The working class uprising in East Germany, June 1953 - Cajo Brendel

East German uprising
East German uprising

Cajo Brendel's pamphlet on the East German mass strike and uprising 1953.

Submitted by Mike Harman on July 22, 2007

The following pages were printed for the first time in Dutch as a
pamphlet, published anonymously by the Spartacusbond, a Dutch
council-communist group from which the author was a member at that time. They
came out only a few weeks after the events as a bitter charge against bolshevist
state-capitalism, unmasking the clumsy lies of its ruling class and doing
justice to the thousands and thousands of nameless East-German workers who
bravely resisted oppression and exploitation In 1978 the pamphlet was re-edited
by the Dutch group Daad en Gedachte (Act and Thought) with only a few
negligible modifications: here and there the author preferred a more analytic
style to the emotional one of his charges of that time. For the rest and
especially so far as his opinions are concerned there was no need of any change
at all.

In 1979 a French translation of the second Dutch edition of the
pamphlet was published by Echanges et Mouvement. This is a literal translation
from the French, looked over by the author.

Nearly half a century ago the well-known Dutch Marxist Anton
Pannekoek stated that the masters of Bolshevist Society were nothing but "a
class that tries to perpetuate the worker' serfdom". The justness of his view
was proved by those events which form the subject of these chapters:

"The wages policy obtaining in East Germany aim to achieve
increased productivity by intensifying workers' output and lowering wages...
Methods of payment by result are applied wherever possible ... earnings depend
firstly on various skill-categories, secondly to the extent to which workers
fulfill norm, i.e. on the amount of goods produced in a specific time.. By 1950
there were already enormous differences in earnings in East-Germany.. The
Russian system that Russian managers were seeking to apply could only lead to
even greater differences ..." (The Wage system in the Soviet zone in "Der
Gewerkschafter" ["The Trade Unionist", a West German periodical] from July '53.)



It is about thirty years since, one summer morning in 1953, 80 to
100 workers on the building sites in the Stalin Allee[1] of E. Berlin laid down
their trowels. They came down from the scaffolding and, joined by their
workmates, moved towards the government buildings in the Leipziger Strasze: they
went there in order to protest against the increase in work norms

They were unaware that by this action they were giving the signal
for a workers insurrection which would spread like a brushfire over all of E.
Germany. On trio 16th and 17th of June, 1953, the Bolshevik regime of the
G.D.R.[2] was made to tremble. The wage slaves of state capitalism went into
action even in the remotest Corners of the land. Wherever the spark of
resistance touched, or one might say electrified them, there spontaneously they
formed revolutionary councils. They were taking the first steps on a road which
led not, as has been said, towards bourgeois democracy, but towards the far
further goal of a working class democracy.

The insurrection was strictly proletarian in character,
some-thing rarely seen before in other similar situations. It provided a living
example to the world of what does and does not constitute a workers revolution.
And with the same blow, the insurrection radically destroyed any myths on the
subject[3] that had previously been tenable. What the insurrection in the East
overthrew was the notion that no revolutionary practice is possible without a
revolutionary theory[4].

What's more, it showed that the existence of a "vanguard" is not
a necessary condition for revolutionary action by the" working-class; that
instead of revolutionary storm springing from a "revolutionary conscicusnaas'11
it is the revolutionary storm which gives birth to the "revolutionary
Consciousness". The events also showed how quickly small groups of workers,
fighting over their work condition, can transform themselves into masses
struggling for very much wider and more radical objectives. The Hungarian
Revolution, 3 years later, was to demonstrate with what enormous rapidity the
masses will change their demands in a similar revolutionary process, and how
speedily their slogans will change from one moment to the next. We learn that
it's not what workers think about their own actions that is important in the
class struggle, but what those actions mean, and how the momentum of events
shapes the way workers behave.

Young people of today do not always have a clear conception of
what has happened in the past. It must be added, too, that history has been
modified by the West[5]. The pages which follow represent an effort to
reconstruct this past. We have based ourselves on several publications, the
value of which lie's, above all, in the testimonies of those who were present at
the centre of events.

We cite[6]:

- Arno Scholz in Werner Nicke "Der 17 Juni"

- the summaries published in the monthly "Der Monat" by

- the article "Two days that shook the Soviet World" by Louis
Fisher in Reader's Digest, December, 1953

- several essays in the West German Traade Union Press

- Stefan Brant, "Der aufstand" (The Uprising)


A Storm Blows Up

In the summer of 1953, the Eastern Zone of Germany, occupied by
Russian troops, was the scene of very important revolutionary events. For the
first time in 32 years there was sizeable movement taking place amongst the
proletariat on German soil. In E. Berlin, Magdeburg, Rostock and "Warnemunde,
Brandeburg and Rathenow, in Dresden and in Gorlitz on the Polish frontier, at
lena; in the uranium-producing region of Aue, in Halle and in Leipsic, in
Bitterfeld, Merseburg, Wolfen and in many other towns In the lignite basin of
central Germany, workers left their factories all at the same moment and went
out onto the streets.

It was started by the building workers. They were followed by
considerable mass of the metal workers. Work stopped at the steel works of
Henningsdorf, in the Bergmann-Borsig factory, in the foundries of Calbe and
Furstenberg, in the Zeiss works, in the BMW motor works at Gera, in the Max
foundries at Unterwellenborn, in the munitions factories of Schonebeck, and in
the Olympia works at Erfurt, to cite only a few examples: work stopped

For a brief moment, the workers could see power within their
grasp. The Grotewonl-Ulbricht government, mere puppetry in the hands or the
Russians, was in a state of total panic. It lost all initiative and lost its
capacity to act. The existing regime gave way under the irresistible pressure of
the masses.

In main streets and squares throughout the country assembled
large crowds of workers who were all of a sudden aware that they had nothing to
loose but their chains. In 1918, on the morning of the 9th of November, the
insurgent sailors of Kiel entered a Berlin which was bubbling over; on the 17th
of June 1953, the same Berlin was visited by the steelworkers of Henningsdorf.
But there was this great difference: when the sailors of Kiel came down the
Charlottenburg road, they came in small separated groups and had lost their
cohesion. The workers of Henningsdorf stuck together and there were 12,000 of

They marched arm in arm on a wide front. They came down the road
which led from the north, still wearing their work clothes, and with their
protective spectacles still hanging around their necks. They crossed through the
French sector after cutting the barbed wire barriers. Some wore shoes with
wooden soles which echoed on the paving stones. The sound was amplified against
the buildings of Millerstasze at Wassing, till it became an approaching storm
which could sweep the Bolsh leadership clean out of the political scene.

