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New International, May–June 1953


H.F. Stille

The East German Workers’ Revolt

Background and Implication of the Uprising


From New International, Vol. XIX No. 3, May–June 1953, pp. 130–144.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE JUNE UPRISING OF THE WORKERS in East Germany is one of the great events in modern history. What actually happened may be observed by biased or official reports. The implications of the events will not be liked by most governments in the Western world though the inner weaknesses of the Russian empire were openly revealed by the German uprising and will therefore greatly improve their bargaining position in future dealings with Moscow.

The uprising in Germany will open up new historical opportunities which seemed to have vanished with the defeat of the European labor movements during the last twenty years and the emergence of the Stalinist state.

Two world wars, a defeated proletarian revolution in Germany and a “successful” proletarian revolution that failed in Russia, finally the victory of fascism in Germany coincided with the decay and destruction of the old traditional labor movement in Europe. It seemed to be impossible to escape from new wars and the rise of totalitarian states. The hopes which the Russian revolution of 1917 had raised among the radical wing of European labor movements after the first world war had faded away. Already during the Thirties most members of radical labor movements had convinced themselves that the revolution which in Russia had freed the peasants and workers from the rule of an absolute semi-feudal capitalist state had created a new type of oppressive totalitarian monster.

The nature of the new regime in Russia was not recognized by those who were responsible for political settlements after the second world war in the Western world. It seemed to be possible to arrange a peaceful division of the world in the old style of international cartels. It was believed that “socialist” state planning would make the Russian imperial government more peaceful and self-sufficient than was old Czarist Russia. In such a world – divided up among two or three big powers – there was no place for a German industrialism. Europe was destined to become a subordinated section of the Russian and American empire, permanently divided.

Such plans had to be thrown overboard because they were politically unworkable. The Russian system of state-capitalist planning had produced the most aggressive type of modern militarism and therefore became an acute threat to the survival of all other nations and national states. It seemed to be impossible to defeat such a regime except by forming a counterpart to Russian imperial militarism – a huge centralized state- planned militarism which could fight the new totalitarian power with its own means and methods. But such a struggle between two totalitarian giant powers will extinguish the best achievements of Western, civilization and the opportunities to use them for new social progress. A third way out of our social world crisis appeared no longer to exist. The only alternative seemed to be appeasement of the Russian totalitarian system of enslavement.

Adherents of such an appeasement policy became defeatists in the new struggle of liberation from the totalitarian state-capitalism. A third way out could only be considered an abstract idea or as a speculative possibility which seemed to be contrary to the realities of the situation.

The historical meaning of the uprising in East Germany is that it opens up the vista of a third way out. It is a historical warning that a new era of revolutionary liberation movements is possible. It is directed not against an old feudal or semi-feudal regime which has not yet “completed the bourgeois-democratic revolutions.” It is a liberation movement against the latest type of state capitalist enslavement which makes use of extreme methods of nationally centralized planning. Therefore it opens up new vistas also for all countries which have been subjugated by totalitarian state-capitalist regimes.

The historical meaning of the events in East Germany may be defined as the first act of a new social and national revolutionary liberation movement. Its historical meaning overshadows the historical role of the first Russian revolution (1905) which shook the Czarist empire without leading to its downfall. Lenin and his closest disciples often reminded their comrades in later years that the events of 1905 were a necessary experience without which the revolution of 1917 would not have succeeded. The June, 1953, struggle of the East German proletarians may turn out to be a necessary introduction to a greater revolutionary struggle which will be political and social dynamite for similar societies all over the world.

A comparison with the Russian Revolution may easily lead to false conclusions. Internal and external conditions differ greatly and make a useful comparison difficult. In both cases it was the proletariat, and among the proletarians mainly the industrial workers, who led the entire movement, with the silent or open approval of the peasants and whatever it may have meant or may mean again – of the urban middle classes.

But the differences are just as important and may give us an even better insight into the nature of the new movement than the similarities:

Eastern Germany has become one of the most proletarianized areas in the world. A tiny totalitarian bureaucratic hierarchy, the obedient tool of a foreign imperialist power, stands on top of a social organism which consists mainly of three social categories: “free” proletarian workers, slave workers similar to the type of slaves of ancient despotic regimes, and the absolute paupers who have sunk to the deepest level of the economic- social struggle for survival.

