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GDR Rebellion: The 1953 uprising

June 12, 2023

Germany marks the anniversary of the June 17, 1953, uprising against the government in East Germany, an event that set the stage for the 1989 protests. DW looks back at how events unfolded.

June 17, 1953 uprising in East Germany
In June 1953, stone-throwing East German protestors were no match for the Soviet tanksImage: AP/picture alliance

The East German uprising of 1953 began as a series of strikes and protests at living standards; it soon turned political, with town halls being stormed amid vocal demands for German reunification.

The immediate trigger for the unrest was an announcement by the Communist government that it would increase working hours for factory employees while drastically raising the price of groceries at the same time.

The backdrop to the uprising was a policy of "expanding socialism according to plan" by East Germany's communists in the early 1950s. This involved expropriating farms to create massive industrial-scale farming collectives, which cratered agricultural output, and stepping up construction of the heavy-industry sector. Combined with crushing World War II reparations payments to the USSR, this plunged the East German economy into chaos.

As austerity measures became the order of the day, the country fell into an economic crisis as more and more people left for the relative prosperity of West Germany. By the spring of 1953, close to 30,000 people left East Germany every month.

Demonstrators converging on the border between East and West Berlin
There were chaotic scenes in Berlin on June 17 as thousands took to the streetsImage: AP/picture alliance

Workers lay down tools

Then came the strikes. During the last days of May and early June, dissatisfied workers began laying down their tools. The first massive wave of protest came on June 16, as thousands of construction workers, emboldened by the death of Stalin, protested on Berlin's Stalinallee (today's Karl Marx Allee) against wage cuts, forming a long protest march through East Berlin.

The following day, more than a million people went on strike and took to the streets in more than 700 cities and communities. What began as an uprising for better wages quickly turned into a protest for freedom, democracy, and unity in Germany. The workers called for greater government transparency, a better quality of life, the resignation of the GDR's government, free elections by secret ballot, and reunification.

black and white photo of protesters carrying the body of one of their comrades
A number of East German protesters lost their lives in the uprisingImage: UPI(picture alliance/dpa

The tense situation escalated further in East Berlin, the epicenter of the unrest. The GDR regime turned to the Soviet Union for help. Soviet tanks rolled into the unarmed crowd of protesters. The troops began firing at the workers on Friedrichstrasse and at Potsdamer Platz, killing dozens of people.

During the days following June 17, as many as 10,000 protesters and members of the strike committee were arrested. More than 1,500 protesters were given lengthy prison sentences.

Despite the crackdown, the revolt quietly simmered in East Germany for decades to come until the peaceful protests of 1989. That time around the Soviet tanks stayed off the streets and within a year the Berlin Wall fell, and East and West Germany were reunited.

West Berlin shows solidarity

For many years, the 1953 uprising was ignored by East Germany. In the West, it was a public holiday but largely forgotten by ordinary people.

black and white bird's eye view of 10.000 people in West Berlin converging to Oranienplatz is support of the protesters in East Berlin
People in West Berlin also took to the streets in a show of support for the protesters in East BerlinImage: Günter Bratke/picture alliance

That has changed in recent years with many German towns renaming streets after people involved in the uprising, museums organizing special exhibitions on the topic, and the publication of a spate of books about the events.

Former German president Johannes Rau told a special session of parliament in Berlin on the 50th anniversary of the uprising that the event was a watershed in European history.

"It was a revolt that was courageous, spontaneous, and supported by all classes of people is one of the major landmarks of the history of German and European freedom," he said.

His comments are seen to hold true until today.

A version of this article was first published to mark the 55th anniversary of the uprising.

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