It was pouring with rain when the workers of Henningsdorf left
their factories. Soon they were completely soaked. But nothing could have held
them back[7]. There were women amongst them wearing light shoes bought from the
shop of the Organization of Commerce in shoes, which weren't meant for heavy use
like this. When their feet began to hurt, the women took off their shoes arid
continued barefoot at no price were they going to be left behind, They were
pushed for-ward by a common. desire and a common purpose. All had but one aim;
get to Berlin. They had to cover a distance of 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles),
and that was only going. Not one gave a thought to the return. And as for the
consequences of their action, no one had any precise idea of that.

Everything was happening in a way once described by Henrietta
Roland Holst: "the revolutionary spirit can carry individuals away only at the
moment when logical judgment or the Consequences of their acts has more or less
disappeared from their consciousness"[8]. So it was with the Henningsdorf
workers. And so it was also for the many E. German workers who had started to
act before them.

On the 16th of June for instance9 a procession of around 10,000
people passed by the front of the police headquarters of E. Berlin at
Alexanderplatz. Behind the windows of the eight story building, officers touched
fingers to, foreheads1 - it was just a few loonies. In a cafe on the
Greifwalderstrasze, three workers were playing cards. Their first reaction on
seeing the procession was also to say "they're mad". But for the masses once
aroused, everything develops along different lines than for those individuals
who possibly never will.

"Mad" is certainly what all those who rose up in E. Germany must
have seemed in the eyes of those who took stock of the enormous power of the
State and of the party which is why the bourgeois press of the West have always
considered that what actually happened in E. Germany, in summer of 1953~ was
impossible It was a most widespread belier that mass movements were impossible
under a system like Bolshevism. Two German historians had expressed this opinion
during the very week the insurrection broke out. Along with many others who
thought the same way, they shared the firm conviction that the masses lack
sufficient audacity to resist the Bolsh regime. Such resistance was held to be
both improbable and unbelievable. Nevertheless, both the improbable and the
unbelievable were happening.

Rosa Luxemburg had already stated that "the masses can become
completely other than their appearance would suggest and can always advance in a
manner which corresponds with historical circumstances. With the masses, there
is a whole Series of possibilities. Today, they may appear indifferent and
apathetic, tomorrow they might rise up with the greatest show of audacity. So we
shouldn't make judgments based on their mood of the moment, but must take the
basis of social development into consideration"[9].

The struggle against oppression and exploitation and against the
working class condition is part of the development of capitalist relations. The
moment that this struggle takes on the character of an insurrection or
revolution, this law of social development surges to the fore and remorselessly
sweeps away any myths and illusions myths and illusions existing everywhere,
even today. So it was in June, 1953.


A Spontaneous Movement

It is fairly widely believed that a proletarian revolution cannot
be realized without the prior creation of powerful organization which will put a
firm leadership at it's head to formulate the slogans and point out the way.
Only this organization and that leadership can stimulate the masses and lead
then to any real resistance. Thus, a political vanguard would be the
indispensable prerequisite for the decisive struggle which alone can break the
power of the ruling-class. In the past, this concept has largely been destroyed
by historical reality and the workers' insurrection in E. Germany in 1953 has
once again consigned this conception to the kingdom

fables. The masses started moving without the tiniest bit of
stimulation from any organization. It could hardly, in fact, have been
otherwise. No organization which could fulfill this "historic task" existed in
the State of Ulbricht and Gortewohl under the dictatorship of the one solo
party, the S.E.D. Slogans and resolutions which might have told the worker.':
"what was to be done" were simply non-existent. There wasn't a trace of anything
resembling a leadership from above or from outside, and for good reason[10].

After the struggle, a worker at the Agfa film factory at Wolfen
near Bitterfeid declared. "It wasn't planned at all, everything happened
spontaneously. Workers from nearby factories didn't know what was happening in
our factory until the moment we found ourselves in the street".

A Berliner who marched in a demonstration right across the
capital describes his experience accordingly: "We reached the Lustgarten, the
destination of our march, and no one could say what we ought to do next". And
Dresdeners said, "We wanted to demonstrate in the Square of the Theatre. We
didn't think up any other practical action. It was like being drunk for the
first time. We had forgotten the most simple and urgent things".

That, too, is what a worker from a factory somewhere in the
Russian zone by Berlin had to say: "It was disastrous that there were no
Organization, or anything like that In our area, we were all people who had
never gone on strike before It was all improvised. We had no linkups with any
other towns or factories. We didn't know where to begin. But we were totally
full of joy that things were happening as they were" All you saw in the crowd
was faces beaming With emotion because everyone was feeling at last the hour has
come, we're freeing ourselves from the yoke of' slavery". An eyewitness from
Halbertstad, declared: "Every action was characterized by spontaneity - if that
hadn't been the case it would all have worked out"

One of the first people to have written on the events of that
summer concluded that "actions which took the form of a general strike actually
developed without coordination and in a totally different way from what would
have been the case if it had been a Strike called by the T.U. movement. The
existing unions were dominated by Supporters o£ the system whose interest was
only in serving those of the State. This explains the fact that the initiative
was taken in several different places at the same time, in the houses of
hundreds and thousands of workers who, as they listened to the radio on the 16th
of June learnt of what the building workers of Berlin had done"[11]. Further on,
the same author maintains that "from 7.00 AM on June 18th the concern was
spreading throughout the Eastern zone without any communication at that time
between the towns and villages"[12]

Other historians writing later have but confirmed this initial

All those who participated in the events, and all the
eyewitnesses who reported the events are agreed on this point: that the
insurrection (uprising) in Berlin in June 1953 has to be characterized in no
other way than as a spontaneous movement of' the working-class.


Bolshevik Lies

The development of the mass movement in E. Germany delivered a
death blow to all such theories, like the Bolshevik one which attempted to
establish the need for a professional revolutionary party as the prerequisite
for the proletarian revolution. As was to be expected the Bolsheviks of E.
Germany tried hard to defend themselves against this blow which the workers had
dealt them. After thinking about it for 48 hours, they claimed there had been no
question of a class struggle, but of ... "a plot hatched well in advance" and of
"the terror unleashed by Adenauar, Ollenhaur, Kaiser, and Reuter[13] in person"
and of the action of "thousands of foreign, fascist, agent-provocateurs" who
"failed thanks to the good sense of the workers of Berlin".