The percentage of industrial labor is relatively great, and most industrial workers are concentrated in a few areas. Furthermore, the workers still are affected by the old traditions of the Western labor movement. They consist largely of skilled and intelligent workers. Advanced elements of these workers had opportunities to absorb the lessons of the most advanced labor movements of the nineteenth century in the course of the experiences of the great social revolutions at the beginning of this century, of the totalitarian Nazi regime, of the final collapse of society after the second world war, and finally of the new totalitarian colonial regime. It is ironical that the new proletarian revolution started in one of the most proletarianized areas of the world and immediately clashed with a power which was a fruit of the first “successful” proletarian revolution in modern times.

Without a class of national capitalists as the ruling class, with a state capitalism under control of a foreign power, the major part of the “national income” must be spent in accordance with the policies of the foreign imperialism.

In addition, the new German bureaucratic hierarchy has to rely on an apparatus which is very costly, which intervenes and interferes with productive efforts to such an extent that an effective control of production becomes impossible. Absolute scarcity of many kinds of goods and materials or man-power coincide with large- scale economic waste. The economic costs of mistakes of the planners must be paid with sweated labor, wage cuts and the hanging of “saboteurs.”

We may summarize the social and political conditions which were basic for the emergence of a new type of social revolutionary liberation movement as follows:

  1. High degree of proletarianization of the people.

    Most members of the middle classes had either vanished or had become mere proletarians. As proletarians they were not working for a private capitalist but for the state which had become a more fierce and more brutal exploiter than the worst type of private capitalist at the time of early capitalism. A similar experience was undergone by the old type of industrial worker, and also by the white-collar workers.

    The entire social class structure tended to become very simple compared with the old one. Instead of a large layer of various types of middle classes and an upper class which had strong traditional and native roots among a vast sector of the population, with a working class where some kind of labor aristocracy seemed to emerge among the best-paid sectors of labor, only three social classes now survive. At the bottom of the social ladder there are the slave laborers who work for the state without monetary compensation. Then there is the rest of the population, most of whom belong to the completely proletarianized type of working class, controlled, oppressed and exploited by the statecapitalist bureaucracy. The latter relies on a new social hierarchy – the upper ranks of the party and state bureaucracy and of the armed forces. They are a tiny minority among the people, divorced from the rest of the population, without native or social roots among other sectors of the people, relying directly on the bayonets of their police forces and those of a foreign power.
  2. Thus a real native ruling class has been missing. There were – and there are – new rulers and a new social hierarchy which tends to become a new ruling class. But it lacks basic elements of a ruling class. It is too small in number. It has not been able to create a sufficient stratum of members of the party or of the state-bureaucrats who may be considered as “reliable” for the regime. The social produce which the new rulers have at their disposal does not make it possible for them to extend the rise of a new social hierarchy into a new social class which has real national roots.
  3. The weakness of the social and political structure is greatly increased by the foreign imperialist enslavement. The Russian overlord has not established himself as a victor who intended to take his loot and go home. He may want to retire but only after having secured permanent rule over the new satellite regime.
  4. The methods of centralized state bureaucratic planning under the guidance of a totalitarian bureaucracy, together with the delivery of a large percentage of the industrial produce to the foreign imperialist overlord, have created a higher degree of economic anarchy and waste of the social produce than there ever existed under private capitalism.
  5. The weaknesses of the regime are multipled by the high degree of centralization of industrial labor and by the fact that the tradition of the German labor movement – a high degree of social consciousness among individual workers, and of social class discipline and solidarity – has not yet been eliminated by the experiences of the Nazi regime nor by the new pseudo-communist dictatorship.
  6. The new regime of totalitarian isolation of the individual could not be organized effectively. Immediately neighboring areas are populated by people of the same nation, living under relative personal freedom. Their area, too, is occupied by a foreign power, and the latter also imposes its own political control system. But it still represents a power where private capitalism is being defended as a system superior to state-capitalism. The absolute power of the state cannot be sustained by one-party totalitarian rule. Furthermore the new international power struggle has made it necessary to promote or at least to encourage opposition movements within the totalitarian Eastern Reich.
  7. Finally, the upper crust of the new ruling hierarchy in the Eastern zones is not a firm unified mass following one specific direction. It consists of “leaders” and underlings who belong to cliques which are in an acute stage of confusion and of personal rivalries. At the center, i.e., in Moscow itself, since the death of Stalin – and before – leading bureaucrats were purged or were in disfavor. The leaders of the satellite states felt secure in their positions only if their personal ties with the new cliques in the Kremlin were secure and if they were supporting the right man in the Russian party leadership.

