June 17, 1953 was not just a general strike in East Berlin instigated by workers. Up to a million people demonstrated at 700 locations in the GDR, which was only four years old at the time - against new labor standards, but also against the Socialist Unity Party SED, for free elections and more prosperity. A state of emergency was declared within hours. Soviet tanks, the People's Police and the State Security moved out. In the end, 55 people were dead. More than 10,000 were arrested, 1,500 were sentenced to prison.
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary, the Bundestag commemorated this courageous near-revolution on Friday. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier once again spoke of an "outstanding event in the history of German freedom" that everyone in Germany should be proud of. Bundestag President Bärbel Bas recalled that people in the GDR wrote democratic history in 1953 and then again in 1989. "Do we appreciate that?" Bas asked.
Known only from grandma's stories
In fact, collective memory remains strangely pale to this day. The Federal Republic of Germany declared June 17 as a commemoration day in 1953, but attracted little lasting interest - bathing lakes or swimming pools were usually too tempting on this free June day. The GDR, on the other hand, spoke of a fascist putsch controlled by the West - and then remained silent about it for decades. "You can also manipulate history by omitting it," says former civil rights activist Frank Ebert, who is now Berlin's representative for dealing with the SED dictatorship. "In the GDR, I only knew June 17, 1953 from stories my grandmother had told me."
It is the eyewitnesses who make the impact of these mass protests vivid. In the Bundestag on Friday, members of parliament and visitors heard reminiscences from four people, including the then 14-year-old Karin Sorger. When she saw Russian armored cars on the streets of Magdeburg, she went home in fear. Unlike a roughly the same age, a 15-year-old locksmith apprentice who was shot in Leipzig - because he had allegedly torn down a poster.
The Stalin picture and the "mad woman"
Günter Toepfer from Jena also clearly remembered the children's perspective of that time at an event recently organized by the Foundation for Work-Up. When the school principal sent his class home that Wednesday, the then twelve-year-old ran curiously into the city center. And got caught in the middle of the uprising. 20,000 people at the Holzmarkt, in between Soviet tanks. The crowd crushed the boy against one of the war machines. "You feel very bad when you stand in front of such a monster," says Toepfer.
When, during the storming of the headquarters of the Free German Youth and the Free German Trade Union Federation, files and propaganda by the kilo were thrown onto the street, the kid sensed the deal of his life. He collected diligently to sell the waste paper. Later, however, he felt uneasy about selling the official writings at a sale. Instead, he burned them at home in the bath stove.
Another scene from that time: someone threw a picture of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin out of a window of the Jena trade union headquarters directly in front of the schoolboy's feet. "I was lucky that Stalin didn't fly over my head," jokes Toepfer. Then he saw a woman trampling on the Stalin picture as if insane. "So I've never seen such a rabid woman, not even later."
Order from Moscow for a "new course"
What got people so upset? The reason for the protests was the so-called norm increase - ten percent more work should be done for the same money. But that was only the last drop in the proverbial keg. In July 1952, just under a year before the uprising, the SED unity party decided to "build the foundations of socialism," as Jens Schöne and Falco Werkentin describe it in an overview of the events . That meant, among other things: national armed forces, formation of agricultural production cooperatives, outlawing of private companies and more reprisals, also against the church.
According to Schöne and Werkentin, the number of prisoners in the prisons grew from 37,000 to 67,000 within a few months. In addition, from the summer of 1952 to the summer of 1953, around 300,000 people fled west across the Berlin sector border. The young workers' and peasants' state soon lacked workers and peasants and consequently food and consumer goods. More work, less wealth - an explosive mixture. Under pressure from the Soviet Union, the occupying power, the SED finally decided on a "new course" on June 10, 1953 and admitted to mistakes. But that didn't make things any better.
The people sensed weakness
"It was a situation where you felt the officials were helpless, they didn't know what to do anymore," analyzes historian Udo Grashoff. "No one could explain why the SED is making such a complete, complete 180-degree turn." Nobody knew that the order came from Moscow. The people sensed weakness. According to Grashoff, only a small impetus was missing to get the wave of protests going throughout the GDR. When the West Berlin broadcaster Rias reported on strikes in East Berlin, the time had come.
Grashoff believes that the West was behind the uprising is nonsense. "There are more indications that the West was completely on the wrong foot," says the historian from Halle. The then Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer "said in the middle of the day that this was probably a demonstration staged by the Russians and that he would rather not get involved".
The uprising didn't stand a real chance, at least that's how the Berlin Commissioner Ebert sees it. "The Soviet Union wanted to protect its sphere of influence, its troops were ready. And you can't do anything against tanks with stones." It was only in 1989 that Ebert and other members of the opposition shook the state when Moscow and the SED left the troops in barracks.