June 16th in German History: The East German Uprising of 1953

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F005191-0040, Berlin, Aufstand, sowjetischer Panzer.jpg
A Soviet tank enters East Berlin.

During its existence, the Eastern Bloc saw many uprisings against the Soviet Union and their puppet governments. The Hungarian and Czechoslovakian are probably the two most famous of the ultimately failed rebellions. However, Germany also saw massed protests against its communist government. On June 16th, 1953, East German workers began protests and strikes in response to recent increases in work quotas and preferential treatment of farmers.

In 1952 the East German government embarked on an ambitious plan to socialize East Germany. This plan included the heavy taxing of private enterprise, investment in heavy industry, limiting of consumer goods, price increases, collectivization of farms, and raises in work quotas. Most notably, the government decided to increase work quotas by 10% while limiting overtime and raising prices. These measures had the effect of a 33% wage decrease. The rest was worker unrest and a mass exodus of people from East Germany. In the first four months of 1953, 122,000 people fled to the West. The Soviet Union was alarmed by these numbers, and so ordered the East German government to slow down the aggressive socialization programs and end attacks on private enterprise and religious institutions. In response, the East German Politburo issued a statement on June 11th that collectivization would end along with attacks on small-scale private business. However, the 10% work quote increase would remain. The statement admitted mistakes made by the government, which many East Germans saw as a sign of weakness. Further, the end of forced collectivization and attacks on private business benefited farmers and the upper middle class, but the workers were still hurt by the quota increases. The following days saw demonstrations and marches against the regime. On June 16th these protests began to expand into an uprising. At 9am, 300 workers went on strike and marched to government offices. More workers joined them and protests spread to other East German cities. The Politburo decided to revoke the quota increase, but it was too late. The demonstrators now called for civil liberties and free elections. The West German radio broadcast channel, RIAS, communicated news of the protests and encouraged further demonstrations. Almost all significant East German population centers saw demonstrations. On June 17th , Soviet troops entered East Germany to put down the protests which had turned to riots as police were attacked and government buildings stormed. In East Berlin, Soviet tanks fired on protesters while in other cities the response was generally more restrained. By June 24th, the situation had generally calmed down. Up to 125 protesters were killed in total along with five police.

The 1953 uprising failed to overthrow the East German government or even force meaningful reforms to the political system. It, however, did result in significant changes within the country. The regime became far less popular with the workers and was seen as generally weak, as it had needed Soviet troops to stay in power. The regime, in turn, introduced new measures, like factory floor supervision units, to monitor workers and prevent uprising before they could spread. Further, it never again embarked on aggressive socialization campaigns and further abandoned the practice of unilateral quota increases or wage cuts. Communist Party Chairman Walter Ubricht managed to stay in power because of Moscow’s reluctance to initiate major leadership changes in the wake of the death of Stalin. While the Soviet Union maintained its control over Germany, it lost much of the goodwill it had in East Germany that remained from the overthrow of Nazism.

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