Their lies were outrageous and endless. In their own daily paper,
the S.E.D.'s Neue Deutschland, in the issue of June 17,1953, the rulers of E.
Germany were forced to concede that the workers who had gone on strike on June
16 had "carefully kept their distance from agent-provocateurs and trouble making
elements". Later, they completely ignored the fact that the June insurrection
had not fallen out of the sky, but was the outcome of a movement which had been
broadening itself throughout the previous months; this was passed over in utter
silence. Some weeks before the 16th and 17th, some strikes had broken out at
Eisleben, Finsterwalde, Furstenwalde, Chemnitz-Borna and other towns. During
these strikes appeared the same demands which were later to be made during the
course of the uprising in June. The Bolsheviks had never maintained that these
previous strikes were 'instigated' by provocateurs. All the same, the relation
of these strikes to the movement which was unleashed later on in obvious as is
this evidence itself; which alone destroys all the incredible myths about a
supposed day 'X' on which an attack on the R.D.A is alleged to have taken place.

According to the Bolsheviks, "95% of the demonstrations in E.
Germany had come from the western sector". That would mean that on the 16th of
June 1953, several hundreds of thousand s of people, given the number of
demonstrators, had passed across the control points at the borders of both East
and West Berlin. A completely ridiculous statement, which wasn't taken seriously
even by the bureaucrats themselves, to go by the impressive number of arrests
which followed both in the factories of E. Berlin and in the popular districts
of E. Berlin. And this despite the fact that their own newspaper, Neue
Deutschland, had written the day before the arrests, that it was the working
class districts of E. Berlin, in particular, that there lived the "intelligent
workers who would not allow themselves to be provoked".

If the Bolsheviks want to go on claiming that the demonstrators
came from the western sectors of Berlin, then they're forced to admit that
they've arrested innocent people from the various districts of E. Berlin, and
that they've sentenced innocent people to long terms of imprisonment and even to
death. If, on the other hand, they maintain that those people serving sentences
are 'guilty'. Then little remains out of all their allegations about the origins
of the demonstrators.

So what was the actual crime for which those people were
imprisoned or shot? Even the E. German newspaper Vorwärts wrote on the 22nd
June, and Neue Deutschland on the 23rd that on the building sites on the Stalin
Allee where almost all the workers were S.E.D. members, and at the cable factory
in Kopenick as well as in Leipsic region, strike committees, elected by the
workers had been in operation. Does this mean that the crime with which dozens
were charged, and for which they were sentenced, was to have elected or to have
been elected onto a strike committee? That was certainly the actual fact. But
there was no question of their being overtly charged with it. The ruling class
of E. Germany couldn't possibly admit that it was harassing workers solely on
their waging class struggle, and that this fact was a threat to the power of the
Bolsheviks. And, in spite of the contradictions discussed above, the Bolsheviks
have stuck to their contemptible interpretation that the uprising had been "the
work of agents from the west and of provocateurs". The (Eastern) newspaper
Berliner Zeitung formulated the same interpretation in this way: "The
agent-provocateurs were wearing cowboy shirts" and thus, without this hardly
penetrating article even explaining how they were immediately recognizable as
"agent-provocateurs" because ... they were dressed that way. Maybe because
nobody had actually seen any of those men disguised as cowboys.

The daily paper Tagliche Rundschau on June 24th put forward
another interpretation according to which the "provocateurs" and "western spies
had disguises themselves" as building workers. But this time they didn't explain
how the so called spies had been able to get hold of such clothes such as those
worn by E. German workers (and of the same lousy quality and all!).

On the 20th of June 1953, someone called Kuba delivered yet a
third interpretation. He spoke of "hooligans", meaning the type of people who
"mixed with the working class crowds of E. Berlin and who were immediately
recognizable by their appearance". In all of these interpretations of the
events, the Bolsheviks become increasingly entangled in the chain of their own

They had little alternative. They were a long way from believing
that the action of the masses of the D.D.R. stemmed from the social relations
themselves and that the regime established by the S.E.D. opened up perspectives
of a proletarian revolution as does the capitalist order of Europe and the
U.S.A. The selfsame Kuba, who we have just quoted, told E. German workers: "The
need to struggle exists only when the reasons for doing so exist, and you don't
have any such reasons". The idea that the very fact that they were struggling
demonstrated precisely that they did have reasons for doing so, did not seem to
occur to him ...!

There existed this chasm between the E. German ruling class and
working class. For the ruling class socialism meant piece-work, wages and
bonuses. To them "the interest of the proletariat" consisted in an exploitation
more intense than in the west. The resistance of the working class to such a
situation arose according to the ruling-class out of a "misunderstanding"; a
misunderstanding that had to be clarified by the Russian Army and the people's
police, the Volkspolizei.


The Prelude To The Spring

The German working class used different forms of struggle in that
great class uprising of 1953. They used nearly every means of proletarian
resistance, either one after another, or sometimes several at the same time.
Strikes, demonstrations, mass factory occupations, replaced and succeeded one
another, and each occasion showed that one method of struggle was being
substituted for another as soon as a point had reached where the movement had
either evolved to a particular level, or had exhausted the possibilities of one
particular form of action.

It had all begun very early on in the Spring. On the 16th of
April, 1953, a hearing took place at the Zeitz Power Station near Halle, which
had come about as a result of general pressure from all the workers involved in
the plant[14]. At this meeting, the sorters were protesting about the
catastrophic Consequences of the bonus-system. According to an account published
several weeks later, on Nay 29th, in the Freiheit de Halle" newspaper the
workers there were mounting in effect a violent attack on the Party itself. As
quoted in that paper "a worker named Walter got up and said, 'Comrades, what's
going on now is downright humiliating to the working-class. Karl Marx has been
dead for 70 years, and here we are still discussing our most basic needs ..."
And a worker named Meyer sarcastically inquired of the factory official Kahnt,
how much his own bonus amounted to and how much he had produced for it." On the
same day that this report appeared in the Freiheit newspaper, the government
announced an increase in work norms. Also on that day, the "Neues Deutschland"
gave evidence of a growing concern over what was happening in a factory in
Leipsic which produced goods for the railways.