The nature of the Russian regime and the prospects of liberation movements in the Eastern German areas have been discussed by small intellectual circles, former students and ex-officers, and in particular by former members of the labor movement. But a genuine underground movement able to withstand the pressure of a totalitarian regime could be built up only by the industrial workers. What helped them was the fact that they had daily contact with each other through their work and their working and living conditions. Furthermore, there were many workers experienced in underground work. Finally they were unwilling to become the tool of another power and declined advice and in most cases even contact with circles or parties outside of their own area. Members of foreign intelligence organizations were carefully ignored as far as possible.

The situation was different for members of the old middle classes and members of academic professions. They had lost their old social status and had declined to the bottom level of social stratification. There were no comrades and no social milieu where they felt that they were members of a group or of a circle to which they felt responsible and which may have helped them in an emergency. As desperate, isolated individuals they felt frustrated unless they were given new hope for a change by a foreign power. It was easy for organizations which had been given money and moral support by foreign occupation powers in Western Germany after the deterioration of East-West relations to establish underground contacts in 1947-50 with former members of the old middle classes or expropriated members of the old upper classes. They were desperate, personally isolated or helpless and looking for a “strong power” to help them. But the net of underground contacts which relied on such social elements was completely smashed by the new regime in 1951-52 when the East-German satellite regime had the task of restoring industrial production and the industrial capacities of East Germany. It therefore had to increase the social and political weight of the industrial workers.

Something should be said about the political role of industrial labor in East Germany:

East Germany includes areas with highly concentrated industrial labor, where masses of industrial workers have been concentrated for several generations, with proud traditions of social-revolutionary struggle and socialist-communist organizational influence. We refer in particular to the industrial centers in Saxony, Thuringia, the area of Halle-Merseburg (incl. Leuna). The old political and organizational split between socialist and communist workers seemed to play a minor role at the end of the Nazi regime, at the end of the second world war. There was a spontaneous movement to overcome the old division. At first, the new Communist (and S.E.D.) party apparatus tried to exploit this spontaneous drive for unity among the workers. But the new experience under the Russian-controlled regime completed the process of unification of the workers. “Old Communists” among workers who would support the new regime were almost non-existent. The same applied to former members of the Social-Democratic party. At the beginning some success was recorded by the appeal of the new S.E.D. (Socialist Unity Party or official State Party) among young workers. But this appeal virtually vanished after several years of practical experience with the Ulbricht apparatus.

A new kind of underground has emerged. It is a combination of loosely and also tightly knit organization.

Only a minority of politically experienced workers, mainly former communists who had already been disillusioned by their experiences with the German CP, had realized the nature of the transformation of the Russian revolution when the second world war ended and the Russian armies marched into Germany. Most social-democratic workers and also exCommunists who had joined the CP only a short time before the rise of Hitler to power sincerely believed, until the end of the war, that Moscow would become some kind of social liberator. But these hopes faded away within the first 24 hours of Russian occupation. Thereafter a personal struggle for survival started. Such conditions were extremely unfavorable to any political thinking and movement.

Some “sincere” Communists still believed that after the initial transitional period from war to peace a new German democracy would emerge and the foreign terror regime would end. But the German party chiefs who had been called from their Moscow headquarters, Walter Ulbricht & Co., in cooperation with a clique of Social-Democratic “leaders” who were easily absorbed by the Ulbricht-clique, sought to copy the pattern of the Russian state in Germany. The historical role of these cliques was necessarily based on a policy of keeping Germany divided and of preventing a unification of Germany except through war, i.e., with the direct aid of the Russian army. For any other kind of unification would have been incompatible with the role of Ulbricht & Co. as “leaders” of the new totalitarian state. They had to build up their totalitarian party under the protection of a foreign army. It was not possible for them to follow the pattern of the Russian revolution or even of the Nazi movement. They could not create their totalitarian party in competition with other political parties and conquer the state administration of a parliamentarian government “from within” or with the aid of popular mass movements. Therefore the fate of Ulbricht & Co. depended on the foreign policies of Moscow. They were sure that Moscow would need them as long as the Russian government was for a continued division of Germany and opposed to any kind of peaceful unification. For the same reason, it was completely out of the question for Ulbricht & Co. to play the role of a Tito. Moscow did not have to fear such a danger in East Germany among the leading members of the East-German Party bureaucracy. But other and even greater dangers emerged.

