ON 15 June 1953, about 60 building workers on the Friedrichshaim hospital building site in East Berlin stopped work to draw up a letter protesting at a 10% increase in the work norms imposed by East Germany’s Stalinist government.
If they failed to achieve these norms, the workers were threatened with a wage cut of one-third. So they started a revolt that became an uprising.
Even stopping work was potentially dangerous. Ever since the end of the second world war, Germany had been divided into two antagonistic states. In the eastern area, the guns and tanks of Stalinist Russia had established a puppet regime on the model of 1945 Russia and the other Eastern European states.
East Germany had a nationalised economy and a system of planning production, the essentials of a socialist economy. But here the similarity stopped. A genuine socialist economy requires workers’ democracy to control and manage the planning of production – in the same way as a healthy organism requires oxygen to function.
But in East Germany, as in the rest of the Eastern Bloc, a small bureaucracy, remote from the working class, arbitrary in its decisions and dictatorial in all respects, ran this plan to maintain their own privileges.
This contradiction between a socially-owned economy and a bureaucratic political elite would, within 40 years, lead to stagnation and the collapse of Stalinism.
HATRED OF these bureaucratic officials led workers building a police barracks next door to the Friedrichshaim site, and workers on the Stalinallee construction site, to follow their example. The next morning, building workers from Friedrichshaim and Stalinallee toured other sites in the city, calling out other workers.
Soon the protesters numbered 10,000. Their leaders carried a crudely painted banner saying:
“Down with the 10% rise in the norms!” Factory workers, clerks, even minor officials on the lowest slopes of the bureaucracy, joined them, shouting in chorus: “We are workers and not slaves, end the extortionate norms. We want free elections, we are not slaves!”
People were shouting encouragement from windows of flats and offices. The demand: “To the government, to Leipziger Street,” was raised.
The demonstration was taking on a political form. The Soviet Union’s dictator, Joseph Stalin, had died just three months before. His death was a signal for some of the suppressed anger at the bureaucratic regimes of Eastern Europe to surface.
Earlier that month troops had been sent in to disperse a demonstration in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Now, less than a week later a workers’ revolt was taking shape in East Berlin.
The secretary of the Communist Party (SED) in Berlin, Heinz Brandt, explained: “The building workers have thrown a spark into the mass. The spark has burst into flame. It was like Lenin’s dream come true, only this mass action was directed against a totalitarian regime ruling in Lenin’s name.”
In reality, the regime was a night-marish distortion of the ideas of Lenin.
The workers demanded to talk to the government leaders, Pieck and Grotewohl. One worker called for a general strike if the government didn’t show up in half an hour. They didn’t; the workers marched away and started to spread the strike.
Government loudspeaker cars were sent to appeal to the workers but the crowd seized them and inarched along, broadcasting the call that all workers in Berlin should join a general strike the next day.
By 17 June the strike had spread to most of East Germany’s industrial cities, involving 300,000 workers. Factory meetings were held in Berlin, leading to detailed discussions on the crimes of the SED regime. They elected workers’ councils and called for demonstrations.
In Merseburg, 10,000 workers singing revolutionary songs, marched to the city centre where they met up with thousands more. They stormed the police station, ransacked SED party offices and broke into the jails to release prisoners.
In Halle 8,000 railworkers seized the SED HQ, the council offices and prisons. In Leipzig workers occupied the youth headquarters and destroyed all the portraits except those of Karl Marx. In Brandenburg the so-called ‘people’s judges’ and public prosecutor were beaten up.
EAST GERMANY’S rulers had lost control but by then Russian tanks and troops – which had propelled the SED into power – were moving into Berlin. Martial law was proclaimed.
Despite the enormous heroism of the workers, the uprising was crushed. The SED made temporary economic concessions but these only lasted as long as the revolutionary crisis. Six of the uprising’s leaders were executed, four were given life sentences and 1,300 more brought to trial. An estimated 260 died from Russian bullets.
Inevitably the Stalinist bureaucracy branded this uprising a “counter-revolution” – in reality at no time did the workers demand privatisation of industry or a return to capitalism. The fact that the SED leaders purged their own members – 71% of local party secretaries were fired for supporting the workers -confirms that. A third of those leading the protests had been members of the pre-war Communist Party. The “counter-revolution” was being carried out by the Stalinists!
The uprising showed the workers’ instinctive striving for workers’ democracy – their example was followed in later years by workers in
Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and was an inspiration to East German workers in 1989 when the Stalinist dictatorship collapsed.
Since the collapse of Stalinism, and the consequent capitalist restoration, Russia and Eastern Europe have been ruined, though Eastern Germany less so. Now the demand for a social revolution will be heard again and East Germany 1953 will still be an inspiration.