Readers of the Neues Deutschland of June 2, 1953 were informed
about "hard-hitting discussions" going on amongst the workers of the "peoples"
foundry, and amongst the workers in the machine tool factory in
Berlin-Lichtenberg, where a machinist, Adolf Schermer, and many others had
reacted violently against the augmentation of work norms.

On June 7th, the party leadership in Magdeburg was criticized in
the Neues Deutschland" editorial for not apparently having been able to cope
with the turn the situation had taken in the course of the "violent discussions
that had gone on in the workshops".

In Magdeburg, as in several other towns such as Wilhemsruh and
Lena, workers went further. At Rosslau, for example, they not only demonstrated
their revolt against the increase in their workload but also openly criticized
the entire policy of the Party and of the government. In other towns, some of
which have been mentioned in previous chapters, work stopped altogether.

At first there were demonstration discussions, then discussions
linked with political protest, and then strike action, like climbing one by one
the first three steps of the staircase. In all these strikes of the spring 1953,
the number of workers involved in each action was always small. In every
instance the strikes were of short duration, neither were they unleashed at the
same time. But behind all these movements, for one thing, all bore witness to
their being the diverse elements of a far larger movement, and for another it
was the frequency with which they broke out; one movement here, the next
elsewhere, one after the other right across the country. Tension was mounting
all the time. During the course of a party branch meeting in the Druckhaus
(printing press) at Leipsic, someone named Zaunert had categorized all against
the case for augmentation of norms as "idiots who did nothing more than give
orders". Another speaker named Raulan declared that "if a genuine election were
held, the party wouldn't get anywhere at all"[15]. On the 28th of May, the
carpenters at the workshop G-north in the Stalin-Allee in E. Berlin went on
strike. Neues Deutschland reported it on the 14th of June. Two editors of the
paper recounted how one brigadier-roche had referred to the augmentation of
norms as a "direct blackmail". They also said that the workers had at that time
been complaining for some months that what they received inside their wage
packets didn't tally at all with what was written on the outside. Four days
before the uprising, on the 12th June, there was anew strike in Stalin Allee,
this time in workshop C-south. This one was the workers immediate answer to a
letter announcing that norms had been augmented by 10%, retroactive to the 1st
of June. The strikers refused to return to work until these measures were

At about 2:30 p.m., 15 officials appeared on the scene,
comprising of members of the party, the Bolshevik Trade Union and the workshop
management. They mingled with the workers and tried to calm them down. But they
came out with what the workers called "the same old stories": "You've just got
to wait, because as soon as you're working a bit harder our life will improve
because production will have gone up. You won't be falling behind If you're
working harder because everything will become cheaper ..." "we've been hearing
rubbish like this for 5 years and we're still getting less to eat" answered one
worker. Another took up the point: "you've got fat enough bellies, but take a
look at ours. You don't take home 144 marks, you get 1200."[16].

A union official A union official took it upon himself to
explain, "There's no such thing as a strike in a people's factory, which is your
own property. If you strike you're striking against yourselves." This led one
worker to reply, "we're not striking for our own pleasure and we know exactly
what you're doing." So the official tried another tact: "If you want to go on
strike today, Okay, but you must advise your Trade Union." The workers let him
understand in no uncertain terms their strike had nothing to do with the trade


Not Only The Stalin Allee But The Whole Of All Berlin

This conflict which was welling up in workshop C-south on the
Stalin Allee on June 12 resembled in every respect those of the pre-ceding
weeks. However in, in the early hours of the morning of the16th June, the
movement entered a new phase. Up until that point, the various dispersed actions
which comprised it, had failed to achieve any concrete results. The workers of
Block 40 who stopped work that Tuesday realized that their strength lay in their
numbers, that they had to appeal to other comrades and that extending their
struggle had become a necessity. And for this reason their resistance took a
completely different form.

Very early that morning a representative of the management
appeared in the workshops; he repeated, "work harder, to start with, then later
you'll be able to lead more human existence". It was the straw which broke the
camels back. No sooner had the workers mounted the scaffolds than they came back
down again. An eyewitness relates "I was climbing up a ladder with 15 mates from
our section - 'Listen, d'you agree with what's going on?' - The first man was
already laying down his trowel. A few seconds later the ladders were swaying
beneath the weight of the workers descending in masses, letting their tools drop
simply to the ground as they came. Our numbers had suddenly grown by another

The movement was progressing irresistibly. The effect of this
small, isolated strike developing into a widespread action was enormous, but it
had the further effect of changing the character of the action itself. The
demonstration which in so short a time was growing out of the strike was itself
turning into a demonstration of the masses. And very quickly, the first slogans
were shouted by the crowd, the first mass slogans: "We are workers not slaves".

Towards 11a.m, the crowd was approaching Alexanderplatz. The
demonstrations had already to a massive 10,000 men and women. Alexanderplatz is
a large square. Once there, the crowd became aware how many they were. This made
them feel that nothing could overcome them. One participant said afterwards: "By
that time we had already become a single united entity. I mean an entity which
was conscious of its power". The workers could see with their owns eyes the
Volkspolizei pigs beating a hasty retreat before them. This reinforced the sense
of their own power; and they reacted by hurling slogans: "Down with the
government. Down with the Volkspolizei. We demand the reduction of work norms".

After Alexanderplatz the demonstrators entered the wide avenue of
Unter den Linden. You could have crossed it by stepping over Heads! By the time
first marcher were entering Wilhelmstrasze, the augmentation of norms was quite
forgotten, and the chant was; "We don1t want to be slaves. anymore, we want to
be free". Suddenly, one single thought filled all hearts and minds.

The effect of this mass demonstration was the same as is always
produced by all mass demonstrations. With one action it unified the different
sections of the working-class into a coherent entity, It demonstrated to the
workers themselves, as well a." to their enemies the very foundations of working
class power: their numbers, and their common fate.

Henrietta Roland Holst, whom we have already quoted above, has
described phenomenon: "Demonstration transform individuals into an active crowd,
which is amazing, and which enthusiastically confirms to itself it's own
strength and it's own audacity. It's thus which explains that self-confident
participation; each individual seeming to experience the strength of the mass
enhancing his or her own power"[17]. This is exactly what happened on one 16th
in E. Berlin. The crowd was transformed into a mass. They were more than 20,000
when they besieged the government building in the Leipzigerstrasze at 1 in the

They yelled, "Down with Ulbricht and Grotewohl". The 2 ministers
dared not show themselves. Two of their colleagues, Selbmann and Rau, appeared
instead, but the sight of them failed to appease the crowd: "we want to see
Ulbricht and Grotewohl. We're the one who decide who we wart to Listen to".