One of them is the underground organization of the labor opposition. It does not consist of a real mass organization. Experienced underground workers in totalitarian countries will agree that a mass organization or an organization which is part of a mass organization – perhaps organized from abroad – will not survive for any length of time. What is possible in countries or areas which cannot be shut off air-tight from the rest of the world is the emergence of underground circles of a small number of oppositional workers. They may establish a few personal contacts with men who belong to key sectors of labor and who are a major influence among them. Such groups of workers who, because of their position, are able to act more independently than other workers, will be able to use their particular group of workers as a kind of advance guard which at a critical moment will be followed by other sectors of labor.

The government spy system was not able to penetrate the underground of industrial and skilled workers effectively because the latter were able to detect unreliable elements from working and living experiences, and also because the underground was made up to a great extent of a net of contacts which were not a closely knit organization but which relied on personal experiences with those who were willing to resist the new regime. What helped was the fact that the government has superseded the old private capitalist boss. The government does not appear as a physical person.

Essential and helpful for a real underground center was the fact that it had the cooperation and more or less active support of numerous sympathizers, and active helpers among members of the bureaucracy, within the S.E.D. hierarchy and even among the highest ranks of the S.E.D. hierarchy. Through them, a few contacts also existed with old-time members of foreign Communist Parties in Eastern countries, and also with a few Russian bureaucrats. As a result there was not one single decision of the government which did not become known to the underground opposition. Warnings of planned arrests of old-time communists or socialists were sometimes given in time. This was done on the highest levels, as well as for rank-and-file members and through contacts with the Administration.

It was known that the position of Ulbricht and his clique was undermined and collapsing immediately after the death of Stalin, and after the apparent eclipse of the position of Malenkov within the ruling “inner circle” in Moscow. Ulbricht was careful to follow a “wait and see” line, at the same time closely watching the personal attitudes of the individual bureaucrats toward his own group and toward Moscow.

Something should be said about the special status of Berlin and the new role of the Berlin labor movement. This applies to West Berlin as well as to East Berlin. In spite of the Iron Curtain which goes straight through Berlin, there are, of course, many contacts between both sectors of Berlin which do not exist in other East- West border areas. These special ties have been very important for the struggle in Eastern Germany. At the same time, East and West Berlin represent two different worlds.

In West Berlin the Social Democratic Party dominates the political life of the city. The West Berlin Social Democrats are under the leadership of highly experienced members of the old pre-Hitler labor movement. West Berlin is the only part of West- Germany where the local organization of the Social-Democratic Party is under the leadership of a political group which derives from a real fusion of former left-wing young socialists (“Jung-Sozialisten”) and anti-Stalinist ex-Communists. Some of them once played a prominent role in the Communist Youth Movement during the Twenties and joined various oppositional Communist groups thereafter.

Leaders of the West Berlin S.P.D. are used to considering their own situation as different from the situation in any other part of Germany and as directly related to foreign big-power politics. Nowhere in the world are foreign policies and worldwide political shifts of so much immediate concern to the local leaders and to the population as in West Berlin.

The labor movement in East Berlin is also unique. East Berlin is the only area in the Behind-the-Iron-Curtain world where an anti-Communist party is officially permitted and actually tolerated. At the beginning of the East Berlin regime, attempts were made to liquidate the Social-Democratic Party in East Berlin, too, and to terrorize individual party members. But the West Berlin Social Democrats answered with effective counter-measures and threats of retaliation. As a result, some kind of unofficial modus vivendi developed.

The underground organization in East Berlin relies more or less on former trade unionists, largely ex-Communists (sometimes still official members of the S.E.D.) and former members of the S.P.D. Contacts exist between the S.P.D. organization in West Berlin and the labor underground in East Berlin. But such contacts rely on a few personal ties. A distinctive feature of the underground in East Berlin and East Germany is that it relies on groups of workers who have common traditional ties and who do not acknowledge any center “abroad,” not even in Western Germany, including the S.P.D., as their leadership. There is a strong feeling that their problems are not sufficiently considered and understood by the political leaders of the S.P.D. in Western Germany and that “something new” will have to be created. In the meantime, they have to form their own “independent” leadership.

