike. Some of the workers had then left the factory and thus taken part in the work stoppage. Some had not come to work at all, because the RIAS had continually broadcast appeals against the East German government, calling on the workers to strike and spreading wild rumours. This led some workers to be intimidated and stay at home with their families. In many departments, however, everyone came to work.

Our brigade leader and labourer had not shown up to work. Later investigations showed that the labourer had close connections with the CIA, that the brigade leader had worked for years in the black market in West Berlin and now had finally took off with his family to the ‘golden West.’

The Party members who had to report to the Party office were assigned different tasks. Patrols of the factory were organized, guards were placed at the factory gates, guards were sent around the factory grounds, couriers were sent around to keep in contact with the guards, etc. The factory gates were closed. A small, narrow door was left open. Here those who worked at the factory could go in and out. Those who came in were accompanied to their workplace, those who went out could leave unhindered. Instructions were given not to let oneself be provoked and also not to get into discussions with the demonstrators.

Provocateurs are caught

In the morning of June 17, while we were still distributing our assignments, the Party at the KWO received a call that workers from the Cöpenick district had left work and had joined a demonstration, that was going from Cöpenick and passing through Oberschöneweide towards the inner city. In Oberschöneweide there were several big factories that they had to pass by. The party in the KWO had thus been warned. It issued instructions that individual comrades and FDJ members, if possible in blue shirts and with Party insignias, should stand at the curb by the factory gates to show unity. So we stood at the curb as the demonstrators passed by the KWO, three young comrades in blue shirts, elderly Party members in wind jackets and with Party insignias. Other Party members were stationed in front of the factory gate itself. A group of several hundred workers came towards us. The ones in the front ranks were shouting slogans like ‘Down with the government,’ ‘Down with the norms,’ ‘We want free elections’ and so forth. In the front ranks as well as at the side marched people who were obviously provocateurs and manipulators. They rushed up to us and tried to tear off our blue shirts and insignias. But at that moment many comrades rushed out of the office by the front gate and from the ranks of the comrades who were standing in front of the gate, grabbed the provocateurs and dragged them into the factory. They were taken into custody and later taken away. The demonstrators didn’t concern themselves any further about the ones who were dragged into the factory, but marched on in the direction of the inner city.

At noon the Soviet Military Commander in East Berlin declared a state of emergency. The order was given:

Order of the Military Commander of the Soviet sector of Berlin

To restore a stable public order in the Soviet sector of Berlin it is ordered:

1. As of 1 p.m. on June 17, 1953, a state of emergency is declared in the Soviet sector of Berlin. 

2. All demonstrations, meetings, rallies and other congregations of more than three people are prohibited on the streets and squares as well as in public buildings. 

3. All pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic is prohibited from 9 PM to 5 AM. 

4. Anyone who violates this order will be punished according to the wartime laws.

Berlin, June 17, 1953

Military Commander of the Soviet sector of Berlin
Major General Dibrowa

After the Red Army intervened, the situation calmed down quite quickly. Little by little the workers returned to the factory. While on the next day a considerable number stayed home and waited to see how things would turn out, in the next days almost everyone showed up, except for those who had left for West Berlin. The controls by the Party, the workers defence, the People’s Police, the factory patrols, were still maintained for a certain time.

Similar things took place in other Berlin enterprises on June 17 as were described here. At Potsdamer Platz, on Stalinallee and at Alexander Platz there were worse excesses. Due to looting, arson, the tearing down of red flags, the destructions of Party offices, of traffic equipment [e.g. railway stations, train tracks, bus depots – translator’s note] etc, unfortunately several people were killed on the border with West Berlin. But who was to blame for this?

The ones behind the scenes of this fascist provocation were the imperialist powers in West Germany, who wanted to reverse the socialist achievements, people such as Krupp, Flick and other company owners who wanted to regain their ‘property.’ It was no coincidence that shortly before June 17 the shares of the so-called ‘Ostwerte’ on the stock exchange climbed steeply. The company owners knew that ‘Day X’ was coming. It was also no coincidence that immediately after the failure of the provocation, Adenauer and Co. organized a big day of mourning and business associations contributed hundreds of thousands of Marks for the so-called victims of the putsch.

A Gap Between the Party and the Masses.

There can be no doubt that in the GDR on June 17 there was a gap between the Party and government on the one hand and the working masses on the other hand, which widened after June 17.

The great majority of the workers in the GDR had not let themselves be provoked, they had not left work. In all it was six percent of the five million workers and employees. Many were involved only for a few hours. The great majority, despite tremendous instigation, despite the work of agents and fascist provocations, despite their difficult situation, stood behind their socialist state. Also of the 300,000 who demonstrated and struck, there were only a negligible, small section who were reactionary and against socialism. They were simply and rightly outraged.