At 2:30, Selbmann stood up on a small table that someone had
brought outside. "Dear colleagues", he began. Immeditately9 the crowd
interrupted him: "You're not our colleague, you're a shit and a traitor",
Nonetheless, Selbmann tried once more to have himself heard. He admitted that
the augmentation of work norms had been a bad decision, and announced that they
were going to annul it. But he spoke in vain. Such a promise made no sense. It
might have had some effect that morning; in the afternoon it provoked only
laughter and anger. A Mason knocked Selbmann off the table with one blow of his
hand and mounted it himself. From the crowd came shouts of approval. The mason
spoke: "We' re not in the least interested in what you have to say. We no longer
wish to be your slaves. we' re opposed to more than the work norms, and we don't
all come from Stalin Allee. We are all of Berlin.

There wasn't one unnecessary word in all of that. What had begun
as a demonstration by the workers of one enterprise had turned into the
resistance of an active city. At 4.p.m government cars with loudspeakers were
all over the town. The authorities made it known that they were annulling the
augmentation of work norms; but with no effect. There was nothing left of their
authority. On the Rosentalerplatz, official cars were turned over. The slogan
"General Strike" flew from mouth to mouth, which filled the air.

By 5 p.m. people had begun to attack party officials before the
very eyes of the helpless police. In the early hours of the evening the crowd
was chanting "Down with the S.E.D." A little later they were tearing Bolshevik
notices off the walls. In front of Barnimstrasze womens prison they called for
the immediate liberation of the prisoners. By 10 o'clock revolutionary fever had
swept through the entire population of E. Berlin. The night shift on machine
making; the big factories failed to turn up for work.

An eyewitness to the events which took place on Leipzigstrasze
told how the workers were taken by surprise by their own audacity. "when I went
home on the night of the 16th June, I had but a single thought, I hope we'll be
strong enough tomorrow and I hope everyone will be part of the movement. During
the night of the 16th and 17th of June it became clear it became clear that we
had to fight no matter what the consequences, and that we had to fight until the
end. The 16th of June had transformed us all".


The Revolutionary Tide

The 16th of June changed everything and everyone. The 17th
brought even more changes. This was because the mass demonstration coincided
with the mass strikes, and therefore the interaction of these two forms of
proletarian struggle rapidly provoked chain reaction. Because the workers had
experienced their power as a class, they began to act as a class. Because they
began to act as a class, the sense of their power grew stronger.

To be able to demonstrate you just have to stop work. Then
wherever the workers demonstrated, they headed first for the factories were more
hesitant comrades had not yet joined the struggle. Strikers became
demonstrators, and demonstrators stimulated strike activity. The workers could
sense that their unity was a fact. To prevent it being smashed, to prevent the
continuation of their struggle and, at the same time, the very struggle itself
being smashed, they had each moment to take steps, each one of which took the
global struggle a pace further and elevated it to a higher level.

All over E. Germany, workers were forming their own strike
committees to run their affairs in factories, in whole towns and entire
industrial regions. So power was in fact continually shifting. Organisations
which had been formed during and for the struggle were steadily gaining
authority. The power of the Party and the Government was fading away as the
country slipped out of the grip of all these institutions that had previously
existed. To the extent that the workers were increasingly governing themselves,
so were these institutions losing their governmental functions. The strike
committees took on the character of workers' councils, not only in practical but
also in the formal sense. So an organization was born significantly, not formed
with the express aim of overthrowing the social order, but on the contrary,
evolving out of a revolutionary process. The mass strikes as a whole take on the
character of a general strike, it is the quantity which alters their quality.

This qualitative change was also apparent, as is change in
consciousness. At first they were striking to abolish work norms, without any
thought of bringing down the government. During discussions at the central
hydraulic station in Zeitz on April16th, a worker named Engelhardt shouted "We
just want to live like human beings, that's what we want". But the moment all
the factories had come to a halt, it had become another situation. They were
demanding the downfall of the regime in order to be able to live like human
beings. What they were actually doing was transforming social relations AT first
they were shouting "Down with the augmentation of norms"; a little later the
slogan was "Down with Walter Ulbricht". This is what characterized the
revolutionary process.

No organization had made the revolution; it was the revolution
which had created its' own organisation. No revolutionary consciousness had
precipitated the revolution: the revolution had given rise to a new
revolutionary consciousness. They were interlinked. The new organizations,
non-existent before, seemed to have sprung up by magic. In reality they sprang
up due to the initiative of quite unknown activists pushed forward by the masses
whose very actions amazed even themselves. Caught up in the sudden excitement of
events they were swept forward, until, in the social turmoil, the consciousness
of all had been transformed. On the other hand this transformation was
enormously stimulated by the forming of the new organizations; and there are
numerous examples of this.

In the town of Gorlitz on the Neisse, on June 17th, the rebelling
crowd seized loudspeaker installations in the town. The first speakers came
forward: immediately 20 00 people were listening. The sound was poor. In spite
of this they spoke one after another: workers from Lowa, the big coachwagon
factory, workers from other factories, artisans, a café owner, and an architect,
white-collar workers, then more workers. Most of them had never been in front of
a microphone in their lifes, but their enthusiasm and joy at being part of
events like these helped them overcome any nerves. They were addressing
thousands, and speak they did.

In Magdeburg on the evening of June 16th, the musician 'K', a man
never before involved in politics, performed Johann Strauss' 'Die Fledermaus' in
frock coat and tails before a full house, little aware that next day he would be
leading the workers demonstrations in that industrial town, and forced to flee
to W. Berlin on that account.