A small circle of “underground leaders” had been concerned for some time with the desperate mood of the workers and also of the peasants and the urban middle classes. It was also known that the Ulbricht clique tried to create a fait accompli for Moscow, in alignment with and in support of Malenkov’s position: the creation of a totalitarian satellite state of East Germany. The entire state edifice would crumble if an attempt were made to reform it in such a way that it would be fit for an arrangement with a non-totalitarian West Germany. Therefore an East German Five-Year Plan was revised in such a way that a greater share of the “national income” was to be devoted to the extension of heavy industrial or armaments projects. The remnants of non-Communist “bourgeois” parties were to be liquidated. The state was to become “monolithic.” The independent status of the church was to end, thus creating an even wider rift between East and West Germany. It was perfectly clear to the Ulbricht clique that it would be sacrificed if a unified sovereign Germany would emerge, and that the Russian dictators would have to throw the Ulbricht clique overboard if ever Moscow would make a serious effort to support the creation of a unified sovereign German nation.

It was known that influential circles in Moscow were for a Russian withdrawal from Germany and Central Europe under certain conditions: Simultaneous withdrawal of the United States armed forces from Germany, and the formation of a neutralized Germany and, if possible, also of Western Europe.

A mere attempt to test such a policy would require the end of the political role for Ulbricht and his clique. The latter tried to liquidate any social or political force which might have made it possible to find a successor to his regime immediately after having received news about Stalin’s serious sickness and especially after the death of Stalin. But shortly thereafter, it was felt that Ulbrich was bankrupt in the eyes of the new supreme masters of Moscow. Ulbricht himself knew it and he himself tried to open up a way of retreat, hoping against hope that he could ride out the tempest which was blowing from Moscow.

But personal rivals of Ulbricht within the apparatus suddenly gained, influence and power. The Ulbricht clique tried to make a hasty retreat. Promises were made to permit open criticism of the regime.

During the 12 months which preceded the uprising, the living standard of the workers in particular had fallen off, though, officially and according to government statistics, living conditions had improved. Consumer goods had been de-rationed. Practically all consumer goods had to be purchased at “free” prices. The latter had declined but they still were higher than prices for rationed goods had been before. Thus items which could be bought only by the small privileged new aristocracy had become cheaper while bread, margarine, potatoes, etc., had become more expensive.

In the early Spring, practically already in March, near-famine conditions developed in many areas of the Eastern zone. In most towns, even in Berlin, rationed meat, fats, butter, sugar and vegetables could not be supplied. Many people waiting in queues wasted their time and had to go home empty-handed and hungry. At the same time, it became known that the government was building up huge stocks of foodstuffs, apparently for political reasons and “on orders from Moscow.”

The complete record of the historical events of the uprisings cannot be written now. There are many details which are only locally known. There were no “central leaders” who directed or organized the uprisings in such a way that they were able to anticipate the events and to keep themselves informed about the actual situation at all major industrial or population centers. But an underground center in Berlin does exist. It relies on groups of workers who have unchallenged authority among new colleagues. They followed a wait-and-see policy and resisted the temptation of heroic actions which would not make sense, or which would expose them, their families and “innocent” oppositionists, to the new super-Gestapo.

Then, in early Spring, something happened that stirred all oppositional workers and that was much discussed among the underground circles: Ulbricht and his personal adherents were no longer in favor with Moscow. His protector in Moscow, Malenkov, seemed to be losing his battle as the successor to Stalin. The new man whom Moscow had sent to East Berlin (Karlshorst), Semyonov, apparently was a follower of Beria. The failure of Malenkov’s policies in the satellite countries was to be revealed. A new policy was to be introduced. Moscow wanted to shake off the shadow of Ulbricht, the most hated man in East Germany. At the same time, a campaign of criticism of the old party leadership was to prove to the West Germans that a real change is occurring in the East and that the East Germans enjoy a high degree of freedom and independence. Trade-union representatives were told that the workers would have the right to make demands for better working conditions.

When the underground circles were advised about these new directives of Moscow, experienced former Communist Party members were skeptical about the change. Would the new party line only be a short-term, temporary affair? What would happen afterwards, after having revealed the identity of the members of the opposition? Would the party bosses provoke the oppositional or potentially oppositional workers to reveal themselves only in order to purge them thereafter? Experienced former Communist Party members also suggested that an attempt should be made to turn the semi-legal movement for improved work and wage conditions into a political struggle which would spread among all industries and also other social classes in East Germany. There was much reluctance among former active Communist party members and among socialists, to appear openly as leaders of the movement or to take the initiative for the call for strikes and demonstrations. Much thought had to be given to the aftermath, and to the need of survival during the terror period which could be anticipated as a sequel to any attempt at open resistance against the regime.

