Remembering the Cold War′s Forgotten Heroes | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.06.2003
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Remembering the Cold War's Forgotten Heroes

June 17, 1953? Never heard of it? Neither has half of Germany. But on the 50th anniversary of the massive uprising against a communist regime, a reunited Germany is seeking to refresh the collective memory.


June 17: A largely forgotten day of courage and bloody repression.

Fifty years ago Tuesday, more than a million workers risked their lives in East Germany to participate in protests that nearly toppled the communist government. But today they are remembered by few.

Passed by the parliament in Bonn less than two weeks after the uprising, June 17 served as a public holiday in Western Germany for 37 years. The so-called "Day of Germany Unity" was intended as a day for Germans to recall the heroic revolt.

That historic day, East Germans, frustrated by increases in the cost of living, increased labor and productivity demands and generally poor living challenged both their own government and Russian tanks, calling for the communists' resignation and the restoration of democracy. They paid dearly for it -- with 50 deaths, hundreds of injuries and as many as 10,000 arrests.

The dustbin of history

After German reunification in 1990, the holiday was eliminated in favor of October 3. And now, during the 50th anniversary of June 17, 1953, memory of the uprising has nearly faded away.

A recent survey by pollster Emnid found that only 43 percent of Germans knew that June 17 was the day East Germans revolted against the communist government. At least 28 percent of those surveyed thought June 17 was either the day construction began on the Berlin Wall, the day East Germany and West Germany were founded or the day the deutsche mark began circulating. Most astonishingly, 29 percent had no idea what happened on June 17.

Though June 17 was officially observed in West Germany, for most it was little more than a day off -- a sunny summer day to be spent at the lake.

"For my generation, June 17 was mostly a holiday," Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit recently told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "The actual occasion, unfortunately, didn't play a big role."

A footnote in school books

Since reunification, memories of the former "Day of German Unity" have faded. Part of the reason stems from the fact that the date warrants little more than a footnote in the curriculi of many German schools.

"Many youth leave school without ever hearing about June 17," Ulrich Arnswald, a pedagogical researcher in Frankfurt, who recently conducted a survey that found only one out of three school included the East German worker uprising in lessons, told Deutsche Welle. For most students, Arnswald concluded, the events of June 17 are "as far away as (ancient) Troy."

Universities have also glossed over the important date as well as other watershed moments in East German history. A study commissioned by the University of Halle-Wittenberg found that almost 13 years after reunification, only one-third of Germany's institutes for higher education offer lectures or seminars dealing with East German history.

Indeed, of the 25-29-year-olds surveyed by Emnid, only 28 percent were familiar with the historical event. The younger the respondent, the wider the knowledge gap -- only one out of five young adults between 18 and 24 knew about June 17.

Slouching toward obscurity

It wasn't always that way. In the years after the holiday was first introduced, politicians in Bonn would gather each year to assess the political situation between the divided lands. German cities would ring bells in memory of the uprising and West Germans wore buttons symbolizing their solidarity with the East German citizens who stood against their government in 1953. But over time, the date's true relevance faded and it became little more than a paid holiday in the minds of most. By the end of the 1960s, there were even calls to abolish the holiday because people in East Germany could not celebrate it. But the government perservered and the holiday remained on the calendar unit reunification.

Historians and politicians say feelings of collective guilt over June 17 amnesia has contributed to the massive effort this year to reintroduce the uprising into the wider public. Marianne Birthler, the commissioner who runs the agency that serves as guardian of the archive of the former East German secret police, the Stasi, said this year's events were an attempt to shed new light on a long-neglected aspect of Germany's troubled modern history. "For a long time, we've pushed aside June 17," Birthler said. "But by doing so, we've cheated ourselves."

But on the 50th anniversary, it's become difficult to ignore the historical events of June 17. For weeks now, public television stations have been broadcasting documentaries, films and talk shows about the uprising. The post office has issued a special commemorative stamp and more than 500 events are being staged across the country to draw attention to the uprising.

Last year, the opening of the Stasi Archives helped shed light on the actual dimension of June 17. Declassified documents revealed the scope of the uprising -- more than 1 million people fought for freedom and democracy in 700 different East German cities.

Palast der Republik Berlin

Palast der Republik

Despite the new attention that's been drawn to it, many fear June 17 could soon disappear from public memory so much like the erasure of East Germany's communist landmarks from the landscape of Berlin and other cities in the east.

Within months of the fall of the Wall, all that remained of the Cold War symbol was a kilometer-long stretch that was converted into an impromptu art gallery. Former communist street names in the east were replaced almost overnight. And now, the Palace of the Republic, once the seat of the East German parliament, is slated to be razed completely.

Historians hope the same fate can be avoided for June 17, which represented an important milestone in the restoration of democracy in the communist east.

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