It was all the more shameful and hypocritical that Herbert Wamke, member of the CC of the SED and chairperson of the FDGB stated the following about June 17 at the FDGB congress in August 1953: ‘As is known, Hitler also succeeded in winning over certain backward strata of the working class.’ And: ‘The working people who demonstrated and took part in work stoppages on June 17, have stabbed the international working class in the back.’

Kurt Barthel, nicknamed Kuba [KUrt BArthel], spokesperson for the East German writers and at that time Secretary of the Writers Union, also struck the same cynical tone against the workers as the trade union leader did. In an article about the construction workers of Stalinallee he wrote: ‘You marched with bad company throughout the city. You hung out with the trash who, used by the big arsonists in the world, carry a Molotov cocktail in their bag, with which they will burn down your scaffolding tomorrow. That was not what you wanted. However when it happened, you let it...’

‘As one brushes off a piece of dust with ones hand to clean ones jacket, the Soviet-Army swept the city clean. You, however, should go to sleep at nine p.m. like good children. The Soviet Army and the comrades of the German People’s Police are standing guard for you and for the peace of the world. Are you ashamed of yourselves, as I am ashamed? You will have to build many fine houses and you will have to behave very well in the future, before your shame will be forgotten. Destroyed houses can be repaired, that is easy. But destroyed trust is very, very difficult to regain.’

What did this mean? That once again it was the fault of the working class. It was not the mistakes of the government, nor the mistakes of the party that contributed to the protests, it was not bureaucracy, nor laxness, nor corruption and bribery that gave rise to bad provisions and caused indignation, but it was the working class that brought this misery on itself. No word of self-criticism, no word about ones own mistakes, no actions.

Because actions would have meant purging the party, purging it of careerists and bureaucrats, it would have meant listening to criticisms, criticisms by the working class, it would have demanded a self-critical point of view towards ones own mistakes. There were no improvements along these lines. Instead criticisms from the rank-and-file were suppressed more than ever, workers who only dared to expose bureaucracy and corruption were labeled as agents and provocateurs, as ‘supporters of the fascist putsch of June 17.’ Agents – after June 17 almost everyone became a suspect. The mistrust grew, both among those within the Party and outside it. After June 17 many Party people acted towards the workers the way Kuba did: arrogantly and cynically. And it was really true: if one wore the blue shirt or Party insignia, one had power. The relationship between the Party and the workers did not get better. Quite the contrary. If one showed up with the blue shirt or the Party insignia in any enterprise to carry out agitation, many workers made a bow or were extremely reticent in conversation. In the brigade we two Party members often ran into difficulties and were looked at askance, because more and more it happened that we were exempted from work, to work for the Party or the FDJ or to take part in conferences, etc.

Given these conditions, it was no wonder that subsequently, especially in the second half of the 1950s, more and more workers left the GDR.

Thus, what the company owners and big-landlords did not succeed in by staging their fascist putsch in 1953, to turn the GDR back into a capitalist exploiters’ state, was achieved years later through the revisionist policies of the Ulbricht government itself: the first dictatorship of the proletariat, the first workers’ and farmers’ state on German soil, became a thing of the past. 

Bertolt Brecht, the well-known communist writer, wrote a little poem about June 17, 1953:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

This article first appeared in 1983 in the then theoretical organ of the KPD ‘Kommunistische Hefte’ (‘Communist Notebooks’).

It has been translated from the German by George Gruenthal.


On 17th June, 1953

Bertolt Brecht

The demonstrations of 17th June showed the discontent of a considerable section of Berlin’s workforce with a series of failed economic measures.

Organised fascist elements tried to misuse this discontent for their own bloody means.

For many hours Berlin stood on the verge of a third world war.

Only the quick and definite intervention of the Soviet troops is to be thanked for thwarting the attempts.

It was obvious that the intervention of Soviet troops was in no way against the demonstrations of the workers. It was most apparently exclusively aimed against the attempts to spark off a new global fire.

It is now up to each one to help the government to weed out the mistakes which caused the discontent and without doubt, endangered our great social achievements.

On the morning of 17th June, as it became clear that the demonstrations of the workers will be misused for war-like aims, I expressed my solidarity with the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. I hope now that the provocateurs have been isolated and their network destroyed, I hope that the workers who demonstrated their genuine discontent are not placed on the same level as the provocateurs and the much required expression of mistakes committed in every direction is not disturbed.

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