Everybody, the underground leaders as well as the leading members of the S.E.D. or of the East German government, and in particular the Russian representatives, were surprised at the scope and intensity of the oppositional movement which soon gained the character of mass uprisings, though there was not one single underground leadership which believed that the situation was “ripe” for a real revolution.

The underground leaders of the opposition had often talked about the risks of open opposition. One of the great difficulties was the inability of the participants of any movement which defies the Party or the Party leaders and therefore also the entire regime, to protect themselves against the terror regime. A small-scale group action for improved living conditions exposed the participants to almost the same risks as an open political action against the regime. The workers themselves were fearful of isolated small-scale actions of resistance. “If all workers of all industries would rebel ...” This “if” was repeatedly talked about by the workers, as an excuse for not being able to act themselves, but also as a ray of hope.

It was easy for the building workers and the workers of the Hennigsdorf Steelworkers to convince themselves that their resentment over the higher work norms and lower wage schedules would be useless and even dangerous if they merely launched a small-scale group struggle for better economic conditions for themselves. They had to get out the workers of other factories, the women and men of the working class districts, in one big mass movement against the government, against the entire regime. What was secretly discussed and expected as the only chance, had to become true. The professional pride of the building and steel workers turned into a political pride to be at the helm of a movement which was acclaimed by practically the entire population, except the Party elite and the new aristocracy.

Working and foodstuff conditions became so desperate that many acts of spontaneous resistance occurred in many industrial towns. But the Party leadership somehow welcomed the justification for intensified terror. It also may have believed that the Malenkov clique in Moscow would use the signs of hostility of the East German masses in order to justify the very policies which would widen the gulf between East and West and which would increase the need of Moscow to use Ulbricht as its tool.

It seemed that Malenkov could not assert himself in Moscow. Instructions were sent to East Germany through the new Russian Commissars that the methods of Ulbricht must be changed and that Moscow must retain a higher degree of maneuverability toward West Germany than would be possible with the crude terror methods of Ulbricht. The latter seemed to feel that the magic power which radiated from Moscow was slipping away from him.

But the old anti-labor instructions and orders for 10 per cent more work without more pay were not cancelled. They could not be rescinded also because of the shaky economic foundation of the state economy, and because of Moscow’s unwillingness to give up the claims for large tribute or preferential supplies from the exhausted economy.

Yet, a softness in dealing with rebellious workers became apparent. The drive against the independent peasants and for collectivization was suddenly called off. The entire Five-Year Plan policy was omitted from public appeals and admonishments of the leaders of the regime. In addition, real famine conditions spread in some areas. Living conditions sharply declined. Many rationed goods were not distributed at all, or they were replaced with inferior goods which were offered at greatly increased prices.

Under such conditions the workers felt encouraged to discuss their grievances openly. It was obvious that the top-leaders of the regime were unable or unwilling to act ruthlessly and with totalitarian terror methods against the critics of the regime.

Then the leading members of the underground had to deal with the issue: “What to do next?” There were contacts with some leading members of the Social-Democratic Party in West Germany, but the latter was not directing or controlling the movement in East Germany. Contacts were minimized as much as possible, for personal safety reasons, also for political reasons. But it was known that Dr. Adenauer’s position would greatly depend on his ability to prove to the people in Western Germany that Eastern Germany must be written off for all practical purposes for a long time.

So, the decision to call the workers out for strikes and open demonstrations against the regime was made in view of the following factors:

  1. The people were hungry and desperate but the regime had imposed new additional burdens, including new increased work norms without extra pay.
  2. The peasants were desperate and would support any action against the government in the towns.
  3. The terror apparatus of the regime was not fully effective, for the government was dependent on a foreign overlord who was dissatisfied with the government. Its members were confused about the further course of action.
  4. Important international behind- the-scene negotiations were being held in Eastern and Western capitals where the fate of Germany was to be decided. These negotiations could be favorably effected by an open act of defiance of the regime.
  5. The political parties and the government in Western Germany were to be aroused about the urgency of the problem of unity and liberation of East Germany from the Eastern totalitarian state and the unbearable conditions imposed by it on the people.

