East Germany, June 1953

Workers fight tanks, East Germany 17 June 1953
Workers fight tanks, East Germany 17 June 1953

A short account of the East German working class mass strike and uprising in 1953, which was crushed by Russian tanks, written by Andy Blunden in 1993.

Submitted by Steven. on June 16, 2017

In 1952, the West rejected an offer by Stalin to unify the two
Germanies by a national election. In response, Stalin order the
German SED to implement a rapid statification of industry and
collectivisation of agriculture. The resistance of farmers to
this move provoked a crisis in agriculture, and there was an acute
shortage of basic foodstuffs.

In April 1953, shortly after the death of Stalin, East German
leader Walter Ulbricht appealed for aid from the USSR. Aid was
refused, but the Soviet leadership advised that in order to persuade
the West not to integrate West Germany into NATO, the SED make
a gesture of conciliation, returning much of the economy to private
hands and cancelling price rises.

The SED Politburo decided that a ten per cent increase in industrial
quotas, which had already been decreed, must stay in force in
order to pay for these concessions.

Despite internal dissension about the wisdom of this move, Ulbricht’s
decree went ahead. On 16 June, building workers at the Stalin
Allee construction project went out on strike in protest.

The workers marched on the government building and their numbers
grew as they swept aside police cordons set up in their path.
Ulbricht announced that the decree was revoked, but it was too

‘In the meantime, however, the demonstration had spread throughout
the city, making political and economic demands. Placards appeared
calling for the abolition of the output demands, lowering of prices,
resignation of the government and free elections with a secret
ballot.’ [102]

The workers demanded to speak to Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl.
Instead, Minister of Mines Selbmann came out, stood up on a table
and spoke to the workers, pleading with them to return to work
and put their trust in him:

‘But the workers interrupted him: “We no longer have
confidence in you. We want guarantees”. The dialogue continued
as follows: “But I have myself been a worker for a long time”
- “You have forgotten that. You are no longer our comrade.”
- “How could I forget it, as a communist worker, and for
so long a time?” - “We are the real communists, not

‘Selbmann was left speechless. An unknown building worker
forced him off the table and got up in his place and delivered
a calm and dignified speech in the opinion of witnesses I questioned,
and formulated the demands of the workers in four points:

‘1. Immediate revocation of the 10 per cent increase in work

‘2. Immediate reduction by 40 per cent in the price of foodstuffs
and of primary consumer goods in state stores.

‘3. Leaders who committed serious errors should be dismissed;
the party and the unions must be democratised.

‘4. We must not wait for the Bonn government to take the
initiative for the real unification of Germany. The East German
government should start immediately by eliminating all barriers
separating the two Germanies. The country must be unified by secret,
general and free elections and a workers’ victory must be
won in these elections.

‘The worker ended his speech by stating that Selbmann’s
attitude proved that he is incapable of granting the workers’
demands and that if Grotewohl and Ulbricht refused to face the
workers, a general strike would be called in all Berlin to support
these demands. With that, the demonstration ended.’ [103]

A mass rally the following day was attended by thousands of metal
workers and demanded the resignation of the government, some calling
for its replacement by a “metal workers’ government”.
The next day marches formed up in the suburbs of Berlin to march
to the city centre. The strike had become general, closing the
railways, the steel works, Leuna chemical plant, Zeiss optical
works, the machine plant at Magdeburg and the Berlin electrical
engineering plant. More than 250 towns were affected and the entire
population was in the streets. Tens of thousands of workers tried
to occupy government buildings. The red flag was torn down from
the Brandenburg Gate, posters were torn down and party officials
who tried to persuade workers to return to work were beaten up.

At midday, the Red Army commander of the Soviet sector of Berlin
declared a state of siege and two motorised divisions of Soviet
forces occupied the city. Gatherings of more than three people
were banned and workers were tried before special tribunals and
shot. By 9pm the uprising in Berlin had been crushed.

Workers’ protests followed throughout the country however.
The headquarters of the Youth Movement and the prison were occupied
in Leipzig. Portraits on the walls were torn down, but those of
Karl Marx were pointedly spared. Similar protests took place in
Meresburg, Rostock, Halle, Dresden and elsewhere, but all were
put down by Soviet troops. In all 42 people were shot and 25,000
arrested in the suppression of the uprising.

A further wave of strikes took place on July 8 and 9 in East Berlin
and other industrial centres and there were sit-down strikes and

Eventually, the Soviet Union agreed to provide aid to make some
concessions to the German workers, and the situation was stabilised.
The Christian Democratic Union and two other bourgeois parties
were brought into a ‘coalition’ government to give form
to the supposed ‘people’s democracy’. The inclusion
of the bourgeois parties did nothing to address the demands of
workers for democracy and improved living standards of course.

Neal Ascherson comments:

‘For many years afterwards, West German propaganda presented
it as a great demonstration against the division of German, and
17 June became an official holiday as Day of German Unity. But
this was false: 17 June was a spontaneous but on the whole disciplined
workers’ protest primarily aimed against the regime’s
new system of increased work quotas, and only secondarily for
free elections and the liberation of political prisoners. The
intellectuals took no part in it, and even technical staff in
the factories often refused to join the strikes’. [104]

  • from A history of the People’s Democracies, Francois Fejto, 1974.
  • report from Pierre Gousset in L’Observateur.
  • from The Polish August, The Self-limiting Revolution, Neal Ascherson, 1981.
  • Excepted from Stalinism: its origin and future