A certain Richard S., inhabitant of the town of Dresden and 34
years of age, led strikers (demonstrators) in that town from one factory to
another appealing to the workers to join the action. He went into the main
workshop in each factory, jumped onto a lathe and gesticulated until the
machines were turned off and the driving belts disconnected. Then he'd begin to
speak. "Have you heard the news from Stalin Allee? We've got to support them.
Come out! Onto the streets". He and two others formed a revolutionary committee.
They stopped passing lorries and persuaded drivers to turn around and join in
the action. In no time, they had a motorized division at their disposal which by
11:00 a.m. had already transported some 15,000 workers. Later S was to say "I
felt as if I had been reborn. I sent 50 cyclists to occupy the radio station

That was an attempt which failed in Dresden but succeeded in
Halle. The local radio station was occupied by 30 rebelling workers who made
sure that communiqués issued by the central organization of the strike reached
the largest numbers. Like an avalanche did the Events of the 17th June,1953,
gain momentum. The day had hardly began when workers entered battle throughout
all the towns and villages of E. Germany and in virtually every factory. As in
E. Berlin, it began with strikes and demonstrations. A few hours later, people
were disarming the police. They surrounded Party HQs, tore up S.E.D. propaganda
literature, invaded the prisons and freed the inmates. But only after these
demonstrations of popular fury did the spontaneous insurrection begin to take on
more obvious characteristics of proletarian revolution. It's no coincidence that
this process was more clearly to be seen in the most industrialized parts of E.
Germany, which also contained the greatest concentration of working class
people. It is where the coal seams are to be found; and thus was where the first
flames were kindled. In Halle, Wolfen, Marseburg, Bitterfeld, Rosslau, Gere and
in other towns in that region, organizations sprung up which for a short while
took executive power into their own hands. They set up a new structure which was
neither Bourgeois nor statist: a structure conceived for the express and single
purpose of creating real liberty for the working people.

At 1:30, there was a meeting in a factory in Halle of
representatives from the strike committees of nearly every factory in the town.
They elected a council which they called "initiative committee" but a closer
look reveals it was and in every way functioned more like a workers council. It
proclaimed a general strike, took the decision to occupy the offices of a local
newspaper in order to produce a manifest; and the workers were actually engaged
in this activity when they were stabbed in the back by police informers and
forced to stop.

No need to ask which class was on the move to Halle. From early
morning columns of workers poured in from the metallurgical factories on the
outskirts of the town, intent on marching to the center, just as the workers
from Henningsdorf had invaded E. Berlin. A crowd of over 50,000 demonstrators
assembled in the market square in Halle.

Similar events took place in Marseburg: 200,000 workers marched
on Uhland square in the town center, from the Leuna factories[18] and had
brought with them workers from the Buna works at Schkopau, from the Gros Keyna
coal mine's, from the Geisel Valley oil fields and from three other factories.
The strike organizer convinced that the workers greatest power lay in their
workplaces, that were advising demonstrators to go back and fight for their
demands in their own factories. The kind of demands they were making were
clearly evident from earlier on in that day. The entire personnel of the Leuna
works had assembled outside the management building. One of the accounts
demanded amongst other points was that end be put to the incessant speeding up
of work rhythms and that the factory police be immediately disarmed. Workers
occupied the factory radio post.

The scenes which occurred in Bitterfeld on the afternoon of June
17th were such as never had been witnessed before. Workers in overalls from
every factory on the outskirts of town advanced on a wide front. Miners still
black with coaldust amongst them. The whole town was in festive mood. The
President of the strike committee got up to speak in the Square of the Youth. He
was still speaking when word came that the police had arrested several workers.
On hearing this, the strike committee immediately decided to occupy the town. At
this point, the strike committee started functioning as a workers council
wielding the executive power in Berlin. Public employees were to carry on
working: firemen received orders to remove all S.E.D. notices in the town; whilst
the strike committees, at the same time, prepared for a general strike, not only
in their town and the surrounding area, but throughout the whole of E. Germany.
In a telegram to the so-called government of the G.D.R in E. Berlin, the
Bitterfeld striking committee demanded the "formation of a provisional
government composed of revolutionary workers".

At Rosslau on the Elbe the workers similarly took over the town
for a while. The kernel of the resistance there was the workforce of the naval

In every factory and town of significant size or importance,
events paralleled the situation in the country's vital center. In Dresden,
workers from all the big factories, including Zeiss, were on strike and
demonstrating. Embattled workers in the province of Brandenburg transportation
works, the Elizabeth coalfield and the Kirchmoser coach building works (under
Russian management). Work came to a halt in every single factory in Falkensee, a
in Leipsic, Frankfort, and the Oder, Furstenburg, Greifswalde and Gotha, not to
mention the towns were workers had come out onto the streets. Even the Uranium
mines on the Czech border were on strike; as was even the northern part of the
country with the least dense concentration of population.

None of this however, prevented the Neues Deutschland a month
later, July 28th, from proclaiming that the strike had been organized by
'putschistes' who failed because the majority of the workers had refused to
listen to them and that a mere 5% of the working class had come out on strike.
The reality was that the Bolshevik ruling class had to confront resistance from
an entire oppressed class.


Neither Ulbricht Nor Adenaur

When the augmentation of work norms was announced by the S.E.D. in
the spring 1953, a section of the E. German working class had hoped to
'neutralise' its effects by moving into a higher income bracket, a hope which
was soon, however, to prove quite worthless. The Neues Deutschland wrote that
such a demand ran completely contrary to the workers own interest: but the
workers had quite different ideas as to their own interests. They did some rapid
sums and discovered that a worker earning 20-24 E. German Marks per day would
only bring home 13-16 Marks after the establishment of the new work norms; which
they refused to accept. It was a revolt on such a brutal attack on their
standard of living, not a stand for political aims or revolutionary ideals. The
workers embarked on a struggle against the governments wages policy, which
developed into a struggle against the government as such; but this was through
no initial intention on the workers part: it developed this way from the nature
of the struggle itself and it's class character. It was this class character
which guided the workers action and which played a decisive role in the content
and form of their movement.

This class character has been largely ignored by both East and
West, and for the same reasons. Acknowledgement of it by the Bolsheviks would
have meant renunciation of all the myths surrounding their own society; while
the bourgeois democracies saw nothing whatsoever to be gained from underlying
any social significance which might trigger off repercussions amongst workers in
the west. So political leaders in the F.G.R. referred to it as a popular uprising
against the Russian occupying force, and were more readily able to back up an
interpretation favorable to the ruling class by giving major importance to
events which had been happening over on the fringes of the movement. So, too,
was the ruling class in the west able to refer to it as a "struggle for German

During a sober demonstration in Rudolf Wilder square in
Shconeberg district of W. Berlin in June 1923, Chancellor Adenaur declared
"members of the German Nation living behind the Iron Curtain have made us aware
we must not forget them ... I declare before the entire German nation that we
shall not rest as long as they remain unfree, and until the whole of Germany is
reunited". And the mayor Reuter added "No power in the world can divide the
German people. The youth tore down the flag of servitude in Brandenburger Place:
the day will come then that same youth will plant in its place the flag of
liberty ..."