On June 7, the building workers of the Stalin-Allee project in East Berlin for the first time received their weekly wage on the basis of the newly-introduced work norms, i.e., at greatly reduced rates. The bureaucrats of the trade unions and of other official agencies refused to listen to the complaints of the workers and threatened police action against “sabotage” and “resistance” against the state authorities. Then, on June 9 and 10, the official decrees about a change of the party line were made known. Now there seemed to be confirmation of what had been said in the whisper-campaigns: The Ulbricht apparatus will find it difficult to use methods of physical terror in order to suppress open mass resistance. The workers will have a chance if they express their dissatisfaction with the bureaucrats. Moscow will hesitate to appear in the role of the mass liquidator of the industrial workers of East Germany. On June 15 and 16, the building workers of the Stalin-Allee project openly demanded withdrawal of the new work-norms and wage cuts. Ulbricht’s apparatus still refused to give in. Then the workers stopped working, left their jobs and marched into other workers’ quarters, especially to other plants, in order to spread the movement. Many thousands of workers marched to the East German government and Party headquarters. This action was still relatively peaceful. Two members of the government, Rau and Selbmann, who had the reputation of not being especially close to Ulbricht, personally tried to pacify the masses. They were frequently interrupted when they talked to the workers but they were not personally attacked. Then, on June 17, the order for new work norms and wage cuts was withdrawn. It was too late. In the evening, the slogan spread among the workers in all East Berlin districts: The next morning, all workers of East Berlin would go on strike and march against the government. The next morning, the workers of the municipal utilities (gas, water and electrical power plants) joined the strike and marched against the government headquarters, too. In a matter of minutes Russian tanks intervened and saved the S.E.D. and government headquarters from destruction by the infuriated workers. Without the last-minute intervention of the Russian tank division, the workers would have seized party and government headquarters with little chance of escape for the S.E.D. leaders.

The workers did not run away when the guns of the Russian tanks were turning against them. They faced them with desperate courage and iron discipline. Politically conscious workers advised their colleagues not to engage in an open and unequal fight with the Russian forces. One step further, and the tanks would have been used against the unarmed workers. It was too early to attempt a revolutionary coup against the government and against the Russian armed forces.

The action had started under the leadership of workers who were especially reliable and courageous in their defiance of the regime. They were skilled workers traditionally known for their personal willingness to take risks in the struggle against oppressive authorities. The building workers of Berlin and the steel workers of Hennigsdorf were known for their support of revolutionary actions during the pre-Nazi era 1918–1933. They were strongholds of the Communist movement in Berlin during that period. Under the Nazis they defied the regime wherever possible. They certainly did not become adherents of Nazism. These workers were called out for an open act of defiance of the regime, but under slogans which at first concerned their own economic interests: against the new work norms and for better living conditions. The economic demands were fulfilled by the regime almost within a few hours after the start of the strike. But an immediate “transition of the economic into a political struggle” took place in the best tradition of the old tactical experiences of revolutionary action. The advance guard of the Berlin working class had called out the other workers and the entire working class population to defy the regime and to march to the centers of the administration with the demand: immediate resignation of the government.

Spontaneously, in towns and villages where the underground did not have direct contacts but where local underground leaders existed, too, or where such leaders arose during the action itself, workers went on strike and local populations, often openly supported by peasants, marched to the prison buildings where political prisoners were kept or where the hated administration was located. Overnight the net of underground organizations was multiplied and a new revolutionary organization was born.

There was a serious danger that local hot heads would go too far and that the government would provoke a revolutionary uprising or an all-out struggle under conditions which spelled defeat for the movement. An underground leadership which existed in nucleus-form intervened. The spontaneous demand for a general strike was declined. For such an extension of the action would have been an attempt to seize political power and would have involved the movement into an open premature struggle against the foreign occupational power. There was no chance to win against the Russian tanks and machine guns, while open support from the West was not available. The local leaders of the movement were warned to avoid any clash with the representatives of the Russian occupational powers. When Russian tanks and guns controlled the streets and further mass action would have resulted in an open clash with the Russian forces the action as such was called off.

But in many towns and industrial centers open mass resistance still continued. The leaders of the underground discovered that they had unknown sympathizers and active supporters. The basic weakness of the police machine of the regime became apparent: it was acting on behalf of a foreign power and it relied on “security forces” recruited largely from young workers who did not want to act against their own people. Many acts were seen of heroism and evidence of disintegration of the regime.