It's true that on June 10th some young people had pulled the
D.D.R. flag down from that historic gate and had then tried to replace it by the
F.G.R. flag. It is also true that one of the chants on several occasions had been
"Freedom! Freedom!" and that some of sections of the marches had brandished the
flag of the Bonn government. But all that proves is that some of the
participants in the movement had no clear idea of why they were doing what they
were doing. If the workers only gradually became aware of the significance of
their actions, then it must certainly be that not all of them became aware at
the same time.

The workers of E. Germany made it clear during the course of
their action that in their view they were against the S.E.D. government not the
Russian army stationed on E. German territory. And in marked contrast with
distinction, their attitude of hostility towards the police force and to
officials of the Party, the workers showed no particular hostility towards the
army until right at the end, when that army openly participated in the

If one asked whether all the E. German workers saw their action
as a class movement the answer would undoubtedly be negative. But that in no way
alters the uncontestable fact that what the workers thought about it was
less important than in the totality of what they did. In spite of the
F.D.R symbols and the fairly naïve slogans of "Liberty" and "Unity", what is
certain is that the working class had no desire to live in a unified Germany.
Magdeburg railway workers painted in huge white letters all over coaches in the
sorting yard, "Not Ulbricht, not Adenaur, but Ollenjaur". They were saying here
that they thought of a Social-Democrat like Ollenjaur representing their own
class, but they were at a Germany governed by either Ulbricht or Adenaur. What
they were saying here, however confusedly, was that they saw their struggle as
not just against state capitalism but against capitalism as such, and they had
no intentions of changing their Bolshevik masters for bourgeois ones.

German political leaders have made June 18th a national holiday,
a day of "German unity". This completely ignores that fact that the revolt was
above all expressing a rejection of the class division, which German workers had
demonstrated during the course of that day, was their implacable enmity as
workers to a society based upon class oppression.


Bolshevism Unmasked

Faced with the spontaneous movement of the E. German workers the
Ulbricht government was completely paralysed. In several instances the ordinary
police seemed unsure of themselves, and even where they remained firmly
supportive of the bureaucrats they seemed far too indecisive. In several towns
they were so ineffective that their resistance crumbled instantly.

The Bolshevik bureaucracy was normally licked before the battle
had even started. The obvious rottenness of the regime began to show through
from the afternoon of June 16th. None of the more senior ministers had dared
appear before the furious crowd which massed outside their windows in
Leipzigstrasze and that same evening saw quite a few leading Party bureaucrats
packing their bags to leave. At this junctive the streets were already under
control of the masons, welders, type-setters, and carpenters; Columbushouse and
Potsdammer Place were not yet burning, that was to happen the next day, but
certainly all the dreams of the ruling-class had already gone up in smoke.
Whilst the working-class had not yet seized power it was certain that the
government no longer possessed it.

And the German Bolsheviks would never have been able to repossess
this power without the Russian Amy and Russian tanks. With-out their entering
the action, in Berlin and many other rebellious towns, if the Russians had not
gone ahead with a state of siege with mass arrests and with executing quite a
number of workers, the fall of the regime would indeed have been settled.

In December 1905, Tsar Nikolass II's Cossacks put down the
workers uprising - under the command of one General Semjonow, high commissioner
to the U.S.S.R who put down the E. German uprising in June 1953. Russian
soldiers fired into the crowd, and workers were crushed under tanks which they
were trying to oppose unarmed; acts of heroism, which have since inspired fellow
workers all over the world.[19].

Bolshevism once more lost its mask in the summer of 1953. Not
since the Krondstadt uprising of March 1921 had the contradiction between the
working class and the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party been demonstrated as
sharply and as openly as this. Not since then had so significant a number of
workers had such blatant experience of the ruthless bolshevism directly
experience as it blocked their path to freedom.

Russian tank divisions entered the battle towards the end of the
afternoon on June 18th, with an impressive display of force; but they failed in
their immediate task of putting an end to all resistance. At 1p.m the Russian
Commandant in Berlin, General Major Debrowa, announced a state of siege in the
city. This was soon extended to cover every town in E. Germany, which still
failed to end the hostilities. Though the streets of E. Berlin were undoubtedly
desolated on the 18th, strikes were still going on.

The struggle for the first time, on that same day, June 18th,
workers of the Warnemunde laid down their tools. In Dresden, Chermitz, and
Rostock, the workers in a whole series of 'workers factories' went on strike.
Civil servants in Potsdam did likewise. A number of towns sustained serious
damage. All boat traffic on the waterways was brought to a halt.

In the evening of June 18th, a division of 800 'peoples police'
occupied the Zwickau and Delsnitz coal mines. The police were confronted by 15,000 miners demanding the release of their arrested comrades. Demonstrations at
the nearby Leuna factories continued: 300 police took sides with the
demonstrators and the Russian infantry began shooting, and occupied factory
buildings. Workers set fire to a section of these buildings shortly afterwards.

On that same day revolt broke out in the mining area of
Ertsgebergte which till that point had remained quiet. It's 80,000 miners came
out on strike, demonstrated, and took by storm, offices. Furious street battles
were fought with police and with heavily armed Russian troops, in Johanngeorgenstadt, Marienberg, Eibenstock, Falkenstein and Oberschlema.

By June 19th, the entire mining region was in open insurrection.
110,000 people were on strike and demonstrating. No fewer than 65 wells in the
uranium were sabotaged some with explosives and others by flooding. The Russians
were finding themselves having to deploy more and more strength in this corner
of the G.D.R than they had had to use in 1945 for the conquest of Berlin[20]. In
spite of the wave of arrests and shootings which ensued, the revolt continued.
When following this on the 21st June came an intensification of the siege, the
workers responded by lynching a number of police officers. It took then days of
furious combat for the Russians to regain control.

Workers were still embattled on the Friday and Saturday, 19th and
20th of June throughout the rest of Eastern Germany. Warnemunde and Rostock saw
scenes of violent conflict. In Dessau on the upper Elbe there was no more bread
to be had in the entire town, but no one dreamed of capitulation. Police
divisions in Mecklenbug and the Harz refused to fire on workers, and began to
withdraw. By the end of the week new strikes had begun in several more towns,
this time in smaller enterprises. Here again, workers immediately formed strike
committees. It was these committees which announced that they would only return
to work when the state of siege had been lifted and the soldiers had left the

In the final reckoning, the massed strength of the workers was
forced to give in to the superior might of the Russian troops. They were driven
out of their workplaces and machine-gunned in the back. After that the S.E.D.
bosses got their courage back. They had trembled at what they had seen of
working class power during the workers act of revenge. After the proletarian
revolutionary 'high tide', a wave of terror passed over the land.

The resistance of the workers was caused by the social
contradictions which were far from abolished. The forces that came to the
surface during the June uprising couldn't be destroyed, of course, as they were
embodied in the working class itself and were the result of the production

As long as any society is based on wage-labour, a revolt of the
wage-labourers is the fate to which it is bound; like Damocles sword. The E.
German workers showed us how we must imagine a proletarian revolution.



[1] Stalin Alice (Stalin Avenue) before the war called the
Frankfurter Alice (Frankfurt Avenue) and rebaptised thus in 1956 during
de-Stalinization, was in 1952-53 a massive reconstruction site, where war ruins
were cleared and the centre of Berlin and the regime had been built.

[2] German Democratic Republic as opposed to the Federal Republic
of Germany (F.R.G.)

[3] Unlike what has been said in German propaganda (and June 17
has been made a national holiday in the F.R.G.) the white-collar workers,
petit-bourgeoisie peasants, and the non-working classes stayed completely
outside the insurrection.

[4] In this way Lenin's words are generally quoted. However, the
quotation isn't entirely correct. In "What is to be done?" Lenin says: "No
revolutionary movement is possible without a revolutionary theory". In fact,
there is no practical difference, because to Lenin, revolutionary practice and
the movement (of professional revolutionists!) are one and the same thing.

[5] The two propaganda appear to be to oppose each other but in
reality they compliment each other.

[6] Amongst other articles accessible in French, we cite the best
study to have appeared on this subject: "Combats ouvriers sur l'Avenue Stalin",
Les Temps Modernes
, Oct 1953., p. 672 et sec., by Benno Sarel This text is
reprinted in this authors work La classe ouvriere d'Allemagne Orientale
(Los Editions Ouvrieres). A criticism appeared in I.C.O number 43, Nov,
1965 (p. 16) of the book by ArnuIf Baring, "The 17th June 1953" (in German,
Cologne 1965). In a rather romanticized form the end of the book "Berlin" by
Theodor Plivier contains nil evocation of this period.

[7] In the critique of Arnuf Baring's book in I.C.O. (see above)
it is reported that Ulbrict refused to speak to the strikers, replying that it
was raining and the demonstration would soon disperse. Gustav Noske, at the
start of the German Revolution, counted on rain to make the demonstration go
home (see Noske, "Von Kiel bis Kapp" 1920 n 17)

[8] Henriette Roland Holst, "Revolutionaire Massa-aktie",
1918, n. 372.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg, letter to Mathilde Wurm, written Feb. 16, 1917 in the Wronke prison. Paul Frolich, "Rosa Luxemburg,
Gedanke und tat
", Hamburg 1949.

[10] Certain people have endeavoured research into its
"traditions". Willy Brandt, the social Democratic leader held that the events
were influenced by the pure working-class tradition of the old unionists and
political movement (others even saw fit to trace it hack to 1919 and 1921).
According to Baring (see above), nothing would allow for this kind of
conclusion, uprisings having occurred as much in districts which elected
communist deputies during the '30 s as in any others. "In any case, in the
streets the "tradition" followed by the 'old school' was absent: since the
Social Democrats of Weimar, then the Nazis, and finally the O.G.P.U., had in
effect, murdered all of the active members of the working-class." (I.C.O, p' 19)

[11] Joachim G. Leithauser, Der Monat, October 1953, p.46

[12] Id. September 1953, p. 613

[13] Adennuer was the Chancellor of the Federal Republic

(Christian/Democrat) Ollenhauer was the leader of the
Social-Democratic Party. Kaiser was the leader of the Christian Democrats; and
Reuter was the Socialist Mayor of W. Berlin.

[14] The S.E.D. hesitated for a long time in deciding whether or
not to authorize this or that meeting. The green light would be given at the
very last moment. This was how "the full right to free expression of opinions
guaranteed by the law" worked, which was later referred to by Kuba in the Neues

[15] Quotation from the Leipziger Volkszeitung from May

[16] As recorded by building workers to the Der Monat editors, see
Der Monat
, September 1953, p.601.

[17] Work mentioned above, p.16. Things like that happened in the
Hungarian Revolution of 1956, The German Revolution of 1918, and in other

[18] The chemical factories in Leuna are the biggest in East

[19] Over three years later, at the end of October and beginning
of November 1956, the German example was followed in Hungary. Workers in
Budapest, and other Hungarian towns were able to incapacitate Russian tanks with
Molotov cocktails which they themselves had made.

[20] The figures were published by Der Monat - in October 1953. In
addition to the numbers of Russian troops there had been given precise details
about the precise weaknesses of the Russian forces. It resulted from the fact
that Russian officers and private soldiers had a definite sympathy with the
embattled workers. There were certain Russian officers, as well as some German
Policemen, who faced the firing squad as a result of this sympathy. Others
managed to flee to the west. The Russian Major Nikita Ronschin was amongst
these. According to his evidence, at least 18 Russian soldiers were shot.
Reported in Der Monat, October 1953, p.66).



6 years 10 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on June 16, 2017

Couple of extra snippets on this uprising reported by someone on Facebook:

Little things such as the East German workers singing the Internationale as they marched, and their chant to Selbmann "We are the real communists, not you!" and at the Halle station a banner to West Germans that read "We are cleaning house in Pankow. Now sweep your crap out in Bonn!" were omitted.

Asked about the source, he responded: "According a Revolutionary History pamphlet they were reported at the time by Pierre Gousset (Ernest Mandel) for L’Observateur. He's been referenced in several articles written about the East German uprising such as WV and Stalinism: It's Origin and Future.,Andy Blunden 1993"