The only elements who were really reliable from the viewpoint of the Ulbricht clique and of the Russian commander were the former S.S. members or Nazis who had joined the S.E.D. and the new Security Forces of the regime. But the old Communist party members who had joined the new administration were in most cases “unreliable” and except for a few top leaders bore within themselves the germs of disintegration.

In one town, the mayor, an old- time Communist, personally knocked down with his fists the policeman, a former Nazi, who was shooting at the anti-government people. The Communist mayor was later arrested and condemned to death.

There was one great disappointment: The response in West Germany, especially in Bonn. The Adenauer government protested but it did not do as much in support of the uprising as it might have done. The order of the commandant of the occupational forces in West Berlin not to hold an open mass rally against the terror in the East and against the East German Administration was registered as a sign that the Western powers were afraid of the consequences of further struggle. It was considered as a gesture by the West German administration to Moscow for negotiations and an agreement which would perpetuate the division of Germany and its dependence on foreign powers.

The uprising improved the bargaining position of the Western powers. But the desperate masses would have to pay the price. Would it mean the physical liquidation of anyone who had turned out to be an opponent of the regime or who was potentially an enemy of the regime?

The liquidation of entire social classes and of large sectors of the population in order to solidify a totalitarian state regime has become common. Any underground leader and active member of the resistance movement had to be aware of the possibility that the regime would take vengeance on him if it could ever gain absolute power. For all practical purposes, the Ulbricht clique would want to physically liquidate them and organize a purge on the scale of the Russian liquidation of the peasant class or of the purges against the “old Bolsheviks” during the Thirties in order to solidify their power. But does Moscow want to return the Ulbricht clique to absolute power and will the Russian regime support such purges? This is a foreign policy issue for Moscow. It presents itself as a dilemma either to rule the satellite countries with the iron fist of the ruthless dictator, or to make concessions in the hope of winning support at least among some sectors of the population and therefore foreign political maneuverability.

The Russian leaders are experienced in administrative rule and oppression of oppositional movements. But they are not too experienced with such movements in satellite countries especially in areas forming the border line between East and West, and especially not in highly industrialized countries with proletarian leaders who are trained in the tradition of the old labor movements and with workers who also have a tradition of defiance against their exploiters and oppressors.

Oppression of these social elements tends to create political dynamite. A drastic solution would be the liquidation of such elements in the style of the action against the “kulaks” or the peasants. Moscow did not intervene when the Ulbricht clique acted in this way against the middle classes and the peasants. East Germany is only part of the German nation, and purge actions against the East German workers are apt to create such hatreds in West Germany that Moscow’s hope of neutralizing Germany and Western Europe would never be realized. Furthermore Beria did not want Malenkov’s adherent, Ulbricht, the Russian Pro-Consul and his German underlings who wanted to repeat the purge actions in the old Stalinist style, to remain in control of the S.E.D. and of the German satellite regime.

The Russian masters are now following two opposite courses. They are taking vengeance against the revolutionary opponents. Large-scale punitive actions are planned in order to liquidate the opposition. They also seek to pacify the aroused masses and to pave the ground for a new appeal in Europe in order to “neutralize” Germany and Western Europe.

Moscow may follow either course, or it may seek to combine the two courses. The freedom of action of the Russian overlord will depend mainly on his relations with the Western powers. Will he get enticing offers of agreements which if accepted would seal the fate of the national and social liberation movements in Europe and in Asia? Or will the pressure of such movements be used in order to proclaim the task of the restoration of free and independent nations which will work together in order to solve the social and economic problems of their time?

A violent suppression of the anti-totalitarian national and social liberation movement in East Germany and other Russian satellite countries, with the silent or indirect consent of the Western powers, would liquidate the only force which makes it possible to avoid a third world war. For the Russian overlord will see to it that the suppression of such movements will be used in order to propagate the idea of betrayal of any progressive movements by the Western powers and in order to build up a stronger police and military machine than ever existed before. It would be used in order to wage war against the Western powers at a later stage, under conditions where the Western powers would be unable to use the means of political warfare effectively in Europe.

This is the international background to the events in East Germany. They are either the beginning of a new era of revolutionary national and social liberation movements, or they will seal the fate of any social liberation movement in our time. The Western powers are in greater danger of being defeated in Germany if they refuse to support such movements because the final consequences of such a struggle are much more far- reaching than it may appear to the casual observer.

Germany, June 1953

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